Probably one of the more overlooked Stephen King adaptations has got to be Tom McLoughlin’s Sometimes They Come Back which first aired on network TV in 1991. A film that I don’t think I fully appreciated until I got a little older (and much wiser), this revenge tale is centered around a troubled teacher (Tim Matheson) who is haunted by a gang of greasers who killed his brother and were obliterated in the attack as well, some 27 years after the tragedy. A creepy yet poignant exploration of loss and regret, Sometimes They Come Back is truly a film I think only gets better with time.
For Sometimes They Come Back, Matheson was joined onscreen by a talented ensemble featuring Brooke Adams (Invasion of the Body Snatchers ’78), Robert Rusler (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2), Nicholas Sadler (Twister), William Sanderson (Blade Runner), and Bentley Mitchum (Demonic Toys). Daily Dead recently spoke to Rusler who has not only made a name for himself in the genre world throughout the years but has been keeping himself quite busy lately and is even set to embark on a new directorial project soon.
Rusler discussed his experiences working on Sometimes They Come Back with director McLoughlin as well as his co-stars (many that he has also remained friendly with over the years), his initial concerns about his character Lawson, the gang leader who accidentally stabs a young boy and then is condemned for all eternity for his actions, some of the antics that went on behind-the-scenes during filming and his hilarious experience meeting King for the very first time on set for Sometimes They Come Back.
Prior to this, you had played a bully here or there but for the most part, you were never seen as villain like you were in Sometimes They Come Back. You’re downright nasty in the film, in fact. Was that the appeal for you going into it or were you worried at all about the fact that your character does some truly terrible things, especially stabbing a child?
Robert Rusler: Absolutely, in both regards. One of the things that I was sort of apprehensive about was the stabbing; I asked the producers and director to cast someone more around our age. They actually said, "No, we want to keep it like this because it makes you even more sinister and makes it even less empathetic and just more severe." I wasn't sure about it, when we were shooting I thought, why wouldn't it be like a college guy or a high school jock kind of guy. They were like, "No, that's going to be for later." It all worked out though, and sometimes as an actor you give your ideas about something and then you just go with what they decide because it's their baby, you know?
But like I said, they made that decision and it even made our characters a little bit even more ridiculous in the fact that we're messing around these young kids who were out of our league. But then, when the kid steps up and shows his courage, I think it did sell well and it did play well in the film too. I thought it was a pretty cool moment when we come back where Tim's memories of what his brother was like and what had happened came back too; it was played so well by him. I remember back on watching those scenes at the screening because I didn't watch that part being filmed, and so when I finally saw it, I actually got a tear in my eye, so it definitely all worked out for the best.
What was your approach to playing Lawson? He starts off a bad guy when he’s alive but his downfall is also kind of tragic in a way too; then when he comes back, he’s something much more than that, and your work then has this sort of darkly comedic feel to it which I thought was fun.
Robert Rusler: Yeah and I think too when we were discussing what our disposition was when we return, it was like we had been stuck in purgatory for all those years. Because of that, it gave them more of an approach or and intention of mischief and rebellion and evil. I don’t think they were like that when they were alive just because the stabbing was an accident, but when he comes back to torment Mr. Norman later, Tom told us, "Yeah, you guys are merciless when you come back because you guys have been stuck in purgatory for 20 years. What you're trying to do is instigate him so that you guys can actually either make it to heaven or hell but not be stuck in the middle anymore."
So how was it working with Tim?
Robert Rusler: I think Tim's a terrific dramatic actor and what’s funny to me was that he had mostly done comedy prior to this, maybe because he got a little bit typecast from Animal House for quite a while. He was really a very professional and a very thoughtful actor when we were working to together. And I believe that his performance really came across on film in the final edit too. I mean, it also was evident while we were working together because he was constantly thinking and constantly coming up with ideas on the spot. He was very focused and he also didn't take himself too seriously but he took his craft seriously. I think that showed in Tim’s performance.
Tom’s such a great filmmaker who has a really great sense of character and humor and always manages to maintain the heart of whatever story he’s working on. Did you enjoy collaborating with him?
Robert Rusler: Yeah, he was great to work with. I mean, to be honest with you, Tom reminded me of John Hughes in his sort of lax disposition but always knew what he wanted and always had good ideas but was also open for the actors to come forth with their ideas too. Tom would make a little bit of a decision after he heard you out and was always ready for compromises. He was just a real, genuine, nice guy every day which always nice because some directors can come off maybe a bit as dictators as opposed to directors that are utilizing the whole team, you know? Some directors are a bit stubborn and want it their way and aren't maybe as open to listening to different cast as well as department heads when it comes to ideas about lighting or ideas about set direction or art department or set design.
But Tom was really good about that, he was really, really good about listening and making a final decision based on everybody's ideas. Then he would stick to his guns and knew what he wanted in each scene. Then he was really good about saying, "Well, now good I got one in the can that I know that I like so now let's try your idea and let's just give it a go." Sometimes he would sort of give you the green light to do it right away and sometimes he'd say, "Well that's a good idea let's shoot it this way and then we'll do another take that way and we'll see which one works better." That was really nice to work with a director like that, who was very open and very caring about everybody's ideas.
I thought your demonic phase in the film was great and the practical effects still hold up incredibly well; was it cool to be able to step into a role like this where there was this physical transformation and then you became this crazy-looking demon?
Robert Rusler: It was a lot of fun I had learned a lot from Robert Englund and watching him go through the steps of his makeup process on Nightmare 2. He would really allow the make up to influence his disposition as far as an approach from a method actor's standpoint, you know? He would take on the role slowly as the makeup was progressing and I liked watching him. He would be really friendly and open in the morning and then halfway through makeup I'd say something like, "Hey Robert, you want a coffee?" and he'd go, "Fuck off Rusler." Right in the middle of a friendly story, he would look in the mirror and just let his character just take over; it was great.
But I didn't so much really copy him as much as I utilized that experience and watched someone who has his character wired the way that he was. I let myself do that as well and it comes naturally anyway; you can't help but as you start to change in the mirror, watching the makeup goes on.
By the way, in those days too there was a lot longer of a process and it was a lot more tedious sitting in the chair. I had to do eight hours one day of makeup preparation for our first day and that's a long time to sit in the makeup chair, with only a few breaks in between. But I really, really did enjoy myself and I really want to do that again at some point in my career.
I got a big kick out of playing that kind of a character and being able to work the costume, if you will. It came in handy too when it was really cold outside and we were doing night shoots. Everybody in the crew was all bundled up and so besides having layers underneath our clothes- because we couldn’t wear coats while the camera was rolling- those prosthetics came in handy to keep me warm at night and everyone else in the cast was just freezing.
I thought the way Tom chose to reveal your ‘true nature’ once you’ve returned from the dead was great; it made those moments really impactful and was a nice juxtaposition against your human form.
Robert Rusler: Yeah, I agree. I think that it was Tom's decision, to do that reveal when it would be the most impactful. I think one of my favorite scenes in the movie to honest with you, was when we killed the jock. He comes in the car and then we're all out of makeup and then I turn to him and we take on our demonic looks; then he flips out. I love the scene when we're on the bridge and we're throwing his dismembered body parts out into the water. We had a really good time shooting that.
Actually, the final edit was a little bit less graphic than how we shot it. Because this originally was a “TV Movie of the Week,” so we had to be careful on the graphic nature the material so that Standards and Practices wouldn't come in and censor the final edit. Tom definitely wanted to get away with as much as he could without getting any interference from the television Standards and Practices guys.
But that was a really fun scene for me, it was a really fun night. We were having a blast shooting it and I think the crew really had fun that night too. One of my favorite things about that movie was not only being in that makeup, but being in the makeup with the car and being able to peel out and hit that fire exhaust on the car, was just a blast.
How great was that car?
Robert Rusler: So great. I was begging Tom and the producers to sell me one of the cars. There were a few cars, one of them was the main picture car and another one was a stunt car. Then they had a separate car that had the fire gag on it. I really wanted to get one of those cars and it didn't work out. Man, I would have cherished that thing for the rest of my life if I had gotten my hands on one of them.
I remember one day I was driving the car and I think to my best recollection it was, me and Bentley and the stunt coordinator. We took one of the cars to lunch and on the way back from lunch, the stunt coordinator flipped me the keys. So I was driving us back to set and these young kids pulled up in this ‘Fast and Furious’ type car for that time, this little Nissan or whatever it was. They obviously were checking us out and we were all dressed '50s style, because the stunt coordinator was also my double, so he had his hair piled high and his leather jacket on. I looked over at those kids and they looked at me and I gave the car a little gas, and they looked like they wanted to race me.
Before the light turned green, I got a jump start on them and I peeled out and the stunt coordinator goes, "Watch this shit," and then I realized that we had the fire gag on it. We got out about 50 yards ahead of the other car and they started to catch up, and we hit that fire. They caught up to us at the next light, and they pulled up to us yelling, "That was awesome!” and “Whoooo!" Of course, in character I gave them a wink, flicked my cigarette and peeled out to the right, you know what I mean? Got to make that proper exit (laughs).
How was your experience during the shoot?
Robert Rusler: It was a lot of fun, a lot of fun making that movie. I enjoyed Kansas City, Kansas and I enjoyed Kansas City, Missouri. We had a really great time with the crew, some of the crew was local hire, and they were all great people. We definitely had carte blanche around there; we practically had the key to city from the mayor. We were utilizing a lot of locations and it wasn't a cheap budget by any means, so we were spending good money in the city. They took good care of us. We were treated very nicely by the locals there, and I'll always have a warm heart for Kansas City.
Did you get to meet Stephen at all?
Robert Rusler: He came onto set and I didn't even know who he was (laughs). The funny story is, this guy was staring at me and he seemed a little creepy to me, so I went over to Michael Murphy, our producer and I said, "Hey, Michael who's this dude on set?" He goes, "Which one?" I go, "That guy over there, he keeps staring at me" and he said, "You're kidding right?" and I said, "No" and he said, "Robert, that's Stephen King.” I said to him, "Oh, well no wonder why, he's such a good horror writer, he's a creepy dude." He goes, "Actually, he's not, come on and I'll introduce you" and Stephen King was a super nice guy.
He's a really soft spoken, intelligent, very genuine guy. It's nice to be able to know that I was part of something that I think is really iconic in movie making. too Making a movie with John Hughes and being part of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and being in a Stephen King movie, it makes me feel good that I've been able to be part of so many things that I think are very special.
I know filmmaking can be a bonding experience, almost like you guys are away at camp or something to that effect for six to eight weeks; did you have that kind of experience on Sometimes They Come Back?
Robert Rusler: Yes, they were a lot of fun to film and working with Tim was great and working with the boys was great too. We've remained friends. I'm still really good friends with William Sanderson from the movie and I've remained really good friends with Bentley Mitchum too. We had a great chemistry and we utilized our friendship that we became fast friends when we first met in the audition process.
Then when we went out to Kansas City, being on location it makes for an even better situation, because you all build a tight bond because you're away from home and you're on location and you're spending a lot more time together. I think we did a pretty good job of taking that relationship that we made off screen and putting it on screen.
But I'm just so proud of the project. It's one of those movies too that has been growing in its fanbase over the years too. Sometimes when I'll go to a convention where I'm on a Nightmare on Elm Street 2 panel or something, it never fails. A fan stands up and asks a question about Sometimes They Come Back. I'm really proud of that work; it was a real honor.