It took Twisted Sister and frontman Dee Snider more than a decade to find international stardom, but once it happened, both became household names. The videos for "We're Not Gonna Take It" and "I Wanna Rock" (both from 1984's Stay Hungry) remain classics, while Snider had a political impact as an articulate defender of free speech amid the Tipper Gore-led music-censorship battles of the mid-1980s. It took another decade or so for Snider's career to come back around—a period during which he's hosted a nationally syndicated heavy-metal radio show and launched an unsuccessful comeback attempt as leader of the hard-rock group Widowmaker—but things are looking good right now. Like Ozzy Osbourne, Snider has become a respected shock-rock elder statesman, leading a tour that features such hard-music young guns as Snot, hed(pe), and dayinthelife. And, more importantly, his name is in the title of a brutally dark new horror film, Dee Snider's StrangeLand, for which he serves as co-producer, screenwriter, and on-screen villain. (His character lures young victims over the Internet, then tortures them.) A few weeks ago, a stressed-out Snider spoke to The Onion about the movie, metal, horror, and his resurgent career.
The Onion: How's it going?
Dee Snider: It's going okay. [Laughs.] I'm usually far more energetic than this, but I'm running on a few hours' sleep every night for, like, four days, and it's starting to catch up with me.
O: Well, you've been pretty busy.
DS: Very busy. As the writer, co-producer, star… I've been very involved in the editing. Also, my deal with Shooting Gallery [the film company releasing StrangeLand] is that I'm the consultant on everything. It's just outrageous to have that kind of control and input. It definitely has me burning the candle at multiple ends—both ends and the middle.
O: It would seem to take an awful lot of clout to get your name in the title of a movie.
DS: Well, you know, the flattering thing is that I didn't even negotiate that. It was given to me by Shooting Gallery as a little gift, a sort of thank-you in appreciation of how hard I work on the things I do, and how actively I'm involved. They really cater to the creatives and respect the creatives; they give a lot of rights and control to the creatives, but nobody usually gets as involved as I have while still playing on the team. We're dealing with a major MPAA issue; that's why I was up all night. In the 11th hour, they pulled our R rating—and with literally no time to appeal. So we now have to make some more edits on a finished film. It requires money, time. People must think it's like cut-and-paste, but there are music issues, sound-effects issues, so many issues. I was up all night with the editor, going through that. A normal creative would just completely freak out and start stamping his feet and dunderheadedly refuse to make the cuts, because… Well, it's hurting my movie. And I'm frustrated at this conservative, ridiculous stuff, pulling the movie at the 11th hour when there's plenty of precedent for the things they're cutting. If I could have time to appeal, we could win the appeal. But everything is at stake: We've got our advertising in place and everything is ready to go. So I had my moment of anger, and then I said, "Okay, roll up our sleeves. What do we gotta do?" That's my attitude during the whole thing. I'm not going to cut off my nose to spite my face, and a lot of creative people do. They can't be creative and be business-minded. Anyway, I was very touched when Shooting Gallery changed the title to Dee Snider's StrangeLand. That shows the kind of relationship we have; Raucous Releasing is their genre company name, and it's definitely a family thing over here. That was pretty cool, actually.
O: The movie looks kind of nasty.
DS: It is nasty. Why do you think the MPAA is shitting a brick? [Singing.] "It's a whole new world / a world of torment and suffering / a world where your mouth's sewn shut / and you can't talk / or even scream…" Hey, I'm good when I have no sleep. [Laughs.] Hope you're getting all that down. That one's for free! I really… I love horror. I love scary movies. I love dark movies, and I really wanted to do something fresh. I did not go after the Scream audience; mind you, this was written four years ago. We were working on this before Scream came out, which is that fabulous thing about timing: You try to predict, but you can't. You just have to pray for it, and we seem to have really timed this thing well. I really studied the genre and looked at it, and said, "Why is [horror] played out?" Even the Scream films are exposing the genre; when you get to that point, where you're pulling back the curtain on the great Oz… Even though they're doing Scream 3, it's essentially over. So, at the beginning of filming… These scary movies always play on our primal fears of being chased and dying, which are certainly some of our deepest childhood fears. I thought, "What else am I afraid of deeply?" I looked inside and said, "I'm afraid of being helpless and suffering." In fact, I'm more afraid of that. When you're being chased, there's at least the possibility to get away. There are many things I can think of that are worse than dying. So in my movie, nobody dies, but everybody suffers, and they're helpless against it. The first thing I do is sew my victims' mouths shut so they can't scream. So it's very dark, like Seven meets Nightmare On Elm Street, but not as upbeat. The Nightmare On Elm Street part is that it's a very franchisable character, although he's modeled more after Linda Blair in The Exorcist than he is Freddy Krueger. I didn't want a heroic villain, one that people are cheering for, where they're waiting for him to say the witty line, or whatever. There are times when people may titter in my film, but it's more like that nervous kind of laugh. When I was watching screenings, I was, like, "What the hell are they laughing at?" And somebody said, "They're not laughing; it's so tense that it seems almost comedic, and everyone's just dying for relief." I wanted a technically real, reality-based character, but one that had franchisable qualities, because this is designed to be a franchise. I'm already outlining StrangeLand 2. I've been instructed to start working on it, because we've presold the [first] film around the world, and the signs of life are very strong.
O: What kind of release is it getting?
DS: It's going wide, but it's the independent approach to wide, which means they're rolling it out. We hit 25 major cities Oct. 2, then another 25 the following weekend, and it keeps rolling from there, assuming that it continues to build and that the interest is there. At absolute minimum, it hits the 50 major markets in the first two weeks, and then, hopefully, with word of mouth, it'll build some legs as we get toward Halloween. These days, Halloween is becoming a month-long-preparation thing, much like Christmas—which speaks volumes for society. [Laughs.] Certainly for my house. [Pauses.] So it's just… It's outrageous. Even though I've been up all night, this has been the most wonderful experience. I've been up all night, dealing with the MPAA; they've got me pulling my hair out. And yet every now and then, I have to stop, and a smile crosses my face, and I go, "I'm dealing with the MPAA!" Just that reality check of, "How cool is that?" I'm a person who was fortunate enough, in his lifetime, to achieve his life's dream of becoming a rock 'n' roll star, you know? Twisted Sister sold 10 million records. And then I said, right around '85, when I got the bug to be a writer, "You know what? I want to write movies!" I had no inclination, had never done anything like that, wasn't very good in English, nothing. And here it is, 13 years later, and it's happening. Now, there's persistence in there, and commitment, and I'm the type of person who keeps picking himself up and adjusting and learning and improving. But at the same time, there are plenty of people who do that and aren't blessed to the point where they have that happening. I don't know if it's going to be a hit or not, but it's a movie. It's coming out in theaters. It's getting promoted. It's my movie, and my name is on it. My effort. It's been brought to life, and I have to pinch myself. I'm actually enjoying this dream coming true more than the Twisted one, because I was an angrier man back then. I was just mad at the world. It took eight and a half years for the band to break, so, by the time we did, I was like, "About fucking time!" You know, one of those things. Where here, I'm older, wiser, more content within myself, and I can say, "Yeah, it's taken a while, but there's satisfaction in seeing that happen." Just because you put in the time, that doesn't guarantee you that it's gonna happen, although persistence, as they say, is everything. I'm certainly persistent or stupid; it depends on how you view it. I run into a wall a zillion times; eventually, I go through. There are idiots doing that on street corners. [Laughs.] It's definitely an up and a half.
O: What was the budget on the movie?
DS: The budget was $1.8 million.
O: Oh, you'll make that back.
DS: We made it back. The thing about this 1.8 is that it's like no other 1.8 you will ever see. It sounds funny, but the way Shooting Gallery and I cut our deal, nobody took any money. There were no producers' fees, no writers' fees, no star fees. I took nothing. They took nothing. So the 1.8 was with virtually no above-the-line. That all went on the screen. Again, the timing thing: While we're working on the script, [Shooting Gallery's] Sling Blade breaks wide, so everybody wants to be involved with them. People are just bending over backwards to give them anything to bring their business to them, so I'm right there at the forefront, benefiting from that. Plus, my history… So many of my fans have grown up and gone into the business. So many times, people say, "I usually get more money for this, but it's Dee and I grew up on Dee's music, so I'll work for less. And we got better people than we expected for a lot of the things. The project drew a lot of interest: It was unique. It was one of those projects where a lot of people ran screaming, but a lot of other people said, "This is cool." Elizabeth Peña, who's a fine, fine actress… I was so flattered that she wanted to do my movie. She does bigger movies. I was like, "Elizabeth Peña?" And the compliments I received on my script from all the actors; I don't know, maybe all writers get that. Maybe it's my size. I don't know. I don't think that's the case. They were very flattering, and they enjoyed the words. I spent time on this thing; this was not a casual thing. And I aimed high. My models were films like The Exorcist, Silence Of The Lambs, and Seven, more than Nightmare On Elm Street, Halloween, and Friday The 13th, even though I enjoyed those films; I'm a horror fan. But I wanted to try and bring more drama and stronger film elements to the table—you know, watching how it looked and the production values, and all those other things. Even the score. When I came in, they were giving me submissions for scores, and it was like… [Imitates horror-movie score.] It's Halloween music, or, because there are a lot of tribal rituals and stuff in there, you get a lot of congas and bongos and shit. And I'm going, "What the hell is this? I want Howard Shore! I want orchestration. I want dark orchestration like you heard in Seven and Silence Of The Lambs. Find me a young talent like that!" And we did, with Anton Sanko, who's just outfriggingrageous: He's one of those guys who's on the outer rim just waiting to move in. Danny Elfman, who couldn't do his brother's movie, said, "Get Anton Sanko." And Elfman is one of the premier guys in Hollywood. So on all these elements, I really aimed for a much higher mark. I'm not saying I made The Exorcist or Silence Of The Lambs, but that's what I aimed for. I fell short, but if you aim high and don't make your mark, you still wind up higher than if you aimed low…
It's not like, "I want to be like Leprechaun! If I could only capture some of the magic of Leprechaun… I know it's a dream…" [Laughs.] There's a movie, huh? That movie and Child's Play were my inspiration to get off my ass and create a new franchise. I'm sitting there with my family, screaming at my TV, "It's a doll!" There's a grown man running screaming from a two-foot-tall doll with a knife! Give me a break! [Adopts silly voice.] "I'm a leprechaun!" I'm not gonna run away from a leprechaun with a mask on! "Where's me lucky charms?" If I was doing those movies, they'd be, like, five minutes. "I'm the lep—" "Oh, no, you're not." So I wanted a real scary guy who was really reality-based, and there's no moment where you see my character and he does anything where you say, "That could never happen." But the audience is really funny with the whole suspension-of-disbelief thing. We'll watch Superman, and all of a sudden, Lois Lane dies. So Superman flies backwards and turns back time. And people go, "Oh, yeah! Like that would ever happen!" So, you believe that this guy can fly and he can lift up a building and he has X-ray vision, but you don't believe he can turn back time. There, you draw the line! You have to deal with that suspension of disbelief, and for me, when Michael Myers, the Halloween kid, comes out of a mental institution, and it says he's sat in a room for 20 years, but he leaves in the best physical condition of his life… That's when I go, "Wait a minute…" They'd be rolling this guy out of there. He certainly wouldn't be throwing bodies over cars. Not my guy. And that, to me, makes it scarier, because as soon as you have that suspension of disbelief gone, or there's a fantasy element of, "He comes in your dreams," that allows your mind to escape. You know, "Oh, that's not real." Even my victims… I stayed away from bimbos and himbos, and I tried to pick real people. I'm not saying they're hideous or anything, but they're a little bit more normal, because I think that when people watch a bimbo on the screen getting… Well, they're thinking, "That's what happens to those kinds of girls. That happens to them." Let me tell you what: In the second half of my movie, my guy is essentially torturing mom. You've got a woman on there who's, like, 42 years old. She's your mom, and she's naked, and I'm doing the Spears of Shiva on her. And people are sitting there going, "Oh, my God, this is somebody's mother, and she's nude, and I don't want to see this!" And I'm like, "Yeah, baby! Let's push the boundaries here! Psychosis is not pretty." [Laughs.]
O: You have an opportunity with this movie to become not only a horror icon, but, with the soundtrack, a sort of a shock-rock elder statesman a la Ozzy Osbourne.
DS: Well, I would very much like to position myself as that, because I am a true fan of heavy music—metal, hardcore, whatever. I'm 43. I bought the first Grand Funk record, the first Blue Cheer album, the first Sabbath album, the first Zeppelin album, the first Mountain record… I'm not saying I've bought every metal record since, but I've been into heavy music since that time, through it all, and I'm still into it. I love the new music. When it came time to do the soundtrack for this film, I chose to promote the music that I love. It wasn't particularly in vogue, and here again, timing. All of a sudden, my album is coming out, and MTV and everybody is talking about this new wave of heavy music. I just said, when we were putting the soundtrack together, "This is what I love, and if I'm going to have songs in my movie, it's going to be music that I like and want to champion." You know, I had a metal show locally [in New Jersey] for quite a while, and now I have a nationally syndicated retro show in 70 cities. But I definitely like to continue with newer music, as well. They're talking about the new wave of music; my soundtrack is the sampler. I've got 18 tracks on this CD, and you get a taste of all these different bands. It's a great chance to promote the music that I like.
O: Well, it helps that music fans never decided that you sucked. I interviewed Vanilla Ice a while ago. Everyone decided a few years ago that they hated Vanilla Ice, and now it's like, "Well, he was as low as you can go." But you never really went away, never sunk too low.
DS: No. I mean, that's nice to hear. I'm a little too close to it to appreciate that, but I try to be honest. And there were times in my career where I think that hurt me, that honesty. But ultimately, that honesty has helped people's opinion of me. They view me in a certain way, and I have a certain… It's hard to be objective, but I think I have a believability when I talk about things. Because even when it wasn't a popular thing… When I went to Washington [for the 1985 PMRC hearings], I said, "Hey, you know what? I'm married, and I've got a kid. I don't drink. I don't get high. I was born and raised a Christian and I still adhere to those beliefs." And my manager was going, "What the fuck are you doing?" I said, "I'm not gonna sit there and do a Kevin Dubrow," where [the Quiet Riot frontman] used to drink iced tea out of a whiskey bottle, and then word got out. Because that's phony shit. He said, "Yeah, but the kids want a Vince Neil." I said, "Well, if that's what it takes in order to have staying power with this audience, I'm not gonna do it." I think I was hurt short-term, but it seems like long-term, I'm not. In the long term, when I say something or I stand for something or I represent something, for some bizarre reason, there's believability to it. It's weird what I'm seeing, and it's great for my movie. The key audience for my film is probably 17 to 24… They were like seven, eight, nine years old, sitting in front of MTV, getting brainwashed by me. And so many of them say to me, "You're the first metal album I got," or, "You're the one who turned me on to rock 'n' roll." It was a very tender, impressionable age, and there was me, like, [adopts scary hypnotizing voice] "Come see my movie." I'm optimistic, but from what I've seen with this StrangeLand Tour, when I walk out on stage, the crowd goes wild. And I'm going, "How do they even fucking know me?" And it's like, "Oh, shit. They remember me. I'm part of their childhood." With the ones who were teenagers when Twisted was happening, a lot of them are in the business. And they're like, "Dee, man, yeah! We're here for you, man! You're half the reason why I pursued a creative career in the first place; you're always singing about believing in yourself." It's pretty cool, and I'm sensing this appreciation, which is nice. You try to represent yourself in an honorable fashion, and there are times you wonder if people get it, or understand it, or even appreciate that effort. It's starting to look like people do.
O: There's a new Twisted Sister track on the record.
DS: Yes. We reunited for one track. A couple years ago, we sort of put our differences behind us and made up, and we decided it would be cool to do something. But we're all pursuing different careers. You know what mine is, but Jay Jay [French, guitar] and Mark ["The Animal" Mendoza, bass] manage and produce a band called Sevendust, so they're currently one of the hottest production teams in the country. They've got their thing breaking through and I've got my thing breaking through, so no one wants to go back and put the band back together. Still, it'd be nice to do something. But everything involved contracts and big deals and promises of tours and full albums, so when this came along, it was like, "Hey, one song. Stick your foot in the studio, see if it works, see how it feels, and have fun with it, no commitment." We did, and going back in, we made the decision: Kiss approached it the correct way; Motley Crüe did not. Motley Crüe reunited and decided to come back as Alice In Chains. That's not what people wanted. I don't begrudge Crüe for trying to move forward; I tried to do it myself, and even the solo track I did on this record, "Inconclusion," is a way more contemporary-sounding song. But if you're going to reenact [Twisted Sister], recognize it for what it is; it's fucking nostalgia, man. And if you don't like that, don't do it. If you're going to do it, recognize it and enjoy it. This is Twisted Sister. What did we do? We did power chords, big '80s anthems, fists raised in the air, and everybody sings along. So I wrote "Heroes Are Hard To Find," which is incredibly out-of-place on the record, but it's positioned on the end-credit crawl, like, after good wins out over evil, as it always does. So we said, "We'll see what happens from here. It'd be fun to do something limited in the future, and if we do it, we're of the mind that we would do it full-on—make-up, costumes, staging, the whole deal." If you're going to do it, do it right, and give the people what they want to see. But there are no current plans to do anything more than this.
O: Tipper Gore is one Bill Clinton speech away from being First Lady.
DS: How friggin' frightening is that?
O: You're re-establishing yourself as a corrupter of children.
DS: Every parent's worst nightmare.
O: It's funny how the pendulum swings, isn't it?
DS: Yeah, it is, except it's real scary. I'll tell you right now that if [Al] Gore could have had me shot then, he would have, and now he may be in the position to actually do it. "What do you mean you want to bring back the firing squad? Just for one person?" You know, me and [Frank] Zappa and [John] Denver, we went there, we testified, we stood up. They're both dead. Coincidence? I don't think so. I'm watching my back. You're telling me there was a plane crash? Yeah, sure. Cancer? Yeah, cancer. [Laughs.] Yeah, that's not pretty, actually, that they could be going into office. It is weird; the pendulum does swing. I'm sure she'll start crowing about the fucked-up, dark things that Dee Snider's doing.