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Tuesday, April 27, 2021

‘Laid to Rest’ Star Nick Principe on the Pain and Pleasure of Playing Slasher Villain ChromeSkull [Mask of Insanity]

Welcome to Mask of Insanity, a recurring feature which will find the men and women behind some of the most indelible slashers and monsters in the genre chatting about the craziest times they’ve had behind latex or resin. These tales will allow readers insight into the wild world of horror filmmaking, while hopefully providing fans with a few laughs and shudders along the way.

With this inaugural installment, actor Nick Principe will regale us with stories from the times he played ChromeSkull, the intimidating slasher from FX guru Robert Hall’s Laid to Rest franchise. With numerous credits to his name, Mr. Principe will focus on this particular character to recount how he claimed the role, his ultimate feelings on the films and his time making them, and a handful of fun (and painful) anecdotes from his times on set. It’s a fun and illuminating peek behind the scenes of a pair of new slasher classics, and it’s one we hope you enjoy!

I started my career here in Hollywood doing props,” Mr. Principe begins, charting his journey to eventually becoming a badass screen slasher. “Local 44 craftsperson, you know? That was my main thing. This is like 2004, when we worked with every special effects shop in Hollywood.

“I’ve always been a horror nerd my entire life. So when I find the other horror nerd on set, I definitely link up with them. And that’s always the effects guys, usually. Me and Rob met on a movie directed by Robert England called Killer Pad. Rob was doing the effects, I was the assistant prop master, and we just talked about slasher movies a lot.

“Fast forward maybe six months later. I saw Rob and his wife at the time at a premiere for Joe Lynch’s Wrong Turn 2. He just came up to me and he literally goes, ‘Hey, you want to chase my wife around with a big knife or something? I got a slasher movie off the ground, why don’t you do the slashing?’ And I’m like, ‘That’s fucking amazing! Hell yeah, I want to do it!’ Two days later he had me in to make a mold my face and the head to make the mask. And then that was it.”

Released in 2009, Laid to Rest follows a young amnesiac woman on the run from ChromeSkull, a nigh-unstoppable slasher sporting a chrome skull mask and a shoulder-mounted video camera which captures his every kill. Dubbed “Princess”, the woman journeys through a hellish evening of cat-and-mouse as she seeks help at every turn while dodging ChromeSkull’s ceaseless, blood-soaked pursuit. It all culminates with Princess and ChromeSkull doing battle in a small convenience mart, with our heroine managing to pummel the killer to death with a baseball bat. Or so she thinks, anyway.

Mr. Principe takes a moment when asked to recall some of the crazier times he had on set while filming Laid to Rest. “It was cold, man. It was freezing. I’m only wearing the suit jacket and the turtleneck. And then that mask. There were a couple of times where I got frostbite on my face because the mask was literally metal. It really was chrome.

“It’s this like super-hard resin that gets dipped into the same thing that a car bumper gets dipped into. I had the thing on for probably thirteen hours or something. In that cold, with your hot breath, the steam would come up. And there’s the black stuff over your eyes. Sometimes it was almost impossible to see. I was just going off sound when it was really cold.

“It would get so cold, and then I’d be hot, I’d sweat and that’d be like wet metal. That, mixed with the glue that they were using on all these different points on my face, it would stick from the cold. I had a little bit of frostbite, and then patches of skin where … inside the skull mask, there were like these neoprene pads. One at the chin, the bridge of the nose, cheekbones, all over the forehead. Those were the points of gluing. But they just kept ripping off because they would stick to my skin really well, but not so much the mask. So more and more over time, it was just metal on skin after a bit. I was like, ‘Dude, just rip it off.’ I just looked like a burn victim by the end of the shoot. I definitely suffered for that one, but it was worth it. Definitely worth it.”

As the film nears its final confrontation, Princess tricks ChromeSkull by substituting the glue he uses to keep his mask on with an industrial adhesive. The result is a gory, painful unmasking. “At the end, when Princess puts the glue on my face, my face starts melting. When they shot that, there was no CG in that shot. It was a mix of my real head with like seven hours of prosthetics on. Then they had like a dummy head and shoulders that I was underneath. It was my actual arms, just clawing at the face.

“They were just dumping water with Alka-Seltzer, fake blood, some green shit, some other stuff. They were just pouring it down. The way it was all set up, there was a plastic bag underneath it to hide my head, but all it did was suffocate me because, as all this stuff is like coming down, it’s going down my nose and throat. I literally couldn’t breathe at times. And the panicking with my hands, some of it was almost real. ‘Cause I didn’t want to ruin a take by saying I couldn’t breathe…but I really wanted to ruin the take because I couldn’t breathe. I was just choking on all this shit. When they yelled cut, it was just like a gasp for air, and I blasted up and hit my head on the rig.”

Earlier in the film, Princess makes the acquaintance of Tucker and Cindy (Kevin Gage and Lena Headey, respectively), a married couple who attempt to protect Princess from ChromeSkull. “On the last day, they were shooting like the earlier stuff, when I get to Lena Headey’s house. You know, I’m chasing Kevin Gage and Princess out the back. There’s a scene, I’m running up these concrete steps, Kevin Gage hits me with his cane. He literally did have a broken foot for that, and they had to work that in with him and the cane. Like he just showed up with the busted foot, and I was like, ‘Oh, there goes the running scenes.’

“So I’m at the top of the stairs. He’s supposed to hit me with the cane and I fall down the stairs. Right. So I do it once, I do it twice. Three times. I’m like, ‘Rob. What are we not getting?’ That wouldn’t be uncommon if the camera was moving and getting different angles and coverage and stuff. I wouldn’t say anything, but the camera hasn’t moved and I’ve done this like three times now. And I mean, you know, it hurts. It’s concrete stairs, it’s freezing.

“He’s just like, ‘It’s the hit, the initial hit. It’s not working.’ I looked at Kevin and I’m like, ‘Hit me with the cane.’ He was like, ‘Nah, you don’t want to do that.’ I’m like, ‘I got the mask. It’s just…whatever, it’ll be fine. Just hit me with the cane. If that’s what he’s worried about, I’d rather take the hit once and get hurt and have it hurt like that, than fall down these fucking stairs six, seven, eight more times.’ So. He hit me with it. I fell. ‘Cut! That’s great! Moving on!’ Great.


Wait, what?! “It being cold, and then at night going back to the hotel room with the makeup guys in a toasty room. Cold, hot, cold, hot, cold, hot.

“Then when he hit me, it split the mask and it just gushed me open. Huge, huge. So I could’ve either blew off the rest of the day and went to get it stitched up at the hospital, or I could just superglue it. So I just superglued it, bandaged it up, stayed. So I got a little…it’s not even a big scar, it’s just like a little scar on my forehead. But every time I see that in the mirror, I always think of ol’ Chromey.”

Surely it hurt like hell? “Honestly, when you’re doing those kinds of things, your adrenaline’s going nuts. And like I said, it was freezing. So it wasn’t too bad. I can say, I’ve been hurt doing my own stunts, and I’ve been laid up, but I’ve never been hurt hurt, y’know? I mean, knock on wood, but I can’t really bitch too much with stunt work. I’ve had some pretty good stunt coordinators that I trusted.”

A gory kill from ‘Laid to Rest’

The film caused quite a stir amongst horror fans seeking out a return to the heyday of 80s slasher flicks, what with its unapologetic violence and practical effects. ChromeSkull made the cover of Fangoria, and would of course go on to spawn a sequel. “Well, here’s the thing. We tried to kill him off in the first one, ‘cause we never planned on doing any sequels or anything. It was just going to be a one and done thing. But Rob just saw the response. And, just straight up, if you’re on a movie and you’re like, ‘We’re making something super special here. This is going to have sequels.’ – like, you’re kind of a dickhead. You gotta just kind of go out there and do the best you can.”

While the franchise currently stands at two films (with a rumored third installment hopefully coming at some point), fans have nevertheless taken it upon themselves to continue ChromeSkull’s story in some…unexpected ways. “Well, my wife actually found some weird shit, man. Going to go down a rabbit hole, but … I don’t Google myself. I’m not on Facebook anymore. If I’m on the internet, it’s just like to Google something, or Wikipedia, or IMDb. IMDb junkie! But she pointed out that there’s a series of fan-written erotic fiction about ChromeSkull. Like, we’re talking novels here. Like multiple. Multiple. Then there’s some really crazy slash fiction with ChromeSkull and the Collector [from The Collector and The Collection films].

“So she showed me some pictures, and I’m like – at least I’m the giver! Like, that’s awesome. That’s cool, it’s cool. Who gives a shit? I’m just stoked that people still care about the character, you know what I mean? That they’re even doing stuff like that, you know? But that was a trip when she pointed that out, it was pretty crazy. Give it a Google. There’s actually some really good art though. Some really good art for it. And then there’s just some really just goofy, crazy, crazy stuff. But, uh, yeah, I thought that was nuts. She found it quite amusing.”

Beyond the fan-written works, ChromeSkull might have even seen print at one point, though this sadly never came to pass. “At one point they talked about a comic book with lots of different shit. I mean, since Hatchet had come out around that time, they were talking about doing a comic that was like Crowley vs. ChromeSkull. [Hatchet/Victor Crowley creator Adam Green] was down. Rob was into it. It just never materialized.”

While there were never any official extensions for the ChromeSkull character in print, we did get a film sequel with 2011’s ChromeSkull: Laid to Rest 2. After an opening act which sees Princess’ story completed in gory fashion, the sequel follows a new group of characters running afoul of the slasher, while deepening the mythology behind ChromeSkull. This includes the revelation that ChromeSkull has an organization devoted to supporting his gruesome exploits, led by an increasingly unhinged subordinate named Preston (Brian Austin Green).

“That appliance without the nose and all that stuff, that took about eight hours a day to put on,” Mr. Principe reveals, describing the makeup needed to illustrate ChromeSkull’s disfigurement at Princess’ hands at the end of the previous film. “It was this dude, Bruce Spaulding Fuller. He worked on giant, giant movies all the time. He was brought in just to do that prosthetic. Now, I had a call time of 3:30 AM, and I would have to sit in the chair until about 10:00 AM. I’d shoot for like nine hours. And then it would take about an hour and a half, two hours to take the stuff off.

“So there were a few nights where I just left. When they wrapped me, they’re like, ‘Alright, you’re done for the night.’ I didn’t even go back to makeup. I would just be so exhausted. I would just get my car and drive home. And there was a bunch of times where I had to stop for gas and cigarettes. A lot of people do horror movies, and they always have the story where they’re covered in blood or prosthetics wherever. But, I mean, I looked like the fucking Elephant Man. I remember going to an am/pm to pay for gas. It was just amazing how many people would just look away, ‘cause it was so convincing. The makeup was so convincing, they just would not lock eyes with me. They’d just go out of their way to not look. Like, when the clerk hands you the change, he’s looking down. That was like super weird.”

Brian Austin Green as Preston in ‘ChromeSkull: Laid to Rest 2’ (2011)

At this point, Mr. Principe details the bizarre and hilarious working relationship that formed between he and costar Green during the making of the film. “So Brian Austin Green is in the movie. Rob was friends with him, because Rob did the effects on the Sarah Connor Chronicles, that TV show that was on Fox. He was on there for like a season or two, and he had him come in. And it just seemed like … you know those people that, when you go to work every single day, you’re like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ And they’re like, ‘Pfft. I gotta tell you, fucking last night, this dude was all blah blah blah…’ And then the next day you’re like, ‘Hey man, what’s up?’, and he’s like ‘Pfft. My fuckin’ ex is on the phone, and this fuckin’ bitch is blah blah blah…’

“It’s like, y’know, sometimes ‘What’s up?’ just means ‘Hey! Hi!’ You don’t have to fucking tell me like how much you hate life, you know what I mean? Just seeing him every day, he had something like that. It just started getting annoying, where he’s like, ‘Just came back from a PTA meeting, my fuckin’ ex-wife’s husband…thought I was gonna have to knuckle up with him.’ I was just like, ‘Fuck you, Brian Austin Green! You’re not gonna fuckin’ knuckle up with fucking anything.’ Like, why are you talking tough? Are you out of your mind, you were a child actor. You ain’t never been punched.

“So there was that. Then we were sitting around, and one person came up to him for an autograph. Someone from the crew, they had an old 90210 pillowcase. And that brought an unleashing of other people who just came out of the woodworks. It was kind of holding things up, but he was really cool about it. I’ll give him that. He signed everybody’s stuff. But it was definitely like work time, too. That’s kind of not cool to ask someone to sign at that point. There’s a time and a place for it, but he was cool with it. He signed everything.

“And somebody was like, ‘I still watch 90210’. Then he’s like, ‘Yeah, me too. We still watch it.’ And I just … I don’t know, if you’re friends with me, I bust balls. You know what I mean? If I didn’t like you, I wouldn’t bust your balls. I’m just that kind of guy, I guess. And I said to him, ‘Yeah, I still listen to that album you put out.’

“He just looked at me like, you know, if eyes could fucking kill. I’m just smiling, like, ‘What? I thought we were like cool enough…where I could kind of…I don’t know.’ So I just walked away, like ‘Oops.’ The falters of my career could all be explained by that, where I think I’m much cooler with someone that I actually am. And I make a joke that’s just not funny. Then I get written off. It’s fucking the story of my career, twenty years running.

“So anyways, about an hour later … if you remember, there were coffins all over the place for this fucking movie. So when they didn’t need me, but I needed to be close by, I just would crawl inside of one and take a nap. I’d just put the cover down and go to sleep. I’d tell the AD or one of the PA’s, ‘Hey, I’m going to be asleep in that coffin if they need me.’

“Now, for the most part in the second one, I was wearing a cowl. Like a foam prosthetic back of the head. Fake ears, neck, the whole thing. Just my face was cut out and the mask would get Velcroed on for this one. The cowl would really compact your face and neck, so when they weren’t shooting I would kind of put it around like my forehead or something.

“And I hear somebody going, ‘Principe! We need Principe! Where’s Principe?!’ And I’m kind of groggy. I sit up on the fucking coffin and I’m trying to pull the mask down over my face. And even when the thing was on, I couldn’t hear very well. I had maybe a quarter inch to a half inch thick of foam latex over my ears.

“So I’m walking and trying to pull the mask on. I pull it, I get it on, and I look up. And people were kind of like staring at me. So I just kind of smiled, then put the metal mask on and we shot the scene. Shot it a few times. Then they yell ‘Cut!’ There was a twenty minute break while they moved some lights, camera, lenses, all that stuff. And Thomas Dekker [who played ChromeSkull survivor Tommy in the film] turns to me and he goes, ‘Hey, you handled that really well.’

“And I was like, ‘Handled what really well?’ He’s like, ‘Well, what he said to you.’ ‘…what the fuck did he say to me?’ And he’s like, ‘When they couldn’t find you, uh, he just said, kind of loud, “Someone should teach that guy his fucking name.”’ And I didn’t hear it because I had the mask over my ears and all that stuff.

“Most of the crew, they were either from the first one or I had worked with them before, and they know … I mean, I’m not proud of this, but I don’t care who you are. If you talk shit to my face, we’re fuckin’ throwing down. Like, that’s just happening. I wouldn’t even have any control over it, you know what I mean? Again, I don’t want to sound like I’m proud of that, because I’m not. But I don’t even get a chance to think.

“So I didn’t hear any of this. I’m trying to be as professional as fucking possible. We got this whole other scene, and then we’re gone. At one point, I get close to him as [ChromeSkull] is about to kill [Preston, Green’s character], but that was still a few different setups up.

“Then they yelled ‘Cut!’ And I whispered in his ear, ‘I wish I could do this for real, you fuck.’

“He looked at me, and I saw his face kind of shaking a little bit. And I’m sure he’ll fucking deny it, because it was only me and him. Nobody heard it. I would never make like a big scene or anything like that, you know? But yeah, I just whispered in his ear. You know, I still got the metal mask, you can’t see my eyes or anything. It had to be pretty scary.”

This all occurred during a big battle sequence which found ChromeSkull fighting his protégé Preston, ending with the latter’s gory death at his superior’s blades. “Hindsight is 20/20, but he had to have said something to Rob. He had to have said something, because the scene I’m talking about is when I slap him up against the chains, and then I chain him up.

“Hindsight’s 20/20. ‘Cause at the time, they’re like, ‘Hey Nick, we need you to shoot this other stuff over here with B unit’. I went and shot, but then when I came back [to film the kill], they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s wrapped. We did it.’ I was just like, ‘…aw.’ If you look at it now, you just see like close-ups of a hand and the knife coming in and then it’ll show a full single shot at me.

“They actually had this Japanese dude who’s really tall. They just shot it from behind him, swinging knives at Brian Austin Green. Or, as his buddies call him, ‘BAG’. His nickname’s…’BAG’. Anyway, he must’ve said something to Rob, like ‘I don’t feel comfortable around that guy. I don’t feel comfortable with him swinging fake knives near me,’ or something. And yeah, that was it. So I was pretty upset about that ‘cause those are my favorite parts of the movies. Obviously, the kills. You know, I want to be the guy that’s there. So yeah, when you see the closeup, the hands on Brian Austin Green’s neck and the shots from behind, that was not me.

“Like I said, I’m sure he’d deny it, because nobody else heard it. So he could get away with doing it. But, honest, this is the first time I’ve ever told this story publicly. I had it all planned out if I was going to get in trouble for it, too. I was going to be like, ‘Nah, I was just in character. I was just trying to get a good performance out of him.’”

We’re now a decade past the release of the last film. So looking back, what are Mr. Principe’s thoughts on the films, and his time making them? “I never watch my own stuff. Like, I’ll watch it before it actually comes out, and if there’s like a screening I’ll go and I’ll watch it. And then I don’t really watch them ever again. Unless someone is like super-adamant about it, you know? So like maybe once every six, seven years or so I’ll throw on Laid to Rest 1 or 2 for someone.

“I’m really surprised that it still holds up. It still holds up. It’s pretty fucking rare these days to have really cool, eccentric, graphic kills that aren’t smothered in CGI. So I hope in that regard it holds up.

“I’m a pretty mean judge of my films and just some films in general. I mean, if you don’t like slasher movies, they’re probably not going to win you over. But if you do dig slasher movies, I can’t see how someone would not enjoy it. As far as the character itself? God bless ChromeSkull, man. Before that, I was just doing stunts and props. Because of ChromeSkull, people gave me the chance to just act without a mask.

“That’s led to a lot of cool things, and tons of different kinds of movies. So I am forever in ChromeSkull’s debt. It definitely gave me a kickstart to a career that I never really set out to have. I just wanted to be a monster like once or twice. It was the whole reason I moved out West.

“I’m just grateful. I’m grateful. Never in my wildest dreams did I think ChromeSkull would have been as big as he is or was, and the day that Fangoria put ChromeSkull on the cover, I cried like a little baby at that. Like, I’d had a subscription to Fangoria since first grade and that cover was the most overwhelming thing that ever happened to me, besides my daughter being born and getting married and stuff like that. I couldn’t believe it.

“A week before it was supposed to come out, Rob’s like ‘Yeah, well, it’s between us and Terminator Salvation.’ Oh. I’m like, ‘Well, nice to be nominated!’ Then the day it’s supposed to come out, I get a phone call at like six o’clock in the morning, because it was like 9am fucking East coast time. It was Fangoria, I think it was [former Fangoria editor] Tony Timpone, and he’s like ‘Mr. Principe, just wanted to let you know that you’re going to be on the cover.’

“I’m like, ‘Who is this?! Fuck you!’ And hung up. Like, it was like between us and Terminator, and you’re telling me we got it? You know, I thought somebody was busting my balls, and then I see a call from Rob. He’s just like, ‘Dude. Fangoria just called me saying that you keep hanging up on them. What the fuck?’ I’m like, ‘Really?! We got the cover?!’ I still didn’t believe it until I saw it at the Barnes & Noble on Vine and Sunset. When they opened, I bought every issue they had. I couldn’t believe it.

“I’ll always just see myself as a movie nerd. I’m at the comic book store every Wednesday, Tuesday I’m paying for new release DVDs and VOD, for new movies released on Fridays. That’s what I’ve always lived for. I’m always just the fucking fan.”

And being a fan, Mr. Principe wraps up our conversation with his thoughts on horror fandom and his place within it. “I love fans. I love to just talk about horror in general, too. People see photos of me, like … the only pictures that get released are my headshots, and all I do is play bad guys. So obviously, I look kind of mean in them.

A lot of people just won’t approach me because they think I’m pretty scary looking, or mean. But you know, if you’re there to talk ChromeSkull and horror – we cool, man. So that was always tough. ‘Cause I would just hate anybody to think that I’m anything like any of the characters I’ve ever played in my 20 years of doing this.

“Unless it’s Brian Austin Green.”

Special Thanks to Nick Principe for his time and stories!


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