The Cover Story

Ice Nine Kills: “Horror has always been in my blood and it always will be”

Horror isn’t just a hobby for Spencer Charnas, it’s a way of life. Growing up on a steady diet of slasher flicks and heavy music, it was inevitable he’d find an outlet for his twin passions, but few could have predicted the runaway ghost train of Ice Nine Kills. As Halloween approaches, the violence-loving visionary takes us inside his own personal creepshow…

Ice Nine Kills: “Horror has always been in my blood and it always will be”
Nick Ruskell
F Scott Schafer

‘Well I wish,’ as Slade should have sung when coming up with an evergreen seasonal hit, ‘it could be Halloween every day.’

For Spencer Charnas, it already is. Nightly, the Ice Nine Kills frontman is the ringmaster of what’s turned from a gig into a hootenanny of horror. You know this, you’ve seen him. His band have done a pair of albums that are a poison pen letter of love and obsession to video nasties and macabre icons (fittingly titled Welcome To Horrorwood) and got the staging to match. And so, this October 31, he is, naturally, going to be…

“…not playing a show!” he grins. “For the first time in years we’re not on tour on Halloween. Halloween is like our Christmas, and it’s been a little anticlimactic over the past few years, but this year, I'm going to be in LA, going to parties and enjoying the holiday without having to play a show.”

And what are you going to be?

“I don't want to spoil it. But it's definitely something that's a little bit more of a deep cut. Pun intended,” he replies, coyly. “It’s a film that I feel never really got its due, at least its theatrical run. It's since developed a cult following. I'm excited because I don't think I've ever seen someone dress up as this particular character.”

Spencer has already embodied the first choice of horror characters anyway. Onstage, he dons Freddie Krueger’s razor-sharp glove, wields a chainsaw like Leatherface, turns into fast-talking Evil Dead hero Ash, and assumes the role of suited-and-booted American Psycho yuppie killer and Huey Lewis enthusiast Patrick Bateman, among others. Ice Nine Kills have appeared at conventions next to their horror anti-heroes. They even have a tiny, but very, very cool, part to play in the latest Scream movie (we’ll get to that). Is Halloween a busman’s holiday? Possibly (and, if it is, it’s the bus from the start of A Nightmare On Elm Street II: Freddy's Revenge), but it’s testament to his obsession that he has to dig deeper than normal to do something special for the occasion.

Here’s how seriously Spencer takes this stuff: most recently, he was transformed into Silence Of The Lambs' gentleman-cannibal Hannibal Lecter, in the video for the deliciously-named Meat & Greet, the final act of the Welcome To Horrorwood series. For two days – not nine-to-five, but essentially working for 48 hours – the band recreated the movie’s key points. So, there’s Spencer as Lecter in a cell, looking suave and dignified, even wearing prison fatigues; Spencer dancing like creepy weirdo Buffalo Bill; Spencer calmly going between Lecter beating a policeman to death with his own nightstick, and blissfully conducting an imaginary orchestra to peaceful classical music. It’s magnificently well observed and executed (though fortunately stopped short of The Bit where Jodie Foster’s young FBI trainee Clarice Starling gets a surprise from one of Lecter’s fellow inmates).

“It was long, arduous nights getting covered in blood and shooting things over and over again, not getting home until 4am then being back on set and shooting a few hours later,” he says, sounding tired just thinking about it. “It’s a taste of what making a film is like. It's very exhausting. It's very draining. But in the end, you know, it's all worth it.”

Though Spencer laughs and admits, “We’re not trying to make fucking Citizen Kane here,” the videos are ambitious and brilliantly pulled off, with a connecting through-line that links the splatter together. So much so that it was only appropriate to chop them all together and have a screening in a proper cinema.

“Just seeing the crowd reaction exceeded my wildest imagination,” he says proudly. “It's got to be one of the most gratifying things when you’ve done something like that, like, to see a reaction from an audience that first time and realise, ‘Oh my god, that joke really did work.’ I couldn't believe how much applause it got.”

All this on top of Ice Nine Kills becoming increasingly huge, and being invited to tour the stadia of America with no less a band than Metallica. If anyone’s got something to celebrate this Halloween, it’s Spencer. Killing is his business, after all. And business is exceedingly good.

"The really scary, beautifully designed art on the cover of these VHS tapes spoke to me"

Spencer on why he was so drawn to the horror genre as a kid

Even as a kid, horror was child’s play for Spencer. Literally. His report card – “my kindergarten report card,” he proudly clarifies – contained a note from a concerned teacher to his parents about their son distracting other kids. “Spencer,” it read, “continues to rile up his classmates in the schoolyard by telling them in-depth details of the horrific murder scenes in Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”

They only had themselves to blame, mind. During weekly supermarket trips, Mrs Charnas would allow her son to amuse himself in the shop’s video store. “For whatever reason, I wanted to go right to the aisle that said 'Horror,'” he recalls. “I think it was probably the really scary, beautifully designed art on the cover of these VHS tapes that spoke to me. I said, 'This seems so bad-ass. I want to see what Friday The 13th is, with that silhouette, and inside are these kids that look like they're in the middle of a dark woods, and the silhouette is holding a knife.'"

“There was also something about the smell of the video store and the smell of the VHS packaging, that made going there so cool,” he continues. “It’s like going to a record store and missing the smell of CDs and vinyl. It was all part of this experience – the smells, the candy that you’d buy at the store, maybe running into a friend. And as well, you had to make a choice. It's so easy now to be streaming on Netflix and be like, ‘Okay, let's check this movie out. Now 10 seconds in, I'm going to something else.’ You had to commit to it, because you had to go there and get it, and it cost money.”

Eventually, young Spencer convinced his parents to rent Halloween (“It scared the shit out of me but I loved it”). This resulted in a quest to find a Michael Myers mask, getting his mother to take him to every comic shop and costume outlet within driving distance to look for one. It also led to an immediate obsession with horror. “I watched everything, and I got into stuff like Silent Night, Deadly Night and Sleepaway Camp and Creepshow. It became a ritual for my friends and I to go to the video store and see what other fucked-up movies we could convince our parents to let us watch.”

Scream was the one, though. By the time Wes Craven’s reference-tastic slasher and love-letter to horror came out in 1996, Spencer – still a kid – was already enough of a movie buff to appreciate the depth of horror convention that was being discussed, knowingly adhered to, and just as knowingly broken in the film, as well as the wealth of Easter eggs the director had scattered amongst it.

“I was very aware of the lore of the characters – Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Leatherface – and I remember being in that theatre, and as soon as that killer started to talk about those slasher movies that I loved, [I was hooked],” says Spencer. “I’d never heard anything like this. He starts to quiz [Drew Barrymore's character] about Michael Myers and Jason, and I looked over at my cousin like, ‘Dude, this is going to be my favourite movie of all fucking time.’ I sat there for 120 minutes scared out of my wits, blown away laughing, absolutely blown away. And the reveal twist at the end - remember, in 1996 it wasn’t really the norm for murder-mysteries to be sophisticated, well-thought out, complex stories. Not in a timeless slasher movie. So when that happened, and you find out that it's those two killers, my jaw was on the ground, man. It took my love of horror from it being, like, 90 per cent of my personality to 200 per cent of it.”

"I sat there for 120 minutes scared out of my wits, absolutely blown away..."

Spencer on falling in love with the first Scream movie

At a similar-ish time, the young Spencer was discovering music as well. His older sister had introduced him to Nirvana, and with a slight foreshadowing of his musical future, he became, “the kid that was bleaching his hair, trying to look like Kurt Cobain, begging my parents to get me a guitar.” At “eight or nine”, he saw a school band doing a cover of Breed, as well as The Offspring’s Come Out And Play (Keep ’Em Separated).

“I was like, ‘Man, that's what we got to do next year, we got to play at this talent show at my school,’” he laughs. “My friends and I were young, but we were the kids in school that were wearing the flannel shirts. You weren’t allowed to have band shirts, or shirts with any writing on it, we would get in trouble for wearing that, so we’d hide it under our flannel shirt and show our band shirts at recess, when the teachers couldn't see.”

The big moment came when Charnas Snr took his soon to see Metallica on the Load tour in 1996, at the Boston FleetCenter, formerly Boston Garden. Already a keen fan who would study music books of the band’s songs, as with Scream, seeing The Four Horsemen left a huge impact on the young Spencer.

“It's crazy how vividly that concert still plays in my mind,” he says. “I remember Lars [Ulrich, drums] was the first person who came out onstage. He was in, like, boxer shorts and a wife-beater, he was drinking a beer and looking into the audience, and I just remember people going crazy. And it was a blistering set. And my dad, who hadn't really gotten into modern metal yet, was even impressed. To me it was like, ‘Man, they make metal music feel like it's a sporting event,’ just by how precise and how aggressive and how fast-paced and intense the music was.”

"Metallica make metal feel like a sporting event"

Spencer on his vivid memories of seeing The Four Horsemen for the first time

Both ’Tallica and Scream have given Spencer “full-circle” moments in recent times. Ice Nine Kills’ status is now such that the band have done signings at horror conventions, “and at the next table there’s [actors] Matthew Lillard and Neve Campbell from that very movie.”

Then he one-ups himself. In the latest Scream movie, the sixth one, you may have spotted an Ice Nine Kills flyer stuck to a fridge. Cool enough. But then Spencer’s nerdy depth of knowledge ended up being rewarded again, so impressed were the directors with his little Easter egg.

“I sent a fake flyer of an Ice Nine Kills show, and on the flyer it said it was at a place called Abe's Snake Pit,” he explains. “Abe Snake was Wes Craven’s porn director alias back in the ’70s. They were so stoked about that idea that they not only put the poster in the movie, but they named the store after it. You know when Ghostface is in there with a shotgun? Look at it again; it’s called Abe's Snake Bodega! I can't even describe how amazing that was for me.”

Metallica, meanwhile, did them the not inconsiderable solid of inviting them to open on their 72 Seasons Tour. The first time Spencer met guitarist and notorious horror nut Kirk Hammett, it was an instant friendship. Kirk was even wearing a Texas Chain Saw Massacre shirt for the occasion.

“We were geeking out over his collection,” says Spencer. “He has unbelievable stuff, dating all the way back to original prints of Bela Lugosi posters and all these incredible artefacts that he's gathered over the years. He’s an unbelievable collector.”

As with Kirk, it’s possible to spend a very long time talking about horror movies with Spencer. Indeed, our chat gets side-tracked more than once talking about various sequels and obscurities. When asked about his favourite ever kill, he puffs out his cheeks like he’s being given the hard sell on a car he’s not sure about, saying, “That’s like picking a favourite child.”

“If I had to pick one offhand, I’d say one from Silent Night, Deadly Night,” he eventually decides. “Where he hangs her on the antlers. It's shot so well because you see her death before it happens. You see him picking her up, and you see in the background these antlers that are hung on the wall. So you know what's coming. He picks her up like a little rag doll and impales her on to the antlers. You see the silhouette on the wall, the shadow of the antlers, and him impaling her, and then there's this shot of her just hanging on them. As crazy as it sounds, it's brilliantly put together. In the world of fake murder, to me that's art.”

Bringing this sort of thing into his own world, onstage, is part of the fun of what Spencer gets to do. He says part of what Ice Nine Kills and their horror are about is homage, but also spotting the funny bits in these films. A big fan of 100-gags-a-minute detective LOL-a-thon The Naked Gun, he also wants people to get the gallows humour of Freddie Krueger or Patrick Bateman (truly one of the funniest characters ever committed to celluloid). With delectable punning skill, their tribute to the Wall Street maniac is dubbed Hip To Be Scared, in honour of the Huey Lewis song Hip To Be Square, about which actor Christian Bale delivers an eyebrow-waggling monologue, before delivering an absolute thigh-slapper by putting an axe through Jared Leto’s face.

“Doing the Patrick Bateman thing to Hip To Be Scared is so much fun,” he says. “Our current show is set in Bateman's apartment, recreating movies, because he's so obsessed with murder and horror films. Getting to wear the tuxedo and live out that crazy fantasy of being a serial killer back in the greed of the ’80s where no-one realised you’re a killer, as horrible and as deplorable as it is, is a fun part to get into.

“Then there’s the Pennywise stuff from IT, which is so over the top, and there’s balloons and everything, but you’re also a child killer,” he laughs. “If you don't see that there's an element of comedy, you're never gonna get it.”

He’s got a story about people who don’t see the funny side as well: airport staff.

“Our craftmaster Missy, who makes virtually every prop and every costume that we wear onstage and in the videos, if a TSA agent sees what she has in her bag, she's getting stopped for about an hour,” he laughs.

What’s in there?

“Fake knives, fake axes – they’re one thing. But when you start trying to check in dead eight-year-old boys into your luggage, like from Pet Sematary, or a severed head, it can be an issue. I think we're probably on some of the ‘no fly’ lists at this point.”

All this does is start the brain working up ideas for what INK could to do next. Apart from their biggest headline shows to date, their own horror-con late next year, and more giant festival shows, that is. An homage to classic plane-based Twilight Zone creeper Terror At 20,000 Feet? Spencer says he’d like to go more obscure than the characters they’ve done already, suggesting he’d love to go incredibly old school and see what the possibilities are with Universal Monsters films – the series from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s that birthed Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster, and Claude Raines as The Invisible Man.

For now, for the man for whom every night is fright night, Halloween calls. And whatever it is Spencer’s planning on dressing as, it’s going to be a scream.

“I just fucking love this, man,” he laughs. “Horror has always been in my blood. And it always will be.”

Welcome To Horrorwood: Under Fire is out now via Fearless Records.

Get your hands on the exclusive Kerrang! x Ice Nine Kills capsule collection.

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