The Nightmare Returns

Alice Cooper

Mothers, lock up your daughters! It’s Halloween night, Detroit 1986 and the Motor City Madman is back! The Nightmare Returns DVD captures Alice Cooper’s triumphant lurch back to life from the commercial and critical graveyard of his career in the early 80s. Though his meticulously studded and quaffed fans may disagree, Cooper is known for only two, perhaps three, bona fides hits, “School’s Out,” “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” and maybe “18,” but his success as an arena rock icon was always in his ability to deliver these hits and his back catalog of clunkers with carnivalesque theatrics, tireless energy, and a commanding stage presence.

How exactly do you define Cooper’s captivating onstage persona captured in The Nightmare Returns? Although he delivers solid rock music geared towards a young male audience, he is too harmlessly effeminate to be considered macho. Though his ghoulish make-up and love of macabre imagery suggest that he is a dark, evil figure, he’s too vulnerable, common, and even dainty on such numbers as “Only Women Bleed,” to really be threatening at all. The only reasonable explanation for his peculiar stage presence is that Alice is a complete weirdo. No explanation offered and no explanation needed. The excitement in his performance is how he indulges so devilishly in this bizarre world of his own creation in front of a sold-out audience.

When the lights come up on the Joe Louis Arena, billows of maroon-tinged smoke encircle a stage featuring a motif that can only be described as “Salvation Army Store Massacre.” Bloodied mannequins, torn baby carriages, mattresses and garbage cans pepper the many different levels of overturned steel parapets and catwalks that Alice’s uber-tough band are perched on. In one corner of the stage, the man himself breaks free from a steel-barred holding pen to greet his adoring throngs, wearing a slashed coat and tails, tight leather pants, and a bloodied cod piece. In this get-up, Cooper looks not unlike the maitre'd at the four star restaurant in hell. This image suits him well. The next hour and a half he serves up a five-course meal of ghoulish rock gusto aimed at pleasing even the most discerning of horror show palettes.

There are props and props galore throughout The Nightmare Returns, a new one for every song, including boa constrictors, whip-wielding dominatrixes, and rusty guillotines. As exciting as these elaborate ephemera may be, when Cooper uses more common, everyday objects for his evil bidding, he is truly at his most disturbed state of grace. During “18 (Little Flower Of Ulysses)” when lead guitarist Kane Roberts, a dead ringer for Rambo’s fey cousin, shoots a stream of fire out of his machine gun-shaped guitar just inches away from Alice’s mascara laced temples, it’s creepy, But not as spine-tingling as when, in the same song, Alice picks up a crutch from the heap of ruble behind him, drapes his stringy torso over it and moans, “I gotta get outa here/ Mom caught me drinking beer.” Towards the end of “The Ballad of Dwight Fry,” Alice frees himself from a straight jacket, grabs the stethoscope off of the female nurse who unshackled him and sucked his brains out through a watermelon-sized syringe, and strangles her with it. Pretty deranged, but nowhere near as disturbing as the antics of “Cold Ethyl,” where Alice drags a life-sized ragged doll onstage, schleps it around as he croons — dropping it, kissing it, and swinging it around by its underwear, his attention permanently fixed somewhere far off in the distance. The routine is neither sexual nor violent, just unspeakably creepy in a way that makes Cooper seem like some gutter trash version of Linus from Peanuts — with the rag doll playing a perverted version of the yellow blanket.

As creepy as many of the routines may be, including the battle with the garbage monster that Alice creates in “Teenage Frankenstein,” nothing compares to the freakish horror that explodes at the end of “Go To Hell.” Throughout the concert, tension has been brewing between Alice and the hardworking, but totally square cameraman filming the concert. During “Give it Up,” AC flippantly throws a wad of Monopoly money at the crew member when he stepped a bit too far on stage. During “The World Needs Guts,” Alice expresses his hatred of the hard-working teamster when he waves his bloody rapier in his general direction. But during “Go to Hell,” Alice has had enough of that hanger-on cramping his style, and boy does he mean it. In a true act of crazed bravado, he takes the mic stand and shoves it right through his torso, fatally impaling him. Why did you do this Alice? The poor guy’s just doing his job! To film you for a concert video! What’s your damage, man? This Alice Cooper is some piece of work, all right.

When the lights finally dim after the second encore of the Alice-For-President anthem “Freedom,” the audience has been taken on weird, wild ride for certain, but they are still left wondering, just who is this Alice Cooper character anyway? Is he from Hell? If so, why was he sent back to earth? You think that watching the two bonus videos on the DVD will give you some answers, but alas, they just yield more questions. The baffling madness that Alice Cooper unleashes through this concert is as unnerving as if you walked in on your father reading the paper in his boxers, undershirt, and gartered fishnets. Thankfully, on DVD, you can pause Alice’s nightmare whenever you want, fast forward to your favorite parts, and skip the moments that might send you to the loony bin. A hell of a good time indeed.

~ Greg Morabito

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