If you grew up on 1980s horror films, as I certainly did (but, don’t tell my mother – unless you feel comfortable with the concept of ruining a mother/son relationship, which just makes you weird), then you are definitely familiar with the concept of the Scream Queen. When you saw that a film would be starring Linnea Quigley or Brinke Stevens or Michelle Bauer, you knew exactly what you were getting into and you knew that you would be having a blast. One of my personal favorites, and one that always appears on any ‘Greatest Scream Queen’ list would have to be Barbara Crampton. In films like Re-Animator, From Beyond, Castle Freak, and Chopping Mall, she was beautiful, possessed genuine acting skills, and had a bona fide horror movie scream – she was the real deal. If you saw the more recent You’re Next, you discovered that she is STILL all of those things today. She also proved to be very gracious and open as we discussed her career, home life, and state of the horror industry.
Jason Howard: How long did it take for you to embrace the title of ‘scream queen,’ or is it a label that you’ve ever truly been comfortable with?
Barbara Crampton: Nothing about it bothered me at all. I know that there are some people, Jamie Lee Curtis for example, that have an issue being called a ‘scream queen.’ But, as long as people call me, I don’t care what they label me. If I’m working and I’m entertaining people, you can call me whatever you want!
JH: What do you think it is about the horror genre that resonates so deeply with fans? Nobody’s holding annual conventions for comedy or drama films.
BC: The world is driven by fear. It’s been shown in psychology that we make most of our decisions based upon fear, instead of love, unfortunately. So, it’s our deepest fears that resonate with us. I think to become comfortable with your fears, if you can experience them outside of yourself and allow your body to go through the feelings of a certain amount of fear, then you become a little more comfortable with potential danger that might happen in your life, like your impending death and doom, which will surely come at one point or another. Also, you can be entertained and titillated by something which shows your fears in an exciting situation as most of the films which we all love and tend to live the test of time do for us.
JH: Along those lines, many of your films such as Re-Animator, Chopping Mall, and You’re Next, mix in a good dose of humor with the horror. As a horror fan yourself, do you enjoy that sense of humor thrown in to help cut through the potential terror?
BC: I certainly do. Films that are just dark and plodding in that way tend to really put me off. I definitely enjoy the moments when I’m given a little bit of relief in a horror movie. And, it’s certainly more fun to play that, too. I’ve been involved in some films where there’s been very little humor. I’m a very positive person, so they do, for me, tend to make me even more depressed. I know there are people that really like the darkness and the blood and the gore and all that – well, blood and gore can be funny, too – but, something without that relief in any way really turns me off. Sometimes, I think, when movies are particularly dark, there might be one character or a few scenes that could be your comic relief. Or, there could be jump scares, which are fun and could be your comic relief. I think there’s a real value in that because, we’re not only making horror movies, but we’re also trying to entertain people. For me, that’s an important element of the horror genre.
JH: Now, I don’t know if this was intentional or planned, but in the 80s, you seemed to form a partnership with Stuart Gordon (director) and Jeffrey Combs (actor) that lasted for several films. Is that group dynamic and familiarity something that helps spark your own creativity and performance?
BC: With the three of us working together several times, it wasn’t something that was planned. We did Re-Animator and Stuart really liked working with us. So, he asked us a few more times, even more frequently with Jeffrey, to work with him again. I was kind of surprised that he never asked Bruce Abbot to work with him again. I’m not sure why that is – Stuart and I have mentioned it a few times and even he doesn’t know why that is.
Jeff and I have a really good rapport, we really like each other, and on screen we have a really good chemistry, so Stuart just kept writing stories that we would be involved in. One of the films that he was writing even before we did From Beyond was Dagon. He wanted myself and Jeffrey to play the lead parts in that, but he had a very difficult time getting the money for that because, at the time, the people he was talking to didn’t believe that fish could be scary. He proved them wrong when you see the movie. We became too old for the roles, so we weren’t able to do that one, but he decided to do From Beyond with us.
I think that working together like that brings a certain level of comfort and when you’re comfortable, it does spark a certain amount of creativity because you all trust one another and know how one another works. And, you can work more quickly and efficiently. I’ve said this before – Stuart is the kind of director that really has a vision for everything he does and he makes it quite clear to everybody who’s working on the movie. He’s the gentlest soul ever and the kindest man, but he’s very particular in what he wants. So, we worked with his vision quite succinctly together to provide that for him. We just got along so well, that we just kept working together.
JH: Absolutely. For the fans it obviously worked out great! You’ve also worked with several filmmakers who work quickly and with small budgets – guys like Jim Wynorski and Charles Band. As an actress, do you find that working within those limitations helps the creative process, as opposed to a bigger budgeted film that can throw money at any problems that come up?
BC: Well, that’s a very interesting question. I haven’t worked on too many big budget films, so I’m not sure how that works. I know that people say there is always money wasted on a big budget movie, but when you have a small budget, a lot of times you have to think quickly and on your feet. You have to try to make things work that may not have been the original intention of the writer. It does force you into figuring out what you can do for the least amount of money. I think that’s important, going forward, with movies and filmmaking today. Budgets are shrinking. People are making movies for $100,000 and $200,000. When I was working in the 1980s, a low-budget movie was $1,000,000. Now, if you’ve got $1,000,000 for a movie, that’s considered a medium budget in the independent world. That’s a lot of money. People are focusing more on doing one location movies with a smaller cast. Heavy on relationships, no CGI, doing practical effects… Filmmakers today are much more savvy with the $200,000 or less that they have to spend. It’s a little bit easier for them to manager that money in a productive and creative way. I think the young directors working today seem, to me, to really be very knowledgeable about what’s possible and how to make the most of a modest budget.
JH: It seemed that you didn’t particularly shy away from nudity in your films. Is that something that just kind of came with the territory with horror films of that period, as long as everyone was having fun and trusted one another?
BC: Anything I did was always part of the film and part of the story. I don’t think that anything I ever did felt like, “I should be doing this” or “I’m scared to do it,” or that it would hurt my career if I do it. There are a lot of people who are movie viewers who have very varying degrees on what they think and how they feel about sexuality and nudity. There’s a lot of social and moral issues involved in people’s minds and their upbringing. But, for me, as an actor, if it’s part of the story, I’ll do it and I’ll probably continue to do it. I don’t know if anybody’s going to see a ‘wrinkled-old grandmother’ Barbara Crampton, but if it’s part of the story, I’ll do it. (laughs)
JH: You took a bit of a break from acting before You’re Next came along. What was it about that particular script or project that made you want to get back into it?
BC: When I was hitting my late 30s, I wasn’t working quite as much and I also wasn’t married. I really wanted to have a family, so I took a couple of years and really focused on finding somebody that I wanted to be with and exploring potentially why it hadn’t worked out for me in the past. I met my husband a couple of years after I decided that and everything was going so well for us that I made a conscious choice in my mind that I was going to focus on our marriage. I really wasn’t going to focus on my career at all. Then, he told me he was being transferred with his job from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Because I had already made that decision, I said, “okay, when do we leave?” I knew this was important for him and would mean better things for our family financially and for his job security, so we moved to San Francisco more than ten years ago. I really wanted to have children. Right away, we got pregnant. Once my son was a year old, we got pregnant again right away. I definitely focused on my family. Living in San Francisco, I realized I may not have a career anymore, and that was okay. I worked for over 20 years and did some films and television projects I could be proud of, so I thought it was time for the next phase. I was happily working at their school, and volunteering and becoming a gardener.
The call for You’re Next came out of the blue. I read the script and I really liked it very much. I had numerous conversations with Keith Calder (producer), Simon Barrett (writer/producer) and Adam Wingard (director) and I wanted to do it – it really sounded like fun. I did pretty much just for that reason; not to think that I was going to get back into acting again. One more little movie. But, it turned out to be an awesome movie and would up being bought by Lionsgate after our TIFF premiere. After that whole experience, and then going to Fantastic Fest and being at the Alamo Drafthouse, I had the best time of my life, you know? So, I thought that maybe this was something I wanted to do again. And, it wasn’t that difficult – my kids, at that point, were 9 and 11, and I had some help watching them while my husband was working and it seemed doable. So, I talked to my agent and said, “if there’s anything else that comes up, I’d be interested.” Since that time, I’ve worked on, I think, five different things. It’s been really nice for me. I feel, now, like I’ve got a good balance between my home life and working a little bit here and there. I think this is my new normal – to be a mom, taking care of my family, and work some and really enjoying myself. This is probably the best time of my life I’ve had in recent memory.
JH: You mentioned Alamo Drafthouse – how did you become involved in the upcoming Dismember The Alamo event next weekend in Houston (details below)?
BC: I’ve been down to Fantastic Fest twice now. Once was for the You’re Next premiere and the other time, I was on the jury for Best Horror Feature. I had an incredible time there and met so many incredible people there that work with the Alamo Drafthouse and Badass Digest, along with filmmakers that live down there or from around the world that come to Fantastic Fest. I’ve made a lot of friends who are horror movie critics and who have websites. One of the gals I met was Meredith Borders, who is the managing editor of Badass Digest. There’s just certain people that you really click with and you really like, and I just have a fond feeling for her. She asked me to come to Houston to help be the Mistress of Ceremonies for Dismember the Alamo, and, without hesitation, I said, “anything for you guys.” I’m really happy to help her and promote horror films and celebrate my favorite time of year – Halloween by coming to Houston to show some rockin’ horror movies.
JH: I’ll be there myself – I can’t wait! Lastly, are there any upcoming films that our readers should keep an eye out for?
BC: Because I’m in this independent horror world, there are a few films that I’ve done that are now being submitted to film festivals. I’m really looking forward to the earliest one I did this past year, which is probably in the best shape to be submitted to festivals. It’s called We Are Still Here and was written and directed by my very good friend Ted Geoghegan and produced by Travis Stevens, with cinematography by Karim Hussain. I haven’t seen the movie, because they won’t show it to me! But, I have a really good feeling about it, and I know all these guys are at the top of their game in the horror genre. I can’t wait to sit alongside all of them and some of you and watch this movie at an upcoming film festival.
That’s right – on Saturday, October 25 , 2014, come out to the Alamo Drafthouse in Vintage Park for Dismember the Alamo. Watch a four movie horror marathon with Barbara in person, including a pick or two she chose herself. The titles will remain a mystery until they pop up on screen, but it promises to be an incredibly fun event. Perhaps, more importantly, I will be there as well – so, that opportunity to meet me that you never even realized that you wanted can finally come true. Barbara will be happy to sign your stuff (within reason, of course), and I’ll be happy to point you in the direction of where she will be happy to sign your stuff (within reason, of course). If you don’t happen to live in the Houston area, all Drafthouse markets will be throwing their own Dismember the Alamo party with a different celebrity guest. See ya then!