Ahead of her appearance at FrightFest, HeyUGuys caught up with its guest of honour, Scream Queen/ horror legend Barbara Crampton.
After making a name for herself starring in 80s classics RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND, PUPPET MASTER, CHOPPING MALL and CASTLE FREAK in 1995, Barbara recently made a return to the genre, appearing in the likes of YOU’RE NEXT and Rob Zombie’s THE LORDS OF SALEM.
As well as having four new films premiering at FrightFest 2015 (WE ARE STILL HERE, SUN CHOKE, ROAD GAMES and TALES OF HALLOWEEN), Barbara will also be participating in a live Q&A session with author and fest-head Alan Jones.
HeyUGuys caught up with the cult star to chat about her early work, the state of modern horror, how the industry has changed over the years and what it was like growing up while travelling in a carnival with her father.
Yes, I can’t wait, I’m very excited. I was just in England, Paris and Barcelona on holiday and I have only been back a week so will be trotting happily back there again soon.
You have four films showing there, that’s quite impressive! Not to mention others in the works.
I do and there’s some exciting things I haven’t announced yet too. In one of the four FrightFest films, TALES OF HALLOWEEN, I just have a cameo. I spent one evening on the set so yes I was in it but wasn’t involved as much as the other three (WE ARE STILL HERE, SUN CHOKE, ROAD GAMES). It’s the only one I haven’t seen! I’ve heard great things. I can’t wait!
After the 80s you veered away from horror slightly and appeared in a lot of soap operas and TV movies but now you are back again. Do you think we are entering a golden age of indie horror?
It feels like that. YOU’RE NEXT was a kind of reintroduction to the horror business for me. There were a lot of years I missed working in television and also with starting my family and living in Northern California but I really feel there has been a resurgence and people are working in a much more collaborative way than I remember from the 80s. Everyone is more knowledgeable about each other’s roles, do multiple jobs and a lot of people are willing to work together and help one another more.
It could be that a lot of the new generation of genre film makers grew up watching your 80s work and were inspired which has led to you finding a lot more horror roles again.
That’s certainly the case with my return. Simon Barrett (screenwriter) mentioned to Stuart Gordon when they met at Fantastic Fest 2010 I believe, that he wanted to hire me for YOU’RE NEXT because he had seen me in FROM BEYOND and RE-ANIMATOR. They wanted an older character either for the mother or father role, someone recognizable from older horror movies. And now I’m working with director Jackson Stewart on a new film called BEYOND THE GATES and he was one of Stuart Gordon’s interns years ago. So certainly a lot of the film-makers I am working with know my early work. Ted Geoghegan, who cast me in WE ARE STILL HERE, was also familiar with the Stuart Gordon Lovecraft movies.
You have played a lot of roles recently where your characters are undergoing a lot of psychological and physical strain. How do you go about preparing for that kind of role and conjuring that kind of extreme emotion? Is there a specific process you go through or is it more organic?
It has to come from the situation is and whatever the character is specifically going through. When I did YOU’RE NEXT, I could understand, as a mother, how terrible it would be if my child were murdered right in front of my eyes. That I played as an immediate shock. I didn’t want to prepare in advance. I wanted it to be very real as if I was experiencing in that very moment. But for WE ARE STILL HERE, my character Anne, has undergone a severe loss that she’s been living with for a few months. I needed to do some research on what a mother’s mindset would be. I interviewed a couple of women who had both lost children in auto accidents to understand more about what life was like on a day-to-day basis for them, how they dealt (or didn’t) with the overwhelming grief and how it affected their relationship with their spouse. It was comforting to me to know that they also had moments of lightness although it was often peppered with guilt for having felt any love or humour especially in the early days. The overwhelming physical response was the tiredness they both experienced, that was a very prominent aspect that I also wanted to convey. The sadness they endured, I don’t know how they got through it. It brings tears to my eyes even now thinking about it. I only played it, they lived it.
I then took those two interviews to the set every day and read through them in between scenes just so I could keep myself in the right mood to ensure that grief was a prominent part of my character and the movie. So that helped me significantly. I am playing a lot of mother roles now which is nice because it’s where I am in life. I do feel a strong bond to my children and find these roles very interesting for me to explore.
How do you look back on your earlier work, back in the days when you were in soap operas? What kind of advice would you give yourself if you could?
I didn’t really make a living out of my horror movies back in the 80s. The bulk of my money came from the soap opera work because it was a regular job. I think when you start out in entertainment, you can’t always rely on your agent to get you a job! You have to create your own opportunities and make your own content.
I see a lot of professionals who act in their own movies, direct and edit them. People like Amy Seimetz Adam Wingard, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, they’re all having wonderful careers because they know about every aspect of the business and they’re all actively doing different tasks and learning. I think that is the best way to break into it now. It’s a very difficult business to be in nowadays what with people making films at such a low cost and so many of them being made. It’s definitely harder to make a living out of it. Keep working. Make movies with your friends. Collaborate. Go to film festivals like FrightFest and actively seek to meet other filmmakers!
How do you feel about being a Scream Queen? Do you find the term outdated or does it still have a place?
It doesn’t bother me that I have this label as a Scream Queen. It’s because I’ve simply screamed a lot in a lot of films that people love! In life we try to quantify and explain things. We try to put things in a box to understand them or a form that makes sense to us so it’s fine. There are many great women in that category and I’m happy to be among them. I wear that title proudly but… it also doesn’t mean that’s all I can do.
From previous FrightFest experience, the horror film fan community seem such a strong, fun-loving, loyal crowd who share their passion and whoop at the gore and death scenes when films are screened. How do you feel being a part of that celebrated strangeness?
I don’t think it’s strange at all, it’s wonderful. Fans get together to go to the festivals and see all the new work and maybe get an early glimpse of a new breakout. I think it’s so beautiful and supportive. It’s also a way (as we’re discussing) for artists and industry people to meet one another, talk about ideas, generate enthusiasm for projects and present opportunities to collaborate on new horror visions. I am truly delighted to meet so many fans on the festival circuit and I’m surprised at how knowledgeable some of them are.
For me, since coming back into the industry, I’ve been trying to keep up. I watch a few movies a week but am aware there may have been some classic films over the last twenty years that I might have missed. But even the average film-goer at these festivals is so knowledgeable. There are so many talented people out there and so many movies and fans clamouring for more. I think we’re in a really good strong business. I can’t see our fan-base diminishing at all. The love is so strong, stronger than it has ever been.
The quality of a lot of the indie horror films at the moment is very high and original but mainstream Hollywood’s tendency is to focus on remaking horror classics.
Some movies were so well done in the first place, they don’t need to be remade. But I think it depends on a case by case basis. I saw the remake of CARRIE which was well done but I didn’t see anything new in it so I couldn’t help but wonder what the point was? I don’t think it improved on the original. But then I saw the DAWN OF THE DEAD 2004 remake and thought that was really interesting because Zack Snyder and James Gunn put new stuff in there. I loved the first one but I thought the second had an interesting new take. And then there’s THE FLY 1986 which was wonderful. The original was a classic but the remake had deeper things to say about the relationship between the lead characters which Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis played. They were both excellent in the movie too.
I understand that people want to make money. They think that if they have a built-in audience for something there’s a greater chance of recouping their investment. Often big studios are afraid to take chances. But hey…that’s why we have all these wonderful new film-makers creating fantastic work at a low-budget level and hopefully we will find a lot more gems coming out of these festivals and potentially have a break out blockbuster! Or not. Maybe just a really good small movie which has a following and can sustain it’s audience through the years is also a great win. RE-ANIMATOR is an example of that. BLAIR WITCH another.. IT FOLLOWS… THE BABADOOK.
There is also multi-platform releasing now; streaming and so many new ways to see films with some being released in the cinema, on DVD and online at the same time.
People are just trying to recoup as much as they can as quickly as possible. There’s a model that was used for IT FOLLOWS: originally they were supposed to release that movie on a few screens and then online after, but the word of mouth was so spectacular that Tom Quinn, co president of Radius-TWC decided at the last minute to give it a wider cinema run and hold off on digital platforms. I’m certain you can’t always pull that off, it made a lot of people nervous but it worked. Incidentally that was one of the deals offered to our producers on YOU’RE NEXT. It was ultimately rejected and the movie was picked up by LionsGate…and then shelved for two years because of the restructuring going on with LionsGate/ Summit Ent. Although it did quite well upon it’s release, would YOU’RE NEXT have done better or worse with the other deal? It probably would have come out sooner. That’s something we’ll never know.
You started out in theatre. Is that something you would consider going back to?
It’s definitely a first love of mine. It’s very fulfilling to be on the stage and work on something for a month and have an immediate response to it. I started out thinking I was going to be in New York, doing theatre on Broadway but it was very difficult. I was waitressing in NY in the early years. It all goes back to the money aspect for me. I decided that, maybe a year or two after I graduated college, I should move to LA and get involved in TV because I knew they were going to pay me and I would be able to make a career out of it. It was really important for me to make money while doing my art. And I was able to by working on soap operas, and doing movies in between. Maybe in the future I could go back to theatre but my problem now is that I have two children who are twelve and thirteen. Most plays are rehearsed during the day with performances during the evening so that would prohibit me. With movies, I can go away for a month, once or twice a year. For a smaller part it’s just a week here or there which is much more sustainable. I am also producing a movie that we touched on earlier, BEYOND THE GATES, and another that’s in development. I can do that from home but to be away from my children at night while rehearsing during the day, would be too hard on me and my family. Maybe when the kids graduate, theatre will be something I will look at again.
Do your children want to get into acting at all? Would you encourage them?
I would never encourage anybody to get into acting! It’s such a tough business, very competitive and so many people are doing it as we’ve been saying. My son took a Shakespeare class recently and loved it. I really encouraged that because I think it’s a great opportunity to gain confidence and public speaking experience. Those are wonderful skills that acting can give you which are transferrable to different professions. But I would say “pick something that you can’t live without, that you need to do and do it” That’s what I was told. If you find something you love and can’t make a career out of it then you should do it as a hobby. If I had the opportunity to put my son in a movie that I am working on then perhaps I will do, but he has many other interests, so that’s a relief! My daughter is not very interested at all. I’ll let them decide for themselves. But if they’re not completely passionate about it, I would tell them not to.
Your father worked in the circus while you were growing up. What was that like?
It was actually the carnival business. He was in a travelling road show with games and rides and I travelled with them every summer. That gave me a love for entertaining and having an audience. They called my Dad “the best mic man in the business”. He had a game called the “crazy ball birthday game”. He could gather a crowd just by telling a little story or by doing a magic trick or saying something funny and encouraging people to come and play his game. He did really well. He’s passed away now but was quite charming and could reel in a mark to spend money at his game. That was fun, to grow up and watch him. I had my own game there too: a basketball game. I became quite good at basketball when I was younger because of that.
Sounds like a lot of fun experiences and good memories.
Yeah, I travelled a lot with some interesting fringe characters and found that many people on the carnival circuit didn’t want to be a part of society. They were sort of misfits but there they felt a sense of family and belonging. There were no judgements there and often I was not aware of people’s pasts. The carnival is dying now as there are so many other things to entertain people but back then I would travel with these fairs throughout summer through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and then in the winter we would go back to school. Meanwhile, the people who worked with us would travel to the warmer parts of our country like Georgia or Florida and continue working for another circuit. All they did was travel so I grew up knowing a lot of people who worked for my family. They were interesting to grow up with and had wonderful stories and I still consider them friends. Growing up with the carnival made me open to pretty much any creature walking the earth.
That’s amazing, you should write about it. Have you thought about writing for film?
I’ve written a few things but I like people. I love to be around people and writing seems too solitary. It’s not something I gravitate towards but maybe in the future when I am too old to move and have to sit down more. Right now I really like to be in connection with others.
Tickets for FrightFest are available here.