Barbara Crampton has a special place in the hearts of genre fans, particularly those who came of age in the 1980’s video shop era. Making her name in horror classic Re-Animator, she worked steadily throughout that decade and the next in a number of similar cult genre titles.
She has recently enjoyed somewhat of a career renaissance after cropping up in the movies of a new generation of filmmaker who revered her work from those decades before, including the likes of Adam Wingard and Rob Zombie. She also gave a brief yet delicious turn in last year’s Beyond the Gates (a
We caught up with the San Francisco-based actress over the phone recently to discuss her part in Sun Choke, how filmmaking has evolved since her earlier screen roles, and why she was tempted back into the industry after self-imposed semi-retirement.
HeyUGuys: Sun Choke is an impressive little genre film. It’s unusual and deliberately ambiguous in some places, making the audience work a little more to join the dots, narratively-speaking. How did you get involved?
Barbara Crampton: My manager came across the general casting call the makers of the film had in Los Angeles. He called them and basically pitched me without my knowledge, which happens all the time. I was won over by the script and just how unconventional it was.
You mentioned the ambiguity and I really wasn’t sure if my character was a good or bad person at first. I asked to have a conversation with the director to see where his mind was and how my character sat because it was such an unusual piece. His response was “I’m not sure – let’s find out together” and that was all I needed to hear him say to assure me that he wasn’t going to put me in one box or the other, similar to the ordinary tropes you normally see in horror films.
[The film] allows the viewer to decide if she’s good or bad. I think every character in a movie can justify their actions and who they are. You have to play it like that.
Your character Irma is a deeply unnerving presence in the film. She can be incredibly menacing yet also shows restraint and calm, particularly during the treatment sessions. How do you get into the mind set of someone like that?
I played her as a woman who’s a caretaker of Janie – another female who is mentally unstable. [My character] has largely discarded her own life to care for that of her patients, and because she’s around that kind of deep psychosis every day, it has actually blended into her own personality.
She’s a little off but isn’t self-reflective enough to realise that about herself. There was a cut scene in the movie which always saddens me that it had to go. Janie is always hearing water dripping and my character thinks it’s all in her mind. I call a repairman to check it out and he comes over. I never look at him in the scene and I’m stood very much apart from him. I thought this was a great way of illustrating that she isn’t comfortable in the bigger world, being around men, or indeed, another people.
You’re been embraced by a new generation of horror directors – Adam Wingard, Rob Zombie and recently Jackson Stewart for Beyond the Gates. How did your journey back to that world begin?
It was the writer and co-producer of You’re Next, Simon Barrett, who was interested in having someone well-known in the genre to play either the mother or father role in the film. Simon reached out to me because he had met [Re-Animator director] Stuart Gordon at Fantastic Fest in Austin around the time they were casting and he inquired as to what I was doing. Stuart told him I’d had children and was kinda retired but Simon tracked me down anyway. I was sent the script and they basically offered me the role out of the blue. I was still reluctant to commit but after reading what Simon had written I thought it could be a clever little horror movie and it might offer a fun departure from motherhood.
I finished the film and was completely blown away by how much fun I’d had and how remarkable the young filmmakers were. After that experience I decided I wanted to work again. I re-established a relationship with my agent who I hadn’t really spoken to in a few years. I also found a new manager and decided I really wanted to reacquaint myself with the genre and movie-making in general.
With Rob Zombie, he always likes to use people whom he knows from past movies that he’s fond of. He’s actually contacted me a couple of times, but for one reason or another, I couldn’t commit to the projects he had in mind for me. Ultimately, about eight of us were mostly cut out of Lords of Salem because there was a desire to streamline the movie, but I was still happy to work with him, however brief it was.
When you bump into your fellow genre actors at conventions, or act beside them in an ensemble piece, is it like a large extended family getting together now?
Oh yes, very much so. There’s a lovely camaraderie. I’ve been friends with [Night of the Comet’s] Kelli Maroney for a very long time and only recently met [A Nightmare on Elm St’s] Amanda Wyss but she and I have become quite good friends. I meet a lot of people at conventions but it’s the film festivals I attend that seem to offer the perfect opportunity for a lot of young filmmakers to come on the scene and sell their movies. It’s quite a big deal to visit those. I’ve met some wonderful people there – not just actors, but director, writers and producers. I met Corin Hardy a couple of years ago, who did The Hallow, and we just really hit it off. It’s a nice social circle to be in. We share the same language of film.
Being able to champion each other is a big part of why I’m happy to be working back within genre film. I really feel that the advantage of social media means that people are much closer and can create bonds and friendships. They’re interested in helping each other make the best films they can by reading scripts, offering notes and looking at edits. There seems to be a real sense of community now. It’s not something that happened in the eighties. Back then everyone was in their specific box – you’re the director, you’re the producer and you’re the editor.
Speaking of that decade, could you share any special memories you had of working on the Empire International Pictures/Full Moon productions? That stuff was done on a shoestring, but with loads of love and a big heart.
I have many. First of all I’ll say it wasn’t actually so shoestring back then. A low budget movie at that time was a million dollars, where a film in that same bracket now could be $200, 000 – $300,000. We shot Re-Animator for a million and they gave us five million for From Beyond. It was really a luxury making that movie – it was the first time I had been to Italy and we shot there for six weeks. We had a lot of time. Today they want you to make a movie in 19/21 days – back then you had 30/35 days, sometimes 40. There’s very little money today, and now that the shooting schedules are much shorter, the whole process is harder.
I made a movie recently called Applecart which did something a little different when it came to the shooting schedule. We shot the bulk of the film’s scenes in two weeks and weeks after they went back to shoot more scenes. The makers then repeated this process again. In total the schedule was around 40 days, but the shoot went on for around a year. They kept looking at what they had and then went back and filmed additional scenes. It felt like a brilliant way to make a movie. Seeing what you have and creating further scenes to help fill out the story.
To go back to what you asked, in the eighties we were in a bubble. You made your movie and that was it. Nowadays it’s much more collaborative.