A lot of the times, especially in the ‘80s in America, I think Hollywood used up the actors. They used them for parts to take clothes off or do the bidding of whatever monster was chasing them and that was it.
“I’ve been saying to people recently that I didn’t expect to be a horror actress,” admits Barbara Crampton. “I wanted to work as an actor. I love telling stories. I just happened to be in these movies that got popular so people keep asking me to be in horror. And I guess I keep saying yes.”
To her credit, Crampton didn’t just star in horror movies. As a young actress, she forever-cemented her place in the annals of genre history as the onscreen muse of Stuart Gordon—the cult filmmaker behind Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986)—and the star of other ‘80s classics like Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall (1986). Then throughout the ‘90s and into the early ‘00s, Crampton yielded bountiful work on soap operas—The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful, and Guiding Light—before roles started drying up and she went into “self-imposed retirement.”
It wasn’t until a decade later that she would receive a phone call with an offer to appear in Adam Wingard’s breakout home-invasion thriller You’re Next (2011)—a triumphant return for the horror fixture, not only to film but to the genre that had embraced her in the first place. Crampton experienced a sudden and unexpected career boom and rode that wave into a flurry of other projects in the years to come: Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem (2012), Ted Geoghegen’s We Are Still Here (2015), Zack Clark’s Little Sister (2016), and Brad Baruh’s upcoming Dead Night.
At present, Crampton is a jury member at the 22nd Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival—the premier genre event in Asia—where the actress is also hyping up a special screening of From Beyond. Her new film, Dead Night, is also playing as part of the festival’s official selection.
The Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival runs from July 12 – 22.
Re-Animator and From Beyond is a triangle of collaboration between yourself, director Stuart Gordon, and producer Brian Yuzna—
And Jeffrey Combs, too. We can’t forget Jeffrey!
The four pillars. How did this collaboration come to be?
My agent just sent me to a casting session for Re-Animator, which we made before From Beyond. There was another girl who was actually up for the part in Re-Animator. My mother read the script and said, “Oh no, you’re not doing this movie.” [Laughs] We were all young then. But I guess I wasn’t under my parents control as much as the other girl. There were pretty out-there, crazy scenes in the Re-Animator script, but I didn’t find anything offensive about it. I didn’t feel like I couldn’t do this role. I actually really liked the script. Also, this part was offered to me so I didn’t want to say no. So I came in and read with Bruce Abbott and Jeffrey Combs, and they were already cast in the movie. We all had great chemistry together. We all came from theater. I’d gone to college for theater and originally thought that I would move to New York and do Broadway or something like that. Stuart also came from theater and Re-Animator was his first movie, which explains the ‘80s sort of over-the-top melodrama in his movies. That’s how it all began.
Both films are inspired by H.P. Lovecraft stories. Were you familiar with that world?
I wasn’t really aware of Lovecraft and his writing. I was more aware of Edgar Allen Poe and stuff like that. I have a funny story about this. When Stuart first told us that we were doing a movie based on a Lovecraft story, Jeffrey asked, “Lovecraft—what is that? Is that a boat?” [Laughs] Stuart goes, “He’s a horror writer.” Of course, we read the original stories. We read a few of them because Stuart wanted us to understand the origins. I think Stuart is one of the people that popularized Lovecraft. Frequently, he would start with a Lovecraft story and then have to invent a lot of the characters to support his own creativity. I’m the primary example of an invention because Lovecraft didn’t write so much about women. He was known to be quite funny with women. It was more a time when he was writing that women were in the background. Also, Lovecraft is known to have been quite a racist person. I’m digressing here, but there was a book written in 2016 called Lovecraft Country. Jordan Peele optioned that book and he’s turning it into a TV series.
You had a career renaissance after being away from the industry for many years. Did you notice that a lot had changed when you made the return to acting?
There were a lot of changes. First of all, it was easier to get your movies seen back in the ‘80s because there just weren’t as many people doing it and there were a lot of people clamoring for content. And it was during the VHS boom. People were actually renting movies. People were also going to the movies more in general. If you were working in the industry, you were employed more often. We were paid more money for these independent movies compared to now. I think that’s because it’s a little bit easier to make a movie now with digital. And it’s not so mysterious. Everyone seems to be able to make a movie these days and a lot of them want to make a movie. In the ‘80s, we didn’t have that. There was only a handful of film festivals, too. Basically, you made a movie and you got distribution. You were pretty much assured that a movie like Re-Animator, From Beyond—and Chopping Mall, another movie I was in—would show in theaters for six weeks or two months. If we made these movies today, they probably wouldn’t go to theaters. Now it’s more word of mouth how you get your movies seen, or you will hopefully submit to one of the great film festivals across the world like BIFAN and get into a lot of them and have people talk about your movie on social media and have reviewers write about them and create some buzz about it so you can find some company to distribute you. Also, now, they don’t pay as much for movies because there’s so many of them. You get these low-budget movies that kids are making for $500,000 or less. They will buy your movie, but they’re not going to pay you anything close to $500,000. They will pay you the minimum guarantee—MG, as they call it—which is something much, much less. Then over a period of a couple years, you’ll hopefully make your money back. So in a way it’s funny: it’s easier to make a movie now, but it’s harder to actually make a living at it. My young friends today do a lot of different jobs. They’re actors and producers and directors. They work as waiters. They have construction jobs—other ways to make money. Thank god for film festivals because sometimes there’s no other way for these movies to even get shown.
When you came back into the fold, you started producing as well.
Yeah, but it’s not like I suddenly decided to become a producer. I helped produce this movie called Beyond the Gates because my friend Jackson Stewart had written it. He was actually Stuart Gordon’s intern and that’s how I got to know him. I was pretty impressed by his short films and, as a friend, I acted in a couple of them. He said to me one day, “I’ve written a script and I have most of the money together. We start shooting in a month and I really need you to read this because I want you to be involved.” So I read it that night and I was blown away by the story. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s a fantastic story about these two brothers who are estranged from one another. When their father goes missing, they have to come together to find him. And they discover that he has been lost inside a video game! They have to go in and rescue him. It’s a wild story about them going into another dimension, into another world. It wasn’t that it was just a fantastic story or that it was a genre story—I felt like it was beautiful. That’s why I decided to help him produce it. I helped him find some of the actors, the music people, and some of the money. There was creative stuff and executive producer stuff. We premiered at the L.A. Film Festival and won Best Horror Movie. Then IFC Midnight bought the movie. It did very well and I was very happy. I was like, “This is what producing is? It’s easy! I can do this.” Not true. [Laughs] Since then, I’ve had a couple of movies in development. I have one that I’m kind of close to having some money people saying yes to. But it’s not like I’m going out and searching for projects to produce. These are things that I read from friends where I go, “I really like this so much. I want to help you do it.” I think my first love is still acting. I want to continue to do a couple movies a year.
What’s so special about ‘80s genre stuff are the practical effects, the creatures, and just the insanity. Conceptually, you have to buy into the fiction so much more.
I think it’s something you learn over time. You have to throw yourself into it for the believability factor. Sometimes you’re not even acting with another person—you’re just saying words. Sometimes you have to imagine a lot in your mind about how things are. Maybe the creature is there, but maybe it isn’t there for your close-ups. Maybe Jeffrey Combs is in make-up having all of that glop put on, you know? So you’re reading lines with the AD. As I said earlier, I grew up in the theater and went to college for theater. I was used to being on stage with other actors. So I think you get used to it after awhile. And you have to trust that your director will say, “That was too much” or “Too little” or “The creature is not that scary right now” or “More scary.” I want to say that it’s a bit harder to act in those moments, but it isn’t. After you do one movie, I think you just get used to it. I think it’s hard for some people, some actors, to be in a lot of make-up like that. Certainly, it was very difficult for Jeffrey. He has made no secret about the fact that he did not enjoy his time working on From Beyond. He loved his part in Re-Animator and got so many accolades and awards for that role, and people still remember him from that. He’s quite famous for that role. But in From Beyond, he had this awful bald cap and all of this stuff. He really didn’t like it. He was very cranky most of the time on set so I had to be extra nice to him. [Laughs]
How did your creative partnership with Stuart evolve over the decade working together?
It’s funny—you never think when you work with a director that he’s going to ask you to do another movie and then another movie. I did three big movies with him: Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Castle Freak. We’re actually remaking Castle Freak with the guys who did Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99. A lot of people don’t know about Castle Freak, which is one of Stuart’s best movies. It’s gotten really great reviews over time, but it didn’t get a very wide release. So I’m going to help produce the remake. We already have money for that, thank god. We hired a writer and this woman is almost finished writing it. We’re hoping to go into production in the fall.
All directors and all actors are different. A lot of directors say, “I have to figure out how my actor likes to work and work with their energy.” As an actress, I feel like, “I’m in your movie and you have the hardest job so what’s the language you like to speak and how can I help you to realize your project?” With Stuart—I don’t know if you can tell—he’s a very heavy-handed director. I say this in a loving way. He’s very specific about the way he wants things. If he could play every part in the movie, he would, and he knows every part. He has opinions about how to play the role. He also likes everything quite big—very forceful. Today, the style of acting has really changed. We’re much more naturalistic now. Back then, it was bigger—certainly with Stuart. He was a very “big” director, which makes sense because he came from theater. His stories are melodramatic.
We got along so great, Stuart and I, as well as Jeffrey and Bruce, on Re-Animator. We rehearsed that movie for three weeks before shooting at my place because I happened to have the biggest living room. We went through all the beats and all the characterizations. That was one of my first movies and I thought, “Wow, we rehearse for movies. This is great! It’s just like they do in theater.” Of course, since then, it’s rarely happened to me. They don’t make time for you to rehearse. For some reason, Stuart really took a shine to Jeffrey and I. So, again, we worked really well together on From Beyond. Re-Animator was such a hit. That movie cost us $700,000 to produce. Brian Yuzna got rich off that movie. Then Full Moon Pictures—it was called Empire Pictures then—gave us $5 million dollars to make From Beyond. How much was $5 million dollars 35 years ago?
What happens to your character at the end of From Beyond? Does she go crazy?
She lost her mind, like Jeffrey’s character did at the beginning in the insane asylum. What he had seen drove him crazy. When I was brought in as his psychiatrist, I sort of calmed him down and we went through the experiments. He sacrificed himself for me. Then, in the end, I go crazy just like he did at the beginning so now I need somebody to come and save me. Her going crazy actually wasn’t in the script. I did that on set because, as it was written—her falling from the window, breaking her leg, and crying—I just thought, “This is crazy what’s going on.” So I did that maniacal laugh and they liked it and kept it in. I think everybody thought it was the proper ending.
The creature design is very reminiscent of The Thing. Was that an inspiration?
You’re right—I think it was very similar. Which came first, From Beyond or The Thing?
It was? What year was that?
I think 1982.
So I guess it was inspired. Yes is the answer to your question. [Laughs]
The source material from H.P. Lovecraft didn’t have all the sexual elements in it.
No, no—that was invented from the demented mind of Stuart Gordon.
What was the intention?
Ticket sales! That was at a time when cinema was very exploitative so they wanted to put a girl in black leather and, you know, have her try to have sex with the lead. If you read a lot of H.P. Lovecraft, he was a very repressed person and he wouldn’t have put that in there. It’s interesting that Stuart Gordon, who’s very open in that way, infused his sensibilities upon a H.P. Lovecraft story. So it was for marketing—to get people in the theater. It was about T and A. I’m sorry, it’s very crass. Anyway, it’s what I said: ticket sales. And it’s about a man writing a movie, about what a man wants to see. Thank god we have a few more female screenwriters now. Those movies had their time and place—that was part of a horror subgenre. We’ve kind of moved beyond that now.
How has acting enriched your life?
I will say that it gave me a sense of confidence, just getting in front of people and having the kind of career I’ve had. It makes you confident. To continue what we were talking about in regards to women and horror and things, I came from a time in the ‘80s when it was very exploitative, right? I’ve done very exploitative things in both Re-Animator and From Beyond. I think if those movies weren’t as good as they were, I might not have the career that I have now. Even though they were exploitative, they also had deeper meaning. Thank god those movies were as good as they were. A lot of the times, especially in the ‘80s in America, I think Hollywood used up the actors. They used them for parts to take clothes off or do the bidding of whatever monster was chasing them and that was it. And it was mostly the men that had the bigger careers and the bigger parts and they weren’t exploited in the movies. So we’re all trying to change that now. We’ve all grown up. We have to make more movies from women’s points of view and from just a deeper meaning—something that’s not just titillating and exciting. We’re in a new era now where with a lot of the filmmakers and storytellers out there, it’s important to be honorable in the way they tell their stories today and not be as exploitative as we were in the ‘80s. We hopefully grow up from that experience.
What keeps you coming back to the horror genre?
I think I was just lucky enough to be in a couple of movies that did really well in the ‘80s and became cult classics over time. That assured me a little bit of a career for a longer period of time maybe. I think it’s harder today. I have a nephew in L.A. who’s trying to break into the business and, as we were talking about before, there’s so much content now. There are so many people doing so many projects. It’s really hard to swim to the top and raise your hand to be noticed. I thank Stuart every day for giving me a career because, if I hadn’t been in those movies, I probably wouldn’t have the career that I have today. I’ve been saying to people recently that I didn’t expect to be a horror actress. I wanted to work as an actor. I love telling stories. I just happened to be in these movies that got popular so people keep asking me to be in horror. And I guess I keep saying yes. I only realized a number of years ago when I came back with You’re Next that horror is really my home and that’s where people know me. That afforded me the opportunity to keep working. I really enjoyed the experience on You’re Next after taking a break. I had young children at home and hadn’t worked in a number of years. I had realized that being a mother is really hard and acting is really fun and I missed it so much. I decided that I would rededicate myself to the genre that had already opened its arms to me and said, “You’re welcome here.” I made it known to my agent and my manager—who hadn’t lost my number over these seven or so years—that I would really like to work again. It just sort of started happening. I like horror now more than ever because you can tell every story in a horror context: crime, love, thriller… It’s everything. It affords a lot of highs and lows. It’s a genre that everybody is aware of and likes and is always around and always seems to make money. We’re never for a lack of an audience with horror. So here I find myself.