Horror Icon Barbara Crampton on Her Career Resurgence & the Changing World of Women in Horror

     March 8, 2017

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Barbara Crampton is in the midst of a full-blown career resurgence. As a young actress, Crampton earned a permanent place in the hearts of horror fans with her work in 1980s genre classics like Re-Animator, Chopping Mall and From Beyond. In the following years, the 90s and early 2000s yielded plentiful work in the realm of soap operas, where Crampton played arcs on soap staples The Young and The Restless, and The Bold and The Beautiful, and Guiding Light. Then the roles dried up, as they tend to do for women in Hollywood once they reach a certain age — mid-to-late thirties specifically, the actress netherworld wherein they’re deemed too old to play the love interest (i.e., the last fuckable day) and too young to play the matriarch.

And so, Crampton took a break from the industry with a “self-imposed retirement” until she got what she describes as the best call she’s received to date; an offer to appear in Adam Wingard‘s home invasion revamp, You’re Next. It was a triumphant return, not only to film but to the genre that always embraced her, at a time when the filmmakers who grew up watching her early movies are finally making films of their own. Since then, Crampton has been on full blast, appearing in more than ten films in the years since — primarily independent horror films like We Are Still Here, Sun Choke, and Beyond the Gates, roles that allow her to support up and coming filmmakers while playing what she says are the best roles she’s been offered in career. At the same time, Crampton has doubled down on her passion for filmmaking as a producer and fully embraced her role as a creator and voice in the horror community.

I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Crampton about her recent career boom and why she’s so committed to fostering young filmmakers and carving out better roles for women, on-screen and behind the camera. With Women in Horror Month just behind us, for which she curated a guest selection on Shudder, we dug deep on how women’s role in the genre have changed over the course of her career, the state of women in horror today, and the exciting female voices emerging throughout the genre right now. We also talked about the female-driven vampire movie she’s developing, the status of the werewolf pic The Wildness (written by former Collider crew Evan Dickson), and her lasting memories from working on her most iconic films. Read the full interview below.

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Image via Dark Sky.

The last time I talked with you was for We Are Still Here, and you have been keeping busy since then!

CRAMPTON: I have been, yeah! It’s an exciting time for me, and I’m grateful to be working more now than at any other time in my career. I returned to the business with You’re Next, after an absence to raise my children.  I think it really took me working on We Are Still here for people to go, “Oh, OK, she’s back.”

The last thing I saw you in was the delightful movie Little Sister, which I loved. But I don’t necessarily think of Barbara Crampton to play a nun straight of the top of my head, so how did that role come along for you? And what are the types of roles that you find yourself getting called for these days?

CRAMPTON:  That call from director Zach Clark, actually came through Ted Geoghegan, who directed We Are Still Here.  Zach and Ted are friends. It’s very difficult to put together an independent movie and a lot of times people really don’t hire casting directors for that. Instead, they look for people that they’ve seen in other movies or they’re friends with, and Zach had seen me in Ted’s movie. He reached out to Ted. “Can I have her number?  I’m interested in for a role, and I really enjoyed your movie.” So Ted just emailed me and said, “my buddy Zach is going to contact you, is that OK?” So that’s how that happened.

I think the kind of roles I’m getting are probably, to me collectively, more interesting than I’ve ever had before. Of course, when I was younger I loved the parts I played, especially in Re-Animator and to a larger degree From Beyond. But as I’ve matured, the roles are a bit more layered and representative of where I am today as an older person with more responsibilities, perspective and hopefully not too may regrets. I’ve been lucky to tackle big issues in films like We Are Still Here and Sun Choke that really speak to me on a very human level. There was a period in my late 30s where work slowed down for me, as it does for a lot of women. You’re no longer the young, cute thing anymore and maybe you’re not quite old enough to play (what others think of) in terms of women in charge. I guess in society there’s no place for women in their older thirties [laughs]. We’re supposed to go sit on a shelf at some point…and wait. Maybe for others, they found continuing work at that age. I didn’t. But being an older person now, I’m finding that people are calling me to play various things. Variations on the theme of mother, caretaker, and in some cases, doctors, heads of organizations and things like that. For some people, I’m finally old enough to play those roles. We see men playing them when they’re a little bit younger, and also in roles that call for some form of conflict and violence, either generating it or trying to curtail it. Women don’t seem to be a big part of those common and often used movie themes. Superhero roles seem to be popular. I’d like to see more female superheroes. How about a grandmother superhero? I’d pay good money to see that.

One of those upcoming films that you’re working on in a different way is The Wildness, which is the project of our mutual friend Evan Dickson, and that’s come a long way since we last talked about it. What’s the experience been like working on that as a producer and how is that coming along?

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Image via Lodger Films.

CRAMPTON: Yeah, like a lot of things, there are some projects that happen very quickly. For example, when I worked on Beyond the Gates, I received a call from the director Jackson Stewart. He had been asking me about producing that movie with him for quite some time. Then he called me and said, “Look, we’re starting soon and I kind of need an answer from you.”  I was quite busy, hadn’t read the script yet, but once I did and saw that our money was coming together very quickly, we started shooting in a couple months.

With The Wildness, which Evan wrote, we’re in development with a company, but it’s a bigger budget project, so it’s taken a little bit more time for it to get off the ground. We were supposed to start shooting last winter, and because of some unforeseen things, we were delayed, and we’re hoping to shoot this year. It takes place in the winter, so we have to shoot with the snow. If we hit a few roadblocks, this timing delays us. So that’s happened a couple times with this project. But along with the production company, we’re committed to making this thing. It’s about a werewolf outbreak in Aspen, Colorado. With humor, scares and social commentary, it’s one of the best scripts I’ve read in my entire life. Evan is fantastically talented. The lead character of Walsh is an actor’s dream role. With certain projects, there are delays, and with others, things come together very quickly. It can be frustrating but it’s not uncommon, and you just have to keep a lot of things juggling and hoping all of these projects will go when all the pieces fall into place. I’m involved in a few other projects that I’m going to potentially produce and I think it will surprise even me which ones actually gain their momentum. You just have to be ready for whatever catches fire.

Has working as a producer changed the way you approach filmmaking now as an actress?

CRAMPTON: I think I’m looking at the whole piece more than I used to. When I was a young actress, I was called in just to do my part, and I didn’t have any say or weight as far as any decisions go. But today, having worked as a producer and also having lived a little, I feel like I’ve found my voice more.  I’m sure that it has influenced me as an actor and it will continue to do so. I’ve been around for a while, and I’m working with a lot young filmmakers, so people are asking me questions about things that maybe I wasn’t asked when I was 22 or 25. So yeah, it’s all influenced everything, and it’s definitely helped me to become more understanding of the whole process.

How is it been working with these young filmmakers who grew up watching your films and — I assume, if they have good taste, fans of your work?

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Image via Concorde Pictures

CRAMPTON: [Laughs] Well, thank you for that. It’s been really fun for me, and reinvigorated my love for this business. Making these movies back in the 80s, I never would have imagined that any of them would have the life that they do. It reminds me of something that one of my acting teachers told me when I was in college.  He said to treat every project as if it were Shakespeare. Don’t ever look at anything and think “This is a low-class project, so I’m not going to give it my all.” Because you might get this crazy script about a young medical student who wants to reanimate corpses after they’ve died. Well, you’d just think that premise is ridiculous; it’s silly, it’s folly! But (Re-Animator) turned out to be one of the most enduring movies I’ve been a part of. I’m very grateful that a lot of these filmmakers have seen these movies, and they’ve stood the test of time, and people like them.

It’s been a wonderful experience for me to work with these young people and to see how movies that I’ve been in have influenced them in their mindset and the kind of movies they want to make. There seems to be, right now, an ’80s throwback mentality and I’ve been a part of a few movies that have that sensibility. But also, all these filmmakers have different stories to tell and as they’re evolving over time, they’re finding their own voices and making art in a way that will reflect their own points of view from their hearts and minds. To be part of that and to help champion them in any way I can is really important to me. I love reading scripts and offering notes and opinions. I’d like to be an advocate for these emerging filmmakers whom I’m working with.

I’m getting to talk to you now as a part of Shudder’s celebration of women in horror, and you’ve had some really interesting things to say lately. I read your piece on the dated term “Scream Queen” on Birth.Movies.Death, and you’ve launched a campaign to support Planned Parenthood, so you’re obviously interested in gender perception and women’s issues. How do you think the woman’s place in horror has changed over the course of your career.

CRAMPTON:  Well I don’t think we’re the screaming femme fatale running away from danger as much as we used to be. I think people are seeing us as much more multi-layered personalities with desires, and wants, and needs as much as any male figure out there. So that’s been exciting. And we’re evolving as a culture as well and as more equality gets supplanted in society, well, in the U.S. anyway, it’s only helping us. We do have much more work to do though, in spreading awareness about where we fall short in our culture and in other cultures. I do feel, like everyone, there’s not enough female directors out there, there’s not enough female producers, and would like to see more people get more opportunity, more opportunity for roles for women. We just have to keep pressing to tell those stories.

And when I work on a piece I always think if there is an abundance of male characters which one could we change to a woman or a minority character. — I worked on something recently where I said, “We have five main characters in this script and one woman. Can we change another one of them to a woman? Why can’t she be a woman?” And the team was like, “Oh, no no no. That can’t be a woman. We can’t do that. We can’t do that.” And through a period of a couple months working on the script, something clicked and boom! …one did get changed to add another female character.  I could see it from the beginning but nobody else could until after some prodding. So you just have to keep fighting, you have to keep asking for more than just a token female character, and you have to demand the space that’s rightfully yours.

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Image via IFC Midnight/Scream Factory

When I work with filmmakers today, I’m really an advocate for the women’s roles that I see, to make them as layered and as deep as possible. I think many of them are underwritten. That being said, the people I love the most in the industry are the writers. And I think they’re the people who are most vulnerable and are really open to new ideas. They’re the originators, the creators. I do feel that when I’m dealing and talking with writers that, for the most part, they are pretty open about talking about these ideas. Real equality in films is going to take time and will directly reflect our society. So ladies, please speak up at home, at work, at school, everywhere. As more women continue to find their place in Hollywood we have to keep pushing for more dynamic and strong women’s roles.

Have you had the chance to work with any female directors or writers since you’ve come back into the industry?

CRAMPTON:  Sadly, too few. I worked with Axelle Carolyn on her Tales of Halloween segment. She was also the creator of that project and produced it along with Mike Mendez for Epic Pictures. We’ve been friends for a number of years, and I really wanted to be a part of that project because I would be working directly with her and I wanted to be a part of something that she, as a woman was creating. She’s very strong and tough and if anyone can push through, she can. I think she’s an exciting, dynamic person with very good ideas about gender equality and women’s roles. We are working on a script together now that I hope to produce along with Stephanie Trepanier and which Axelle would direct. It’s a vampire story with the central character as that of an older woman, who’s caught between two worlds and that is a metaphor for where, as a woman, she finds her place in the world. We are in rewrites currently and have some preliminary interest, and I am thrilled with how good the material is. The script, written by Mark Steensland came to me by way of Denise Gossett who is the Shriekfest festival director. She thought it would appeal to me. She was right.

Awesome. I think there’s something that the women’s march made very clear, which is that we have the numbers. There are a lot of us out there to buy tickets to things that appeal to our interests.

CRAMPTON:  Right. I think if you tell a good story that’s reflective of people’s inner worlds in a truthful way, all people will respond. We do need more stories about women and hopefully incorporate more women, minorities into all aspects of the process. I was really happy to read an article in the New York Times that Ryan Murphy is committed to upping to “half” the about of female and minority directors on his shows.

Who are some of the female filmmakers working in the genre whose work you admire and enjoy?

CRAMPTON: Well, I’m really looking at Roxanne Benjamin right now and thinking that she’s going to be a stronger voice on the scene. She’s cut her teeth on a lot of different aspects of filmmaking over the years and made two impressive shorts, which were part of anthologies. I think she’s more than ready to tell a big story.  I also have high hopes for Jovanka Vuckovic; I believe she’s a fierce filmmaker who has some good stories to tell. Jennifer Kent blew me away with The Babadook. A deft view into the mind of a single mother whose inner demons get the better of her. When are we going to hear about her next movie going into production? People should be throwing money her way. I love the supportive energy the Soska sisters foster in regards to the entire industry. Looking forward to Ana Lily Amirpour’s new film The Bad Batch after the impressive feature debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.  And, of course, Karyn Kusama. After a bit of an unfair absence, she’s come back with an assured vengeance, and I think she’s really made her mark and she’s not going away soon. This woman can tell a big story or a small one with clarity and vision and beauty. Raw by Julia Ducournau is on my radar, although I’ve yet to see it.

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Image via Empire Pictures

As someone who is now both friends with and working with a lot of up and coming filmmakers, and has seen the low-budget, independent process at work, what would you say to young female filmmakers who are trying to get into genre filmmaking?

CRAMPTON: Have you gone to film school? Help others with their films. Volunteer, intern. Make some shorts. Tell a personal story. What can you make a film about that others aren’t talking about? Make sure your script is great, but allow room for it to change a bit with your collaborators. Ask people to read it and give notes. Ask for favors. Don’t talk about it for too long. Tony Robbins famously said that successful people don’t make fewer mistakes than others, but they do take action more often. Take risks. Be bold. Go to film festivals and meet other filmmakers and actors. If I meet you and like you, I’ll want to help you no matter what aspect of the business I’m working in. I did Tales of Halloween for no money to work with and help Axelle. Beyond the Gates got made because of the single-minded focus and determination of Jackson Stewart who pressed everyone to work with him, including me. He wouldn’t take no for an answer in terms of financing and favors to get it made. He was unwavering and undaunted.  I look at people like Mickey Keating. He is a force of nature. He keeps making films, one after the other. How is he doing it? I’m not sure but he keeps creating. Do that. You’ll learn so much by taking action while saying, “action!”

You’ve been working in horror for a long time now, but I imagine some of those early roles were mostly the result of finding work as an actor. Now horror filmmaking has obviously become a big part of your life. How has your appreciation of the genre changed over the years as you’ve become a more active member of the horror community?

CRAMPTON: As a young actor I took the roles which were offered to me. Fortunately, a couple of those were big hits. Since coming back on the scene with You’re Next, I have committed myself to acting and producing. Although I’m up for working in any genre, I do love the passion and dynamic storytelling that horror stories can provide. Dealing with big questions and possibilities of all sorts of stories with life and death consequences is enthralling and exhilarating to me. I hope to be on the scene for a long time. I’d love to be old and gray and still be working in this genre. Being the ‘Betty White” of horror is very appealing to me. This community of horror with the advantages of connection via social media and film festivals has made me feel part of something larger. This is a very smart and engaging community that really fosters growth and support in a way that was not available to me as a young actor. I’d like to continue to be a member of this encouraging group of people and do my part to help other filmmakers and continue to make movies which delight, entertain and provoke deep emotional feelings and continue to ask honest questions about humanity.

What is the strongest lasting memory you have from making Body Double?

CRAMPTON: Brian De Palma had you do the same thing over and over again in a relaxed setting trying to find that spark of magic, which hopefully would happen organically. He was very patient and kind. My part in the original script was larger. I had two additional scenes with dialogue. They were cut the night before I was to arrive on set. I decided to do that one scene anyway, in order to work with him.

Re-Animator?

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Image via Empire International Pictures

CRAMPTON: We rehearsed for three weeks before filming began. I made more money in overtime than on my salary. We worked 14-16 hour days many times. Stuart was relentless on not finishing the day until he got what he wanted. That attitude paid off. I was really fond of my co-star Bruce Abbott. My affection and respect for him, Jeffrey and Stuart remain to this day. I adore them all.

What about Chopping Mall?

CRAMPTON: The movie took place at night in a mall. I didn’t realize that meant we had to SHOOT at night. I was surprised when the call sheet said to come to set at 6:00 pm. I didn’t understand the concept of “night shoots.”

And finally, You’re Next?

CRAMPTON: The biggest surprise and gift of my career. With a call out of the blue after a self-imposed retirement, I came back, with some of the most talented people working in genre and independent movies today, A. J. Bowen floored me with his naturalness, Amy Seimetz amazed me with her conviction, Joe Swanberg wowed me with his spontaneity.  Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett were so fun and edgy and collaborative. Keith Calder and Jessica Wu were more knowledgeable than any producers I’ve ever worked with.  Sharni Vinson was the best final girl I’d ever seen! Along with them and others in the film, working with Ti, Nicholas, Wendy and Margaret and Rob, I was inspired to think about coming back to the business. The set was electric and synergistic. To date the greatest phone call I received.

(Editors Note: This interview was conducted over phone and email. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

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