The Horror Icon in the Midst of a Major Comeback

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The credits to Adam Wingard’s 2011 home-invasion thriller You’re Next read like a who’s who of the independent horror film world, with a cast that includes A.J. Bowen, Simon Barrett, Amy Seimetz, Larry Fessenden, and Ti West. But it’s another name that stands out, one tied to an earlier era of horror: Barbara Crampton. Horror fans hadn’t seen Crampton in a while when she made her return to the genre with Wingard’s film. They’ve had a hard time missing her ever since. After slowing down in the 2000s to the point that frequent collaborator Stuart Gordon thought she’d retired, Crampton has stayed busy this decade. IMDb currently lists 16 feature credits over the last seven years, and Crampton can currently be found in the newly released Dead Night, playing a politician with a hidden agenda revealed to one hapless family who encounters her one night in the woods.

Crampton has begun to work as a producer on films like the well-liked Beyond the Gates, a role that’s given her more control than she found in the first phase of her career. Beginning in the early ’80s, Crampton bounced between work in soap operas like Days of Our Lives and Guiding Light and feature films as varied as Brian De Palma’s Body Double and Fraternity Vacation. But it’s her appearances in horror films that’s led to lasting fame, starting with Gordon’s 1985 film Re-Animator, in which she played a luckless woman who at one point is held captive and menaced by the severed head of a revived corpse, a notorious scene famously referenced in American Beauty.

Crampton had ambitions beyond being a scream queen, which she was able to realize in some of her subsequent work with Gordon. In a genre in which helpless heroines came and went without making an impression, Crampton was always memorable. That makes her comeback, which sees her taking on a wider variety of roles, all the more welcome. From a festival in Korea, Crampton spoke to Vulture about her past, her ambitions for the future, and how horror has changed since her early days.

Your Dead Night character is not very nice. When you’re playing her, do you play her as someone who knows that she’s evil?
Yeah! I think she doesn’t care that she’s evil. I think she knows that she’s not nice, but she says it’s her turn. She relishes the fact that she’s in control and nothing can stop her. So I don’t actually think that she thinks that she’s not being nice. It’s just who she is. She’s taking over. When you take over, you have to mow people down. So that was my thinking in attacking the role.

One of the happiest surprises I’ve had in a movie in the last few years was seeing your name in the credits for You’re Next. You’ve worked steadily since then. What made you decide to throw yourself back into it?
I was very lucky to get that call on You’re Next. At that time, I didn’t really think I was throwing myself back in, because it was another independent movie, and I didn’t know if it was gonna go anywhere. I hadn’t worked in a while. I was taking care of my children. They were a lot younger then, when we did that movie. I really wasn’t thinking about coming back to acting at all.

I had hit my late 30s, and the roles had dried up for me, like they do with a lot of women. So I was going along with my life and not thinking about my career at all, and that call came out of the blue when I was on a little vacation. I read the script and I thought, “Oh, this is a nice movie. It seems like it’s fun.” I think I was just lucky to be cast in a role and in a movie that really did so completely well and really jump-started the careers of so many wonderful people, like Joe Swanberg and Adam Wingard and Amy Seimetz. They are all working consistently and at the top of their game now. I was just lucky that they happened to think of me! It was Simon Barrett, the writer, who said, “We’d really like to have somebody who’s a horror known person from the past to play either one or both parents.” Simon had met Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs at Fantastic Fest a number years of before, so I think I just popped into his head that he said, “Well, jeez, how about Barbara Crampton?” I think at the time he called Stuart Gordon, or I don’t know if he spoke to him at Fantastic Fest, and said, “What’s Barbara Crampton doing?” Stuart says, “Well, she’s retired. She’s not really acting anymore.” It was really because nobody was hiring me! So, I did the part, and those people were all so wonderful and engaging and inventive and collaborative that it really reinspired me to come back to acting.

After I did that job — I was on that set for 11 days — I came back and said to my agent, who thankfully hadn’t lost my number in the seven or eight years I hadn’t really worked, and said, “I really want to come back to acting. So, if there’s anything after this, or whatever … think of me. I’d really like to work again.” After the movie came out, people just started calling me. Here I find myself working again, steadily as you said, and I’m having the time of my life.

You work with a lot of people who are starting out. Do they look to you for advice?
I think that in terms of storytelling, the most important thing to me that I try to impress upon the filmmakers is that you’ve got to have a beginning, middle, and end to your story, and you’ve got to have something that has a sense of heart or a sense of emotional connection to it, and a sense of likability somewhere, even if you’re a villain. In a bigger picture, that’s probably the most general thing I can say to you, but in little, specific moments, or things that might happen on the set, and mostly because my background and my strength is acting, it’s mostly about the scene work, or the acting, or if the scene’s working, do we need to change this, how can we alter this to benefit the whole narrative?

You’ve always kind of shifted gears, though. I don’t know too many other actors that went back and forth between soap operas and feature films the way you did.
I kept acting those jobs because they paid so well. I’m very practical in that way. Again, I didn’t mean to become a soap opera actress, but they kept asking me and hiring me, so I kept saying yes because, I thought, well … I mean, back in the ’80s, the low-budget independent movies did pay a lot better than they do now, but still, television paid a lot more. Still does! So anytime anybody asked me if I wanted to be on a soap opera, I always said yes, because I wanted to put that money in the bank and have it be able to hold me over for the next dry spell. That seemed to really work for me quite well.

It is kind of a strange back and forth because I was really able to do it, and it didn’t seem to harm my movie career in any way, and I continued to do movies and soap operas for 12 to 15 years. It’s funny because a lot of the movies in the beginning of my career are a little bit melodramatic, especially the Stuart Gordon movies; he came from the theater, so he has a sense of bigness to his movies. You know, like Re-Animator, like From Beyond, like Castle Freak. The soap operas are a little melodramatic, so it wasn’t maybe so far away as far as the acting is concerned.

If I had to guess, I would guess you probably got recognized more for the soap operas then and more for the horror movies now.
I would say that’s true. Back then I used to get upgraded on airlines all the time because all the flight attendants were watching soap operas. They would fly somewhere and sleep in and during the day they would have the soap operas on.

Re-Animator was controversial at the time of its release. Do you feel like the controversy helped sell it?
Well, Stuart is not one to shy away from controversy and shock. A lot of people have read things about him so that’s no secret. It’s funny, at the time that that came out, it was pretty shocking and controversial, especially for some scenes that I was part of, and just for the movie itself, you know, marrying the comedy and the horror together in such a beautiful, seamless way.

But also there was a dismissive quality around people in the industry about that movie, so much so that it bled into even my representatives at the time, because it really exploded and did so well, and we got such great reviews from people like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert. I mentioned to my agents, “Wow, this is it. This is my breakout piece. This is going to garner a lot of attention. Can I get some meetings? Can we try to up my profile in the industry?” Blah blah blah. My agents were like, “Well, jeez, it’s kind of a cheesy horror movie, I dunno.” Now, when I’m brought into a room or I’m introduced as the girl from Re-Animator, people take notice, but I don’t think it really helped my career at that time. It has helped my career over time.

You’ve been in the industry for a long time. How have you seen horror changing for women, roles for women and roles within in the industry, in your time?
Well, we’re all sort of waking up from our slumber and realizing that we haven’t done justice to women. I think I grew up in a time in the business when slasher movies were big, and the females were not as active, and maybe not as in the forefront of the dynamics of overcoming the evil and things like that. We were the supportive girlfriend. I was the supportive girlfriend in Re-Animator! I think that it definitely has evolved over time, or at least we’re so much more aware of it now, and I think, frankly, we’re tired of telling the same old stories. We can’t continue with the supportive girlfriend and the screaming heroine. We’re not doing that. The stories are getting more interesting and more multilayered and I feel like horror is crossing over to so many other genres. We’re mixing things. Females are at the forefront of a lot of very complex narratives, and I’m just more thrilled about it than ever. I hope I last long enough, because I’m getting older, that I reap some more benefits from that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Horror Icon in the Midst of a Major Comeback