Barbara Crampton: My life in horror, from Re-Animator to Beyond the Gates
Actress Barbara Crampton played the role of Trista Evans Bradford for several stints on NBC's daytime soap Days of Our Lives and can claim many other non-horror credits. But to genre fans, she is known, and beloved, for starring in a slew of big screen terror tales including 1985's Re-Animator, 1986's Chopping Mall, and 2015's You're Next. It is no surprise then to find out the actress is curating this Halloween season a collection of films for the streaming service IFC Films Unlimited (where you will also find another Crampton-featuring frightfest, Beyond the Gates). Nor is it a shock to discover this tireless booster of the horror genre has included three out-and-out terror tales — The Babadook, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and the Wales-set A Dark Song — in her selection, along with the horror-comedy Witching and Bitching and the drama Dheepan.
"They wanted someone to curate October and Halloween for them," says the actress, whose upcoming horror projects include the Norway-set Sacrifice and the Travis Stevens-directed Jakob's Wife. "Since my name and what I do for work is so much a part of October celebrations they just thought, Let’s ask Barbara! I felt, as an ambassador for the horror genre, it was important for me to pick five movies that have an element of something tragic or horrible or had a fantastic story. I picked three of my favorite movies on their platform. The Autopsy of Jane Doe, The Babadook, and A Dark Song. I love all three of those."
Of course, Crampton's own filmography features tragedy, horribleness, and the fantastical aplenty. Below, the actress talks about some of her own horror highlights.
Barbara Crampton's first horror film, and first collaboration with the late director Stuart Gordon, was this hilariously gore-filled H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, which costars Bruce Abbott and Jeffrey Combs as a scientist hellbent on bringing the dead back to life.
BARBARA CRAMPTON: I came in on a second round of auditions for the role of Meg, because the girl who won the part in the first round of auditions — that I wasn’t part of — turned it down after her mother read the script. She was offered the part, her mother read the script, and said "Oh, no. You're not doing this." Jeffrey Combs already had the part and I was brought in to read, and Bruce was there. I spent three hours at that audition. It was prophetic of the things that were to come, because Stuart really worked with me on the scenes and worked with Bruce and Jeffrey. We would do a scene and he would give us some adjustments and say, "Okay, go back out, and think about that, and work on the scene, and come back in." I remember thinking that Jeffrey and Bruce were so good that I hoped they got the parts. Not knowing that Jeffrey actually had the film and he was auditioning me too in a way. So, I won the part and then we rehearsed for three weeks at my house, because for some reason I had the biggest living room, and then we shot the film.
CHOPPING MALL (1986)
The actress plays one of several friends terrorized by malfunctioning robots in this '80s cult classic.
BC: You can tell by watching that film, we had a lot of fun. We were basically playing heightened versions of ourselves, these teenagers who were in a mall, hanging out at night and having a party. I made friends with all the people on the set and we all loved each other so much. It was so fun. It’s a cheesy, really over the top, fun movie and to my delight and confusion it seems to be a fan favorite and just seems to get more popular as the years go by.
FROM BEYOND (1986)
Crampton reunited with Gordon and Combs for another Lovecraft adaptation, about a machine which creates a gateway between dimensions.
BC: We went to Italy to do From Beyond. I kind of switched roles with Jeffrey Combs. I became the doctor and he became a more pseudo-reasonable person. Stuart really molded everybody’s characters. He was like a football coach on the sidelines, cheering you on and always asking you to attack your role with more depth, more crying, more screaming, more emotion. Jeffrey and I would always say, “More is not enough for you.” He just wanted that fullness to his movies. I think because of the way he directed me, and all of the players he’s worked with, you know you’re in a Stuart Gordon film. There’s an intensity, an operatic feel to it. It’s big and it’s bold and it goes places a lot of people won’t go, especially in today’s acting world, where people are trying to be as natural as possible for the most part. Stuart always wanted to be big and impressive and bold.
CASTLE FREAK (1995)
Crampton and Combs play a couple who inherit an Italian castle, in another Gordon-directed, Lovecraft-inspired horror tale.
BC: By the time we got to Castle Freak, we had a great shorthand with one another. I always appreciated the fact that, you know, Lovecraft did not have a lot of women in his stories, but Stuart always adapted Lovecraft to put a stronger narrative than was in the original stories and he always wanted to include a woman. And that was me, I was the lucky one! Castle Freak is a different tone. More real, darker, more intense, sad. There was basically no levity in Castle Freak at all. It was a really dark film. So, that was interesting. Stuart always wanted to do something different. He didn’t want to just capitalize on what he had done before. All of his films have a different feel to them.
YOU'RE NEXT (2011)
Crampton stepped away from acting for several years to raise her children but was lured back to appear in director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett's darkly comedic home invasion movie.
BC: It was really a turning point in my career and my life and one that I didn’t see coming. I hadn’t talked to my agent in six years. He hadn’t dropped me from his roster, which a lot of agents do if you have an actor who hasn’t worked in a while. I got a call from him and I said, "Oh, Mike, you haven't lost my number!" He said, "No. In fact, I have an offer for you to be the matriarch-mom in this horror movie." I was dumbfounded. I said, "Well, don’t they want me to audition?" He said, "No, they just want to hire you." To me, that just seemed unreal. I kept pushing back on it, going, "Well, wait a minute, who are the producers, and the director, and why would they want me anyway? I don’t understand this!" My agent said, "Look, do you want the part or not?" At that point in my life, I was thinking, motherhood is really hard and acting is really fun. It’s true! My kids were little at the time, and they’re less than two years apart, and I thought, yeah, this would be a really fun departure for me. Why don’t I just go and have a good time? I thought, this film will go nowhere probably but I’ll have a good time.
I showed up on set and every person was more incredible than the next. AJ Bowen, you couldn’t tell where the acting began and real-life stopped, because he was so real. Joe Swanberg was a master at improv and Amy Seimetz was crying these real tears. I just thought to myself, these people are the future, and they’re all incredible, and I hope I’m as good as they are. I had the best time of my life. It was really just like an epiphany. I said, Oh, I just love acting and I really want to get back into it. Even before the movie went to the Toronto Film Festival, and did so well, and got bought by a bidding war, I knew that I wanted to come back to the genre because of the experience that I had on that film. I said to my agent, "Thank you for not dropping me, I want to get back into the business, could you please look for some more roles for me?"
WE ARE STILL HERE (2015)
In Ted Geoghegan's directorial debut, Crampton and Andrew Sensenig play grieving parents who move into a remote farmhouse which may actually still occupied by something.
BC: I met Ted Geoghegan when we were doing publicity on You’re Next. He was part of that team and he and I became friends. He sent me the script for We Are Still Here, just to ask my opinion of the material. I said, "I love it, it’s great, you should really try to do this script." A few months later, he called me and said, "I think we have some money from for this and we’re going to shoot the film and would you like to play one of the roles?" And I said, "Yeah of course!" I could have played the Lisa Marie role or the role of the mom who lost her son in an auto accident and — maybe because I’m a mom — I picked that role. I said, "This is meaningful to me." Then, a month later, he said, "We have the money and we start in two weeks. So get on a plane."
It was freezing. It was freezing. The house that we were in was actually in Palmyra, New York, just outside of Rochester and they had two wood stoves for this 3,000 square foot old farmhouse. It was freezing the whole time. It was 17 below a lot of days and the camera froze when we were filming outside, so we’d have to stop, bring the camera inside, it would warm up and we'd bring it out, and shoot for ten minutes, and it would freeze again and we'd have to bring it back in. It was a hard show.
BEYOND THE GATES (2016)
Crampton portrays Evelyn, the host of an evil VCR board game, in filmmaker Jackson Stewart's gory spookfest, which costars Brea Grant, Chase Williamson, and Graham Skipper.
BC: I had met Jackson through Stuart Gordon at Reanimator: The Musical. Jackson and I just hit it off. He called me one day and said, I’m wondering if you would come in and help me produce Beyond the Gates." So, I read the script, and I loved it. I though, Hmm, I could play Evelyn. He said, "Oh, no, no, I have somebody else in mind for that." I said, "Oh, okay, well, that’s fine." So, we filmed the sequences with the other actress on the television screen and everything was wrong — nothing wrong with the actress, but the set didn’t look right and we were trying to degrade the footage to look like it was on VHS and it just didn’t look right. The actress doesn’t live in Los Angeles, she lives in Atlanta, she had gone back. We had a very low budget, so we couldn’t fly her back to redo it. Jackson said, "You have to come in and do the role. Because we have to reshoot all this stuff!" I was like, "Holy s---, oh my god, okay." So I quickly learned the lines and then shot it the next day. We modeled that character after Barbara Steele in Black Sunday. Just never blinking, and intense all the time, and speaking in an authoritative voice. We did it really on the fly and it just worked. The movie did very well and we sold it to IFC!
We need to make Beyond the Gates II. I’m actually trying to make that happen. So much time has gone by, but I think we could still do it.