Actress Barbara Crampton is a horror icon, She made her movie debut in Brian DePalma’s 1984 thriller Body Double before segueing into horror, going on to star in many of the genre’s most beloved films over the last thirty-five years. Films like Re-Animator, Chopping Mall and Castle Freak sit alongside a plethora of television shows as varied as Hotel, The Young & The Restless and The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air.
Crampton recently starred in the gloriously OTT Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, a fresh instalment of the franchise in which she first appeared in 1989. She’s also writing for the recently resurrected Fangoria magazine and producing a Castle Freak remake.
Movies In Focus caught up with her to talk about her recent work and what it’s like to have such a long and varied career in cinema’s most popular genre.
I absolutely adored Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich movie. It was such a brave piece of filmmaking and great fun. What was it like being in it and how did you get involved?
Because I was in the first Puppet Master, I guess the people at Cinestate, Dallas Sonnier, thought of me and wanted me to be a part of the new world of Puppet Master. It’s my understanding that when somebody takes over the rights to a movie they don’t allow the original creator to carry on with their own universe, but Dallas Sonnier offered Charlie Band some financial compensation to take over the rights in his own universe and turn it into his own universe but also allowing Charlie to continue on with his. So this new Puppet Master is sort of a stand-alone film – I guess within the canon of the Puppet Master world due to the premise that Andre Toulon is different than the other films.
You’ve got a great role in this one. What was it like kicking so much ass – was that fun?
Yeah. I mean they also hired a lot of comedians for the movie. Thomas Lennon is the star and Nelson Franklin and Charlyne Yi and then they hired Michael Pare and myself as throwbacks to the ‘80s. I’ve been in more horror movies than Michael but he has done his fair share of cult movies. It wasn’t lost on me that even though I was going to play a badass and take-charge character, it was also a comedy. Initially I felt unsure of myself in that world because I haven’t done as much comedy as the other people but I really took my cues from Thomas Lennon and I worked with him for the first couple of days and saw that he was playing it really, really straight and really deadpan – and most of the people were. So I knew that was going to be my approach. I really enjoyed playing a deadpan, no nonsense type character which is different from who I am as a person. It was pretty fun.
It was incredibly well written, with the S. Craig Zahler script.
I think so. The thing about Craig Zahler is that he gives you, in a few lines, a great indication of who your character is and what your character is about. Sometimes I might read scripts and not be sure what the writer is going for and I could play a character a multitude of ways, but when you read something like I did with Puppet Master, I really understood this character from the get-go, as I think you get with most of his characters that you watch on the screen. You really get to see who they are and he’s very good at giving everyone a little speech or a few lines of dialogue that allow you to flex your acting muscles and usually do something interesting and different with your character. He’s very specific about every character and they’re all different.
It must be great to have a writer like that come in and tackle the horror genre.
Yeah. He’s just a very good writer and you just have to have good writers. It doesn’t really matter if you’re doing a large movie, a comedy, a thriller or a kid’s movie. You just need somebody who understands how to write and is a good writer. I don’t think you need a good horror writer for the horror genre, you just need a geat writer. Every horror story is a good story about people at its foundation.
That’s true about Puppet Master. You wanted everyone to survive, even though you knew they were probably going to die.
I think that’s true. I think someone once said long ago, and I don’t know who it was but I quote it all the time: ’Character is story and story is character’. I think there are a lot of great performances in Puppet Master. One of the best is Cuddly Bear played by Skeeta Jenkins. We all just loved him as a person and he was such a wonderful, beautiful man. He took that role and made it his own and he was just so adorable. I loved Nelson Franklin’s character and Jenny Pellicer’s character, who played the love interest. She was just so sweet and kind. I think you saw people come through.
So I think you’re right – when some of those people met their end it was kind of sad because they were too charming.
The film is pretty violent. Did you ever read anything on the page and wonder ‘how are they going to get away with that?’.
it was worse in filming – if you can believe that. Tate Steinsiek was our special effects guru and what was written on the page, – sometimes he altered what the kills were and what the deep gore was going to look like and be. He actually came up with some of the ideas of the mayhem, the gore and the kills after the script was written. So I read the script and saw how these people met their end but he took it to the next level. So a lot of those kills were really written by Tate and executed by him and he ramped that up. Everyone was so happy with his work that they offered him to be the director of the Castle Freak reboot that Dallas Sonnier’s company is also doing. So now Tate is getting his first crack at directing a feature.
You spoke about Dallas Sonnier and the crew that he puts together – he’s a man with a passion for film. What’s it like working with him?
I can’t say enough good things about him. In fact, I would do anything for him. He’s so passionate about filmmakers and movies and he’s so passionate about creators. He was Craig Zahler’s manager for a long time as a writer and Craig would get a lot of jobs writing scripts, spec scripts or rewrite a lot of top movies that you would have seen over the last few years. But Dallas is always of the mind that things get watered down the more people are involved so he started his own company because he wanted to be creator driven and creator based. He allows filmmakers to have their own voices come full force through the material, so nothing is ever watered down.
He’s given so many opportunities to women in the genre and his company in Texas has mostly women working for him and with the Castle Freak reboot, he gave myself and Amanda Presmyk (his right-hand person ) a lot of free reign when it came to giving notes on the script – that was being written by a woman. He really trusts the people that he surrounds himself with. I think he’s very clever and he doesn’t micro-manage people and lets people’s artistic talents flourish. I appreciate him on so many levels. Now he has bought Fangorgia magazine and bought the rights to that and he’s asked me to write a column for every issue, so he’s given me that opportunity. He’s also letting me be a producer on Castle Freak (I won’t have a part in it), so he’s let me flex my muscles as an actor and now as a producer and I would just do anything for the guy. I just adore him.
You said you’re also writing a column for Fangoria. How’s that going?
I’m a big proponent of lifting other people up and one of my last articles was about women in horror and how horror has given us the opportunity to be The Final Girl and have the huge multi-layered roles. But where are the masked villains that people love to hate? Why is it only the men who get to be the masked villain? Women should be behind the mask. So I wrote an article about that and talked about ladies in horror and how we deserve the same respect as the hunter and the killer as the men do.
My most recent one, which just came out, is about working with different directors and what that process is like for an actor and how we do a little dance together to find out who is leading and how to work with someone that you may not know. I invited a lot of directors to come in and we took pictures with them and set up some mock scenes and some fun photos and I got some great quotes from people about working with different directors. For me, writing this column is about lifting up other people in the genre and also explore the genre though the eyes of an actor and what it’s like to work on set and how we go through our process. It’s been a great experience for me so far. I hope I don’t run out of things to say.
That ties in recently with what you said about wanting to be the Betty White of the horror genre.
Yes! I’d like to be the Betty White of horror. I took a break from acting for a while, mostly because when I hit my late thirties people kind of weren’t asking me to be in movies anymore. I hit a low and thought, ‘I guess I’m done’ and I didn’t think about acting anymore. Then I got married and had children and didn’t really work for six or seven years at all and then I came back with You’re Next and realised how much I loved acting and I really didn’t want to give it up if people wanted to ask me to work for them again. I’ve been working pretty consistently over the last few years and I told my husband who wants to retire in a few years, that I could keep working until I’m 80 if I’m healthy and they want to keep telling stories about older people.
Now that I am older, I think I’m getting roles that are more interesting collectively than when I was younger, like From Beyond which I guess was a pretty badass role to have. I just hope I can continue to play good moms, bad moms, a grandmother at some point. I don’t know maybe a Senator. Who knows what I could play, but I’d like to keep working as long as possible in the genre that I’ve come to love and adore.