Barbara Crampton was a horror icon before her comeback role in 2011’s “You’re Next,” a film that reignited her career in a way that made her legendary all over again. The star of “Re-Animator,” “From Beyond,” and “We Are Still Here” has worked consistently since that comeback and landed one of her biggest roles to date in Travis Stevens’ “Jakob’s Wife,” opening on VOD this week. Crampton plays Anne, the wife of a small-town Minister named Jakob, played by another legend, Larry Fessenden. Anne’s life changes when she meets “The Master,” a creature of the night who turns this average housewife into something very far from average and reawakens something long dormant inside her. Just before the film’s SXSW premiere, Crampton got on the line to talk about how COVID has changed horror, what she likes about the genre now, how she developed Anne, and even her favorite role.
What’s it been work like for you in the age of COVID?
It’s not that bad. I’ve been on two sets where I’ve been filming something. One in Atlanta and one in Las Vegas, and everybody handled it really well. I felt completely safe. They have the COVID Compliance Officer. You’re tested a couple times a week. You’re tested before you get on the plane. Once you arrive, they test you again. Everybody is wearing a mask until you’re acting—in rehearsals and everything. I felt fine. I worked on “Creepshow” in Atlanta, and there’s a lot of people on that set, and they haven’t had any instances of anybody getting COVID.
I talked to people last year who expressed concern about what this would do to low-budget productions because it now has to be included in the financial bottom line and it’s not cheap.
That’s what it is. As if our budgets weren’t small enough, now we have to add like 15 or 20 thousand dollars? That’s a lot of money. But they have to do it.
I worry that it will impact the viability of these projects. Do you worry about that?
I do worry about that, and I also worry because margins are shrinking. People aren’t paying as much for content now. In some instances, there are protections for big stars. But it’s the little guys and the little streamers and for new filmmakers coming up now—I don’t know how they make it work. It’s a puzzle every time.
You used to just be able to pick up a camera and make a movie and now you legally can’t in most of the country.
Let’s get to “Jakob’s Wife.” The basic: What attracted you to this part?
I really liked the story. I read it about five years ago. It won a screenplay contest at ShriekFest in Los Angeles. It’s written by Mark Steensland and he won an award for it. And Denise Gossett and he both reached out to me because they heard I was producing a bit, but also because they thought the lead character could be a nice vehicle for me. And I immediately took to it. I loved it. It’s a woman who is long-married, and she’s in an unsatisfying union, and she has a chance encounter with “The Master.” When she gets bitten, it reveals a passion and a lust for life to her that had been previously buried.
There’s something about this story that I connected to on a deeper level because I had left the business for a long time when I was in my mid-30s. I wasn’t getting many parts. I didn’t have anything to audition for. I thought, “OK, that’s it, I’m done.” I was fortunate enough to meet the man of my dreams and get married, and I have a great home life and family life.
But then when I got called back to do “You’re Next,” that was like Anne getting bitten by a vampire. It reignited my passion for the whole process of filmmaking and for acting. I was so inspired by all those amazing filmmakers that came together to work on this movie together. It was like a chance encounter with Adam Wingard! I decided at that time that I wanted to rededicate myself to my career and to the horror genre specifically.
So I have been actively seeking roles for myself and projects that were interesting to develop and produce. I have been dabbling in producing for the last couple years. So when I got this script, it just spoke to me, about my own personal experience and the business. The character of Anne and what she was going through—just sort of settling and not feeling empowered as a woman or a person, and then this tragic thing happens, and it reignites her passion for life.
I felt like this was a story I wanted to tell. There were discussions over the five years like “What if we got a big budget? This would be great for Susan Sarandon.” I would have been happy to tell that story too. I would have been happy to have Susan Sarandon in the part. But when everything came together for the financing and then we had Travis on board, we decided to make it at a budget level that made sense to have me in the title role.
Were you actively searching for a lead? A lot has been made about this being a rare lead role for you. Was that something you wanted and how is that different?
Not necessarily. I just really liked the story and the character. It didn’t matter to me that I was lead. There are movies I have in development now with the same company that produced this—there’s some great scripts we’re developing—and it all comes down to the story and the script. There’s potential for me to play a couple of small roles in some of them. One I could have a bigger role. It doesn’t really matter to me. I’ve been doing supporting roles forever, and I’m OK with that. Every once in a while, I get a bigger role like in “Re-Animator” or “From Beyond” or “You’re Next.” That really brought me back. I was grateful to be included. And “We Are Still Here” also gave me a real nice role as well. And then this one! So every once in a while, I get the chance to really spread my wings a little bit.
And this reunited you with Larry. It seems to me that believing in that relationship is essential to the success of the film. You have to believe history, back story. How much did you work on that with Larry, and does it make it easier because you two know each other so well?
It was very important to cast somebody in the role of Jakob that was somebody that I had a good rapport with and had a good rapport with me. There was a lot of names that we talked about over the two-year period, but, from the very beginning, we had Larry in mind and we kept coming back to Larry. It just made the most sense.
Our stories are similar. We’ve both in the business for a very long time. We’re both long married. We’ve both played a lot of second banana parts. It’s nice to also give Larry a part where he can shine. He has the capability and he’s not often given that role of being a leading man. He’s a leading man in this. On so many levels, it made sense to us, and so we always kept coming back to Larry. Finally, when we had to really make our final decision, we had talked about other people, but it had to be Larry!
We’ve known each other for years now. I’ve done a few of his radio shows—"Tales from Beyond the Pale.” I’ve done a few of those projects with him. We’ve kept in touch. When we finally said, “Larry, this is really happening. We really have the money. Travis is directing. We have a location. We have a start date. It’s yours!” He was excited and I was excited.
We did come up with some back stories for our characters. In some ways, they aligned, and in some ways they didn’t, but that’s kind of like life, isn’t it? I see my life differently than my husband sees my life. So we shared stories with one another. We wrote like a minibiography. We shared them with each other. And we went, “I see it a little differently than you. OK.” We talked through it further with Travis, who was instrumental in trying to develop some sort of glue that would hinge the stories together.
We really worked on it a lot before we got to set. And then when we were in set, Larry and I shared a house together. Just Larry and I, as if we were a married couple, in separate bedrooms. We were with each other 24 hours a day, except for sleeping. Every night, we had dinner together. Every night, we talked about the next day’s scenes and what we could do to illuminate the truth and also make it fun and interesting. Larry and I are kind of showmen. We want to entertain you. We talked about what we could do to make it interesting for viewers but also illuminate the characters.
What makes Travis different as a director?
Travis knows everything about every aspect of filming. He knows a lot about makeup and special effects and budget and how the camera works, and he’s been dabbling in editing over the past number of years. And he co-edited this film. I feel like the best filmmakers today are hyphenates. That’s what I found out on “You’re Next.” All those people are hyphenates. Ti West is an actor in the movie but he’s also a producer and a director and a writer. Same for Adam Wingard being an editor and cinematographer and director. And then you look at somebody like Travis, who’s been in the trenches. He worked in distribution in his early years. Then he was a producer.
He became a producer in his own right, working with other directors to develop their own stories. He just knows a lot of stuff. He comes with a great foundation of how to tell a story and how to help everybody on the set do their best at whatever their job is. And he clearly has been around actors for a very long time. He’s very good with talking with Larry and I about the story and our character and what we’re trying to get out of it and what we want to focus on in every scene. He has a great point of view about what works as far as the camera and where you want it to be. He’s completely hands-on with the cinematographer. I feel like he makes everything better because he just knows so much! To be a hyphenate in today’s day and age really helps you—to know a little bit about all the different workings of putting a movie together.
I feel like nobody has just one job anymore.
I feel like you can do it in television a bit more because there’s an infrastructure to support you. They have editors. They have the music person and the composer that’s working on that show. With a movie, you’re reinventing the wheel every single time almost. You have to have people around you that know a lot about what’s really going on, and I feel like Travis has done that.
How have things changed since the horror films you made in the ‘80s? Or have we just answered that question in terms of multi-faceted creatives? There was always a DIY aspect to this genre but how has that changed?
Everybody stayed in their lane back then. Stuart Gordon was the director. And he hired an actor. And he had his DP Mac Ahlberg. It was the studio he was working with, Empire Pictures, and others later on. I was an actor and I waited for the phone to ring. You were in unions and you’d wait for a call from somebody. Now, I do feel like it’s more DIY than ever. You really have to do it yourself. You have to prove yourself. You have to work your way up in that regard.
Is that a good thing for horror?
(Thinks.) I think so. Yeah. I don’t think it’s bad. I think it’s difficult in any business to start out. They say it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in anything. I think that’s true in the horror genre. I feel like people get anxious about their position and where they are when they’re starting in their profession, but I think people need to just relax and concentrate on the work and not be so worried about what everybody else is looking like on their social media. This person got this. This person is doing that. I should be there too. Whatever.
The truth is that you never know when your break is going to come. I wasn’t working for eight years before “You’re Next.” And that was another big break for me. I think if you’re in the filmmaking business, it’s a long game. You keep doing it for a very long time.
It sounds to me like you were inspired by your collaborators on that project and that made it so you didn’t just walk away again. I’m trying to get at how this period in horror and your life has been different.
It’s easier to make a movie now, right? Everything is digital. It feels like it doesn’t cost as much. I think collaboration has always been there, even from the beginning of film, but I think now it’s even more so because the collaborations come with people who are hyphenates. Like Travis and like me now as a producer, there’s things I’m learning that I didn’t know that help me in every single aspect of the business. Understanding the whole piece rather than just my little part of it.
Do you watch any of your older films? Do you have favorites?
I only watch them when people make me. (Laughs.) They do these Zoom watch parties where fans will say on Twitter, “We’re going to watch 'Chopping Mall' tonight—will you watch and tweet along with us?” And I’ve done that a few times. But I don’t think I can watch “Chopping Mall” again for a long time. It was the 35th anniversary and Kelli Maroney was doing something and they asked me to join and I just couldn’t do it again. But I appreciate that really these cult favorites have even gained more momentum over the years. They’re more popular than they were at the time.
I don’t normally watch my old movies. Once in a while, but not that often, unless people want me to—tweets, Joe Bob Briggs, that kind of thing. The movie that’s really close to my heart, even more than “Re-Animator,” is “From Beyond.” That role and that part gave me an opportunity to explore so many facets of one person, and what she goes through and how she changes through what happens to her. It was one of the most fulfilling roles of my career. I’d say that was probably my favorite.
“Jakob’s Wife” is on VOD on Friday, April 16th.