Barbara Crampton on Our Hunger for Horror in this Current Political Climate

Puppet Master Barbara Crampton

We chat with the actress about her unexpected return to the Puppet Master franchise, and the recent glut of nasty, intelligent horror films.

No matter how refined or boorish your palate may be, Barbara Crampton has contributed to every possible flavor of horror cinema one could crave. Her career began in the soaps, and she would have a long-lasting impact on The Bold and The Beautiful and The Young and The Restless, but for the film freak writing this, Crampton seized attention with a double dose of Stuart Gordon. Re-Animator and From Beyond are essential experiences for anyone dipping their toe into the oceanic genre that is horror, and Crampton’s presence there is forever seared into my sensory cortex.

The actress spent many years bouncing around the franchises of Charles Band’s Full Moon Features. Appearances in Puppet Master, Trancers II, Robot Wars, Castle Freak, and Space Truckers would secure her place in legend for a particular subset of fandom. While she never went away, her recent emergence as the matriarch in You’re Next kicked off a renaissance of devilishly delightful roles in a wide variety of horror films. The latest of which is her return to a familiar property, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich.

Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich has caused quite a stir around film twitter. Some hail it as a bold, new masterpiece of B-Movie gore, while others condemn it as wretched, gratuitous dreck. What you cannot deny is that this reimagining, starring Thomas Lennon as a comic book artist looking to make a buck off his dead brother’s creepy doll collection, is absolutely in tune with its Full Moon origins. Even better, the film manages to stoke contemporary political and cultural fires despite the denials of its filmmakers.

Shortly before the release of the film, I spoke to Crampton over the phone. I start things off with a gushing release of praise for our current era of Crampton characters. She seems to be everywhere. We talk about how she finds herself in these roles, and how she has come to manage her career today compared to yesterday. We discuss why horror resonates when Republicans are in office, and how monster movie fear seems tame when placed next to routine societal fear.

Here is our conversation in full:

As a Barbara Crampton fan myself, for a long, long time, this is a great period to be alive. You’re all over the place.

Oh geez, I don’t know. Something’s happening in the universe, I’m thinking it’s going to end at every moment so I’m trying to appreciate every second.

How do you go about navigating your roles and film choices right now?

Yeah, that’s a good question. When I was younger I sort of just, kind of, took the roles that were offered to me. I mean that’s what you do when you’re a young actor. And since I came back with You’re Next and that was such a big hit a number of years ago, I’ve been lucky enough to be offered a lot of different projects. I tend to really want to work with people that I like and that I think I’m going to have a good time with and that hopefully I see their vision and their passion and to help them realize that.

Also, and most importantly, I feel like the role in the movies that I want to be involved in are films that say something. I mean, I’m involved in a lot of horror movies but horror movies have their place in the social consciousness and I think that the movies that I’ve been a part of, mostly, I’ve made a few errors, but mostly I feel like they say something positive about the human condition or positive about an individual experience or something that we hope to be or that we can grow from. I mean, those are the movies, whether they be horror or comedy or thriller, that excite me and those are the kind of stories that I want to be involved with.

We’re in a period right now where horror seems to have a lot to say. There is a dearth of quality, and intelligent horror pictures out there. What do you attribute that to?

The world is in a very, much of a big state right now. With the state of the world and who our president is and the kinds of conversations that people feel okay about having out in public now that they didn’t before, emotions are really high and people are terrified.

It’s interesting, I’ve read a few times that horror is at it’s most prominent when there’s a Republican in the White House, whether it’s Donald Trump or George W. Bush, because the Republican mentality is that the world is a scary place and we have to save you from it. And the Democratic idea is that the world is basically a nice place and we have to help others. So we have a president now who is a Republican and is sort of fanning the flames of a lot of bad stuff that is going on out there and also claiming to be protecting us at the same time from a lot of things that a lot of people are fearful about.

I’ve never watched the news so much in my entire life as I have the last year, like all of us. It’s a good time to be in horror, I guess because it’s being displayed and shown right out there in the headlines every day. So movies like Get Out, which was exactly timely for what was going on in the country, came out and it was such a big hit. It’s no wonder, right? And a movie like the Shape of Water, this big monster that was to be feared and held down and dissected and looked at instead of loved. The other. It’s like the fish monster was like the other, the something that you couldn’t really understand or really love except one mute person who couldn’t talk.

A lot of the movies that are very much of the moment and getting a lot of attention are the ones that are just mirroring what’s going on in our society. I think that those are the best horror stories, the best stories being told are the ones that mirror our society and it’s definitely true of horror movies today. We’re at a very ripe time to tell our stories with these kinds of movies that we all love.

As much as I love the Puppet Master movies, I really wasn’t expecting The Littlest Reich to have any kind of social commentary, but to my surprise, it does actually touch upon xenophobia and this thing that you’re talking about right now. Who doesn’t love to hate a Nazi?

Oh totally. You know a lot of people are kind of offended by this movie. Looking at it on it’s surface. We’ve gotten a few reviews that were like, I can’t even get passed the baby coming out of the pregnant lady’s stomach, I can’t get passed that. It’s really saying something, the movie’s really saying something, and I know that the filmmakers really didn’t make it be a political commentary, they really didn’t.

Craig Zahler famously says in interviews. He’s an artist first and he’s trying to entertain us and I believe that’s true and I believe that about Dallas Sonnier as well, I mean his whole thing is that he’s a businessman. He’s trying to make movies for the general public for the forgotten horror fan out there. So they made a very visceral very body very bold very gory movie that’s fun. I think that was their intent, but also underneath that, you just can’t deny that Toulon’s reign of terror and these crazy ass puppets sort of represent what’s going on in America today. So, did that happen sort of as a surprise? Maybe somewhat so.

I’m certainly in a place where I’m looking for meaning and politics in all my entertainment. Now, talking about the early part of your career, where you didn’t have as much freedom in your roles, you do pop up for a brief moment in the first Puppet Master. Did you ever imagine then that you’d be returning to this franchise?

Oh my gosh, that’s the surprise, because sometimes you do things and you don’t know where it’s going to lead. And it might come back and give you a special surprise thirty years later. And it certainly has for me. I did From Beyond and Re-Animator for Full Moon Pictures, actually, it was Empire Pictures at the time, and then there wasn’t really a role for me in Puppet Master but they just thought, oh let’s give Barbara another part. Well, there’s this little thing, maybe she’ll do it. Even though I said I wasn’t choosy about my roles back then, and I just took what people gave me, I did get some amazing roles working for Charlie Band. Because of that, they said to me, would you do that for us? And I said, of course, I’ll do it for you. That’s why I said yes but I never thought it would lead to like thirteen movies and then a relaunch and a reboot and reimagining of the one I’m in now, no of course not.

But it’s probably Charlie Band’s most beloved franchise and certainly his most successful one. And Dallas Sonnier loves Charlie Band, they’ve been friends for years, he said, I love these movies and I want to relaunch them, relaunch a few of them, Puppet Master being the first one, “May I do that? May I do a reimagining of it and you can still keep your own universe?” Charlie said, “Absolutely.” I’m grateful to come full circle and be in what I think is a really smart and really gory and really fun, scary Puppet Master movie that has something to say. It’s also a great film, I think, to be the first one that is used in the Fangoria label as a launching pad. Dallas Sonnier took over Fangoria, he took that out of the attic and he dusted that off and got the rights to that to relaunch it and asked me to write a column in it. I’m getting a lot of really wonderful perks out of being involved with that first tiny little cameo in the first Puppet Master. So you never know where things are going to lead and I’m glad I said yes thirty years ago.

Looking at your last batch of movies, your performances are all very different, and the characters are very different, and I’m wondering when you approach something like Puppet Master versus Dead Night or Beyond the Gates or We Are Still Here, in terms of your craft, do you approach each role different depending on where they fall on the dramatic scale?

Absolutely, I mean I’ve said this to myself from the time I was eighteen years old and I was doing theater in New York, I’ve always felt like a character actress but nobody’s ever thought of me as character before, until I got older. I played the young ingénue and that’s what I got.

But I feel like as I’ve gotten older the roles have gotten more interesting for me, in a way, and my approach to them is to entertain myself as much as I want to entertain you and I want to create something that’s new and different and fresh and I don’t want to play the same role every time. And I don’t want to play it the same way. I kind of want to hide a little bit in my movie roles. I want to play something different and fun and I definitely approach it talking to the filmmaker first and saying, what is your idea for the film? What are you trying to say? What movies are like the movie you are trying to make here? And we talk about a character and then try to build it from the inside out. I definitely want to play different kinds of roles and I don’t want to play the same thing over and over again.

Talking about Puppet Master specifically, it’s a horror comedy, even though it’s really over the top and really gory and really bloody and really visceral and in your face, it’s a comedy as well. I was working with so many comedians in the movie, Thomas Lennon who’s a comedic genius and is a writer and an actor, and Charlene Yi, Nelson Franklin and I thought, wow. I had it in my mind that I’m a tour guide and I have to say a speech that’s really long but I would have had to say this speech a million times because I’ve given this tour a million times.

So I have to sort of fall trippingly off my tongue but at the same time this is horror comedy and so when I got on the set I hadn’t met Thomas before we worked together and I thought, I have to watch him and I have to see what his approach to the material is. His approach is so serious, and I thought, “Oh this is super serious.” So I’m gonna take my cue off him and kind of go really serious with it. I think, I hope it worked, as a counterpoint for all of the bloodshed and over the top ridiculousness of the movie. I think it did, I hope it did. Normally I’ll figure out the character before I get on set, but for this one, I kind of waited until I was on set and I just wanted to see what everyone else was doing so I could feel how I was going to fit into the mold of everybody else’s work.

Red Dots

Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is now playing in select theaters and on VOD and Digital HD.

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Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.