Friday, June 23, 2017

10 Great Barbara Crampton Performances

by Patrick Bromley
Today, we celebrate a great actor who does a lot of great work. I love her. ( one tell her.)

Barbara Crampton is one of my favorite people on the planet. Not just actors. People. It goes way beyond her being one of my biggest celebrity crushes, too. She has always been a great actor -- a superstar within our beloved horror genre but also a formidable star outside of it, with credits ranging from independent film to TV movies to several years on hugely popular daytime soaps (both The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless). But she's also an important ambassador for indie horror, lending her star power and talents both in front of and behind the camera, always doing her damndest to get the word out on new voices and movies that deserve to be seen. Her editorial for Birth.Movies.Death late last year, titled "Don't Call Me a Scream Queen," was both a terrific piece of writing and an important message for genre fans everywhere, as one of the premiere genre actors of the last 50 years was laying it out that the term is reductive and unwanted. That she is espousing this belief makes her a badass. That she took the time to write a thoughtful essay about it for one of the biggest film sites online makes her the best.

But it's not just her work in film that makes her the best. She's also a truly nice, truly wonderful human being. I've seen her interact with fans, always genuine, always taking the time to speak with them and really hear them. When we had our podcast-a-thon last year to raise money for the Magnolia Tree Foundation, Barbara Crampton agreed to come on and do a segment. She's a highly sought-after actor with a family. She didn't have to do that. She did it because she's the best. Then she gave a really warm and fun interview, because she's the best. And just in case you weren't yet sure if she's the best (she is), she even donated money to the foundation, which she really didn't have to do. Know why she did it? I'll give you one guess.
When I was trying to pick days for this year's #Junesploitation, I knew I wanted to devote an entire day to Barbara Crampton. Her impact and contribution to horror cannot be overstated, but more than that I wanted to celebrate her life and career because I think she's someone totally worth celebrating. I think you would all agree with me there.

So it is in the spirit of that celebration that I offer this list of ten of her greatest performances. Now, I know that Barbara Crampton has more than 10 great performances. I also know that this list is very genre-heavy, probably because those are the kinds of movies I love best and served as my introduction to her as an actor. So while I wasn't trying to limit the list to just horror, a whole lot of horror appears on here.

1. Re-Animator (1985, dir. Stuart Gordon)
Though she made quite an impression in Brian De Palma's great Body Double, for many of us this was our real introduction to Barbara Crampton. And what an introduction! Jeffrey Combs and David Gale are the actors we come away talking about because they get to dig in and have a blast, but I will forever maintain that it's Barbara Crampton's performance as Meg that gives the movie its heart. Yes, B-Cramps fearlessly commits to the film's most outrageous and notorious scene -- which alone should earn her goodwill for the rest of time -- but she also creates a sweet, sincere and strong character outside of that moment. We don't want things to work out for Dan. We want them to work out for Dan for Meg. As a movie lover, it was a performance that was, for me, a case of love at first sight in that I knew after Re-Animator that I would see everything Barbara Crampton ever did.

2. From Beyond (1986, dir. Stuart Gordon)
Just one year after Re-Animator, Barbara Crampton reunited with Jeffrey Combs, Stuart Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna and screenwriter Dennis Paoli for another H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, this time essentially switching roles with Combs so that he played the character in distress and she played a version of the mad scientist. After playing such a "normal" character in Re-Animator, it's a joy to watch B. Cramps cut loose with her performance and to reclaim her strength and sexuality in a way that she wasn't allowed to in the previous film. On paper, the role of Dr. Katherine McMichaels has maybe too much of a Madonna/whore thing (a dichotomy the movie is interested in exploring), but in the hands of Barbara Crampton becomes so much more. Sure, she's under the influence of some sex energy from another dimension, but Crampton creates a character that is confident and intelligent and, it's suggested, has a bit of a wild side. Neither her buttoned-up scientist nor the leather-clad kinky persona are reduced to simple stereotypes, but rather represent two sides of the same nuanced person. You know, the way real people are in life.

3. "The Evil Clergyman" (1988, dir. Charles Band)
This 30-minute short, originally intended to be one segment in the abandoned anthology Pulse Pounders, showcases some of my favorite acting Barbara Crampton has ever done. It's such a shame that more people haven't seen it. She's cast again opposite Jeffrey Combs, this time as a woman in the throes of a kind of sexual obsession with a priest (Combs), her former lover who committed suicide in the same room in which she has now come to stay. The film unfolds like a fever dream, with appearances from both David Gale and David Warner playing a rat with a human face (Lovecraft gotta Lovecraft), but it's shockingly adult and mature for a Charles Band production. Combs is good against type, but Barbara Crampton is the whole show here, tasked with exploring a huge range of emotions in an incredibly short amount of time and nailing every one. The short is dark and sexual and, ultimately, very sad. It was impossible to come by for a long time, but Full Moon uncovered a VHS version in the 2000s; it's available to own on DVD or to watch on Full Moon Streaming.

4. Robot Wars (1993, dir. Albert Band)
Ok, I know that Robot Wars is not a great movie. It's another collaboration between Barbara Crampton and Full Moon Features, this time under the direction of Albert Band (Charles' dad) in yet another of their giant robot films (see also: Robot Jox, Crash & Burn). The pacing is kind of draggy, and while I'm sure he's a nice guy and all, lead actor Don Michael Paul makes a lot of big choices in his performance that don't really work for me. But I want to include it on this list because it demonstrates that Barbara Crampton is able to make any material work -- even this. Never one to play down to the screenplay or phone it in, B. Cramps brings energy and spunk to her every scene, recalling the sassy confidence of early Princess Leia or Marion Ravenswood. The movie comes alive whenever she's on screen.

5. Castle Freak (1995, dir. Stuart Gordon)
Once again, Barbara Crampton teams with Combs and director Stuart Gordon for a Charles Band production (this time for Full Moon instead of Empire, which closed its doors at the end of the '80s), changing their dynamic one more time to play a married couple on the outs following an accident that killed their young son and left their teenage daughter blind. He inherits a castle and the family moves there, not knowing that it's inhabited by a deformed monster chained within it. Despite the presence of a monster and some gnarly gore, Castle Freak is really a movie about grief and the dissolution of a marriage. There's a great deal of pain on display in both Crampton and Combs' performances, and their shared history on screen helps inform what is a tragic end to their partnership for us genre fans who had watched them together for a decade. This role would pre-date Crampton's later performance in We Are Still Here. She's terrific in both.

6. You're Next (2013, dir. Adam Wingard)
After almost 20 years away from the genre, Barbara Crampton came back to horror in spectacular fashion with Adam Wingard's You're Next, playing the matriarch of a wealthy family targeted by a group of murderous intruders. She checks out about halfway and therefore isn't in the movie as much as I would like, but her work here predicts some of the more somber and dramatic performances she would give over the next few years. It was a joy to see her on the big screen again, starring in one of my favorite horror movies of recent years. Now that I think of it, Barbara Crampton is in three of my #1 favorite horror movies of the last four years. There's no way that's a coincidence.

7We Are Still Here (2015, dir. Ted Geoghegan)
I'm on record as being a huge fan of this Fulci-inspired horror film, the first from writer/director (and former publicist) Ted Geoghegan. I love how sad and still and coldly atmospheric it is until totally going crazy in the last 30 minutes. I love the design of the ghosts and the execution of the effects. And, of course, I love Barbara Crampton's performance as Anne Saccheti, grieving mother who, like in Castle Freak, moves into a new home while recovering from the death of her son. Where it goes from there is totally different, but proves that Crampton hasn't lost a step in the 20 years between the two movies -- in fact, she's only gotten better.

8. Sun Choke (2016, dir. Ben Cresciman)
This indie horror drama from a years back contains one of my very favorite Barbara Crampton performances, turning the goodwill we've had towards her for years against us to present a character who is cold, cruel and manipulative. She's also, for all we know, right. The mystery of Sun Choke is that the use of an unreliable narrator (Sarah Hagen) never allows us to understand whether Barbara Crampton is the villain of the story or not. That Crampton's performance allows both interpretations to be possible is a testament to her work. After so many years in front of the camera, B. Cramps is still able to really surprise me. I love that.

9. Blood Brothers (2016, dir. Jose Prendes)
There's some stuff about this darkly comic crime drama (loosely based on the Leopold and Loeb case) about two brothers who begin committing murder to see what they can away with that I'm not crazy about, but Barbara Crampton's turn as the boys' manipulative, bed-ridden mother isn't one of them. It's more of a character role than she usually plays, but the way her character evolves and reveals new aspects of herself as the film unfolds is one of its best qualities. I also love that she's still making smaller indie movies like this. She's a true lover and supporter of cinema and we mustn't take that for granted.

10. Little Sister (2016, dir. Zach Clark)
Of course I wanted to include Beyond the Gates on here because B. Cramps is so funny and stunning in it (and also because it was her foray into producing!), but I've shown that movie so much love on this site that I'm sure you're all sick of me talking about it. Instead, I'll highlight a supporting performance Barbara Crampton had in a non-horror movie last year: writer/director Zach Clark's Little Sister, in which she plays a Reverend Mother supervising a young would-be nun (Addison Timlin) who returns home to her family and experiences a small crisis of faith. Crampton's role is essentially that of a taskmaster, on hand to remind the audience what awaits Timlin's character upon her return, but she imbues the role with a level of humanity and understanding that keeps it from ever becoming a cartoon version of uptight religious authority. While a bit heavy on indie movie quirk for my taste, the things I like best about Little Sister are that it presents its characters with a tremendous amount of humanity and that it takes ideas of faith seriously. Barbara Crampton's performance represents both of those qualities perfectly.

Happy Barbara Crampton Day, everyone!


  1. There's a lot of understanding in that Little Sister performance, but I also love that it's pretty damn funny at points (her growing frustration about getting her car back is wonderful).

  2. Man, it's really unbelievable how many GREAT horror movies she's been in. What a stunning, one-in-a-million career. She's brought so many so much joy and she should be DAMN proud. All love to Barbara!

  3. Ya know, I forgot she was in Sun Choke, and I've been looking for a reason to watch it. I guess it's now or never.

  4. You're Next and Sun Choke are both on Canadian Netflix for those that care.

  5. She's such an awesome actress and person. Doesn't hurt that she hot too lol. :-)