By JENN ADAMS
Barbara Crampton has long cemented her status as horror royalty. Since her breakout role in the 1985 camp classic Re-Animator, she’s starred in a wide range of genre fare. Her long filmography includes sci-fi body horror (From Beyond, 1986), Lovecraftian monsters (Castle Freak, 1995), Mumblegore minimalism (You’re Next, 2011), gritty witches (Lords of Salem, 2012), and last year’s feminist take on vampire lore, Jakob’s Wife which she also produced. Despite her many accomplishments, the bona fide scream queen continues to seek out her next cinematic challenge. Her wide range is showcased in the February releases of both KING KNIGHT, a comedy from Richard Bates Jr., and ALONE WITH YOU, an indie film shot entirely during lockdown.
ALONE WITH YOU (reviewed here) follows Charlie (Emily Bennett) a young woman trapped in her apartment seeking connection in any way she can. A video call from her mother (Crampton) offers only surface level comfort. The heartwarming KING KNIGHT is a bit of a departure from the dark horror writer and director Bates (who discusses the film here) is known for. The film features Matthew Gray Gubler as Thorn, a new age witch who must deal with the uncomfortable conformity of his past. Crampton plays his mother Ruth, an overbearing mother who refuses to accept her son for who he chooses to be. Though the roles are ostensibly similar, both afforded the genre veteran the ability to grow in her craft and find new ways to bring light to the dark days of pandemic isolation. Rue Morgue sat down with the iconic actress to talk about unforgiving mothers, finding truth in comedy, and staying connected while far away.
What drew you to this role of Charlie’s mother in ALONE WITH YOU?
I was sent the script by a casting director that I know and I thought it was really well written. It was sent to me at the height of the pandemic so nobody was really filming in person at the time. They told me it was going to be all shot on Zoom and that the directors had written it for themselves to do in their own apartment. What drew me to it is that I read it and I didn’t know what was going to happen. When I read scripts I think I can usually see what’s coming, but I really didn’t understand what was affecting Emily Bennet’s character Charlie. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know if she was dreaming or having a hallucination or being haunted or what was going on. It wasn’t clear to me and so it surprised me. And I appreciated that.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve been able to play more complicated characters. I appreciated playing an overbearing and unforgiving mother because I thought it would be something different. We had a phone call and they said, “You’ll be on a zoom for a few scenes. We’ll send you a camera through the mail and show you how to set it up and film yourself.” And I thought, “well that’s an interesting challenge, something to keep me occupied during the pandemic.” I would learn a new skill being a cinematographer for my own scene. And a makeup artist and lighting designer. So I took it as a challenge. I really liked the script and after I met the filmmakers I liked them. I always want to support new voices coming up in the genre and I really liked this duo. It was pretty easy for me to say yes.
The film is terrifying and it really captures the feeling of isolation I think we’ve all experienced in some way over the last two years. Was it difficult to feel connected to the film and the cast being so far away?
Yes and no. We’ve all felt isolated and trapped in our homes and definitely Emily’s character has that feeling. And I think I just played the truth of that. I felt disconnected from her because our characters are disconnected. We’re not close. And I haven’t spoken to her for a long time when we have our initial Zoom call. I think that’s what we’ve all experienced is feeling isolated from people that we care about and we love. So it wasn’t hard to play the truth of that because that’s what we’re all feeling. [Laughs] But I really was on my own, in my own world, doing my thing. [Laughs] Emily and I were able to rehearse over Zoom for a couple of days prior. We just worked out all the details with Justin and Emily and it worked out.
By the time we shot the film I had been on numerous zooms with friends and family because that’s how we were visiting with one another. Nobody’d heard of Zoom before the pandemic. So I was used to that somewhat by connecting with friends and family, having cocktails on Friday nights or catching up with my sisters. I have three sisters and we were having a sister’s call every Sunday morning. We were talking more on Zoom than we had been talking the ten years prior cause normally we just get together a couple of times a year. So in a way I was feeling really connected to a lot of people. Thank God for Zoom. So I just kind of used what was there and what was true.
One of the film’s most chilling scenes is the second call that you have with Charlie. The facial distortions and repeated phrases are haunting. What was it like to film that scene?
They explained to me what they were gonna do and I just trusted them. I just had to say some things that they asked me to say. I actually didn’t know what they were going to do or how it was going to look. And I’m not sure that they did either. I think they played around a little bit. Without giving away anything of the story, it’s something that’s happening in her [Charlie’s] own mind, how she’s perceiving me. And so I think they played around with it till they got something that felt right for them. I did a few different things. I said, “well let me give you this first,” being really loud and aggressive. And this version being sad. So I gave them a lot of choices of stuff that they could work with and see whatever would work for them.
I wanted to ask about another film in which you play a, shall we say, overbearing or disapproving mother, KING KNIGHT.
I do! Yes. And they’re both coming out in the same week!
I absolutely loved KING KNIGHT! What drew you to this film?
Well it’s Ricky Bates Jr! [Laughs] I had fallen in love with him when I saw his movie Excision. I really think he is a gifted filmmaker and really has a strong voice, a different voice. He’s a filmmaker who would explore the inner workings of people in ways that other people haven’t before. His films always have a certain style and personality to them. You know it’s a Ricky Bates movie.
So when I got the call that he wanted to cast me as Matthew Gray Gubler’s mother I thought, “Well that’s interesting. Ok. What’s this film?” And then I read it and it was a light comedy! It was a little confusing at first [Laughs] because I didn’t know that Ricky Bates wanted to do a comedy. I’ve been wanting to explore comedy over the past few years because I’ve explored a lot of dark places in myself for a long time and I think Ricky wanted to do the same thing. He just wanted to make a lighter, happier movie and to do something different.
And it’s a lovely movie. It’s about being true to yourself. It has a nice message. So that’s why I said yes. Pretty much immediately when he asked me. Pretty much without even reading it. [Laughs] He said, “Would you like to be in a movie I’m directing?” And I said, “Yes!” [Laughs] “Tell me what I need to do and I’ll do it.”
Do you find it more challenging to play comedic roles or roles that are more serious or frightening?
Well that’s an interesting question. I don’t think I find it more difficult to play anything. I just think every role is a challenge. You want to illuminate the human condition, something that people can relate to. So the trick is to be authentic in every single role and bring something to it that maybe someone else wouldn’t have thought of. You want to entertain and be interesting. One of the commandments that my early acting teachers told me was, “Thou shalt not bore.” So I never want to bore you. I want to come up with something that would be interesting for you to watch.
I would say I’ve definitely had more experience with tension and playing moments when I’m supposed to be terrorized and scared than moments of comedy. That’s something I’d like to explore a little bit more. But it’s all the same, just what’s inside of you as a human being. You want to have an audience be able to relate to that. So how can you illuminate who you are and how can who you are fit into the story that the director or the writer is telling? How can you do that in an effective way that’s interesting that will resonate with an audience? Whether comedy or horror, the trick is to be as authentic as possible and not to play a caricature. And I think in that way it’s all the same.
Without spoiling anything I was really struck by Ruth’s final scene in KING KNIGHT. I feel like it has a bit of a hopeful ending. How do you see the future of Ruth and Thorn’s relationship and what would you hope for them going forward?
In the beginning of KING KNIGHT when you meet Ruth you really don’t like her. But like everybody, once you understand where somebody’s coming from you can empathize with them. I hope that an audience will when they see the ending. I think that Matthew’s character as Thorn is coming to terms with who he is and being his true authentic self. Talking about authenticity in acting, the whole story of this movie is really about being true to yourself. I would hope that now that he’s back in town that Ruth and Thorn would have more of a relationship and that they could move on together. That’s my hope.
The mothers you play in both films, Ruth and Charlie’s mother, seem to be similar characters although the films they exist in are wildly different. Do you see them as spiritually connected in any way?
Yeah it’s so interesting that they’re coming out within a week of one another because both of them are very judgmental and very unforgiving people. You know in one [ALONE WITH YOU] I don’t think you get the sense that she’s learned any lessons. I don’t feel like she’s learned anything or that she’ll be any different going forward than what she appears as on screen. But I think in KING KNIGHT, this unforgiving, this very rigid and strict, overbearing mother has potentially learned some things about herself. But both of them are very similar I would agree.
They’re different in class status in a way. Thorn’s mother in KING KNIGHT has a little bit more wealth and standing in the community. The mother in ALONE WITH YOU is a little bit more insulated in her own world of religion. She’s very myopic with how she sees the world, herself, and her family. They are similar and fun to play characters that are a little more complicated in that way.
I know that you post frequently about how proud you are of your own children and the fact that you are now an empty nester with both of them in college.
Was it hard to get into the headspace of these two mothers who are not so supportive of their children and do you think you might have any advice for them?
Well I think having children has definitely helped me play a mother on screen. I have a great relationship with my kids and I’m very accepting of who they are. I’m very supportive of them. We have a very loving, very close relationship. So I can use all of that in a safe way because I feel good about my relationship with them. It’s not painful when I use my kids.
I have used the thought of losing my kids or not being around my kids in my work all the time when I play mothers. I visualize them and I sort of trick my mind into feeling or thinking the opposite of what’s really true in my own life, which is that we have a lot of love between us. I think I use my own children because that feels more authentic to me to substitute any characters that I’m playing with my own children and how would I react if I didn’t have a good relationship with them. That brings up a lot of emotion for me. So it’s been great. I feel like I can use it in a positive way because I have a positive relationship with my kids.
There are things that come up that really surprise me about my children. They’ll say, “I want to do this.” or “I’m not like you.” And to stay open is what I would say to the two unforgiving mothers that I play in these films. You have to allow yourself to be surprised by your children. It’s a new era with kids and the world and culture is changing. How kids feel about the world and their place in it is different than when I was younger so I am constantly surprised by them.
I think both of these mothers want to hang onto the status quo and what they think their children should be. They want to hold onto something that the mothers feel like they molded their kids into and you can’t control anybody’s life. You can’t mold them into anything. You have to be loving and supportive of your kids and allow them to be who they want to be. You have to hold their hand along the way but let them experience life through their own eyes, their own feelings and desires. So that’s my advice.
ALONE WITH YOU is now available on VOD and streaming. KING KNIGHT will release on VOD and streaming February 17th.