I was reintroduced to Barbara Crampton in Sun Choke. I already knew she had an impressive B-list (and a few movies that rose above B status), many of them horror and science fiction.
What I didn’t know was how bad she could be. And I don’t mean B-movie Bad. I mean Evil Bad. So as Women in Horror Month continues, I thought it’d be worth discussing the character spectrum Barbara Crampton has played, from stereotypical teen victim to sadistic control freak.
To do this, let’s take a look at three fairly representative examples spanning three decades.
Chopping Mall (1986)
“I guess I’m just not used to being chased around a mall in the middle of the night by killer robots.” Indeed. That’s as good as Chopping Mall gets.
Wow is this an 80s flick. The hair? Big. The clothes? Pastel. The mall? Well, it’s the mall. This movie is phenomenally bad. The premise is simple enough. A mall uses robots as security.
What could possibly go wrong?
Ask our intrepid band of teens. They decide to drink and have sex in the mall’s furniture store after hours. Remember that next time you go mattress shopping.
What could possibly go wrong?
A short circuit caused by a lighting strike, that’s what (which is funny since Short Circuit was the same year, and the robots are strikingly similar). Result? Killer robots. Of course.
Crampton plays Suzie, and she’s pretty inconsequential. Everyone is. To be fair, most victims in almost every slasher movie from Friday The 13th until possibly High Tension make me utter what TV Tropes calls the Eight Deadly Words.
The kids in Chopping Mall are mind-numbingly stupid. The robots are on treads. There’s a hardware store in the mall. Maybe some bolt cutters and a ladder that leads to the roof?
Even the kills are, overall, unimpressive, with two possible exceptions. There’s an adequately handled head explosion as well as Suzie’s fiery demise. Lots of smoke. Lots of fires. Lots of explosions. All of which leads one to wonder A) what kind of town is this where none of this attracts anyone’s attention and B) shouldn’t this joint have at least one fire alarm?
Castle Freak (1995)
Jumping ahead about a decade, we come to this ever-so-loosely Lovecraft-based, direct to video effort from that killer Combs/Crampton/Gordon team that brought you Re-Animator (I like Combs and Crampton together and would not at all have minded seeing her in Would You Rather).
Here’s what happens. John Reilly (Jeffrey Combs) inherits a castle not knowing the late Duchess Orsino kept her monstrous son, Giorgio, chained in a dungeon (he’s still there). The creature turns out to be John’s half-brother who, of course, escapes the minute he moves in with his wife, Susan (Crampton) and teenage daughter, Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide). Incidentally, this almost destroys the movie for me.
Remember, the Duchess kept Giorgio shackled for about nineteen years. To escape, he bites into then rips off his thumb in order to slide the shackle off one hand. That’s not the problem. The problem is that it took him until now to figure this out. Still, it’s a good vehicle for Gordon to fling some gore around which he does admirably here and elsewhere throughout the movie.
Crampton does a good deal more actual acting here than in Chopping Mall (she is, in fact, the best of the lot), moving from teenage fodder to bitter, unforgiving wife. Rightly so. In a drunk driving accident, John kills their five-year-old son, J.J., and blinds Rebecca. Since then, he and Susan sleep in separate rooms and no longer have sex, much to John’s vexation.
John is thoroughly unlikeable (aided by the scenery-chomping Combs’s portrayal). At one point, he finds an old photo that looks like J.J. and breaks down in front of his wife. When she attempts to comfort him, he tries to sexually capitalize on it.
After Susan rejects him, he gets drunk, and brings home a prostitute. They have sex (resulting in the demoralizing but predictable Dead Sex Worker scene). Negative points as well for the hit-you-over-the-head contrast of the raven-haired Sylvana with the blonde Susan.
Susan holds her own passably as the protective mother until the final confrontation in which she and Rebecca are reduced to helpless, cowering damsels in distress. This allows John to suddenly find his nobility, along with his spine, and become the unconvingly tragic hero who sacrifices himself to save his family.
Sun Choke (2016)
I’ve seen a lot of Barbara Crampton movies. She not only gives her hands-down best performance here, but also plays one of the best Evil Caretakers ever.
Confession time. I thought I had this one figured out about fifteen minutes in, and with good reason. Sun Choke displays many of the hallmarks of Grande Dame Guignol.
First is the older (not necessarily elderly) and/or more physically and/or mentally able woman caring for younger and/or less physically and/or mentally able woman. Janie (Freaks And Geeks’s Sarah Hagan) is in the care of Irma (Crampton) who is every bit at nurturing as Nurse Ratched. She literally tortures Janie. Flashbacks show she has abused Janie her entire life.
Second, a more capable woman tries to make and/or keep the less capable woman insane and/or incapacitated and therefore dependent. Irma constantly infantilizes Janie, often referring to her as “little girl,” and keeps her on a truly bizarre psychological and nutritional regimen (Irma handing Janie a smoothy hearkens back directly to Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby).
Janie makes several attempts to assert her independence taking increasing liberties with the scant freedom she is given. This is where Sun Choke takes a hard left.
I was fully prepared to end this review with praise tempered by disappointment: praise over the treatment of these Grande Dame Guignol themes, disappointment that no new ground was broken in the plot resolution department. I was so wrong. Without getting too specific, what I expected to happen is exactly what happened, but nowhere near when I expected.
A couple of interesting points. There are no male characters of any significance in Sun Choke. Also Hagan is disconcerting. Her little girl voice masks her cunning, violence, and lack of remorse. Still, we can’t help being on her side, especially after the events of the first fifty minutes of the film.
Crampton is pure evil and steals a good number of scenes. Not once does Irma appear to harbor anything but resentment and malice for Janie. She makes this clear about a half hour into the film: “When your mother died, I made a promise to your father. That promise means I’m going to spend the rest of my life worrying about you and caring for you whether either one of us likes it or not.”