Guys who love horror demand two things: hardcore scares and sexy actresses. However, in terms of the latter, dudes who worship at the altars of Boris Karloff and Michael Myers could care less if the women on screen have never appeared in a glossy men’s magazine, or even show up on frequently on gossip blogs. When it comes to authentic “scream queens,” horror lovers prefer ladies who eat, sleep, and breathe blood-and-guts cinema, and there aren’t many chicks who do so more than Danielle Harris.
Not only is the pint-sized brunette hotter than most of her more-commercial peers, Harris is also the kind of actress who’s unafraid to get down and dirty in the name of horror. The Queens, N.Y. native made her debut as an 11-year-old in the super gory Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers (1988), playing the masked killer’s niece. Twenty-three years later, she’s earned her stripes as one of the genre’s most celebrated queens, having swiped scenes in movies both independent (Hatchet II) and mainstream (Rob Zombie’s Halloween flicks).
Harris’ latest pic, Stake Land, might just be her best film yet. Opening in limited release this Friday, Stake Land is part 30 Days Of Night and part Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, though, fortunately, its thematic familiarities are trumped by strong acting, genuine scares, and an overall showmanship that defies the movie’s low budget. Harris plays a pregnant survivor of a vampire apocalypse who battles the undead with two equally resilient men. It’s not the typical “scream queen” role, though; rather than shriek in the presence of baddies, Harris fights back while developing an interesting character.
Proud as can be about Stake Land, Harris recently chatted with us about why vampires are finally scary again, and both the advantages and downsides of being a woman in the predominantly male horror community.
Complex: You must receive a ton of horror scripts; what stood out about Stake Land?
Danielle Harris: Yeah, Stake Land was something so different from anything I had read in so long. It was just a breath of fresh air; it’s about relationships and story and characters. It’s a love story and a coming-of-age story, so it’s very different from the usual scripts I read, which are mostly your typical slasher victim, “How am I gonna die in this movie?” kind of offers. Not that there’s anything wrong with those parts, because I love them, for the most part, but it was just time for me to do something else. In order for me to get those opportunities, I have to stop playing those kinds of roles for a while, and I think this was one of my first opportunities to be able to do that.
I shot this pretty quickly after...I think I finished Halloween 2, with Rob [Zombie] in April, and then August I started Stake Land, so it was really exciting. I actually went and saw Halloween 2 in the theaters, like, two days after I got to Pennsylvania to shoot Stake Land, and I saw it with [Stake Land director] Jim Mickle, [star and co-writer] Nick [Damici], and the whole gang. I was like, “Hey guys, my movie is coming out this weekend—you wanna go see it?” [Laughs.] So we went to T.G.I. Friday’s for drinks and then we saw the movie together; we were like the only ones in the theater. [Laughs.] But it was pretty awesome.
Your character, Belle, doesn’t show up until later in the movie. She ultimately plays a key role in the story, but was that ever a concern?
Danielle Harris: Yeah, when I first read the script, Belle didn’t have that big of a role. But once you’re introduced to the character, she’s in the rest of the movie. At first there wasn't much for me to do. So as an actor, you’re like, “What am I supposed to do—just stand there?” As I was talking to Jim, he said, “We’re just going to find her as we go, because she’s a work in progress,” and I just loved that idea.
I then asked to see something else that Jim had done, so he sent me his first movie, Mulberry Street, and I really dug that; it’s so visually striking. I asked him if the same DP [director of photography] would be working on Stake Land, because the script calls for such an emphasis on the look of the film, and he told me the whole Mulberry Street crew was on board. So I couldn’t resist. And, wouldn’t you know it, Jim kept his word, and Belle actually gained more layers as we were filming.
That’s interesting, because I definitely noticed how visually impressive Stake Land is—you watch it and it’s hard to think that the film’s budget is so small. Mulberry Street is a cool flick, but it looks super lo-fi and grainy, whereas Stake Land looks something a big Hollywood studio would make.
Danielle Harris: You know, I’ve shot maybe, I don’t know, six, seven, or eight movies over the last few years on the RED camera, and I feel like Ryan Samual [who worked on Stake Land] may be one of the only DPs that got it. It looks so beautiful—it looks like “film” to me. I can’t believe the way this movie looks; it just looks absolutely stunning.
I don’t know what I’d do if I was making a romantic comedy; I wouldn’t feel like I was earning my $100 a day.
Danielle Harris: Well, I’m not really glamorous in anything that I do. [Laughs.] That would be a nice break, to get to wear makeup in a movie and look pretty. I’m usually covered in dirt or covered in blood. In this movie, I’m kind of covered in both of those things, but it was the first time that I sort of had to let the bravado go and show up with no makeup on, and not shower in the morning, throw my hair back in a ponytail and cover myself in layers and layers of clothes, have the big fake pregnant belly and trek around in the woods with this guys. I love being just one of the guys. [Laughs.]
And I’m sure the guys aren’t mad, either. Stake Land is impressive because it covers two subgenres of film that have been done to death—vampires and post-apocalyptic road stories—but finds ways to make them seem fresh and unique. Was that something that appealed to you, too?
Danielle Harris: Yeah, I don’t feel like I’ve seen this movie before. It didn’t feel like they were ripping anything off, or trying to make a movie that they knew would make millions of dollars. They weren’t buying into any of that; they just made a movie that they felt really strongly about. It’s politically incorrect, and it touches on lots of taboo subjects, and talks about religion. It’s pretty hardcore.
I just think it’s a great independent film. Vampires are scary again—thank God! That disappeared so many years ago that it’s a shame. They made a vampire movie for people our age. I’m just gonna guess, but I’m pretty sure you’re not all that excited to see Twilight.
What, you don’t think I’m a fan of glistening, butter-soft, vegetarian vampires? I’m offended.
Danielle Harris: [Laughs.] Right? That’s why this is a movie for us. I don’t know, I think it’s a special little gem, actually.
Within the first five minutes of Stake Land, there’s a vampire eating a baby—not exactly something you’ll see Robert Pattinson doing any time soon.
Danielle Harris: I know! And, in my sick mind, I was like, “Why don’t you guys use a real baby?” [Laughs.] Jim was like, “No! We can’t!” I shot back with, “And why not?” I don’t know, maybe that’d just be too hardcore. I guess I’ve done so many of these movies that my mind is a bit warped, huh?
Yeah, when you start pitching authentic baby slaughter, it might be time to switch genres, if only momentarily.
Danielle Harris: [Laughs.] Yeah, maybe. I might need an intervention of some sort.
So you really must get a lot of offers to plays scantily clad damsels-in-distress. Has that always bothered you, or has it just been recently that you’ve wanted to step away from the victim roles?
Danielle Harris: Yeah, but you know what? It’s been kind of interesting. In the last year, I stopped getting a lot of those, maybe because I made the decision to not be that girl anymore and turn down a lot of that stuff. Every role that I’ve done over the last year has not been that girl, which is amazing. You guys haven’t seen any of that stuff yet, with the exception of Hatchet II, which I was no longer the victim in, thank god. I’ve also got Shiver, based on the awesome Brian Harper novel about a serial killer, and I’m not the helpless victim in that. And then I’ve got Night Of The Living Dead: Origins and Chromeskull: Laid To Rest 2, and I’m not the helpless victim in those, either.
These are all movies that I have coming out this year, and I’m not the damsel in distress anymore—not in any of them. I’m still the heroine and I’m still the survivor, and all of that stuff is still there, but all of the characters are so different from one another. I can’t wait to sit back this year and just watch it unfold. I think making that decision has allowed the universe to hand me other things that are different from what I’ve always played.