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.
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?
What, you don’t think I’m a fan of glistening, butter-soft, vegetarian vampires? I’m offended.
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.
Yeah, when you start pitching authentic baby slaughter, it might be time to switch genres, if only momentarily.
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?
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As an actress, is it ever exciting to play the helpless victim? Those roles always seem to be so thankless.
Danielle Harris: There’s only so much you can do, you know? It’s like, “OK, so how am I gonna die in this one? Oh, I get a chainsaw through my stomach—that could be kind of fun.” Or, I get my throat slit. There are definitely things like that that are kind of cool. I’ll do a horror convention and people come up to me and say, “I’ve always wanted to do a horror movie so I can die in one—it’d be so cool to die!”
To me, it’s just kind of another day at the office. I’d rather not die in a movie, to be honest; it’s kind of my thing. Before Chromeskull: Laid To Rest 2, the director, Rob Hall, who's a buddy of mine, called me and asked, “What do you want to do?” And I just said, “I just don’t want to die.” Hatchet III has been green-lit; actually while we’ve been talking, Adam Green [writer and director of the Hatchet movies] just left me a message. I don’t know what he wants to talk about, but the other day I said to him, “Just promise one thing: You won’t kill me in the first act.” And he promised me that I won’t die in the first act. [Laughs.]
But if I do die, like in Stake Land, I… Oh shit, I should have said “spoiler alert,” right? [Laughs.]
Probably, but it’s too late now, my friend.
Danielle Harris: Damn. Oh well—I just won’t say exactly how I die. Problem solved. But, as I was saying.... [Laughs.] I die in Stake Land, but that moment is so much more about the other character in the scene; it’s our goodbye, and it’s him becoming a man.
Belle was never supposed to die in the movie; that was brought up at the last minute, and it just seemed appropriate. So we sort of played with it as we were filming, to see if he wanted to kiss me or touch my face. It’s a pretty beautiful moment. So, yeah, back to your original question—yeah, it gets old sometimes, but you can always find original things to do with it.
Good point. Your final moments in Stake Land don’t involve you running from the killer, tripping and falling and wearing next to nothing.
Danielle Harris: Yeah, and thank God for that.
Do you actively seek out all of these horror projects?
Danielle Harris: Sometimes. It’s more about...I don’t know if I “seek out” horror films, but it’s a really small little world that we horror people live in, and I kind of know everybody in the genre. They’re all my friends; I call them “my boys,” because I keep working with the same people over and over and over again. They kind of find me, you know? But it’s fun to go to work and know exactly who you’re working with. It’s more about who’s working on what.
Would you attribute your long-standing position in the horror community to having started in the genre at such a young age in the earlier Halloween sequels?
Danielle Harris: Well, obviously, back when I was a little kid, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. [Laughs.] I had no idea that 24 years later we’d still be talking about Halloween 4; it’s crazy to me, but it’s also amazing. Who knew that my career was going to be like this? I always say, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plan.” And I think that I’ve just embraced it.
I’ve done a bunch of other stuff, too. After Halloween 5 [in 1989], I didn’t do another horror movie until, like, thirteen years later with Urban Legend; that was kind of my comeback into the genre. And then I didn’t do another one until the Halloween remake with Rob Zombie [in 2007]. People say, “You’ve always been in the horror genre,” but it’s like, “Well, actually, I’ve only been in the horror genre in 1988, 1989, and then in ’07.” Other than that, I wasn’t always involved in it.
But I am for the most part now, and I kind of like that I’m the girl in the pack. There’s a bunch of men, and then there’s me. Every movie that I do, it’s the same guys, and they’re these big, huge, should-be-scary dudes but in reality they’re these big puppy dogs. [Laughs.] I’m a lucky girl.
Admittedly, as a male horror fan, it’s always a great look to see your name in a movie’s credits. Horror fans sort of have this sense of ownership over their stars, but in the most appreciative ways possible. So much so, in fact, that we recently placed you very high atop our list of the "50 Hottest Scream Queens of All Time," a title you’ve really earned.
Danielle Harris: [Laughs.] That’s so funny, and I love that! I really do appreciate that. It’s just a trip, because I think of myself as an actress who just happens to do a lot of movies in the genre. But this shit is hard! I look at other actresses who are making tons of money and are super-famous, and 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. [Laughs.] I wouldn’t feel like I was earning my keep, because it’s so grueling emotionally and physically to do these horror movies.
Adam Green and I were talking the other day. I said to him, “You know, I get asked all of the time, ‘How do you handle the title of ‘scream queen?’ What makes you a good scream queen?’ And I don’t know where that comes from; I didn’t give myself that title.” He said, “Even when you were a kid in the older Halloween movies, you were really good. And you want to be there, and you love it, and you show up and give it 100% no matter what it is, and people see that.” And I followed that up with, “Do you think it’s because the fans kind of grew up watching me? I don’t have to earn that relationship from you, because you already have something invested in me?”
For me, that’s where I think a lot of that comes from. You guys have all kind of grown up, and most of my hardcore fans seem to be around my age. They grew up watching me, and it’s sort of like a brother/sister thing, or friends, even though I’m on the screen; there’s not that separation. My fans are my family. I do tons of conventions and hang out with people; I’m pretty easily accessible.
That’s one of the great things about the horror genre: The key players in it actually acknowledge the fans on a personal level and interact with them. You see it at all of the various conventions. People who’ve seen all of these movies and own the DVDs feel like they’re not inferior to the actors and the filmmakers, and that’s pretty uncommon.
Danielle Harris: Yeah, it’s true. You don’t see conventions for, like, Terms Of Endearment.
Probably because that’d be one of the most boring conventions imaginable.
Danielle Harris: [Laughs.] Listen, I love that movie! But you don’t see me signing up for it.
Earlier, you said something interesting, that you wouldn’t feel like you’re earning your money if you made a romantic comedy. Do those types of mushy characters not appeal to you?
Danielle Harris: I think it would depend more on who I got play opposite; it’s all about that relationship with the other character, regardless of what it is. It would probably be a nice break. I did a movie this year called The Trouble With The Truth, with Lea Thompson, because I’m a huge ’80s geek; I love Back To The Future like you wouldn’t believe. Even though I don’t have any scenes with Lea Thompson, the project appealed to me because my scenes are just all dialogue. It’s me sitting in a diner, talking to my dad, and it felt like acting class. It had been so long since I actually sat down with someone and had a conversation on film, because I’m always doing something.
There is one thing I’d love to do, though. While a romantic comedy may not seem challenging, it may actually be more challenging than I think it is, since I haven’t done one yet. But I just am dying to work somewhere that’s warm! I know it sounds crazy, but every movie I do I’m absolutely fucking freezing my ass off. [Laughs.] They put me in barely any clothes and in a horrible situation, and it’s too much. [Laughs.]
I was shooting this movie called Shiver, in Portland in December, and we were working in this, like, dilapidated shack, and it was pouring rain, and the shack was infested with fleas and mosquitoes. And while all of the crew was wearing rain gear and have on thermals and jeans and boot and jackets, I’m wearing a skirt and a tank-top. [Laughs.] I had mosquitoes crawling up my skirt, I was getting bit on my ass by fleas, and I was freezing. I told the crew, “Look, I’m freaking out in here! You better set off some flea-bombs in here or else I’m going to lose it.” But then I’m doing a scene where I’m being slammed onto a cop car, and I’m laughing maniacally because I’m loving my life.
So there are very few things that I won’t do, but I’d just love to do a movie in Hawaii or the Bahamas. Somewhere that’s nice and delicious!
Sounds like you need a nice spring break comedy in your life.
Danielle Harris: Oh my God! That would be amazing, but I don’t see that in my future any time soon.
You never know. What makes you say that?
Danielle Harris: People just don’t see me for those kinds of roles. Whenever I audition for a pilot or a film that’s outside the genre, I’m just another name on the list. Nobody really cares, to be honest. But when I walk into a room with an Adam Green, or a Rob Zombie, or a Jim Mickle or any other horror fan, I’m treated like gold. That’s because all of the guys who write and make these movies are fanboys; 99% of them do these movies because they love them, and if they love them then they know who I am. So they’re like, “Oh my god, I grew up watching you! Holy crap, I can’t believe you’re auditioning for my movie!”
That makes me feel really good. But if I walk into an audition for a new Fox pilot, they’re like, “I’m sorry, what’s your name again? Do you have a resume with you?” I’m nothing. So, no matter how good I am in the room, or how big my resume is, they don’t really care. I’m not on their list for those kinds of movies, and that’s fine, because, in this other world, I’m number one on the list and this work is much harder and much more rewarding. I have an amazing career, so I’ll stay here for as long as you guys will let me.
I think it’s safe to say that you won’t get kicked out any time soon.
Danielle Harris: See, that’s why I love what I do!