Adrienne Barbeau has had a long and varied career—she went from stage, to TV, to the big screen, where she starred in several offbeat films that have become genre classics. Being married to John Carpenter from 1979-1984 didn’t hurt her career, but Barbeau had plenty of talent to succeed on her own merits.
In 2009, Barbeau released a witty, insightful autobiography, There Are Worse Things I Could Do. The title references her Broadway breakthrough as Rizzo in Grease; the vintage come-hither cover photo is a knowing nod to her sex-symbol image. (As she acknowledges in the book, her physical assets were often the focus of her characters’ costuming over the years, something she didn’t always realize at the time.)
Like her Escape from New York co-star Harry Dean Stanton, her resume includes lots of work that isn’t in the science fiction, horror, or fantasy realms (Back to School and Cannonball Run are two of her top comedy outings). But most of our favorite Barbeau performances fall into those genre categories. Including her work on HBO’s criminally short-lived Carnivàle—and these six films that she made even better by being in.
Wes Craven’s oddly endearing 1982 adaptation of the science fiction/horror comic features Barbeau as a government agent (smart!) who sticks by her man even after he’s turned into a hideous beast (sweet!)
She also survives a dunking by a bad dude—who’s played by the great David Hess, just as creepy as ever 10 years after his on-screen debut in Craven’s own directing debut, The Last House on the Left. And she has a topless scene—which was more risque in the version originally released outside the United States. But Barbeau signed on to this throwback monster story for her own reasons.
“When I read it, I fell in love with the screenplay,” she explains in an interview with Shout Factory, which released Swamp Thing on Blu-ray. “It was whimsical, and charming, and lovely. I didn’t see it as a horror film. I guess I don’t see it as a horror film to this day, actually. It’s Beauty and the Beast—it’s more of a fantasy or a fairy tale, maybe, in my mind.”
Barbeau’s first movie with her then-husband, John Carpenter, is about a picturesque coastal town cursed by a plague of vengeful, ghostly lepers.
Two years after starring in Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis gets to play a sassy hitchhiker. But Barbeau plays the movie’s coolest character by far: a radio DJ named Stevie Wayne, who broadcasts from a lighthouse on the edge of town. This gives her a unique vantage point when the sinister fog begins swirling in, and she’s able to warn the town of its presence (and save her young son, who’s trapped alone at home, in the process).
As a side note, Barbeau’s pleasing voice—which makes for a perfectly sultry radio presence here—would serve her well throughout her career, including an extensive stint voicing Catwoman on various Batman cartoons.
In 1982, George A. Romero and Stephen King teamed up for this horror anthology that often draws more laughs than shrieks. But Barbeau’s segment, “The Crate,” is maybe the film’s scariest. Barbeau hams it up as the simply awful wife of a college professor who fantasizes about killing her on the regular. (Played by Hal Holbrook, who’s also in The Fog.) He decides he’s found the perfect murder weapon: the mysterious creature he discovers lurking in a long-hidden wooden box.
Ok, seriously. The “Father’s Day” chapter is black-comedy gold, but that Abominable Snowman thing is freaking terrifying.
In 1981, Barbeau appeared in Carpenter’s Escape from New York as Maggie, a tough gal with bodacious cleavage who hangs out with a fellow convict, “Brain,” played by a scarf-wearing Harry Dean Stanton. This could have been a thankless role, but Maggie is no pushover; she fights alongside her “main squeeze” and his frenemy, Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken, until the bitter end. Her death allows a rare moment of sadness into a movie where the characters all prioritize macho posturing over showing any genuine emotion.
Barbeau’s other big horror-anthology outing is in George A. Romero’s half of 1990's Edgar Allan Poe tribute Two Evil Eyes. Her character, Jessica—a flight attendant turned trophy wife, who’s scheming to inherit her dying husband’s fortune—could have been a cliche, but Barbeau makes her surprisingly sympathetic. This makes her inevitable death—at the hands of her not-quite-dead husband—even scarier. “Jesss-i-caaaaaaa...”
Also known as Bridge Across Time, this 1985 made-for-TV movie has one of the most outstandingly ridiculous movie premises of all time: when London Bridge is reconstructed in Arizona, it awakens the spirit of Jack the Ripper, who begins killing anew. A peak Knight Rider-era David Hasselhoff plays the cop on the case; his chief is played by B-movie legend Clu Gulager; and Barbeau (and co-star Stepfanie Kramer, of Hunter fame) bring a little class to the cheese.
Really, there’s nothing notable about this performance other than the fact that made-for-TV movies used to be much more insane than they are nowadays. And this tidbit, from an interview Barbeau did with The Terror Trap, which shows her good humor about her career’s less-than-stellar moments:
I do remember that I had booked my first voice-over commercial the day after I finished filming that movie. And in my last scene, maybe I was getting killed ... I was screaming a lot ... and I woke up the next day and drove back to L.A. to go to the studio to do this national television commercial for Jack In the Box and I couldn’t talk. I had screamed my way out of a job ... [and] they had to hire somebody else. So THAT’S what I remember about Terror at London Bridge. (Laughs)