Caroline Williams on “Ten Minutes to Midnight”
Genre star on her latest film and changes in the horror landscape
Jan 22, 2021
Since her breakout as Vanita “Stretch” Brock, Leatherface’s objet d’affection in 1986’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Caroline Williams has been a welcome fixture in horror films for a little more than three decades. Although she’s never limited herself to horror—the blockbuster Days of Thunder is among her many non-genre appearances—she’s never shied away from it, taking on roles in scary movies like Stepfather II, Leprechaun 3, and Halloween II (2009). Over the last half-decade, she seems to have embraced her place in the horror pantheon more than ever, taking on intriguing roles in bold features like last year’s Greenlight and the new Ten Minutes to Midnight – providing her with some of the best genre material she’s ever had to work with.
In Ten Minutes to Midnight, Williams plays Amy Marlowe, a late-night DJ at a tiny but well-loved radio station, who finds herself somewhat unexpectedly nearing the end of her long career. An unusual night taking place during a torrential storm — which begins with being bitten by a bat, and follows with a young rival arriving to take her place – sends Amy’s sense of reality spiraling out of control, and the audience on a hallucinatory, frightening trip through our heroine’s past, present, and future.
Equal parts trippy and shocking, Ten Minutes to Midnight is a visually-exciting, often nerve-wrecking new entry in the horror genre from director Erik Bloomquist and his brother (and co-writer) Carson Bloomquist.
We had a quick call with Caroline Williams to discuss her new film.
Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: This movie hit me in an unexpected way, because one of my favorite disc jockeys just passed away in December. I’d been listening to her show for over a decade. I didn’t realize how attached I’d become to this person, and felt like I knew her; even though we’d never met, she’d been part of my routine at home for so long. You’ve played a couple disc jockeys on screen now, and I’m wondering if you’ve had any similar sort of attachment to a radio show or personality at any time in your life?
Caroline Williams: When I was a little girl, I was living in Jackson, Mississippi, which wasn’t the best place to be in 1963. I got the gift of a transistor radio. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of those, but they had an unusual sound when you were trying to tune in the channels. You’d hear voices, and fuzz, and crackle. One of the most popular shows you could hear late at night was Wolfman Jack. He was a disc jockey who broadcast out of Del Rio, Texas, right on the Mexican border. He played rock and roll, and my music education began there. I heard bands and artists and music that I would never have become familiar with, because obviously when I was in the car my parents would be there, and I wasn’t interested in what they were into.
All you had back then for entertainment was movie theaters, three channels on your television, and the radio. Those were very reliable go-to’s for entertainment. I remember falling asleep with my transistor radio under my pillow, listening to Wolfman Jack. Of course, the batteries would bleed out, but I loved that transistor radio, tuning-in sound. It was so different and unusual.
Can you tell me about how you were approached for this film?
This is a great story. I kind of started my life over four years ago. My children were grown, and I wanted to reboot, do the whole re-invention thing. I had done a movie called Greenlight, it was really exceptional—Graham Denman directed it—and I felt a new sense of possibility, having done an extraordinary film noir. I thought, “I do have possibilities.”
I’d been watching Barbara Crampton’s career, watching it grow and the choices she made. She was going into production and taking control of her career in horror in a way I hadn’t seen too many other women do. I thought, I want to follow her and do what she’s doing. It just so happened she was the first offer on Ten Minutes to Midnight, but she was going to make Castle Freak and said to Erik [Bloomquist, director] that she couldn’t do it. She told him, “This is tailor-made for Caroline Williams. You should approach her.” So, it was like a wonderful gift from Barbara.
The first thing I did was watch Long Lost (2018), which was an exceptional film. Erik and Carson [Bloomquist, co-writer] are two individual storytellers. They really know how to get a story down, and their visuals—with Thomas Nguyen as DP—are impeccable. It captured me; I could not take my eyes off the screen. I couldn’t stop thinking about the film. And so, the minute I talked to him on the phone, we basically started planning wardrobe. [Laughs] It was a done deal.
I read the script. When I’m excited about a movie script, I want to read the words – I walk around, with my iPad, doing the dialogue and playing the part. Of course I don’t always get cast, but that’s how enthusiastic I can feel about things, and I definitely felt that way about this film. I knew that this was not only going to be a unique experience for me, but I could bring my unique experience to it.
That’s amazing, because at some points it really feels like an intentional nod to your role as Stretch. But, that sounds like it was a lucky accident.
It was entirely a lucky accident. It’s part of the reason why Erik thought to throw in a few, sort of meta moments. There’s a “between the legs” moment that’s reminiscent of [Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2] – but, they’re all the same, I guess. We threw in a few of those sort of meta things, and it’s sort of brought me full circle in a way that’s kind of poetic.
I can only speak as an audience member, but it’s a role that seems very demanding. You’re asked to play all over the emotional spectrum in a rather tight amount of screen time. How do you prepare yourself for a character like this one?
You know, I didn’t prepare for it. I knew that I didn’t want to go to any Caroline Williams/Stretch places. The script doesn’t really allow for that, it’s so unique. Plus, when I met the actors – we’re an ensemble cast, there’s no doubt about that. As you watch the movie unfold, it’s unmistakable. Each actor brought so much subtext, and they were so fully alive and fully developed in these characters. It was impossible not to react and respond. [Lead character Amy Marlowe] gets to revisit her past. She gets to have a conversation with her conscience. I haven’t seen a woman’s role like that in a long time, and it’s all encapsulated in one hour and twenty-three minutes.
Erik is a very singular director. Most directors, when I do a film, just throw you out there and they aren’t really working with you. I told Erik, “I don’t know how to go to all of these places, but I know these actors are going to help me there, and I know you can. You need to plant the flag in every scene for me, and you need to walk me through.” And he did. It was incredibly rewarding – there’s nothing like nailing every single scene, and you can’t do that if you don’t have a director who’s willing to say, “Well, what about this angle on this scene? What about going in an opposite direction?”
You’ve made a major impact in horror in two very distinct periods, between when you broke out in the late ‘80s and in recent years, when you’ve come right back to it in a big way. From your perspective, are horror movies and the people making them all that different now, compared to when you started out?
I think they are. The Eighties gave birth to the anti-hero – you know: Jason, Freddy, Leatherface, guys like that – and you still have those. I think a good example would be Damien Leone’s Terrifier (2016). Art the Clown is a new character like that, and he’s been given a lot of room for that character to grow, but David Howard Thornton’s performance as that character is pretty singular, because it’s entirely physical. He does musicals, he sings, he dances, he does a million things, and you can see those nuances. Also, I think it’s cultural evolution.
With the anti-heroes of the 1980s, they resembled Western anti-heroes. Tobe [Hooper] used to say, “Horror is the new Western.” And, he was right. It’s the war between good and evil. It’s illustrated most starkly in The Exorcist, and most starkly in the movies of James Wan, where the devil and God are at war with each other. All of those symbols and language are there, but there’s more nuance now. The minds of characters are a lot more mysterious. There’s a much more suspenseful and mysterious angle to storytelling today than there was then. Everything was very stark: the bad guy was coming to cut your head off, and you needed to keep him from getting in the house. You had to defend yourself, and that’s the way it was. It’s very different today – and better, I believe.
Ten Minutes to Midnight is now available on VOD and digital.