Annie Brackett was never supposed to make it out the front door in Rob Zombie's 2007 reboot of Halloween. But Zombie hadn't counted on Danielle Harris' escape skills.
"[Michael Myers, the killer] didn't get me fast enough," says Harris. "So I actually ran out the front door while we were rolling. And I got down, and then he ran and grabbed me. Rob was like, 'That's fucking great. Put cameras across the street.'"
It's no surprise that the 36-year-old Harris has a unique familiarity with narrow escapes and death scenes. When Harris took on the role of Annie, she was no stranger to the slasher film — or even the Halloween series. At the age of 10, she played young Jamie Lloyd, Michael Myers' niece, in 1988's Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers and the following year's Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers. So by the time she filmed the Halloween reboot, she knew she couldn't be the traditional passive victim. And she was clear about that with Tyler Mane, the man who played Michael Myers.
"I told Tyler, 'You better get me,'" she recalls. "'I'm not gonna be slowly running to the kitchen to do the scene. I'm gonna go. I'm not gonna be the girl that runs upstairs when the front door's right there.'"
After the impromptu leap out the front door, which was incorporated into the final cut of the film, Annie and Michael face off against each other.
Harris continues, "I told Tyler, 'You need to put on pads. I'm the sheriff's daughter. I'm going to kick your ass. I'm going to fight you off me, so good luck.' And he was like, 'All right, all right, all right.' And then I just went for him, kicking his shins and punching him and beating him up, and he was like, 'Holy shit! I actually need pads.' And I was like, 'Yeah. Of course you do.'"
But kicking ass comes at a price: For every showdown with a masked killer, there's a recovery period where Harris has to nurse her wounds — both physical and psychological. And now, Danielle Harris is reckoning with whether it's time to retire as the industry's ultimate Final Girl.
The "Final Girl" is a term created by film theorist Carol Clover in her iconic 1992 book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. According to Clover, the Final Girl is the one character who survives to tell the story, serving as the audience's point of identification in a slasher film.
The original Final Girl — think Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie Strode in the first Halloween — was simply designed to survive. But Harris is part of the new model, where the Final Girl kicks a lot more ass along the way.
"There was something about horror where the Final Girl was kind of just there to survive," Harris notes. "It wasn't as much about a journey of starting off one way and finding your strength and conquering as it is now. It was more like you're kind of hot and had great boobs. They just wanted you to come back for the next one."
In Hatchet II and Hatchet III, for example, Harris' Final Girl character Marybeth Dunston is a much more active participant than her genre predecessors. Overall, it's a more demanding role than it used to be, because while the new Final Girl gets to fight back, she's more brutalized by the killer than ever before. Laurie emerges from the original Halloween mostly unscathed; in Rob Zombie's remake, she ends the film a broken, sobbing, bloody mess.
Harris' Final Girls have followed suit.
"It was freakin' exhausting fighting these giant guys and kind of having to carry the movie physically as well as emotionally, because the Final Girl has to do both of those things, and has to carry the audience through the journey of survival," Harris says. "It's an interesting challenge."
The physicality of these roles is something often overlooked by those who might assume stunt doubles take on all the heavy lifting. Harris remains unusually committed to the endurance aspect of her work, explaining that the real-life bodily harm helps with her performance.
"It doesn't help me for them to fake it," she explains. "I need to be grabbed. I need to be thrown around. That just allows all of my shit to come up. Otherwise I'm having to pretend that it's actually happening, and I can see it. If someone's hand's not on my throat tight enough — I don't want to actually pass out, but I want to feel like I might. … There's no acting in my physical stuff at all."
It hasn't always been this way. As a kid, Harris mostly just followed direction. She says she earned a lot of her roles by being small for her age and behaving well. Her transition to acting came naturally, following her work in pageants (less traumatic than Toddlers & Tiaras, she promises), though she admits as a little girl she mostly just wanted to be a princess.
In Halloween 4, Harris was tasked with the much less glamorous role of victim. But producers on set made a point of never letting it feel too real for their child star: Even at 10, she never felt scared, and they didn't encourage her to.
"You don't even really think about it," she says. "I never prepared where I sat there and said, 'OK, Michael Myers, my uncle, has got a giant knife and he's in the corner and he's gonna come stab me.' I just didn't think about that stuff. I thought about not being able to see my dog ever again and my sister dying, just things that were more realistic to me, I guess."
After Halloween 5, she got plenty of work in other genres, including family films Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead and Wish Upon a Star, and a recurring stint on Roseanne. But Harris found herself in a tough position as she aged, not really fitting the Hollywood mold — and, at times, actively rebelling against it.
"I wasn't pretty enough to be the pretty girl, and I wasn't unattractive enough to be the girl that didn't get the guy," she says. "So I fell into a place that doesn't really exist. I couldn't be the character actor and I couldn't be the hot girl."
"I was like, well screw it, I'll be the character actor," she continues, "because it's more fun anyway. I have a better chance of getting those roles than I do of getting the other roles, partially because I'm short, I'm older than I [look], I've been around for a long time, so people were kind of like, 'Oh, she's been there, done that, she isn't fresh and hot and new.'"
But entering into adulthood presented a new set of challenges, and once again Harris found herself in need of reinvention. She was no longer the little girl from Halloween 4 or the teenager who swapped places with her cool older sister in Wish Upon a Star.
Harris continued to work in TV, guest starring on shows like ER and Brooklyn South. But as prospects dwindled, she nearly gave up on acting entirely: Harris still went on auditions, but she also got her real estate license and worked for a beauty company.
"As I got older, I felt like, did I choose this, or was this chosen for me?" she remembers. "I tried to do other things and really just felt like I'm most myself when I'm at work."
Even when Harris wasn't getting as much work, horror fans remained devoted to her portrayal of Jamie Lloyd. And she still dabbled in the genre, appearing as Tosh in the 1998 slasher Urban Legend.
It was at a horror convention that Harris first heard the news of Rob Zombie's Halloween reboot. Here was a major opportunity to introduce herself to a new audience while appealing to the die-hard fans who had watched her as a kid. The one problem: Zombie didn't want any original Halloween cast members distracting from his new vision.
"My manager went over casting's head, talked to the head of Dimension, and said, 'Let's just get her in the room and put her on tape,'" Harris explains. "'As long as we just get her in the room, let's just have her audition. Let's just try.'"
And it paid off, as Harris landed the role of Annie Brackett, played by Nancy Loomis in the original. As for how she convinced Zombie, that came down to attitude — and a willingness to bare it all.
"They asked me how I felt about nudity — and I'm sassy, but Annie's super sassy," Harris says. "I said something stupid like, 'What guy doesn't want to see little Jamie take her clothes off?' And I think Rob was like, 'Dude, fuck it. Let's just go for it.'"
The question wasn't moot: Harris spends much of the Halloween remake half-naked, and even kept her top off between scenes to achieve the right level of vulnerability.
As it turns out, nudity was a major part of her reinvention.
"It was about getting naked, if I can be really honest," Harris says. "Taking my clothes off was a calculated decision, because I wanted people to not see me as a little kid anymore, even though I was still playing high school and it was really innocent. All of the sudden Jamie Lloyd had boobs, so I was no longer Jamie Lloyd."
On a practical level, exposing herself meant new opportunities for Harris, who continues, "I think it made other producers and writers and studios go, 'OK, she's pretty cute. OK, wow, she's got boobs.' So they started thinking of me in a different way, and then I started getting offers for different things."
For Harris, the topless scene paid off; but it was also her return to horror, whose loyal fans have long memories. Even those who didn't like Rob Zombie's Halloween noticed Harris and welcomed her resurgence in the genre. After all, it had been a while — recall the days of Jennifer Love Hewitt and Neve Campbell — since there had been an actual scream queen.
"There were years where there was no such thing as a scream queen," Harris says. "I think that it found me, and it was an opportunity for me to do my best acting."
Horror presented Harris with a challenge she wasn't getting elsewhere: In playing the victim, she could show a range of extreme emotions, portraying the agony of capture and the ecstasy of escape.
But that meant committing to low-budget horror, a genre that demands an incredible amount of work and garners very little respect. Harris works long hours fighting off men twice her size to make films largely ignored by the mainstream. It's a sacrifice that lets her be the leading lady.
"I wasn't a star," she says. "I wasn't famous. It wasn't like I could get on some great huge movie where I get to really show my acting chops. … I could be a lead in the genre because I had the background, so I definitely wasn't going to bite the hand that fed me."
Now, as she reflects on her extensive credits, Harris is proud of the work she's done. Adam Green, who directed her in Hatchet II, appreciates that Harris isn't dismissive of her role as horror film leading lady.
"While some actors fall into 'iconic' horror status by lucking into being part of a successful horror film and would much rather be known for something more mainstream," he offers, "Danielle is proud and truly grateful for her stature within our genre."
And she should be proud: As Green can attest, what Harris does isn't easy.
"Now I have to put myself in the actual position and feel like it's actually happening to me, which is why I think I've kind of reached my limit a little bit," Harris reflects. "You can only be raped and murdered and tortured and beaten so many times before you're like, 'OK, this is probably not the best thing to do.'"
That doesn't mean, however, that Harris enjoys being tortured. Reflecting on her experience filming Hatchet III, she admits to wishing she weren't so motivated to throw herself (quite literally) into every role.
"I'm never gonna phone it in," she says. "All the bruises in Hatchet III were real. When I'm sitting in the jail cell and my arms are all completely covered in bruises and scratches, that's from me falling off the tree in real life — a tree that had been sprayed with poison to kill ants, and now I'm, like, on the floor, bleeding."
It's a trait that doesn't go unnoticed by the people she works with, including Green.
"She comes to each role with unbridled enthusiasm," he gushes. "She never takes a single opportunity for granted."
Harris is also making low-budget films, which means she has to work longer days out of necessity. Ten pages in one day is hard enough for a drama — but compound that with the serious beatings her characters take.
"What I've learned is, from almost passing out on set, having an ambulance come and hook me up to oxygen, to hyperventilating, to can't feel my hands, [to] losing sight in one of my eyes because I thought I had a stroke from pushing it too hard — crazy stuff happens when you really are doing it," she says.
Harris isn't ungrateful — she's just honest. And for any actor who dreams of one day doing a horror film and getting a great death scene, she offers a bit of realism.
"It's actually not fun," Harris says. "It's really hard just to have to fight that fight and be killed and be crying and screaming, if you really want to give it 100%. … Say you're killed in a bathtub. Put yourself in a bathtub in water for 12 hours and just continue to keep that emotion and tell me how fucking fun it is."
Then there's the emotional toll. For the film Shiver, due out later this year, Harris recalls, "We had to spend two weeks in this place with me being bound and tied and gagged and fed awful shit and raped and just horrible stuff."
She says it's one of the first times she hasn't been able to shake a role after leaving set, recalling that when she came home after a long day, she needed a stiff drink and a hot shower to move on with her night.
"I really thought, I'm gonna be an actor, I'm gonna be method, I'm gonna stay in it," Harris says. "After day one, I was like, I can't stay in this for a month. I will slit my wrists. I can't live with this — just how tortured this poor character was."
Playing a tortured character — that is, a character who is literally tortured — is a blessing for an actor, according to Harris. But the more she talks about these roles, the clearer it is she may soon be leaving them behind.
"[Filming Shiver] was awful," Harris says. "Best performance I've ever given, I think, but I don't really know if that's something I need to do again to feel like I'm a good actor."
But if she's not the Final Girl, what is she?
A director, for one. Harris helmed her debut feature Among Friends in 2011. It will be available on DVD this August. Taking on a behind-the-scenes role felt like the natural progression for someone who has spent much of her life on movie sets.
"It was just time," Harris says. "There was only so much I could do as an actor in the genre, and I know there's going to be a 10-year period, starting pretty soon, where I'm not gonna work that much. And I was burned out. So I thought I needed to be challenged. I needed to learn."
Like so many before her, Harris learned by doing. She says that Among Friends helped her find her style as a director because she had no time to think about it, working with a very low budget and a tight schedule.
After enduring so much as an actor, Harris admits she also put her actors through hell. Filming in chronological order, she captured their actual frustration as they were forced to work long hours under less-than-ideal conditions.
"They wanted to kill themselves and each other by the time they got out of the house, and that's exactly what I wanted," Harris says. "I had no time for them to go prepare in a corner. … I needed to see them unravel."
As Harris shifts her focus to directing, she passes on the torch to the next generation of Final Girls. Her style may sound tough on her actors, but it's through brutality that the Final Girl finds her strength.
That's a lesson Harris knows well — and it's one she's done learning.
"I've had so many great opportunities, and it doesn't do anything for me as an actor except make me crazy and exhausted," she says. "When it comes to being the Final Girl, I just can't put myself through all of that."