Lesleh Donaldson appeared in several classic horror films in the early 1980s. Best known for her role in “Happy Birthday To Me”, Donaldson quickly became a scream queen underdog. She was the “girl next door” type, killed in the first few minutes. Her big starring role was in “Funeral Home”, a terrific little Slasher potboiler from 1980, a movie which to this day hasn’t seen a proper DVD release and was even super rare when released on VHS. She is an actress, model, writer and mother. Recently RetroSlashers was granted a phone interview with Lesleh and we were able to gather some exclusive information regarding the making of these classic Slashers.
Hello Lesleh and thank you for taking the time to sit down with us. You starred in several classic slasher films such as “Funeral Home”, “Happy Birthday To Me” and “Curtains”. Did you grow up a fan of the genre?
Absolutely. I saw a lot of the Hammer horror films growing up. Whenever a new one came out, my Aunt would make an excuse to my mother to sneak me to them…like “Oh, I’m taking her to ‘The Sound of Music’” but it was really a horror film. I loved it. I’ve always been a fan of the macabre and love the genre. I still prefer to watch them over like the newest movie with big actors…especially since I can just get them on “In Demand” now.
How did you first become involved in “Funeral Home”?
It was totally by chance. I never in a million years thought of pursuing horror. Back then I just wanted to work. So I auditioned for stuff, and a lot happened to be horror movies, and that’s what I got! They were casting a “Little Red Riding Hood” type, and I fit the mold and had the right qualities they were looking for. I loved horror movies but I don’t really consider “Funeral Home” much of a horror film, more a psychological thriller. When you think of horror movies you think “Michael Myers”, “The Exorcist”, “The Changeling”…you know, ghost stories or something like that. So I never really thought of “Funeral Home” as a full blown horror movie. It’s got an old fashioned feel to it.
The film is rather low budget which often makes for a chaotic shoot. Do you have any fun, fond or crazy memories from the production?
Interestingly enough, it wasn’t that crazy. It was 4-6 weeks of shooting, which was a lot for a movie like this. It was a Summer vacation, it flowed easily. No massive drama, except there were some times when I had to go do a scene I wasn’t prepared for just because of scheduling glitches. There was some issues between Director Bill and an actress. We often rode together to set and she was a nervous wreck a lot. Really just because she was worried about what we might have to do on set or if she wasn’t prepared for it. But it never affected shooting or anything. For me it was a pleasant experience.
“Funeral Home” is pretty rare and actually never had an official DVD release. Do you know if there ever were plans for one?
Not sure. That would be nice, there are a lot of people who want to see that happen. I mean, look what happened with “Curtains”. The fans petitioned and Synapse did a fantastic job with it. They cleaned it up and it looks great. It would be awesome if they did that with “Funeral Home”.
Do you know if “Funeral Home” was shot widescreen? It is rumored it was a made-for-TV movie. To your knowledge did it premiere in theaters?
I didn’t know as much about the technical aspect of film making back then as I do now, I mean I was 16 and just was there to do my job trying not to “fuck up”. But to my knowledge it was filmed on standard 35mm and was always intended to be a regular feature film. The producer just came off “Meatballs”, the small crew was in their 20s and they really just wanted to jump on the bandwagon and make a horror feature.
The next Slasher film you appeared in was “Happy Birthday To Me”. Did your role in “Funeral Home” help land the part? Or how did involvement come about?
Yes. Back then one role always led to another. And you are only as good as your last job. They were looking for this “first victim” and my name came up. I only had to do a couple auditions then I had it. They wanted a “girl next door”, sort of sassy. Again, I fit the mold of what they needed.
The first official DVD release had some pretty notorious music changes that upset many fans. The more recent release was the fully intact original version. Other than the music, are you aware of any additional material or deleted scenes from the film that didn’t make final cut?
You know, there was probably some extra stuff filmed, but all my stuff is there. There is always extra stuff they shoot to explain stuff that they cut out for time constraints or whatever.
“Happy Birthday To Me” features some pretty inventive kills, which was pretty ahead of the time for an American production. Do you feel it paved the way for more gory mainstream Slashers like the “Friday The 13th” series?
Yes, although I think they were really trying to set themselves apart, do something different. It didn’t have your typical Jason or Michael Myers killer. It had a girl killer. They wanted to make it unique. And I’m always amazed when people come up to me and say “I loved you in ‘Happy Birthday To Me’!” and I’m all “Really? You’ve seen that movie?” haha. It’s fantastic, I’m so shocked people saw it. Especially a movie like “Curtains”. It surprises me. You are just doing the job and don’t think about it at the time. You kind of think it might be a crappy movie so you just take your check and be happy. You just never know where the movie will go.
Well I think it shows in the film it was a fun time filming, is that an accurate assumption?
Oh, I’m glad it shows! It was.
While it can be argued “Deadly Eyes” is a Slasher film, your next true “Slasher” film was“Curtains”, another cult classic. Again, up until recently this was a fairly hard to find title. It appeared on a few “public domain” film collections, but as an obvious VHS transfer. How involved were you (if at all) in the recent remastered release?
They interviewed me about my experience making the movie and they also recorded a commentary. Synapse really took it under their wing and did their magic. There were petitions, but then Peter passed away a couple years ago. I know he would have loved to see this release. I know the original company had some extra footage from the film but they tossed it! I mean, in those days if it weren’t in the film they didn’t need to hold onto it. It was before DVD features. Because of that I don’t pitch anything from a movie anymore, haha. I grabbed my costume after filming “Tales of Poe” because you just never know!
This was another Canadian-lensed film, and the picture boasts some pretty elegant yet eerie locations. What was it like filming in Canada?
Nowadays I can see it was part of the “Canadasploitation” films. Doing it there for tax credits and stuff. It’s not something I thought about at the time, but looking back I can see they were part of a good era of Canadian horror films. You had Cronenberg making these wild movies so everyone wanted to jump on the bandwagon. He was the original gorilla filmmaker, doing stuff often without a script. It’s fascinating to me now, but back then you’re just in it. Now I hear things like Quentin Tarantino was a fan and it blows my mind. He’s brilliant and I love everything he does. He makes no bones about admitting everything he does is an homage. It’s his interpretation, and he puts his own stamp on it.
How do you feel about the recent resurgence in retro-style horror and slasher films?
Oh I love it! Like the guys behind “Tales of Poe” are trying to really bring back that ’70s style, more gritty and character driven. Movies like “Saw” and “Hostel” too. I love them, especially since I have a behind-the-scenes understanding of the make-up and stuff. It’s great, the gore is in there but it’s not for shock value, more character based.
Any plans to appear in any more horror films? Anything you want to share with fans?
I have no problems with horror, I’m not one to turn up my nose to it. Contrary to popular belief I didn’t walk away from acting because I wanted out of horror, it was just life changes. I got married, had kids and became a mom. I did some theater, but not many good horror films were getting made that had the roles I wanted. You could get like one line like “this is your hot dog, sir” haha. But now if the script was good and interesting and it had a good crew I would totally do it. I might be doing a film later this year that’s a comedy/horror involving an obsession with “coupon cutting”…that’s all I can say. It’s a great script and the filmmakers are wonderful. Then “Tales of Poe” has a screening at the Egyptian Theater on August 20th in LA I’m excited for. I’m also a writer myself trying to get that off the ground, and that’s time consuming but fun to do.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Lesleh, it was a pleasure.