Happy Halloween, everybody! If you're not planning on watching a horror movie after right reading this article, then it's time to reconsider your life's decisions. I suppose you can watch horror movies on the 1st of November, but, well, it's not quite the same. Be sure to watch something made before you were born, too. You'll find that they can be scary, too.
To our loyal fans of The B-Movies Podcast (which has now lasted a brain-melting 39 episodes!), you'll have celebrated our last episode as not only being our longest (we finally broke the one-hour mark!), but also the one where we had two excellent special guests, Pollyanna McIntosh from The Woman, and Ashlynn Yennie from The Human Centipede, parts I and II. These two modern day scream queens (as they have been so dubbed) were both intelligent, talkative, and had some important things to say about horror movie theory. They also gave a shout-out to lesbians the world over. They were also very, very well dressed, which I don't think we mentioned on the show.
Talking to two new luminaries of the horror genre got our hearts hearkening back to the scream queens of ages past. The women well-known for their horror chops, and who set our hearts aflutter with their batting eyes, their shrieking, and their willingness to be sprayed with red Karo syrup. Certain hard-working male character actors may make regular appearances in horror movies (Robert Englund not only played Freddy Kreuger, but has appeared in mostly horror movies otherwise), but there is a separate character to the horror actress. Horror movies, you'll find, often focus more on women than they do men. The killers are often men, and the victims are often women, which can lead one to believe that the entire genre is inherently misogynistic, but consider the flipside to that: if the bad guy is a male after women, then the vanquishing protagonist must inevitably be a lady. It's feminist a regard that falls somewhere between admiration of acting talent, prurient interest in their nudity, and a powerful consideration of their gameness.
The term “Scream Queen” was coined in the 1940s to refer to working actresses who would often play damsels in distress, hence having to scream a lot. In the '70s and '80s the term expanded to mean any regular working actress who regularly appeared in horror films, even if they were heroines or villainesses.
So to pay homage to the Scream Queen on this fine Halloween morning, William Bibbiani and I have decided to run down a few notables in the genre. Some are dynamic and interesting women with varied careers and extensive resumes. Some are pretty ladies who were merely kind enough to strip for a camera. Some have camp appeal. But for whatever reason, here are the shrieking women who defined our horror movie memories.
I am currently revisiting all eight of the Howling movies, and in that endeavor, I, of course, recently sat through Philippe Mora's oddball effort Howling II: …Your Sister is a Werewolf (which, I have recently learned, was originally subtitled Stirba, Werewolf Bitch). And it was through this film that I was mercifully reminded of the career of Sybil Danning, who plays the werewolf queen Stirba in the film. Danning, nee Sybille Daninger, has been acting in exploitation movies ever since the early 1970s, most often in frothy Euro-trash sex comedies, and, a few years later, in one of Roger Corman's famous staple of women-in-prison movies, Chained Heat (wherein she tormented Linda Blair). She was also the leggy Amazon alien princess in Battle Beyond the Stars, one of the better Star Wars rip-offs. By the mid-'80s her reputation as a willing-to-disrobe, game model was cemented, and her fame amongst my peers was unshakable. Along came 1985's Howling II, and, well, adolescents the world over can tell you tales of Danning's topless scene. Danning plays a 10,000-year-old werewolf queen in charge of her own cult. She wears a pointy leather outfit that would make Grace Jones shudder. And, in the film's most famous scene, she watches two of her werewolf cohorts have sex while she strips. The shot of her whipping off her leather vest was so well loved that director Mora decided to put the shot in the credits over the closing song. The shot repeats 17 times. I counted. I picture Danning in the audience at the premiere, smiling to herself and giggling wildly each time her breasts were revealed. Sometime tells me she was drinking in the theater, toasting herself, and having a wonderful time flashing millions.
ERIN BROWN, a.k.a. MISTY MUNDAE
As Misty Mundae, she appeared in a long, long string of straight-to-video softcore sexploitation movies, wherein she would regularly strip totally nude and simulate sex with all manner of men, women, aliens, apes, and what-have-you. As Erin Brown, she has been moving through classier genre fare, with a recurring role on the Silk Stockings-like show Lingerie. She was also prominently featured in Lucky McKee's episode of Masters of Horror, in an episode called Sick Girl, wherein she played a wispy lesbian who becomes possessed by the venom of a mind-controlling insect. I know that description makes it sound cheap and weird, but McKee's interest in her character elevates the material, and Brown's own talent elevates it further, until Sick Girl resembles a twisted little horror film of actual note. And while she's a lovely young lady, who seduces you were her elven good looks, she is also a down-to-Earth and totally self-aware professional. She realizes where her sexploitation movies stand in her career, and is proudly using her experience to move into producing and directing. And she's only 32. In interviews, she giggles a lot, jokes about her sex symbol status, and talks intelligently about what she'd like to do in the future. She is ambitious, gorgeous, cute and funny. And willing to star in weird movies with titles like Playmate of the Apes. She raps in it while naked. Seriously. The audacity alone should get you on her side.
More known for her insanely prolific TV career than her movies (she starred in shows as diverse as Decoy to 7th Heaven), Garland was also one of the early regulars in Roger Corman's output from the late '50s and early '60s. Some of her movies include The Alligator People, the classic Not of the Earth, and, most notably, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 masterpiece It Conquered the World. Passionate, strong, flip, and always fun, Garland was a well-coiffed blonde with a pretty face would throw herself into her roles with an uncalled-for energy that has her standing way above her peers. As the MST3K writers pointed out, there's a scene at the end of It Conquered the World where Garland, as the interesting wife of a dull scientist, decides to kill the movie's alien monster with a shotgun. The monster, by the way, looks like a mean-faced conical pickle with two floppy tentacles and horns. Garland enters the beast's cave, and sees it for the first time. Full of rage, she bellows: “You're hideous!” For that moment, we really believe that this woman is enraged at a pickle from space. Here is an actress who represents the meaning of the word “professional.” She would take any job she could, and would throw herself into the role with reckless and shameless abandon. It's rare that you get that kind of passion even from the scream queens of today, who all tend to be fragile model types concerned with their image. Not Garland. She was naturally tough, and her image came in from her natural personality strengths. What a classy gal. Garland died in 2008.
Here's something that will make her interesting to you: Julie Strain, the busty actress of innumerable B-movies, and onetime model for Penthouse magazine, married Kevin Eastman, the co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Yes, that is cool. Strain is not the kind of tough professional that Garland was (who could be, really), but she does have the undying knack for landing work, as she has starred in 110 feature films since 1991. To do the very easy math for you, that's 11 films every year. It's likely that if, in a fit of pique back in 2001, you ever went scrounging on the bottom shelves of your local Blockbuster looking for something strange and new and sexy, you've seen at least one of her films. I first saw her the Unnamable II, wherein she played the creature. Going through her filmography, you'll find a list of evocative titles that you'll want to see right away. Witchcraft IV, Sunset Heat, Psycho Cop Returns, Midnight Confessions, L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies: Return to Savage Beach, Battle Queen 2020, the list is endless. Her most high-profile gig was probably as the kick-ass bikini gal from the maligned Heavy Metal 2000. Julie Strain is like a down-and-dirty antidote to the softcore smut of Shannon Tweed. While they both starred in similar films, Strain was more prolific, and seemed to be having more fun. No brooding here. She knew she was hired for her boobs, and took roles depending on how fun they sounded. To this day, she is working, although not as frequently, as she has a family now. Her last feature film, made in 2009, was called Space Girls in Beverly Hills, and she played Queen Ziba. Rock on. Strains continued work, and her films, serve as an important reminder that low-budget B-movies are still being made unironically in the world.
There's nothing this woman hasn't done. In addition to being a clue on Jeopardy! she has starred in the usual roster of wacky B-movies (amongst them Hollywood Hot Tubs, Caged Heat 2: Stripped of Freedom, and Return of the Living Dead), worked as a professional stripper, has indeed appeared in hardcore pornography, and has written one of the best books on acting ever written this side of Stanislavsky. Her book, If I'm so Famous, How Come Nobody's Ever Heard Of Me?, is an indispensable memoir detailing her career as a topless actress, full of practical advice, and enough lippy attitude to dismiss the weird stuff she's had to do, while also paying it special attention. With porn star looks and a wise old soul, Jewel Shepard is not above wiggling and whining and bouncing her way through a part just to get people to notice her. Indeed, in the first Hollywood Hot Tubs, she was sure to – quite literally – shake her breasts every second she was on screen. As a result, the director made her the main title character in Hollywood Hot Tubs 2: Educating Crystal. She once contributed articles of Premiere magazine, Cosmo, and Details. These days, she's contributes to Funny Or Die. Still game, still funny, and still affectionate toward her body of work, Jewel Shepard is one awesome chick.
NEXT: William applauds the power of the horror heroine and confesses to some scream queen crushes of his own…
FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM BIBBIANI:
Boy oh boy, was this week’s episode of The B-Movies Podcast a fun one this week? Or should I say, “Girl oh girl?”Ashlynn Yennie and Pollyanna McIntosh were wonderful guests and being in their presence reminded me of why I love scream queens in the first place. They’re powerful individuals, these women who get themselves endangered for our entertainment. It takes a lot of class and self-awareness to understand the appeal of horror movies, and the place of the female protagonist within it. As Witney aptly pointed out, the horror genre is among the most female-oriented genres on the planet. I would argue that horror movies, as often as not, make a point of respecting womanhood more than even the so-called “Chick Flick.”They portray women in various states of victimization, certainly, but in doing so call attention to the plight of the woman in literature. As we discussed on the podcast, feminism is still in need of defending. Western culture has made giant leaps in gender equality over the last hundred years, but there’s still a long way to go.
And so, although some male actors do find acclaim and notoriety in the horror genre, in general it’s the female actors who tend to become the genre’s icons. It’s the action movie mentality, a little inverted. We celebrate Arnold Schwarzenegger for killing Central American drug lords, and we celebrate Jamie Lee Curtis for taking down Michael Myers. (It took her a few sequels, but hey.) They are faced with unbelievable terrors and overcome them. They can’t all succeed, but the women who do die in horror movies of note have a very important job in elevating the actual “Survivor Girls”through contrast. Their deaths make the villain seem that much more powerful, and as such the villain’s downfall is all the more satisfying and meaningful, especially at the hands of another woman in the cast.
And yes, they sometimes get naked. And yes, they are appreciated for their trouble. And yes, that’s exploitative, but not of women. It’s pandering to the male audience, demeaning men by implying that’s all they want to see, and they fall for it. A lot. The film industry is still an industry, of course, and horror movies throughout history have included imagery of bare flesh to sell tickets (not that they’re the only genre to do so…oh, hello porn!). But you have to admit that horror movies celebrate the female form. The only thing horror movies like showing as much as violence is sexuality, even though sex more likely to garner them an NC-17 rating than the other way around. (Irony!) There’s vulnerability in being nude, definitely, but also an empowerment to it. Here is woman, laid bare, and she’s totally kick-ass.
So here are a few of my favorite kick-ass horror actresses, whom fans have lovingly dubbed “Scream Queens.”Why? Because they f***ing rule, that’s why. Ashlynn and Pollyanna are members of this cadre too, but we gushed about them so much last week that I think it’s time to share the love a little bit. Like Witney I’m excluding a few of the traditional favorites, like Jamie Lee Curtis and Heather Langenkamp, in the interest of bringing other leading ladies into the conversation.
It’s the eyes. Well, it’s her talent too, but I have a theory about eyes. The great movie heroines, the ones I have fallen in love with anyway, have big and expressive eyes; eyes that convey power, fear, love, hate, and above all of the various thought processes behind them. Jessica Harper has one of the most beautiful pair of eyes in movie history, I think. I first fell for Jessica Harper in Shock Treatment, the misunderstood sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which may be an inferior film but has in my opinion an infinitely superior songbook. But horror fans know her best as Suzy Bannion from Suspiria, one of the best horror movies ever made by anyone ever ever ever ever ever. In that film she played an American exchange student at a German ballet school, and the victim of an evil, all-powerful witch. With those dazzling eyes she created audience sympathy out of thin air, even with maggots in her preppy ‘do, and her smooth alto voice balanced power and trembling paranoia in equal, great measure. She also suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in Brian De Palma’s excellent and bugnuts rock opera The Phantom of the Paradise, showing off her beautiful singing voice while she waffled between maintaining her dignity and selling her soul – literally – for fame and glory, and finally learning a valuable lesson from a brilliant but psychotic musical genius played by William Finley. I will always have a crush on Jessica Harper, not just for her stunning peepers (jeepers, where did she get those?) but for her impressive acting talents and her distinctive, sharp beauty.
The good girls never get naked. That’s what we are led to believe, and that’s what Barbara Crampton disproved in her two best horror movies, Re-Animator and From Beyond, both directed by Stuart Gordon. With Gordon, Crampton proved that intelligent, thoughtful heroines are sexual too. In Re-Animator she played Megan Halsey, the object of both the hero’s and villain’s affections. With her boyfriend Daniel Cain (Bruce Abbott), Crampton, playing the daughter of Miskatonic University’s venerable dean, was a loving girlfriend with a very healthy libido. With the villainous Dr. Carl Hill, she was an obsession: forbidden fruit, the daughter of an esteemed colleague, decades younger, creepy stuff. He didn’t do anything about it, of course, until he became a disembodied head with a legion of zombies at his psychic command. Then of course she became the victim of one of the most memorably bizarre sexual acts in horror movie history, as a disembodied head did pretty much the only thing a disembodied head can do with a naked woman. Eek. Later, in From Beyond, Crampton played Dr. Katherine McMichaels, who spends the weekend in a house haunted by aliens from another dimension, and who falls victim this time to a S & M subplot that wreaks of padding and pandering. But damn if she didn’t get into that leather bondage gear with aplomb. Yes, it was a sleazy addition to a film based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, one of the most chaste writers of the 20th Century, but Crampton made it feel as natural as possible, as if inside every woman there is indeed a powerful sexual desire waiting to come out. That balance of sensual strength and respectable intelligence makes her, in my eyes, one of the most fantastic scream queens around.
Angela Bettis does not look like a traditional bombshell, but she’s one of my very favorite scream queens for her quirky charms, her perfect comic timing, and her ability to portray meeker souls with an obvious strength waiting to be unleashed. Lucky McKee has directed her in three such performances, in May, Sick Girl (which my colleague Witney has already mentioned) and most recently The Woman. In each of these performances she comes across as a willing victim, a woman so battered by life that she’ll take any kind of love she can get, even if it turns abusive. She develops in different ways throughout each film. In The Woman she pays for it dearly, in Sick Girl she evolves in more unexpected ways, and in May, her best leading performance to date, she lashes out against it in a fit of sympathetic madness. The story rarely ends well for her, but thanks to her delicate intonations she comes across like a hero in more ways than one. And yes, I think she’s gorgeous, even in that TV remake of Carrie.
Katherine Isabelle, the star of the Ginger Snaps series and Freddy vs. Jason, is one of the sexiest human beings, male or female, I have ever seen. She has an overpowering ferocity to her performances. In each of those roles she played a young, hormonal and often very horny teenager, although in the three Ginger Snaps movies that was largely a symptom of lycanthropy. Indeed, in those werewolf films she represented burgeoning womanhood, with all the curiosity, rebellion and unbridled desire that brings, and the beast inside her gave Isabelle the freedom to play up all of those pubescent yearnings with barely controlled bravado. I love her for it. In Freddy vs. Jason she died early, but having an actress of her caliber play an early number in a large body count helped make the film surprisingly effective, since her vulnerability shined through in a way most actresses are too cool to be comfortable with. I haven’t seen much from her in recent years, but a brief spate of scary movies has turned her into one of my all time favorite scream queens anyway.
It’s impressive that Danielle Harris is considered horror royalty at the tender age of 34, but hey, she got an early start, making her screen debut as Michael Myer’s niece in Halloween 4, and continuing on to Halloween 5. As a little girl with visions of her evil relative filling her head she made quite an impact, and made a triumphant return to the franchise years later in Rob Zombie’s Halloween and Halloween 2, albeit as a different character. She acts the hell out of her scenes in the sequel, particularly, as the long-suffering friend of the psychologically unhinged Laurie Strode, and her loving but antagonistic relationship with Brad Dourif formed the heart of the film. But she really took off in Hatchet 2, taking over the lead role from Tamara Feldman. Despite her tiny frame, perhaps even because of it, Harris dominated the screen as a girl who not only survived but proceeded to head right back to the scene of the crime the next day for payback. And yes, she’s very attractive, but that’s window dressing. Harris imbues her characters with more strength than the typical horror actress seems capable, and has become one of the few leading ladies whose presence makes a modern horror movie worth watching by its lonesome.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE SCREAM QUEENS…?