So there I was, wide-eyed, hot sweat rolling like that boulder at the beginning of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. In double digits but not yet a teenager, I sat in the front seat of my Mom's 1972 VW Beetle, baking like home bread, a hot fuzzy blanket draped over my head in the heart of an Illinois summer. The movie screen was adequately distorted from the blanket's fabric, forcing me to listen in terror as I tried in vain to correctly decipher the goings on during several parts of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.
God bless my horror loving mother, she of the black & white Bette Davis/Joan Crawford/Barbara Stanwyck thrillers, for taking me to the drive-in at an early age. It was from those humid, mosquito infested Midwestern summer evenings that the seed of my love of horror in film blossomed. In my pre-teen/early teen years my ventures to see movies like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, DON'T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT & BLOOD AND BLACK LACE were always ruled by a simple rule: when the movies got too bloody or too sexy, I had to pull my trusty drive-in blanket over my head to shield my tender eyes from the mayhem on the giant silver screen. Of course, in the long run all it did was confuse a kid with a very vivid imagination and really make for some odd and startling revelations when I saw these same movies years later. And we are talking the 70's, so I spent mucho time under than small plaid cover.
But most memorable about all those evenings spent ducking in & out from under the blanket were the screams. All those great scary movie screams from actresses doing their best to get a leg into Hollywood by being terrorized, chased, beaten, and usually killed in countless creative ways, many times clad only in revealing shorts and halter tops, tight jeans and lingerie. And thank you Hammer Films for cranking out a seemingly endless parade of vampire period movies where the women literally bulged from the tops of their fancy dresses and nightgowns. So, I'm just going to sit here and reminisce, jotting down whatever my mind vomits up about the actresses that have had a profound effect on my horror viewing experiences over the years. When I was growing up, women in horror were the actresses, and the actresses made the movies as much as the monsters they were up against.
So let this be my rambling, written ode to them, the bloody women of my dreams from Barbara Steele to Jamie Lee Curtis to Barbara Crampton to Caroline Munro to Linnea Quigley and everyone else I can remember in between.
*smiling like the Mad Hatter*
It's a tough job but someone had to do it.
Now, before I really take myself on a fantastic journey of time & space, I'd like to make a comment or two about some of the "big timers", you know, the Linda Blairs of EXORCIST fame & the Nicole Kidmans of THE OTHERS, etc. I have nothing against those movies, or any other of the high budget, high end horror diamonds out there. Linda Blair may be one of the all-time great victims in the history of horror cinema, but coming from a best-selling book & at the time getting some SERIOUS anti-Catholic treatment (my mother walked me through a picket line back in my small Illinois town to see THE EXORCIST during the only week it played at the local theater. I was 11 at the time & oh, yeah, I about pissed and crapped my pants I was so scared. At the time, shit like that NEVER happened to kids in movies. If I had a soul, I would have been scarred for life) just puts those kind of movies on a special shelf in my memory. I'm just gonna concentrate on the movies I saw at the drive-in or in the middle of the night from the local St. Louis station. Movies like Chainsaw, with Marilyn Burns starring as one of the top horror heroines of all-time. Not only could she scream with the best of them, but she could run, couldn't she? Hey, Leatherface still hasn't caught his breath after that those two great foot chases. Ms. Burns portrayed her character with all the traits of a modern day horror heroine: brains, resiliency, and a serious will to live. Ingenuity is also another major trait, but back in the days of Chainsaw, women weren't there to fight the evil---they were just trying to survive it. And the women we loved and admired did survive their brushes with evil. Well, mostly. The two young women of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT didn't fare too well, and I sometimes think that if that movie were made today, one or both of those unfortunate maidens would rise from the grave to take their own bloody revenge against that psychotic threesome led by mad dog David Hess. Imagine them following in the footsteps laid down by Brandon Lee, guided and empowered by the spirit of The Crow. You don't think there would be some hell to pay for making that poor girl pee her pants? Hell yeah!
Okay, f*ck it, this is a rant and I'm just gonna roll with it.
Barbara Steele. Just the name makes my stomach feel a little funny, know what I mean? Barbara Steele… Damn, it's almost a porno name but perfect for the horror and thrillers she graced like SHIVERS, PIRANHA, SILENT SCREAM & let us not forget the classic THE PIT & THE PENDULUM. Barbara Steele. Better than a frozen Snickers bar on a hot August day.
I was 16 when I saw HALLOWEEN for the first time and I've always wished I had seen it at the drive-in instead of a theater. It's one of, if not my favorite horror flick for 3 reasons: its simplicity, the music, and Jamie Lee Curtis. PROM NIGHT, TERROR TRAIN, HALLOWEEN 2… Jamie always played the smart girl, the nice, All-American Midwestern girl, and she also doubled as the resourceful young woman hell-bent on surviving the night, the dance and the party. Of course, she later treated us to a peek of nudity in TRADING PLACES and to the awesome striptease in TRUE LIES, but in her early years, her true scream queen time, though her clothes stayed on, she was the horror girlfriend I always wanted. *heavy sigh* But be warned---she's hell with a clothes hanger!
Now, with that said, if Jamie was my dream girlfriend, than my Mrs. Robinson was Adrienne Barbeau. I was first introduced to her as Maude's buxom, feminist daughter in said 70's sitcom, but it wasn't until the early 80's when my faded love was re-kindled to a blazing inferno with the likes of THE FOG, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, SWAMP THING & despite her character's extreme bitchiness, CREEPSHOW. She was a real woman, not a high school crush. Her characters were always strong and tough, not afraid to get her hands dirty. For time she seemed to fade from the horror limelight, working here and there, almost out of sight and out of mind until BAM! THE CONVENT a few years back. Talk about your perfect casting…and now, if you have the monthly extortion $$$ to fork over to HBO, she is a regular on CARNIVALE, playing, of all things, a sexy snake charmer. Let me tell you, she charmed my snake a long time ago.
Did it just get hot in here, or was that just Nelly playing in the background?
Linnea Quigley has been in a shitload of horror flicks, many of which I have never seen. But whenever I think of this scream queen, I go right to the 1985 semi-classic RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and her dance on the crypt before her erotic, eaten-to-death demise in the graveyard mud. Now THAT'S what makes a drive-in flick & a scream queen. Why she didn't win an academy fucking award for those two scenes alone is beyond me. And don't even tell me that I was the only one that got a boner watching that shit either. And no, it wasn't the zombies smart ass. I'm only glad I wasn't with my mother when I saw that scene. Jerry Springer did not need us as guests.
Speaking of boners, Barbara Crampton's starring turn in FROM BEYOND tightened my underwear like the Marquis De Sade. Never mind the strength of her resume with titles like RE-ANIMATOR, CHOPPING MALL, PUPPET MASTER & one of my guilty pleasures, CASTLE FREAK. It was all about the black leather and S&M scenes of FROM BEYOND that branded Ms. Crampton into my horror memory banks forever.
Caroline Munro. Fill in your own damn blanks. I'm busy fishing for imaginary pocket change.
Dee Wallace Stone? Oh, I remember her too. Could she play a great looking mom or what? She also made a helluva cute werewolf. Funny, I almost always forget all the great horror movies she was in. I'm not sure she ever did a better acting job in her career than she did in CUJO, seriously.
Karen Black. TRILOGY OF TERROR. HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES. The roles I remember her best in always made me uneasy. Some actresses made a comfortable living playing dark, dark creatures. She was born for it.
Debbie Rochon, hmmmmmmmmmm. I think she's made a movie or two.
There have been plenty of what I think of as "victim" horror films like THE ENTITY, where Barbara Hershey is one of the all-time tough luck victims in a film that always makes me a little queasy when I even think of watching it or worse yet, admitting I like it. Actresses like Camille Keaton have portrayed women like the lead character in I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, another tough one to view despite the fitting revenge our heroine ultimately takes for herself. But the things I took most away from the great portrayals from many of my favorite horror films was the great courage, determination and savvy of the characters that have led into women's roles expanding well beyond the scantily clad, screaming victims to the brave, resourceful heroes of present day flicks. Say, like the lead character in the new extraordinary French slasher flick HAUTE (HIGH) TENSION.
The more modern day horror heroines are tough, athletic, smart and don't take a teaspoon of shit. Anyone seen the remake of Chainsaw? Jessica Biel is not to be trifled with, por favor. In 28 DAYS LATER, the lovely Brit Naomie Harris sure knows how to handle a machete, and she's a horror actress of color, a bit of an oddity but a very welcome change of pace. What about the dark haired ass kicker of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, Laurie Zimmer? Talk about your cool, tough beauties. And Gaylen Ross, the pregnant voice of reason and eventual copter pilot from the original DAWN OF THE DEAD? You'd be making a serious mistake messing with Zoe Daelman Chlanda's lead character in I'LL BURY YOU TOMORROW. In GINGER SNAPS, Katharine Isabelle sure ain't no dog, though she does have a serious bite, and Marina Sudina makes MUTE WITNESS a gem despite the lack of dialogue. And last, but certainly not least, Angela Bettis delivers a tour-de-force performance in MAY that will haunt me no matter how many more scary movies I'll see and enjoy.
I've read that upcoming generations of young women are really getting into horror, and that's so cool. As a horror novelist, I have noticed the abundance of women readers enjoying my stuff. The genre needs all the talent it can get, and after all these years it's a shame that there aren't women counterparts to Carpenter, Cronenberg, Craven, Romero, Hooper or Raimi. Kathryn Bigelow dabbled with NEAR DARK years ago, but that is the only major female director whose name jumps to mind. I really look forward to the day when the female perspective is more of a major force behind the cameras and not just in make-up. But in truth, the reality is that we need more women like screenwriter Jace Anderson, journalist Heidi Martinuzzi and publisher Eve Blaack to add their voices, perspectives, and passion to the field. The movie making industry might still be a good-ol'-boys network, but horror is about passion, not big budgets. Independent filmmaking and horror fit like hand in glove, and it's that path I hope many talented women are looking to take as directors, producers and screenwriters. And hell, there's always room for another great screamer. You all should hear me when I see my credit card balance.
So I thank all the women of horror for entertaining me, tantalizing me, motivating me, teaching me, and on occasion, scaring the smelly brown and yellow out of me faster than the escapees from a William Hung concert. The future of horror is bright and the time for women to step forward and really shine is now.
Oh yeah---thanks Mom.