Saturday, September 4, 2010

Top 13: Scream Queens of All Time

Last month’s Top 13 covered the most iconic horror actors of all time, so this month we thought it was only fair to do the same for the many ladies who have made a career of screaming and running from the things-that-go-bump-in-the-night.
What started in horror cinema as essentially roles in which they played merely victims in need of rescue, screaming beauties for the leading man to come rushing in the save from horrible beasties and madmen, Scream Queens have become empowered badass ladies who don’t need men for anything, especially to be rescued.
The trend to have a helpless female and a strong leading man started in silent films, became ever more popular in movies like “King Kong” and “The Mystery of the Wax Museum”, both of which starred one of the iconic ladies on our list, Fay Wray, the first of what we consider a Scream Queen.
This trend of helpless females who did nothing but fall down or faint when confronted with the ‘creature’ continued throughout the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, with very few exceptions (Beverly Garland in “It Conquered the World”, for instance).
Then in the 70s, something happened to sexual politics in American culture and we began to see women taking on more assertive roles in horror cinema, even becoming the ‘creatures’ themselves or exacting vengeance on their tormenters in ever increasingly violent ways. In short, Scream Queens were doing less screaming and more killing.
In the 80s, the slasher films helped set back this new sexual revolution in cinema by making women helpless machete fodder all over again. Some critics and film historians have postulated this was an almost conscious retaliation by male producers against this sexual revolution of the late 70s.
Of course, the ‘slasher’ genre did in fact make some of the women on our list quite famous in the horror genre, giving them plenty of opportunity to run and scream, fall down in high heel shoes, to eventually get knifed or cut into little pieces for a primarily male audience. By movie’s end there was always a chase, and there was always a ‘final girl’ (with very few exceptions to that rule, although 1981’s The Burning comes to mind, in which there was a ‘final boy’ instead). By the late 80s, this was part of the horror movie blueprint, even outside of ‘slasher’ films. The most famous of these ‘slasher” movies was, of course, John Carpenter’s “Halloween”, which, if not created whole clothe that ‘final girl’ blueprint, definitely solidified it.
Then around the mid-90s, the major studios began to sit up and take notice that women were beginning to see more horror films, and that there was a very vocal uproar from these female fans about more realistic portrayals of strong female characters in horror films. This new attitude was thanks in a large part to stronger female roles in two James Cameron films, 1986’s “Aliens” and 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”, in which sexual politics in speculative films was set on its ear with Ripley and Sarah Conner. The major studios began to change the blueprint and soon female characters in horror films were doing a lot more than screaming, running, falling down, and getting stabbed to death. And they most definitely didn’t wear high heels to go into the pitch black basement to find out why the lights had gone out. They knew how to fight, shoot guns, even how to use a sword or knife to defend themselves.
In Wes Craven’s 1995 film “Scream”, the ‘final girl’ scenario became a very self conscious, self referential injoke, and the role reversal was coming full circle.
Modern horror has become so feminized now, that we are presented with another generation of kickass female leads. Check the “Resident Evil” and “Underworld” series for proof of such—although many, including myself, would argue these movies aren’t truly horror movies at all, but films which use horror iconography for video game adventure scenarios on the big screen.
But whether that is true or not, one thing is certain: with the huge cultural and sexual role changes in modern horror films, the Scream Queen ain’t what she used to be.
You’ll see that reflected in the Top 13 list below. Most of the names we included are not even of the last 30 years.
But before we go to our list, I’d like to mention some names that didn’t make the final list. Some of them only had one or two horror roles that helped define the Scream Queen role in the genre, but never worked in the genre again. Some of the ladies did have a number of horror films to their credit, but didn’t make much of an impact on the genre as the ladies on our Top 13 list. Others are still making horror movies today, working to further redefine the traditional role of women in genre film, but haven’t yet reached the level of impact of the names we did include. Which ever the case may be, I strongly encourage you to find their films and watch them. Think of these ladies as our Honorable Mentions: Brinke Stevens, Debbie Rochon, Janet Leigh, Linda Hayden, Julia Adams, Faith Domergue, Mara Corday, Simone Simon and Elske McCain. They exemplify the tradition of the Scream Queen, even if they didn’t make it onto the final list.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we’re proud to present our September 2010 Top 13. So give up a big Scream for the ladies…

13. Fay Wray (September 15, 1907 – August 8, 2004)

She starred in several genre defining films, including “King Kong” (1933), “Mystery of the Wax Museum” (1933), “The Vampire Bat” (1933), “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932) and others. Truly the first woman to become known for her piercing scream, and helped define what it was to be a ‘Scream Queen’, she was also one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the screen.

12. Barbara Steele (December 29, 1937-present)

She hit the big time when she appeared in Mario Bava’s 1960 genre classic, “Black Sunday”, and became the exotic beauty in demand for plenty of horror movies to follow, including public domain masterpiece “Castle of Blood” (1964). Typecast as an evil succubus in most of them, she raised male pulses like no one else. Corman found one of the most perfect roles for her in his Poe epic, “Pit and the Pendulum” (1961). She’s still alive today and just as beautiful. If you get the chance to meet her at a genre convention, do so. She’s an amazing woman with lots of amazing stories about her career in cinema.

11. Barbara Shelley (August 15, 1933- present)

A quiet English actress who found horror fame in Hammer Studio films such as “The Gorgon” (1964) and “Dracula, Prince of Darkness” (1966), she brought a reserved, mature beauty to her multiple genre roles, combined with a sort of stoic sexuality. During the 60s, she was Hammer’s number one female star. Unfortunately, she left the horror genre and acting altogether soon after her work with Hammer, but to fans she will always be one of the best of the ‘Scream Queens’, despite her overly hasty exit.

10. Linnea Quigley (May 27, 1958- present)

One of the few modern ‘Scream Queens’ on our list, Linnea Quigley found fame in such 80s classics as 1981’s “Graduation Day”, 1984’s “Silent Night, Deadly Night” and 1985’s “Night of the Living Dead” and many more, including one of my favorites, 1988’s “Night of the Demons”. Although most of her films haven’t been big studio productions, she still manages to bring a slutty charm to her roles. She knew the value of a good nude scene, for sure and never shirked a good chance to show off her body. A big believer in working out to stay in shape, she even went so far as to produce her own workout video ala Jane Fonda, “Linnea Quigley’s Horror Workout” (1990).

(Editor’s Note: I was lucky enough to be at the above event a couple of years ago and got a chance to meet the lady in question. Still beautiful and always entertaining, she knew horror should be fun and didn’t take any of it too seriously.)

9. Ingrid Pitt (November 21, 1937- present)

Once again, we have Hammer Studio to thank for this exotic beauty. She had a definitive co-leading role in the unforgettably gory and sexual lesbian vampire movie, “The Vampire Lovers” (1970). She also appeared that same year in Amicus Studios’ forgotten classic “The House That Dripped Blood” (1970) and had a small but memorable nude role in the creepy genre classic “The Wicker Man” (1973). She’s still appears in films today, including “Minotaur” (2005) and “Sea of Dust” (2006) and often makes forays to fan conventions, so chances are she’ll still be going for years.

8. Caroline Munro (January 16, 1949-present)

She is a raven haired, dark eyed beauty who spent a her early years working as a model before moving into European produced films, working bit parts in movies such as “Casino Royale” (1967). She soon found herself in demand in sci-fi, horror and fantasy films such as “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971), "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad" (1974), and her first, and most memorably shot American production, William Lustig’s “Maniac” from 1980.

7. Beverly Garland (October 17, 1926 – December 5, 2008)

Best known to non-genre fans for her television work in such series as “My Three Sons” and “Scarecrow and Mrs. King”, she is known to we ‘horrorheads’ as the platinum blonde hottie in Roger Corman’s cheapo classic, “It Conquered the World” (1956), who confronts the titular alien with a shotgun and some ripe AIP dialogue. She went on to appear the same year in “Swamp Women” (1956) and later played the lead role in another Corman great, “Not of This Earth” (1959) and Universal’s “Alligator People” (1959). She brought a pouty sexiness to her roles that has made her legend in the AIP sci-fi/horror filmography.

6. Jamie Lee Curtis (November 22, 1958- present)

Truly the greatest of the modern Scream Queens, Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Hollywood royalty, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh (herself, a major genre icon for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 “Psycho”), has appeared in several genre defining horror films in the 70s and 80s, including the “Halloween” (1978), “The Fog (1980), “Prom Night” (1978) and “Terror Train” (1980). She spent most of the 80s typecast in genre films until she made her way into major productions such as “Trading Places” (1983), “A Fish Called Wanda” (1988) and James Cameron’s “True Lies” (1994). She has maintained a high level of star power despite her departure from horror and is still one of the hardest working actresses in Hollywood. If there is one woman who epitomizes the definition of Scream Queen, it is Jamie Lee Curtis.

5. Hazel Court (February 10, 1926 – April 15, 2008)

Gorgeous red headed Hazel Court came to fame during the 50s and 60s, appearing in such genre films as "Devil Girl from Mars" (1954), Hammer Studio’s bloody "The Curse of Frankenstein" (1957), "The Man Who Could Cheat Death" (1959), "Doctor Blood's Coffin" (1961), Roger Corman’s AIP Poe cycle pictures, "The Premature Burial" (1962), "The Raven" (1963), "The Masque of the Red Death" (1964), and making her final genre appearance in "Omen III: The Final Conflict” (1983). She carried herself on screen with a sensuality that was both smoldering and refined. Some of her best known roles were as women who were amoral and murderous, but she still managed to make them desirable as hell.

4. Veronica Carlson (September 18, 1944- present)

Another Hammer Studio beauty that more than deserves to make the list of Scream Queen greats, she appeared in a trio of classic gory redefinitions of the classic monsters, "Dracula Has Risen from the Grave" (1968), "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed" (1969) and "The Horror of Frankenstein" (1970). She also appeared in a little known cult classic of horror, Tyburn Production’s “The Ghoul” (1975), with Peter Cushing, a movie that demands modern reassessment.

3. Martine Beswick (September 26, 1941- present)

Dark beauty Martine Beswick has appeared in everything from horror to spy films, racking up roles in two James Bond films, “From Russia with Love” (1963) and “Thunderball” (1965), spaghetti westerns such as “A Bullet For the General” (1967), fantasy movies such as “One Million Years B.C.” (1966) and “Prehistoric Women” (1967), and more Hammer horror films, including that classic genrebender, “Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde” (1971). She continued to appear steadily in TV series throughout the 70s and 80s, although she hasn’t appeared in anything new since the mid-90s.

2. Asia Argento (September 20, 1975- present)

Born to two of Italy’s greatest horror personalities, mother Daria Nicolodi and father Dario Argento, one of the most famous horror directors in the genre. A Scream Queen since she was a kid, Asia Argento began her acting career at the tender age of nine years old. She has appeared in several movies written, produced and/or directed by her father, including “Demons 2” (1986), “The Church” (1989), and the lead actress role in “Trauma” (1993). She has since gone on to win major film awards for directing her own films, “Scarlet Diva” (2000) and “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things” (2004). She also appeared in several U.S. productions, such as “xXx” (2002), George Romero’s continuation of his undead movie, “Land of the Dead” (2005) and Sophia Coppola’s 2006 underground hit, “Marie Antoinette”. Her latest appearance in horror was for her father’s final movie in his Mothers Trilogy, “The Mother of Tears” (2007).

1. Evelyn Ankers (August 17, 1918 – August 29, 1985)

Universal’s original Scream Queen, Evelyn Ankers became a stable player in many classic horror films. Most importantly she was the female lead opposite Lon Chaney Jr. in “The Wolfman” (1941), but she also appeared in several other genre films, such as “The Ghost of Frankenstein” (1942), “Captive Wild Woman” (1943), “Son of Dracula” (1943), “The Mad Ghoul” (1943), “Jungle Woman” (1944), “Weird Woman” (1944), “The Invisible Man's Revenge” (1944), and “The Frozen Ghost” (1945). She was known as “Queen of the Screamers”, thereby becoming the first conscious attempt at a studio to create a true “Scream Queen”. She brought an intelligent beauty and grace to her roles.

--Nickolas Cook