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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Gore-geous Ladies of Horror: The Femme Fatales of Titillation & Exploitation

They are The Gore-geous Ladies of Horror. They are either the pursued, or the pursue-e. They are the helpless damsels in distress that need rescuing from a tall and handsome hero. They are the strong, leather clad pistol packin' mamas. They are the heroines and villainesses of horror and fantastic cinema. Ever since the 80s, genre fans just called'em Scream Queens. 

This article (a lead-in to a regular column) is a piece on some of my favorite Femme Fatales. It also includes some very important women in film who may have done other things outside the Cinema-fantastic realm, but tend to be remembered for their roles in horror or science fiction movies above all else. Some of the images seen here are scanned from old magazines and others are from google. And yes, there is nudity about.

Fay Wray did a string of horror talkies in the 1930s. She is unanimously cited as the first actress to be labeled a 'Scream Queen' even though the terminology was decades away from prominence. Since strong women roles were still a few decades away as well, the stereotypical "rescue me" archetype was the embodiment of the female form in movies at the time; which also extended to the advertising campaigns of these productions.

The late actress got the ball rolling for horrors feminine future with such oldies but goodies like the pseudo horrors of DOCTOR X and THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (both 1932). She re-teamed with X's Lionel Atwill for a double dose of terror with MYSTERY IN THE WAX MUSEUM and THE VAMPIRE BAT (both 1933), but it was KING KONG (1933) where she really put her pipes to good use shrieking in fear from the 8th Wonder of the World.

Unusual for actresses that starred in these kinds of movies, Fay Wray's career wasn't stunted by her participation in them, nor was she typecast. Still, her films such as THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME and particularly KING KONG were classy affairs and have went on to a status well beyond a mere cult of followers.

Since then, there have been other actresses like Mara Corday who have appeared in various 'B' science fiction and horror pictures. Speaking of Corday, she was as curvaceous as they come and her three genre outings are among the best, and best of the worst 50s science fiction. 

Bert I. Gordon often catches a lot of hell for his macro enlarged killer kritters, but the same effects technique is utilized in Jack Arnold's TARANTULA (1955); wherein Corday is among a cast menaced by an outsized arachnid created by Leo G. Carroll. Dirty Harry Callahan had an early gig as an Air Force pilot napalming the hell out of the title hairy beast during the fiery finale.

Corday again was menaced by gigantic scorpions and other creepy crawlies in the action packed THE BLACK SCORPION and an enormous interplanetary turkey surrounded by a force field in THE GIANT CLAW (both from 1957). She abandoned the genre after this and segued into television till Dirty Harry himself, Clint Eastwood gave her roles in some of his movies.

Allison Hayes had multiple 'B' pictures on her resume, but she will forever be famously associated with but a single one of them, that being ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN (1958). It was one of the more unique 50s kitsch classics in its tale of an abused housewife who grows to giant size after being exposed to an equally gigantic alien from outer space. Ultimately, she goes all Godzilla on her hometown in search of her cheating husband.

It would be a cardinal sin to not include Barbara Steele on any list of the greatest, and or most memorable Scream Queens. The entrancing British actress virtually cornered the market in the 1960s via an impressive stream of European made horror pictures of the Gothic variety. With her connections via AIP (who released her star vehicle BLACK SUNDAY in America), Steele had an open line to appear in one of Roger Corman's classic interpretations of Edgar Allan Poe pictures; in this case, the film was THE PIT & THE PENDULUM from 1961.

Some of Steele's best include Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY (1960), CASTLE OF BLOOD (1964) and THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (1964).

Hammer Films out of Britain not only helped reinvigorate Gothic horror, but also made women dressed in diaphanous gowns exploitation chic in countless productions. The company knew how to market their movies and peddle the flesh onscreen with the right amount of curvaceousness. Hammer's horror heroines and villainesses are too many to mention here, but among the most recognized and popular with fans (and myself) is Caroline Munro.

Munro is unique in the Hammer horror canon in that she never shed her clothes in any of her roles for the company. The closest she got was a darkly lit naked tease in the anemic CAPTAIN KRONOS, VAMPIRE HUNTER (1972). There's nothing at all wrong with seeing some bare flesh onscreen. I can't tell you how many times I wished Kate O'Mara's top would miraculously disappear at some point in HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970), but for Munro to have never stripped and yet still maintain a strong, long lasting fan base is a feat in itself. In fact, many of Hammer's girls didn't strip, but had far more meatier roles than Munro had.

Another reason I cite Munro is that she ultimately shredded the persona of the 'damsel in distress' with the heaving, sweaty, barely concealed bosom from such pictures as THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1974) and AT THE EARTH'S CORE (1976). She passed on VAMPIRELLA because of the required nudity, but embraced the lively, if hilarious chintzy STAR CRASH (1978). Here, Munro was a super heroine that kicked ass and also wore skimpy clothes (for the first half of the film, anyways) that stirred unusual feelings in little boys everywhere. She also menaced James Bond as a Bad Bond Girl in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977).

Hammer Films were probably the ultimate showcase for voluptuous and bosomy actresses seeking fame on the big screen, even if it were relatively brief in many cases. Ingrid Pitt is a good example of this. In her heyday, she was only in four horror pictures within a three year period, yet she is one of the best remembered, and best loved leading ladies in all of horror cinema.

The striking Polish beauty had a seductively alluring voice that accentuated her fine frame. She headlined the first of Hammer's lesbian vampire trilogy, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970), co-starred in the blackly comical segment of the superlative anthology picture THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971) and took the lead in the ponderous, infrequently interesting COUNTESS DRACULA (1971). In 1973, Pitt was among the cast of a true classic of British horror, the original THE WICKER MAN starring Christopher Lee. 

It wasn't until HALLOWEEN (1978) that the Scream Queen terminology began gestating. Jamie Lee Curtis was well on her way to becoming the then reigning Queen of Scream successfully supplanting Barbara Steele with a string of horror lead roles. The daughter of Janet Leigh (the famed shower victim from PSYCHO [1960]) had become horror's darling literally overnight after playing the terrorized babysitter, Laurie Strode. Carpenter's classic led to lead roles in the mediocre PROM NIGHT (1979), the creep-tastic THE FOG (1979) and TERROR TRAIN (1980), a typical slasher boasting an interesting concept.

Up to this point, the role of a healthy lunged heroine was generally virginal, quiet, learned, respectful, educated, or possessed a position of some repute. Having sex was often the death knell for the disposable cast members in horror movies; especially slasher pictures, but not always. From here on out, an actress bearing the moniker of a 'Scream Queen' didn't necessarily have to survive the end credit crawl and many of them mostly played supporting roles, or had cameos. 

Getting naked was also an even bigger prerequisite than it had been the decade prior. The 'Have Sex & Die' aesthetic reached puberty in the 1970s, turning into a raging horn-dog in the 1980s; and, with the rise in evangelical propaganda equating free-spirited, lascivious activities with eternal damnation, baring more than one's soul meant you may as well have been wearing a red shirt on STAR TREK.

During this time, the torch was passed on to a young lady who was arguably the most famous of the 80s screamers, Linnea Quigley. Rarely ever a lead, Quigley was predominantly a victim, or sexy seductress. She's possibly the only actress who could make dialog about dying and being eaten alive an invitingly sexual prospect. The dialog in question being from her bra busting portrayal as Trash from the major 80s horror classic THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985). Quigley further solidified her willingness to lay bare her flesh when she strips away her remaining bits of clothing for a 'Dead Dance' atop a tomb much to the delight of young boys everywhere.

Quigley had a startlingly lengthy, and varied career in both good and crappy movies. She was also a surprisingly good actress; more so than you would expect from somebody who featured in movies with titles like CREEPOZOIDS (1987), HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS (1988), SORORITY BABES IN THE SLIMEBALL BOWL-A-RAMA (1988) and ASSAULT OF THE PARTY NERDS (1989).

She started out doing some softcore erotica and even appeared in some scenes for PSYCHO FROM TEXAS (1980). She was famously impaled on some deer antlers in SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984), but it was her role as Linda Blair's mute sister in SAVAGE STREETS (1984) that really showed she could do more than amp up a films cheesecake quota.

She also had an incredibly loyal fanbase that exists to this day. There were other big name Scream Queens at this time like Michelle Bauer and Brinke Stevens, but Linnea Quigley had a special place in the hearts of hundreds of horror fans around the world. 

But whereas Jamie Lee kept her clothes on in her horror movies, Quigley and the many other femme fatales that followed laid the template by which so many exploitation pictures would study from. The Scream Queen soon morphed into a new breed of vocally strong femininity. They not only had a good pair of...vocal chords, but they also packed big guns, too. The voluptuous, sexually dominating schism of the Russ Meyer smut fests was married to the tongue in cheek Andy Sidaris' 'Sexy Girls & Guns' movies. This was a sub genre that proliferated and blossomed overseas in a steady stream of Hong Kong actioners throughout the late 1980s and into the 1990s.

Directors like David DeCoteau, Fred Olen Ray and Jim Wynorski explored the empowered Scream Queen as machine gun (or chainsaw) toting dominatrix in a steady stream of action-horror-fantasy non epics that were heavy on the skin, but light on plot and common sense.

Linda Blair came the closest to assuming the throne vacated by Jamie Lee Curtis, but Blair mixed it up a bit by shedding her clothes on several occasions in a healthy string of ultra violent revenge thrillers, trashy comedies and erotic-horror pictures. Blair burst onto the scream scene with her controversial classic THE EXORCIST in 1973, but it wasn't till she was all grown up and filled out that she really turned on the charm and turned on the male viewer during the 1980s. 

Blair bounced her way from a morbid mansion to dark, underground creepy caverns in the haunted house slasher classic HELL NIGHT (1981). In this film, she was the epitome of the resourceful Scream Queen. She was classy, didn't shed her clothes and could fix the perennial horror favorite--the car that won't crank!

Blair put on some pounds and was unfairly chastised in the mid 1980s. She was never fat (at least not to these eyes), she was just curvacious where it counted. She was the star of such notable trash like CHAINED HEAT (1983) and also in the excellent, ultra violent Lady DEATH WISH flick SAVAGE STREETS (1984).

The Empress of the stacked and ready to attack brand of fighting female would have to be Sybil Danning. She did relatively few horror movies (1976s JULIE DARLING and 1985s HOWLING 2 being two examples), but had no compunction about appearing in trash of the action or fantasy variety. 

Thriller Video gave the bosomy Danning her own video series called Sybil Danning's Adventure Video. The same company also did the same for Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

Elvira isn't so much a Scream Queen as she is a horror show host, but she's an important cog in the vast horror machine. Her many sexual innuendos and comedic timing made viewing insurmountably awful movies worth sitting through on her immensely popular Movie Macabre nationally syndicated program. She was such an 80s staple, she even got two movies built specifically around her persona. A few years ago she was part of a reality show to crown a new Queen of Horror Hostess, but bad habits die hard and Cassandra Peterson is still enjoying being the bubbly vamp, Elvira.

Ladies like Tiffany Shepis and Danielle Harris are arguably amongst the best of the new bunch of horror heroines. They are of a relatively small number with the sort of signature personality that allows them to stand out from the pack. Shepis is easily the Linnea Quigley of the new millennium and Harris, having been onscreen in TV and movies since childhood, is actually a pretty decent actress in her own right.

Today, there are dozens of women in horror and actresses who do mostly work in the genre, but there's such a proliferation of them, the Scream Queen terminology doesn't quite have the same resonance it had in the 1980s. With so many, the market has gotten so saturated with lovely ladies and their slinky, well endowed figures, it's even more difficult to stand out now than before. But depending on what fans take from this surge in scantily clad, sexy sirens, this can either be a bane, or, in the likelier case, a blessing!

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