Queens of the big scream
It’s a role as old as storytelling itself and one that cinema has taken to spine-chilling lengths. As Halloween creeps upon us, who were the great Hollywood hair-raising heroines?
NO FILM GENRE has developed such an unshakable series of conventions and traditions as has the horror film. Long before Wes Craven directed Scream, a cinematic essay on slasher-movie protocol, students of film had pored over treatises on the rules governing cinematic slaughter.
The first shock must come within 20 minutes of the opening credits. The gap-toothed chap in the garage will always warn of disaster at the abandoned mansion. In recent years some electronic disturbance ensures that no mobile phone can function. Then we have the durable notion of the scream queen. Commedia dell’arte must have its clowns and cinema of the macabre needs its screeching women.
As the Horrorthon Film Festival prepares to move into the Irish Film Institute for its annual orgy of blood-letting, we are reminded that actors construct careers around the shriek business. Danielle Harris, this year’s star guest, has bellowed through four films in the Halloween sequence. She has also graced two movies in the delightfully named Hatchet series. Barely a month goes by when she doesn’t get butchered for the benefit of late-night audiences. At this year’s Horrorthon she unveils her directorial debut, Among Friends.
“As long as the phrase is not used in a bad way I am happy with ‘scream queen’,” says Harris, who succeeded Jamie Lee Curtis as mistress of the Halloween films. Speaking from a horror convention in Las Vegas, she continues: “The phrase has changed over the past decade or so. Back in the day it was used for bad actresses in wet T-shirts running away from monsters who couldn’t act either. I think Jamie Lee did change that.”
The scream queen is a hot topic. Two upcoming movies offer studies of actors who, working under Alfred Hitchcock’s direction, helped define the profession for decades to come.
Julian Jarrold’s The Girl, with Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren and Toby Jones as Hitchcock, is an examination of fraying, inappropriate relations on the set of The Birds; it screens on US television this weekend. Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock, focusing on Psycho and due for release in February, stars Anthony Hopkins in the title role and Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. Much will be said about the dynamics of gender.
So what is a scream queen? The role is as old as storytelling itself. Countless fairy tales require a brave prince to rescue some poor damsel tied to a tree. Along the way various comforting stereotypes concerning male valour and female frailty are confirmed. Gothic novels of the 18th century were rarely complete without an unfortunate woman being imprisoned in a gloomy castle by a foreigner with a moustache.
The role began to formalise in cinema with cheap movie serials of the silent era. As the titles suggest, sequences such as The Perils of Pauline (1914) and The Exploits of Elaine (1914) propelled their titular heroines into any number of unfortunate scrapes. Once again some man in a safari suit was on hand to shove the dusky villain off the nearest cliff.