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.

But we had yet to hear the scream.

Leaving aside gender politics for a moment, the scream queen – before she began to assert herself, anyway – was there to offer deep-lunged punctuation to the horror film. If you’d fallen asleep or couldn’t quite understand the implications of that swinging crypt door, the actor’s piercing yell would put you right. The scream also acted as a proxy outlet for (if the film was working) the audience’s galloping unease. You can jump in a cinema. You can put your hands over your eyes. But full-throated screaming is discouraged. Let Fay Wray do it for you.

Some time before Wray’s character, Anne Darrow, encounters the giant gorilla in King Kong (1933) her travelling companion, Carl Denham, puts her before a film camera and tutors her in the art of terror. “You’re helpless Anne, helpless,” he says, in a style that anticipates the stories of Hitchcock’s reported onset bullying 30 years later. “Perhaps if you didn’t see it you could scream. Throw your arms across your eyes and scream, Anne.”

That’s what she does. That’s what women continued to do throughout the golden age of 1930s horror. Female actors were occasionally allowed to play the monster – most notably in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) – but they were rarely allowed to essay the avenging hero.

Wray, a versatile Canadian actor who lived into the current century, is still the most famous of the scream queens from the early sound years, but she appeared in relatively few horror flicks. The real mistress of the art was a British actor named Evelyn Ankers. In movies such as The Wolf Man (1941) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), the Queen of the Screamers (as she was known) formulated the archetypal horror victim: an intelligent, often posh, usually virginal lady who, with a queasy sexual undercurrent, is reduced to animalistic bellowing by something big, hulking and male.

Nothing much changed for the next few decades. The horror film, moving away from its German expressionist roots, became less respectable, and scream queens became ever more obscure.

As Gervasi’s Hitchcock promises to relate, Psycho (1960) was a gamble for its ageing director. Shot cheaply, in black and white, the picture dabbled in areas where no respectable director was expected to tread. Suspense was fine; horror was unacceptable in the mainstream.

Although forerunners could be found in B-movies, Janet Leigh proved to be a new class of scream queen. Marilyn Crane was far from a shrinking virgin. Leigh’s character is introduced having a mid-afternoon tryst in a Phoenix hotel room. She goes on to rob a wad of money and, despite belated repentance, is punished fatally while attempting to shower her sins down the plughole. As Camile Paglia, the critic and walking Hitchcock encyclopedia, observes, the scene says much about Hitchcock’s Catholic upbringing and – remember how Norman Bates was dressed – his resentment of his mother. The murder is magnificently staged, but the Old Testament morality remains troubling.

For all the lasting power of Psycho, it was Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, who became the undisputed deity of latter-day screechers. Following flea-pit hits such as 1974’s Black Christmas and Silent Night, Bloody Night, Curtis played a menaced babysitter in John Carpenter’s magnificent Halloween (1978), establishing the slasher film as a viable commercial genre. The rules are simple: a series of teenagers attempt to evade slaughter by a lunatic with a big knife/axe/hammer/chainsaw.

At first glance the slasher film comes across as a feminist’s worst nightmare: teenage boys queue up to watch girls being slashed to pieces by the maddest man in town. But a closer analysis reveals greater complexities. The key text in slasher studies remains Carol Clover’s indispensable Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. In such films, Glover says, the toughest, most resilient female – whom she famously named the “final girl” – is the one who eventually vanquishes the masked nutcase. The movies are structured to nudge even the most unreconstructed male viewer towards acceptance of a female protagonist: a phallic knife is wielded at the last minute; often the character has a unisex name. (If the book sounds a bit dense, watch Craven’s Scream, from 1996, which makes the same arguments through the medium of blood-soaked celluloid.)

Clover’s argument reveals a lingering puritanism in American film. The final girl is usually the brightest woman in the dormitory. But she is also invariably the most conventionally moral of the bunch. Michael Myers, the lumbering villain in Halloween, has no trouble chopping up the boozy fornicators, but hard-working, sober Jamie Lee Curtis is a different matter. He could probably do away with Janice Joplin in an instant, but he would have had a harder time with Doris Day.

Moreover, Clover can’t shift the notion – indeed, she doesn’t try – that the final avenging victim has to be female, because too many male viewers wouldn’t accept unfettered terror from somebody of their own gender. So even the brave, resilient final girl can’t quite escape patriarchal assumptions about the fragility of the fairer sex.

Still, attitudes have shifted a little. A year after Halloween hit cinemas, Sigourney Weaver hammered extraterrestrials in Alien. James Cameron later cast Linda Hamilton as another tough woman in the Terminator films. Both characters were far too stoic to qualify as scream queens.

With Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), Josh Whedon deliberately created a protagonist who failed to match the template of the final girl. Buffy is certainly smart and she is certainly hard to kill. But she is also a cheerleader – usually the first to get butchered – and the horror gods even permit her to have sex.

So is the classic scream queen a thing of the past? Such durable cinematic conventions rarely perish. “I think it’s 50-50,” Danielle Harris says. “You have to have the victims. You still have to have the dumb bimbos with the big boobs that run the wrong direction. There is a balance. But there are also now the heroines that become defined through struggle.”

And is “scream queen” a fair description of those characters? “Hey, if the word ‘queen’ is in the title. I’ll take it.”

The Horrorthon Film Festival is at the Irish Film Institute from Thursday until Monday week

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