Queens of the big scream
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.