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Horror Icons: Scream Queens

Posted August 18, 2013 by Stuart Wells in Articles
Janet Leigh - Psycho

“Important Horror Icon or Uncomfortable Exploitation?”

By Geoff Woodbridge

Brigitte Helm

Brigitte Helm – Metropolis

Scream Queens have been adorning our screens ever since the first celluloid was projected at our houses of cinematic holiness, through the wars of Betamax and VHS, DVD to the glory of Blu-Ray and Hi-Def, these girls have graced our screens. From Brigitte Helm in Metropolis as the multiple contrasting roles showing lustful fun loving devil as created by the hands of man through technology and witchcraft. Elsa Lanchester was the Bride of Frankenstein, empowering the female through a role which mutilates the female form, again at the hand of man and technology but one which gives the Bride the choice of groom which she strongly refuses. Both of these characters allow the scream queen to be worshiped and glorified as figures and ultimately, the prime media promotion of the films. Does this undermine the role of the female or exploit sex to sell? The very question suggests that actresses have no choice in the roles which they choose and that they are open to be used and abused at the hands of any such film maker.

similar role can be seen in Cronenberg’s 75 classic, Shivers(It came from Within) which depicts a biological outbreak in a luxury apartment complex, one which transforms clean cut citizens into sex crazed zombies. Lynn Lowry is our Scream Queen here, a character who owns the film from start to finish, one that oozes sex appeal. But what Cronenberg offers is a character that knows what she wants. Her opening scene suggests she is out to get her man, shows love and desire and true passion whilst those around her are almost emotionally dead until the outbreak. The finale is one of the greatest in cinematic history, as Nurse Forsythe gets her man in an intensely dramatic scene.

Lynn Lowry - Shivers

Lynn Lowry – Shivers

Whilst horror and scream queens go hand in hand, it is important to introduce the ultimate grounding of where the modern scream queen was born. Russ Meyer: a name which offers connotations of sexism and exploitation. If these terms come to mind, then go and watch one of his films as you are judging the unknown. Meyer empowers women, both in form and in character. From making films with casts mainly made up dominantly of female leads, these are strong dramatic characters which emphasis all scales of the spectrum of human emotion, especially at a time in recent history, but even by todays standards, there are very few female dominant films across any genre. Meyer exposes the female as a sexual one, but one of intelligence, power, and danger.

The ‘80’s saw a whole array of Scream Queens grace the screens. Fred Olen Ray continues what Meyer started but bumped the whole concept up a notch by giving his girls chainsaws. Linnea Quigley and Michelle Bauer battled for the Scream Queen crown and both came out with royal accreditation. Quigley, famously remembered for the naked graveyard dance in Return of the Living Dead reinforced her crown with the 88 classic, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and is still actively making films.

So, whilst all this was going on, a young director was taking a slightly different approach. Wes Craven empowers his leading actresses and has some of the prime Scream Queens of the latter 20th Century, but what differs Craven’s depiction of the female to that of Olen Ray and Meyer is that he took the all American girl-next-door, and allowed her to witness some atrocious moments of horror, to learn, grow and empower to the point of defeating the evil. This all began with ’72, Last House on the Left, although we have a slightly bleaker ending here,

Neve Campbell - Scream

Neve Campbell – Scream

he followed up his concept in Hills Have Eyes, Deadly Blessing, Elm Street, and hit gold with Scream. All these films depict the lead female as an empowered champion who will defeat all challenges. Neve Campbell holds the crown here. Whilst Craven offered us the concept origin in Last House, Tobe Hooper followed this up with a dirty little film, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Marilyn Burns, the protagonist takes on Leatherface and all other dangers that come her way for the ultimate in female empowerment. Burns will always be my ultimate Scream Queen.

So where are we by today’s standards? Things have changed drastically over the past decade. From a Scream Queen point of view we have them overflowing out of every basic film script that has used the original design which Craven, Hooper and Meyers et al gave us. Super empowered lead females who use every inch of their toned bodies to defeat the threat, but out of this crowded green room of young talent, some Scream Queens stand out a little more than others. Jessica Cameron has owned the crown for the past few years with super dominant roles, Hell-O-Ween, Black Dahlia Haunting and Silent Night, but has broken into the industry with her own production company and directed her debut, ‘Truth or Dare’. Cameron has seen an opening and has taken the opportunity to let her Scream Queen persona expand as one of filmmaker. There are numerous bright shining actresses battling for the recognition. Some gain the crown after a debut such as Meghan Chadeayne who looks

Jessica Cameron

Jessica Cameron

like she will take the world by storm in her role as Barbara in Naked

Zombie Girl, a short by Rickey Bird Jr. Jenny Spain was impressive in Deadgirl but looks to be stunning in American Girls, Lorenza Izzo is the girl of the moment with her amazing screen presence in Hemlock Grove. Eli Roth’s Aftershock and the Green Inferno with catapult this girl’s career and crown her Scream Queen of 2013. I’ve attempted to explain the rational behind the term Scream Queen, to emphasize that empowerment and dominant strength of character can be used alongside female form and even nudity without exposing the actress to gratuitous sexism. Giving the girl a chainsaw and showing some flesh does not account for scream queen status, but emphasis a true strong female character as a lead with a plot that indulges and realistically recognizes a demand for weapon wielding nudity is the epitome of feminism itself.

Long Live the Scream Queen!

Other Notable Scream Queens

Debbie Rochon

Elissa Dowling

Danielle Harris


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About the Author

Stuart Wells