HORRIBLE WOMEN:

          An Appreciation of the Scream Queen

 

 

          By

            Robert Dunbar

 

Remember what you most loved about scary movies when you were a kid?   The chill that ratcheted up your spine when a shape emerged from the shadows at the top of the stairs . . .

. . . just as the heroine’s candle went out?  

Remember that delicious tingle of dread?

It wasn't always slavering fangs and gushing blood.   Once upon a time, Horror offered more complex thrills, often of a distinctly feminine nature.   Before videotapes or cable or the late late show, before there were horror movies even, the notion of a “scream queen” had already begun to evolve.   Long before the genre traded that exquisite frisson for its current nearly pornographic (and quintessentially “male”) obsession with gore – in those dim and distant days when people still read – dark literature provided subtler chills.   Yet distaff horror writers have so often been overshadowed by their male colleagues: a grave injustice indeed.  

The Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe helped establish the conventions of Horror , while Jane Austin's Northanger Abbey refined the concept, conferring literary respectability upon all those shadowy corridors and mysterious groans.   Even more significantly, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein played a pivotal role in the development of the burgeoning genre, while Victorian femmes fatale like Mrs. Oliphant wielded an influence still felt in every nuance of the contemporary ghost yarn.   The Brontes contributed more than their share of shudders, and even Louisa May Alcott penned supernatural thrillers (albeit under a male pseudonym).   Fin de siecle authors like Fiona MacLeod, as well as such postwar luminaries as Shirley Jackson and Daphne Du Maurier, all paved the road for the present-day phenomena of Anne Rice.

                                                         

With trembling hands, she snatches away the Phantom’s mask to reveal   . . .

                                                          

But it was with the portrayal of endangered heroines in popular entertainment that women in horror really came into their own – all those flickering nitrate images of tremulous yet brave females, usually in the clutches of some fiend or other.   Beginning in 1910, when Thomas Edison shot the first version of Mary Shelley’s magnum opus, silent films indiscriminately pilfered plots from classic novels and potboiling plays, [1] all in an unrelenting (and thoroughly appreciated) effort to scare audiences silly.  

 

[1]  Like Mary Roberts Rhineheart’s The Bat.

 

 

                                                                   

                    Leathern wings skitter across the night sky.  

  Fog shrouds the moors, and from the darkness . . . something howls.

                                                                    

Then something momentous occurred.  

Momentous and loud.

In 1928, The Terror became the first talking horror picture (incidentally killing the career of lisping leading lady May McAvoy), and the cinema shriek was born.   Henceforth, winds groaned and thunder rumbled, and no old dark house could ever again be complete without a creaking door or two.   Now, both the sights and sounds of horror haunted nightmares coast-to-coast.

    

To this day, Fay Wray reigns as the ultimate scream queen. Though her real-life lovers included foreign dignitaries and famous writers, she remains intrinsically linked in the minds of countless thousands with the big ape who swept her off her feet in 1933's King Kong. [2]  Eight years later Evelyn Ankers had a similar problem with The Wolf Man, an equally hirsute brute, smaller but with an uglier disposition. (These guys may have had problematic methods of showing affection, but at least they had no trouble with committment. 1932's The Mummy even lurked around for centuries waiting for his lady friend to be

 

reincarnated, a plot device that's been a staple of mummy films ever since. [3] But when the average person talks about “classic” horror movies these days, it’s not usually the brilliant work from the 30s and 40s to which they refer, not She [4] or The Woman Who Came Back , not the famous cycle of films from Universal Studios – Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter, She-Wolf of London – nor even all those potently atmospheric works from RKO, rife with catwomen and beautiful zombies. No, it’s more apt to be films from the 50s, the Roger Corman epics, which generally featured Vincent Price [5] at his orchidaceous worst, or else the opulent remakes released by the British Hammer Studios in the early 60s.

It was the heyday of bad pictures. [6 ]

The loss of the studios’ monopolistic grip on the nation’s theater chains, closely followed by the advent of television, all but destroyed the old Hollywood. Drive-ins offered a brief respite. After all, the kids really didn’t care what they watched, so long as it gave them an excuse to cling. (Good thing really, or a lot of us would never have been born.) The studios ground out the monster pictures like sausages, but many of these efforts featured impressive – and underrated – actresses like Gloria Talbot or Peggy Castle. Dozens of careers got launched this way. [7]   Redheaded Beverly Garland, the Eleanora Duse of the later-day screamers, starred in countless films with ludicrous titles like It Conquered the World or Alligator People , bringing verve and élan to some truly idiotic roles. [8]

Garland still shows up at Sci-Fi conventions, happily autographing the most lurid of movie posters, and still gives a great interview.   She’s also still a great looking woman, gutsy and funny – just the way we want her to be – but so many other scream queens led desperate, even tragic lives, their careers existing only in the memories of the most fanatical of film buffs.   Helen Chandler  (object of Bela Lugosi’s loathsome affections in the original Dracula ) drank herself to oblivion at an early age, finishing the job by passing out with a lit cigarette.   Elegantly sinister Gale Sondergaard ( The Spider Woman, The Cat and the Canary, The Spider Woman Strikes Back ) got blacklisted.   Gail Russell ( The Unseen , The Uninvited ) committed suicide at thirty-six.   Statuesque Allison Hayes ( Attack of The Fifty Foot Woman, The Unearthly ) also died tragically young, and petite blonde Yvette Vickers pretty much kissed her career goodbye after tangling with The Giant Leeches .   The list goes on and on.

 

                                                            

[2] All chronicled in her autobiography On the Other Hand, cleverly launched by her publisher at a party – where else? – atop the Empire State Building

[3] Odd really, since the Egyptians had no tradition of reincarnation.

[4] The 1935 original, not the 60's Ursula Andress version.

[5] Some ghouls have all the luck. Mr. Price was usually menacing – or being menaced by – the likes of Luana Anders, Hazel Court or the exquisite Barbara Steele.


[6] Hammer films at least were often graced by actresses of the caliber of Barbara Shelly or Ingrid Pitt.                                        

[7] My personal favorite? A gorgeous African-American teenager from Norristown, Pennsylvania who changed her name to Princess Acquanetta in order to pass herself off as "Venezuelan" royalty, appearing in such gems as Captive Wild Woman and Tarzan and the Leopard Woman.

[8]  . . . thereby following in the illustrious footsteps of Elsa Lanchester, Gloria Holden, Jean Brooks, Nina Foch, Simone Simon, Jane Rudolph, Lenore Aubert and many others, including contemporary actresses like Sigourney Weaver, Jamie Lee Curtis and the amazingly versatile Jenette Goldstein.

 

 

 

                                       

 

Times change.  

Even Frankie Avalon (who actually appeared in a couple of bad horror flicks) and Annette Funicello couldn’t keep drive-ins viable forever.   And the term scream queen has come to mean something a little different in recent years.   After all, most contemporary film buffs discovered the classics on late night television programs, and these very TV shows introduced a previously unknown element . . . something completely new.  


 

                                      

                                        

 

Strains of Holst’s The Planets drifted eerily through the fog.   Slowly, a bizarre creature emerged from the mist, part gypsy, part kabuki demon.   Buxom and wasp-waisted, she’d fix the camera with a basilisk glare . . .

. . . and scream.  

The year was 1954.   America staggered through a decade of bland, sunny entertainment, of Milton Berle and Dinah Shore – and occasional dark quirks.  

 

  

  Incarnated by Maila Nurmi, Vampira arrested the attention of the nation. As befits any pioneer, Nurmi's career has become practically mythologized: her debut at a costume ball (dressed as the Charles Addams character who later became as Morticia [ 9] ); the way she caught the eye of a programming director from KABC; her relationship with screen legend James Dean (who sometimes appeared incognito on her program); her wordless performance in

 

Plan Nine from Outer Space ; even her kidnapping by a demented fan – all have become part of early television lore.  

Sadly, her performances from those distant days of live telecasts are lost forever, and poor Nurmi [10] is best remembered now for her lawsuit against Elvira , who later achieved an amazing degree of fame [11] at another Los Angeles TV station.   But her place in horror history is assured . . . and a strange tradition survives.

 

[9]  Later made famous by Carolyn Jones and still later incarnated by Angelica Huston.

[10]  Even her depiction in the film Ed Wood couldn’t resurrect her career.

[11]  Elvira’s alter ego, Cassandra Peterson starred in the 1988 feature film Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

 

 

 

A scant decade ago, a handful of late-night channel surfers found themselves blinking blearily at an old monster flick.   Several silhouettes – two of which didn't exactly appear human – seemed to be blocking the screen.   And they kept making the oddest remarks.

The channel surfers called their friends.   Word started to get around.   The success of Mystery Science Theater 3000 engendered a quarterly newsletter, a national convention at which 50,000 fans turned out, and a feature film. [12]   The show's primary conceit featured a castaway on an orbiting space station forced to watch an endless stream of bad movies . . . while his mechanical companions poked fun at them.     His tormentor?   Dr. Pearl Forester (invested with divine insouciance by Mary Jo Pehl), maddest of mad scientists and surely the inventor of PMS.   Without question, these films qualified as the worst in the world, drive-in fodder like The Amazing Colossal Man (“Yeah, you wish,” quipped one of the robots), The Leach Woman and Killer Shrews .  


The show sustained excellent ratings for years, even as it hopped from cable station to cable station.  

Deliciously funny.   And somehow so fresh.

Yet – even then – performing satire in and around televised science fiction and horror movies represented a venerable comic tradition   . . . which originated in (of all places) Philadelphia.  

 

  [12]  MST3K, the Movie (1996).

 

 

                                                                

 

Philly has a long history of horror hosts.   In 1957, WCAU's astoundingly successful Shock Theater featured John Zacherle as host Roland , inserting himself with humorous intent into a variety of grade-Z thrillers.   Each week, Roland emerged from his coffin to complain about his wife (referred to only as “my dear”) and his mother-in-law (“the old bat”) and took Vampira’s horror iconography one step beyond, donning various costumes and actually editing himself into the action.    Fans went wild – it became the show to watch.   After a single season the program moved to New York and national syndication. [13]


Nearly twenty years later, another Philadelphia station made lightning strike twice.   WPHL's popular Doctor Shock prowled along in Roland's footsteps, aping some of Zacherle’s old routines frame for frame.   He lasted a full decade, [14] easily outdistancing Dallas’ Gorgon , New Orleans’ Morgus or Cleveland’s Ghoulardi .   Still later (and still in Philly) Karen Scioli picked up the trail as Stella in KYW's Saturday Night Dead .   Scioli – who won a Mid-Atlantic Emmy for Best Performer in 1988 – even had the venerable Zacherley on her show as a guest.   Talk about coming full circle.


But Stella brought a hitherto unknown level of unabashed camp to this horror business, even referring to her low-cut regalia as her “drag.” [15]   It worked.   Given an almost unprecedented amount of creative control because of her show’s incredible ratings, actress/comedienne Scioli turned the whole stand-up horror shtick into zany theater.   In six years of weekly programming, and a variety of prime time specials, her haunted condo came to be peopled (if that’s the right word) by Iggy (something unpleasant in the basement), Hives (a mumbling butler), Bed (who also mumbled, thankfully) and a virtual roll call of regional celebrities. [16]

 

Thousands of fans watched each week just to see what Stella [17] was up to, suffering through insufferable features just to giggle at the way she lampooned them.   (Her Tuna Man parody of the otherwise forgettable Puma Man must constitute some sort of subversively bizarre television highpoint.   Or possibly a low one.   Does it matter?)   Occasionally, a gem of a film would find its way onto her program, something by Edgar Ulmer or Val Lewton, but that was just poison icing on the cake.   Most of the fans couldn’t have cared less about the movies.   They cared about Stella and her misadventures.   Over the years, Stella got engaged, hosted male beauty pageants, found her missing parents, sold her soul and – in the final episode – wound up doing a lounge act in hell. [18]


[13]  The character’s name then changed to Zacherley.

[14]  On three different programs -- Scream-In, Mad Theater and Horror Theater.

[15]  Unlike Vampira and Roland, the Maneater from Manayunk was a vampire in the over-the-top, Theda Bara mode only.

[16]  Anyone from James Darren and Bobby Rydell to a struggling local horror writer (guilty) was apt to turn up.

[17]  In the book TV Horror Movie Hosts, Elena M. Watson refers to Scioli as a “macabre combination of Carol Burnett, Mae West and Bette Midler.”

[18]  It could happen – Scioli has done everything but. Since cancellation of her show, she’s appeared in a variety of network TV programs, independent films, even a one-woman play called (of all things) BATS!


 

 

Mist swirls on the shadowy staircase, gradually coalescing into a form both wraithlike and seductively feminine.

 

 

Economic pressures have pretty much driven a stake through the heart of indigenous programming – local stations now being relegated to little more than franchises.

How colorless.   How drab.  

Perhaps cable holds the key.   The Sci-Fi Channel (eventual home to MST3K ) regularly features horror movie festivals with guest hosts like Grace Jones or Drew Barrymore, and until quite recently TNT still screened Joe-Bob’s Monster Vision (which Stella occasionally guest-hosted).   Will local cable stations, hungry for programming, sooner or later rediscover the allure of the scream queen?

Fans of that delicious chill can only hope.

 

 

                                                                      - -END--


 

 

                                                                                                                        

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