The hardest working women in show business.
The title "scream queen" has been around forever. But it wasn't until Fay Wray took a pawing from an oversized ape and verbally expressed her dismay that the title became exclusive to horror. Since then, any actress with a set of lungs who could shriek like a stuck pig while still looking fetching in a torn nightgown became a fright film icon. Every decade has seen its own version of these yelling lassies. In her time, Elsa Lanchester proved that a powerful, piercing shout could lead to legendary status. In the 1960s, Hammer and such eye-catching sirens as Barbara Steele and Hazel Court steamed up the screen. Another actress from that era, Pamela Franklin, made some of the most classic cult terror movies in the early part of the "Me decade." But it wasn't until later in the '70s, with the arrival of Halloween and the true rebirth of the mainstream horror film, that the banshee babe was given another shot at superstardom. Jamie Lee Curtis, who managed to turn the celebrated role of Laurie Stroud into dozens of fright flicks (as well as an eventual trip to highly acclaimed straight drama) led the charge of the new breed of babe. Thanks to home video, the '80s went scream queen crazy, introducing now-illustrious honeys such as Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens, and Michelle Bauer, all camping up such manic monster movies as Night of the Demons, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-a-rama and Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers. But now, as the new millennium moves toward its first five years, the notion of what exactly constitutes a female titan of terror is hotly contested. Are they merely breasts with bravado? Sex with shrieks? Or are they Something to Scream About?
In something of a surprise move for the usually bargain-basement independent film company, Tempe Video, home of such outrageous examples of underground filmmaking as Ozone, Bloodletting, Skinned Alive, and ChickBoxer, has released a new 65-minute documentary about the iconographic horror harpy known as the scream queen. Focusing mainly on those vocal vixens of the '80s and '90s and investigating the current state of their cinematic subset, this is a tough and thought-provoking look at what may be a lost notion in the modern macabre motion picture. Narrated by Brinke Stevens (a true genre idol) and featuring Ariauna Albright (Witchouse 2: Blood Coven), Brandi Burkett (The Slumber Party Massacre Part 3), Denice Duff (Subspecies II), Judith O'Dea (Night of the Living Dead), Debra DeLiso (The Slumber Party Massacre), Julie Strain (Heavy Metal 2000), Lilith Stabs (Bad Movie Police), Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp), and the always enigmatic Debbie Rochon (far too many to mention), it is an informative, infuriating, and often moving account of life on the far edges of the film business. Employing the best technique for an interview-style fact film, the director (B-movie maven Jason Paul Collum of 5 Dark Souls fame) simply points the camera and shoots while these lovely ladies dispel myths, address important issues, and wax poetic about their time in the celebrity limelight. And what they say will have you wondering about the unlucky lasses you've witnessed in all manner of maniac/slasher stupidity over the last 30 years.
There are several standout segments here. The human action figure, Julie Strain, is not afraid to detail her plastic surgeries (one involving her cheeks seems especially nasty), the outpouring of love from the fans, and the amount of work she has to do to stay an over-40 "almost washed up, unable to act" sex kitten. Judith O'Dea is amazed at how Night of the Living Dead is still regarded as a classic to this very day (and she also tells a nice anecdote about her son bragging to his pals about Mom's appearance in the seminal zombie film). Debra DeLiso is shocked to learn there were sequels to The Slumber Party Massacre, and Felissa Rose laments her lack of participation in the follow-ups to Sleepaway Camp. Almost all the actresses find common ground on the issue of nudity, on the decreasing quality of independent filmmaking, and on the general stigma attached to being a horror actress. But the true, tormented star here is Debbie Rochon. This dark-haired artiste, who seems to wear a permanent smirk beneath her sad, sullen eyes, really bares her creative soul and anguishes over the lost "talent" of the scream queen. Without naming names or pointing fingers, she feels the modern version of the horror standby is nothing more than some bimbo with boobs. She comprehends how to suffer (both physically and financially) for her craft and is angry and frustrated that roles go to so many wannabes who only have silicone and collagen on their résumés. Of all the women represented, Rochon seems to be the one destined for mainstream stardom. It is easy to imagine her alongside the big names in the business, if only the right role would come along.
Indeed, the one reaction you constantly come away with while watching this documentary is why so many of these talented ladies are not still working full time in the business. Sure, Rochon, Albright, and Stevens still see roles riding up to their doorsteps (and Strain sighs over the number of newcomers who want to pay her practically nothing to appear in their films—nude, of course), but the rest have had to branch out, to take their celebrity as just one aspect of their overall lives and either trade on it (via conventions and websites) or forget it (for family and a far more secure future). The flavor-of-the-month mentality about the motion picture business (even at this poverty-row level) is disturbing, and one gets the impression that these women are deluding themselves into believing it was their talent, not their T&A, that got them the notoriety they now traffic in. But they all seem so grounded and down to earth, able to freely remove themselves from the fanaticism and the flattery to see the truth before them, that such a criticism seems overly harsh. Collum and the gals conclude that a classic era of exploitation and horror has ended, and that a new title for those legendary ladies needs to be concocted. Today, the designation scream queen carries too much sexual and stupefying baggage. Imperiled pulchritude needs to be remembered for what it contributed, not what it exposed, in the history of horror.
In order to emphasize the talent of the individuals present, we get a couple of short subjects, each showing off the experimental ideology of the acting auteurs. Debbie Rochon's student films (two very short, strange works) underlie a lady of some skilled filmmaking chops. Julie Strain's interview with Lizzy Strain (her half-sister) is a more freewheeling exposé that wouldn't be out of place as part of some celebrity infotainment show. But the biggest bonus here is a 30-minute mini-movie by Collum called Julia Wept, which is very good. A meditative tone poem about death and denial, it centers on a young woman named Julia who can't contain her grief over the death of her sister. But when she appears to cause an accident that kills a mother and son, the sense of loss turns into terror, as she seems stuck in purgatory, haunted by restless spirits. Collum's direction here is professional and sure handed (he created this film as a kind of video résumé), and all the actors are excellent. Together with an interview feature (with Stevens and newcomer Jason Sechrest), it's a great extra to have as part of this sometimes profound package.
Visually, this is an outstanding DVD. The video transfer is perfect, and even the archival footage from the femme's films looks good. The 1.33:1 full-frame image is detailed and delightful. The Dolby Digital 2.0 is near perfect. We are able to hear each actress very easily and with little interference from background noise or underscoring. Overall, this is an enthralling and selfless look at some very classy and sadly under-appreciated women. So take your Searching for Debra Wingers and stuff them up your noble intentions. Something to Scream About covers the same, poignant ground without having to hear millionaires massage their egos and whine about the lack of Oscar-worthy material. All the scream queens want is a recognition…and a chance. And they really do deserve it.
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