DEADLIER THAN THE MALE…FEMALE HORROR ICONS OF OUR TIME.
BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
The time? July, 2014. The place? Dublin, Ireland. The brief? Write a short- well, shortish– piece on female horror icons. Mission? Impossible. I can’t do it, I thought in a panic. In the whole history of cinema, there are too many to choose from. There would have been female horror icons as far back as the silent movie era, wouldn’t there? How can I narrow it down to just a few actresses whose contribution to horror cinema sets them apart from their peers and guarantees them a place for life in the horror hall of fame? It’s just not do-able. I tore my hair out and blubbered like a baby.
Pull yourself together, woman, I told myself then. I gave myself a mental shake and a severe talking-to, put on a pot of coffee and asked myself a few pertinent questions. Who are your favourite horror film directors? Well, that’s an easy one. Alfred Hitchcock and John Carpenter. Right. Good. Now we’re getting somewhere. What are your favourite films of theirs? Piece of cake. THE BIRDS, PSYCHO andHALLOWEEN. Are you getting cocky with me? Don’t get cocky with me. It’s not a good idea. Now, who are the actresses who starred in these films? Why, Tippi Hedren, Janet Leigh and Janet’s daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, of course. Everyone knows that.
Don’t get smart with me, missy. I won’t tell you again. Do you have a favourite horror film studio? God, yes. The studio that made the Hammer Horror films. Good choice. Favourite Hammer actress? Ingrid Pitt, without a doubt. Excellent. Now we have ourselves a party. Now we’re cooking with gas. Now we’re… Oh, never mind. Just write the damn piece, will you? And would it kill you to put on some more coffee? I’m dying of thirst over here. And is there any damn food in this place? The service around here has gone seriously downhill lately… The conversation with myself went on for some time. You don’t need to know all the details.
We’ll start with Tippi, shall we? Born Nathalie Kay Hedren in 1930, this American actress was given the nickname ‘Tippi’ by her father. She came to the attention of director Alfred Hitchcock in 1961 while working as a model. Hitch was immediately taken with her- too taken, as some would have it- and by 1963 Tippi was making her film debut in one of the most iconic horror films of all time, THE BIRDS.Based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, it’s the story of a small American community that’s being terrorized by birds. Yes, birds. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of birds. Birds are scary. If the bird population of the world ever did decide to gang up on us humans, we’d be screwed. That’s what’s so terrifying about this film, the notion that this actually could happen. It probably won’t, but it could.
Tippi, the epitome of the ‘ice-cool blonde’ so beloved of Hitch, is superb as Melanie Daniels, the self-possessed socialite who drives up to Bodega Bay to pursue a man she’s attracted to, Mitch Brenner, and walks slap-bang into a fluttery, flappy winged nightmare. The scene where she climbs the stairs and finds herself alone in a room with the beaky critters is one of the most claustrophobic and frightening in cinematic history. Tippi went on to star in over eighty films and television shows, but she’ll always be best-remembered for THE BIRDS.
Janet Leigh (1927-2004) was another of Hitchcock’s blonde leading ladies. She’s best-known for her starring role in what is commonly agreed to be one of the greatest films of all time, PSYCHO. The film was based on the 1959 novel by Robert Bloch, who in turn had loosely based his book on the gruesome crimes of Wisconsin killer-slash-grave-robber, Ed Gein. Leigh plays a secretary on the run from the law who finds herself staying at a creepy motel run by deranged sexual deviant, Norman Bates.
The cinema-going public was shocked by Hitch’s decision to kill off his leading lady halfway through the film. Everyone knows the shower scene in which Leigh is stabbed to death by an unknown assailant. Everyone knows the music that’s playing when she dies. Everyone knows her ‘scream’ face, and the way she grabs onto the shower curtain as she collapses. Filming this scene apparently traumatised her so much that she was turned off showers for life. I can’t say I blame her. I first saw the film when I was eighteen and it scared the living daylights out of me. Even today, I find it hard to talk about. To me, it’s the greatest horror film of all time. It set new levels of acceptability for violence and sexually deviant behaviour in American films. Oh, and, by the way, Janet Leigh, scream queen par excellence, did one more thing that safeguarded her place in the horror hall of fame. In 1958, she gave birth to a little lady by the name of Jamie Lee Curtis…
Jamie Lee has a film biography as long as your arm, but she’ll be best-remembered for her role as Laurie Strode in the HALLOWEEN films. 1978 saw the release of the highest-grossing independent film of its time, HALLOWEEN, which was directed and famously scored by John Carpenter and written by both Carpenter and his co-producer, Debra Hill. It tells the story of Michael Myers, a man who was locked away in 1953 for the murder of his sister. Fifteen years later, he escapes and returns to the fictional mid-Western town of Haddonfield. Pursued by his psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis, he stalks Jamie Lee and her two teenage friends all around the houses on Halloween Night, murdering hapless Haddonfield residents willy-nilly as he goes. Jamie Lee plays her part to perfection and afterwards went on to star in four further films in the HALLOWEEN franchise.
I can’t end this piece without briefly mentioning Ingrid Pitt (1937-2010), the beautiful Polish actress who survived incarceration in one of Hitler’s concentration camps in World War Two to become one of the sparkling jewels in the Hammer Horror crown. Her performances in films like THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and COUNTESS DRACULA elevated her to cult status and right up to her death in 2010, this much-loved actress was constantly in demand for personal appearances at horror conventions and film festivals. I adore Ingrid. And if I wasn’t whole-heartedly committed to being a straight female who likes guys, not gals, I’d be a little bit gay for her, too.
Well, there you have it. If there was time, I’d talk about actresses like Barbara Steele, best-known for her starring roles in the Italian gothic horror films of the 1960s, and Hammer Horror stars like Barbara Shelley, Caroline Munro and Madeline Smith. You should have made time. If you hadn’t faffed about so much talking about your favourite films, there would have been plenty of time. But the brief was to write no more than 1,500 words. If I’d written any more, I would have been exceeding the word count. You understand that, surely? Excuses, excuses. And you call this coffee? It tastes like something died in it. Oh, shut up. The mission is over. The brief is briefed. Goodnight.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based performance poet, novelist, film blogger, sex blogger and short story writer. She has given more than 200 performances of her comedy sex-and-relationship poems in different venues around Dublin, including The Irish Writers’ Centre, The International Bar, Toners’ Pub (Ireland’s Most Literary Pub), the Ha’penny Inn and The Strokestown Poetry Festival. Her articles, short stories and poems have appeared in The Metro-Herald newspaper, Ireland’s Big Issue magazine, The Irish Daily Star, The Irish Daily Sun and The Boyne Berries literary journal. She is addicted to buying books and will swap you anything you like for Hammer Horror or JAWS memorabilia, and would be a great person to chat to about the differences between the Director’s Cut and the Theatrical Cut of The Wicker Man. You can contact her at: