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One of the most iconic images in the horror genre is a beautiful woman, sometimes covered in blood, often topless, screaming in terror. These actresses became widely known as “scream queens”, and hold a special place in hearts of fanatics. By and large they began their careers as eye candy that existed on the periphery to add a little T&A, and to get killed off eventually. Over time, as they developed their own cult followings, these women became stars in their own right, carrying the films they appeared in rather than serving as window dressing. “Screaming in High Heels: the Rise and Fall of the Scream Queen Era”, a new documentary now on DVD, takes an in depth look at this strange and specific slice of popular culture.
While lovely women screaming and being murdered on screen goes back to Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock in “Psycho”, the scream queen as cultural phenomenon really took off in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After the decline of drive-in theaters and the grindhouses, the advent of home video and mom-and-pop video rental stores drove a new market. Instead of seeing maybe a handful of movies a week, fans were able to watch a new film nearly every night, and stores were hungry for content. Low-budget horror and cheap slasher fare helped fill slots on all of those video store shelves. With titles like “Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers”, “Psycho From Texas”, “Zyzak is King”, and “Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama”, these movies offered violence, nudity, titillation, and shocks.
This is the era that “Screaming” celebrates, with a particular focus on arguably the three biggest scream queens that emerged—Linnea Quigley (“The Return of the Living Dead”), Brinke Stevens (“Slumber Party Massacre”), and Michelle Bauer (“The Tomb”). Hailing from vastly different backgrounds, all three shared an early love of horror cinema. Quigley was literally a shy young woman from Iowa, Steven was a comic fangirl with a master’s degree in marine biology, and Bauer made the transition from a Penthouse model to actress because it was work and she wasn’t afraid to take her top off.
The film tracks this whole arc, from low-budget horror, which is a truly independent phenomenon in cinema, to the heights. Easily the most intriguing segments are when Quigley, Stevens, and Bauer, along with filmmakers like Fred Olen Ray, Kenneth Hall, and David DeCoteau, recount their experiences on set. We’re talking about movies that had maybe a week to shoot, and to hear the players talk is almost like listening to veterans recount war stories. Some of them even brag about feats like filming a four-day movie, wearing their genre accomplishments like badges of honor. Making movies like this was like a film school crash course. Everyone involved worked on numerous sets back to back, so the scene became a sort of extended family of actors, writers, directors, DPs, and more, as each racked up credit after credit. This style of film really carried the torch of pulp novels from earlier generations. They’re lurid, exploitative, cheap, fast, and a lot of fun.
Over time, as the fan clubs and grassroots recognition grew, Quigley, Stevens, Bauer, and a handful of other queens, gained a level of celebrity. They crisscrossed the country, appearing on talk shows, late night movie programs, and at horror conventions. But along with fame, even of a limited sort, came all the darker trappings. While most of their fan interactions were positive, there were stalkers and the like. One of Stevens’ fan club members was caught on the White House lawn with a gun, intent on assassinating Bill Clinton. There were also the negative connotations of the genre to contend with. Often viewed on the same level as porn, these actresses were stigmatized, typecast, and marginalized, unable to find work in more mainstream fare.
Each of the big three took a different approach to these artificial limitations. Quigley keeps chugging right along, appearing in low-budget film after low-budget film. Stevens is stepping back from acting and appearances to focus on her writing. Though Bauer occasionally appears on film, she has largely moved away from that world, and keeps her scream queen past under wraps. As a whole, the landscape of B-movies has changed. With technological advances, anyone with a camera and a bit of gumption can churn out a movie. And while there are more and more films, there are fewer and fewer outlets and avenues for distribution.
“Screaming in High Heels” is an obvious love letter from a fan to the genre. That said, while it’s entertaining enough, you’re left wishing for more in depth exploration of the wider cultural impact, the personal toll of this journey, just something more. Part of this is due to the length, which clocks in at just over 60-minutes, there simply isn’t much room to maneuver. Hardcore splatter fans, and worshipers or schlocky horror will dig this. If nothing else, you’ll spend most of the run time compiling a mental list of movies that you need to track down and watch. Even though it’s fun, in the end, “Screaming in High Heels” is a little light.
The DVD comes with a handful of extra interviews. There are separate bits with director Jason Paul Collum with Quigley and Stevens in front of audiences at a horror convention. Each of the primary subjects also gets their own extended solo interviews, where topics range from childhood through their careers and personal lives. Admittedly there are some interesting bits and fun behind the scenes info, but there’s nothing earth shaking here, and you see why most of these talks were left out of the actual movie.