With the passing of a legend, Devan talks about the women who once ruled Horror.
In my last column, I plead my case for the return of the slasher film, while foolishly overlooking one of the key components to the rise of the genre – the Scream Queen. Since then, horror-film legend Marilyn Burns, star of the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), has passed away peacefully in her sleep at the age of 65. As Burns is rightfully billed as one of the original Scream Queens, her passing brought to mind how this fascinating group of early pioneers paved the way for future generations* with their astonishing talents, hard work, and pure love of the genre.
Burns unquestionably set the standard for future generations of clothing challenged shriekers with her iconic portrayal of Massacre‘s Sally Hardesty. The image of the wailing ingénue fleeing her grisly would-be killer Leatherface and his loud, whirling instrument of death and dismemberment has been seared forever into our collective consciousness. Audience members gasped in revulsion at the jarring images on screen. There were reports of some audience members getting physically sick in theaters while others ran out screaming and crying. Critics labeled it sleaze fit only for serial killers and perverts and advised people not to see it. One of the more outspoken detractors was noted film critic Rex Reed who compared the motion picture to others in the genre, saying “It makes Psycho look like a nursery rhyme and The Exorcist look like a comedy.’ Everyone from late night talk show host Johnny Carson to feminists groups were outraged but Marilyn never understand why they made such a fuss.
“I was puzzled,” she told Penthouse Magazine in an interview celebrating the 40th anniversary of the films release. “I got away. I’m the first victim to get away! I’m a heroine.”
Just bringing up the subject of a “Scream Queen” with a devoted horror fans will usually lead to a lengthy conversation about how Jamie Lee Curtis kicked off the fun with her indelible debut performance in John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978, which actually came two years after Burns performance. Many horror purists are only too happy to remind anyone willing to listen that Jamie’s mother, actress Janet Leigh, who starred in Hitchcock’s Psycho, was in fact the source of all future hot female victims with golden pipes built for high intensity shrieking while getting hacked to pieces. But it wasn’t until the 80’s that the actual term “Scream Queen” was officially coined by the media, based off the works of three unlikely female stars.
With the popularity of the VCR came a new rise in video stores and an endless hunger for cheap VHS movies. In no time at all a global market was established, creating a pipeline for distributors to profit from unparalleled in movie history. People that before might only see a dozen movies in a year were now avidly watching a new one every night, viewing well into the hundreds in a short period of time as the trend grew. The subsequent proliferation of cheaply made horror movies with outrageous plot lines, bizarre titles, and gratuitous nudity was welcomed with open arms, as were exploitation movies and adult films, in case you’re not old enough to remember the dodgy section behind the beaded curtain. Horror producers simply couldn’t make them fast enough to cash in on the craze. They shot these movies in record time, usually a week or less, on shoestring budgets featuring models who possessed no previous acting experience or Hollywood ambitions. All the actresses shared one thing in common however; they were simply willing to get naked on film for dirt cheap pay.
These lusty beauties quickly gained a following as studios churned out titles to keep up with the growing demand. Soon directors discovered that the girls had grown so popular on their own that they no longer needed to include expensive big name talent from television and feature films like Eric Estrada or John Barrymore. They had become stars in their own right, with legions of fanboys clamoring for more and shelling out cash to get their hands on everything from movies to merchandise.
Three sexy stars quickly established themselves as leading ladies worth their weight in B movie gold – Linnea Quigley, Michelle Bauer and Brinke Stevens. It was this trio that originally spawned the term Scream Queen. None of the girls came from a theater arts background or had any official acting training of any kind. Still producers and directors quickly fell in love with their ability to memorize pages of dialogue and recite them in a single take, not to mention their lack of squeamishness about peeling down to their birthday suits. The girls often worked twenty hour days for weeks on end but enjoyed being steadily employed as well as the people they worked, who became like a small family of outcasts as the years rolled on. They were beloved for both their fun approach to increasingly peculiar roles as well as their blue collar willingness to chip in and help move gear on set – right down to hauling lights between takes. In other words, they paid their fucking dues and then some.
You can’t talk about Scream Queens without talking about Linnea, who is referred to alternately as the Queen of B Movies. Born in Iowa, Quigley maintains she was a shy girl before she moved to Los Angeles and began modeling and appearing in bit roles in horror films. Her big break came during the filming of the cult slasher classic Graduation Day, when she replaced the original actress who refused to do nude scenes. From there the petite, fearless blonde went on to dance topless in Psycho from Texas, cementing her place in the genre. Quigley is best known for her role in The Return of the Living Dead from 1985 but has also starred in such lurid fare as Savage Streets, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Nightmare Sisters, Creepozoids, Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, and Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers. She’s also the author of two books about her career as a B-movie actress, Chainsaw and I’m Screaming as Fast as I Can and is a popular staple to this day on the horror convention scene.
* Including 90’s so-called screamers Neve Campbell, Sarah Michelle Geller, and Jennifer Love Hewitt – all who proudly wore the title without showing us the requisite flesh.
Michelle Bauer was born and raised in Simi Valley, married young and moved over the hill to San Fernando Valley with her husband. She worked at a car wash before stumbling upon a want ad for figure models. Soon after she made the transition to taking off her clothes in front of the camera. Bauer freely admits to acting in several adult films under the pseudonym Pia Snow, including the renowned pornographic classic Cafe Flesh, but swears she insisted on a having an actual porn star play her double during sex scenes. By July of 1981 she was officially a Penthouse Pet. Her centerfold was wildly popular, which led to a film try-out for director Fred Olen Ray and eventually her first role as an Egyptian witch in the now infamous B-movie The Tomb. From there she went on to make several classics, including Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Reform School Girls, Nightmare Sisters, Death Row Diner, and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama.
By far the most unlikely of this seminal trio is Brinke Stevens, a polyglot who once boasted an active membership in Mensa. Born in San Diego, California, Stevens eventually earned a Master of Science in Marine Biology from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Obsessed with dolphins Brinke intended on devoting her life to studying and deciphering how they communicated. She became a Scream Queen on accident after being cast as a movie extra while she was looking for work in her new home in Los Angeles. She went on to star in over 100 horror movies and is still working today. Brinke also wrote several screenplays, produced two documentaries, and is a welcome staple at some of the country’s biggest horror conventions. In 1995 she co-write a three part comic series based on her character called ‘Brinke of Destruction’ with Todd A Kaylor for ‘High Top Publications’. She also made a special literary appearance in Bad Moon Rising, the third installment of Jonathan Maberry’s Pine Deep trilogy.
In no time at all the girls found they had racked up scores of credits along with a sizable fan base, excited by the possibility of hot naked girls who actually answered fan mail. Bauer describes being invited on talk shows and being flown to events as a guest of honor as “an E ticket ride that wouldn’t end.” Stevens got named dropped on Jeopardy and began appearing on late night horror shows across the country. MTV hired Quigley to cover Fangoria’s convention as the “Queen of the B’s.” Yet despite their undeniable popularity the girls were looked down on by Hollywood in general, dismissed as being inferior for working in “those movies” and forever stigmatized for having taken off their clothes on camera. It didn’t matter that movies like Fred Olen Ray’s Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, which starred both Bauer and Quigley as full time prostitutes and part time chainsaw murder enthusiasts, were being eaten up by fans all over the world. No one associated with the titles found they couldn’t get hired in big budget features. There was a glass ceiling they never seemed to be able to break through.
Ironically the popularity of the genre also caused an explosion of new girls eager for attention to latch on to the title, some without any claim other than having posed nude in a fantasy horror magazine. Soon anyone who had got naked on film, and a few who simply cultivated the look, began to call themselves a Scream Queen, including porn stars and mud wrestlers, effectively killing the meaning behind the title in the process for many fans. Quigley insists that these legions of attention hungry wannabes ruined the good thing they had going, muddying the waters and ripping fans off in the process. Girls she’d never seen or worked with began packing trade shows in skimpy outfits, charging fees for photos at conventions and pretending to rival the status of girls who worked hard for their place in B movie history. She wouldn’t have to be upset about it for long.
The inevitable rise of chain video rental stores like Hollywood Video, or the Mormon owned Blockbuster which refused to carry B movies, signaled the inevitable decline of the genre, bringing an end to what can only be described as a magical period of American film making. So-called ‘mom and pop’ brick and mortar stores were quickly run out of business by the big guys. The slasher phenomenon began to fade, condemning these masterpieces to censored versions on USA’s Up All Night or late night softcore cable porn channel viewings. The market for independent low budget movies vanished almost overnight. The party was officially over, at least for a decade or two. These days B movies are enjoying new life for their retro status, not to mention their kitsch, with a new generation of fans discovering their impossibly imaginative worlds full of unabashed topless killer stars while laughing at their poor quality, ridiculous storylines, and often abysmal special effects. Still it’s these same people keeping their heroes alive. Brinke claims most of her work these days comes from fans who’ve grown into horror directors themselves.
It’s safe to say that the legacy of Bauer, Stevens, and Quigley still resonates with us to this day. Bonafide Scream Queens like Debbie Dutch, Monique Gabrielle, Debra Lamb, Denice Duff, JJ North, Maria Ford, Debbie Rochon, Julie Strain, Felissa Rose, Tanya Dempsy, and Tiffany Shepis all owe some of their success to the original trio of howlers. You can still catch glimpses of Quigley and Stevens in new releases from time to time and both still show up at events to meet their fans. Bauer dabbles in making appearances and cameos, but swears she has put the life of a Scream Queen behind her. Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers would later go on to be listed as number 4 on Maxim Magazine’s greatest 100 B Movies of All Time. Silent Night, Deadly Night, which famously stars Quigley being hung on a pair of antlers naked, is still considered one of the most controversial movies of all time. If you’re interested in learning more I suggest you check out the documentary Screaming In High Heels; The Rise and Fall of the Scream Queen.
Marilyn Burns never gave up acting. Her final horror movie, Sacrament, was shot last year in Texas. Like her seminal role it revolved around a group of kids in a small town obsessed with cannibalism. Her final interview, as well as a retrospective on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, will be available in the November issue of Penthouse.