Tuesday 14 August 2012

Screaming in High Heels: The Rise & Fall of the Scream Queen Era (2011)

Director: Jason Paul Collum
Stars: Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer

It's almost surprising to find a documentary that lives up to its subtitle, but this one does exactly what it set out to do. Any horror fan remotely close to my age will realise that it's talking about the straight to video era of the late eighties, a relatively short but prolific period for the three ladies whose interviews constitute much of this film. No, we're not talking about people like Fay Wray or Janet Leigh. While they, and others, were justly famous for screaming in horror movies, they weren't scream queens. However great Fay Wray was, and I'm a great fan, she's nobody's primary reason for watching King Kong. Yet in the late eighties, people began renting this movie over that one purely because it starred Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens or Michelle Bauer. If you were lucky, it starred all of them. As Fred Olen Ray points out, the filmmakers realised that they 'didn't need Erik Estrada or Jan Michael Vincent any more.' The scream queen era was born.

It makes sense for writer/director Jason Paul Collum to make this film. He's documented scream queens before, in 2003's Something to Scream About and covered the topic in Sleepless Nights: Revisiting the Slumber Party Massacres, but this is a focused attempt to define the genre. He's also a fan, someone who grew up watching these movies and deciding that he wanted to make things like them himself. When he's not documenting the genre, he's adding to it, with films like 5 Dark Souls, Julia Wept and October Moon, films starring scream queens like Brinke Stevens and Debbie Rochon, along with Judith O'Dea from Night of the Living Dead, who came along a decade too early to be a scream queen but wouldn't have got naked even if the timing was right. Collum is definitely of the next generation, his first film as a director not coming until 1995, and he's by far the youngest of the various interview subjects we see here.

This film would have benefitted from Collum staying behind the camera. It's not that he doesn't have anything valid to say, it's that everyone else was an active participant in the era and their comments don't need anyone else to guide the history forward. Another flaw is that, while the people he interviews are certainly some of the right people, there aren't that many of them. Of course, the focus is on the ladies and the unholy trinity of scream queens are here, interviewed at length, but there are only six other subjects. Prolific directors Fred Olen Ray, David DeCoteau and Ted Newsom get most screen time, with some left over for actor, writer and director Richard Gabai, writer Kenneth Hall and omnipresent actor Jay Richardson. With so much from the same people, it quickly began to feel like Collum's presence on screen was merely because he couldn't reach anyone else to take his place. Many names are conspicuous only through their absence.

Those flaws aside, this is a notable success. The whole era is covered, from its beginnings as the home video boom began and mom and pop rental stores began to steal the focus for cheap films away from the drive in theatres. We find out about where these three scream queens came from and how they found this particular niche. We see clips from their debuts and their breakthrough roles, as well as all the key movies that I remember. Everyone's favourite will be here. We learn about how these films were made and how it differed from the B movies that went before them. Eventually we hear about the end, as the market reached saturation point and the scream queen epithet got co-opted by every actress who'd ever appeared in a horror movie or taken off her top on screen. At that point, the era was dead, though Collum gives fair credit to the few others who earned the title, including much love for Tiffany Shepis, who's keeping it alive today.
The biggest success is that the film works on multiple levels simultaneously, a trick that most documentaries never quite manage. It feels like an introduction, an accessible starting point for people to discover what scream queens were and why they were special for that brief, colourful slice of cinematic history. Yet there's enough depth here that I learned a great deal, even though I also grew up watching these movies, reading up on them afterwards in Fangoria and trawling market stalls to flesh out filmographies. I wouldn't call myself an expert on the subject, but I know a good deal, certainly enough to notice if Collum took a wrong turn. He didn't, but perhaps he glossed over a few things. What I discovered here was that I already had the era down pretty well, but knew less than I thought I did about the scream queens themselves. Most of what I learned here was from them, especially from early on before they defined the era.

One reason why these three were so successful as scream queens was because they were fans and they had a blast being in these sort of movies. That they were willing to get naked and killed a lot couldn't hurt, but anyone could do that. It was the enjoyment they brought that made the difference. They arrived around the same time, but from different directions. Quigley was a shy girl from a small town, still shy when she got naked and abused in 1975's Psycho from Texas. She arrived in film through modelling, as did Bauer, a self confessed 'free spirit', though Collum omits her time in porn as Pia Snow. Stevens is the eye opener: a Mensa member with a masters degree, she left oceanography when the science jobs dried up and was led into a casting office by the posters. Her breakthrough was earliest, in The Slumber Party Massacre in 1982. Quigley's came with The Return of the Living Dead in 1985, Bauer's a year later again in The Tomb.

The girls have a lot of fun remembering back, though Bauer seems to have mixed feelings about what she did. While she doesn't hide it and she still makes films today, she doesn't tell anyone outside the industry about her career. Stevens relishes it most, the grin on her face contagious as she talks about the lurid covers and titles. I found it funny that she mentioned Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-a-Rama as an example, given that it was renamed The Imp for UK release. The guys add a lot of background. They churned these movies out without time in between to breathe. Films were shot in a week or less, for a tenth the budget of a drive in B movie. Hall wrote Nightmare Sisters in seven days, DeCoteau shot it in four. Ray describes the late eighties as the most exciting time in American film from a filmmaker's perspective, as everything was opportunity. If you could bring pictures in on time and on budget, you never stopped working.

I liked this film a lot, but I wanted a lot more. I couldn't help but compare it to Machete Maidens Unleashed!, another recent exploitation film documentary that I thoroughly enjoyed. It ran to feature length, while this struggles to make it past an hour. It was built from interviews with a vast array of actors, producers and directors, while this has six guys and three scream queens, plus the director linking bits together. It had so much interview footage that there was another hour and half of further material on the DVD, while this one just has a Q&A from the Flashback Weekend of Horrors. Screaming in High Heels does better with its movie clips and its assorted ephemera, including clips from workout videos, old interviews, even Quigley singing with her band, the Skirts. The bones are really solid, and the flesh is pretty good too but there needs to be more of it. As it stands, it's just a little anorexic.

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