By Steve Ryfle
What does it take to be a great scream queen?
More than a killer set of lungs and an ear-piercing wail.
The recent deaths of Fay Wray and Janet Leigh, two legendary women of horror, underscore how rarely an actress possesses the perfect mix of beauty, vulnerability, acting chops and sheer terror to deserve the crown of scream queen. Wray's hair-raising shrieks in King Kong's palm, and Leigh's blood-curdling caterwaul in "Psycho" will forever haunt our nightmares.
Horror movies have been pop-culture staples since the 1930s (and earlier, but you couldn't hear the women wailing during the Silent Era), when Wray led the first chorus of screamers into movie history. Elsa Lanchester came back from the dead wearing a fright wig, and loudly protested her arranged marriage in "The Bride of Frankenstein." Gloria Stuart recoiled in terror from "The Invisible Man" nearly 70 years before taking a dip in "Titanic." Glenda Farrell and Wray co-starred as roomies who nearly get turned into statues in "Mystery of the Wax Museum," a precursor to the modern slasher flick.
The forties and fifties brought another wave of horror films, and more actresses to carry the terror torch. Perhaps the most famous scream queen of the era was Simone Simon, who turned into a man-killing panther in "Cat People" (and earned infamy for getting arrested for pot possession with Bob Mitchum in Mexico). But, scary and beautiful though she was, Simon really didn't fit the classic "scream queen" mold, nor did many of the horror heroines of the times. They just didn't scream as much as their predecessors.
Alas, the term "scream queen" has been overused, slapped onto just about any female character in a scary movie. The tag has even been tacked onto Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in the "Alien" films, and Linda Hamilton's tough chick in the "Terminator" flicks, but it just doesn't stick.
"It's a passe term used during the 1970s and 1980s," says Gary Svehla, editor of "Hollywood's Classic Scream Queens: 1930s" (Midnight Marquee Press). "It all goes back to vulnerable horror heroines, first created by Fay Wray. So, any horror film damsel-in-distress is labeled Scream Queen."
Janet Leigh's shower scene in 1960 is the apex of scream-queen history, and perhaps horror movie history. Director Alfred Hitchcock shot the scene in 70-something takes lasting two and three seconds apiece, and Leigh supposedly spent seven days in the shower. It may seem bloodless by today's standards, but it remains a truly chilling scene. Years later, Leigh said she still was too scared to take a shower. "It's not a hype, not something I thought would be good for publicity. Honest to gosh, it's true."
From the late fifties through the seventies, low budget science fiction, horror and slasher movies flourished, and Sandra Knight ("Blood Bath"), Beverly Garland ("The Alligator People") and Camille Keaton ("I Spit On Your Grave") were among the dozens of women keeping the art of screaming alive. It wasn't until Janet Leigh's daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, starred as the large-lunged teen Laurie Strode in 1978's "Halloween" that the horror-chick had a new prototype.
But after just three horror films ("Halloween 2" and "Prom Night" were the others), Curtis shifted away from screaming for more serious stuff. It took another decade and a horror geek named Kevin Williamson to make frightened femmes fun again in the appropriately titled "Scream" and its offshoots.
Still, for some people, Janet Leigh will always define the ideal scream queen. "Who can forget her in movies such as 'Manchurian Candidate' or 'Touch of 'Evil,'" says Svehla. "Her performance in 'Psycho' as the horror heroine killed half way through the movie, stabbed to death naked in the shower, will be her iconic performance. But she was much more than dead, wet meat in the shower stall."