Friday, February 18, 2011

Great Women of Horror: An Acidemic Top Ten

So many of the top horror film bloggers are women it's not even fair to just say 'it's your month, baby.' Because they rule! You got Tenebrous Kate, Stacie Ponder of Final Girl, the original as far as I'm concerned (she was my introduction to the world of blogging back in 2006), Jinx from Totally Jinxed, and the immortal Day of the Woman's BJ-C.  and others... but hey, Acidemic is always down to celebrate badass horror chicks! The below list doesn't include the more obvious choices I've already covered, such as Jill Banner and Beverly Washburn in SPIDER BABY (here) and Natasha Henstridge in SPECIES (read my big SPECIES / GHOSTS OF MARS piece here) or THE RING (here):

Nastassja Kinski in
1982 - Dir. Paul Schrader

A movie for the sweaty palmed thrill of waiting to meet what may be a new lover: the danger--heady and intoxicating--taking over and trumping all other states in the electoral college of the Electric Self. The sense of incredible longing coupled to intense anxiety about the hazards involved is one most teenagers get to know all too well, and I was worse than most, unaware that my relentless longing was not sexy to behold... How great then, a movie that champions sexual stasis? Nastassja Kinski is afraid to surrender because she knows she'll turn into a panther if she gets too excited, and won't turn back again until she kills someone. The touchingly open ending hints at the dawn of an inter-species love affair with the mix of sacral chakra-moving low synth beds and "See these eyes so blue / I could stare for a thousand years" from Bowie all letter perfect. I hummed that Bowie song all the way through the rest of high school. You can argue Lewton's 1942 original is better, but why bother? I've seen them both dozens of times and Kinski is so perfectly cast I swoon just thinking about it. Look at her up there, like the love child of Ingrid Bergman and a leopard, which is nearly true. Meanwhile Annette O'Toole is her perfect foil in the Jane Randolph spot: all-American, busty, good with animals, and sexually available as all hell to John Heard, who may not be perfect but is better in every way than dopey Kent Smith in the original. Jeeze, when Annette O'Toole is your back-up booty call, you know you're in clover. (see also - Blank like a Panther - Blu-ray Review)

2. tie -Alison Hayes / Dorothy Neumann
1957 Dir. Roger Corman

My favorite Corman movie. For sheer ballsy Halloween lunacy, nothing beats THE UNDEAD. The whole film feels like it was shot in sequence over one long night in a single empty soundstage full of black toxic mist (and it was!). Pamela Duncan is hypnotized to travel through the sea of time to her past lives, but she ends up derailing the scheme of things when she's able to whisper advice to her about-to-be-beheaded for witchcraft Middle Ages incarnation. Her prior self escapes the axe, and while her loyal suitor and the palace guards give chase, the hypnotist joins her in the past to try and correct the matter. I saw this when very young on TV and the scene were Duncan seeks shelter at the witch's house is to me the eternally definitive Halloween moment, Neumann the definitive witch (see photo top of post). She's a good witch, despite her crooked nose (putting to rest the libelous claim of Glenda in OZ that "only bad witches are ugly"), and I love the casual way she asks the stranger at her door "Are you from this era or from a time yet to be?" as if hypnotists from the future were not uncommon.  Alison Hayes is awesome as the va-va-Voom-level hot 'real bad' witch with eyes on Pamela's man. And then the devil shows up! Sign the book, brother, and put this on real DVD... now!!! Do you hear?.... now.... now... now...

3. Susan Cabot in
1959 - Dir. Roger Corman

I reviewed the entire Corman canon for Muze search engine back in '01 and as a result fell madly in love with Susan Cabot. WASP was her tour de force, but she was also featured in Corman's MACHINE GUN KELLY, VIKING WOMEN AND THE SEA SERPENT, SORORITY GIRL and CARNIVAL ROCK. She's good in every damn one, but nowhere is she is awesome as when she's half-wasp half aging cosmetics line CEO, putting male chauvinist pig executives in their place by day, and by night injecting herself with a radically experimental wasp enzyme in order to restore her fading youth and save her company from going broke. Never before has vanity and heroism gone so well together and so wrong in results. Eccentric scientist Dr. Zinthrop (Michael Mark) first tries the serum on a cat, but when it later sprouts wings (hilarious knitted little puffs) and attacks him, Zinthrop realizes that hmmm, the formula might not be market ready. Unfortunately, he winds up hit by a car and struck with amnesia before he's able to warn Starlin of the ghastly side effects. Soon she's buzzing around the building at night, attacking and devouring her enemies and janitorial staff. Maybe her mask is the usual cheap ass Corman affair but it has a certain art nouveau parasol-eyed fabulousness, Corman's firing cylinders like all wick candles lit from the middle and ends at the same time; the film never lags - I like that it rarely leaves the office / lab, as if it's her hive, the queen working woman's field of battle and harvest, except for a trip to the emergency room (with a young Corman in a rare cameo as the doctor) which looks the same as everywhere else (the window overlooking the city is a photo that doesn't even bother trying to look real, which is awesome). What's admirably feminist about the film is how Starlin is portrayed as intelligent, powerful, and sympathetic and really comes alive when she's suddenly young, and the way her secretary (Corman regular Barbara Mourris) has a kind of maternal concern --Starlin never snaps at her or backstabs, they have all the tender rapport and chemistry, while the men are all condescending buffoons.

4. Lilyan Tashman in
I'll defer to Amy Jeanne's sublime and trenchant vintage fashion blog, It'll Take the Snap out of your Garter, where I found the above picture:
Murder By The Clock (1931) is one of the best movies I've seen in a long time. It was fantastically creepy in every way possible. Irving Pichel (a Harvard Graduate, no less!) plays a disturbingly deranged young man who gets 3 murders pinned on him. His mother refuses to leave him the family fortune and instead leaves it to her nephew, whose wife is the wonderful Lilyan Tashman! Lilyan was a complete evil BITCH in this movie and I loved every minute of it. She masterminds three murders including her husband and her lover. She also flirts shamelessly with the detective on the case and the deranged Irving.
Damn why ain't this on a decent DVD?

Anna May Wong in
Wong is delectably beautiful, haunted and tormented as the late Fu Manchu's daughter, torn between loyalty to his dying demand for vengeance and her own wish to just be a fabulous dancer at posh clubs. Too bad her fate is pre-ordained. Fah Lo Suee would later be hit out of the park by Myrna Loy in MGM's THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1933). DAUGHTER is a much cheaper, lower key take on the character., but since I've already written about my love for Loy's sadistic rendition, I thought I'd cover the seductive and sensational Wong.  Naturally, despite her lack of experience, she takes to murder and torture as it's in her blood, and this includes acid in the face! Meanwhile it's delightful to watch some dumb, lovestruck Asian detective bend every rule on her behalf and ultimately get nowhere, conjuring complex racism. Alas, none of her plans goes off in time, and odious little Bramwell Fletcher escapes unharmed since she grows to .... ew! love him? That little pischer? Alas, there is no justice... for mighty Fu.

Kate Jackson in
Hey, whatever man. We all have our weaknesses, things we love because they hit a certain nostalgic longing, like our first tele-crush. For me, it's the booksmart sexy of Kate Jackson, and no film was as out of reach for my longing ten year-old brain than SATAN'S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, which was always only shown in late-night reruns, before VCRs existed, so I could just read the blurb in TV Guide and feel my prepubescent mystique-ridden polymorphous jouissance entwine inwards in pre-sexual sexual frustration. Anyway, what fantasies I conjured up from that title! Cut from the same Aaron Spelling mold as Charlie's Angels (Cheryl Ladd's in the film too!), the same dry dirt bike L.A. exteriors, makeup trailers doubling as mansions, flat lighting, glistening teeth, 70's encounter group fad mentality, terrible taffeta scarfs and delectable hip-hugger jeans. I would not change it. If only there was a decent DVD dupe - but the terrible 16mm emulsion damage is I guess part of the charm.

Valerie Leon in
(1971) ****

The first time I saw this I fell madly in love with Valerie Leon. It also helped that I'd just read Bram Stoker's novella--The Jewel of the Seven Stars-- not knowing the film was actually based on said novella until about half-way through, and since the story is all deja vu and murderous spirits embodying beautiful women rising from the ashes to kill those who dared desecrate her tomb, et al, it was a perfect meta moment for me - what are the odds after all, that I'd read a super obscure Stoker story right before seeing this relatively obscure Hammer film? Could I in fact be the reincarnated Bram Stoker?

Anyway, it's not great, but what helps the rough stretches is that Leon's mod fashion choices are spot-on. I'm a sucker for the pale skin, black hair, black velvet choker look, which she rocks. I love her assured gutsy diction and voice (and the sly way she underplays recklessly in a double role, with that uniquely British sense sexy imperiousness (ala Diana Rigg) when she pretends to be or is Queen Tara; I love her weird rapport with James Villers as her evil archeologist confidante, and I love her sleepy bedroom eyes. Just look at that awesomely haughty ambivalence in her eyes above! In short, this movie was made for me, by Hammer, when I was just four years old. It was waiting all this time, like a long buried scroll, for the right writer (me) at the right age (now) to do it justice. It's like Leon even knows me, knows I'll be watching this film over and over over and over and over. Just as she "happens" to be given the Jewel of the Seven Stars on her birthday, when her body is ready to be inhabited by the ancient mummy who just happens to look identical to her, so too do I live and grow older just to bask in her rock and roll-meets-Emma Peel swagger, to savor the way her mere mod presence so intimidates and terrorizes a legion of B-list British character actors that they cease fumbling through old age postures, and die of fright or phantom animal attacks. "It was her--as large as life! She who has no name."

And what a gay bestie she has in James Villers, a swaggering wag who'd be right at home blackmailing Oscar Wilde after hooking him up with fancy boys at tea parties where the porcelain cups are just right. "I have guided these people towards my tomb," notes She who cannot be named -ah that makes sense. She knew even before Margaret Fuchs was born she was to be the "one" to re-inhabit. And even if that same decade would see this story remade dozens of times, in honor of lapsed copyright status of the Victorian Age, it all fits, like Leon's insanely perfect black nightgown (and a later pink one too - divine). Occupying the only two woman roles in the cast (aside from a museum or asylum assistant here and there with barely a line) she terrifies middle-aged British actors of no small talent or stature, the way no woman did before or since (until Mathilda May in LIFEFORCE). Ripping into the material that's still as fresh as it was a century ago, the ancient beautiful 'beyond good and evil' force swelling within her is so spot-on that even if she's dubbed by another actress (a not uncommon Hammer practice) it's a stand-up-and-cheer goddess that Ursula Andress could never pull off in SHE. 

Vanessa Howard is
(1970) Dir. Freddie Francis

Rocking the scoiopathic jailbait look, Vanessa Howard captures the spirit of wicked evil, her eyes alight in unholy mischief, in this horror comedy. Her legs are lovely, and always on display in mod skirts, including a beech-skin cowboy costume. Her straight blonde hair demarcates a princess and her simmering red schoolgirl uniform is like a pomegranate-squeezed hallucination against the perennial dim fog of the green, brown, and all-grey English countryside.  She bites into her character with such a cunning glee that you want to lick the juice off her chin, though she'd assuredly bite off at least half your tongue..." (more here)

Ingrd Pitt in
The year 1970 was a very good year for horror movie women in England as it was a time of relaxed censorship standards, but not yet just softcore Maxim-style boredom. In other words, there was still the sizzle, and some of the steak too, with a high level of proper adhesion to narrative and atmosphere in addition to the sapphic nudity. The relaxed vibe of the sex fits Pitt's drowsy old European manner to a T-- her lapsing into jealous piques, her possessive European simplicity vs. the more refined Brit chicks she seduces - it's all of a piece. In the land of the repressed the libidinal hottie is queen.

Mabel Karr and Estella Blaine  in
1966 - Dir. Jess Franco
One is the daughter of a mad scientist, the other her robotic killer henchmen in a sexy see-through spiderweb bodysuit. When her dad dies of grief-- after receiving a dissing at the medical conference for his wild theories about turning criminals into robots--daughter Karr goes on a spree of revenge against those small-minded scientific sneerers. First she scars her face and burns a same-weight hitchhiker up in her car, to fake her own death. Don't ask why, either. I won't go into the nasty things she does to fake her own death, but let's just say she's not fucking around. A hot girl (Blaine) she first spied doing a web-dance seduction of a mannequin is then mind-melded using dad's technique into being a poison fingernail-wielding sexual assassin.  In other words, yes, it's typical Jess Franco 'storyline' torn from some lurid pulp magazine cover, but all Franco fans and detractors alike agree it's one of his most focused and inventive works, made back before he became a softcore quantity-over-quality art/hack. There's even a few actual tracking shots as opposed to his usual lazy zooms! And both women are luscious and stone cold creepy at the same time. As Michael Weldon would say: Essential viewing. Some unpleasant scenes of animals in tiny cages, and a lot of annoying beeping and buzzing in the brain burning scenes might keep it from being a hangover cure, but it's all just so damn weird you got to throw it a pass for any transgressions.

1 comment:

  1. Totally agree about that mysterious dude in the background of The Vampir eLovers, he doesnt even figure into the story in any way! I never thought about the reasons for why he was included in the film, I always thought he was some sort of a character for an unfinished side story or something...but the reason you state above makes ever more sense now.

    It kind of says, she is not a woman working on her own, there has to be a man behind the whole thing, the man is the one pulling the strings. lame!


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