Greatest Women of Horror
We are in February which is known to many movie fans as Women in Horror Month. This is the month we pay tribute to the women who have have terrified us and given nightmares to horror fans. Often times they do not receive the credit they deserve for as big of an impact as they have had on the genre, so join me in lifting a goblet (probably made from a skull) in saluting the greatest women in horror.
Mary Shelley: Naturally we should start with the woman who recently celebrated a major milestone of leaving a massive legacy on horror. As a young woman spending time with her lovers Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, revolutionary writer Mary Shelley penned the classic tale of a man making a monster, Frankenstein. The young author explored complex ideas of science and spirituality in the guise of a book which has inspired two hundred years worth of science fiction and horror tales. Frankenstein was met with critical praise upon it’s release and while it did not do blockbusters sales, the book has maintained a constant presence on bookshelves everywhere ever since. Mary Shelley’s story has been adapted into every form of media imaginable and like the monster she created, it will continue to terrify humanity for years to come.
Elsa Lanchester: With just a few brief moments in the greatest horror film of the 1930’s Elsa Lanchester left a movie legacy to be the envy of anyone. In the classic film the Bride of Frankenstein, Elsa Lanchester brought viewers into this world of the macabre and horrific in the role of Frankenstein’s creator Mary Shelley. She truly made her mark on movie history as the Bride, a combination of her iconic look and Lanchester’s stunned performance ensured her place in horror forever. Film historian and horror fan David J. Skal even goes so far as to say when think of a female movie monster chances are the Bride is the first one that comes to mind. From there the actress would go on to have a rich and versatile career, but never left the genre completely as she made appearances on famously frightening TV shows; Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Night Gallery. Her final major role was even in the milestone “killer animal” flick Willard as Willard’s mother.
Sigourney Weaver: One would like to hope if we were ever stranded in a creepy ship with a terrifying alien onboard we could keep our wits about us….but we probably would not. Ellen Ripley on the other hand turned into a stone cold badass when facing the xenomorph in the 1979 science fiction/horror classic Alien. Not content to merely survive the attack of the frightening creature who wiped out her crew, Weaver’s iconic character would return for a number of sequels to take the fight to the acid-blooded monsters. The actress also dealt with the more comedic side of things that go bump in the night when she starred in the classic Ghostbusters as well as it’s sequel Ghostbusters II. Now she is seen as one of the great icons of genre films beloved by moviegoers of all types.
Vampira: The horror movie host is a staple of classic television, and the woman who blazed this trail did so from the studios of KABC-TV in Los Angeles. Dressed in a sleek black dress and adopting an ominous demeanor, Maila Nurmi became Vampira, host of the Vampira Show. Despite a brief run, this series truly left its mark on television and Vampira became a cult icon. Nurmi would even parade around Hollywood in character much to the enjoyment of fans. She was often seen rubbing elbows with horror legend Lon Chaney Jr. and superstar James Dean with whom she was good friends with. In 1959, Vampira went from hosting horror movies to being in them, when she joined the infamous Edward D. Wood Jr. in his cult classic Plan 9 From Outer Space.
Elvira: Speaking of horror movie hosts, Cassandra Peterson crafted a character who has become just as, if not moreso, popular as the films she introduced. Combining dark gothic aesthetics with a Valley Girl personality and a twisted sense of humor Elvira has arguably become the most famous horror movie host of all time. She became the heir apparent to Vampira as the Los Angeles area’s iconic horror host. Elvira’s popularity exploded as she was featured in; comics, commercials, video games, and even her own movie Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. Even after a good number of years in the business Elvira shows no sign of slowing down as she continues to pop-up to lend her talent to furthering the cause of classic horror. Perhaps more importantly she is also famous for using her celebrity status to raise money to find a cure for HIV/AIDS.
Milicent Patrick: In the 1950’s Milicent Patrick was brought on by Universal Studios to work in the make-up department run by controversial artist Bud Westmore. This led to her working on some of the studio’s latter entries in their Golden Age of Horror. Patrick played a part in designing the monsters in films like; This Island Earth, Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde, and the Mole People. Easily her greatest achievement was the creation of one of the most iconic monsters in history, the Gill Man, for the classic Creature from the Black Lagoon. Recognizing genius when he saw it, Westmore……often went to great lengths to take credit for her work. Eventually this led to Milicent Patrick leaving Universal. From there she went on to make even more history in Hollywood as the first female animator for Walt Disney Studios.
Anne Rice: Vampires are always a favorite among horror fans, and one writer has set the bar for the traditional bloodsucker in twentieth century literature. In her best-selling novel Interview with a Vampire, the author took a unique approach to explore the terrifying and tragic existence an undead creature of the night must endure. After much hardship in 1975, she finally convinced the powers-that-be in publishing that her story of Lestat and Louis was well worth telling. While the book received mixed reviews, fans loved it and her debut novel was a big seller and in 1994 it was released to an adoring public. With the success of interview, Anne Rice has created an entire world of supernatural terrors which has enraptured readers for years. Though she has turned away from the genre where she built her reputation in recent years, Rice is still held as one of the most influential horror writers of all time.
Jamie Lee Curtis: As the daughter of Norman Bates’ first onscreen victim Janet Leigh, there is no denying Jamie Lee Curtis has horror movies in her blood. When John Carpenter changed horror forever with his 1978 classic Halloween, Curtis would set the template for what movie fans dub the “final girl”. The young actress showed a sharpness, humanity and sense of humor which endeared her instantly to fans. Jamie Lee Curtis would continue to revisit the character of Laurie Strode throughout her career, most recently last year with the successful Halloween. When not confronting Michael Myers, Curtis has also delivered memorable turns in other horror favorites like; the Fog, Prom Night, and Terror Train. Having achieved a great deal of mainstream success, Curtis has even been able to take on the unofficial role once held by the likes of Vincent Price and Boris Karloff as an unofficial ambassador for the genre to the normies.
Barbara Steele: The haunting unique beauty of this Italian actress got her noticed by giallo master Mario Bava who cast her in his directorial debut Black Sunday. This proved to be her breakout performance and Steele ended up being noticed by another renowned horror filmmaker, Roger Corman who was making his Edgar Allen Poe films with Vincent Price. She was cast as to star in the Pit and the Pendulum arguably the most beloved installment of this film series. While she played a role in the classic 81/2, it was horror where Barbara Steele built her career. Though she grew tired of being typecast, she proved to be bankable star in fan favorites like; Crimson Cult and An Angel for Satan. Though she was often dubbed over by English speakers due to her speaking Italian, Barbara Steele’s screen presence insured her place in scary features.
Bette Davis: One of the all-time great Hollywood legends, who’s work drifted over to the macabre during the twilight of her career. Bette Davis had always had an edgy and tenacious streak in her characters, which played well in horror roles. This turn began with the classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, where Davis played a faded child star who held her helpless sister hostage to her madness. Her acclaimed performance led to the actress becoming a staple of the genre for the rest of her career. She would reunite with director Robert Aldrich to play a Southern spinster in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, a movie which pressed the levels of violence the Hayes Code would accept. In 1976, Bette Davis played the fan favorite role of Aunt Elizabeth in the haunted house flick Burnt Offerings. Bette Davis had a talent for bringing a certain glee to psychotic characters which always entertained moviegoers while also filling them with dread.
Heather Langenkamp: Slasher movies have seen many survivor girls who were able to evade the blade-wielding mad man pursuing them. In a Nightmare on Elm Street, Nancy not only survived Freddy Kruger but looked the famed boogeyman square in the eye and told him she was not afraid of him. Young actress Heather Langenkamp brought strength, resolve, and intellect to the character many consider the greatest final girl in horror history. Despite her youth, the audience completely bought that she was more than a match for Freddy. Throughout the Nightmare franchise she would serve as a constant foe to the iconic villain. Langenkamp even battled the “real” Freddy as herself in the underrated Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Behind the scenes Heather Langenkamp works as a creator of things that go bump in the night as she partnered with her husband to create the make-up fx company AFX Studio. In this role she has worked on fan favorites like; Cabin in the Woods and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead.
Shirley Jackson: One of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century, Shirley Jackson not only wrote tales which scared readers but also provoked them into thought about the terrors which linger beneath the surface. Her fifth novel the Haunting of Hill House is often heralded as the greatest ghost story published in the 20th century. It is a meditative look at a paranormal experiment where the characters are haunted not just by the supernatural but their own pasts and emotions. This tale has been adapted into a film from legendary director Robert Wise and recently a critically praised Netflix series. In the realm of short stories, Jackson has been lauded for her controversial tale “the Lottery”. Jackson’s legacy continues to live on in literary circle as the Shirley Jackson Award was created to annually give out to the best writers of suspense and horror.
Fay Wray: The original Scream Queen of moviedom who has gone down in movie history for her iconic role as Ann Darrow in 1933’s King Kong. Having displayed a knack for being terrified in flicks like the Vampire Bat and Doctor X, Wray began to be noticed by producers at RKO. After being terrorized by a mad Lionel Atwill in Mystery of the Wax Museum, she was offered the chance to work with a “tall, dark leading man”. This leading man was of course the giant ape himself in this milestone film. Her powerful set of lungs and charming screen presence earned her endless praise for this performance. After King Kong Wray had a long and varied career in film and television. In 1998 she was honored as a guest for the Academy Awards due to her legacy in movies.
Ingrid Pitt: After a few minor roles in different projects like; Doctor Zhivago and Doctor Who, the Polish-born actress Ingrid Pitt finally found her calling when she played the vampiric Carmilla/Mircalla in Hammer Films’ the Vampire Lovers. Her incredible screen presence and sensual mystique instantly propelled her onto the radars of horror fans. Ingrid Pitt became just as big of a star for the famed horror studio as Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. She became particularly popular for her ability to play bloodsuckers, whether in Countess Dracula or the cult classic the House That Dripped Blood. Even after Hammer’s heyday came to an end, Pitt continued to be a star of horror flicks, especially in the critically acclaimed 1973 classic the Wicker Man. Until her passing in 2010 Ingrid Pitt remained true to the genre writing books about her life and making frequent convention appearances.