Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Tuesday Top Ten: The Queens of Screams

Tuesday Top Ten: For the listmaker in me JA and the listlover in you you

JA from MNPP here, guest-blogging the Top 10 for this week.

The way I reckon it, I don't want to step on any toes while guesting here, so I want to choose a topic that Nathaniel would never do on his lonesome. But I also want to choose a subject that'll tickle y'all's fancy at the same time. And it's gotta be something I know something about (which narrows the field down considerably). So taking into account The Film Experience's general love for the actresses (hence Nat's delightful term "actressexuality"), and my own love for horror movies, and (bless his scaredy-cat lil' heart) Nat's aversion to the same... well, a list was born unto us this day!

To the Year One, y'all. Tis a list of what I have deemed The Top 10 Leading Ladies of Horror. Basically... these are my 10 favorite female horror movie performances. I went for just leading ladies here, which kept stellar supporting characters (Hiya, Minnie Castavet!) from stealing the spotlight (again). I tried to cover all the bases - we've got the victimized types of course - where would horror be without 'em? - but also our tough chicks, and then there's those loveable crazies too. So without further...

10) Heather Donahue in The Blair Witch Project - “I am so sorry! Because it was my fault.“ – It’s easy to hate on Heather… she brings it on herself, really. Like so many of the characters in this most recent wave of first-person horror (think Cloverfield) that picked up from Blair’s 10-year old success, Heather was labeled annoying and self-centered and well won’t you just put the camera down, lady?


But horror would be nothing without its determination to show us the lesser sides of ourselves – people making terrible decisions and being punished so we the viewers don’t have to is par for the course. Hell, sometimes it's the whole course. And Heather, in her justifiably famous snot-faced soliloquy, turns the camera in on that side of ourselves that we’d like to think we wouldn’t be in that situation but 9 times out of 10 will, most assuredly, be. And if one of the most vital parts of what I consider to be a great horror performance is the ability to truthfully convey real fear – an uncensored, wide-eyed terror – Donahue earns her spot on this list for that alone.

9) Linda Blair (and Mercedes McCambridge... and Ellen Burstyn) in The Exorcist - "Keep away. The sow is mine."It just doesn’t feel right leaving off credit to McCambridge, the woman who gave voice to little Regan McNeil’s demonic possession. So I had to include her name. That said, as horrific as the second-half of this film is (where credit must be paid not only to McCambridge but the make-up and effects people as well) I find the medical examination scenes of the first half nearly as terrifying as the later blasphemies, and all we have there is tiny Regan thrown into the midst of a bunch of loud machinery, so obviously Blair is doing some heavy lifting on her own. And then I find I must add on Ellen Burstyn’s fine performance as Regan’s helpless mother who can only look on… all said, it’s difficult for me to choose just one aspect to praise here; they’re all inextricably linked. The mother, the daughter, and the unholy spirit, as it were.

8) Kathy Bates in Misery - “God I love you.” – Yes, the film spins Annie Wilkes off into a bit of a hysterical caricature in those final ten minutes or so. But before she becomes an unkillable madwoman, Bates' performance is one of the simultaneously funniest and saddest portrayals of deranged loneliness ever put on-screen. Because I’ll be damned if she doesn’t just know that the writer named Paul Sheldon’s literal fall into her lap wasn’t a gift sent from cockadoodied wherever, and she’s gonna make it bitchin' worthwhile. Why shouldn’t the fans have their say, anyway? I’m not going to be the one to argue that point and make her feel all oogy.

7) Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween - “It was the boogeyman, wasn't it?”She set the archetype in stone. The Final Girl. Sally may’ve screamed louder (and longer... and earlier), and Nancy might’ve built exploding light-bulb booby-traps, but nobody personified exactly what the Slasher genre needed better - the female yin to the male killer's wang - than JLC's Laurie Strode. Almost too smart for her own good – she felt it coming, annoyed everybody, but still couldn’t stop it all the same – there’s myriad reasons Curtis is, to my mind, still the greatest straightforward Final Girl, but none moreso than the first half-an-hour or so as we watch Laurie spot the boogeyman behind the bushes or in the backyard, and see her preparedness despite herself click defiantly into place.


6) Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs - “Some kind of screaming, like a child's voice.” - Sweet Clarice Starling, just trying to bury the sounds of those lambs to the slaughter. Little girls, they go next, off to the dressmakers... somewhere in America there is a pit in a basement with a Senator's daughter all holed up. Loose skin. Come and get it, Precious.

5) Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley - “Get away from her, you bitch!“ Of the first two Alien flicks, I only really consider Ridley Scott’s original film to be a horror film. But Weaver’s Ripley doesn’t emerge as the main player until the very end. She’s most obviously the main character of James Cameron’s Aliens, but that’s an action movie with monsters. So how do I justify placing her on a list? By just mushing the entire quadrilogy’s worth of her performances together. Yes, I’m cheating. But this list just seemed wrong without her. Where maybe too many of the women on this list are of the victimized sort - immediately previous company excluded, of course - I needed to include a woman who rocks off an acid-spewing alien’s face with a gun larger than my entire torso to even things out. And then, like a full half of this list, she's Mother, too. And if there's one thing this list proves - and this list, too! - nothing is scarier than mommy-hood.

4) Shelley Duvall in The Shining - “We're all going to have a real good time.” Always overshadowed by Jack Nicholson’s Jack Nicholson-sized performance, Duvall’s Wendy Torrence is and always will be my favorite part of Kubrick’s coolly malignant flick. Duvall was always channeling her gawky physiognomy to great effect with her characters, whether it was her hysterical Olive Oyl stroll or just the way she held a cigarette in 3 Women… but nowhere to my mind was she more brilliant than here. Has anyone ever held a knife or an axe more awkwardly? And watch the way her occasional outbursts of positive energy – always so sadly forced - quickly slide back into a slumped-over shell of a woman, beaten down both literally and figuratively, and then the eventual, probably Kubrick-inflicted real-seeming terror that courses across her bug-eyed face… it’s a vanity-free, often humiliating role, which Duvall upends and owns with her every silent scream.

3) Ellen Burstyn in Requiem For a Dream - “I like thinking about the red dress…” Like the invisible arm of Death itself that kills so many teenagers – and so imaginatively! - in the Final Destination flicks, the horror of Requiem is of a different breed - it’s the mental demons inside these characters that tear them to shreds. But make no mistake – this is a horror film, and one of the most horrifying ever made. And nowhere does that horror manifest itself more cruelly than in the guise of a lonely Coney Island widow that can’t let go of a dream long dead. Burstyn’s physical deterioration as she’s swallowed whole by her addictions is haunting enough – the final shots of the film rend my heart every time – but Burstyn makes it clear from the start that Sarah Goldfarb has one foot over the precipice just looking for anything that might offer her even the briefest of smiles.


2) Sissy Spacek in Carrie - “It was bad, Mama. They laughed at me.” The most spellbinding moments in DePalma’s 1976 classic for me are the ones where we see Carrie White begin to come out of her shell – the way her inherent good-nature peeks around that shy smile… a flurry of compliments from Billy the cute boy asking her to the prom and from her teacher who means so well… all of which lead to that spinning-out-of-control on the dance-floor moment. And then falls the crown. And we all know what horror lay beneath that heavy load. Carrie White is horribly human… until she’s not human at all anymore. And then she’s back again… but it is too late. After all, sin never dies... and Spacek makes us understand every step of the way, with a most terrible accuracy, what has gone so very wrong.


1) Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby - “This is no dream! This is really happening!” Is it simply the paranoia of a young lady with too much time on her hands, or is there something sinister going on with that too-friendly old couple next door? Is her husband distracted with work, turned off by her constant sickness, or has he perhaps made a Faustian trade-off with the soul of little Andy-or-Jenny? In the book, Rosemary Woodhouse is described as a large-hipped Midwestern girl, built for breeding, but in one of the very few deviations from page to screen, Polanski cast Farrow (once Tuesday Weld backed out) and the character clicked into perfection. Because the story is about watching the span of pregnancy as if in the nightmarish reflection of a fun-house mirror, it’s vital that Rosemary look like someone devoured by that giant belly, and tiny little Mia in her yellow sun-dresses with the face of a ghoul poking out fit the bill, and then some. But even beyond the physical perfection of the casting, Farrow nails every note of paranoia, and as we watch her flail about under the arms of all those she’s trusted as they drug her into unconsciousness, we truly know what helplessness is.


Well that was fun/painful. And if you want to see who just missed the cut, you can head over to MNPP where I spit out Ten More Lovely Ladies (Wah-ah-ah!) that are also worth their weight in carnage.
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36 comments:

ccopeland1976 said...

What a great and well thought out list!

I seriously cannot find fault with any of the included women!!

Joe Reid said...

Very comprehensive, I love it. Nice cheat with Ripley, too, and you've convinced me on Heather Donahue. I've always loved the movie, though, so any praise of it is welcomed.

MRS said...

Great list but, I'm sorry, no Piper Laurie??? Sissy's great in Carrie and all, but Piper's the performance you really remember.

And Eve Was Weak!!

Terrifying.

Stacie Ponder said...

Fantastic list & post, JA. I'm glad to see Shelley Duvall getting some props- everyone hates on Wendy, but I just want to give her a big hug. She's a hero.

Murnau said...

Spacek's Carrie is one of my top ten female performances of all time, her little ticks and mannerisms, her hounddog look for much of the movie, it's legitimately great.

mrripley said...

alien and the lovely ms weaver are my faves of all time, alien is my no 1 film ever ever! but the screamer in that is verocica cartwright not sigourney,ripley keeps her head lambert looses hers kick it on the floor and runs off with it while simultneously giving the definitive acting job of fear in a horror film ever beating duvall,curtis and farrow i'm afraid nat!!!!

Piper said...

Nobody plays pathetic better than Duvall.

Great list JA,

I respectfully submit Lori Cardille from Day Of The Dead.

And Sarah Polly from Dawn Of The Dead.

Lisa said...

Brilliant list!

c.p. iñor said...

just missing Ahsley Judd in Bug.

Beau said...

Love the mention of Duvall in 'The Shining' (I wholeheartedly agree, but damn if that isn't one of the most divisive performances in the history of the cinema) and Donahue's excellent work in 'Blair Witch'.

One other perf I hoped you would have mentioned: Drew Barrymore in 'Scream'. Holy GOD was she good in that.

JA said...

Beau, Drew just barely missed my list (she's in the list I have of runners-up over at MNPP), which is saying A LOT for her impact since this list was supposed to be for main characters and Drew is only in the first ten minutes of Scream. She's so phenomonal in it, though, really.

mrs, Piper Laurie fell prey to the supporting turn cut-off limit. I should've given her a shout-out beside Ruth Gordon there at the start though, because I couldn't agree with you more on loving that performance.

Same goes for Veronica Cartwright - whetehr it's The Birds, Alien, or the 70's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, nobody does shitting-their-pants better. But her parts are always too small to count here.

As for Ashley Judd in Bug and Sarah Polley in Dawn of the Dead - DAMN ME I totally spaced on them both. Judd very well might break the top 10... Sarah Polley would def. be top 20 material.

And Piper, it's been years since I've seen Day of the Dead... so that one's not clear enough in my memory to say.

As for all the Shelley Duvall love - WORD. She was lower on my list when I started this, but as I started thinking about her performance and writing it up, she just crept higher and higher.

Dame James Henry said...

Kathy Bates was effing amazing in Misery. She literally scared the shit out of me when I saw the film the first time. Her mood swings are so up and down and come without warning that you never know what to expect.

The only performance I think you've missed is Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction but I'm not sure if you would consider that a horror film (I do cause Glenn Close is one scary ass bitch in that movie).

Anonymous said...

veronica cartwright forever yaaaaaaayyyy!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

veronica cartwright forever yaaaaaaayyyy!!!!!!

Hayden said...

I hate Burstyn but the rest are quite good (though I find Bates really overrated in a year that brought us brilliant performances from Joanne Woodward, Anjelica Huston, and the terrific Mia Farrow). Great list, though.

Billy D said...

Love the inclusion of Kidman for The Others on your overflow list.

Anonymous said...

Holy shit! I've just realised by looking at your post that Kathy Bates in that picture looks exactly like my neighbour downstairs when yelling at her son (which now I have no doubt will one day take his bloody revenge when he grows up and will kill us all).

No, seriously. It's not only she could play Bates' younger sister any day, but the creepy way she looks at you and the way she tries to be kind and smiley when in fact she's thinking which knife would fit you best.

Back to movies ;). I guess it's not officially a horror film, but I would include Joan Fontaine in Rebecca.

I love a good horror movie, especially at home, those ones that make you hear all kinds of unexisting noises afterwards. I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (in your other list) for the first time recently and found it more comic than scary (!), what was all the fuss about that movie? I guess it was because of the gore thing...
That said, I think horror films are one of the most underappreciated genres. I think it requires to be a really skillful director not to make unintendedly comic or ridiculously implausible movies out of this kind of material.

(Sorry for the long comment)

Iggy

Anonymous said...

hmm to be a scream queen wouldn't you have to be in more than one horror/thriller and I really don't think of scream queen when I hear Jodie Foster..

Otherwise good list, but how about great female performances in Horror/thriller films instead of Queens of Scream.

Amy said...

Fantastic list. So glad to see Shelley Duvall, so often ridiculed for her performance, praised with such well-written words.

Ryan said...

Ah man, killer list. Clever, comprehensive and a ton of fun. However...

it just dosen't feel complete without Drew Barrymoore's 10-minute tour-de-force in "Scream"; one of the greatest on-screen portrayls of gut-deep, mounting terror ever. (Glad she was a runner-up :))

JA said...

djh - I thought about Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, she is quite the terror, but I couldn't really in the end classify the movie as horror. I guess some might argue it's as much a horror flick as Requiem, and could probably make a convincing argument. I considered it.

hayden, I think it's nuts that Kathy bates won that Oscar. NUTS. I might not even choose her as my winner that year when ever other performance in every genre comes into it. But I love the fact that that bonkers role won. It makes me happy. Would that sort of shit go down ever again? I dunno.

billy, I'm one who actually think The Others loses nothing with repeat viewings. Yes, a lot of that first immediate impact depends on a twist, but Nic is SO good and the film is so lovely to look at, that I can watch it over and over again and appreciate it. Bless Amenabar for that flick.

iggy, there's practically no gore in Texas Chainsaw. It's all implied. There is blood and chicken bones and the like, but all of the violence is just off-frame. Compared to what we see today, TCM could be rated PG, if it didn't fuck with your mind so hard.

ryan... you're killing me with guilt, man! Killing! I agree with all you say. It just didn't feel like I could include it with the restrictions I'd put on myself here. Argh! I love you, Drew!

FranklinBluth said...

Great list, so much fun to read. Nicole Kidman does horror/thriller quite well, she was really good in 'Dead Calm'.

FranklinBluth said...

Oh, and I don't know if I'm alone here, but I thought Katharine Ross in the original stepford wives was pretty good

Liz said...

Apparently it's not hip to hate on Shelley Duvall, but I still think her face is the scariest thing about The Shining.

Brodie said...

FUCKING ANGELA BETTIS IN MAY!

But I love that Mia topped it. My all-time favourite performance.

JoFo said...

I guess this must be a personal thing, because no one seems to love this movie or the performance as much as I BUT:

Michelle Pfieffer - What Lies Beneath?

HM:
Toni Collette - The Sixth Sense

whitney said...

When Mia Farrow starts eating that raw meat I realized Rosemary's Baby was my favorite horror movie ever.

easylowdown said...

Wow. I have so many horror flicks to go and rent now. Thanks nate.

Anonymous said...

I didn't mean to compare the gore in TCM with today's. Maybe gore isn't the right word, I'm no expert. I was trying to find a reason for the appeal of TCM at the time and I thought it was showing more blood and the like than previous movies such as Night of the Living Dead, Psycho, etc... so that for the 70s viewer was somehow a novelty. I had always heard that movies like TCM in the 70s marked the tendency to show more blood in horror movies.

Anyway, I don't know why the movie just didn't blow up my mind, it must have been me, or maybe is that we, nowadays viewers are chaotic when watching movies and we see all the Scream(s) and even the Scary Movies(s) before watching where they come from. And so, the effect isn't the same.

Iggy

Supernetuser said...

Alien was cool but Rosemary's Baby was just weird. They capped on the mental state of the mom too much while Alien and the quadrilogy was more about her battle between the aliens and herself, her struggle to save the human race.

Anonymous said...

Uh... excuse me, but where the fuck is Bette Davis in WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?

cadavra said...

Don't you mean top ten queens of the last 35 years, since you neglected to mention Evelyn Ankers, Fay Wray, Janet Leigh, Una O'Connor or any of the other great screamers who were working before your birth?

Tommy said...

Minor correction. The boy who asked out Carrie was named Tommy.

Aaron Soto said...

Love it, great list, here's my video piece of "The Ladies Of Horror at the Comic-Con 2008" :

http://blogs.kpbs.org/index.php/comic-con/comments/the_ladies_of_horror/

Jesus Alonso said...

mmm.. maybe you should check out "The Orphanage" and "[rec]" and maybe both Belen Rueda and Manuela Velasco - topping Donahue's Blair Witch performance - would be serious contenders to enter the top 10. Also, no Sigourney Weaver? Alien is a horror film, too.

Anonymous said...

I love a lot of those movies. I thought Linda Blair was great, it's great how such a sweet little girl can become so, eeeevil! >=D And Shelley Duvall was great as Wendy because she has those mouse like features and her voice is so small, it makes her a great Nicholson victim-O.o. As for Carrie shows us that's it's the quiet misunderstood ones that are capable of causing the most mischief! And Kathy Bates is just insane, she's one of my favorites! My sister and I LOVE quoting Annie. Such as... "HE DIDN'T GET OUT OF THE COCKADOODIE CAR!" XD XD XD! The face she makes crack me up every time, and makes me fear her. She teaches us that love can be a dangerous thing in the possesion of an obsessive woman! These are all of the woman that horror movie fans should not forget!