Published on March 17th, 2014 | by Lee Allen3
Horror and the Leading Lady
Blame Hitchcock and his penchant for beautiful female protagonists, but since then the horror genre has seen a wealth of female leading characters grace the silver screen. Either as a damsel in distress, the against-the-odds heroine or fodder for the villainous – however you view them one thing is certain; leading ladies are the staple of good horror film. Synonymous with the genre, casting a strong female lead creates emotive plot-lines and sequences which jump off the scripted page. As the viewer we like nothing more than witnessing strong character development in our leading ladies – the journey from vulnerable wallflower to heroic veteran one of the the most common phenomenon in horror flicks. And who doesn’t like to see the underdog succeed? But it’s not always clearly defined. Throw into the mix those who have been wronged, spurned and victimised and you create an anti-hero; treading the fine line between good and evil. Hmmm things are getting interesting…
Journey back to the sixties and to the genius that is Alfred Hitchcock and we have what would become the seminal female horror character – the victim. Cast in the role of Marion Crane in the feature Psycho, actress Janet Leigh played the aforementioned victim, with a certain wide eyed innocence making her imminent demise all the more shocking and harrowing. Thanks to the recent biopic Hitchcock we now know that the inspired choice of portraying the character’s grisly end within the first thirty minutes was the brainchild not of Hitchcock himself but of his wife. Helen Mirren’s blithe response to Anthony Hopkins’ Hitchcock on the fate of Ms Leigh garnered surprised responses in crowded cinema screens across the country. One could perhaps expect that from an extreme director with a beyond- healthy fascination with his muse. But from a fellow female? Not so. What Mrs Hitchcock shrewdly recognised was the ability to tap into the audience’s psyche. Depicting Leigh’s female vulnerability and her subsequent demise grabbed the audience by the throat and made viewers sit up and pay attention. The inspired score aside, would the sequence have been as powerful if the aforementioned victim was male? Definitely not. Crane’s death so early in the script played around with our expectations. Beautiful blondes are supposed to grab the guy and live happily ever after right? Not in the darkened corners of the Hitchcock world. It’s testament to the power of the imagery that the scene has been replayed, rebooted, reimagined and parodied in the decades that followed it. Imitation is the highest form of flattery as they say. Kudos, Mr Hitchcock.
What’s also remarkable is the iconic status awarded to Leigh who for audiences of a certain generation will forever be known as the ‘girl in the shower’. Leigh played the part beautifully getting the right balance between terror and shock, never overplaying the emotions. Her reaction seems to be genuine, unsurprising now given the revelation in Hitchcock that the director played, shall we say, a ‘hands on’ role in motivating his actress. More terrifying than anything a script could throw in Leigh’s direction. In her later years, the actress placed a nod towards her horror icon status with a cameo role alongside her daughter, who had followed in her mother’s footsteps and become a ‘scream queen’ in her own right. But what of those morally ambiguous vixens that skulk around in the shadows? Dangerous? Always. Deadly? Sometimes. Is it as simple as painting these female leads as bad, wicked, evil or all of the above? The lines of human morality are often blurred and over the years female characters have depicted this in all its dramatic glory.
Fast forward to the mid-seventies and Sissy Spacek took on the titular role in Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie. Spacek seemed perfectly cast with a tailor made performance as the kooky, vulnerable and –dare I say it – weird central character. Hard to imagine Spacek was one of the fore-runners alongside Carrie Fisher to take on the role of Princess Leia in Star Wars: A New Hope. Thankfully the movie gods played their hand well, and audiences were able to enjoy both actresses’ spirited turns of telekinesis glory and intergalactic royalty respectively. The character of Carrie was essentially a tragic one, born to a deranged religion fearing mother and mentally abused by her bitchy high school peers. Audiences could surely identify with her plight – we’ve all felt like an outsider, isolated from our peers and never quite fitting in, right? There are those in life that revel in their maverick status, celebrating all that is unique and different about them. Then there are the Carries of this world, desperately trying to ‘fit in’, but hopelessly and painfully failing to do so. Like Leigh’s final scenes a decade or so earlier; Carrie’s introduction is a shocking one. De Palma depicts Carrie in the shower and as the audience we feel almost like a voyeur trespassing on the character’s most private moment. It’s uncomfortable viewing to say the least to witness her traumatic reaction to events in the shower, made even worse by the cat-calling of her sorority sisters; as usual never missing the opportunity to exploit her vulnerability.
Piper Laurie is brilliant as Carrie’s mother, as just as dangerous and damaging to her daughter’s psychological wellbeing than any of the peers could ever be. Her cruel and abusive treatment of Carrie and the unbalanced punishment she dishes out, serve as a timely of Carrie’s plight. By the time Carrie starts to discover her burgeoning powers mid-way into the movie, our interest is piqued. Like any good would be-hero with powers beyond their recognition, Carrie faces a crossroads. To quote Spiderman’s Ben Parker, with ‘great power comes great responsibility’. It’s at this point as the audience that we start to envisage Carrie’s powers as the key to her freedom and the escape from the shackles of her overbearing mother. How wrong we were. Our initial happiness at Carrie’s invitation to the Prom, complete with hunk-of-the-week Tommy Ross is quickly dissipated after the reprehensible acts of the high school witches. Drenched in pig’s blood, Carrie’s wrath knows no bounds, and the carnage that follows is a poignant reminder that how fragile the divide between good and bad can be. It’s at this point in the movie Carrie progresses from ‘victim’ to ‘villain’ with a foot placed firmly in both camps. Are her actions understandable? An eye for an eye? Can we identify with her actions given the trials and tribulations Carrie has endured up to this point in the movie? Or is the taking of the sanctity of human life never justified – whatever motivations one could highlight. A divisive plot-line for sure, but perhaps more interestingly is that it allows Carrie to share the mantle of antagonist and protagonist in one fell swoop. This anti-hero vibe has certainly had widespread influence over the movie years – I’m looking at you Catwoman. Batman Returns’ Selina Kyle never more obviously a product of her environment – with the character’s eventual transformation played out with a distinct Carrie-esque quality.
In 1978 John Carpenter directed Halloween and from its release onwards, the movie has had a monumental impact on the genre itself – delivering the now recognisable elements of single masked protagonist and the ‘slasher’ pursuit – staple elements of any respectable horror movie. The success of Halloween can be pinpointed in two distinct elements. Carpenter’s cinematography and direction is fantastically effective. Think of the opening sequence of the movie and the oft-used point of view shot, depicting the killer’s rampage on the unsuspecting teenage girl. Then the reveal itself as the mask is quite literally ripped off our expectations, revealing the killer to be none other than a child, and an emotionless one at that. Powerful stuff. Secondly, and perhaps even more effective, is the portrayal of Jamie Lee Curtis as the central character Laurie Strode. Laurie is the definitive ‘scream queen’, pure, innocent and fodder for the deranged Michael Myers.
Laurie has been imitated, duplicated and replicated in the subsequent movie years but never quite as effective as in Carpenter’s reign. Her beginnings are that of the horror victim, but through the course of the movie she gains an inner strength, surviving long enough to face the devil himself Myers in the final sequence of the movie. The transformative aspects of the character – victim to ‘warrior’ so to speak – has influenced the portrayals of other female protagonists. The character of Ellen Ripley could certainly be the next generation Laurie Strode, evidenced in Ridley Scott’s Alien and more explicitly in James Cameron’s Aliens. Thanks to reappearance in Halloween II and a central role in The Fog, Lee quickly became synonymous with the scream queen label, referenced not only in pop culture itself with the character of Randy in the Scream franchise aping her reputation , but also by the actress herself. The hooker-with-heart role of Ophelia opposite Dan Akroyd in Trading Places was the perfect antidote to the virginal heroine she had been painted on the silver screen – helping to erase any lingering stereotypes attached to the actress at that time.
The nineties saw a revival in the slasher movie with the bold and daring Scream series. The franchise celebrated all that went before it; but with a knowing self referential approach. The series boasted two female leads – Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott and Courtney Cox as Gale Weathers. Both characters were polar opposites, Campbell fulfilled the ‘Laurie’ role the pure and innocent teenage girl with hopes and dreams and a penchant for the boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Cox was the hard-nosed hack – a ball busting news reporter with a thirst for an exclusive and a morally ambiguous desire to get there. Interestingly, the biggest star of the movie was Drew Barrymore and tellingly she was offed by the killer in the opening scenes of the movie. Does this hark back to Hitchcock’s Psycho? Most certainly – but everything about the Scream movies are bolder, bigger and more obtrusive than those that preceded it. Killing a female lead in the first thirty minutes? How about in the first ten! There’s a smattering of references through the movie to the stereotypical features of the girls in horror. Campbell herself laments the killer over the phone, sarcastically referring to the big breasted girl who runs into danger rather than away from it. To which she does exactly the same. Nineties horror may follow the same tracks of the horror vibe, but hey it knows it does.
Courtney Cox puts in a fine performance as Weathers, her path repeatedly crossing with Sidney Prescott and the killer’s. Throughout the course of the franchise Campbell’s Prescott has significant character development; fresh faced and innocent in Scream, wary and traumatised in Scream 2 and haunted and isolated by Scream 3. After a hiatus of eleven years, Prescott re-emerges in Scream 4 visibly more mature with apparent closure with regards to her past. Interestingly the character is portrayed as an established author. Weathers’ character development seems be in contrast a reversal of Prescott. When we first encounter her Weathers is the controversial but in-demand media darling and a best-selling author to boot. By the time the characters are reunited on screen in the fourth installment of the franchise, Weathers appears to have regressed to the status of teen Sidney – trapped in the midst of the hell that is Woodsboro suburbia.What has become apparent over the course of movie history is the importance of the female protagonist to the horror genre. Casting the right actress in the central role is essential to the success of the movie – a believable, vulnerable and human performance adding the essential element of jeopardy so vital to our investment in the character. Over the years, there have been many incarnations of the ‘leading lady’ but all have shared a distinct characteristic – truth and realism. It’s a journey which started six decades ago in an unassuming shower deep in the midst of a secluded Bates’ Motel.
We owe it all to you Marion Crane – welcome to your legacy….