Classic horror films over the history of cinema are full of towering men like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and others. Women, though, also made their mark on the genre during the pre-slasher era, sometimes in startling ways. Houston author and horror scholar Frank J. Dello Stritto (Vampire Over London, A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore) is teaming up with 14 Pews in a series called Big Girls Don’t Scream to celebrate the variety of roles women have played starting from the birth of the horror film. Every Wednesday in April, he will present one film accompanied by a brief talk that highlights the scream queens of yesteryear.
“I was glad to do this because there’s this notion that all women in horror movies were victims, says Dello Stritto. “There’s no shortage, but there are also some strong characters, including some strong monsters.”
Spanning from the 1930s through the 1960s, Dello Stritto has chosen four films, some well-known and some more obscure. The first is Merian C. Cooper’s 1935 adaptation of the H. Rider Haggard adventure novel She. The film follows Randolph Scott as Leo Vincey, heir to a large estate who goes on a quest to seek the Fountain of Youth supposedly discovered by his ancestor. In the course of film he is set upon by cannibals ruled by She Who Must Be Obeyed, played by Helen Gahagan.
“There’s an argument whether or not She is a horror film, but it probably would’ve been forgotten if it weren’t for the horror cults,” says Dello Stritto.
Cooper, most famous for King Kong, felt that the jungle movie had been done to death by the time She was made, and he relocated the setting to Northern Russia. He found a true gift in Gahagan as She Who Must Be Obeyed, particularly at a time when women were almost never allowed such menacing and commanding roles. Gahagan’s performance would end up being a major influence on Walt Disney’s Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. She was Gahagan’s only film role before she left Hollywood to become the first Democratic woman ever elected to Congress, but it’s a performance that belongs with the greats of the classic RKO productions.
Other offerings in the series are Val Lewton’s I Walked With a Zombie (1943) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Dello Stritto is quick to warn audiences how times have changed when it comes to the portrayal of African-Americans when screening films like Zombie, though he posits that it is one of the better movies for the time in this regard. Affectionately referred to by fans as Jane Eyre of the Tropics, Francis Dee plays Betsy, a hired caretaker who becomes involved with a voodoo cult in the Caribbean. Both Zombie and Baby Jane are literate, character-driven films that have stood the test of time thanks to their amazing casts and stellar scripts.
“People forget that after Baby Jane Joan Crawford and Better Davis became regulars in horror films,” says Dello Stritto. “You can see why. Joan Crawford scared the hell out of me. It launched this entire genre of older women as monsters.”
The most controversial film on the schedule is Roman Polanski’s 1968 masterpieceRosemary’s Baby
. The writer and director has fallen into disgrace following charges he drugged and raped Samantha Geimer, a 13-year-old girl. Polanski accepted a plea bargain for engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse, but fled the United States prior to sentencing.
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Despite the monstrous behavior of the auteur, there’s no denying the quality of Rosemary’s Baby and its place in horror history. Mia Farrow’s performance as a woman impregnated by Satan is one of the greatest bits of terrifying acting ever done on the silver screen, and Ruth Gordon won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for playing the sinister Minnie Castevet. Filmed on the cusp of great changes in the genre, Rosemary’s Baby remains an important film in cinema.
“There was so much censorship back then,” says Dello Stritto. “Good guys had to win and monsters had to be punished. Anything that didn’t live up to the all-American ideal was suppressed. Now, women can be anything in horror, but women still had these fantastic roles back then.”
Big Girls Don’t Scream runs every Wednesday in April at 6:30 p.m. at 14 Pews (800 Aurora Street).
April 4 – She
April 11 – I Walked With a Zombie
April 18 – Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
April 25 – Rosemary’s Baby