Scream Queens: Why A-List Women Go for B-Rate Scares

From Bette Davis to Dame Helen Mirren, horror movies remain a reliable source of juicy roles.

February 1, 2018 5:00 am

Who doesn’t want to see Dame Helen Mirren let loose and scream? Now, in the scary movie Winchester, opening Friday, she plays Sarah Winchester, the horrified heiress of the repeating rifle fortune. Embodying a woman convinced she’s haunted by all the souls slain by her family’s eponymous firearm, Mirren yells her tonsils out – in a wig and widow’s weeds while the family’s Northern California mansion attacks its terrified owner, a haunted house hell-bent on revenge. It may seem like a strange career choice for the A-list Oscar-winner and Queen Elizabeth portrayer, but actresses from Bette Davis to Chloe Grace Moretz have prospered in fright-fests on the B-Movie spectrum because the genre remains a reliable source of juicy roles.

Scary cinema has universal appeal – and spontaneously crying out in the dark and clutching a companion’s arm in a theater full of strangers remains a potent reason to get up off the couch for a communal storytelling experience. Horror films are that much scarier when the viewer can’t escape into their smart phone. As an added bonus, a damsel in distress, however strong or complex her character, will never threaten the male audience. Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, who starred in Crimson Peak and Mama, addressed the topic a few years back during an interview for her passion project, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, “There are such great actresses in horror films.”

Chastain continued that summer of 2014, in remarks that remain prescient: “When I did Mama, a lot of people were shocked by that choice I made to go from Terrence Malick to a horror film.  But what I found [interesting] about it was it was she was a woman I’d never played before, but it also was she was really tough.  She had her own point of view.  She was a fighter and had this strength.  She refused to be a victim.  And perhaps that’s why women, great female roles are right now in horror films because they, these women refused to be a victim.”

Referencing Nicole Kidman in The Others and Naomi Watts in The Ring, Chastain also cited Sissy Spacek in the mother of all daughter horror, Stephen King’s Carrie. In that 1976 classic horror film of supernatural female anger and menstrual reckoning, the petite strawberry blond (who would win an Oscar in the biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter four years later) demonstrated a power that upended the traditional senior prom sequence embedded in most high school movies. Sure, her titular character died in the end – but she didn’t exit the frame meekly.

Woody Allen’s muse-turned- nemesis Mia Farrow memorably starred opposite John Cassavetes in the 1968 sleeping-with-the-devil classic Rosemary’s Baby directed by Roman Polanski. (Boy, did Farrow know how to pick them!) Paranoia reigns supreme in a movie that asks whether a woman has control of her own body and touches on issues of reproductive rights and rape culture in a manner that remains both relevant and terrifying today.

Chloe Grace Moretz, currently receiving raves from the female-directed Sundance film The Miseducation of Cameron Post, stepped into Spacek’s bloody prom shoes in the 2013 Carrie remake. However, her more shocking performance was as the permanently pubescent vampire Abby in Let Me In (2010) opposite Kodi Smit-McPhee’s smitten Owen. A very twisted Romeo and Juliet, this contemporary seduction between an old bloodsucker frozen in time as a pre-teen and the bullied youth she picks up near the monkey bars at night, is the kind of horror movie that seeps into one’s nightmares, addressing human and supernatural tendencies toward violence entwined in intimacy. And, like Shakespeare’s romance of twinned souls from opposite sides of town, this love affair is doomed – but the manipulations of Abby’s parasitic character haunt from beyond the final credits. Abby is capable of great strength and ruthlessness, a range of depth uncommon in portraits of pre-teens and reasonably irresistible to the daring young actress Moretz.

Historically, scary movies have also been seen as the place where A-list actresses go off to watch their stellar careers die. This was most recently dramatized in the TV series Feud: Bette & Joan, which I co-produced. At its center it dramatizes the catfight between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford on the set of Robert Aldrich’s 1962 horror movie about child stars all grown up, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Horror movies – not romances – were where the opportunities were for mature actresses, and for hard-working artists like Davis and Crawford, they provided an opportunity to maintain their close-ups if not their previous lavish lifestyles.

The list of actresses who’ve pursued this route at one time or another includes but isn’t exclusive to Rachel Weisz (The Mummy, My Cousin Rachel), Amy Adams (Psycho Beach Party), Tessa Thompson (Murder on the 13th Floor), Drew Barrymore (Scream), Janet Leigh (Psycho) and Jada Pinkett Smith (Scream 2). Vera Farmiga launched her own franchise with the paranormal thriller The Conjuring. And, now, the great Mirren, a pioneer in quality serialized television withPrime Suspect, takes her shot at Winchester. As actresses seek opportunities to carry films and raise their pay, they will go where the great roles are – and that’s consistently horror.

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