Ladies of Horror May-hem: Clara Webb

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Just when I thought that my belovedly sinister vampires were gone for good, director Neil Jordan comes in and saves them from the brink of sparkly doom with his brilliant 2012 film Byzantium. It’s only befitting that Jordan would save the species for me. He is, after all, the one who gifted me the gloriously campy cruelty I also love in vampires, with his 1994 movie adaptation of Interview with the Vampire.

At first blush, you might think that the focus of this story is on Eleanor Webb, the mysterious young woman who writes her story a thousand times over, only to destroy it as she goes along. It’s a tale she cannot tell, for its revelation will come at an expensive price to her and her mother Clara. To be fair, in many ways, this is Eleanor’s story. But to understand her story, we must understand the one who penned its beginning in the very blood that flows through both their veins.

In light of recent posts on other Ladies of Horror May-hem, I would liken Clara, as portrayed by Gemma Arterton, to a combination of Gale Weathers’ opportunistic drive, filtered through the maternal ferocity of Pamela Voorhees. She is raw and pitiless, forged by brutalities etched into her skin from places and people we will never have the opportunity to understand. They have long passed from this existence, but Clara continues, her life line knowing no natural end thanks to her own elemental sagacity.

Eleanor, who possesses a surprisingly compassionate soul in light of what she is, is the antithesis of Clara in almost every way. Her porcelain fragility and cultured mannerisms and speech amplify Clara’s coarse flamboyance, her lower-class vulgarity, the physicality, both sexual and ferocious, of everything she does. However negatively Clara might come across in comparison to Eleanor, you realize quickly that it is this way because of Clara’s fierceness. She has spent a series of lifetimes granting her daughter every opportunity possible, protecting her from every harm and threat…her penance for failing her once. Only once. But the penance she pays for that failure is far greater than even Eleanor can understand.

Just writing about Clara makes me even more appreciative of her brilliant complexity, and makes me wish I had this movie in my collection now so that I could view it again ASAP. It’s been far too long since I was excited by a vampire tale. I relish the feeling.

Ladies of Horror May-hem: Gale Weathers

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And here we have another often overlooked Lady of Horror May-hem…and an even greater counterpoint to the previous two maternal mistresses of mayhem.

Whenever someone comes up with a list of top-notch horror movie female characters, you can bet your Edvard Munch mask that Sidney Prescott, the reluctant final girl from director Wes Craven’s Scream movies, will be included (and rightfully so). However, I can’t help but notice that I’ve never seen one of these lists give kudos to the other final girl from these movies…the one who apparently is sharing those nine lives that Sidney keeps tearing her way through (between the two of them, they’ve now used up eight lives…wonder what this will mean for Scream 5?).

I love Gale Weathers for a variety of reasons, from the fact that she’s played by Courteney Cox (who will always have a special place en mi corazon) right down to the fact that she is unabashed in her desires and her drive, and she makes no apologies for either. Gale Weathers is not interested in being the stereotypical virginal, placating female so often seen fit to survive pre-Scream horror movies. She is not there to comfort you. If you piss her off or slow her down, then she’s going to rip you like you’ve never been ripped before. She is not there to be your friend, and even if she does let you in, she has no qualm using you as a stepping stone if she sees the chance to rise. She does not shy away from using whatever is at her disposal to get the information she needs to put her ahead of her competitors. She is pure in her opportunism, the only attribute she holds above all else, even justice (“Do you know what that would do for my book sales?!”). However, she also navigates by an internal indebtedness that is the closest she comes to loyalty, especially when it comes to Sidney.

Unlike Sidney, however, Gale is not reluctant to embrace her part in the events transpiring around them, plowing straight into the heart of situations that most would want to avoid. Whatever it takes to get the scoop. It’s no wonder that she is the one standing right next to Sidney so many times in that final reel (spoiler!). Both she and Sidney, in fact, flip a hearty double middle-fingered salute to the dated horror tropes of what it means to be a final girl.

In many ways, Gale owes a lot to predecessors such as The Howling’s Karen White or Hellraiser III’s Joey Summerskill, other reporter grrls who put their fear on the back burner in pursuit of that shot of truth their systems craved. Gale has evolved throughout the franchise, but at her heart, she remains devoted to uncovering the last vestige of truth, no matter the peril.

Also, she rocks highlights like no one’s business.

Ladies of Horror May-hem: Diane Freeling

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What an interesting counterpoint draw to yesterday! Add another mother to the mix with Diane Freeling, JoBeth Williams’s matriarch in Tobe Hooper’s paranormal classic Poltergeist. This time, however, rather than unleashing a franchise of mayhem, our Lady stands against the onslaught of mayhem, unflinching in her resolve (for the most part…but she definitely deserved some of those flinches).

Strangely enough, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Diane Freeling on any list of greatest women in horror. I’m honestly stunned by this oversight. Never mind the fact that Poltergeist holds a special place in my heart as being the first modern horror movie I ever saw all the way through, Diane deserves recognition for being the ultimate defender and protector of her family.

After all, she is the one who bears witness to most of the increasing inexplicable activity and the first adult ultimately to believe that there is something happening that needs to be addressed. Even more importantly, she is the one who enters the other dimension to save her youngest child, Carol Anne, from horrors so fierce that she exits covered in unspeakably disgusting goo and marked with Bride of Frankenstein streaks of gray through her hair. Even with the fraction of horror we and the others in the movie witness coming through that portal, we can never truly fathom what she must have witnessed, all to save her child.

And, of course, it didn’t end there. Diane must fight to save her children once more, this time by herself. Surviving near violation and physical abuse, rescuing her children from a second abduction attempt by the spirit world, and ultimately coming face to face with the rotting corpses of bodies left behind by entrepreneurial assholes, Diane stands tall throughout it all, keeping her wits through the most atrocious encounters and altercations, and keeping her family together and alive through it all.

Ladies of Horror May-hem: Pamela Voorhees

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Never step between a mother bear and her cubs, and never ever fail to keep watch of a mother’s son, especially when that son is Jason Voorhees.

As pretty much most people who are even casual horror fans know (thank you, Kevin Williamson), the first killer who lit off the Friday the 13th franchise that would stretch for more than two decades was not our hockey-masked machete man Jason…but his loving mother Pamela.

Mrs. Voorhees, as played with disquieting perfection by Betsy Palmer, rained vengeance down in buckets upon our intrepid young camp counselors (the wrong ones at that, but I don’t really think she cared by that point) in retaliation for the failures of horny teens to keep her special boy safe, instead paying more attention to their own natural lust (which always seems to be the undoing of so many slasher movie victims; who knew fellow mother of mayhem Margaret White was the one funding all those teen slashers?).

Even though Mrs. Voorhees didn’t survive that first movie, she set the stage for son Jason to cleave his way through woods and more, ending up in far-flung places like New York City and…yes, even space. And, really, isn’t that all that parents want? For their children to have satisfying careers that take them unique and exciting places? Well done, Mrs. Voorhees. Jason would have made you very proud.

Ladies of Horror May-hem: Miriam Blaylock

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I shall never cease in my sentiment about what I want in a vampire: I either want them to be cold and cruel or campy and cruel. They can be sexy and desirous with a purpose, but they must be predatory. They must be brutal, primal, invoking the ancient survival instinct that has flowed from the violating infection of each to its prey since the invocation of the species.

Miriam Blaylock is just such a creature, and one of the characters who helped form my formative ideas concerning what a vampire should be. Portrayed by the impeccably gorgeous Catherine Deneuve in director Tony Scott’s movie The Hunger, Miriam is beautiful, detached, desirous, and, to my recollection, the very first female vampire I ever saw (and remains one of the few female vampires to find her way to the silver screen).

More than that, I remember being fascinated by the fluidity of her sexuality. This immortal creature, to whom time has granted the luxury of experimentation and examination concerning things like companionship and desire. She does not allow societal taboos to constrain her. She has lived long enough to know that external expectations mean nothing in comparison to the internal needs and wants that accompany her throughout the centuries.

Even after all the years that have passed since my introduction to the Lady Miriam, I continue to see her as the quintessential example of one of my favorite iterations of vampire…more so even than her male counterparts. She personifies danger, elegance, and beauty, with a sensuality that hides the unquenchable hunger of her kind.

Ladies of Horror May-hem: Barbara

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Just like Madonna and Cher need go by only one name among music fans, today’s Lady of Horror May-hem is a one-name wonder in her own right. She is Barbara, the reluctant heroine of that fateful Night of the Living Dead.

I’m not going to say a whole lot about Barbara, as portrayed in the 1990 Tom Savini remake by actress/stuntwoman Patricia Tallman. If you’ve been a regular visitor here at the lair, then you already know my deep love for both this remake and for Tallman. In fact, I’ve previously written of this movie reinvention of this character:

…it dramatically improves upon the character of Barbara, giving her far more modern sensibilities and turning her into a right and proper bad-ass. I’m not saying the remake makes her a better character, but it makes her a character I’d follow into the zombie apocalypse.

Indeed, in ways similar to how The Blob remake altered the original movie, in part, by switching up the hero to feisty young heroine Meg Penny, Savini’s NOTLD remake completely alters the flow of the original movie by reversing course for the originally weak, hysterical Barbara. Just as she sheds the mousy plainness of her physical attire for the practical fighting gear of boots and denim and weapons, so does Barbara shed her weeping and binding fear for a primal, detached drive for survival at all cost. This Barbara will not lie down and be dinner tartare for the zombie jamboree, and the more she witnesses of the undead’s atrocities, the more steadied her resolve becomes.

Yes, they’re still coming to get Barbara…but this time, they’re going to get way more than they bargained for…

Ladies of Horror May-hem: Kirsty Cotton

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I waffled a bit about adding Kirsty Cotton to the pot. After all, she’s sort of an accidental final girl, stumbling upon the whole sordid ordeal between her stepmother and her Uncle Frank and defeating the Cenobites with the Lemarchand’s box more by sheer luck than anything else.

It’s her second appearance in the Hellraiser franchise, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, that ultimately convinced me that she deserved a place in the running, for proving that sometimes an “accidental” final girl can become a right and proper bad-ass final girl when presented a redo.

Actress Ashley Laurence proved to be an interesting choice to bring to life the character of Kirsty. I honestly found her quite forgettable in the first movie (note: this is the second Clive Barker movie to appear this month; he and Stephen King apparently rock my socks when it comes to horrific ladies). It’s not that she was bad in the first movie; she simply wasn’t quite as interesting as the incredibly disturbing things taking place around her. I think this actually played well in her favor, making Kirsty’s survival and return both surprising and a bit exciting. So often, characters fail to make it from one movie to the next when a movie goes franchise, either because they inevitably die or the next movie’s handlers decide to go in a different direction (which is exactly what happens with the third installment of this series).

However, by bringing back Kirsty, the keepers of Pinhead and his Cenobite cronies not only create a logical bridge between the movies (rather than skewing off into a completely bizarre direction like, say, the second Nightmare on Elm Street or the third Halloween), but they also allow this formerly bland character a better chance to shine.

And do things with skin that could have gotten her cast in Silence of the Lambs. Eek.

I know that Laurence returns as Kirsty once more in the franchise. However, I’ve yet to see that movie. I haven’t made it past the third sequel…although once you see Jadzia Dax face off against a Cenobite with a video camera shoved into his head and another that pukes fire…well, there’s not really any reason to keep going. Still, I’d like to see what Pinhead has in store for our intrepid survivor. It must puzzle him to no end that she keeps escaping his attempts to box her in.

Oh, go ahead. Groan. Even I admit that was quite the tortured pun. It’s suffering was legendary, though, even in hell.

All right. I’ll stop now. No more teasing. It’s time to play. Right, Kirsty?

Ladies of Horror May-hem: Carrie White

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If ever you wanted the perfect spokesperson for why you shouldn’t bully the different kids, then Carrie White could be your golden girl. The bullied will envy the powers she possesses to take care of her adversaries, and the bullies should view her as the ultimate warning: Leave the different ones alone. You never know what you might uncover.

Based on Stephen King’s first published novel, Carrie is director Brian De Palma’s stylized telling of the story of a timid young woman with a religiously fanatical mother who rants and raves against the assumed sins of her daughter’s flesh in the most upsetting ways. Her abusive, sheltered life at home gives her no ability to defend herself against the abuses of her school environment, and neither place gives poor Carrie respite from the perpetual haranguing from all around her.

But Carrie has a secret…and it’s a killer, to be sure.

I suppose some might view Carrie as a horror villain. I don’t. I view her as a caution that, even though most bullied kids might not have the same powers Carrie possesses, they are one small step away from crossing a similarly violent line. Although she might be fictional, Carrie’s tragic tale has resonated loudly and sadly through far too many schools in far too many locations.

De Palma’s 1976 movie also earns pride of place as another one of the best adaptations of a King novel (even if his concept of what a girls’ gym locker room is like is way too Playboy Playmates romp for reality), with Sissy Spacek slamming home her portrayal of this awkward, unlearned, damaged young woman. Spacek’s Carrie is unnerving in the duality of her innocence and power, and when the movie’s denouement rains down upon her, you both feel her devastation and fracturing, and…well, you bloody well root for what’s about to come.

Ladies of Horror May-hem: Jane Hudson

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Remove the patina of camp that coats What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, thanks in great part to the over-the-top onscreen performances by and even more over-the-top behind-the-scenes battles between leading ladies Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, and what you have is one of the most disturbing psychological breakdowns ever put to screen. You also have one of cinema’s most tragic characters in the form of “Baby” Jane Hudson.

I feel torn as to how much I want to write here about Jane. I’ve been a bit more lenient when it comes to revealing certain things about older movies, but to really get into the nitty gritty of why I think she deserves to be lauded as a Lady of Horror May-hem would require significant revelations about this movie, including one that I’m not that keen to give away here. I’d hate to deny anyone the joy of discovering this movie in all its twisted, tortuous glory.

Let it be known, though, that I think Jane Hudson’s downward spiraling is one of the most upsetting and heartbreaking cinematic presentations of mental instability. Baby Jane trumps even that “number one fan” for her inability to process reality in socially acceptable ways. Jane’s unhinged “care” of her sister Blanche, in fact, is quite the precursory permutation of Annie Wilkes’s treatment of Paul Sheldon. Jane believes that she cannot escape her past, either mentally or physically, thanks to the total dependence of Blanche upon her. Theirs is a codependency of chaotically epic proportions, and Jane’s resentment and guilt are equally palpable and poisonous to her already fragile mental state.

Watching Baby Jane’s story the first time might make you laugh. Okay, watching her story the first time will make you laugh. But watch her again. Watch her as you would watch a real person behaving in these ways. Watch her knowing how it all ends. Just watch her.

Ladies of Horror May-hem: Lana Winters

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I briefly struggled with the fact that Lana Winters is not a horror movie heroine. However, I realized quickly that she was perfect for this month for precisely that reason. She instead made her mark as an amazing genre heroine from an equally amazing genre television show, of which there are not many options. She stands as proof that, if given the opportunity, a talented actress given a well-scripted role can bring horror to life in astonishing ways, regardless of the size of the screen.

[Loba Tangent: I also briefly struggled with the notion of combining Lana with her adversary, the stentorian Sister Jude, played to perfection by Jessica Lange. Both deserve to be included together for the fascinating interconnectedness they shared throughout their development. Plus, Lange’s performance as Jude is yet another in a series of high-quality performances from this grand dame of Hollywood elite. However, in the end, I chose Lana to stand alone as representative of this show, difficult though that decision ultimately proved to be.]

First, for full disclosure, I have only watched the second season of American Horror Story, dubbed “Asylum,” in its entirety. I tried to watch the first season, but I found it too tedious. Thankfully, each season of the series is a different story, with different characters telling the tale. Even more thankfully, the second season proved to be one of the best pieces of horror TV I’ve seen in a very long time. By taking the entire season to reveal its story, the show took its tortuously sweet time in creating a diabolical diaspora of evil intent and insufferable cruelty. I often don’t enjoy horror that showcases humanity’s penchant for violence and abuse against its own, but I can make allowances for those offerings that are done with care and precision. I can honestly say that I felt that AHS: Asylum executed both points quite well.

Another point well in the show’s favor was the wisdom in casting Sarah Paulson as Lana Winters, the “plucky” reporter with designs on fame for cracking open the truth behind Sister Jude and her Briarcliff Mental Institution. She could not have been a better selection to portray Lana and her almost preternatural survival reflex against the horrors in store for her. With chimeric grace, Paulson has repeatedly proven throughout her career that there has yet been a character outside the reach of her acting skills. She is one of my favorite parts of modern Hollywood, never disappointing me with her performances, even when cast in lesser roles in lesser projects. It’s taken a bit of time for the rest of Hollywood to see what I’ve seen for a while, and I couldn’t be more delighted.

Paulson’s performance acumen makes Lana such a compelling character that, even when the storyline delved into genre tropes that I rarely find tolerable let alone enjoyable, I continued along. I needed to see Lana’s story through to its completion. And, I have to say, her final moments on screen are deeply satisfying, something that quite often is not the case for horror endings. It’s admittedly much more of a commitment to discover the joy of Lana Winters as a horror heroine, but I believe that she will be well worth your time.