Review: “Screaming in High Heels: The Rise and Fall of the Scream Queen Era”

The title Screaming in High Heels might bring to mind the Stonewall Uprising, a particularly lively episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked, or any Real Housewives reunion special. But this proudly ridiculous and very entertaining guilty pleasure has a different set of queens in mind: the “scream queens” of the early direct-to-video B-movie boom.

Chronicling how major changes in the film distribution model and a few enterprising right place/right time filmmakers created a window of opportunity for a few lucky (and very game) ladies, this campfest of a documentary is both a valentine to some underappreciated genre icons and the perfect way to kick off the Halloween season.

Jason Paul Collum

Gay filmmaker Jason Paul Collum has been a horror nut for decades, and has written and directed gay horror flicks October Moon and November Son. In this unofficial follow-up to his 2003 doc Something to Scream About – which tackled the broader topic of women in horror film – he turns the spotlight on some of the biggest stars of his formative years: the leading ladies of late-80′s direct-to-video B-movie horror. Aided by an avalanche of clips from some of the goofiest movies ever made, the brisk 63 minute doc features interviews with legendary trash filmmakers like Dave DeCoteau and Fred Olen Ray, awesomely dated archived news coverage of the B-movie video boom, and recent sit-downs with the ladies themselves.

Collum kicks things off at the fall of the American drive-in, which might have spelled the end for grindhouse fare were the budding home video market not just gaining momentum. Suddenly thousands of upstart mom-and-pop video stores had lots of shelves to fill – and with the studios taking their sweet time releasing their libraries to tape, enterprising young underground filmmakers jumped at the chance to fill the pipeline with cheap thrills.

The new market also needed stars. That’s where the scream queens came in.

Michelle Bauer in Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, no three sets of bloodied bare shoulders were more at home on the shelves of the Horror section than Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens, and Michelle Bauer. Sure, Jamie Lee Curtis was our generation’s first true “scream queen”, but the video boom created its own brand of the stock girl-in-trouble character: sexy, spunky, and quite often very dangerous herself.

High Heels gives us the backstory of each of these hard-working but for the most part accidental stars. Quigley was a model and fitness nut whose family’s move from Iowa to California put her in the right place at the right time. Stevens was a marine biologist with advanced degrees who was introduced to the horror and genre scene after her comic book artist boyfriend used her as a figure model. And Bauer was working in a car wash when she was discovered and offered a modeling gig, which led to offers for parts in low-budget thrill pics that called for nudity.

Linnea Quigley in Silent Night, Deadly Night

And nudity was a big part of the game, make no mistake. All three ladies did plenty of nude modeling, and their films often required to drop their costumes and in some cases to do some pretty out-there things – Quigley’s nude graveyard dance from Return of the Living Dead and lipstick-through-the-nipple trick from Night of the Demons, just to name a few. But somehow, whether they were playing stripteasing zombies, succubus sorority sisters or chainsaw-wielding prostitutes, the genuine girl-next-door charm and sparkling personalities of the ladies always shone through the bloodstains.

There to guide them on the panty-strewn path to international stardom were a handful of scrappy exploitation filmmakers. One was gay director David DeCoteau, whose trash classics Sorority Babes at the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama and Nightmare Sisters prominently featured all three gals as a sort of Holy Trinity of camp horror. You have to wonder if a straight director would have gotten half of the carefree, unbridled performances (including the longest three-girls-to-a-bathtub scene in history) out of the gals that David managed to get.

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