Monday, February 21, 2011

Women in Horror Pt III: The Bad Girls

That's a rare photograph of the lovely Gale Sondergaard in test makeup as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. Ultimately, she was deemed too pretty and the role went to Margaret Hamilton, as we all know. But that didn't stop Sondergaard from playing villainesses in movies like 1940's The Blue Bird, 1944's The Spider Woman or 1946's The Spider Woman Strikes Back. Beautiful and seductive, Sondergaard's exotic looks often meant she was cast as bad girl.

And bad girls, despite director Mervyn Leroy's insistence that a witch had to ugly, are usually quite the opposite in film. Especially when it comes to Horror movies.

Take young Patty McCormick in the 1956 classic The Bad Seed. McCormick, reprising her role from the Broadway production,  plays Rhoda Penmark, a lovely young lady with impeccable manners who always appears immaculately groomed and knows exactly what to say to get the adults in her life to do what she wants them to. The problem? Well, it seems young Rhoda is a sociopathic murderess who will stop at nothing to get her way.

In the 1960's and  '70's, movie villainesses were regulated to crazy old broads like Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? her rival, Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket and Berserk and Shelley Winters in What's the Matter with Helen? and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (and what's the deal with all the titles as questions?).

The tides soon turned as Paula Sheppard became the prime suspect in Alice, Sweet Alice (aka Communion), a 1976 slasher tale about the murder of a young girl who gets all the attention in her family. The movie is actually the film debut of Booke Shields, who plays the young murder victim.

Gee - nothing like stealing the theme from Psycho, eh?

Since then, villainesses have slipped back and forth between children and adults. There's Kathy Bates' Oscar-winning performance as Annie Wilkes in Rob Reiner's amazing and chilling adaptation of Stephen King's Misery:

Let's not forget South African actress Alice Krige, who has been the very bad girl in everything from Ghost Story and Star Trek: First Contact to Silent Hill.

Of course, there have been two rather remarkable "child" villainesses in recent Horror history... First is Daviegh Chase as Samara in the American version of The Ring:

And then there's young Isabelle Fuhrman in the very disturbing Orphan:

But for my money, the most effective Horror movie villainess in recent memory is Lorna Raver as Sylvia Ganush is Sam Raimi's brilliantly effective Drag Me to Hell, a movie I love on so many levels:


So, is there anything scarier than a wicked woman? Maybe. But these gals sure got to me. Maybe its an Oedipal thing? Or maybe it's the mistrust men seem to naturally have of women. Or maybe it's just good movie making. In any case, it often seems the best and most frightening Horror villain is a woman... I'll leave it up to you to decide why that is..
More, anon.

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