I love horror movies, but am reluctant to call myself a fan. Screaming in High Heels: The Rise and Fall of the Scream Queen Era is a harsh reminder that even though I know a good deal about certain corners of the genre, there's still a wide, wicked world out there to explore. Luckily, this great little documentary provides as many starting points as reasons to care about low-budget 80s exploitation.
Writer/director Jason Paul Collum traces the birth and rise of the home video market, which gave horror enthusiasts unprecedented access to movies. Before the video tape boom, people relied on drive-ins or grindhouse theatres to provide their fix of cutting-edge, out-of-the-mainstream cinema. But as home entertainment became more affordable, so-called "mom and pop" video stores popped up all over the nation--and they needed content to fill their shelves. Quick and cheap to produce (and relatively easy to distribute), horror flicks became retailers' bread and butter--with a small cast of filmmakers and soon-to-be-genre-stars carving out their own niche empire.
Overseeing this empire were "Scream Queens" Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens, and Michelle Bauer, a trio of plucky, attractive girls whose work ethic and willingness to do anything for the genre landed them steady careers and legions of fans. With directors like Fred Olen Ray and David DeCoteau churning out movies in less than a week and a half, their leading ladies found themselves in high demand and gaining mainstream attention. Unfortunately, that attention didn't lead to mainstream jobs, with Hollywood studios looking on splatterific "junk" like Silent Night, Deadly Night and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama as barely a step up from porn.
Just as technology's penchant for eating itself created the Scream Queens, it also led to their decline. From the advent of the big-box video store to the ubiquity of household moviemaking equipment, the girls' novelty faded along with their youth. I found Screaming in High Heels' final section to be its most fascinating, as our three heroines talk about coping with a limelight they'd never even pictured themselves stepping into (Stevens has a Masters degree in Marine Biology, and fell into acting on the back of a brief modeling stint). While some owned their title and evolved with the times, one of the Scream Queens chose to all but bury her career after becoming a mother.
It's all fascinating stuff, and my only gripe with the film is its lack of diverse perspectives. Much is made of Hollywood's disdain for low-rent slashers and monster movies, but it would have been nice to hear from someone on the inside of that machine--especially since many studios launched glossy, mainstream franchises on the backs of these B-movie pioneers.
Similarly, there was a brief mention of other Scream Queens who tried to capitalize on the title without putting in the work; with the exception of a single comment, it is roundly suggested that Quigley, Stevens, and Bauer were the end-all/be-all of their particular niche. There's a troubling one-sided quality to the adoration presented here that made me wonder if there's more to these stories than catty gossip. Maybe it was an issue of time or resources. Maybe it's implicit editorializing on Collum's part. Whatever the case, these are curious omissions.
Like many children of the 80s, I cut my cinematic teeth on video rentals. From horror to sci-fi to sex comedies (and the occasional "legit" movie), I devoured my share of schlock in my formative years. But watching Screaming in High Heels made me realize just how much material I never even knew to seek out. How many chances to see Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers did I blow while lamely plotting to con my parents into buying me a Freddy glove?
The best documentaries don't tie their subjects into a perfect narrative bow. Rather, they set the viewer down a path. Collum and company have created a highly entertaining gateway drug into harder, dirtier cinema. If you're well steeped in genre lore, I don't know how much more you'll get from the film--aside from some really well-told stories and hilarious clips from way down memory lane. But for casual consumers of horror, like me, this is the curriculum for what's sure to be a nutty, bloody education in our quest to achieve legitimate fandom.