Sunday, July 25, 2010

October 12, 2009: The 20 Most Astounding She-Monsters!

As in most other areas of characterization, women have tended to be relegated to second-string status in the realm of monsterdom. Frankenstein’s Monster? Dracula? The Phantom of the Opera? King Kong? All dudes. Even the Invisible Man was a guy. While the vast majority of A-list monsters are male, there are plenty of fictional females that either qualify as inhuman creatures or simply partake in particularly monstrous activities. There are ghosts and vampires, aliens and devil dolls, and witches, witches, witches. So, here are twenty of the scariest, creepiest, and incomparably most astounding females ever to induce a nightmare.



20. Mater Suspiriorum (a.k.a.: Helena Markos)
Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers Trilogy” took twenty years to complete, but there’s no question that its first episode was the series’ finest... and the greatest film in Argento’s gorgeously grisly oeuvre. Suspiria introduces mother number one: Helena Markos, the Mother of Sighs. As the film begins, Markos merely seems to be a long-dead presence at the Tanz Akademie, a dance academy in Germany’s Black Forest where American Suzy Banyon (Jessica Harper) is studying ballet. All we get is the occasional image of the witch’s shudder-inducing disembodied peepers as various folks are murdered in horrific ways at the academy. Those scenes are notorious for both their brutality and the painterly way Argento executes them. But the most deeply chilling moment in the film comes at the climax when we discover that Mama Markos isn’t as dead as Banyon thinks. But she sure looks like she is. According to Jessica Harper, Argento employed a 90-year old former hooker he found in Rome to play Mater Suspiriorum, but this monster’s memorability stems more from Pierantonio Mecacci’s make-up wizardry than acting.


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19. Countess Marya Zaleska
Had Dracula’s Daughter (1936) come off the way screenwriter John L. Balderston intended, Countess Marya Zaleska might have been a lot closer to the top of this list. Alas, the Powers-That-Be at Universal Pictures rejected his outrageous script, which contained scenes of a lusty vampiress committing acts of S&M torture. Frankenstein director James Whale was originally slotted to make the picture, and he was apparently determined to craft a film that would have made Bride of Frankenstein look like an episode of “The Donna Reed Show”, but he backed out when Universal informed him that they expected something quite a bit less elaborate (and costly) than what he had in mind. So, Dracula's Daughter is not as spectacular as it surely would have been with Balderston's racy original script or Whale at the helm, but Gloria Holden still manages to save the day with her icy, ethereal, intense portrayal of Drac’s spawn. And her seduction of a street girl is about as daring as Hollywood got in the wake of the Hays Code.


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18. Countess Muriel Arrowsmith

No one does weird sensuality like Barbara Steele, who pretty much took the Goth look invented by Vampira and drained it of its bombshell campiness. Steele brings all of her gaunt allure to her dual roles as sisters Muriel and Jenny Arrowsmith in the surreal Italian ghost story Nightmare Castle. Muriel floats through the first quarter of the film like a looming storm cloud until her sadistic mad-scientist husband Stephen tortures her to death for her marital indiscretions. But Muriel has the last laugh when she takes possession of the sister who replaces her and returns from the grave as a grotesque ghoul triumphantly shrieking “It’s my moment now!” in one of the most wonderfully overwrought scenes in ‘60s horror. Countess Muriel Arrowsmith is not as well remembered as Steele’s similar turns as Princess Asa Vajda and Katja Vajda in Black Sunday (more on that further down the list), but she is nearly as terrifyingly mesmerizing.


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17. The Alien Queen
Call me a monster movie blasphemer, but I’m not a fan of James Cameron’s Aliens. Whereas Ridley Scott’s original Alien was a dark, moody horror film, Cameron’s sequel is kind of a loud, dumb shoot-‘em-up (Cameron sure loves loud and dumb). Regardless of my opinion about the film as a whole, I’d feel remiss to not give credit to the magnificent Alien Queen with whom Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley has an unforgettable showdown at the climax of the film. While Ripley searches for a missing girl with the unfortunate name Newt, she discovers just who is responsible for birthing all of those nasty aliens… and she’s massive and very, very miffed.


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16. Regan MacNeil
The reason why a horror character as iconic as sweet, little Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) is not higher up on this list is because, technically, she isn’t the monster in The Exorcist (1973). She merely plays host to Old Scratch. Still it’s Regan we see doing all manner of horrendous things, from peeing on a perfectly good carpet to giving herself a villainous gynecological probe with a crucifix to shoving her mom’s face in her bloody crotch. I’d add “projectile puking on a priest” to her list of atrocities, but who among us wouldn’t do the same if given the chance? She looks scary, she’s got the mouth of a longshoreman, and she’s 12-years old. If that isn’t the definition of a monster, nothing is.


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15. Virginia Merrye
Spider Baby is that rare cult horror movie that works both as outrageous camp and as a quality movie, and the late Jill Banner perfectly embodies that dichotomy as the equally uproarious and sinister Virginia Merrye. A decade before he made celebrated blaxploitation flicks like Coffy and Foxy Brown, Jack Hill made this perverse, droll, disturbing, stylish, and vengefully original little movie about a completely insane Southern family in 1964. Finally released four years later, Spider Baby might best be described as Tennessee Williams meets Charles Addams. The cast is cult-horror fan manna with Sid “Captain Spalding” Haig as twitchy, dangerous simpleton Ralph Merrye and Lon Chaney Jr. as Bruno the Chauffer, the family’s father figure. But Jill Banner as Virgina Merrye, a loony woman-child with a penchant for creepy-crawly pets and slicing folks up, steals the show completely. The late Banner only had a few credits (mostly TV guest spots), which is unfortunate because she displays real star power as the title creep in Spider Baby.


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14. Irena Dubrovna
Irena Dubrovna: average woman wracked with emotional problems or flesh-feasting were-cat? As is often the case with a Val Lewton film, Cat People leaves such supernatural questions ambiguous. What isn’t ambiguous is the power the beautiful Simon Simone wields over the film. As Irena— a Serbian refugee recently wed to American engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith)— she is at first cute and care free, but when she realizes her superstition-born terror of sex is causing a marital rift, she turns morose… then murderous. Cat People is unusual for its time as it portrays religious-superstitions and a woman’s denial of her sexuality as destructive (compare how Irena fairs in the film to Jane Randolph’s sexually confident Alice Moore). Irena ultimately falls victim to her hang-ups, but viewers who fall under her feline charms, as Oliver Reed did, will be happy to see her back in ghostly form in Curse of the Cat People, which arguably trumps its predecessor.


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13. Elizabeth Selwyn
It takes a really powerful presence to upstage Christopher Lee, and that’s just what Patricia Jessel as Elizabeth Selwyn does in City of the Dead (a.k.a.: Horror Hotel). The film begins in 1692 as the innocent Selwyn is burned at the stake for allegedly playing footsy with Satan. Disgusted by her religiously crazed neighbors, she vows allegiance to the Devil as she burns and her terror turns to elated vengeance. Cut to that same town in 1960 where a woman, who looks suspiciously like Selwyn, is running a creepy hotel in the foggiest little nook in New England. Whether she’s spitting on the assholes that sentence her to death or orchestrating human sacrifices almost 300 years later, Selwyn is tough and self-possessed in a stately manner that makes her cinema’s strongest female equivalent to co-star Lee’s Dracula.


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12. Rhoda Penmark
There has never been a child as terrifying as tap shoe-wielding maniac Rhoda Penmark. Unlike Regan McNeil, she’s no vessel for Satan. Nature vs. nurture arguments notwithstanding, Rhoda’s evil is all hers. Nothing that cheerfully polite and seemingly eager-to-please could be anything but a psychopath in waiting, and Rhoda gives in to her urges after classmate Claude Daigle usurps the penmanship award she so covets. The big screen incarnation of The Bad Seed swathes the story in stagy camp, earning it a passionate following of ironic cultists. But William March’s original novel is far more disturbing. Patty McCormack’s performance as Rhoda in the 1956 film is certainly cult-worthy, but it is her literally predecessor that may inspire nightmares.

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11. Granny Hart
The title character of “The Twilight Zone’s” “Jess-Belle” is a brooding, beautiful, lovelorn witch played by Anne Francis, but the episode’s real star is Jeanette’s Nolan’s horny, happy-go-luck Granny Hart. After Jess falls in love with Roscoe from “The Dukes of Hazzard”, she calls on local broom-rider Granny Hart to “witch” her in exchange for her soul. Granny is renowned in the Ozarks for her love potions, but her neatest trick is the ability to transform herself from a hag to a quite attractive senior citizen in the blink of an eye. Whether she’s hunched over a cauldron or pawing James Best, Granny Hart is invariably in a chipper mood and absolutely delighted by her sorceress status. When Jess-Belle expresses remorse after making her Mephistophelean deal, Granny cheerfully responds, “Well, you’re lookin’ at it all wrong. Be a witch. Take a witch’s pleasure. Take the man you bargained for—give him witch’s love!” That’s the spirit!


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10. Princess Asa Vajda
Although it’s slow-paced, Mario Bava’s Black Sunday is a masterpiece of Gothic atmosphere and exquisitely creepy sets. But the film’s most memorable element is the haunting presence of one Princess Asa Vajda, who we first see as she’s about to be burned at the stake for witchery or Satan worshipping or some such crime against Christian decency. The peeved Princess vows revenge on the crazed mob right before they hammer a spiked mask onto her face (the spikes are on the inside, incidentally). Many years later she is resurrected as a sort of vampire-witch, her face still polka-dotted with the puncture wounds she suffered so many years before and sets off on a macabre quest for eternal life. Most will remember the Princess for her unforgettably gruesome visage, but it’s Barbara Steele’s wild performance that makes her a truly great She-Monster. With eyes and nostrils flaring, Steele delights in executing the Princess’s escapades and every one of her scenes is a showstopper. The results: Italy gains its first great horror film and its most unforgettable monster.


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9. Baby Jane Hudson
Long before Danny Bonaduce and Dana Plato became the models for the child-star-gone-wrong there was Baby Jane Hudson. Of course, there really isn’t that much difference between the apple-cheeked, attitudinal singer she was as a tyke and the psychotic pentagenarian she would become. Honestly, I think I’d rather be bound and gagged to a bed like Joan Crawford than have to listen to little Baby Jane sing “I’m Sending a Letter to Daddy”. But that’s just me. Bette Davis’s portrayal of the title character of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is the stuff of legend: she’s creepy, she’s hilarious, and she’s also pretty heartbreaking — try not to feel for her when she convinces herself that Victor “King Tut” Buono will resurrect her long-dead career. Just don’t let her serve you lunch.


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8. Medusa
The most ancient monster on this list may also be the scariest. Just think of how terrifying a creature has to be to have the power to kill you just by looking at you. In Greek mythology, Medusa was one of three gorgon sisters (Stheno and Euryale were the others), which had snakes for hair and the power to turn humans into stone with their gazes. Terence Fisher’s 1964 film The Gorgon played really fast and loose with mythology, having Magaera (actually a Fury, not a Gorgon) strolling around London and committing murders beneath the full moon like the Wolf Man. Medusa as realized by stop-motion legend Ray Harryhausen in 1981’s Clash of the Titans is a lot closer to the original myth, and with her snake-like body and scaly face, she truly lives up to her horrifying reputation.


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7. Carrie White
Like so many of the classic creatures (Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man, the Gill Man), Carrie White is not really the monster in her story. It’s the “normal” folks who really epitomize monstrosity in their hatred, prejudice, and small-minded superstitions. The destructiveness the title telekinetic teen unleashes at the climax of Carrie—novel and film—is an act of righteous retaliation. How many who’ve been victimized by the “cool kids” fantasized about perpetrating similar revenge? Too many, according to the media, but Carrie may provide a vicarious outlet for some of these kids. For the victimizers, there’s a valuable lesson to be learned: don’t fuck with the weird kid.


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6. The Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
The great thing about the Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is that she’s two monsters in one. For the first half of the film she’s a sadistic but beautiful creep of the wicked-stepmother variety who orders the death of fairer stepdaughter Snow White. In a gruesome move that would never past muster in a contemporary Disney film, she asks her huntsman crony to bring Snow’s heart back to her in a jeweled box as proof that the deed is done (a detail from the original Brothers Grimm tale). In the second half of the film, the Queen transforms into a witchlike crone and delivers the non-proverbial poison apple to the subject of her seething jealousy. The chilling presence of the Evil Queen has stretched far beyond the original Snow White, and films ranging from Annie Hall to John Waters’s Desperate Living to Enchanted have paid tribute to her unforgettable evil.


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5. Minnie Castevet
The women and girls on this list do some nasty things, but really… orchestrating the rape of a newlywed by Satan? That’s going a wee bit too far. Yet all is forgiven because Ruth Gordon, as the witch Minnie Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby, is utterly adorable. Yes, she’s a pretty obnoxious neighbor, constantly showing up at the Woodhouse’s apartment uninvited, slipping a Mickey Finn into Rosemary’s “chocolate mouse”, and stealing her demon baby (plus the whole rape thing), but she’s so upbeat, so full of vigor, so funny and charming that it’s impossible to begrudge her. Few monsters are as thoroughly evil and thoroughly likable as Minnie Castevet.


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4. Talky Tina
The original gabby demon doll, Talky Tina is the anti-hero at the center of the “Twilight Zone’s” scariest 30 minutes. In “Living Doll”, a little girl named Christie is having difficulty acclimating to her mother’s new dickhead boyfriend, played with sweaty menace by Telly Savalas. Kojak has a cow when he sees his wastrel wife has purchased an expensive talking doll for Christie, but outrage turns to terror when Talky Tina starts giggling, “I’m Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you.” Voiced by June “Rocky the Flying Squirrel” Foray, Talky Tina is a terrifying combination of relentlessness, indestructibility, Charles Bronson-cool, and plastic.


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3. Lady Sylvia Marsh
Male or female, few monsters relish their evilocity with the zeal of Lady Sylvia Marsh in Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm. The Lady is a vampire/snake-priestess thingy who worships a giant night crawler and just has to dance whenever she hears a wind instrument. Russell’s empathy is clearly with the vivacious, anti-religion, anti-priggishness, and very funny Marsh and not with the dull prudes who would thwart her plot to feed virginal Catherine Oxenberg to her wormy master. She can barely contain her glee when blasting venom on a crucifix (a stunt that equally delighted atheist-actress Amanda Donohoe and atheist-viewer me) or baring fangs at her numerous victims. Based on a Bram Stoker novel that isn’t Dracula, Lair has many detractors, but those losers are missing out on a bottomless pit of fun… and most of that fun can be traced directly to the antics of Lady Sylvia Marsh.

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2. The Wicked Witch of the West
I’d wager that if a poll were taken assessing the fictional character that traumatized the most children, the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz would come out on top. She’s just such an embodiment of the things that most terrify impressionable kids: her ruthlessness, her apparent ability to materialize anywhere at anytime, her cadre of hideous flying monkeys that follow her every command, her twisted tower in which she imprisons young Dorothy, her boner for Dorothy’s beloved pet, her leering green face and grasping fingers, and the way she delights in her own evil. As mean and scary as Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch is, you have to admit that she has a legitimate beef with Dorothy. What would you do if some Kansas yokel dropped a house on your sister and ripped off her shoes? You’d probably go as ballistic as the WWW. Of course, The Wizard of Oz directs all of our empathy squarely toward Dorothy, so it’s tough to see the Witch as anything other than the ultimate bogey woman.


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1. The Bride of Frankenstein
She only has four minutes of screen time in the film named after her, but Elsa Lanchester as the Bride of Frankenstein is without question the most memorable monster on this list, and may only fall behind Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster and Lugosi’s Dracula in overall terms. With her lightning-streaked fright wig and childlike awkwardness, the Bride has inspired countless imitators and been captured on an innumerable amount of merchandise. Her unsettling combination of morbid weirdness and early-Hollywood glamour laid the groundwork for all of the sexy grotesques that followed her, from Vampira to Morticia Addams to Princess Asa Vajda to Elvira to Lady Sylvia Marsh. Her hairstyle has been appropriated in one form or another by personalities ranging from Lily Munster to Dave Vanian of the Damned. Her elliptical presence in The Bride of Frankenstein sparked numerous attempts to fill in the gaps (Elizabeth Hand’s imaginative feminist novel The Bride of Frankenstein: Pandora’s Bride; the films The Bride and an upcoming remake that promises to focus more on the title character than the original did), yet she packs a lot of living into her four minutes on film. She learns to walk by leaning on the shoulders of her creators, takes in all around her with a wide-eyed mixture of wonder and disgust, tentatively considers a romance with an ugly but sensitive brute, and ultimately says “no thanks” to it all. That concise arc from childlike hesitancy to aggressive self-reliance makes the Bride a fully-realized personality despite her lack of screen time. Couple that complexity with an iconic appearance and you’ve got the most astounding She-Monster of them all!

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