Black and White Beauties
Happy Halloween fellow horror lovers!
It is said that the first noted “woman in horror” was Jehanne D’Alcy. After leaving the theatrical stage in 1896, she went on to participate in a number of “horror” films directed by her husband- George Melies. His work on The House of the Devil (1896), A Terrible Night (1896), and A Nightmare (1896) makes him the first technical horror director. Although his works were meant to instill wonder and amazement- not fear- his technical style, use of practical effects, and thematic stories of devils, giant spiders, and men turning into bats, made them what they are considered today. They helped establish a role for women in film that made them seductresses, damsels, and mystifying creatures from an unknown world.
As horror films began to carry on and increase in production, so did the role of women in these stories. Nosferatu (1922), Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and King Kong (1933) placed women on a peculiar pedestal- desirable to terrifying monsters and every day men, alike. The beauty of Ellen Hutter, Mina Harker, Elizabeth Lavenza, and Ann Darrow made men travel across countries and battle nightmares for them, and they warmed the hearts of cold monsters who would fight men just to have them. They fainted, wailed, and threw themselves to their dramatic whims. And they always, ALWAYS needed to be saved. These women became the pinnacle of every horror film- the rosebud to an entire genre. I want to take a moment to honor these women- the black and white beauties of horror.
1. Mina Seward (played by Helen Chandler); Dracula (1931)
Adapted from Bram Stoker’s 1897 eponymous novel, and later on the 1924 play, Dracula (1931) is the tale of a Transylvanian vampire with an appetite for beautiful women. His most notable pursuit? Mina Seward (played by Helen Chandler), the fiancé of John Harker (David Manners.) Dracula (Bela Lugosi) charms himself into the lives of his unsuspecting victims; then, drains them of their blood. His haunting of Mina drove her from her love as he tries to drag her into the pit of his own dark world. Helen Chandler was apprehensive about taking the role of Mina, but in doing so, she made herself apart of one of the most classic horror adaptations of all time. The film was widely successful, with Bela Lugosi’s performance defining an era and Chandler becoming one of Hollywood’s most famous women in horror.
2. Kay Lawrence (Played by Julie Adams); Creature from the Black LAgoon (1954)
Even if you’re an intelligent scientist, you’re still in danger of being swept away by unknown creatures. Kay Lawrence (played by Julie Adams) is on an expedition with her boyfriend/colleague and other scientists in Brazil to discover the secrets behind an uncovered fossil of a hand with webbed fingers. Instead of smarty-pantsing with the others, Kay finds herself being followed and kidnapped by the creature of the black lagoon. There were a handful of spectacular women that helped bring this film together. Julie Adams is the beauty who mystified the creature. She plays the damsel so theatrical, yet refined. Ginger Stanley performed the water stunts of the film. She dances around the water as the creature inches closer to her in tormenting scenes. Milicent Patrick was the mind and the detailed hand behind the creation of the “Gill Man.” Becoming one of Disney’s first female animators and being the first woman to work in special effects/makeup, Patrick has the career of a legend. This film would not work so well if it weren’t for the talents of these amazing women.
3. The Bride (Played by Elsa Lanchester); Bride of FrankenStein (1935)
This film is all about the to-be bride of Frankenstein’s monster. She’s mentioned in almost every other scene, but she doesn’t make a physical appearance until the final 10 minutes of the film. Nonetheless, the buildup is astonishing. This heartbreaking monster romance is in a class of its own. It has an honest thoughtfulness that sets it apart for its time. The Bride is a character that emulates alien beauty. Her hairstyle is an icon by itself. Her mummified clothing and unfamiliar movements create an air of wonder around her. She is neither villain nor hero; she is a beautiful mystery moving by her own definition of natural. The final moments between the Bride and the Monster- though she says nothing- concludes a truly nuanced, first-rate horror film.
4. Ann Darrow (Played by Fay Wray); King Kong (1933)
“It was beauty killed the beast.” The beauty-beast love trope hit new heights with King Kong (1933.) Fay Wray’s portrayal of Ann Darrow is the epitome of a damsel in distress. Her entire portion of the dialogue consists of 90% screams and yells of sheer terror. It was this iconic scream that birthed screaming contests in her name, and two days after she passed away, the lights of the Empire State Building were dimmed for 15 minutes. In the film, Ann Darrow has just been cast to be in a movie. Her and the crew travel to Skull Mountain where they cross a tribe of natives in a ritual offering ceremony for the monster Kong. But it’s Darrow’s “golden head” that captures the eyes of the natives and of King Kong, and she becomes the object of his affection. This film relishes in the inconvenience of having a woman around for “manly” things. Ann needs to be saved, and by no less than the ship captain who brags about his distaste for women.
5. Jane and Blanche Hudson (Played by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford); Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) is a seminal psychological horror. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford play sisters, Baby Jane and Blanche Hudson, with a life-long rivalry. Both are actresses who have long lost their careers, and Baby Jane now looks after a disabled Blanche in their California mansion. However, there is jealousy, resentment, and a bit of insanity shared between the two. The concentration on the two characters meant that Davis and Crawford had to deliver on their performances, and they both nailed it- giving all of their talent to their respective roles. Bette Davis went on to be nominated for Academy and Golden Globe awards for her role as Baby Jane. The film is a cult classic that inspired an entire psycho-biddy subgenre of horror. Even with its acclaim and success, perhaps what makes this film even more talked-about and memorable is the real-life feud between Davis and Crawford.
6. Eleanor Lance (Played by Julie Harris); The Haunting (1963)
Before The Shining, Insidious, The Conjuring, Oculus, and more films where movie characters are victims of psychological torture by paranormal entities, until they either bend or fight the wills of evil, there was The Haunting (1963.) Eleanor “Nell” Lance (played by Julie Harris) is an anxious woman who has been invited to investigate Hill House along with 4 other strangers. She immediately becomes the prey of Hill House as it haunts her and deteriorates her mental state. Julie Harris gives an exceptional performance as Nell, and her rapport with Theo (Claire Bloom) has inspired essays decades after the films release. The two women share a unique bond of comfort, fear, love, hate, attraction, and repulsion. They are attached upon first meeting and many times stabilize each other through all the horrors they experience. The idea of Theo being queer has even been discussed since the book and the film’s release.
7. Christiane Genessier (Played by Edith Scob); Eyes Without a Face (1960)
Christiane Genessier (played by Edith Scob) is the most delicately managed character on this list. The poetic nature of the film contributes to that. She is a young woman who, after a car accident, is confined to her home and made to wear a mask by her father as he attempts to complete a face transplant on her to rid her of her disfiguration. In the process, his secretary Louise- the loyal assistant trope- kidnaps young women for this brutal experiment. Christiane is more than the disgruntled daughter; she is in pain. She longs for acceptance and connection with herself, her father, and her lost fiancé. Edith Scob gives a tender performance, and her character’s liberation set a new precedent for women in horror to come. Eyes Without a Face (1960) went on to inspire many films after it, and John Carpenter has even mentioned that the featureless mask Christiane sports throughout most of the movie is what inspired Michael’s mask in Halloween.
8. Malla (Played by Estelle Helmsley and Kim Hamilton); The Leech Woman (1960)
Once Black women began to star in horror films, they were pigeon-holed into racially stereotypical roles. (You can read a little more about it HERE.) One of the first roles of a Black woman in horror was for The Leech Woman (1960.) Malla (played by Estelle Helmsley and Kim Hamilton) is an old, African woman who was brought to America 140 years ago as a slave. She visits Dr. Paul Talbot and requests that he take her back to her home in Africa where she can rest in peace, and in return, she will gift him with the secret of age reversal. The film is riddled with racial tropes, but Hamilton and Helmsley both gave memorable performances deserving of much more recognition. Kim Hamilton was also one of first Black actors to appear on Days of Our Lives and the only Black actor with a speaking role in Leave it to Beaver. Furthermore, Estelle Helmsley was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the 17th Annual Golden Globe awards. Their respective careers has made them remarkable women of horror.
9. Marion Crane (Played by Janet Leigh); Psycho (1960)
There is no black and white beauty more known, more iconic, than Marion Crane (portrayed by Janet Leigh.) When Psycho was released in 1960, it set a precedent for horror by popularizing the slasher genre. Marion Crane becomes the unsuspecting victim of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) when she fatefully stops at the Bates Motel for a night. The film’s pivotal shower scene impacted cinema and society after it’s showing. Leigh, herself, was terrified of taking showers after watching it- stating how she never realized how defenseless one is in the moment. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a once in a generation film. The technicality and perfectionism poured into it shows in how well the film has lasted after all of these decades. It also solidified Janet Leigh as one of the most popular Scream Queen’s of all time.