Another of the key directors of the day was Fred Olen Ray, whose horror comedy trashterpiece Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers put the gals on the other side of the chainsaw for a change. In later years Ray would go on to produce and direct the hilariously awful gay vampire series The Lair. Like DeCoteau, Ray has a clear genuine affection for all three of the actresses, and they for him.
Heels doesn’t sidestep the struggles of being an actress who isn’t afraid of putting it all out there, particularly in a genre that has long been held by many to trade in blatant misogyny. There are mentions of creepy stalkers, insanely hectic shoots, and abusive conditions on-set, as well as the age-old issue of not being taken seriously once you take your top off for a part. But the throughline of the documentary is that at the end of the day, these are women who loved working, and were happy to have steady gigs working alongside people that they liked in a genre that entertained them. It’s a hoot to revisit some of the girls’ notable projects with them.
The film also catches up with the actresses present-day, and while each of them seems contented, the industry and life as a scream queen have clearly affected them all in different ways. Stevens, for example, still works regularly and has leveraged her business sense to turn the horror and comic convention circuit into a lucrative career path of its own. Always a family girl at heart, Quigley has spent her recent years out of the spotlight to care for her parents. And Bauer – always the most mysterious of the girls to me (and a true classic beauty, in my opinion) – has a more pragmatic view of her years in the movies and what they mean to her now. It’s all rather bittersweet, especially if you’re like me and grew up absolutely in love with these women and their crazy films, but the tone stays pretty light throughout.
Brinke Stevens, Linnea Quigley, and Michelle Bauer today
In fact, the film’s only real weakness is its reticence to dig too deeply or pull too many skeletons from the closet. As the poster proudly declares with the tagline “A Jason Paul Collum scream come true,” the film was as much a product of a superfan’s unbridled affection as a serious attempt to chronicle the real highs and lows of a career as a scream queen. And considering that the B-picture boom was driven by self-promotion as much as anything else, it is perhaps strangely appropriate that this is the first documentary I have ever seen where the director himself appears on camera as an interview subject.
But in the end, no one is going to pick this up with the hopes of uncovering a serious anthropological study or even an impartial handling of the material. I’m happy to say that it’s a boob-filled, wonderfully endearing celebration of a formative force in many of our pop culture puberties – a time when USA Up All Nite! ruled the weekend airwaves and a trip to the video store was better than a week at Disney. Like most of the movies it spotlights, it ain’t exactly Citizen Kane – but it is a hell of a good time.
Screaming in High Heels: The Rise and Fall of the Scream Queen Era is now available on DVD