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Monday, June 21, 2010

That's Entertainment! Horror Films, History and Scream Queens.

Book Review: Confessions of a Scream Queen
By Matt Beckoff
Bear Manor Media
ISBN-13: 973-1-59393-539-9

Reviewed by: Wesley Britton

For fans of nostalgia and entertainment, small presses like Bear Manor Media fill niches no other publishers will touch. For example, BMM books run the range from memoirs by child stars of the 1930s to extremely well-researched histories of radio, film, and TV series, to collections of interviews with actors from a variety of genres. As a result, many of these books appeal to specific audiences hungry for insights into the films and shows that influenced them years ago. These are readers who enjoy nostalgia conventions where they visit autograph tables and meet participants from the thrilling days of yesteryear. These buffs provide many bit or retired actors a second career—telling old stories for enthusiastic fans of projects completed before many of them were born.

So, typically, Bear Manor Media’s Confessions of a Scream Queen is a book for a particular—and loyal--fan base, in this case lovers of horror and Sci-Fi movies. In this collection, interviewer Matt Beckoff has assembled a sort of mini-con in print with 15 actresses recalling their most famous or infamous roles. Many of these ladies had careers and parts as hit-and-run as some of these interviews. As a result, with a few exceptions, film students will not get in-depth behind-the-scenes discussions of how horror films came to be. Instead, we get snapshots, glimpses into how the acting profession has changed since the early days of talking pictures to the present. One theme resonating through this book as a whole is how these working girls once found roles in pictures that none expected to have long-shelf lives, only to be happily surprised to learn they still have fans hoping to both see their work again and again and learn more about them personally long after the camera stopped rolling. For others, with more diverse resumes, their surprise is how they’ve become “Scream Queens” at all as their roles in horror movies are but a small section of their credits.

Appropriately beginning with the first talkies, Beckoff spoke with Carla Laemmle, Lupita Tovar, Janet Ann Gallow, and Elena Verdego who worked with the likes of Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi in the early horror films of Universal Studios. These are the shortest discussions in the book as these actresses had the shortest time on screen—first, young actresses who rarely spent time with the leading men, then married and raised families, and years later discovered themselves cult favorites. Then Beckoff moved into the noir era with Colleen Gray who appeared in such films as Kiss of Death, working with directors like Henry Hathaway and actors including Richard Widmark.

The book kicks into a higher gear with Kathleen Hughes as she appeared in a number of horror/Sci-Fi projects like IT Came From Outer Space and Judith O’Dea (Night of the Living Dead). Some devotees might be disappointed Hammer Films were represented by only one alumni--Ingrid Pitt (Vampire Lovers, Countess Dracula, Wicker Man). But “slasher” fans get Marilyn Burns (Texas Chain Saw Massacre), Betsy Palmer (Friday the 13th), and P. J. Soles (Carrie, Halloween). This trio are extremely erudite about the roles that made them famous and their appreciation for the audience response ever after. In fact, readers might raise an eyebrow to hear these actresses revealing how much professionalism they brought to movies none thought were more than a paycheck for a few weeks work.

For the wider film audience, the nuggets in the collections are conversations with actresses whose careers ran a wide range of genres such as Karen Black, Jessica Harper, and Dee Wallace. Black, for example, reminisced about her work on Five Easy Pieces, her time with Hitchcock in Family Plot, and her role as a country singer in Nashville. The final interview in the group, with Adrienne Barbeau, is the perfect finale as, in this crowd, she seems the Queen of Queens. After all, she not only appeared in four major John Carpenter films, she was married to him.

This isn’t a tome for research libraries, but it’s one to take with you for autographs at all those conventions. It’s enjoyable, and even more so for the pictures contributed by the interviewees and new photos taken by Beckoff—making this package attractive for every heterosexual male alive. Well, considering the subject matter, alive might be too restrictive an adjective. This collection was clearly a labor of love as Beckoff obviously did his homework and preparation by seeing all the movies and reading past interviews, some apparently twenty years old. So the book might not be indispensible reading, but it might give readers new appreciation for “Scream Queens”—even those who never did scream on-screen.

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Dr. Wesley Britton is the author of four books on fictional espionage, owner of, and co-host of the online radio show, “Dave White Presents” on and available for download.

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1 comment:

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