In the golden age of horror cinema, the scream queen was usually depicted as a shrieking damsel in distress whose life depended on the brains and brawn of her male co-stars. Her role has evolved — sometimes playing the savior (Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien, for example), other times existing as a powerful symbol of feminine complexity (read Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws for more on that), and often simply as the lone female lead in a sea of men. American movies tend to dominate our minds when we think of the classic scream queen, but foreign horror cinema’s actresses deserve equal recognition. February is Women in Horror Month, and we’re celebrating with ten stars from the ranks of international terror.
Women in Italian horror cinema, particularly a subgenre known as giallo (lurid thrillers that are heavy on style, nudity, and violence), aren’t known for being much more than window dressing, but a few actresses stand out for their impressive range and talent. Edwige Fenech started her career as a model, but became the queen of the gialli after appearing in films by notable directors such as Mario Bava and Sergio Martino (Five Dolls for an August Moon, All the Colors of the Dark, Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key). No one can portray vulnerability, hysteria, and lusty/playful vixen (usually in a single role) better than Fenech. While it’s true she’s often remembered for her looks (and nude scenes), Fenech’s performances are genuinely some of the best in Italian horror. The actress has since launched her own production company, and she made a cameo in Eli Roth’s Hostel: Part II.
British film studio Hammer debuted some of the most remembered scream queens in horror history. Gorgeous women from around the world headlined alongside the studio’s titans of terror, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Poland-born actress Ingrid Pitt remains one of Hammer’s most recognizable faces, and her roles in films such as The Vampire Lovers made her a horror icon. Pitt is distinctive amongst scream queens for her sexual confidence, naturalism, and villainous characters. Based on the J. Sheridan Le Fanu novella, Carmilla, Hammer’s 1970 film The Vampire Lovers saw Pitt playing a predatory lesbian vamp — a part that addressed social taboos and pushed boundaries.
Soledad Miranda’s life was cut short at the young age of 27, but she left a lasting impression on the genre thanks to her collaborations with cult director Jess Franco during the 1960s and early 70s (Count Dracula and Vampyros Lesbos being the most famous). The Spanish star’s earthy sensuality was striking, but the actress conveyed a depth of emotion missing from most low-budget erotic horror films, enrapturing audiences. She added an air of mystery to Franco’s movies, which is why the director was reportedly prepared to offer her a multi-year contract to elevate her stardom. Legend has it that she died in a car crash on her way to sign on the dotted line.
Cécile de France has only one horror film to her credit, but it’s an unforgettable performance that catapulted her to international stardom. The Belgian actress was put through the wringer in Alexandre Aja’s brutal, unrelentingly gory film, High Tension. An actress of another caliber wouldn’t have been able to pull off Aja’s twist ending. Her Marie is resilient, intense (the part required a physicality that would be a hurdle for any actor), and helps drive the action toward an unbearable climax. We also appreciate that the actress doesn’t look like the typical scream queen, making the part more relatable since Marie looks like someone we probably know or could even be ourselves.
Japanese star Eihi Shiina became the unofficial face of J-horror when she appeared as the haunting Asami in Takashi Miike’s Audition. A widower “auditions” women to become his new wife, and the one he falls for isn’t quite who she appears to be. Shiina’s character is beguiling and terrifying, and the actress executes some of the movie’s most horrific scenes of violence with mesmerizing calm. Shiina’s roles in Tokyo Gore Police and Helldriver also secured her a place in the annals of scream queendom.
Whether you describe Andrzej Żuławski’s 1981 movie, Possession, as a horror tale or a dark art house film is irrelevant. Star Isabelle Adjani delivers a visceral, potent performance (a dual one, at that) with a startling ferocity that won her the best actress prize at Cannes and earned her a place amongst scream queens. Her angelic/demented doppelgängers in Possession are reason enough for her inclusion here, but other roles in horror hybrids like the 1996 remake of Les Diaboliques also demonstrate Adjani’s talent and flexibility.
The daughter of Italian horror royalty, legendary director Dario Argento and actress/writer Daria Nicolodi, Asia Argento was bound to be one of European horror’s biggest stars. She started her career in the genre at the age of nine and collaborated with her father on a number of films (The Stendhal Syndrome, The Phantom of the Opera). Her intense acting style and alt girl looks make her a standout and also helped pave the way for contemporary scream queens whose allure isn’t solely reliant on buxom measurements. Argento is currently focused on her own directing career (Scarlet Diva, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things) and released an album last year, Total Entropy.
Leading the 1960’s European horror craze, Barbara Steele’s biggest roles came from the Italian and British industries. Her ability to play the innocent victim and wicked woman is unparalleled. Steele’s haunting beauty was captured most memorably by director Mario Bava in the maestro’s ode to gothic horror, Black Sunday. The actress has worked with some of the finest filmmakers in cinema, including Fellini. Although she sometimes resents being typecast in vampy roles, Steele has always maintained a deep appreciation for her fans and a wonderful sense of humor about her intimidating image.
Twin sisters Marie-Pierre and Catherine were two of French director Jean Rollin’s muses, appearing in several of his erotic horror films, such as The Nude Vampire and Lips of Blood. Adept at playing the dangerous vixen and innocent wanderer seduced by a bloodsucker (Requiem for a Vampire, played by Marie-Pierre as sister Catherine became pregnant), the sisters became a memorable presence in Rollin’s most important works.
South Korean star Yeom Jeong-ah has worked with the esteemed Park Chan-wook, appearing in his segment of the disturbing anthology horror film, Three… Extremes. She also played the archetypal wicked stepmother in Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters. We already know the chilling character is off-kilter from the moment her strained smile appears on screen, but the actress gives her an added neuroticism and pathos, fleshing out the character in a unique way.