In a recent article on iHorror, my fellow writer Timothy Rawles discussed the evolution and dissipation of the use of nudity in the horror genre. Only a couple of decades ago, it was a given that if you saw a slasher flick, some girl was going to bare her breasts, at the very least. The shorts were SHORT; the shirts were just tight enough to show off the nipples, and no one was over 30 unless they had a bit role playing someone’s mother, teacher, or secretary.
There were exceptions, of course. No one could discount Zelda Rubinstein in Poltergeist for instance. The diminutive scene stealing actress was the focal point of the last half of the film and was the only actress aside from Heather O’Rourke who appeared in all three films. The actress was 49 and Tangina was her first major role. She would go on to be a staple of the genre, but even though her parts were memorable, she was never given a movie that was really hers to carry.
Oh, but times they are a-changing.
I’m not saying that the days of young, nubile final girls are over. We’re far from it. But, we’ve also come a long way, at least in horror, from a time when to quote Goldie Hawn’s character in The First Wives Club, “There are only three ages for women in Hollywood – Babe, District Attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy.” Not only is it acceptable, now, for a strong woman over 50 to carry a genre TV show or film, but those roles are actually being actively developed.
The actresses on this list are living proof that you don’t have to be 20 to be a Scream Queen. In fact, these ladies could teach those younger girls a thing or two, and look fabulous while doing it!
#1 Lin Shaye
Where do you start with a list like this? At the very top!
Lin Shaye has been aptly named the Godmother of Horror and no one living could wear that mantle better. From her early appearances in Critters and A Nightmare on Elm Street to her starring turns in indie hits like Dead End and 2001 Maniacs, the actress has emerged as one of the most recognizable faces and voices in genre film.
Shaye shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. The Insidious franchise has been built around her character, Elise, and she has steadily worked in and out of the genre using her chameleon like gift to live inside her characters and tell their stories. It takes skill to turn on a dime, to nurture one moment and seethe the next, but one needs only watch Jack Goes Home or Abattoir to see that Shaye does it with style. Her legacy is assured alongside other icons of the genre
I could probably talk about Lin Shaye all day long, but she tells her story much better than I ever could. I had the immense pleasure of interviewing the actress last year. We spoke for an hour and a half about her life and work, and you can read that interview here.
#2 Jessica Lange
Easily one of the greatest actresses of our time, Lange burst onto film in 1976’s remake of King Kong. It wasn’t long before she seemingly put the genre in her past, however. The classically trained actress quickly turned to more “legitimate” roles, playing Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and Mary in Rob Roy with regular returns to the lights of Broadway in New York.
And then one day, Ryan Murphy came knocking. I cannot imagine that first meeting and Murphy’s pitch, but I do know it must have gone exceedingly well. It wasn’t long before Jessica Lange’s name was synonymous with “American Horror Story” and fans tuned in each season to see what role she’d embrace next. From a nosy, murderous next door neighbor to a sadistic nun to the Supreme witch of the Salem coven, Lange embraced each role and played them to the hilt. She’s not the only “American Horror Story” star on this list, but she is the first and the greatest.
#3 Betty Buckley
A long, long time ago, Betty Buckley starred in the first screen adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie as Carrie White’s gym teacher, confidante, and champion Miss Collins. Since then, the accomplished actress has spent her time on stage and on screen in some of the most iconic musicals TV shows and movies of the last thirty years. In fact, when Lawrence Cohen, Dean Pitchford, and Michael Gore brought their musical adaptation of Carrie to the New York stage, Buckley was brought in to replace Barbara Cook as Carrie’s mother, Margaret. The musical went down in history as one of the most epic flops Broadway has ever seen, and yet, the songs between Carrie and Margaret are almost operatic in their splendor, mania, and beauty, and bootlegs of the original soundboard recordings are still floating around online.
So, how did Buckley end up on this list when those roles happened so long ago? While it’s true that she worked outside the realm of horror for a number of years, it was only a matter of time before someone remembered her work in Carrie and decided to pay her a visit. That director was M. Night Shayamalan, and the (first) film was 2008’s much maligned The Happening.
I never really understood the hate for the film. It was an interesting concept and something different from the normal horror fare. Buckley showed up in the final third of the film. Her character, Mrs. Jones, lived alone on an isolated farm and was unaware of the madness descending all around her. It didn’t take long to realize she wasn’t “quite right” as we say in Texas. Her role and the events that happened once she was introduced are some of the most intense and effective of the entire film, and that’s largely in part to Buckley’s fine acting and intensity. Shayamalan teamed up with her once again in his recent film Split and I hope this is not their last pairing.
#4 Jamie Lee Curtis
Jamie Lee Curtis. Enough said, right? Who else could fight the same sadistic killer for multiple decades? Who could face down that killer again and again and still come out on top? Jamie Lee Curtis, that’s who. Not only did she take on the iconic role of Laurie Strode in Halloween, Halloween II, Halloween H20, and Halloween: Resurrection, but the actress also starred in seminal classics like Prom Night and Terror Train. Combine that with the fact that her mother was Hitchcock’s famed victim in Psycho, janet Leigh, and it’s clear this is one scream queen who came from horror royalty, but owned her own place on the throne.
While she has often made films outside the genre, she’s never far away, and after a nearly 13 year absence, Ryan Murphy once again worked his magic and Curtis returned, this time to the small screen, in his horror comedy series “Scream Queens”.
#5 Angela Bassett
I told you Jessica Lange wasn’t the only actress from “American Horror Story” that you’d see on this list!
While the world at large may remember Bassett as the actress who played Tina Turner in the high energy biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It? or her role as the titular character in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, the actress’ place in the horror genre was earned all along her career. She had a role in the short lived “Nightmare Cafe” on television, starred opposite Eddie Murphy in Vampire in Brooklyn, etc., etc. But once again, it was Ryan Murphy who brought Angela firmly into the horror lexicon. One would be hard pressed to think of a better actress to take on the role of Marie Laveau opposite Lange’s Supreme in “American Horror Story”. Bassett enjoyed herself so much that she has stayed on for roles in each season since playing a member of the freak show, a badass vampire from the 1970s with a strong Pam Grier vibe, and she played one of the actors re-enacting the events at the house in Roanoke in the most recent season.
#6 Sissy Spacek
Sissy Spacek has been in a ton of horror movies, right? Wrong! In truth, Sissy was in Carrie in 1976, and didn’t appear in another horror film until The Ring Two in 2005! Still, when the time came to cast the role of Samara’s mother locked away in an asylum, Spacek jumped at the chance to return to her horror roots. The actress was a highlight of the film and two years later, she returned again in the period horror thriller An American Haunting opposite Donald Sutherland. The actress held her own, proving she had what it takes to stare down violent unseen spirits with steely grace and an earthy confidence. She’s one actress who knows how it’s done. Hopefully, she return to us soon!
#7 Kathy Bates
It’s hard to believe that Kathy Bates was 42 years old when she took on the role of Annie Wilkes in the Stephen King classic Misery. Already an established character actress and a staple on stages across the U.S., Bates seemed born to the genre as the obsessed fan who keeps her favorite author hostage after he finds himself in a near fatal car accident in the snow. And yet, to this day, it’s hard for me to hear her name without flinching. Someone says “Kathy Bates” and I see that sledgehammer breaking that poor man’s ankles.
Bates won an Oscar for the film and over the next two decades she would make appearances in more adaptations of King’s works including another stellar turn as the title character in Dolores Claiborne. However, she didn’t commit to horror again until, you guessed it, “American Horror Story”. Playing the wicked racist Madame Delphine LaLaurie in the third season, Bates proved her prowess, once again, at striking fear into the hearts of audiences everywhere. The actress has continued with the show and some say her finest work came in the season titled “Roanoke” as the psychotic Butcher.
#8 Dee Wallace
I could literally hear some of you out there screaming, where is Dee? Of course Dee Wallace made the list! If Lin Shaye is the Godmother of Horror, then Wallace is its favorite aunt.
From her early appearances in The Stepford Wives and The Hills Have Eyes to here more recent work in The Lords of Salem and All Hallow’s Eve, Wallace has proven time and again that she has what it takes to take the lead or blend into an ensemble beautifully. The actress continues to make appearances at conventions all over the world and she adores her fans. She might be one of the greatest envoys we have to the rest of the film world. Wallace currently has 10 upcoming projects listed on IMDb, so it’s a slow year for her.
HONORABLE MENTION: Jill Larson
Jill Larson has been in ONE horror film, but what a film it was and she played the hell out of the title role. Known mostly for her time on ABC’s “All My Children”, it was, to say the least, a departure when she took on The Taking of Deborah Logan. In fact, Ms. Larson told iHorror in an exclusive interview that she had never even seen a horror film before making Deborah Logan. Seeing her in the film, one would think she was a seasoned pro in the genre and it’s entirely possible that she could take the lead any time she put her mind to it.