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Queen of Scream: Janet Leigh’s Slasher Legacy

by Manic Exorcism

Scream queens and horror are inseparable. Since the earliest days of horror cinema, the two have gone hand-in-hand. It seems monsters and madmen just can’t help themselves, and are drawn to the leading beauties who must face extraordinary dangers and hope to survive the grisly odds stacked against them.

When you think about it, the equation of a successful horror franchise is built on scares. Surely that should go without saying, right? Yet, what is it that makes a movie scare us? You know what I mean. The movies that stick with you long after you’ve watched them.

It’s more than “BOO! Har, har I got you,” moments. Those scares are cheap and too easy. I wouldn’t say it’s all up to gore either, although gross-out effects can twist our stomachs into knots, they end up cold at the end of the day if there’s no substance behind them.

So what is it that makes us remember a horror movie, and not just simply remember it, but discuss it, praise it, and (if we’re very lucky) lose our minds over it?

(Image courtesy iheartingrid)

Characters. It cannot be stressed enough that characters build or break a horror movie. It’s this simple: if we don’t give a damn about the characters in the movies why should we be bothered when they are in danger? It’s when we care about our leads that we suddenly find ourselves sharing their anxiety.

You remember how you felt when little Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) saw the Shape staring at her through the window? Michael Myers (Nick Castle) was in broad daylight without a care in the world. Staring. Stalking. Waiting with hellish patience. We shared Laurie’s concern.

Or when Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) was trapped inside her own house, unable to escape or convince her own parents that Freddy Kruger had come to tear her inside out.

(Image courtesy of Static Mass Emporium)

There’s also the lone survivor of Camp Blood, Alice (Adrienne King). With all of her friends dead, we see our beautiful hero safe in a canoe out on Crystal Lake. We share a breath of relief when the police show up, thinking that she was saved. Yet, when Jason (Ari Lehman) burst out of the tranquil waters, we were as shocked as she was.

We share in both the angst and triumph of our leading ladies, and when it comes to horror we have lots of beautiful talent to applaud. However, of all our favorite Scream Queens, we cannot deny the enormity of one woman’s impact on the entire genre.

I’m talking about Golden Globe Award-winner Janet Leigh. Her career was spotlighted with award winning co-stars such as Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra and Paul Newman. An impressive resume to be sure, but we all know who we best associate her with, Alfred Hitchcock.

(Image courtesy of Vanity Fair)

In 1960 Psycho broke down the door of several taboos and introduced mainstream audiences to what would become the accepted modern guidelines of slasher films.

To be perfectly fair, when it comes to this groundbreaking movie, audiences remember two names above all others — Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. That’s not to say that others didn’t shine in their performances, but Leigh and Perkins couldn’t help but steal the show.

I came to see Psycho much later in life. I was in my late 20s and a local theater was showing the movie as part of an Alfred Hitchcock festival. What a platinum opportunity to finally see this classic! I sat down in a dimly lit theater and there was not one seat empty. The house was packed with energy.

I loved how unconventional the movie was. Janet Leigh, our lead hero, played a bad girl, which still to this day is kind of surprising. But she does so with such smooth class and undeniable style, we can’t help but root for her.

There is something deeply unsettling about her scene with Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates, something darkly ethereal that we all sense happening between the two. In that humble dinner scene, we see through the eyes of a predator who is summing up his prey.

(Image courtesy of NewNowNext)

Of course these are things we all know already. Nothing new being expressed here, I admit that, but even though I knew the story and already knew what to expect, the chemistry in their shared performance still pulled me in as if I hadn’t a clue what I was in for.

We want her to get out of there. We know what’s going to happen as soon as she returns to her motel room. Sure she seems safe enough, but we all know better. The shower is turned on, she steps in and all we can hear is the steady sound of running water. We watch helplessly as a tall, thin shape invades her personal space.

When the shower curtain was pulled back and the glistening knife was raised the audience screamed. And could not stop screaming. The viewers were as helpless as Leigh’s character, and shrieked along with her as popcorn flew skyward.

As the blood washed down the drain and I looked into the eyes of Leigh’s lifeless character it struck me and struck hard. It still works, I thought. After all these years (decades) the formula of those two actors in the hands of a legendary director still worked its black magic over audiences to terrify and thrill us all.

(Image courtesy of FictionFan Book Review)

The combined talents of Perkins, Hitchcock and Leigh solidified the newly awoken slasher genre. A genre her daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, would further impact in a little movie called Halloween.

Let’s be brutally honest here. Without Janet Leigh’s breathtaking performance in Psycho, the movie would not have worked. After all, who else could Norman Bates hack to death had she been void of the script? Sure someone else could have attempted the role, but oh my God as the remake proved, Leigh’s performance is irreplaceable.

Am I saying she carried the movie? Yes, I am. Even after her character’s shocking murder her presence is still evident throughout the rest of the film. Leigh managed to take one movie and create unparalleled horror history, a performance for which we owe her a lifetime of gratitude.

Could it be that without her role in Hitchcock’s Psycho the slasher genre would not have happened until much later, if at all? In two ways possibly yes.

Firstly, Psycho gave audiences a taste for knife-wielding madmen who stalked unknowing beauties when they were at their most vulnerable.

Secondly, Leigh literally gave birth to an idol. Years after Psycho, in John Carpenter’s Halloween, Curtis picked up her mother’s royal mantle and went on to make a horror legacy of her own. One that has impacted the life of every horror fan since.

Mother and daughter would appear together on screen in yet another horror classic – and my personal favorite ghost-related movie – The Fog. An eerie revenge tale about the horrors that lurk in the ethereal depths of the unseen.

(Image courtesy of film.org)

We would see the mother and daughter team up one more time with the twentieth anniversary of Halloween, H20. Once again Jamie Lee Curtis reprised her iconic role as Laurie Strode, but this time not as a babysitter, but as a mother fighting for the life of her own child against her murderous brother, Michael Myers.

It would seem horror ran deep in their family both on and off screen. These incredible ladies just can’t help but make us scream, and we love them for it.

Janet Leigh would have been 90 years old this year. Her contribution to horror is priceless. Sadly, she passed away at the age of 77, joining the honored ranks of such scream queens as Fay Wray, but her legacy shall outlive us all.

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