Long before the term “scream queen” was a staple of horror, these five legends of cinema brought their star power and A-game to the genre.
Jamie Lee Curtis owes her Scream Queen status to several classic film actresses that were making their marks in horror long before she was born. Most of the incredible women on my list started their careers in other genres.
Some of them you will recognize as Academy Award winners while others came to fame later on in their lives on television. Whatever productions these ladies appeared in were memorable.
1. Shelley Winters
Ms. Winters was a two-time Academy Award winner in the Best Supporting Actress category for her roles in The Diary of Anne Frank and A Patch of Blue. She started her impressive career doing summer stock before transitioning to the Broadway stage.
Like all thespians of her age, she made the move to Los Angeles receiving excellent reviews for her performance as a waitress who ends up being a victim of a crazed strangler in the 1947 film, A Double Life, directed by George Cukor.
Movie lovers remember Shelley as the pregnant girlfriend of Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun or as Lolita’s mother in Kubrick’s Lolita. However, the role that probably garnered her the most recognition would be in The Poseidon Adventure as the overweight, former champion swimmer, Belle Rosen who ends up sacrificing her life to save a fellow passenger.
In the horror genre, Winters found herself working with Roman Polanski in the superb paranoia-inducing The Tenant.
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? — a re-imagining of Hansel & Gretel set in London during the 1920s — was a tour de force role for the actress who played a demented widow who imprisons children in her mansion.
She also made several creepy made for TV movies in the ’70s, including The Devil’s Daughter and The Initiation of Sarah. Ms. Winters even appeared in a Giallo during this time called Stridulum (a.k.a. The Visitor) alongside Mel Ferrer, Glenn Ford, and Lance Henriksen.
Not only is Winters a joy to watch in WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO?, but it’s also a holiday horror treat perfect for this time of year; watch it on Paramount Plus or rent on Amazon.
2. Yvonne De Carlo
Before Ms. De Carlo lived on 1313 Mockingbird Lane as matriarch Lily Munster in the hit comedy/horror series of the ’60s, The Munsters, she was the star of countless westerns appearing opposite Howard Duff, John Wayne, Charles Coburn, Van Heflin, Joel McCrea, and Sterling Hayden.
It was during this prolific period that she also acted in Cecil B. DeMille’s religious opus, The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston as Moses and countless other marquee names. In the ’70s, she started the second phase of her career as an actress in horror movies.
The Intruder, Satan’s Cheerleaders, and the terrifying The Silent Scream changed her persona from an alluring leading lady to a stern matron capable of dispatching people in gruesome fashions without batting an eye.
Her appearance in American Gothic (opposite another titan of the stage and screen, Rod Steiger) saw the actress playing Ma, the head of a homicidal family. She followed that production up with Cellar Dweller, a scare-fest about a cartoonist who unwittingly unleashes a demonic force while creating one of her comic books.
You’ll have to turn to YouTube to watch AMERICAN GOTHIC, and while the film quality may be somewhat lacking, the performances are top tier.
3. Elsa Lanchester
An unconventional theater thespian, Elsa began her career in the 1920s where she appeared in productions in London’s West End as well as her own nightclub, the Cave of Harmony. It was while she and her partner, Harold Scott, were performing plays by Pirandello and Chekhov that she met director James Whale.
Perhaps the most famous role she ever portrayed was in Whale’s film, The Bride of Frankenstein, where the young actress