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October 16, 2011

The Mike's True Heroes of Horror (5/10) - Jamie Lee Curtis

This choice bugs the hell out of me.  That annoyance has nothing to do with the choice, which I'm 100% certain represents one of my favorite people in horror, but it comes because - sadly - this is the only woman who made their way onto my list.  As someone who stands in support of women in horror - as well as women in all other sane pursuits - I am not happy about this.  But, my goal was to put the best ten on the field, and I think I did that.  So, I'm annoyed with myself, but it has nothing to do with our choice....
Jamie Lee Curtis
Who is Jamie Lee Curtis?
Born into Hollywood royalty - she's the daughter of Tony Curtis and Psycho's own Janet Leigh - Jamie Lee Curtis grew up around the movies in Beverly Hills and Los Angeles before heading off to a preparatory school in Connecticut during her teenage years.  She returned home in 1976 to attend The University of the Pacific, but left school after a year to do what most young Californian girls want to do - become an actress.
Jamie Lee made her film debut in 1978 - we'll talk about that film a bunch today - and has stayed busy on screen ever since, despite personal struggles.  Her early horror career is what brings her to this list, but she developed a reputation for her comic skills, and has received numerous awards/nominations for fun stuff like Trading Places, A Fish Called Wanda, and True Lies.  She's now semi-retired, is in recovery regarding alcohol problems that plagued much of her career, and stays active online as a blogger for The Huffington Post. She's also written and published several children's books.
Jamie Lee is most known for....
Being the Alpha "scream queen".  Though many actresses are given that title - these days young actresses who are willing to wear low cut tops get a coupon in the mail, I think - it was Curtis' character in Halloween that created the template for horror movies that would follow.  She followed up that role by riding that train of success through several other films, and also appeared in three more Halloween sequels as Laurie.
Other Horror Hits....
 The template I mentioned didn't come from just Halloween, as Curtis would dive into the horror scene a few more times in the first years of the 1980s.  She continued to be the survivor girl in slasher films Prom Night and Terror Train, and picked up a couple of meatier horror roles in John Carpenter's The Fog and Richard Franklin's Roadgames. She also reprised her role as Laurie in 1981's Halloween II, proving her strength against Michael Myers once more.

Curtis would return to the genre with moderate success later in her career.  She headlined the psychosexual thriller Mother's Boys in the early '90s (which was a real dud, BTW), and made a move back to Halloween land for the final two films in the series (I refuse to acknowledge you, Robert Zed-word) - 1998's Halloween H20 and 2002's Halloween: Resurrection.
So, why's Jamie Lee Curtis here?
I've tipped my hand a few times already, so you may already know the answer to that question.  But it's so much more complicated than you think.  I've said that Jamie Lee was the queen of scream queens, but seeing why that's the case takes some work. 

When you really watch Halloween and start looking at the parts of the film - something I've done dozens of times with my favorite horror film - you start to see that there's really nothing special about Laurie Strode.   She is a plain-Jane, run-of-the-mill, average teenage good girl.  It was nothing new or shocking, it was simply what the movie needed.  So why's Jamie Lee so important, if all she did was act like a normal girl?
With a big knife.
If you look back at horror movies that came before Halloween, there weren't a bunch of characters like this.  For starters, horror movies made before the 1970s were primarily period pieces or monster tales, the type of stories that were anchored around a strong male lead and a female in distress.  There were outliers - like Curtis' mother in Psycho - but it's really a falsehood to claim Janet Leigh was a "scream queen" in Psycho.  Her character was a criminal, a fornicator, and (most importantly) a victim - three things that don't really apply to Laurie Strode. (Although, Laurie technically was a criminal when she smoked that wacky weed with Annie - but I guess we'll give her a pass on that one.)

Other movies that preceded it had final girls - The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Black Christmas spring to mind - but they didn't present themselves like Jamie Lee did.  Large portions of Carpenter's film are specifically designed to make us realize why Laurie Strode is fated to be opposite the boogeyman that's represented by Michael Myers.  Her virtues aren't just there to make us feels she's innocent, they exist to counteract the humanized evil that is represented elsewhere in the film. 

Most of what I'm talking about is on the writers, but it was still up to Curtis to represent what the film had in mind when it came down to humanity vs. evil.  And, despite the fact that Curtis was actually more like the other female characters in the film, she stepped in and became that pure "girl scout" character without a flaw.
And then she proved it, again and again, despite some awful haircuts and wardrobes.  Though Prom Night and Terror Train are certainly lesser films than Halloween, it was Curtis' ability to make us feel for the lead character that carried them to an audience.  Perhaps her performances in these films and Halloween II were re-runs of her work in Halloween, but I like to look at them like a science experiment.  Halloween was the first test, these roles were her way of turning theory into common practice.  (You'll notice I didn't mention Fog and Roadgames here.  I don't think her roles in these two films fit the final girl template that she pioneered, so I left them out - even if they are awesome.)

Whether it's completely her doing or not, Jamie Lee Curtis represents a shift in horror, the time when it went from what it once was to what it is today.  She fell into the perfect situation in Halloween - where she originally auditioned for PJ Soles' role - and she spent the next five years becoming the face of American horror for a new generation of horror fans.  It's a storybook case of being in the right place at the right time, and it worked out perfectly for both Jamie Lee Curtis and the horror viewer.
 I think it sounds like I'm trashing on Jamie Lee a little, which is not my intent.  I've never seen her in a movie where she wasn't one of the best things about it.  But her other talents - like her comic turn in the flawless A Fish Called Wanda - are so diverse that some of her horror roles seem like small potatoes in comparison.  That might be a testament to how talented Curtis is in general, but I don't mean to take anything away from away from what she did in the strong horror performances that kickstarted her career.  They made her one of the true icons of horror, and that's not a bad thing to be.

1 comment:

James Gracey said...

Cool post! I'll pretty much watch anything with Jamie Lee Curtis in it (even shit like True Lies and, erm, Virus) - though obviously her earlier horror roles are my favourites; particularly Halloween and The Fog. Awful haircuts and wardrobes included!
She also provided an awfully underrated performance in Halloween H20.