Roger Ebert said that horror is the only film genre that’s its own star. In regards to mainstream moviegoing, this is basically true; no matter what CW fixtures are headlining, the thrills are what the customers have paid to get. But it’s the hardcore fans, those hunters of all obscure cinema treasures they can find, who help elevate the most unlikely figures to prominence. Screaming in High Heels focuses on three such people, a trio of actresses who reaped the benefits and paid the professional price for becoming synonymous with the kind of movies they can only show their families in edited, twenty-minute chunks.
The time: the early 1980s. The place: the independent film market. The institution of the drive-in is fading fast, forcing budding directors to seek other venues through which they can build careers on making stuff that most definitely won’t be coming to a theater near you. Cue the rise of video, opening the doors for a whole new audience of sleaze-seekers to enjoy the most lurid pictures in the privacy of their own living rooms. This, of course, means wrangling in a new breed of talent that’s not so skittish about appearing nude and running from goofy rubber monstrosities, which is where Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens, and Michelle Bauer come in. In everything from Dr. Alien and Evil Toons to Nightmare Sisters and Pumpkinhead 2, the ladies made their names on one schlocky treat after another — a move that would earn them an audience as much as it hindered their careers.
Contrary to its subtitle, Screaming in High Heels isn’t really a chronicle of the “scream queen” mantle throughout the ages. It’s a great idea for a different documentary, considering how Heels rather brazenly rejects the notion that Janet Leigh or Jamie Lee Curtis were as worthy of carrying on the torch as its own three subjects. But that’s not to say that Quigley, Stevens, and Bauer were kicking it on Easy Street, as director Jason Paul Collum shows us that acting alongside Eddie Deezen was the least of their worries. Just because Bob American passed on Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, that doesn’t mean there weren’t dozens of conventions to attend and hundreds of snapshots of their own bare breasts to autograph.
Screaming in High Heels is more of a family reunion than a documentary. In addition to the girls, people they worked with (like Fred Olen Ray and David DeCoteau) pitch in and discuss days of one-week shooting schedules and 1-900 hotlines gone by. Plenty of laughs are also shared, mostly over comparing where the ladies began in their lives (Stevens holds a degree in Marine Biology) versus ending up together in the likes of Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama. But they also talk about their inability to find work outside the genre, being so pigeonholed into doing lowbrow bright flicks that some were even briefly driven away from the profession. Still, the overall tone is an affectionate one, and despite the occasional creepy fan and professional setbacks, you get the idea that these gals wouldn’t trade their reign as B-movie queens for the world.
Screaming in High Heels gave me a whole new respect for not only women but everyone involved in the sort of Z-grade horror that, even as I’ve grown more open towards the genre, I’ve mostly avoided. The anecdotes shared by Quigley, Bauer, and Stevens convince you that not only is there a market for their brand of cinema cheese, it’s all part of the same, extended, messed-up family. Screaming in High Heels proves that it takes a tough cookie to make a movie that gets you to toss your cookies.