Sunday, May 13, 2007

Death Comes for the Blonde

The previous post piqued my interest in another movie trend: the dead blonde. If African-American characters die, then the slutty blonde girl with the golden locks should know her number is up. More often than not, it's the brunette who saves the day — or at the very least, her own ass. To cite the be-all, end-all of modern day horror films, Neve Campbell's character in Scream outlives both Drew Barrymore's and Rose McGowan's. Barrymore's Jiffy Popping cutie is clearly wearing a wig, while McGowan — famous for her beautiful dark hair — bleached her tresses for the part of Campbell's bosom buddy.

Indeed, blondes often figure largely into thrillers, slashers, and the like — if not at the foil to the grounded "final girl"" protagonist, then as ill-fated beauty whose death launches the plot. I thought I'd look as some famous dead blondes and examine why they weren't able to stick around for the sequel and what importance they played in their respective works' plots.

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)
Psycho, 1960

Of course, we have to start with Psycho's Marion Crane, perhaps the most iconic horror movie victim ever. Janet Leigh plays Marion with a certain flightiness and irresponsibility that would become a trait of future dead blondes. Yes, she's clever enough to steal money, but did she really think she'd get away with it? Marion pays for her sins by checking into the Bates Motel, where proprietor Norman makes quick work of her. Illogical though Marion's plans may have been, they are the impetus for Psycho, including the latter half of the film, in which Marion's sister Lila sets out to figure out what horrible fate might have befallen her Marion. Lila is also blonde, but she doesn't act it, as far as genre stereotypes dictate. Whereas Marion never makes it home, Lila makes it out of the Bates Motel alive. It bears mention that in the 1998 remake of Psycho, a very blonde Anne Heche played the role of Marion. Director Gus Van Sant, however, hired a redhead, Julianne Moore, to play Lila, to presumably further contrast the two sisters.

Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak)
Vertigo, 1958

Psycho may be the most famous of Hitchcock's cuts — and the most precedent-setting as far as later genre works go — but Vertigo's leading lady is also interesting when examined in terms of fate and hair color. Introduced in the first part of the film as the platinum blonde Madeleine Elster, Kim Novak's character is the kind of femme fatale you see in many noir pictures: perfectly beautiful and impenetrably mysterious. Partway into the film, Madeleine gets tossed off the roof of the fictional bell tower at the San Juan Bautista Mission. Novak re-appears some time late as Judy Barton, a dead ringer for Madeleine, only now with brown hair. Unlike Madeleine, Judy is warm and approachable, though the film's big twist sends her plummeting off the same bell tower. The difference: When Judy dies, it's her own fault, whereas Madeleine's kersplat happens as the result of foul play.

Lynda Van Der Klok (P.J. Soles)
Halloween, 1978

Jumping ahead a bit, I'd like to point out Lynda, a character perhaps best known as the "dumb slutty girl" from Halloween. Lynda was one of the three girls stalked in the film, the most important of which was played by Jamie Lee Curtis, perhaps fulfilling her destiny as Janet Leigh's daughter. It's often cited that P.J. Soles landed the part based on her spot-on Valley Girl-esque pronunciation of the word "totally." I can think of no more fitting criteria than that for a part that would exemplify the dumb horror movie blonde. Director John Carpenter, however, has stated that Soles "captured the aura of a happy go lucky teenage girl in the 70's." (It seems appropriate, then, that Soles would go on to do films like Rock 'n' Roll High School.) Unlike the Hitchcock blondes, Lynda is less central to the main plot. She merely gets offed after having sex with her boyfriend. That's exactly how countless subsequent slashers would treat characters of similar coloring — hair and otherwise.

Alice (Adrienne King)
Friday the 13th, 1980

On the other hand, we also have Alice, the surname-deprived heroine from the first Friday the 13th film. With her blonde hair so clearly cropped into a Dorothy Hamill do, you'd think Alice would be first on the hit list. Not so. She outlasts the rest of the camp counselors — even a then-unknown Kevin Bacon. Actress Adrienne King even shows up for Friday the 13th, Part Two but only for a few brief seconds. Perhaps realizing the rule violation of blonde Alice's survival in the first movie, Alice is the first victim of the sequel. Five minutes in — ka-thunk. Ice pick to the head. I'd like to think that it's the Friday the 13th universe correcting itself.

Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee)
Twin Peaks, 1990

Laura's appearance on this list may seem inappropriate given that she is most famous for the television show Twin Peaks and not the prequel film, Fire Walk With Me. By the early 90s, however, the rules for horror movie survival had become so thoroughly embedded into popular culture that they bled into the often tamer world of TV.

Like Marion Crane, Laura's fame as a murder victim reached far — I'd argue to people that had little idea what Twin Peaks was actually about, save for some pretty dead girl. In that sense, Laura is perhaps the most important character on this list. Not only did her murder drive the show and the resulting film, but the notion of an expansive work completely devoted to such a mystery helped to create others, including The X-Files, Lost, Veronica Mars and Desperate Housewives — the last of which nearly featured Sheryl Lee, who played Laura, as the voice of the dead housewife who narrates the show. It's also worth noting that while Laura spent the duration of the Twin Peaks series buried, Lee also played Maddie Ferguson, Laura's sweet-natured look-alike cousin. Maddie's name comes from a blending of the two leads in Vertigo: Madeleine Elster and Scotty Ferguson. Brunette Maddie has a better head on her shoulders than her cousin, but in the world of Twin Peaks, that's not enough to save her. She dies too, in what is arguably the most disturbing on-screen death of a TV character ever.

Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore)
Scream, 1996

Recalling the Marion Crane figure more directly that any subsequent doomed blonde, Drew Barrymore's appearance in Scream made for another iconic death — though one far gorier than anything Hitchcock ever thought about splashing onscreen. ("Her insides on the outside," as Rose McGowan's soon-to-be-dead Tatum puts it.) Casey is too na├»ve to realize she's in mortal danger before it's too late. But what ultimately seals her fate is her lack of knowledge of horror movies. Had she correctly answered the killer's question about the name of the killer in Friday the 13th, she may have had an additional chance to escape. Had she seen enough horror films to know that spending the night alone in a big house in the country was a bad plan, she would have high-tailed it to the mall. Just as Psycho's producers tried to hush audiences up about the fact that the film's big star, Janet Leigh, dies halfway in, Barrymore received equal billing with star Neve Campbell in all promotion for the film. (Of course, few people then knew who Campbell was in 1996.) But anyone who, like me, wandered into the theater without a clue about what the movie was about would have been shocked to see the big name dispatched so quickly and so violently.

Buffy Summers, Helen Shivers and Cici Cooper (Sarah Michelle Gellar)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream 2, all 1997

I'm no fanboy, but I feel Sarah Michelle Gellar rightly deserved the three spots I'm giving her. Writer Joss Whedon dreamed up the title character in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series by re-envisioning the hapless horror movie blonde — "the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed." In this instance, the monster follows the blonde and ends up getting his ass kicked. And for seven seasons, Buffy bucked tradition and successfully fought the baddies, despite her diminutive statue and blonde hair.

It's curious, then, that Gellar's film career did not allow for such freedoms. In I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream 2, her characters died. In the former, beauty queen Helen Shivers meets the wrong end of a fish hook in exactly the kind of dark alley that Whedon imagined Buffy surviving. And in Scream 2, Gellar plays Cici Cooper — the name for a cheerful sorority girl if there ever was one. In perfect accordance with a description of horror movie bimbos from the first Scream, Cici "goes running up the stairs when she should be going out the front door." It's an interesting contrast — perhaps more indicative of the roles available to an actress on a TV show about vampires than anything else, but interesting nonetheless.

Lily Kane (Amanda Seyfried) and Emily (Emilie de Ravin)
Veronica Mars, 2004 and Brick, 2005

The next-to-last slot in this roster of blondes will be shared by two characters played by two actresses in two ostensibly unrelated works: Lily Kane from the TV series Veronica Mars and Emily from the film Brick. Lily and Emily were splattered into popular culture around the same time. Their deaths function in virtually identical ways in that the major story arc of their respective work focuses on finding out who killed them. But unlike Laura Palmer, Lily and Emily's respective mysteries are designed with closure in mind. (Twin Peaks, however, was initially conceived of as always being about Laura's murder but the mystery itself never being solved.)

Lily — played by Amanda Seyfried, previously best known for playing the blonde of blondes in Mean Girls — has been dead for a year when Veronica Mars began, and though the first season's big question mark hangs around the identity of her killer, the show managed to move on ahead after the title character revealed him. Brick, as some reviewers have noted, functions like a tighter version of Twin Peak's first half, with the mystery of who killed Emily — and notably left her dead body by the water, just like Laura's was — being neatly solved within the confines of the two-hour running time. Played by Emilie de Ravin — who counts Roswell, Lost and The Hills Have Eyes among her credits and seems to be the go-to girl for projects with a horror or sci-fi bent — Emily is glimpsed mostly in flashbacks, though which the viewer gets a sense of the drug-fueled depravity that marked her final days. Again, like Laura. In the end, both works testify to a generation of writers and filmmakers who are conscious of how important Laura Palmer is but also of how not to follow directly in David Lynch's footsteps and give the viewers the resolution they need.

Pam (Rose McGowan)
Grindhouse, 2007

Pam — a minor face in a Grindhouse's Death Proof segment, which itself was chock-full of potential victims —stands out to me because she typifies the fate of the horror movie blonde by being the dying after making some critically bad life decisions — namely letting the killer drive her home from a bar. What strikes me most, however, about Rose's turn as Pam is how clearly the character was crafted to contrast against McGowan's role in the film's Planet Terror segment. Whereas that Rose role — the gun-legged raven-haired stripper, Cherry Darling — puts the actress in the role of hero, the blonde-haired counterpart in Death Proof is literally an accident waiting to happen. Jungle Julia even calls Pam a "bleached blonde bitch," which calls attention both to the hair switch — from MacGowan's natural color to a dye job — and the fact that she's marked for death. For me, Pam is proof that these rules are clearly understood by filmmakers, even ones with the creativity needed to try and break them.

Daring as today's cutting-edgers might be, they're still sending these poor dumb blondes to their deaths.


  1. Anonymous11:42 PM

    Hitchcock and movie-related:
    You should REALLY watch Slavoj Zizek's Pervert's Guide to Cinema. It's available on Google Video.

  2. This entry almost asks for an equally lengthy comment, but I'll try to keep it to a few points. First, in Vertigo it's Madeleine Elster, not Astor, and she isn't tossed to her death--she's already dead and Gavin Elster just drops her body off the tower to cover things up.

    As you note by bringing up Psycho, too, Hitch had a thing for blondes, most of whom don't have to die, but still often get threatened with death, from Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps through Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder to Tippi Hedren in the Birds. so maybe you can blame the blonde thing on him. (Of course, Hitch might just be one-upping Welles' motel room torture of Janet Leigh, proving he has a tougher touch of evil--and it's not a horror film, but Welles made his ex-wife Rita Hayworth be a blond over Columbia's objections in The Lady from Shanghai--only to leave her dead in the hall of mirrors....)

    All of this discussion ignores blonde Shelley Winters, who for years was Hollywood's go-to gal for dead blondeness: the original Great Gatsby, just winged in Winchester 73, mashed with an oar in A Place in the Sun, the most lovely of underwater dead bodies in Night of the Hunter, offed by Humbert Humbert in Lolita, I assume she gets it in Bloody Mama, the famous death in Poseidon Adventure, there must be others...

    So I blame it all on Shelley.

  3. Elster, Astor. Damn. That’s what I get for trusting the Wikipedia, though I believe it was the entry for Maddie Ferguson that gave me the erroneous name. I actually did know that Novak’s blonde version was already dead when she got tossed, but I was kind of tiptoeing around the subject so as not to spoil too much of Vertigo. It’s my favorite Hitchcock film, but a lot of my peers haven’t actually seen it. I figured dropping the bomb of Novak showing up in the second half would be spoilery enough, so I figured I’d let the big reveal slide for the moment. In retrospect, that may not make too much sense, seeing as how I let it slip that Maddie gets it in Twin Peaks, but a lot more of my cult TV nerd friends have seen Twin Peaks and already knew her sad fate.

  4. I guess I need one huge SPOILER ALERT at the beginning of my comment. Now no one will have to see any Shelley Winters movie.

    Vertigo is my favorite film, period, so I get picky about it. And if you haven't seen Night of the Hunter, see that, as it's in my Top 5.

  5. Added to Netflix queue.

    Watching Vertigo is a big deal for kids who grow up in my hometown, Hollister, since Vertigo was partly filmed in San Juan, our neighbor burg. That makes Vertigo the only good movie ever filmed anywhere near where I grew up, phony bell tower or not.

    You may be interested to know that my mom is serving on a board that is planning a big event for the 50th anniversary of Vertigo's release at the SJB Mission. I think Kim Novak will be there.