Scream Queen: Amber Heard and Contemporary Horror Stardom

And Soon the Darkness

Surviving the trappings of the horror film – both on screen and off – is an industrial rite of passage that most actresses must brave in order to establish themselves within the Hollywood mainstream, with some leading ladies successfully breaking out of the genre after a few appearances, while others remain associated with roles that require them to run around in a state of distress. Although the term ‘scream queen’ now exists in tandem with the ‘slasher’ sub-genre that was independently instigated by the surprise success of John Carpenter’s classic Halloween (1978) and industrially validated by the saturation release of Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), it actually refers to roles that have been regularly undertaken by actresses over the course of a century of commercial cinema. Gloria Stewart in The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933), Fay Wray in The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and King Kong (1933), and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Strait-Jacket (1964) are three classic examples of actresses who have exhibited an independent streak while shrieking their way to stardom through genre films.

Of course, the combination of the enduring popularity of the horror genre and the increase in production due to the evolution of ancillary markets (VHS, DVD, VOD) has caused a proliferation of scream queens as actresses can make their claims for the title by starring in films that have been made at varying industrial levels and may even have bypassed the big screen altogether. The current crop of contenders for the scream queen crown includes Scout Taylor-Compton and Danielle Harris of the ‘reimagined’ Halloween (2007), but despite the benefits that come with the brand value of an established franchise, they have been unable to compete with Amber Heard of Jonathon Levine’s comparatively little-seen All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006). Heard is truly a star of the internet age in that she has achieved a considerable level of fame despite the fact that none of the films in which she has starred have made much of an impression at the box office.

As the success that Heard has achieved within the horror genre has led to comparisons with Jamie Lee Curtis, it can be argued that scream queen status is no longer entirely linked to ticket sales; Halloween was a box office phenomenon with a gross of $47 million, or $124 million when adjusted for ticket price inflation, while All the Boys Love Mandy Lane achieved more traffic on internet forums than at theatrical venues due to distribution difficulties. After being shown at such notable festivals as London FrightFest and South by Southwest, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane was picked up for distribution by the Weinstein Company, who planned to release the film through their genre division Dimension in 2007. An unusual teen slasher with an eerie atmosphere reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and a smart final reel twist, it looked set for a profitable run. Unfortunately, a string of commercial misfires that included the expensive exploitation homage Grindhouse (2007) and the Stephen King adaptation The Mist (2007) led the Weinstein Company to postpone the release of Levine’s film, then to sell the rights to fledgling distributor Senator as a means of swiftly recovering recent losses. Ironically, the financial failure of another Senator acquisition featuring Heard – Gregor Jordan’s poorly received Brett Easton Ellis adaptation The Informers (2008) – forced the company to file for bankruptcy, leaving All the Boys Love Mandy Lane on the shelf indefinitely. The film received a theatrical release in the United Kingdom through Optimum and was sent straight to DVD in other territories, but remains unseen beyond the festival circuit in the all-important North American market, with Levine’s second feature – the dark teen comedy The Wackness (2008) – entering general release while his directorial debut was in distribution limbo. With a worldwide gross of $1.7 million against a production cost of $750,000, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane has been a modest money-spinner within the realms of low-budget horror, but its lack of distribution in the United States has led it to be assigned the status of ‘buried treasure’ among American genre aficionados. Heard has since landed ‘final girl’ parts in And Soon the Darkness (2010) and The Ward (2010), while taking on proactive girlfriend duties in The Stepfather (2009) and turning up as a less-than-final girl in Zombieland (2009).

The four genre films in which Heard has appeared since All the Boys Love Mandy Lane serve to show that subtle diversity is perhaps more beneficial to the long-term career prospects of the contemporary scream queen than a box-office juggernaut. Curtis followed Halloween with such similar independent productions as Terror Train (1980) and Prom Night (1980), while 1990s scream queens Neve Campbell and Jennifer Love Hewitt became stranded in the sub-standard sequel zone after their respective success with Scream (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). Heard’s biggest hit within the genre is the knowingly comedic studio production Zombieland, which grossed $75 million, although her contribution is essentially a glorified cameo (albeit a most memorable one) as the infected neighbour of reluctant zombie slayer Jesse Eisenberg. She has more screen time in The Stepfather, which is the kind of product that is typical of studio sub-division Screen Gems in that it is a remake of the 1987 thriller of the same name that tones down the subversive suburban satire of the original in favour of teen-friendly thrills.

And Soon the Darkness is another remake, although this one was independently financed, with the source material stemming from the pre-VHS era: it updates a 1970 thriller by Robert Fuest about an abduction that occurs during a cycling holiday. The more adult tone of And Soon the Darkness is maintained by The Ward, which finds Heard working with a genuine genre auteur in John Carpenter for a psychological thriller that takes place in a mental institution. The Stepfather, And Soon the Darkness and The Ward all cast Heard as a strong-willed young woman in a perilous situation, but each film exists at a different industrial level and appeals to a different aspect of the horror market, from teen audience to a more adult market and to ardent fans of an acknowledged genre master. Heard will next take a trip into action-adventure territory as an assertive waitress alongside Nicolas Cage’s vengeance-seeking motorist in Drive Angry 3D (2011), which should further expand her audience. It remains to be seen if Heard can achieve dramatic legitimacy beyond genre circles but it is evident that, despite the stifled release, Heard’s performance in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane was anything but a silent scream.

And Soon the Darkness is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on March 7 by Optimum Home Entertainment.

John Berra