Interview

Interview

Exclusive: We Chat With Original Scream Queen Brinke Stevens

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As a child of the 1980s, I raised myself on a steady diet of terrible zero-budget cable slasher flicks. I would scour the TV Guide to check out what was playing that night, and keep my fingers crossed that my parents would go to bed before my movie would start, so I could sneak into the living room and watch it (at a very, very low volume, lest it wake them.) Brinke Stevens, one of the three "original" scream queens (along with Linnea Quigley and Michelle Bauer) was a frequent star of these cheap little flicks. With over 150 titles to her credit, picking out even a handful of her most well-known credits is tough, but let's try. Slumber Party Massacre, Sorority Babes in the Slime Ball Bowl-a-Rama, and Haunting Fear all spring to mind. After over 30 years in the horror industry, she, Linnea, and Michelle finally have a documentary, Screaming in High Heels. We spoke to Brinke about her humble beginings as a PhD candidate, and her expansive career.

How are you?

I'm so tired. I'm leaving tomorrow morning for another film shoot and I saw the movie last week. I've got another job ahead in two weeks. I just got the script for that. It's just like overwhelming. I haven't been this popular in 20 years.

What do you think the reason is behind that?

For one thing, there is an 80s revival that seems to be going on right now, where suddenly the nostalgia is popular again. The films that we [Linnea Quigley and Michelle Bauer] made were mostly horror comedies. A lot of people were young when they watched our films. They grew up loving us, we were their first crushes. They have a very fond remembrance of these movies. It was kind of a community thing where they would watch up all night and talk about it.

Besides the 80's revival where suddenly those movies are popular again, the fact is though, a lot of those young people grew up to be filmmakers. They all want to work with their idols. I'm working with a whole new generation right now like Chris Olen Ray, the son of Fred Olen Ray who made many movies in the 80s and 90s. The recession seems to be winding down where for many years recently, it was very weak. People just weren't making movies. Suddenly, this year, I have done 10 films. There was one year, I think it was 2008, where I worked one day on one movie. It was terrible. Now, people are feeling that passion to make films and willing to invest their money again.

I must admit that I was one of those kids who grew up watching your guys' movies.

You're so sweet. We don't have that many females fans.

I imagine so and I think it kind of weirded my parents out a little bit just … The fact that I was 10 years old and totally obsessed with horror movies. They never quite got used to it, and I have to say when I first started working for FEARnet, I was so excited to go them and say, "See? All of those slasher movies I watched, they're paying off."

Exactly. My parents didn't get it either. I would be telling them about my latest gruesome death and they'd look at me horrified and say, "Really, you like that stuff?" I'm like, "Yeah, I do. It's so exciting."

You didn't really set out to become a "scream queen," or I guess at that time a "horror movie actress," did you?

No. A lot of the girls came to Los Angeles from other places with the intention of becoming actresses. I had grown up in San Diego and was in the PhD program at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Then, that career ended because of budget cutbacks. I left science with a Master's Degree and married my college sweetheart, Dave Stevens, who's a rather famous graphic artist and came to Los Angeles in 1980, thinking that I would find a science job.

Of course, Los Angeles is completely paved over. There is no biology here anywhere. Then one day, I walked past a casting office. I didn't realize what it was. I lingered at the doorway and was looking at all these colorful movie posters on the walls. Suddenly, there's this guy sitting behind the desk who's been watching me. He says, "You, come here. Show me what you got." I’m like, "Oh, no, no, I’m in the wrong place." "No, come here, show me." I sat down and talked to him and he put me in a movie the next day. That was All the Marbles, and I was an extra. It was like $45.00 a day and lunch. I thought, "Well, I'll just do this until I can find a science job."

That never happened. I kept doing movies. I soon got a leading role in Slumber Party Massacre in 1981. I was watching myself in the theater on the big screen because back then, it was before video. I thought, "You know, I’m not too bad at this. I kind of have a natural ability to run and scream and look terrified." One thing led to another and I just quickly got so much work. In the mid-80s, when the video boom hit, there were so many independent studios, like Roger Corman, Charles Band, Fred Olen Ray, Dave DeCoteau who were cranking out these low budget movies. I just worked constantly.

You sound like the modern day Lana Turner.

Yes, I was discovered. I had no intention of ever becoming an actress. It was never a desire. I feel like my career chose me. I didn't choose it. There's a sense of destiny as well to it, like I was meant to walk this path.

Do you miss science at all?

I do miss it, and especially now, science is so relevant because of global warming, pollution in the oceans and things like that. I still stay in touch with my scientist friends and am very much aware of things that are going on, like 750 dolphins dead in the Gulf Coast and seals with lesions on their faces and flippers, apparently from radioactive fallout from Japan. I am very much still involved in that sense, more as a spectator, but I try to keep an eye on what's happening.

Now, you and Linnea and Michelle have this new documentary. It seems kind of surprising to me, actually, that it took this long for there to be a scream queens documentary. Does that surprise you at all?
Yes, it was good timing. Earlier, Jason Collum and I had co-produced a documentary called, Something to Scream About, which featured popular actresses like Julie Strain and Deborah Rochon. It didn't include Linnea Quigley and Michelle Bauer. Jason caught some flak from the fans about that. Then, he decided to do this love letter to our trio which became Screaming in High Heels.

It is very weird. You have a career resurgence 25 years later, because we're all in our 50s now. Suddenly, we're as popular as we were when we were young, which I attribute to horror fans themselves. They are so loyal and devoted.

It's true.

They've loved and supported us all these years. In their eyes, we haven't aged at all. They still want to watch us.

Absolutely. Again, speaking as a horror fan, I’m totally in the same boat. There's a certain magic about the 1980s and early 90s horror and slasher flicks.

When we were working in the late 80s, early 90s, it was just a blue collar job for us. We had to earn a living, we had to pay our rent. We didn't set out to be scream queens. The fans labeled us that. We just wanted to work and make money. We never got the recognition that we might have deserved at that time. Now, all these years later, it's happening.

We just did a Burbank store signing for Screaming in High Heels, which was very well attended. So many young people came up to us and told us that they grew up watching our movies, and how much we influenced them, how much fondness and nostalgia they have for that. I really didn't know, I didn't realize that we appealed to several generations. In fact, we inspired some of these young people to become filmmakers themselves. Finally, we're getting that acclaim that we never got when we were actually doing the work.

Did you feel any pressure or derision from people who kind of thought, "Oh, you're window dressing?”

It was definitely a male-dominated field. If you look at horror before our trio in the 80's, most horror stars were men. Early on, it was Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Then it became Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Then it was Jason, Freddy and that gang. We were really the first noticeable female horror stars apart from Jamie Lee Curtis. Those films were like action movies, because you're literally screaming in high heels. You were running from a serial killer, you're slipping in blood, you got machetes and knives and things like that. It was very difficult work, being a horror actress.

Did friends and family, did they kind of pull you aside and say, "What are you doing? You're running around without your shirt on, you're getting hacked up to bits!” Especially coming from a more “prestigious” science background.

Yes, my family was very disappointed that I didn't complete my doctorate degree. I had to edit my movies when I showed them to my parents. I would cut out all of my death scenes and my nudity. They wondered why the movies were only 38 minutes long. I told them it was a new trend.

I have to say that, despite the success that we gained as "scream queens," it very much typecast us. To where I had started out doing small parts in big movies like Psycho 3, Spinal Tap, Three Amigos, Naked Gun. I thought I would become and A-list actress very soon, but I did so many low budget horror movies that casting agents thought that was all I could do. They wouldn't send me out for the other roles, which is ridiculous because I can play a teacher, professor, a doctor, an aunt, a mother. I can play all those things which I've done in horror movies. They just somehow have this terrible prejudice. It was a real glass ceiling for us.

Looking back, do you regret then making those decisions that would typecast you?

I sometimes wonder if my life could have been different. I've loved all the work I've done except that it's low budget. Our salaries reflect those low budgets. I don't have a retirement plan. I don't have a pension, I don't have health insurance.

I'm thinking, "Maybe it would have been better if I'd stuck with science and created a little more retirement security for myself," but what a ride, what a rollercoaster. It was so much fun, going to conventions, meeting the fans, doing television appearances like Jenny Jones, Vicky Lawrence, Phil Donahue, being driven in limos and being flown all over the place. It was an amazing life. For a young woman, living in the 80s - which was an incredible time to be alive: great music, great fashion, great hairdos. I can't complain. I do think that it was my destiny to walk this path and become a "scream queen." It's certainly better being a big fish in a small pond than the other way around.

Are there any projects that stand out in your mind as particularly fun or that you're particularly proud of?

I loved working with Fred Olen Ray. He always gave me great roles. My favorite is Haunting Fear, where I play a wife who is being slowly driven insane by her husband. He eventually buries her alive in a coffin. She goes completely mad, claws her way out and kills him and his beautiful mistress. That was fun, I was in every scene. I got to work with Jan Michael Vincent and Karen Black. That was probably a highlight of my career.

This year I directed my first film. It's called Personal Demons. I also wrote the script. I've sold several screenplays so far, probably six or seven including Teenage Exorcist, but I wrote this script, I directed it, I starred in it. I co-starred with Linnea Quigley and Debbie Rochon on my very first day of shooting. I had very supportive old friends to help me out. That was a big thrill for me. I'm surprised I haven't directed before now. I just really haven't had that opportunity. I hope to do a lot more of it in the future.

Are you still close with Linnea and Michelle?

Yes, especially now. We've been so busy. We had a store signing for Cougar Cult, Dave DeCoteau's movie in February. Then we had a store signing together for Screaming in High Heels. We were cast in a movie recently called The Trouble with Barry. We play ourselves in the movie, which is quite an honor. Suddenly, we've been thrown together a lot. It's just like old times. It is so much fun. We were very special. I think there was something so unique about our trio. We were true originals and we became great friends.

Nowadays, do you see a new generation of "scream queens" coming about?

Tiffany Shepis and Deborah Rochon have found their own path in this industry and have become huge stars which is deeply deserved. They are both talented and wonderful ladies. Otherwise, I don't think that a young actress today could follow in our footsteps. Back in the 80's, there were so many independent studios that were churning out products. Those studios don't exist today. It would be very difficult for an actress to accumulate a body of work in such a short time and become so well known to the fans.

What do you define "scream queen" as?

In the beginning, a scream queen was a horror actress who screamed and died horribly. I added up the actual numbers. Out of 150 movies that I've done, I've only died 32 times and I've murdered other people in 20 movies. I've been a predator almost as often as I've been a victim.

Ingrid Pitt, the Hammer horror actress said, "There's no longevity in being a victim. You don't become the queen of horror unless you're a predator." I think that our roles as villains were equally important. I've been possessed by demons, I've turned into vampires, I've gone insane and killed people in a lot of interesting ways.

I imagine also, it's more fun to play those roles.

It is. Villains are always much more exciting. Otherwise, you just run and scream. However, victims can be fun too. I recently did Lizzie Borden's Revenge, playing Abby Borden, the stepmother, so I received some axe wounds. That was kind of fun to be all done up in special effects makeup and hear them screaming, "More blood, more blood."

It sounds like you've got lots and lots of stuff coming up next.

Yes, I just finished a movie called The Silicone Assassin where I play the president of the United States. Tomorrow, I'm leaving for Big Bear to play a tough, small town southern sheriff in Axeman at Cutter’s Creek. I'm getting some very strong masculine roles lately which is a lot fun. I like playing authority figures.

Do you have any plans to direct again?

I hope so. There's nothing on the books right now, but I’m really hoping that I can keep that new career going and eventually find my place as a director in the low budget horror industry.

Back in the 1980s, even low budget movies required filmmaking knowledge. Nowadays, anyone is able to make movies on their telephones. Do you think that it has helped or hurt the creativity of the super low budget indie film?

You're absolutely right. It has changed so much. In the 80s and 90s, we shot on film. We had caterers, we had our own private dressing trailers, even on low budgets. At that time, a low budget was considered $300,000. That was almost the barest minimum you could make a movie for at that time.

After the video revolution, then we had the technology where anyone could make a movie in their backyard. The budgets have gotten even lower, like $10,000, $30,000, because there's such a glut on these films now. The new problem is distribution. There used to be a lot of distributors, but it's been consolidated into the hands of just a few now. Then again, that creates even more new technology, where people are finding other ways to get their movies seen, like direct streaming on the internet, or getting it to Netflix, or something like that. I've seen so many changes where Blockbuster put the mom and pop video stores out of business, then Netflix put Blockbuster out of business. Now, other things are going to  put Netflix out of business. It just keeps changing. I've seen a lot in 30 years.

With all the reality shows that we have these days, I think that it just brings a whole new dimension to filmmaking where you can get all these individual interpretations, very personal looks at what horror is to them.

Screaming in High Heels is currently available on DVD.

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