Facts are facts, folks-when it comes to our beloved genre, the days of women cowering in the corner are long gone. We’ve been witness to many-a badass lady kicking traditional concepts in the mouth. But the concept is not a new one. Since the 50’s, women have been striking fear into the hearts of audiences. This idea reached a fever pitch during the grindhouse era, as we saw the exploitation film turn conventionalism on its ear. From the ashes of that wonderful time, rose a handful of names who put performances up on the screen that would knock doors off of their hinges and make room for films like “The Descent” and even “Haute Tension”. Some of these women used their natural ability and others took the world by storm by fucking with the moral fiber of our country. When I think of women who’ve shaped the genre via horror/exploitation, these are those individuals that have affected my life…long may their legacy corrupt our youth for years to come!!!
Patty McCormack: This is the name that started it all in my book. Patty McCormack cemented her celebrity by appearing as child murderess Rhoda Penmark in the 1956 classic, “The Bad Seed”. Even your mothers and grandmothers know this film and remember quite fondly how terrifying it was. McCormack’s turn as the pigtailed sociopath who’s attempts at perfection, lead her to a sense of entitlement caused Rhoda to stop at nothing to get what she wants. For a generation of parents and children alike, Rhoda Penmark was a name to be feared (and in some kid’s cases) revered.
Patty McCormack’s career has lead her from stage, screen, and everywhere in between. She took on roles of all shapes and kind (more recently popping up on hits like “The Sopranos” and “Desperate Housewives”) but no matter where she went, fans remember her as that terrifying little girl. She and actress Nancy Kelly took The Bad Seed’s stage popularity, transferred it to screen and made it a classic. McCormack’s performance as the well-mannered killer earned her both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for “Best Supporting Actress”. Though her career has seen it’s ups and downs, her continuous work over 50+ years is a testament to her ability to put out quality stuff. AND it’s also proof that you don’t have to be coked-out waste of a human being just because you were a child actor, a lesson later generations should’ve taken note of.
Rhoda’s influence can be felt even to this day with films like “Orphan”, and she’s been immortalized by John Waters who referred to the character as one of his greatest childhood influences. If anything is clear, it’s that Patty McCormack smashed through barriers and made not only a female lead character in a horror film terrifying, but a CHILD female lead at that. The Bad Seed may seem a bit too theatrical to today’s horror audiences, but there’s no doubt that this film, and this actress set forth a new precedence on what the film-going public considered the boogeyman. Who’d have thought a prim & proper little girl in a dress and pigtails could be so damn scary?
Dyanne Thorne: Ah, the infamous Ms. Thorne…and her alter ego, Ilsa. Is there really anything in the annals of exploitation that will ever truly meet up to the insanity and depravity of that glorious series? Many tried to copy, and few came close to the mark…In 1975, legendary exploitation director Don Edmunds and his team blasted out a film (on the Hogan’s Heroes set) that was going to test the moral barometers of its audiences. For those who withstood the filth, you were taking in a landmark film that would basically create the “Nazisploitation” subgenre of film. “Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS” was a freight train to the eyes and it’s namesake was played to the 9’s by the lovely Dyanne Thorne. Ms. Thorne’s portrayal of the vicious Nazi prison warden would create an icon in the exploitation genre that would be the template of female villains for years to come.
Dyanne Thorne’s career is tracked up to 1987 and stops after that. She is, for all intensive purposes, the true queen of exploitation. She began her career as a pin up model, transitioned into sex comedies and “roughies” (I’ll feed you baby birds someday, don’t worry). Eventually, she landed the role that made her (in)famous. Ilsa was a shockingly huge hit, considering it’s subject matter. To discuss Nazi methods via sexual torture is tasteless even today, but somehow her performance was able to win over throngs of fans. And that performance was to be her most well known role. Ilsa produced 3 sequels (the fourth installment, “The Wicked Warden” directed by Jess Franco, wasn’t truly an Ilsa film as it plays out more like a Women in Prison film, and doesn’t have any connections to Ilsa’s actual past.) and saw Ms. Thorne’s cult popularity soar. What followed the Ilsa films were roles in a couple sub-par flicks, but nothing really credited until the mid 80’s and finally, a commercial role in the Jim Belushi film “Real Men” where she plays Belushi’s transsexual(!) father. This was to be the last known of her roles in film.
Dyanne Thorne’s life is dramatically different from the role that made her iconic in the eyes of cult film fans. She’s married to Howard Maurer (one of her Ilsa co-stars) and has a PhD. in comparative religion. She’s travelled as a Broadway actress and even starred in her own popular Vegas comedy show “Sex Over 40”. She’s the co-founder of the International Science of Mind Prayer Circle, where she is also an ordained minister. Her spiritual side is quite a contradiction to the vicious SS torture goddess she once was. In person, Ms. Thorne is still beautiful and exceedingly kind. Her disposition is gentle and she always seems to be smiling. She loves her fans and isn’t ashamed of her legacy as the She-Wolf. While her life has moved in such a different direction, she’s never bitten the hand that feeds her. Personally, she’s nearest and dearest to my heart by being (believe it or not) one of the first exploitation films I showed my wife when we were dating that she really liked-still haven’t figured it out. Ms. Thorne has even met the youngest Allen and told us what his name (Cash) translates to in some cosmic realm…I think? As time goes on, and more books are written glamorizing the 42nd St. era of film, more generations discover the greatness of Ilsa and the woman who brought her to life, Dyanne Thorne. She’s the female embodiment of exploitation.
Pam Grier: Stop right here-if you DON’T know who Pam Grier is, then please stop reading this article. Sure, you could keep reading and gain insight into the career of one of the baddest women to ever walk God’s green earth. But, let’s be honest: If you don’t already know, then you’re a clueless shit ass who needs to go back to your Ke$ha records and Prom Night remakes and leave me the hell alone! Now, if you’re hip to Ms. Grier then you know how brilliant she’s been throughout her long and fruitful career. You know already that Pam Grier is the purveyor of tough but sensitive. She helped move blaxploitation from the grindhouses into the mainstream. But you knew that already, right? Riiiiight…
Pam Grier is more than just an exploitation legend-she’s a film legend, in general. You’ve seen her in literally everything. Major films, roles in popular TV shows-you name it, she’s done it. But were it not for those early roles in the sleazy world of exploitation, her celebrity may not have blossomed like it has. Like most, my first encounters with her work were in her classic roles, and what amazing roles those were. An appearance in Russ Meyer’s legendary “Beyond the Valley of The Dolls” and she was off and running. Turns in Roger Corman’s “The Big Doll House” and “Women in Cages” set the stage for her to take over the exploitation arena…and she did.
I’ll just toss out a few titles: “Foxy Brown”, “Coffy”, “Black Mama, White Mama”, “Sheba, Baby”. If you combine these with the aforementioned titles, you find yourself knee deep in a groundbreaking filmography. While today we often spoof blaxploitation, most of the roles Grier took were revolutionary. As the lead in these films, she set a new standard for strong female leads. You wouldn’t find a weak, feable stereotype here. These women she portrayed were tough and self sufficient, yet still sexual and feminine. Take Foxy Brown, for instance. She was ahead of her time, in terms of wanting to put a stop to the in-violence that plagued her people. Social remarks on a government ignoring racial injustice ran as strong themes throughout each movie and Pam Grier was able to exemplify that disgust that African Americans were feeling. Though the civil rights movement had mad major headway just a decade or so before, there was still a long struggle ahead. The black community was using film as a medium to speak out and Pam Grier was one of it’s most recognizable spokespeople. Her roles gave women, not just black women, a role model. These were women who wouldn’t just take no for an answer. They weren’t about to lie down and be doormats for some scumbag who had more concerned for his own “piece”. It was a bold movement in film and she was the captain steering this ship.
As this chapter in cinema’s book drew to a close, Pam Grier’s career did not. She continued to find film and television roles in various places. After many years in “mainstream” acting, Ms. Grier’s career came full circle when she became the lead role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (my personal favorite of his films, still to this day). She looked as vibrant and powerful as ever but played the role as a only a veteran actress could. From here, the world has seen her continue to take great roles, including a role in Showtime’s hit series “The L Word”. In May of this year, she released her own memoirs entitled “Foxy: My Life in Three Acts”. The book details her life as blaxploitation’s first lady and talks of her loves and losses. It’s a fantastic look into the life of a women who’s spent more than 40 years working in Hollywood. View this as a tribute to a career that’s still alive and making waves for years to come, hopefully.
Traci Lords: Okay, okay…this is the one that I know is going to irritate people. You’re going to fight me on this but just…fuckin’…just bear with me, okay? Do you dare take me to task on this one, though?? Really?!!! Alright, well let’s get into it…
Traci Lords has been setting fires for a long time. She’s earned an obvious spot in pop culture history by single-handedly turning the porn industry on its ear. We all know what she did…from the years of 1984-1986, Traci Lords was featured in more than 90 adult films as a performer, all being done under the legal age of consent. Using her tenacity (and a well-made fake birth certificate and driver’s license), Ms. Lords duped every dumbshit photographer, director, and producer working in Silicon Valley. In 1986, FBI agents arrested Traci when it was discovered she was underage and working under fake papers. A firestorm ensued, as the fed’s began a search and seizure campaign to confiscate and destroy (bullshit) the videos distributed of her working underage. In a classically anarchic move, Traci filmed one last adult film entitled “Traci, I Love You” in Paris, France on her 18th birthday. The brilliance in this, lie in the fact that her shooting her first “legal” adult film blew so many holes in the federal government’s child pornography case against the producers of the first film she ever made (in 1984), they were forced to drop their case. See, while they were busy layin’ down the hammer of morality, Traci was busy duping them with a fake passport and flying to France to await her 18th birthday to film. In the midst of all this, she sent the porn industry running home with its tail between its legs. She was “exiled” by the porn world (as if they wouldn’t take her back at the mere mention of wanting to return-ha!) and was able to set off on here career.
Where does this place her in this list of women? Well, aside from committing sexual terrorism that actually shocked the world, Ms. Lords has had a long, fruitful career. Her career includes working regularly with one of my heroes, John Waters, where she met her second husband, Brook Yeaton, whom she was married to for 6 years. John Waters “baptized” her pre-wedding and the Dreamlander’s crew came to her aid when the feds came a-knockin’ during the filming of “Cry-Baby”. Working with The Pope of Trash would prove to be one of the smartest moves Traci Lords would ever make. She was able to do what very few actors have ever done, by moving from the porn industry into the “mainstream” film industry. Not only did she do it, but she was successful. Like the ladies listed before her, Ms. Lords has found steady work and utilized her past as a bit of a power move. Aside from working with John Waters, she’s crossed our field of vision on several occasions, when pertaining to the genre film world. She was in the remake of Roger Corman’s “Not of This Earth”. In addition, we’ve seen her in “Blade”, “Black Mask 2”, “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell”, and Kevin Smith’s underrated “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” where she played the tongue-in-cheek character, Bubbles. Not bad for a gal from Steubenville, Ohio named Nora, eh?
Traci Lords should be considered a…wait for it…role model for young women (boo’s, bottles thrown, vague sound of obscenities yelled from the back of the room). Why? Well, she didn’t limit herself. There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do to get the career she long sought after. As a teen, she used her femininity and sexuality as a weapon to blow up the porn world. She worried very little about the consequences because she was able to see things from a big picture standpoint. Those early days were not the be all-end all of her career. In fact, were it not for that notoriety, we may not know her as we do. She’s orchestrated her career to the specifications that she wanted to have, and succeeded in doing so. And when it comes to exploitation, it’s easy to explain. She exploited the exploitationers. Traci Lords beat them at their own game and came out smelling like a fucking rose. If that isn’t a positive female role model, I don’t know what is. She committed the ultimate act of feminism by waving that middle finger all the way to the bank. Bow in reverence, minions…
There it is. These women have made a profound impact on my life when it comes to my viewpoints on women in film. Each comes from a different background but one thing remains in common-their careers are all a result of their talent, prowess, and intelligence. Please, take time and recognize these exploitation queens by supporting the continuance of their careers as well as the generations of actresses who will be able to fight because of them.
Tags: blaxploitation, coffy, Dyanne Thorne, exploitation, foxy brown, Grindhouse, Horror, John Waters, Nazisploitation, Pam Grier, patty mccormack, porn, Sleaze, the bad seed, traci lords, women in cages, women in horror, women in horror week