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Jamie Lee Curtis and Lin Shaye in 'The Grudge' are redefining, and empowering, scream queens

These women share a tough independence, wisdom and lived experience — a reinvention rooted in capability rather than victimhood.
Lin Shaye and Andrea Riseborough in "The Grudge."Allen Fraser / Sony Pictures

Scream queens have been a staple of the horror genre for the last 40 years. They are also a dated cliche. Thankfully, they seem to be transitioning into a new phase due in particular to two veteran actresses, Lin Shaye and Jamie Lee Curtis, who are bringing the scary stories of older woman to the screen — including two new films this year. First up is “The Grudge,” which opened Friday. Shaye and Curtis are strong, fierce and have compelling experiences to share. At times they can scream, but they can also make us scream.

When the term “scream queen” became popularized in the 1980s, it generally denoted beautiful young damsels in distress in horror films, mainly of the demonic or slasher variety, who would scream their heads off in key moments of panic.

This led to the rise of the “final girl”: a smart, usually virginal young lady who did not drink, take drugs or indulge in premarital sex, and who became the sole, often resourceful survivor of a vicious murder spree, often taking out the villain herself. But neither terms were particularly complimentary, nor something many female actors aspired to. At their heart, slasher movies were thinly disguised Christian morality tales: Commit a sin, pay the price.

Over the years, the phrase scream queen has been broadened to apply to any actress who appears regularly in horror movies or the female leads in various fear films, though even then, the stories gravitated mostly toward younger women. But finally, the times have begun to change and multifaceted middle-aged and older women are being represented.

In 2018, “Hereditary” focused on a middle-aged mother (Toni Collette) who, in the wake of her secretive mother’s death, grapples with how mental illness runs in her family and may affect her. As far back as 2014, “The Babadook” showed a widowed mother fending off her and her young son’s fear of the titular storybook monster. Vera Farmiga (albeit younger at 46) has portrayed real-life supernatural sleuth Lorraine Warren in two “Conjuring” movies (a third is coming), “The Nun” and one “Annabelle” prequel. And Jamie Lee Curtis returned as an older Laurie Strode to battle Michael Myers in 2018’s “Halloween” sequel, which takes place 40 years after the original debuted. (And it broke multiple box office records.)

What these women share, in addition to more lived experience and wisdom, is a tough independence, a reinvention rooted in empowerment rather than victimhood, even when facing seemingly insurmountable situations. These are not women who are easily preyed upon. Pick on them at your own peril.

“The Grudge,” a reimagining of the 2004 American remake of the Japanese original, features an elderly woman with dementia (played by Shaye) and the performance is both sad and creepy. Shaye was attracted to the role because of how real it felt. She is not a creepy villain; she is waging a battle with her own sanity as manipulated by an outside force.

Though a young woman is the star of “The Grudge” who visits a haunted Japanese home and unwittingly imports rageful supernatural energy back home, Shayne’s supporting turn as Faith Matheson adds nuance and empathy to the production. Tragic instead of heroic, she plays a woman with dementia who is infected by the Grudge curse — she kills and also maims herself — and whose husband is contemplating assisted suicide for her.

A veteran actor with a diverse resume, 76-year-old Shaye has become famous for her work in the four supernatural “Insidious” films (cumulative global gross: $555 million) and other genre pictures. (With a resume equally as diverse, 61-year-old Curtis became famous through “Halloween” and a few early ’80s slasher pictures.)

“I’m a woman with dementia who is basically sick,” explained Shaye of her role as Faith. “‘The Grudge’ is about infection, which is a different kind of fear.”

Shaye has also been a major part of the “Insidious” film franchise, the fifth installment of which is rumored to be on the way. Her character of Elise Rainier, a supernatural investigator and psychic who played a supporting role in the first two movies, became the star of the next two installments. While the third one was the least scary of the bunch, her endearing portrayal of Rainier, and the origins of how she became united with her younger male demonologist accomplices Specs and Tucker, showed us how she faced her own literal demon to aid others; the fourth film showed us how her own childhood possession scarred her.

A new “Halloween” movie, “Halloween Kills,” is due out in October. In the last installment, which was a direct sequel to the original, Curtis reprised her role as Strode, the once-beleaguered babysitter who has since become a grandmother struggling with long-term post-traumatic stress disorder and has warned her daughter and granddaughter of the danger of killer Michael Myers escaping and coming for them. They write her off as nuts until that actually happens, then they all band together to fight off the evil. It is like a multigenerational feminist manifesto of battling the patriarchy.

Strode is no longer a squeamish victim finding her inner strength. Now she is an older warrior who turns the table on her seemingly inhuman attacker. Many moments near the end of the sequel mimic those of the original, except this time Strode takes control, and the predator becomes the prey. “It’s funny, obviously I’m way happy that women over 50 can get a job, and have a job that has depth,” Curtis told Collider in 2018. “The thing that I took away from the movie was depth, emotion and emotional complexity.”

Indeed, both Shaye and Curtis have moved beyond the final girl paradigm to become horror warriors. While Curtis lampooned her scream queen roots in the tongue-in-cheek “Scream Queens” television series by playing a promiscuous pot-smoking college dean, her older Strode, like Ranier, is more serious and layered. In the past, older women in horror films were often exploited as sinister, manipulative, and/or wicked. This led to the ugly genre term “hagsploitation” and its “psycho-biddy” antagonists, referring to 1960s and ’70s movies like “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” and “Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte.”

They usually starred aging actresses in less-than-flattering roles. Some would argue that recent films like “Greta” and the “Suspiria” remake still demonize aging women. But the roles portrayed by Shaye, Curtis and Farmiga are heroes where their age is their strength. Even when they are terrified themselves, they show resolve, and their own lives likely influence how they play their roles.

Perhaps the best part of seeing women like Shaye, Farmiga and Curtis onscreen in horror roles is that they can move between victim and heroine, that they can portray scared, strong and scary.

“Sometimes you inject your point of view – I don't mean politics, I'm talking about life experience,” said Shaye. “What it means to love somebody, what it means to leave someone, what it means to hurt yourself. As I get older, I try to bring my personal truth to what I do. That's a given no matter what I do.”

Perhaps the best part of seeing women like Shaye, Farmiga and Curtis onscreen in horror roles is that they can move between victim and heroine, that they can portray scared, strong and scary. They are at their best when they face down their demons. Watching Curtis lurk in the shadows waiting to turn the tables on Myers at the climax of the recent “Halloween” is thrilling. Seeing Farmiga and Shaye fend off demonic forces in the “Conjuring” and “Insidious” franchises, then have the latter freak us out in “The Grudge,” is chilling. Now that’s something to scream about.