Women of Horror Series: Tribute to Dee Wallace

We here at Scream Sirens believe that it takes a special kind of woman to be considered a true “scream siren”. A woman who defies the norm. Someone strong-willed, proud, determined and full of life, creativity, energy and passion. It certainly doesn’t hurt if you’re into the – shall we say – “darker culture”.

For a Scream Siren is no mere “woman”. She’s a pillar of strength. She’s a trail-blazer. A trendsetter. Someone who knows that in our society, certain “norms” are expected to be adhered to, and they simply just don’t have the time, interest, or closed-off minds to let that hinder them from being who they want to be. Achieving what they want to achieve. And most importantly, setting an example for women everywhere who might still be a little tentative to let their beautiful inner-darkness be shown.

It’s here that we will pay tribute to these women – the ones who continue to be a shining example. The ones who don’t compromise, and have left an indelible mark on our culture through their work, their actions, personality and accomplishments.These are the definitions of a Scream Siren. These are the Women of Horror.

Wallace-Dee

 

One of the most terrifying moments in Joe Dante’s 1981 werewolf classic The Howling is the final scene with Dee Wallace. Her character, a reporter named Karen White, has been through one bout of hell to the next since the movie began, and during the “epilogue” of the film, on a live broadcast, she does something bold, harrowing, and ironically (in that brilliant, horror movie way) pointless, thanks to a desensitized audience.

Her performance during this scene is hair-raising (and no, there’s no pun intended this time – it truly delivers one of those “back of the neck” tingles). It’s the eyes. It’s that scream. And then that gut-punching moment where a lone tear rolls down her face – it’s simultaneously horrifying, heartbreaking…and strangely beautiful. Somehow, in the midst of everything going on in those final moments, Dee Wallace makes the horror of the situation poignant. It sounds sadistic to say, but she effortlessly brings a beauty to her pain, agony and fear during those final, terrifying moments. That is talent, and Dee Wallace is a natural one.

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Born Deanna Bowers, this beautiful, blue-eyed girl from Kansas City had big dreams to be an actress and entertainer from a very young age, and set her sights on Los Angeles, studying under the brilliant – though stern and focused – Charles Conrad. One of the biggest and most important lessons she took from years under his tutelage, Dee learned that acting naturally meant just that: Don’t “work” off the page. Get your lines, and live in the moment. Let the scene encompass and guide your movements and emotions, and the magic of performing would just happen.

Armed with this powerful method and the positive, country-girl attitude that stereotypically eats dreamers alive on the Boulevard, Dee simply “put herself out there”, believing the universe would guide and take care of her. Whether it was fate, coincidence or the power of positive thinking, the universe did, indeed, notice Dee and guided her early career through a number of appearances on high-profile 70s television shows. Everything from “Starsky and Hutch” and “CHiPs” to “Barnaby Jones” and “Trapper John, M.D.”, the popular “M*A*S*H” spin-off, before landing her breakout role in the sexy Blake Edwards comedy 10 alongside Dudley Moore, Julie Andrews and Bo Derrick, proved that her talent wasn’t being ignored and her efforts not in vain.

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                                                                                                                                                                        Cujo

And appearing in 10, such a high-profile film directed by a comedy legend, was bound to open       doors, and Dee was immediately called in by up-and-coming horror director, and Roger Corman protégé Joe Dante for the adaptation of Gary Brandner’s werewolf novel, the aforementioned The Howling in 1981. Her performance was filled with a wonderful sensitivity, vulnerability and strength – all elements that were seen and appreciated by none other than Steven Spielberg. Fresh off the massive success of his premiere Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg was looking for an actress to star in his next picture, which would become one of the most beloved films ever made, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

With this film’s massive success – and another brilliant, protective and natural performance by Wallace – she would be “typecast” to a degree, as everyone’s favorite “mother” in cinema, particularly to us 80s kids. A barrage of roles – both within the horror genre, and outside – Dee would essentially play “Mom” in a number of productions, including the Invisible Mom films, Secret Admirer and the cult sci-fi/horror favorite, Critters.

And while all roles were wonderfully played and quite familiar within the circumstances of their respective plots, there was one film – more than even E.T. – that displayed her maternal instincts most potently (and mind you, Dee and her husband Chris had not yet had their daughter Gabrielle). She played Donna Trenton in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Cujo, about a woman trapped in her broken-down Pinto with her young son, as a rabid St. Bernard ruthlessly tries to get in and attack them. Dee’s performance is guttural. It’s SO damn realistic that the tension and terror throughout the film is far beyond just plain “horror”. It often feels too real, particularly when her young boy, Tad (played by a pre-“Who’s the Boss?” Danny Pentauro who himself should have earned an Oscar nod, at minimum) begins to understandably panic, cry and plead for his daddy. Donna is beyond her breaking point, and screams hysterically at her sobbing child in a sad, gut-wrenching moment of frustration and fear – the type of stressed-induced hysteria that only parents can truly understand and sympathize with. It’s moments like that one, and so many others – those understandable, all-too-real moments – that made Dee so powerful in roles like that, made all the more impressive knowing she had not yet mothered a child! The performance is bar-none, of the best in horror.

However, in 1995, the pattern of playing the comfortable, familiar “mom” would come to a wonderfully sinister end when she received the call to audition for Peter Jackson. The film was The Frighteners, and Dee’s character was unlike anything she’d appeared in before. A character that appeared frail, damaged and reclusive…but was really sadistic, snarling and bloodthirsty. This was a side of Dee people hadn’t quite seen, and like every role she had tackled prior, she knocked it out of the park, proving that everyone’s favorite “80s Mom” was MORE than capable of pumping out the venom and delivering a cold, psychotic performance. There was nothing “warm” or “protective” in the character of Patricia Bradley, and the decidedly wicked turn for her would lead to a resurgence in darker, “less forgiving” roles in such films as Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem and Anthony C. Ferrante’s take on Hansel & Gretel.

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Dee’s film career has kept her gainfully employed and cherished by her fans, however, she’s embarked on a project far more profound and fulfilling.

During the filming of The Frighteners, Dee unfortunately lost her husband Christopher Stone to a heart attack. He was in every sense, her soul mate, co-star and best friend. The loss was earth-shattering. But she had a beautiful, young daughter to think of, and a firm, assuring, spiritual nudge that told her to “use the light within herself”. Prior to Christopher’s death, Dee had a tough life. The death of her father when she was young, the often unfair treatment she endured in Hollywood after her first major success and the persistent struggle of trying to become a mother when most couples would have seen their chances dwindle to nothing.

But Dee is an optimist. A teacher. A healer. A coach. And most of all, she’s determined. She’s got the life experience and know-how to see things differently, and to put a spiritual spin on every day struggles to make them less than daunting. Challenges to be achieved and unlocked, rather than stressed over or shied from. When she sets her sights on a goal, whether it’s tackling a difficult role, teaching a class, or writing a book – Dee’s focus, positivity and natural talent glow. She’s creating, and there’s nothing, shy of family, that she holds in higher regard.

Recently, I read one of her five books on self-healing. In “Bright Light”, Dee explores spirituality and healing through the lessons and experiences she’s gained through her career in film and television. Fans of her work itself, will find much to enjoy, as favorite films like The Howling, E.T., The Frighteners, Cujo, and 10 are discussed with fun and interesting set anecdotes. But it’s not just the stories, friendships or lessons she learned from these experiences that make the book – it’s what she took from each experience. Each film came with a new challenge, a new frustration, or a new “restraint” that kept Dee from either acting to the best of her ability, or appreciated to the degree that she deserved. And each time, she normally came away armed with a new set of goals, knowledge and self-worth. Any time a decision was made that negatively impacted her career or sent it in a direction she didn’t find worth-while, she details what her mind-set was at that time, and how all-too-often, your own fears and self-doubt have worked against you. And even if you happen to have fallen into an unwelcome circumstance, you yourself have the power and ability to turn the situation into a positive. The book masterfully uses her career in acting and her hard, personal life experiences as a backdrop to virtually ANYONE’S day-to-day struggles.

As an author, inspirational speaker, radio host and acting coach, Dee has entered a new phase of her career. More than just a multi-talented actress, incredible mother and mentor, Dee has found a way to connect with people in a far more personal and mutually rewarding way through her work and dedication toward building a solid self-worth for those in need of finding it. The fact that she still finds the time to act in numerous roles, and hit the convention circuit and greet fans with that wonderful, warm smile and a firm hug proves that her career as an actress – whether in horror or not – is far from over. It’s more than evident that fans, students and everyday people seeking her light have a glowing appreciation of Dee.

One need only meet or speak to her to know, without question, the feeling is quite mutual.

By Jason S. Marsiglia

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