Jill Schoelen: Horror Heroine
In the 1980’s there were a number of scream queens or horror heroines that lighted up the screen. Some were memorable, some were forgotten, and some became major Hollywood stars. The actress that I would like to discuss was very memorable and had the acting talent to become a major player in Hollywood, but sometime in the 90’s she faded away from horror films and movies in general. This actress is Jill Schoelen. She starred in a number of horror films in the late 80’s both on the big and small screen. Some of those films were Cutting Class, Popcorn, 1989’s Phantom of the Opera, and the film she is most famous for and the one that gave her scream queen status was The Stepfather. Here is a look back at this underrated actress, how I became a fan of hers, and what she is up to today.
The first time I saw Jill Schoelen in a film was The Stepfather starring Shelly Hack and Terry O’Quinn who played her twisted demented stepfather. This was probably in 1988 when I first saw the film. I remember seeing clips from the movie on Stephen King’s World of Horror special and have been waiting to see the film. After I watched it I thought the film was excellent and the whole cast was a big stand out. The one I thought stood out the most was an actress I never heard of named Jill Schoelen. I thought she carried the film well as the lead heroine and also thought she was very beautiful and talented. I hoped to find more films featuring the actress and soon I would.
In late 1989, I went to go see the remake to Phantom of the Opera starring Robert Englund. This film was the entire buzz in every horror magazine at the time because of Englund still being hot off all the Nightmare on Elm Street films. This was Englund playing a different horror villain besides Freddy Kruger and everyone wanted to see if he could play anything else but Freddy. Even though Englund was the big draw to the film, the lead heroine played by Schoelen was one of the major highlights for me. Schoelen plays an opera singer in modern times who finds a piece of old music written by Erik Destler. She sings the music and starts having visions and then finally going unconscious. When she wakes up she is in London in 1881 and is the understudy for the lead in an opera called Faust. For what I remember of the film I did enjoy it, but it didn’t do well at the box office. Still Schoelen was becoming a rising star in the horror genre.
Schoelen starred in another horror film in 1989, which was released before Phantom, a
teen slasher flick called Cutting Class, which starred a then unknown actor, Brad Pitt. I caught this movie on HBO or Cinemax back in 1990 and I was happy to see Schoelen in another horror movie. This movie was about a teenager who was released from a mental hospital and is now back in high school. Murders start to happen and Schoelen and her boyfriend, played by Pitt, suspect the teen. Cutting Class was a decent film and didn’t do all that well. Again Schoelen was good in the movie as well as co-star Pitt. I recently saw the film again and still think the lead cast was good, but the film not so much.
In the late 80’s most scream queens like Linnea Quigley, Michelle Bauer, and Brinke Stevens drew the fans in their sex appeal rather than the girl next-door looks of scream queens of the late 70’s and early 80’s such as Jaime Lee Curtis. Schoelen fit the girl next door image and I believe was the Jaime Lee Curtis of that era, but magazines and fans cared more for the sexy scream queens of that time that would be running around naked and often be the tough heroine, the hot victim, or the evil femme fatale at the time.
During the start of the 90’s horror started to dwindle a bit and there were not as many good horror films out at the time. In early 1991 I was eagerly awaiting the release of Popcorn, a horror film about a group of film students who have a horror night at an old theater, but unknown to them there is a killer on the loose and it may be a deranged filmmaker, who in the early 70’s killed his family at the only screening of his debut film. Schoelen played the lead in this film as well, which was written by Alan Ormsby of Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things and Deathdream fame. Ormsby was also the original director of the film, but was replaced. Also Bob Clark who worked on those films as well was one of the producers on Popcorn, but was uncredited. When the film was released in February of ’91 I was disappointed that the film didn’t come to the city where I lived. So, I had to wait until it was on home video to finally see the film. It has been awhile since I seen the movie, but for what I remember I enjoyed the film. This was one of Schoelen last films. She stopped acting in film in the mid 90’s to start a family.
Some background on this outstanding actress is that she was born on March 21, 1963 in Burbank, California and her mother, Dorothy, was a fashion designer. She started off as a singer and would often get acting roles with just singing in them, but most roles would also have acting in them and she kind of fell into the acting thing and stuck with it. She started off in television doing guest roles in such series as Little House on the Prairie, Murder She Wrote, and Hell Town. Her first film role was in the cult comedy D.C. Cab starring Gary Busey and Mr. T. After that she starred in a few TV movies such as the 1986 film Babes in Toyland starring a young Drew Barrymore and Keanu Reeves, Billionaire Boys Club starring Judd Nelson, and Wes Craven’s made for TV movie, Chiller.
Schoelen started her string of horror films when she was cast in the 1987 film, The Stepfather. She was actually the first one cast before the other leads. This is probably one of Schoelen best roles and the one she is best known for. She also does a nude scene in the film, which is uncharacteristic for the lead heroine or final girl to do in a horror film. Usually actresses in that role don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t do drugs, don’t have sex, and don’t take off their clothes, but Stepfather is a much different film, since it is more of a thriller rather than a slasher flick.
After Stepfather, Schoelen starred in Curse II: The Bite in 1988 and Cutting Class and Phantom of the Opera in 1989. When Schoelen met Brad Pitt on the set of Cutting Class, they became an item and even got engaged. She later called off the engagement after three months while she was filming Phantom. Schoelen was not the first choice to play the lead in Popcorn. Another actress, Amy O’Neill was casted and shooting started for the film with her in the lead, but she was later replaced with Schoelen. Some scenes in the film still featured O’Neill, which were shots that were from the back or wide shots.
Schoelen’s last horror film was the sequel to When a Stranger Calls called When a Stranger Calls Back. It was made for Showtime and released in 1994. This is one of the actress’ forgotten films that she made. Her final film that she made was the romantic comedy Not Again, released in 1996. She quit acting to focus on her marriage to composer Anthony Marinelli and raising their two children. She divorced Marinelli in 2002 and in 2003 she started a relationship with jazz bassist Dave Carpenter. The two began working on a jazz album and Schoelen also recorded an album called Kelly’s Smile, which was inspired by the death of her best friend. She briefly returned to acting in 2004 in the drama short, She Kept Silent. Currently she focuses on her singing career and sometimes appears at a few horror conventions here and there.
In my opinion I believe that Jill Schoelen could have been a major star in Hollywood. She had the acting chops, the look, and the presence to play major leading roles in big studio films. Many of her co-stars went on to make it huge in the business and I wish Schoelen could have made the breakthrough in major films. Schoelen had said that she was never comfortable being in the film industry and wanted to get out of acting and wanted to be a fulltime mom and get back into music. To this day she has a big cult following and most of her films that she starred in didn’t do well when they were released, but later got a following when they were on VHS.
Jill Schoelen is most remembered in being in the hit thriller, The Stepfather, but is also known for her many roles in numerous horror films as the final girl. If you have never heard or seen Ms. Schoelen in a film please check out her many films that I have mentioned in this article. The top ones would be of course The Stepfather, then Phantom of the Opera and Popcorn. I wished she continued to act in films, but the films that she made in the mid 80’s through the early 90’s will always stand the test of time. Jill Schoelen will always be one of the best scream queens of the late 1980’s.