February is the time of year when we celebrate the women of horror, of which there are many under-appreciated, over-looked in the genre . One of the most underrated in the horror genre, to me, is easily the great Jessica Harper. As the actress said herself in a 2014 Q&A, her filmography “…consists of, pretty consistently, bombs” that have since gained cult status’. Shock Treatment, Phantom of the Paradise, Suspiria, you could even argue that Suspiria grew past the cult status and has become a bona fide classic.
Harper was born in Chicago, Illinois on October 10th 1949 to a mother who was a writer and a father who was both a painter and the chairman of an advertisement agency, it seemed like she was destined for a job in the entertainment industry. In fact, Jessica isn’t the only Harper sibling to gravitate towards the entertainment industry, one of her brothers became a composer (Sam Harper), another one of her brothers became a writer/director (Charles Harper).
In 1974, Harper began both her film career and horror career with a major role in Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, a personal favorite of mine and the first place I was exposed to Harper. Her performance in Phantom sets up the same role that she would play in each of these movies, which you’d think would get old but Harper sold it so well each time that it’s not bothersome, her brief horror career kept it from becoming stale before she broke out into other genres. In fact, these are the only horror films that she’s appeared in, outside of 1979’s The Evictors, a film that I’m unfamiliar with. Instead of getting more and more horror jobs, she left the genre to star in films like My Favorite Year, Pennies From Heaven, Stardust Memories, Love and Death and Minority Report.
In her horror career, Harper has a knack for choosing these meek, fish-out-of-water protagonists who aspire to become something more, she’s able to play relatable in these larger-than-life horror stories with an ability to ground the story by grounding herself. In each one of these films, Harper is the person you relate to the most, even in Phantom of the Paradise, you could’ve told the entire movie from her point of view and it would’ve been just as good.
Harper hasn’t been in a movie since 2002’s Minority Report, it was around this time that Harper was diagnosed with Neovascular Macular Degeneration (Which she revealed in a blog post here). Thankfully that didn’t keep Harper down, since 2002 she has stepped into other facets of the entertainment industry that include two appearances on TV shows, seven children’s music albums, eleven children’s books and even her own cookbook in 2010 titled The Crabby Cook Cookbook: Recipes and Rants.
It’s safe to say that Jessica Harper is an underrated gem of an actress, even in a movie that I dislike as much as Shock Treatment, she still kills it as Janet. If you’ve missed seeing her up on the big screen, no worries, she has a role in the upcoming remake of Suspiria, so at least there’s one thing to look forward to in that movie. Harper still goes to anniversary screenings of her cult films and you can see that energy, charm and comfort in front of a crowd, she could still deliver great performances and I eagerly await seeing what she does next. If the Suspiria remake is her swan song, then so be it, because she has put together a fantastic filmography to revisit. If you’ve never seen the original Suspiria please do yourself a favor and seek it out. It’s a beautifully shot, well-paced horror movie that has aged insanely well.
For someone whose name may not perk up the ear of the average movie-goer, she has been in some of the most rewatchable movies ever made. I can watch Phantom another fifteen times and still love it, her performance included. Jessica Harper is the poster child for “underrated actress” in the horror genre. If you haven’t seen any of the films that I’ve named, or have only seen one or two, then please seek them out (Even Shock Treatment isn’t unwatchable). February is the month that we appreciate the women in horror and Jessica Harper is exactly the type of woman that needs to be discussed this month.