One fascinating by-product of mainstream Hollywood’s apparent lack of faith in female directors is the number of women that have instead made their name in the independent field, working on films of a far more unconventional ilk. So while the list of women making blockbusters is small, the number making films on a much smaller scale is far more considerable. Many unsung female auteurs ply their trade in the genre and indie space, and Katt Shea (formerly Katt Shea Ruben) is unquestionably another of these talents, with a host of wonderfully lurid horror and thriller flicks to her name.
Katt Shea was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1956 and initially planned a career in teaching after graduating from The University Of Michigan, despite having a longtime love of theatre and the arts. Shea worked for six months teaching vision impaired children before eventually decamping to Hollywood at the age of nineteen. “I was teaching blind kids in a Detroit high school in a really tough neighbourhood,” Shea has said of the experience. “I wanted to try something new, so I drove out to Hollywood in my Volkswagen Beetle. I didn’t really go with the intention of acting, but I got an agent and started going on auditions that had nothing to do with talent. It only had to do with how I looked.”
Tall and striking, Shea got her first role in the 1980 TV movie The Asphalt Cowboy, before clocking walk-on spots in 1983’s My Tutor and Brian De Palma’s 1983 classic Scarface. She was then cast in a host of tawdry, low budget exploitation flicks: 1984’s Preppies and Hollywood Hot Tubs (two sleazy T&A efforts from genre master Chuck Vincent); 1985’s notorious Barbarian Queen (a feminist-themed fantasy flick with lashings of misogyny); 1986’s violent actioner The Devastator; and the perfunctory sequel Psycho III.
While working on these films, Shea was carefully studying what her directors were doing, and was starting to develop her senses as a filmmaker. “I was always asking a lot of questions on the set,” Shea told TV Store Online. “Some people liked that and some didn’t.” Declaring Psycho III to be her final role, Ruben had set about writing scripts while acting. It was while working on The Devastator in The Philippines that Shea met Andy Ruben, who she would eventually marry. Combining their creative ambitions, the pair started writing scripts together, and first came up with The Patriot, a military thriller which was bought by exploitation legend, Roger Corman, who tapped Frank Harris (1984’s Kill Point) to direct for a 1986 release.
Keen to direct, Katt Shea fronted Roger Corman with a premise that he couldn’t refuse: a thriller set largely in a pole dancing club, which at the time was a relatively new concept in exotic entertainment. Corman’s always prurient curiosity was well and truly piqued, and he not only bought the script – penned by Katt and Andy Ruben – but said yes when Shea told him that she wanted to direct too. The resulting film was 1987’s Stripped To Kill, a top-tier straight-to-video exploitation flick that announced Shea Ruben as a director who really knew her way around a genre film. Starring the great Kay Lenz (Breezy, White Line Fever) as a cop who goes undercover as a stripper to catch a brutal killer, and co-starring Greg Evigan (does anyone else remember TV’s BJ And The Bear?), Stripped To Kill is a terrifically entertaining thriller (with a great twist) that always keeps the T&A in check and its characters front and centre.
Though Shea Ruben clashed creatively with producer Roger Corman during the shoot of the film, the success of Stripped To Kill put the director back on the savvy producer’s favourites list. Not wanting to miss out on grinding a little more out of some film sets that he had created for other films, Corman tapped Shea Ruben to rush out a couple of quickies before they were demolished. Despite being made under complete duress, the director turned out two fascinating films, both co-written with her husband. “It was always a process of including the elements Roger wanted into the script and the story that Andy and I envisioned,” Shea told Full Circle Magazine. “We always had very high aspirations. Roger didn’t discourage that, in fact I think he was proud of it, but he wanted to make sure his style of commercial elements were included.”
Though now completely forgotten, 1989’s Dance Of The Damned was a truly bizarre take on the vampire genre, mixing in themes of suicide, redemption and love amongst the T&A and bloodletting. Working on fumes, Shea Ruben showed not only economic ingenuity here, but also a real flair for injecting familiar material with both a sense of gravitas and a kinky kind of originality. 1989’s Stripped To Kill 2: Live Girls – a sequel in setting and theme only, with Maria Ford in the lead instead of Kay Lenz – was equally unusual, mining its pole dancing milieu for all it was worth and creating an air of highly eroticised tension and hysteria. On the cinematic equivalent of pocket change, Shea had served up two highly imaginative films for Corman that punched way, way above their weight.
Shea’s next movie was backed by Roger Corman too, but 1990’s Streets was a far less salacious and exploitative affair than her previous efforts. That’s not to say, however, that it was a middle of the road drama or something else equally safe. Starring Christina Applegate in an early big screen leading role, along with the talented David Mendenhall, the film remains in the grimy milieu of sex workers, drugs and criminals, but this time focuses on two homeless youths trying to survive the pain and injustices of everyday life, while also navigating a street community being preyed upon by a psycho cop (Eb Lottimer) doing creepy double duty as a serial killer. Despite its low budget, Streets is a stylish exercise in sleaze, while Shea’s clear empathy and understanding of her characters, along with a host of fine performances, places the flick a cut above the usual 80s/90s straight-to-video fare.
Streets was good enough, in fact, to see Shea receive a leg-up out of the world of extreme low budget filmmaking and into higher priced B-movies. On 1992’s Poison Ivy, Shea got financing in the millions to play with courtesy of mini-major studio New Line Cinema, and turned out a far more polished film than her previous efforts, but one still redolent with the edgy themes that had characterised Shea’s work for Roger Corman.
A raunchy thriller breathing the same kind of fetid air as Basic Instinct, Poison Ivy starred the ever alluring Drew Barrymore as a sultry teen temptress who works her way into the family of her friend (Sara Gilbert), sleeping with her father (Tom Skerritt) and systematically breaking their lives apart. Though occasionally silly, Poison Ivy was a success at The Sundance Film Festival and was generally well reviewed, and rates as a rock solid B-movie. It also inspired a series of trashy sequels with no involvement from Shea. “I hate that it’s associated with the sequels because it was really a standalone movie,” the director told Slash Film. “The other movies were so exploitive. I know the subject matter is pretty exploitative but I tried never to do it as an exploitation movie. I tried to just get into the heart of the characters and who they were and what they were all about.”
Though Poison Ivy should have seen Shea tapped for films on a similar level, if not even bigger ones, the director found it difficult to get work, writing and developing a series of scripts that never got out of the starting gate. Disappointingly, Shea wound up back on the team for Roger Corman, with the low, low budget 1996 TV movie Last Exit To Earth, a cheesy sci-fi effort about women sent back from a male-free future to kidnap men to repopulate their barren world. Despite its feminist-style plot, the film remains a mere footnote on Shea’s resume, as do the two telemovies – 2000’s bulimia drama Sharing The Secret (starring Mare Winningham and Alison Lohman) and the 2001 stalking thriller Sanctuary (starring Melissa Gilbert and Costas Mandylor) – that came after it.
Shea got a rare shot at the big(ger) time, however, when the first-choice director, Robert Mandel, was quit or fired (accounts differ) from 1999’s The Rage: Carrie 2, a belated sequel to Brian De Palma’s masterful 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. Though based around a new telekinetic teen, the film saw Amy Irving return as Sue Snell from the first film, and also felt prescient and relevant in an age of heightened teen bullying, which tied in with the themes of the first film. With just a week to prepare, and two weeks of previously shot footage already in the can, Shea still managed to work her own ideas into the film (“I just give whatever I am working on my truth,” she has said of this decidedly non-personal film. “I think that’s all you can do”), and delivered something interesting and compelling against the odds.
The American film industry is an oft-ridiculous beast, particularly in the way that it treats its female directors. Despite continually demonstrating her skills as a filmmaker and storyteller, as well as a gift for creating solid work on low budgets and an ability to cannily pull projects out of the fire, Katt Shea (who eventually separated from Andy Ruben and reverted to her birth surname) spent nearly two decades in the cinematic wilderness. With no directing work, Shea set up her own successful acting school (“I work with actors and coach actors,” she told Slash Film. “That is a great passion of mine. I really love doing that and it’s not a secondary thing. It’s something I really love doing”) and moved into other creative areas, such as writing fiction, with her book Batshit Black.
Thankfully, the talented director got a comeback courtesy of 2019’s Nancy Drew And The Hidden Staircase, a snappy reinvention of the classic YA literary property. Starring Sophia Lillis in the title role, the film was a major gear-shifter for Katt Shea, who smartly contemporised the character for modern audiences. “There seem to be some people who don’t want any changes, so you know how it is,” Shea told Slash Film. “It’s a beloved book and they don’t want it to be different, but it has to be. So I figured, since we’re going to get flack anyway, we might as well go all the way.”
Currently in post-production on another movie (the family drama Rescued By Ruby), it looks like Katt Shea might be well and truly back behind the camera again…exactly where she belongs.
For more on Katt Shea, head over to her official website and Instagram page. If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.