In the Exploring Feminisms household, horror is one of the most common film genres playing on our television. Of those out there, very few are what I would consider feminist, or at least having a feminist agenda of some sort. So the task of the day is to find some that may lend a little hope to the genre.
As with every year, this task is always a lot more difficult than I think it will be, resulting in a lot of viewing, and a lot of discarded films.
While sifting through the plethora of bloody thrillers, teen screams, zombie flicks and vampire love stories, directed by both men and women, I came across a few that stood out as notable films ranging from masked and subtle to overtly feminist. Overall, I saw two distinct motifs appear this year, and their themes timeless: coming of age stories and attaining beauty at any cost.
(James Cameron, 1986)
Okay, I know that we’ve all probably seen this film about a thousand times on TBS, but as I watching it again (sans commercials) with a more critical eye, I was surprised to see a few nuggets of insight that maybe be somewhat hidden to the casual channel flipper.
In the second of the franchise, (Aliens being the follow-up to the classic, Alien) we learn that Ripley had a daughter decades before she was propelled through time, but who is now within the timeframe of the story, deceased. This fact gives more weight to her self-appointed role of guardian of Newt, the newly rescued child who undoubtedly reminds her of her daughter. What’s more, because the nature of the military is inherently male-dominated, based on a masculine ideology, it is extremely subversive that Ripley’s character makes a conscious decision in the face of her superiors and other military personnel to show compassion and nurturing qualities.
The cast also includes not only women, but a variety of races and ethnicities within roles of power. Given that this film was made in 1988, seeing a measurable amount of minority cast members is arguable progressive for the time.
(Jen & Sylvia Soska, 2012)
American Mary is the story of Mary, a med school student who is extremely adept in the way of suturing, but is having trouble making ends meet. When her dominating (ok, asshole) male professor invites her to a party with only male doctors as guests, she is used as a human rag doll. Too disturbed to continue her formal education, she becomes an amateur plastic surgeon for an underground body modification crowd.
The film can be categorized in the body horror sub-genre, and recommended for fans of films like Inside or In My Skin. AM is a definite step up from the Soska sisters’ first film, Dead Hooker in a Trunk, by giving us some satisfying gore, a more fleshed out plot, and better acting with Katharine Isabelle from Ginger Snaps leading the way. Though I do tend to feel that rape revenge movies, much like Holocaust films, by virtue of the content, already have the audience fired up and ready for revenge. Lo and behold, I did get fired up and like Mary, wanted revenge, and we as an audience are not disappointed.
(Katie Aselton, 2012)
In Black Rock, three old friends return to a deserted campsite in an attempt to reforge their fragmented friendship, though while on their way there, it becomes explosive due to painful betrayals in their past. In an ironic twist, a group of violent, dishonorably discharged men back from the Middle East is what glues the women back together again.
The situation between the ex-soldiers and the three friends mirrors that of Americans invading the Middle East, and the reports of aggressive soldiers abusing civilians and prisoners of war. Except in this instance, the three friends must go guerrilla style after the men try to murder them and turn into the hunters. In essence, the women become the aggressors themselves, but do so in the name of their own survival. This film is extremely suspenseful and at times uncomfortable to watch because of its complete unpredictability.
(Eric England, 2013)
Contracted is a breath of fresh air not only within the horror genre bubble, but also to film at large right now. When compared to any given contemporary Hollywood film, this indie flick puts them all to shame. It’s funny, gory, shocking, cute, and original, and film that conveys all of those adjectives is certainly a rarity.
Contracted is about a down on her luck in love lesbian that makes an unwise, alcohol and drug induced mistake and sleeps with a strange guy. What follows is a cosmic retribution, possibly by the lesbian Gods that be, where an unknown and horrific plague is cast upon her body.
Death Becomes Her
(Robert Zemeckis, 1992)
Like Aliens, you may be surprised by this film making it on the list. But, after watching it for the first time since the 1990s, the writers were onto something, and my assumption is an astute eye for observing the pervasive late 20th culture of Hollywood and the stigmatization of the elusive aging actress.
The title Death Becomes Her sums up the whole point of the film; death, or aging comes upon a woman, but for many actresses, aging is the proverbial kiss of death-the death of their youth, and subsequently in the youth-obsessed culture in which we live, the death of a career. This concept is parodied in the film as two women drink “the potion” and stay young and classically beautiful forever. However, the caveat is that they must take care of their bodies because if their physical bodies do in fact die, they will continue to live. Though parodied to the extreme, we see the lengths of what some women will endure to stay forever “beautiful,” though for these women, beautiful is exactly the opposite of what they become.
(Fruit Chan, 2004)
Mrs. Li, an actress in her 30s sees herself, in comparison to herself decades earlier in her films and to her husband’s younger lovers, as unattractive and undesirable. Like the middle-aged actresses in Death Becomes Her, the not even yet middle-aged Mrs. Li also takes a potion of sorts, except instead of swallowing a glowing pink liquid one time for eternal youth, she needs to continually eat fetuses in the form of dumplings to remain wrinkle-free.
Dumplings is the perfect bookend to Death Becomes Her, and shows how regardless of the decade or country, women feel pressure to maintain eternal youth to feel a sense of relevance as they get older. In Mrs. Li’s case, she finds complete legitimacy in skirting the lengths of infanticide.
(Richard Bates, Jr., 2012)
It is rare when a writer/director can tap into the the inner workings (similar to Jack and Diane (below) and Turn Me On, Dammit!) of a teenager with any modicum of accuracy, and this film does just that.
Excision depicts the darker side of a teenager navigating through their newly discovered, unwieldy sexual urges, and in this case, the main character fantasizes about necrophilia. The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) describes lead character Pauline as, “disturbed and delusional,” but this description underestimates the difficultly of coming to terms with your newly developing body and all the psychological confusion therein.
Sex with corpses aside, the way that main character Pauline is portrayed is both unusual and empowering. Though in high school and without any real friends, Pauline is preternaturally self-assured. She owns her desires; she decides when to have her first sexual experience, with whom, and what type of experience she wants to have. She recognizes the limitations of an encounter with a teenage boy, and instead of the typical first jackrabbit-like, awkward sexual experience for most teenage girls, she dictates how the experience will best pleasure herself. This is especially rare in both film and real life as many women feel a sense of shame concerning their own bodies.
Eyes Without a Face (“Les yeux sans visage”)
(Georges Franju, 1960)
Christiane is involved in a disfiguring car accident, but instead of letting her live with her less than perfect visage, her father kills young women in the hopes of transplanting their faces onto his daughter’s now lack of one. Her father practices his untested medical procedures on stray dogs, puts her through a series of transplants where her face rots away from her bones, and even stages her own death.
Throughout the film, as her father continues to assert more authority over her life, Christiane begins to prefer death to a life of a virtual ghost with no autonomy. Without her permission or the choice to make decisions over her own body, he prefers that she be dead to the world as opposed to being perceived as unattractive to a society that is universally understood to be obsessed with flawless beauty.
(Paul Solet, 2009)
When it comes to the horror genre today, in this case, the vampire genre, it is damn near impossible to glean any originality in most horror sub-sects today that haven’t been regurgitated, recycled or spread too thin. In the story of Grace and her newborn child, we see originality brought to the genre by taking the vampire story a step further outside of the box as Grace finds that her baby is only satiated by the nourishment of blood.
Grace is thick with issues that are extremely personal to women specifically, including the loss of a child, breast feeding, women loving women, Oedipal issues, et al, but takes them a step further by stretching the limits of what women will endure to fulfill their more disturbing desires.
Jack and Diane
(Bradley Rust Gray, 2012)
Jack and Diane is one of those great coming of age stories that serves as a reminder that the experience of first love, whether you are attracted to the same or opposite sex, is the great equalizer. Don’t you remember? You acted completely irrational; you ignored your parents’ phone calls; you came home late without permission; you couldn’t sleep…you went crazy! It was all very star-crossed lovers, and even Shakespeare understood hundreds of years ago the power of that innocent, all consuming love, except in Jack and Diane’s case, it would be more akin to Juliet and Juliet, but the passion remains the same.
Of course, with all the lovey-doveyness of the first love, there was always a deeper-seated, more sinister undercurrent: obsession, insecurity, doubt and all of those new, unchecked emotions. Instead of, say, in Romeo and Juliet, resulting in double suicide of sorts, in Jack and Diane’s case, these emotions manifest themselves as ravenous monsters.
Jack and Diane is unique, sweet, and dares to step outside of the realm of the typical coming of age script by normalizing young, same sex relationships and offers us a quaint, original way of representing human emotions.
After three years of feminist horror lists, a shocking thought came to me recently. Is there such a thing as a feminist horror film? Considering one angle: in many of the films listed over the years, a common thread is the victim reclaiming power by exacting a bloody revenge against her aggressor. Reclaiming power after being subjugated can be, well, empowering. On the other side of the coin, if someone asserts their power over you, and you then reclaim that power and use it against them, it maintains that imbalance, and the question becomes: doesn’t asserting power over another make you no better than your abuser? Or does appropriating that violent power from your aggressor empower? You have to ask yourself, which kind of feminist are you?