My Top 10 Feminist Horror Movie Picks for 2012

In the Exploring Feminisms household, horror is one of the most common film genres playing on our television.  Of those out there, very little are what I would consider feminist, or at least having a feminist agenda of some sort.  So, why not find some for ourselves?

Here’s the straight dope: this task turned out to be a lot more difficult than I thought–there are about a million and one horror films out there.  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 overt feminist themes.

Here is my 10 top list of films watched during 2012, in alphabetical order.

Enjoy you feminist sickos!

~

Alien
(Ridley Scott, 1979)

If you’ve never seen Alien, then you most likely are aware of the oh-so-popular cultural references, namely aliens exploding from chests, the large black shiny alien with the elongated head and of course, Sigourney Weaver, aka Ripley.  Alien is about a crew in the future who investigates a “save our ship” message on a foreign planet and while there encounter a new alien species.  The movie is shocking, suspenseful and at times, really gross.

What is so refreshing about the film is that Ripley is tough, pragmatic, independent and smart.  She isn’t overly masculine or a woman in need; she’s there to do a job and her character doesn’t fall into any overt gender categories, as many horror films tend to do with their female characters.

Diabolique
(Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)

A kind school mistress with a weak heart plots to kill her husband with her husband’s lover.  After the deed is done, his ghostly presence is presumed to be lurking around.  This French director’s style is often referred to as a precursor to Hitchcock and definitely lives up to its reputation as it brims with suspense and intrigue.

Because this film takes place at an all-boys’ school, is haunted by past demons and is run by both compassionate and cunning caretakers, it is comparable to Guillermo del Toro’s film, The Devil’s Backbone and I would recommend it to anyone who felt a kinship to this movie.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose
(Scott Derrickson, 2005)

Finally!  An original possession flick besides the Exorcist!  Director Derrickson puts a new spin on the genre by making it half exorcism, half court drama.  Starring Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Campbell Scott and Jennifer Carpenter, the cast adds to the solid story by going all out for a horror film with not an ounce of ham, melodrama or condescension.  Linney is the defense lawyer for priest Tom Wilkinson and must reconcile the supernatural with the fact-based legal system.  Recommended for anyone who likes horror films that are devil/possession based but are tired of the constant regurgitation of unoriginal films of this genre.

Ginger Snaps
(John Fawcett, 2000)

This coming of age horror story follows the lives of two outcast teenage sisters who are embarking on the threshold of the unknown, namely puberty, guys, and werewolves.  Directed by John Fawcett and written by Karen Walton, Ginger Snaps was a window into my own mid-teen youth: hating the popular girls, wearing clothing that was black and big enough to fit Dom De Luise, and having an open love affair with all that is macabre.  Having been a teenage girl once, this movie was a stroll down an anguish-filled brick road that was my teenage years and is a tribute to Walton’s ability to recall her past with such vivid accuracy, and presenting it in a new and original way.

May
(Lucky McKee, 2002)

The VHS of May sat on my VCR for probably over a year.  After much harassment from its cult followers I finally saw it and I can finally say, I get it.  It’s rare that you watch a film about a young woman whose only best friend is her porcelain doll that may actually be alive, may be committing murder and hacking people to bits and think, “wow, that was a really cute film.”  Mission accomplished.

Resident Evil Series (1-5)
(Paul W.S. Anderson: 2002, 2010 & 2012; Russell Mulcahy, 2007; Alexander Witt, 2004)

Rumor is that the Resident Evil franchise was originally a video game, and friends have said that the first of the five holds true to the game.  Having never played the game myself, I can comfortably recommend all of them to someone who is less than game-friendly.

The series is a mix of horror and action and Milla Jovovich as Alice shoots and kicks her ass off as the protagonist against both an evil corporation and zombies.  Though she is a formidable force with which to be reckoned, she still is a woman who contemplates marriage and children, though these subtle cues are merely hinted at.

Tucker and Dale v. Evil
(Eli Craig, 2010)

This may seem like a rather unusual pick for a feminist horror film.  It’s about two hillbillies, Tucker and Dale, and their dashed dreams of remodeling their newly acquired cabin in the backwoods when a group of frat boys and girls show up and ruin the fun.  Despite our ideas of Deliverance-style backwoods folk, this film turns these stereotypes upside down by showing a softer side of woodsy types.  Tucker and Dale respect women, care about animals and love nature.  On the flip side, the rich, educated and upper-class college kids are aggressive, violence-driven, right-wing conservatives who treat women like sex objects, and the women seemingly have no objections.

This film is filled with delight, whimsy, gore, blood and bones, combined with a dash of pleasant surprise.

Underworld Series (1-4)
(Len Wiseman, 2003, 2006 and 2012 and Patrick Tatopoulos, 2009)

Much like Alien and the Resident Evil series, the four Underworld movies are led by a tough female lead who also happens to be a vampire.  The first, second and fourth films highlight Selene, a vampire whose family is killed by lycans (werewolves) and because of this, spends her life seeking revenge against the whole race (never judge a whole race by its worst specimens!).  In the third, and also the prequel, Selene takes a backseat as we are shown the history of the vampires and lycans and how the feud began.

What can I say, this year I’m into women who have huge…ovaries.

The Ward
(John Carpenter, 2010)

Carpenter picks up steam again with The Ward; a young woman is sent to an insane asylum that may or may not be haunted by a former “tenant.”  Not only is the lead terribly beautiful, but she’s also willful and possibly bat-shit crazy.  You be the judge.

The flick is classic John Carpenter with its female lead, gore, perfect music placement, suspense and a great surprise ending.

Witches of Eastwick
(George Miller, 1987)

Okay, yes, I’m going there.  Considering that this movie was made in the 1980s, by some standards it may seem old and younger generations may be completely oblivious of its presence.  But like major events in history, it would be a detriment to our society if this film was forgotten.

Basic plot rehash: three women live in a small town and the devil moves in.  Campy?  Yes.  Big hair?  Yes.  And yes, Jack Nicholson, who plays Satan in the film, not-so-ironically calls himself a “horny devil.”  Pretty corny.  But this film offers so much more!  It’s about sexual liberation.  It’s about the pressures of living in a small, conservative town where female sexuality and independence are seen as evil.  It’s also about Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon all being awesome actresses who are willing to have sex with Satan and not giving a shit—at least at first.

This film could arguably be an amazing feminist horror film, or an incredibly sexist flick from the 1980s.  I leave it up to you to discuss.

~

Need more feminist horror film suggestions?  Click here to see my top 10 list for 2011 and my list for 2013

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He Said/She Said Director Profile: John Carpenter

This director profile of John Carpenter is yet another joint-venture of Exploring Feminisms and my spouse Michael’s film studies blog White City Cinema. This is our first time discussing the body of work of a filmmaker rather than a single film.

MGS: So we just finished watching virtually all of John Carpenter’s movies together and I guess I’d like to start off this “director profile” by discussing how we got on this particular kick. When I was a kid in the early to mid-Eighties I remember that HalloweenEscape from New York and The Thing were all a big deal to me. Those movies ruled cable television at the time and I watched them over and over. Then, when Prince of Darkness came out in the fall of 1987, I saw it in the theater as a budding 12-year old horror movie aficionado, fully aware that I was seeing the “new John Carpenter film.” I also saw They Live the next year and loved that too. Then, I started watching serious art films as a teenager and kind of lost touch with what Carpenter was doing until a couple years ago. I think the motivation for our retrospective was when we bought Halloween on blu-ray. I hadn’t seen it in years and probably never in its original aspect ratio and I was just blown away by how great it is: the suspenseful, brilliantly edited set pieces, the elegant camera movements and, of course, that incredible, minimalist synthesizer score. It made me want to see and re-see all of his films. Do you remember your earliest impressions of Carpenter and what exactly hooked you during our recent retrospective?

JM: I can honestly say that growing up, I didn’t know who Carpenter was and though there was an awareness of his cultural presence, didn’t link his films together. I knew that I liked Halloween, but didn’t like, or really didn’t understand, They Live or Big Trouble in Little China, for example. I didn’t see a connecting thread or appreciate his abilities as a director until we began our Carpenter-kick, and that is where my interest snowballed. When you picked out movies for us to watch in our Netflix and Facets queues, I was constantly surprised at the films that I was aware of, but never knew that he directed. Do you see an interconnected thread throughout his films that is indicative of his directing style, apart from his often 80s-sounding synthesizer music?

MGS: Absolutely. The most obvious thread would be his mastery of (and unironic love for) genre filmmaking. The critic Kent Jones said the best thing about Carpenter, that he’s the last straightforward genre filmmaker in Hollywood and the only one who doesn’t look at genres as “museums to be plundered.” In other words, unlike, say, the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino, who self-consciously mash-up different genres or run genre conventions through a kind of post-modern blender, Carpenter plays the conventions straight and true, as if he were making his films in the 1950s. Obviously, the genre he’s most known for is horror. But, in a way, a lot of his films can be characterized as modern-day or futuristic takes on the western as well; virtually all of Carpenter’s movies follow one of two basic western-style plots: the group of people who become trapped in an isolated, claustrophobic location who find themselves being menaced by an enemy from without, or the group of people who are forced to enter a foreign, hostile territory and must battle their way out from within. It seems that most aspects of Carpenter’s visual style flow organically from these archetypal stories (the use of cross-cutting to generate suspense, an expressive use of Cinemascope framing featuring geometric groupings of actors, etc.)

Kurt Russell, obviously, is the ultimate Carpenter actor and can be seen as the director’s alter ego: Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, R.J. MacReady in The Thing and Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China are all very similar and yet very distinct. They are all anti-authoritarian “lone wolf” types who nonetheless differ drastically in terms of personality and morality. Snake is Russell doing Clint Eastwood, Jack is Russell doing John Wayne (hilariously, I might add), and Mac is essentially Russell being Russell. This reminds me – it seems you and I agree that the real golden age for Carpenter was between 1978 and 1986. Everything from Halloween to Big Trouble in Little China is just incredible (with the partial exception of Christine, although that has its virtues too) and nobody really appreciated what he was doing at the time. After that, there’s a drop off in overall quality although he still does good work intermittently up through the present. So, my next question for you is what do you think Carpenter’s best and worst films are? More specifically, what do you see as Carpenter’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker?

JM: Without a doubt, The Thing is his best film, followed by Halloween, thenThe Ward.

The Thing: very much ahead of its time. It’s shockingly scary, even for today’s standards of visual and gore overload.

Halloween: one of the first extended scenes from a murderer’s point of view and, though it was only his third full length film, it’s difficult not to appreciate how steadfast his style has been throughout the years.

Village of the Damned: let me clarify by first stating that this isn’t in my top ten, but it does a great job of being a classic horror film by making you feel really uncomfortable, and it’s difficult to make an audience feel so consistently out of control.

The Ward: an awesome comeback after a few not so inspired films and like a few of his other flicks, such as Halloween, it has a really strong female lead.

Regarding what I consider to be his less than perfect films, I can’t criticize them too vehemently because I think they all have their strong points. Ghosts of Mars, for example, is missing a more fleshed out story, but how can you not love Pam Grier? Similarly, Christine falls into the same category where large chunks of information are left out, jumping from scene to scene when there should be some meat in the middle. However, the car, especially when it’s on a rampage, is terrifying.

Another film that had such potential but fell flat was Pro-life from the Masters of Horror television series, which featured one of our joint favorites, Ron Perlman. Though I am pro-choice and did work at Planned Parenthood, I do try to keep an open mind when it comes to anything even slightly anti-choice in art. Given that this is a horror film, I was hoping that whichever way it went, pro or anti-choice, it was going to be entertaining. All in all, the film had a lot of holes in it; some scenes were gruesome to the utmost, and other scenes made it obvious that it was a TV movie. As the movie ended, though it did slant towards a pro-choice point of view, I kept thinking of ways that it could have been made better.

Overall, I think he has two strengths that attract me to his films. The first is that he’s really good at scaring the audience through gore, the unknown, and even downright creepy music. Two: even though their butts are often hanging out, he has a good amount of tough female leads, i.e. The Ward,HalloweenThe Fog, and Ghosts of Mars. I’m sure that you disagree with some of my picks, so what are some of your favorites and not-so-favorites?

MGS: Well, I agree Pro-Life is bad all around, which is interesting because it obviously carries the Carpenter stamp. It falls into that group-of-people-under-siege storyline that I brought up earlier. But, as Pauline Kael would tell you, just because a director’s signature is identifiable doesn’t mean the work is inherently valuable. I’m also in full agreement that The Thing is his masterpiece. Of course, we also saw it under the most optimum conditions imaginable: a 35mm ‘Scope print at a midnight show with a packed audience, which is not true of the other Carpenter films in our retrospective. And you’re right that the gore in that film is both shocking and unbelievably effective. I couldn’t believe how gory it still looks after all these years. A big part of that, I think, is realizing that you’re looking at good old-fashioned effects and make-up, which have a thick, heavy, moist presence on screen (in contrast to say, the thinness/cartoonishness of CGI). Halloween is also right up there for me, obviously. My other favorite is Starman. That’s a film I saw and liked as a kid but was just floored to realize how good it still is as an adult. I see it as kind of love story version of The Thing (in much the same way that Big Trouble is the comedy version of Escape from New York)! There’s a real sense of wonder to that film, a feeling of what it’s like to look at the world through truly innocent eyes that goes much deeper than the faux-innocence of, say, Steven Spielberg. The scene where Jeff Bridges brings the deer back to life made me want to cry and the ending of the film – the final interaction between Bridges and Karen Allen – is just sublime.

I’m surprised by your singling out Village of the Damned. I actually liked the first 30 minutes of it but, as soon as the children appear and the mystery becomes more concrete, I thought it became much less interesting. Also, Kirstie Alley’s performance strikes me as one of the weakest to be found in any Carpenter film. In general, I don’t think that he’s the best director of actors. I think he needs to work with strong actors who kind of already understand the spirit of what he’s doing, like, say, Kurt Russell. I’m glad that you like The Ward though. I too thought it was pretty great, a kind of b-movie version of Shutter Island centered on a female protagonist. I felt like he was really returning to his low-budget roots with that one and I think he directed the hell out of it. I’m also glad you brought up the female protagonists; Natasha Henstridge was a really appealing action heroine inGhosts of Mars and I liked the chemistry between her and Ice Cube. But that script was so lame; it was just one endless shootout after another and the whole thing quickly became noisy, monotonous and irritating. For me, it’s a toss up between that and Vampires for the title of worst Carpenter film. However, having said that, we saw a few Carpenter films that were very pleasant surprises for me. Chief among them is probably Memoirs of an Invisible Man. I always assumed that would be one of the low points of his career but, after finally seeing it, I was surprised at how well it worked as a light comedy thriller. There are a few set pieces in it that are really excellent, like the scene where Chevy Chase as the invisible man uses the body of a passed out drunk to hail a cab and catch a ride across town. I think of it as Carpenter’s version of North By Northwest. Any last thoughts you’d like to add?

JM: Now that our Carpenter-thon is over, I am left with a profound sense of respect for him as a director, writer and cheesy synthesizer musician, and possibly as someone who may even stick his toes into the feminist pond.

Jill’s Top Ten John Carpenter Films 
10. Christine
9. Escape from L.A.
8. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
7. Starman
6. The Fog
5. Escape from New York
4. Someone’s Watching Me!
3. The Ward
2. Halloween
1. The Thing

MGS’ Top Ten John Carpenter Films
10. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
9. In the Mouth of Madness
8. They Live
7. The Ward
6. Assault on Precinct 13
5. Big Trouble in Little China
4. Escape from New York
3. Halloween
2. Starman
1. The Thing