Today, Zach takes a look at the beautiful world of feminine horror. A world that can be provocative and scary all at the same time. In recent years the genre has shifted in ways that have allowed female filmmakers to create important cinema which is also helping further the limits of the genre. After all, Hell hath no fury like...Women In Horror.
This past Mother’s Day got me thinking about all of the fantastic mothers that have existed throughout horror cinema, from classic examples such as Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, to less recognized roles, like Catherine Hicks in Child’s Play. However, more importantly, this particular day brings to attention the topic of women in horror, a topic that continues to cause controversy and debate as the genre evolves. To some people, the role of women in horror is simply for sex and cheap exploitation; the clichés associated with trashier slasher films tend to fill people’s perception of the genre, and there is a lot of legitimacy to these perceptions. Unfortunately, many horror films are misogynistic and sexist, especially from the mainstream. Women are portrayed as helpless, and when they are strong, they are so by being sexy, or are filmed from a perspective to highlight these “sexy” aspects of their body. Additionally, the popularly mocked idea of a woman being punished for her sins can be seen in the genre’s roots, especially during the slasher boom in the 80’s and still to this day. In general, there is a trend that seems to embody a male fear of the independent woman.
And this is without a doubt a problem in the horror community. It not only delegitimizes the genre to wider audiences, but it is also off-putting to female voices that could have power in horror, voices that the community is desperately in need of and that can offer new perspectives to old topics. There is so much potential for the genre to be taken into completely new and unexplored realms, but the image associated with women in horror is unappealing to many audiences.
Yet, to make generalizations that horror is simply “sexist” is to ignore the films that have defied these expectations, and continue to do so. Horror movies pushing these gender boundaries have always existed, although simply under the radar. Films like Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1943) presented an active, intelligent female protagonist that acted independently without a male love interest in a time when characters like this were not even common in mainstream Hollywood films. Movies like Repulsion, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Rosemary’s Baby, Demon Seed, and The Haunting have all featured female protagonists, and rather than portraying them in the “typical” horror misogynistic light, they present women struggling to grapple the pressures exerted on them in society from marriage, to bearing a child, to the idea of settling down.
Lately, there has been a bigger movement to female empowerment in horror, especially in the foreign and independent market. In fact, the image that American horror has created is vastly different than other countries, where female protagonists are a norm and are treated and filmed much differently (especially the new French extremism movement, and a lot of Asian cinema).
These next films illustrate horror cinema breaking away from its sexist clichés, and display that there is indeed hope to open up the genre to a female perspective, and that this perspective possesses a lot to be explored.
Although undeniably flawed, The Woman is one of the most fascinating feminist horror films I have ever seen. The film works most powerfully when taken as a direct allegory; its protagonist, played by the wonderful Pollyanna McIntosh, represents a new image of a woman, one that is not tied down by patriarchal expectations from men, and is able to act freely, independently, and relentlessly. The women surrounding her represent some sort of role a woman is expected to fill, whether that be the passive housewife, the “sexy” teacher, or the abused daughter. Lucky McGee’s biting satire comes across throughout the film, leading to a conclusion that is brutal, but hopeful about the future of women’s roles in society. The film, although flawed, presents interesting commentary, and will undoubtedly lead to some intense discussion.
It is impossible to not mention Inside, the French horror film that shattered the horror community several years ago, as being one of the best horror films in the past decade. It is brutal, intense, beautifully shot, but most importantly, creates 2 of the strongest female characters to hit the screen for years. The film mainly focuses on its 2 female protagonists, who are simply developed, and yet full of complexity. Le Femme and Sarah take up most of the screen time, and although the two are both fighting one another for their lives, they both challenge images of women in horror with their ability to relentlessly fight defend themselves. The film also strays from ever keeping them one dimensional. Even Le Femme, one of the most brutal and evil characters I have ever seen, is given humanity, and these brief subtle moments are what make Inside so powerful.
What makes The Descent such an amazing film – other than it being well shot, well written, and full of intensity – is that it takes a premise similar to Deliverance (with more of a horror spin) and fills it with a cast of women, something that is rarely seen in film in general. Never once is the fact that they are women a facet of the story (unlike many all-female ensemble horror movies like Sorority Row), but rather, they are simply treated as people, and the movie never settles for cheaply filming them to show their sexiness. Rather, the characters are independent, able to defend themselves, and full of complexity and depth.
Ginger Snaps, written by the wonderful Karen Walton, directly addresses the misogynistic world that women find themselves in. The film is a brilliant metaphor for the pains of adolescence for teenage girls, and directly comments on the expectations for women, and how these expectations shape their actions and judgments. It is a powerful character study, but in its satire and commentary, is able to bring up real issues about gender roles in society, and how ridiculous and absurd they are. Additionally, Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins give knock out performances as two sisters struggling to exist within their suburban life. Please, Karen Walton, come back to the horror genre!
Again, this film stars the vastly underrated Katherine Isabelle, and takes on a “revenge” story, while also delving into the elegant and uncharted world of the body modification community. However, what is so significant about this film is that it is made by two twins, Jen and Sylvia Soska, who managed, through their hard work, to bring this film to life independently, and have earned a large cult following because of this. These 2 directors remain among the few women directing in the horror industry, and their vision will indeed not be influenced by any male perspective. Mary, the protagonist, finds herself in a world full of sexism and misogyny, and is able to break through it all through her art form. The sisters are quickly turning the heads of their male counterparts for all the right reasons while also influencing a new breed of female genre filmmakers.
If horror wants to be more accessible to female audiences, it needs to dramatically keep changing its direction so then, hopefully, more female voices will be able to continue to expand the potential for the genre.