Sunday, October 8, 2017

A Look at Feminist Horror Films

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at feminist horror movies. The horror genre has a reputation for being sexist and there certainly are titles which fit that bill. However, horror is one of the few genres that regularly features female leads and gender parity in its casting. These pictures also comment upon patriarchy, misogyny, and gender politics that other films take for granted.

The Seventh Victim (1943)
Dir Mark Robson

In the 1940s homosexuality was forbidden under the Production Code and sexuality and the occult were treaded upon very lightly. The Seventh Victim was, in its day, quite radical. According to Thomas Hobbs, the movie's "female characters control their own destinies, share intimate sexual relationships with one another, and aren't afraid to answer back to men."

She (1965)
Dir. Robert Day

Writer H. Rider Haggard’s book She: A History of Adventure has been adapted into a feature film at least seven times. She is the story of British adventurers who discover a lost city in Africa presided over by Queen Ayesha. The movie was adapted into a 1965 film by Hammer with Ursula Andress in the title role. Its success led Hammer to produce a series of films with female leads including Countess Dracula, Twins of Evil, The Vampire Lovers, and One Million Years B.C. It also appears that this movie had some influence on Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Carrie (1976)
Dir. Brian De Palma

When a movie is described as “feminist” it is often taken to mean stories about strong and assertive female characters. That’s certainly one formulation but it’s far too limiting to encompass all feminist stories. The title character of Stephen King’s Carrie is not an assertive character; she’s meek and docile but the film renders her with depth and compassion. In fact, nearly all of the major characters of this film are women, including the teenage bullies, the would-be heroic gym teacher, and Carrie’s psychotic mother, and the film offers a range of views of womanhood.

Friday the 13th Part II (1981)
Dir. Steve Miner

The slasher movies of the 1980s were frequently attacked by critics and women’s groups for, among other things, exploiting women in danger. According to the popular criticism, these movies specifically focused on the bloody deaths of women and punished female characters who had sex. While there were some films that did this, most slasher movies actually featured equal numbers of male and female victims and the link between sin and punishment was overstated by critics. Among the best examples of this was Friday the 13th Part II. Ginny, played by Amy Steel, was a smart and resourceful heroine who not only stood up to masked killer Jason Voorhees but also to the male camp staff. Ginny was also smart and educated and in the climax of the movie she uses her knowledge of child psychology to defeat Jason.

Ms. 45 (1981)
Dir. Abel Ferrara

Ms. 45 is a rape revenge movie about a mute woman who is sexually assaulted--twice in one day--and then stalks the streets of New York City, killing men Death Wish-style. Unlike some of the other vigilante films of the 1970s and 80s, Ms. 45 is uncertain about the morality of killing and this woman gradually loses her grip on sanity. At the time it was released, Ms. 45 was criticized for exploiting sexual assault but in the years since the movie has been reevaluated and it is now considered an important feminist work.

Aliens (1986)
Dir. James Cameron

One of the great characters in both science fiction and horror is Ellen Ripley from the Alien series, played by Sigourney Weaver. Ripley was a terrific heroine partly because she was tough and rose to the occasion but also because she retained vulnerable human qualities. It’s not a coincidence that the best film in the series also featured Ripley at her most compelling and most feminist. 1986’s Aliens presented the character as a survivor coping with post-traumatic stress and put Ripley on a trajectory of facing her fears and saving the day.

The Stepfather (1987)
Dir. Joseph Rubin

The Stepfather is one of the best and most subversive horror pictures of the 1980s. The title character of this film (played terrifically by Terry O'Quinn) is a twisted version of the suburban dad; he’s a man who bought into the idealized version of the nuclear family—and the ideology associated with it—and then is driven to murder when his expectations aren’t met. The violent disillusionment of the title character feels remarkably contemporary, much more so than the 2009 remake.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Dir. Jonathan Demme

1991’s The Silence of the Lambs remains one of the most popular horror stories and the movie is mostly associated with Dr. Hannibal Lecter, played brilliantly by Anthony Hopkins. However, The Silence of the Lambs is really about FBI trainee Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster. Every scene unfolds from her point of view and filmmaker Jonathan Demme is always conscientious of Clarice’s place in a man’s world.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
Dir. Fran Rubel Kuzui

Before it was a hit TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a 1992 movie starring Kristy Swanson, Donald Sutherland, and Paul Reubens. It was the first feature film project of Joss Whedon, who is credited as the writer. The film wasn’t very successful and probably would have been forgotten if not for the television series that ran from 1997 – 2003, guided by Whedon and starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. Since Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon has become one of the biggest names in Hollywood as well as a champion of placing women in lead roles.

The Craft (1996)
Dir. Andrew Fleming

Fantasy movies have a way of literalizing abstract ideas or making mundane everyday experiences new and exciting. 1996’s The Craft was a mix of fantasy and horror in which a group of high school girls dabble in magic. This is at heart a high school clique movie like Mean Girls but it smartly uses the fantasy to visualize young women coming of age and the power of adolescent angst. As the women realize their power they have to learn to take responsibility for it and one especially troubled member of the group is led into dark magic, which literalizes the rage and destructiveness that is inherent to adolescence.

American Psycho (2000)
Dir. Mary Harron

Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho was one of the most controversial books of the 1990s. The novel, which focuses on the life of a psychotic Wall Street executive, featured lurid passages of violence, particularly against women, and American Psycho was a target of protest. However, Ellis intended the book as a feminist piece; it was a send up of the emptiness, materialism, and chauvinism of upper class society pushed to satirical extremes. American Psycho was adapted into a motion picture directed by Mary Harron and co-written by Guinevere Turner with Christian Bale cast in the lead role. In their hands, the violence was slightly toned down while the sardonic tone was turned up and the film version of American Psycho made plain the book’s satirical intentions. Looked at now, it is a striking (and often funny) indictment of what’s popularly called “toxic masculinity.”

Monster (2003)
Dir. Patty Jenkins

Monster was the true story of Aileen Wuornos, a sex worker who murdered several men. Wuornos lived a horrific life of homelessness and abuse and writer/director Patty Jenkins approached the story with an appropriate level of compassion. Wuornos is played by Charlize Theron in what remains the most extraordinary performance of Theron’s career and she is paired with an equally impressive Christina Ricci as Wuornos’ girlfriend.

The Descent (2005)
Dir Neil Marshall

Neil Marshall’s 2005 movie The Descent follows a group of women on a spelunking adventure. While exploring a series of caves they become trapped and then are preyed upon by subterranean monsters. The creature-feature aspects of The Descent are good and scary but the most intense moments of this movie are the claustrophobic cave set pieces. The Descent also has some impressive character work and the filmmakers do an impressive job characterizing these women and suggesting some depth in their relationships.

Death Proof (2007)
Dir. Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino’s half of the 2007 double feature Grindhouse was a play on slasher films with knives swapped out in favor of muscle cars. A group of women are stalked by a deranged stuntman who deliberately crashes his cars for a sexual thrill. The movie plays on the sex and gender politics of slasher film as well as some of the facets of the rape-revenge genre. This was Tarantino’s first step in using movies to comment upon the politics of different film genres, which he would progressively do better in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.

Hostel: Part II (2007)
Dir. Eli Roth

Eli Roth’s follow up to his hit 2005 splatter movie was the rare sequel that surpassed the original. The Hostel series is about an organized crime syndicate that abducts tourists and sells them to bidders who pay large sums of money to torture and kill the victims. Hostel: Part II's considerable gore belied the fact that this was a smart movie which drew connections between the gender politics of horror movies and the real life sources (and economic incentives) of misogynistic violence.

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