Posts Tagged ‘A Feminist Guide to Horror Movies’

Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, Part Three: Worlds Without Patriarchy

Samstag, November 3rd, 2012

Having covered films which reinforce the necessity of the patriarchy, and films which question its value while still punishing challenges to patriarchal norms, let’s look at two movies in which the patriarchy is almost entirely irrelevant.

British director Neil Marshall’s 2005 film The Descent is the most terrifying movie I have ever seen. Claustrophobes beware: The first half of this movie contains the scariest spelunking you’ll ever see on film, and that’s nothing compared to the ravenous underground creatures that appear in the second half–who may have been human once but evolved over centuries to suit their environment by having no sight but super hearing and smell. I think what scares me most about this film, though, is how perfectly it symbolizes the challenges faced by women who refuse to conform to feminine norms.

The film focuses on a group of professional women with a history of adventuring together who meet up in the Appalachian Mountains for a caving expedition. When things go awry, we learn that the leader of the group tricked her friends into entering an uncharted cave, and they are stuck without anyone in the outside world knowing where they are. And, oh yeah, there are monsters: agile, violent creatures that seem to emerge from the grief-stricken subconscious of the main character. The message is pretty clear: Hamstring your women friends and be prepared to be hamstrung yourself (and I mean that literally.) This movie is not about the triumph of the heroine but is rather a gruesome and vivid representation of the double bind: Never has being stuck between a rock and a hard place become so terrifyingly real. Check out Marshall’s film Dog Soldiers for a similar treatment of masculinity.

Though it was shot in 2006, Case 39, featuring Renée Zellweger and Bradley Cooper, was not released in the U.S. until 2010. (Never a good sign, and not surprisingly it got poor reviews.)

Zellweger’s character, Emily, a social worker, begins the movie by telling a moony Doug (Bradley Cooper) that, although she likes him, she’s just too devoted to her job to have a relationship. She takes on an extra case at work and becomes convinced that the new girl under her care, Lilith, is in danger. Emily saves Lilith’s life and attempts to place her in a foster home. When Lilith asks Emily to be her mommy, Emily replies, “I’m just not mom material.” But the persuasive demon child soon finds her way into Emily’s home, and from there things don’t go so well for Emily or for anyone around her. The movie ends with Emily driving her car–with Lilith in it–into a lake and leaving the child, transformed in its last moment into the primordial creature it really is, to drown.

I haven’t had a chance to see two currently playing horror films, Sinister and Silent Hill: Revelation 3D, but from their previews it would appear that they have a great deal to say about fathers, adolescent girls and the ancient curse that is the patriarchy. Some critics are claiming that “horror films have hit a new golden age.” If so, I hope to see more films in which women–win or lose–are free to fight their own battles.

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A Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, Part Two: It’s Not Just About Vampires

Samstag, November 3rd, 2012

Since Edward Cullen first graced the pages of a young adult novel in 2005, vampires have been the sexy bad guys du jour. But it’s not just the lingering fear that sex might lead to death that makes these nightmarish manifestations of sexual desire resonate with audiences.

Gothic horror literature–which attracts audiences by allowing them to vicariously transgress sexual and social norms while also reinforcing the punishments that come with such transgressions–is a goldmine for contemporary filmmakers interested in exploring the sexuality of adolescent women. For example, the 2011 film The Moth Diaries, based on the 2002 young adult novel by Rachel Klein (who wrote the screenplay) and directed by Mary Harron, harkens purposefully back to the first vampire novel, Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla, and does little to counter the lesbian exploitation premise of either book. Intimacy between girlfriends–including one hanging out in a nightgown while the other bathes–is bathed in soft light, but two women having sex is a bloody, messy activity that leads to death. The movie also uses the Gothic trope of an innocent woman trapped by a sinister figure within a decaying castle to great effect: The architecture of the girls’ boarding school creates most of the danger, and the only male figure around is clearly untrustworthy. (Spoiler alert) The heroine triumphs. But this movie is even more sex-shamey than Twilight.

I am looking forward to Diablo Cody writing her horror movie about going to Catholic school, because in Juno she tenderly treats the ambivalent attitude towards teenage sex that she must have learned in that school. But in Jennifer’s Body (2009), directed by Karyn Kusama, Cody turns teenage sex into a nightmare. The small town of Devil’s Kettle serves the function of castle-in-a-remote-wasteland-imprisoning-young-women, where one of the women breaks free only by virtue of the death of the other. A lesbian kiss that wasn’t in the original script makes this film more exploitative than Cody may have intended it to be, but, like The Moth Diaries, Jennifer’s Body cautions us against trusting female sexuality.

In these two movies, the heroines conspicuously lack father figures, but typical Gothic heroines find themselves at the mercy of the very men they are called upon to trust. Silent House (2011), co-written and co-directed by Laura Lau, returns to the idea that patriarchal authority figures–even within our own families–might be the men who pose the most danger. The plot centers again around the house-as-prison metaphor: Sarah, played by Elizabeth Olsen (the far more talented younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley), becomes trapped in her family’s decrepit shoreline house with a sinister figure she assumes to be a homeless squatter. Reflecting the ambivalence with which our culture regards women’s place in the home, the film uses an ancient, secret tragedy to raise questions about whether the heroine is in real danger or is tricked by a tortured mind into believing so.

Gothic novels often dwell upon the fear that the sins of the fathers will be visited on their children. The House at the End of the Street, in theaters now, features a young man ostracized from his community because of his family. The fatherless woman hero (played by The Hunger Games‘ Jennifer Lawrence), shuns the cool kids and instead pursues this mesmerizing-but-off-kilter boy-next-door. Despite her mother’s attempts to protect her, she finds herself drawn into the characteristic Gothic hallways and secret chambers that contain the enigmatic ancient tragedy from which the boy has yet to recover. Sure enough, her instinctual sexual attraction is offered to titillate the audience, then is violently shut down.

With a little Gothic ambivalence, a feminist can at least enjoy watching the female heroes of these films defend themselves, but not without shedding a little blood. And The Moth Diaries, Jennifer’s Body, and Silent House are all written and directed by women. Perhaps that is why the decrepit hallways, doorways and secret rooms of these Gothic environments betray a cultural attitude that the patriarchy, though still in place, may not actually be good for women, and that isolating them from society might not keep them safe.

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A Feminist Guide to Horror Movies, Part One: Daddy Knows Best

Samstag, Oktober 6th, 2012

My love of horror movies is a product of both nature and of nurture. My mother loves them. My older brother says I ended up in theaters as a child watching movies that were definitely not rated for my age group because he convinced Mom, who already wanted to go anyway, that we could handle it. We could, too–despite some interesting nightmares, we didn’t turn into serial killers or become permanently scarred psychologically. Unless you consider our desire to have the crap scared out of us by a good horror movie scarred.

Horror movies provide direct access to what Aristotle called catharsis: the release or balancing of pity and fear. They work directly on the deepest reptile parts of our brains to evoke and then resolve fear. Good horror movies also use plot and characters to draw the audience in on an empathetic level, so that where there is pity there is more fear. And all horror movies contain tropes that can tell us about the deepest fears of the society out of which they come.

As an adult, I watch horror movies as what Princeton University professor Jill Dolan calls a “feminist spectator,” which means that I look at what they tell us about how our culture thinks and feels. Recent horror movies focused on families and children, adolescent women and single women reveal an unsettling persistence of patriarchal norms. (But, then again, horror is supposed to be unsettling, no?). They also suggest that changing family structures–even when change is for the better–can scare the bejeezus out of us.

If you are looking for a good scare this Halloween season, cast your feminist eye on this recent rash of family-centered horror movies in which inattentive fathers leave their children vulnerable to being taken by aliens, monsters and demons.

The Possession, currently in theaters, centers on the character of Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose job distracts him from attending to the needs of his daughters in the aftermath of his divorce from their mother, Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick). He’s so distracted, in fact, that his youngest manages to get herself infected with a Dybbuk. This pre-pubescent girl, who’s in possession of a symbolic “open box,” “ring,” and “thing growing inside her,” speaks to our lingering cultural discomfort with women becoming sexually active before marriage. The takeaway message: No matter the presence or skill of the mother, children can never be safe without their biological fathers around.

In Super 8 (2011), it takes an alien invasion to get distracted father Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) to engage with his son. The mother in this family is out of the picture before the movie even begins: She died in a work-related accident. Literally, the consequence of her working outside of the home was death. Though both father and son are struggling with the loss, Lamb cannot connect with his son until the child’s life is threatened. That the alien has to take the son’s only remaining connection to his mother–a necklace–before it can cease threatening this community speaks to an underlying belief that mothers are expendable and replaceable; fathers are here to stay.

Finally, if you’ve seen Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, you will recognize his trademark trope of turning real childhood fears into metaphorical monsters in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010). The central child of this movie, Sally, has been sent by her mother to live with her disinterested father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new wife Kim (Katie Holmes). Kim is perfectly clear with her husband that she would not have chosen motherhood at this moment in her life and that she expects him to step up as a father. But, busy with his career, he doesn’t, and Sally’s fear that neither her father nor mother loves her is made manifest by the tiny-but-terrifying creatures that live under the house and threaten to overcome her. Ultimately, it’s up to the only potential mother around, Kim, to do what she can to protect the child–although the consequences of her of taking on this role are dire. The ideology is clear, if not feminist: A mother can be a martyr, but only a father can be a hero.

Author: Holly L. Derr via Ms. Magazine