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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Why I Love Horror Movies

I've had an identity crisis lately when it comes to horror films. On one hand, I've been watching them since I was six (when I first saw Creepshow and Psycho, my first real horror films). I watched B-horror films every Saturday afternoon (after "Dr. Who" was over) and I saw some really terrible specimens of the genre: Rawhead Rex, Motel Hell, 976 Evil. But I also saw some really wonderful films, like Play Misty for Me and Piranha and Spider Baby. As I grew up, however, I started to realize that many horror films are misogynistic and sexist; women are frequently victimized, punished, slaughtered, depicted as idiots, held up for ridicule, and rarely achieve any kind of character development. Look at Last House on The Left or I Spit on Your Grave or The Hills Have Eyes. Each depict rape graphically and for exploitation purposes. It doesn't matter that the woman in I Spit on Your Grave gets her revenge in the end, because her rape scene is obviously meant to titillate the audience, which undermines any kind of "message" the film might have. So I've been grappling with what it means to be a feminist who's still in love with horror movies. It's a challenge. But some of my favorite horror films don't depict women in shitty ways, and some are even feminist. I've come up with a list...see what you think. A caveat: the films I came up with (a preliminary list, to be sure) were directed by men, but this time around I am focusing more on content and the depiction of female characters.

Granted, in Ridley Scott's 1979 film Alien, the powerful, kickass Ripley (Segourney Weaver) is more masculine than Lambert, who is panicky and depicted as being comparably weak. However, this film stands out in that it challenges gender stereotypes by casting a woman in the lead, showing her kicking alien ass, and then surviving. It has some problematic scenes, to be sure, but Alien has got to be one of my favorite horror films of all time.

I've written about Audition before, as it wins the prize for the only film to ever make me physically ill. And I love it. Miike's depiction of an abused woman turning the tables on a voyeuristic, selfish and mendacious would-be suitor is simply phenomenal. Granted, she is depicted as the villain, but I spent most of the film hating the male lead, not the crazy woman who cuts his foot off with piano wire.

The Descent
Singular for it's all female cast and conspicuous lack of sex scenes, Marshall's The Descent, while still being shot through the male gaze, is very much a feminist horror film. The characters are strong, independent, intelligent, capable; there are no cheerleaders running upstairs when they should be going out the back door in this film.

Ginger Snaps
The transition into womanhood is depicted as a physical transformation into a wild animal--this is hardly a new idea (Cat People anyone?) but the film deals more with the feelings of alienation and self-loathing that accompany puberty in girls. The way young women are treated by society, by their families, and by their peers can frequently make them feel like monsters, and Ginger Snaps translates these feelings literally to the screen.

Wait Until Dark
The "final woman" in this film, based on a stage play by Frederick Knott, is the only woman and one of two female characters (the other, Gloria, is a little girl who is equally awesome). Suzy (Audrey Hepburn), a disabled woman who has recently become sight-impaired, manages to kick ass by leveling the playing field in her basement apartment. She outsmarts three men with no assistance, and the final scene is totally kick-ass.

The Wicker Man (1973 version)
Whether or not this is truly a feminist film has been debated over the years, but I think it is. In it, a rigid, authoritative, male conservative character is victimized by feminine power. Granted, it could be taken as a backlash or warning against feminism, but I choose to view it in a straightforward way: a sex-positive, free-thinking Pagan group disarms the patriarchy, if only in a brief instance, and we, the audience, sit back and say "I told you so."

The 2002 horror film May stands out in that it features a "final woman" who has depth, complexity, and strength. Sure, she's odd, and she's a murderer, but she's three-dimensional. She's depicted as a victim of childhood cruelty, but she's no traditional horror "victim." She is the hero and the villain in this titular film; we empathize with May while being horrified by her acts, and the ending is delightfully ambiguous.