First published in The Independent Voices 29th November 2013
I love horror. I love the jumps, the winces, the rush of adrenaline that accompanies a satisfying scare. There are lots of laudable things about the genre that are often overlooked, such as its ability to explore social fears in a way that other types of film do not. What happens when the good guys don’t win or when the rule of law is subverted or made irrelevant? What happens when the familiar (the home, our children, our partners) becomes unfamiliar or invaded by outside forces (hauntings, home invasions, possessions, abductions, psychosis)? Good, innovative horror is meant to push boundaries and challenge audiences, to shake them out of cinematic torpor and force them to really think. A horror film can allow a build-up and release of extreme emotion that will be cathartically left behind when one exits the cinema.
As Kimberly Pierce’s remake of the Stephen King classic Carrie opens in the UK today, I find myself wondering why horror claims so few female directors and so few films with female villains. The ABCs of Death 2 launched a competition in August, searching for the 26th director to be included in their feature length collaboration. According to badassdigest.com only seven of the 78 entries to date have been from female filmmakers. The Carrie remake is both directed by a woman and populated largely by female characters with varied motivations and personalities, none of whom represent the standard Final Girl seen in male-directed, big budget slasher flicks.However, there is a subcategory within horror that substantiates uncomfortable claims of misogyny within the genre. This is a strand of horror that seems to really hate women. It revolves solely around the rape and torture of female characters, with little in the way of plot, script, or motive. Examples of this include The Bunny Game (2012, Adam Rehmeier) where a prostitute is tortured and sexually abused for a grim 76 minutes, Murder Set Pieces (2004, Nick Palumbo) that shows ‘The Photographer’ hacking his way through a collection of prostitutes, Scrapbook (2000, Eric Stanze) that involves the kidnap, repeated rape and torture of a young woman and August Underground (2001, Fred Vogel) that opens with a nude, bound women who has had her nipple cut off and proceeds to endure having her face smeared with human excrement before she is killed. I’m also going to add Lucifer Valentine’s Slaughtered Vomit Dolls (2006) to this list because, puking fetish awfulness aside, all the women are naked, all the women are prostitutes, and all but one of them (she is required to star in the equally repellent sequels) are murdered by a male character.
My point here is not that rape and torture have no place on celluloid or that their inclusion in a film cannot make a legitimate artistic or political statement. Rather, that the films detailed above and those like them, are not saying anything. They seem to merely represent a plotless, pointless mass of ugly misogyny that does nothing to challenge its own sheer unpleasantness. (I guess a plotline or some non-victimised female characters would be too much to ask for.)
The Bunny Game is banned from being legally distributed in the UK and the BBFC states that “the lack of explanation of the events depicted, and the stylistic treatment, may encourage some viewers to enjoy and share in the man’s callousness”. It is this indolent lack of explanation and absence of motive that makes me certain that this subgenre of material presents sexual degradation and torture for its own sake. The only questions I came away with post-viewing were regarding who the hell the target audience was supposed to be, and where I could find some strong soap to wash my eyes with. Far be it from me to use the phrase ‘artistically worthless’, but the boot certainly seems to fit.
More disturbingly, there are virtually no examples of gender reversal within this subgenre. Female killers are simply not as common as their male counterparts and when they do exist, they seem to at least have some kind of motive or backstory behind them, for example Misery’s Annie Wilkes. Even within the rape/revenge category, when the revenge bit occurs and the female protagonist regains agency by torturing and killing those who have wronged her, it is because of her victim status for the first 50/60 minutes of film. It is not random. Moreover, sexual violence in horror films is rarely perpetrated by female characters but no other genre seems to toss around scenes of violent rape enacted on female bodies so frequently.
Horror is being let down by these unpleasant fringe elements, by films that are at best sloppy, poorly written and unimaginative, and at worst, revel in violence against female bodies like pigs in shit. I’d like to see more female directors being successful in horror and for fans of indie horror to take a stand, through their choices of purchases and downloads, against films that lightly and lazily portray female degradation and powerlessness, in the wake of male violence. They are not welcome. They give the genre a bad name.
My favourite horror films, directed by women:
American Mary (Jen and Sylvia Soska, 2012) – A struggling medical student decides to eschew her course in favour of performing extreme body modifications and niche surgeries. Lashings of gross-out moments and asks some important questions about self-expression, femininity and the status of medical professionals.
Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001) – Cannibalism, desire and obsession. Part of the New French Extremity movement, which boasts some of the cleverest and bloodiest titles in modern horror.
In My Skin (Marina de Van, 2002) – After suffering a disfiguring accident, a woman becomes obsessed with mutilating her own body. Another New French Extremity film, exploring the disassociation women often feel towards their own physicality.
American Pyscho (Mary Harron, 2000) – If you haven’t already seen this adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’ horrifying masterpiece, I suggest you do so, and fast! Shallowness, narcissism, pop-culture and murderous rampages all come together in this biting 21st century satire.