As 31 October approaches, the film world divides into two: those who like horror movies, and those who do not. I frequently hear members of the latter group condemning the genre as promoting violence and male chauvinism. The phrase “torture porn” is almost invariably used, in reference to the Hostel and Saw franchises. Imagine if the same generalisations were made about other genres? “I heard Diana was terrible so I’m never watching another drama.” “The trailer for Let’s Be Cops looks bad so I’m giving up on comedy for good.”
Horror movies, like all movies, come in a variety of styles, from teen slashers like Halloween, Scream and Sorority Row, to gore-free psychological chillers like Les Diaboliques, The Haunting, Rosemary’s Baby, The Others, and The Ring. What all the films I’ve listed do have in common, however, is their central female protagonists. What’s more, they all pass the Bechdel Test.
In fact, horror is the easiest genre in which to find female leads. And no, these films aren’t all about “some big-breasted girl who can’t act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door”, as Neve Campbell’s Sydney Prescott suggested in the first Scream movie.
Teen werewolf flick Ginger Snaps (2000) is above all a movie about sisterly love; The Descent (2005) – an all-girl adventure trip turned nightmare – offers a frank look at female friendship under pressure; Teeth (2007), a film about vagina dentata, is a brilliant examination of a girl fighting back against sexual exploitation; Mama (2013) is an exploration of maternal love and child-rearing (with ghosts); and Lyle (2014) – a lesbian Rosemary’s Baby – skilfully shows how aspirations can damage a family.
This Halloween, writer/director Jennifer Kent’s feature debut The Babadook opens in the UK. Ostensibly a film about a single mother whose young son finds a scary picture book full of horrid predictions that start coming true; the movie is one of the best explorations of grief, loneliness, single-parent challenges and parental guilt I’ve seen. Dubbed a female The Shining, the film also dares to explore the biggest taboo of all: a mother feeling hatred for her child. Those with sensitive gag reflexes can relax, as the gore factor is low. However, you will see scenes of a Bechdel-passing nature that are unique in mainstream cinema (when was the last time you watched a middle-aged mother listlessly reach into her sewing box to find her vibrator?)
On the DVD front, your girl-power needs are met by the release of Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson’s cheerleader-zombie-witch flick All Cheerleaders Die. Anyone familiar with McKee’s oeuvre will know that he likes his gore (and does it well), but he’s also responsible for some of the most feminist cinematic narratives of recent years: May, The Woods, The Woman, and now Cheerleaders. All the films centre on female relationships, most have central (incidentally) lesbian characters, and highlight the inequality of the sexes. It’s no simplistic case of girl=good, boy=bad; there are truly despicable male characters, but also scary, nasty females.
Easy answers aren’t on offer; McKee’s movies may look like lightweight slashers – and they are indeed fast-paced and humorous with catchy soundtracks – but scratch the garish pop-culture surface and you’ll find a radical gender narrative at work. McKee himself tells me, “Some people are thrown by [Cheerleaders], particularly guys who assume that at least one of the boys in the movie is going to manage to do something heroic.”
With much of contemporary cinema feeling unexciting and retrogressive, why not make this the Halloween when you challenge your assumptions and give horror a chance? You can always think of it as “art house”, “thriller” or “independent” if it makes you feel better.
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