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Thursday 31 October 2019

Cinematic horror

Scream queens

Horror has always been a genre for women. Now, increasingly, it’s by them too

By Anne Billson

Bela Lugosi once said, “It is women who love horror. Gloat over it. Feed on it. Are nourished by it. Shudder and cling and cry out – and come back for more.” No doubt the Austro-Hungarian actor was specifically referring to the female fans who swooned over his portrayal of Dracula as the ultimate tall, dark stranger with a hypnotic gaze, first on stage and then in Todd Browning’s 1931 film, but he was surely on to something. For it’s true, if seldom acknowledged, that the horror genre has always appealed as much to women as to men.

Flashback to 1980s London, where the handful of women attending the Shock Around the Clock weekend film festivals at the Electric or Scala cinemas used to share a standing joke that the dearth of female viewers meant it was the only gig in town where we never had to queue for the ladies’ lavatories. We female horror fans were a passionate minority whose tastes for the grotesque and gory raised the eyebrows of our more tastefully inclined film-buff friends.

In the heyday of slasher movies such as Friday the 13th (1980), The Prowler (1981) or The Burning (1981), we made up less than 25 per cent of the audiences, but even then we railed against public misconceptions of the genre – fuelled in the UK by tabloid-stoked outrage over so-called “video nasties” – as a procession of scantily clad cheerleaders having sex or going skinny-dipping before being chased, sliced and dispatched by axe-wielding psychokillers. True horror fans, of course, always knew the genre had more to offer, but to winkle out the female-friendly gems required patience, persistence and a willingness to sit through a lot of questionable misogynistic content.

Emily Blunt calls for silence in ‘A Quiet Place’ (John Krasinski, 2018)

But things change, and so do demographics. Over the past three decades, the ratio of female to male horror filmgoers has been steadily improving, until the trade paper Screen Daily was able to declare last year, “The strongest audience for horror, traditionally the bastion of young males, is now younger females.” At this year’s FrightFest, the 20-year-old horror beano held every August Bank Holiday in London’s West End, audiences finally achieved a 50:50 split between male and female.

And, after years of being dismissed as cinema’s dirty little secret, horror itself has become an economic force to reckon with, with modestly budgeted hits such as A Quiet Place (2018), Hereditary (2018), Us (2019), It (2017) and It Chapter Two (2019) holding their own at a box-office otherwise dominated by mega-budgeted Disney and Marvel blockbusters.

Guarding against ‘The Babadook’ (Jennifer Kent, 2014)

Observers point to The Babadook, the 2014 directing debut by Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent, as an industry changer. Kent’s spine-chilling story about a widowed single mother (a harrowing performance by Essie Davis) who becomes obsessed, and then possessed, by the sinister monster from her six-year-old son’s storybook, strikes an adroit balance between corporeal, psychological and supernatural menace, while the all-too-prevalent realities of mothers suffering from chronic lack of sleep, financial insecurity and lack of emotional support are dealt with more convincingly than in many a social realist drama.

The film resonated well beyond the usual horror audiences to become one of the first examples of what is now being referred to as “elevated horror” – in other words, horror that appeals to people who say they don’t like horror – and inspiring a flurry of well-meaning articles praising Kent’s film at the expense of the rest of the genre. “In most mainstream horror,” wrote one of Kent’s interviewers, “women are either blonde fodder for rampant serial killers or the petrified victims of supernatural creatures. They might also get to swing an axe or two (in a halter-neck top), but rarely are viewers invited inside their minds.”

Cat? Or Person? Simone Simon in ‘Cat People’ (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)

This, of course, is the sort of nonsense that could only be spouted by someone who had never paid close attention to horror films. Because, across the years, they have always invited us into the minds of some of cinema’s most complex and fascinating women. As far back as the 1940s, Val Lewton produced a string of low-budget black and white horror movies for RKO Pictures in which female characters often took centre stage, the films’ sensationalist titles belying the thoughtful content and psychological acuity.

Cat People (1942) presents a not-unsympathetic portrait of a Serbian fashion designer (the eerily feline Simone Simon) who believes herself descended from a race of people who shapeshift into deadly panthers when aroused. I Walked with a Zombie (1943) is a reworking of Jane Eyre, transposed to a Caribbean island where the wife of a sugar plantation’s owner is apparently in thrall to a voodoo curse. In the almost unbearably melancholy The Seventh Victim (1943), a young woman searching for her missing sister in New York City stumbles across a devil-worshipping cult – 25 years before Rosemary’s Baby – in a haunting fable of women struggling to control their own destinies in an atmosphere of urban angst tinged with lesbian desire.

The Italian theatrical poster for ‘The Vampire Lovers’ (Roy Ward Baker, 1970)

While male vampires prey on female victims (often while awakening their repressed sexuality) in Dracula and its sequels and remakes, the female of the species broods about the ramifications of her condition or defies patriarchal expectation by implicitly embracing lesbianism in Dracula’s Daughter (1936), The Vampire Lovers (1970), Daughters of Darkness (1971) or The Velvet Vampire (1971). Horror films, in fact, have always provided a cunning way of smuggling “deviant” sexuality past the censors, or of otherwise showing women’s struggle against society’s attempts to pigeonhole them as mere accessories to powerful men.

Bloody retribution follows a bloody prank in ‘Carrie’ (Brian De Palma, 1976)

The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963), Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) are supreme examples of spectators being invited to share the ambiguous neuroses of their female protagonists. Is the horror real, or a figment of these women’s fevered imaginations? Either way, the results are terrifying.

Even in 1970s Hollywood, when meaty female roles were thin on the ground in the films of a new generation of macho “Movie Brats” such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, horror films gave us Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973), Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie in Carrie (1976), Karen Black in Trilogy of Terror (1975) and Burnt Offerings (1976), and Sigourney Weaver in Alien (1979).

Of course, cinema has long been a boys’ club in which female filmmakers were always the exception rather than the rule. It follows, therefore, that horror movies were almost always written and directed by men. But even a director such as Dario Argento – the Italian horror maestro who once said of his female characters, “If they have a good face or figure I would much prefer to watch them murdered than an ugly girl or a man” – has contributed his fair share of intrepid heroines, notably Jessica Harper battling ballet school witches in the fairytale-adjacent Suspiria (1977), and Jennifer Connelly, who in Phenomena (1985) communicates telepathically with insects and teams up with a vengeful chimpanzee to take down a psychokiller.

Marilyn Burns just about clings on to her life in ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

Nor is the much-maligned slasher subgenre short of feisty females. Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Olivia Hussey in Black Christmas (1974) and Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween (1978) fought through the carnage of the 1970s, paving the way for the next decade’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), in which it’s a young woman who has to take on the fearsome Freddy Krueger, who murders teenagers in their dreams.

“When I watched movies like The Goonies and E.T., it was boys having adventures,” Diablo Cody, screenwriter of 2009’s Jennifer’s Body, told The New York Times. “When I watched Nightmare on Elm Street, it was Nancy beating up Freddy. It was that simple.”

A relaxing bath for Heather Langenkamp in ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (Wes Craven, 1984)

The plucky lone female survivor of slasher movies such as Prom Night (1980) and Terror Train (1980 – both starring Jamie Lee Curtis – and the Halloween or Friday the 13th sequels would eventually become tagged with the sobriquet of “The Final Girl”, an archetype first identified by Carol J. Clover in her 1992 book Men, Women and Chainsaws, in which she argues that, while the predominantly young male audiences of slasher movies may start off cheering for the killer, they end up aligning their point of view with that of the female survivor.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising that female audiences have been steadily expanding since the slasher-happy 1980s. A 2017 study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which researches the disparity between the screen time and dialogue allotted to male and female characters, found that whereas male leads vastly outnumbered female leads in most genres (71.3 per cent compared to 28.8 per cent), in horror movies female representation rose to 55.9 per cent – even more than in a traditional female-friendly genre such as romance, which could lay claim to only 45 percent. Thus it’s in horror movies that women are more likely to see other women on screen.

‘Ring’ (Hideo Nakata, 1998) inspired an American remake in 2002, starring Naomi Watts, which in turn inspired a cycle of ghost movies

The 21st-century increase in women’s interest in horror has also coincided with a resurgence of ghosts as the supernatural creature du jour, a trend that not only overtook the mercifully brief noughties vogue for “torture-porn” (HostelSawA Serbian Film and Martyrs being some of the most gruelling examples), but that has also to helped make mainstream horror a viable box-office proposition again after years of being dismissed as the black sheep of cinematic genres.

If there’s a ground zero in the ghost revival, it’s Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Ring, the creepy tale of a cursed VHS tape which reached the west at the turn of the century and kickstarted a trend for scary girl ghosts in Hollywood as well as in Japan. The success of the 2002 American remake of Nakata’s film unleashed a tsunami of vengeful phantoms, haunted houses, demonic technology (videos and phones), and cursed cornea transplants, many but not all of them remakes of Japanese, Korean or Hong Kong originals.

Ghosts are unusual among movie monsters in that they’re more often female than male, but their roots lie in the Gothic romantic tradition in literature, the novels of Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley and the Brontë sisters, spoofed by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, usually featuring lone women in nightgowns wandering around creaky old mansions, madwomen in the attic and spooky nocturnal goings-on.

Only one year ago, the founder of Blumhouse Productions, which since the massively successful Paranormal Activity (2007) has cornered the market in low-budget horror, had to walk back his justification of the absence of female filmmakers on his roster of hits such as Insidious (2010), Sinister (2012) and Get Out (2017).

Jason Blum’s comment that “There are not a lot of female directors period, and even less who are inclined to do horror,” was greeted by a wave of indignation on social media, where people started pelting him with long lists of female horror directors. Blum was quick to apologise. “I made a stupid mistake,” he said. “Over 50 per cent of our audience is female. Over 50 per cent of Blumhouse execs are women… But we have not done a good enough job working with female directors and it is not because they don’t exist.”

Pollyanna McIntosh’s ‘Darlin’’ has done the done the festival circuit this year

Indeed they do exist, and they’re on the march. At FrightFest six years ago, I saw just one film by a female director: Marina de Van’s Dark Touch (2013). At this year’s festival, some of the highest profile offerings were directed by women, notably Sylvia and Jen Soska’s remake of Rabid, Pollyanna McIntosh’s Darlin’, Abigail Buckley’s Tales from the Lodge, and Chelsea Stardust’s Satanic Panic. Greg Day, one of FrightFest’s co-directors, says, “It’s definitely an exciting time for us as we watch the likes of Danishka Esterhazy, Casey Dillard, Jennifer Reader, Heather Buckley and the rush of talented female short filmmakers bursting through.”

‘Revenge’ (Coralie Fargeat, 2017) reverses the usual dynamics of onscreen nudity

The female perspective adds welcome new insights into horror. Alice Lowe was herself heavily pregnant when she directed and starred in Prevenge (2016), in which a bereaved mother-to-be is driven to murder by the developing foetus inside her (or is it all in her head? It’s for the viewer to decide), and the carnage is peppered with blackly comic details about being pregnant that could never have been dreamt up by a male filmmaker.

Raw (2016), the writing-directing debut of French filmmaker Julia Ducournau, charts the travails of a vegetarian veterinary student who develops a taste for cannibalism, but also addresses blood ties and sisterhood. Revenge (2017), by another French filmmaker, Coralie Fargeat, turns the rape-revenge movie on its head by featuring extensive full-frontal nudity – from a male character who has stripped to take a shower. Aislinn Clarke’s The Devil’s Doorway (2018) breathes new life – or death, if you like – into the found footage subgenre by locating her horrors in one of Ireland’s notorious Magdalene laundries, where two priests have been sent by the Vatican to investigate a miraculous manifestation, only to find their faith tested when they stumble across something much darker.

“Watching a scene of rape, humiliation, or other brutality against a female character is generally a different experience for a woman than for a man,” says Clarke, “and because every director started out as a viewer this means we tend to direct such scenes differently too.”

It’s all part of the initiation in ‘Raw’ (Julia Ducournau, 2017)

In short, horror movies are no longer a boys’ club as the genre begins to project the female gaze as well as the male one – which in turns casts new light on society itself. Horror has always been a way of expressing our darkest fears and desires, couching them in metaphor as a way of presenting unspeakable truths about death, decay and the human condition that might otherwise be too vast, distressing or embarrassing to contemplate in their unadulterated form. It’s the ideal setting in which to wrestle with the sorts of issues affecting women every day, but which mainstream cinema tends to flatten out into dreary lecturing or shallow lip service.

Expect to see more horror movies shining a skewed but fascinating light on women’s place in society, their sexuality and subjection to physical or psychological abuse, mental health, the pressure to look perfect, religious repression, and the right to control their own bodies, as the #MeToo generation not only watches these films – but starts to make them as well.

Photographs by Getty Images, Paramount, New Line Cinema, Sony Pictures

Further reading

Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, by Carol J Clover. A groundbreaking perspective on the much-maligned slasher movie subgenre, and the book that introduced audiences to the phenomenon of the “Final Girl”.

Cat People, by Kim Newman. A close analysis of the innovative Val Lewton movie, first of a series of low budget but classy horror movies he produced for RKO Pictures in the 1940s.

Nightmare Movies, by Kim Newman. A comprehensive history of modern horror movies, from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) all the way through to the franchises, remakes and found footage films of the 21st century.

Carrie, by Neil Mitchell. A valuable monograph analysing the themes, style and symbolism of Brian De Palma’s first big hit – and the first of what would turn out to be many, many adaptations of the stories of Stephen King.

House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, by Kier-La Janisse. A startling and original memoir-cum-study of horror and exploitation movies in which women take centre stage.

The Ex: A Ghost Story, by Anne Billson. A novel by our essay’s author, which might be described as a cross between M.R. James and Raymond Chandler, packed with ghosts, family curses and film references.

And some Halloween movie recommendations…

Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer, 1936). The Count’s daughter hopes that by destroying his body she will be able to live a normal life, but her thirst for blood proves too strong in a film with a subtle lesbian undertow.

Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942). Saddled by the studio with a lurid title, producer Val Lewton and his director, Jacques Tourneur, created a mini-masterpiece of psychological horror, featuring at least two classic (and much copied) sequences of nail-biting tension.

The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961). Deborah Kerr plays a highly-strung governess who suspects the two young children in her charge are haunted the spirits of dead servants in this brilliant adaptation of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw. Are the ghosts real, or all in her head? Either way they’ll make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963). This first film to be adapted from Shirley Jackson’s classic novel The Haunting of Hill House is incontrovertible proof that shadows, off-kilter angles and creepy sound effects are, sometimes, all it takes. Watch it on your own, after dark, if you dare.

Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968). Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes move into a Manhattan apartment block and find themselves saddled with the neighbours from hell – and that’s even before we find out they’re Satanists in this superb supernatural chiller which is also a study in pre-natal paranoia, as well as the last word in marital betrayal.

Daughters of Darkness (Harry Kümel, 1971). Bewitching Belgian vampire movie in which French arthouse diva Delphine Seyrig plays the Countess Bathory as a bloodthirsty Marlene Dietrich-type femme fatale, on the prowl in out-of-season Ostend. Stylish, sexy and just a little bit kinky.

Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976). Gruesome horror meets groovy teen movie in Stephen King’s story about a repressed adolescent who wreaks telekinetic havoc after bitchy classmates play a cruel prank on her at the school prom. Sissy Spacek gives a heartrending performance in the title role.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984). A surreal and genuinely frightening variation on the slasher movie formula, with teenagers in a small American town being stalked and slaughtered in their dreams by the ghost of a dead child murderer.

The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014). A spooky children’s book wields malevolent influence over a widowed mother and her small son in the impressive – and impressively scary – directing debut by Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent.

Prevenge (Alice Lowe, 2016). The directing debut of British actress and comedian Alice Lowe is a slasher movie with a streak of very dark humour; a pregnant woman (played by a heavily pregnant Lowe) is convinced the foetus is compelling her to murder those it deems responsible for her partner’s death.