Horror: A Woman’s Game
With the new millennium women in horror movies continued their upward trend following the 90s reinvention and became bigger and better characters. Taking notes from Misery the rise of women as villains become even more noticeable, sadly I’ve not seen Audition which would’ve been a perfect example but I did see Ginger Snaps, a little Canadian film which brought werewolves into the same realm as puberty (always with the puberty). Sisters Ginger and Bridgette both deserving of praise not just for their individual roles but their relationship building as well, at the start both as death-obsessed loners happier in each other’s company than other people, but when Ginger gets bitten by a werewolf she goes through a change of mind and body. On her own merits watching Ginger transform into this sexually charged beast would’ve made for a great film by itself but the addition of Bridgette adds an entirely other level in which the much more timid and quiet Bridgette has to deal with her sister slowly turning away from her and into this violent bloodthirsty animal, being torn between the fear and disgust at watching Ginger kill and the love and respect she has for her sister. The relationship is the key to the movie and it’s metaphor for once close sisters reaching puberty at different ages and drifting apart brings it up into the greats of horror females.
One of the earliest examples of the genre reinvention for the 2000s was Selena from 28 Days Later. Played by Naomie Harris in what should’ve been a career defining role, Selena is the take no prisoners bad-ass loner in female form, she’s enters the film in full-on bitch mode, not giving a shit about anyone and even cutting up her friend after he’s been bit, she’s tough as nails although that act drops once she spends more time with Jim and Hannah and warms to the idea of friendship. It’s a nice change of pace for the bad-ass loner to be the female this time around and it makes sense that in this zombie apocalypse that only the tough will have survived regardless of gender. Selena had the makings of a modern day Ripley and had the sequel continued her story she very well could’ve been.
The 2000s saw several prominent female characters in horror that usually took up the role of ‘bad-ass’. Whether the movie was good or not is another matter entirely. Underworld is an example of this but since I’ve never seen the series I can’t properly speak for it, what I can speak for though is Resident Evil. Now of course the Resident Evil movies are quite frankly god-awful but Milla Jovovich’s performance.. was also kind of shit, this is one of those iffy moments in the subject of women in horror films, because while Alice as a character is horribly written, just being tough because the film says she’s tough (a common problem in the 2000s) the fact that Jovovich played that character as the lead of all five – soon to be six – films of a hugely successful franchise cannot be ignored for what it did for women in horror roles, although the argument of whether she did good or bad is another story entirely, just cause she’s getting to lead this series doesn’t mean it worth bringing up in the defending argument.
In horror, as in the rest of cinema, the popular films didn’t give off the best representation, the smaller and more genre-focussed works brought in the best female characters, and surprisingly it was the French that ruled this area for pretty much the entire decade. The 2000s held the era of what is known as ‘French New Wave Horror’ a period when several horror films came out of France with a dark foreboding chill and lashings upon lashings of gruesome and horrific acts of violence, even the most hardcore of horror fan has had trouble with these films. However the majority of them have very strong and very well-written female characters at the front of them all, one of their earliest films was Haute Tension (or High Tension, or Switchblade Romance, depends where you are) the film is about Marie, female student who goes to stay with her friend Alex and her family on their farm when suddenly the family is murdered, Alex is kidnapped and Marie has to go after her. What starts as a quest for the safety of friendship against a vile and disturbed killer takes a sharp turn when you realise what the killer’s motivations are and how they relate to Marie and Alex’s relationship, revolving around the boundaries of love and obsession. It’s actually difficult to talk about without spoiling but Marie’s character switch turns her into a completely different character that what you would’ve expected at the start.
Another from France is the film Inside, revolving around a pregnant woman having her home invaded by a mysterious and bloodthirsty older woman who wants the unborn child for herself. The two of them make up near enough the only two character in the movie, a rare case of the hero and villain both being female. The theme of motherhood is the most prevalent and key to why both characters and the film works the way it does, true the argument can be made that motherhood is not the be all/end all of a woman’s purpose, in film or in life, but it is a purely female aspect of life and the way Inside handles it works perfectly, Sarah – the mother – is fighting hard to protect the life inside of her, tackling this seemingly unstoppable force with everything she can, resulting in Sarah getting hurt almost as badly herself while her adversary, known only as The Woman, is easily one of the most frightening and brutal of French horror villainess’ but her own storyline and why she’s attacking Sarah almost makes her sympathetic as you piece it all together. Both women deal out and receive a great deal of pain and some of the things they do to each other get f*ckin gruesome and the fact that it’s two women instead of a man attacking a woman makes it hit all the harder.
One of my favourite French horrors is the bleak and brutal Martyrs which carries two excellent lead females, Anna and Lucie, two friends who travel to a house to take revenge on the family that kidnapped and abused Lucie as a child only for Anna to start to wonder if they’ve made a mistake. Lucie gets the meatier role, properly going off the deep-end in terms of psychological torment and tip-toeing the line between sympathetic and dangerous while Anna struggles between helping her friend take on this violent and highly illegal task or stopping her and saving them from further pain, the friendship is key to their relationship, because of what happened to her Lucie needed a friend who wouldn’t pose a threat which came in the form of Anna while Anna took on the role of Lucie’s protector to a level which may have developed romantic feelings but definitely has her worry about Lucie’s mental state. France was one of the first countries to bring up the concept of female characters as violent, dangerous and at times evil, a simple concept but you’d be surprised how little that’s been utilised in horror films and France has arguably done the best job of it. Female characters come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes that means a differing moral compass from everyone else.
Believe it or not it wasn’t just the French that made great modern horror females, a few close to home were finding the right mix of heroines and villainess’ to inhabit their films. In 2006 Adam Green, one of the most vocal and impressive voices of modern horror, gave us one of the best modern day final girls in his debut old-school slasher Hatcher with Marybeth Dunston, originally played by Tamera Feldman in the first film and by Danielle Harris (who herself has played several great female horror characters in her career) in the two sequels, Marybeth is very much a f*ck-you character, she’s got one mission to kill Crowley and she will take on any motherf*cker that gets in her way, regardless of how much blood she gets covered in. Hands-on heroines are not new to horror but Marybeth is one of the few that gets this physically involved with the situation.
Towards the later parts of the 2000s a little film came out that may not have set the world on fire but it carried with it a strong lead female performance. That movie was Teeth and the lead character Dawn is one of the most interesting horror females I can think of, sex has always been a staple of horror movies, slashers in particular with the majority of them using sex as a manner of killing off horny young women that get their tits out but Teeth handles sex on a very different level, here Dawn’s… um, affliction manifests itself as a curse that threatens to ruin her life before she finally understands how to use her power to her advantage, essentially turning sex into a weapon. Dawn’s new found confidence in herself and how she handles her body is something very few films have done, true Toothy Vaginas are a little out-there but the body confidence and sexual awakening are both key points to a young woman’s life and Dawn’s acceptance of her body is something that can be admired.
In its own jagged and bitey way that is.
Arguably the most important horror film for female characters (and my personal favourite) is Neil Marshall’s The Descent. Aside from the opening scene the entire film is inhabited by women as the main characters, aside from this being a great opportunity to have female camaraderie be the focus point of the movie instead of a dick-measuring contest it also makes things harder to guess who’ll live and who’ll died since no-one adheres to stereotypes. Out of the whole six of them the two best written were Juno and Sarah, Juno was the de-facto leader but her overconfidence in herself and willing to push everyone further than they had any right to go was what lead the group into danger, she’s strong willed but that is her biggest flaw and ends up costing her dearly. Sarah on the other hand was a much quieter and emotionally weaker character but in the dark of the caves her grief and subtle hints of depression following events earlier in the film brought about hallucinations and visions that plunged her deeper into the descent of madness as well as the caves. The Descent’s choice to make an all-female cast is one of its biggest selling points and it’s one of the few horror films that realise that great female characters are defined by their flaws as much as their strengths.
Entering the final stage of this look at the iconic female characters of horror, we look at some modern classics in the making with the 2010s. This decade so far has had a strong selection of female characters fighting back, of course that can be said about every single one of these films here but the 2010s has brought out some stronger and much more demanding female roles of the past few years. You’re Next has one of the most talked about final girls in the shape of Erin, a cute little Aussie woman who finds herself trapped in her boyfriend’s family house when they are besieged by masked killers during an anniversary dinner. Rather than standing back and hiding, Erin grabs the nearest weapon she can find and sets about f*cking motherf*ckers up, and it’s not even that she needs to build up to this point, straight off the bat she’s in survival mode which is probably why she’s so well received, her arc towards finding the bravery to fight back has already been covered and she’s ready to take these guys in a series of traps that would make Home Alone wet itself.
Another demanding and brave role comes from the 2010 remake of I Spit On Your Grave, this might just be me but subject matter aside I liked the I Spit On Your Grave remake and thought it had a great lead performance in the form of Jennifer who takes brutal and violent revenge against the men that raped her. Rather than getting into the whole debate of female empowerment VS submissive male’s sexual fantasy, I’ll focus on Jennifer as a character which turns out to be surprisingly strong, the whole film is essentially watching Jennifer gets broken down and having to rebuild herself but with the knowledge that whatever comes out of her resurrection will not be the same as what went in, forget about the rape/revenge angle, that is a solid character arc and keep in theme with the changing attitudes of female horror leads to be much deeper and occasionally darker characters. To a lesser extent the Evil Dead remake did something similar, a primarily male dominated series due to its main Ash, Evil Dead found it’s female angle in the form of Mia, a former drug addict who gets infected by the Deadites while trying to get clean in a cabin. Like Jennifer Mia has to go through hell, literally in this case, to survive with no guarantee she’ll like what’s on the other side, the drug addiction is also cleverly handled for both the story – nobody believes Mia because she’s going nuts from the cold turkey – and the character, showing a weak will that she has to overcome, she’s a great addition to the franchise and hopefully more will come of her in the future.
One of the more recent horror film to be released from this blog and one that is not only one of the best horror films of the last ten years but has a lead female performance so good that in another life this would’ve done for her what Aliens did for Sigourney Weaver is The Babadook. Oscar Snubbed Essie Davis plays Amelia, a single mother who has been raising her troubled son Samuel his entire life after his father died in a car crash driving a pregnant Amelia to the hospital for their birth of their son. Lost and stuck in her dull, lonely life with a frightened and disturbed young son clawing at her last nerve, Amelia’s life takes a sinister turn when a violent children’s book called Mister Babadook enters her life. Psychological horror is one of the strongest if done right and with Davis all-in performance it’s done really goddamn right, making you question her entire mindset and how damaged her psyche is going into this movie. She hallucinates, or does she? She’s possessed, or is she? She gets violent, or maybe she’s just imagining the whole thing, Davis performance and director Jennifer Kent’s vision blend together to make a female lead that makes you question if she is really being haunted of if a lack of sleep and 6 year emotional turmoil has finally creeped up on her and manifested itself as a children’s book. It’s a horror performance that is equal parts psychologically damaged and family oriented dramatics, it’s one that deserves to be remembered as one of the all-time best.
To round out this blog we’ll look at the latest horror hit, It Follows and its lead performance from Maika Monroe as Jay Heights. Calling back to the beginning of this series, Jay plays a lot like a modern day Laurie Strode, she’s a very real character and carries very real modern sensibilities, primarily in regards to sex and relationships and the causal nature of it all. Jay’s genuine fear and terror at this entity following her mirrors Laurie’s own terror at Michael Myers but where Laurie became the archetype for the virginal babysitter who survives, Jay’s casual attitude to having sex shows an update to the character type that still carries the same weight but in a different manner.
I’m sure I’ve missed out some obvious choices for this blog and I know for a fact I’ve not seen some key films but I wanted to write this out anyway because I’ve been noticing that horror film have got some of the strongest and most interesting female characters of practically any genre and is one of the few that demands as much from its female character as its male ones, more so in some cases. The quest for cinematic equality will be go on for a while and even with all that I’ve brought up horror is still predominantly male, but I hope I’ve shown that for over 40 years the genre has been churning out some of the best written female characters in film. The big awards might not see it as a genre worth investing time in but for fans this is one of the most open minded fields in cinema and with its collection of well-written female leads that seem to be getting stronger and more varied as the years go on, horror may one day become a woman’s game.