Monstrous Feminine: gender and genre at FrightFest 2017 first published by Sight & Sound
Horror often earns itself a bad name for the way that it treats its female characters: reducing them to objectified T&A for the male gaze, or to helpless damsels in distress requiring male assistance, or to screaming pin cushions for male killers. That, however, is only half the story. For horror also lets women be the bad girl, the resilient final girl, the gleefully monstrous (m)other, the empowered source of terror, or the surprise murderer, often masked only by our prejudicial expectations of gender; and it allows its female characters to behave transgressively, to skewer the male gaze and to take relentless revenge against rape-happy patriarchy.
Contrary to widely held belief, there are just as many male as female victims in the slasher subgenre – although the same numerical balance, sadly, does not yet exist between male and female directors of horror. Only three features out of a total of 65 screening at this year’s FrightFest were helmed (or even co-helmed) by women – Tini Tüllmann’s Freddy/Eddy, Caroline Labrèche and Steeve Léonard’s Radius and Natasha Kermani’s Imitation Girl – which is, by any estimation, discouraging (the balance is better in FrightFest’s Shorts programme). There are, however, many films at this year’s weekend devoted to exploring female representation, and these, as it happens, were also my favourites of those previewed. Let’s just hope that next year we shall see more women behind as well as in front of the cameras.
Though the feature debut of two men, Carlos Algara and Alejandro Martinez-Beltran, Verónica is a tale of two or three women: Verónica de la Serna (Olga Segura), the retired Psychologist (Arcelia Ramírez) who has agreed to take her case, and Verónica’s long-dead Mother (Sofia Garza) whose hold on Verónica’s troubled mind is glimpsed in hypnotic flashbacks and preserved beyond the grave. As the doctor interrogates her patient’s buried past, the relationship between these very different women – one young and erotically charged, the other middle-aged and sexually repressed – becomes defined by projection, transference and rôle play.
It is a tense game of (very tightly scripted) words, and much as the shadow-loving Psychologist has an eye condition that makes any change in light painful to her, the elegant, sinuous, (mostly) monochrome cinematography leaves us too feeling that we are not getting the complete picture, and uncertain, as we sit in our own chairs in the dark, whether we are the analyst or the analysed. Whatever the case, there emerges a portrait of Verónica as a complex, multi-faceted woman, desperate to escape a traumatic history she cannot help inhabiting.
April (the excellent Amanda Fuller, who also starred in Simon Rumley’s Red White & Blue) has a “special connection to clothes”. Working with her husband Eric (Ethan Embry) in a vintage emporium in Austin, Texas, she spends all of her time not just dressed in other people’s hand-me-downs, but also sniffing, rubbing and stroking their material with erotomanic fervour, while literally dreaming of what to wear next. When Eric strays, April flees into the arms of Eric’s polar opposite, the smooth, rich, controlling Randall (Eric Balfour), and into the new designer clothes that he insists she wear. These are not a good fit for April, but Fashionista unflinchingly models every angle of a heroine/addict struggling to reconcile different aspects of herself.
Dedicated to Nicolas Roeg, Rumley’s film deploys Roegian montage and cross-cutting to present pieces of April’s life-in-fugue as an intricate patchwork that both covers and bares her issues with jealousy, obsession, body dysmorphia and ‘the other woman’. As much about a split as a break-up, this is a demanding yet rewarding work that will leave the viewer wondering how many bodies are buried beneath its protagonist’s elaborate masque.
Mansfield 66/67 (2017)
This devilishly tasteless documentary from writing/directing/producing partners P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes (Dear Mom, Love Cher, 2013) is a campy product of pink-tinted postmodernism, matching its form to the playful public persona of its subject. For a while in the Fifties, Jayne Mansfield was second only to Marilyn Monroe in the ‘blond bombshell’ stakes, but she was also a grotesque study in Monroe mimicry – and as the Fifties ideal of womanhood fell out of fashion, Mansfield abandoned serious film acting to take up her place full-time as tabloid icon.
The focus is Mansfield’s last two years, doing photoshoots with equally publicity-hungry Satanist Anton LaVey, and then dying horrifically in a car accident – but Mansfield 66/67 tries to pin down a mythic figure, caught in changing times, changing attitudes towards women, and the endless altercation between exploitation and empowerment. Its use of ’60s-style animation, interpretative dance and catty commentary (especially from John Waters) to tell its tale makes Mansfield remain both elusive, and somehow complicit in her own over-the-top presentation, even half a century beyond her martyrdom to image.
Tragedy Girls (2017)
Much as Tyler MacIntrye’s previous feature Patchwork (2015) updated the Frankenstein mythos to show the different faces that women are required to wear in today’s world, his latest follows two adolescent girls (Briannna Hildebrand, Alexandra Shipp) trying to create a profile for themselves in a generation lived online – and to get away with killing as many of their townsfolk as possible.
This sociopathic teen murder comedy, akin to Heathers (1998) and Detention (2011), is also a very modern tale of mediated self-invention, where the Internet’s anonymity is the perfect killer’s mask. So finely tuned is MacIntyre’s handling of irony that, as the bodycount rises, viewers are more concerned with the survival of these BFFs’ toxic friendship than of their actual schoolmates and boyfriends.
Also playing with questions of identity in the digital age, Kurtis David Harder’s film follows Samantha (Anja Savcic), a sociology student dissatisfied with her life and her self-image, as she is drawn to a small clique who regularly plug themselves into a stolen device that enables their minds to enter – and control – the bodies of other people. If the film’s outer frame is an increasingly paranoid sci-fi thriller wherein games of masquerading and manipulation assume a more malevolent aspect, then its beating heart is an escapist character study of a young woman seeking, as all young people do, to be someone else, and – perhaps – finding a way to realise that.
Young Kira Mabon (Rebecca Forsythe) has short-term amnesia and rapidly peeling skin, but discovers she can temporarily heal the latter with the flayed flesh of others while awaiting a more permanent solution from the mysterious Dr Rafaela Crober (Barbara Crampton).
With its Toronto setting, and its focus on sinister research clinics and new flesh, Norbert Keil’s film (written by Scarlett Amaris and Hardware‘s Richard Stanley) comes with a decidedly Cronenbergian pedigree. Yet this is body horror told very much from a female perspective, merging the tradition of Countess Elizabeth Báthory with a more modern quasi-vampiric quest for eternal youth, and tragically tracing the double standards in our differing attitudes to the ageing of men and women. Along the way, the cosmetics industry comes in for acidic treatment, and nobody ends up looking pretty – apart from the film itself.
Brandon Christensen’s assured debut sets up a careful ambiguity between devilry and madness as twin explanations for the conviction of young mother Mary (Christie Burke) that something is coming to snatch away her other newborn son, after his brother died in childbirth. Dealing sensitively with its protagonist’s sense of loss and depression while positioning itself as the dark post-partum reverse of Roman Polanski’s classic Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the film carefully insinuates the idea that Mary might be her own personal demon, leaving us unsure whether the threat she is facing is from an infant-eating Mesopotamian demigoddess, or from the all-too-human man eater next door, or merely from herself.
Voice From The Stone (2017)
Adapted from Silvio Raffa’s 1996 novel La Voce della Pietra, Eric D. Howell’s feature debut is a late extension of high gothic, complete with atmospheric castle setting, ghostly presences, and a young visiting governess who could come straight from Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898).
Assigned to cure young Jakob (Edward George Dring) who has not uttered a single word since his mother, an international pianist, died seven and a half months earlier, Verena (Emilia Clarke) moves into the mist-shrouded Tuscan estate, with its dizzying parapets, private chapel, family crypt and buried secrets, all built on the stony foundations of a matriarchy going back forty generations. There, amid things going bump in the night, Verena finds herself slowly falling for Jakob’s gruff artist father Klaus (Marton Csokas) – but as the revivified Klaus returns to an abandoned sculpture of his wife using Verena as his model and muse, it is unclear whether the governess is replacing the dead woman as the head of the house, or merely being possessed by her. The results, altogether too subtle to be scary, are genuinely uncanny.
In a hotel bar, young Álex (Melania Cruz) flirts with middle-aged, married Ramón (Carlos Blanco). Confident, witty and sexually forward, Álex knows exactly what she wants, and soon is accompanying Ramón to his room upstairs, where they make love under the creepy gaze of a painting full of wide-eyed faces. After she leaves the hotel, she will be abducted, raped (both off-screen and on), and finally become a violent avenger, in narrative shifts that are as self-consciously genre-bound as they are jarringly desultory.
This spectacle is not just told from multiple perspectives (including Álex’s own), but always comes with its own embedded audience, whether the spectators in a theatre where (impossibly) all this is being staged, or various characters spying on the actions – and sufferings – of others. By the end, in this chilling Haneke-esque experiment from first-time writer/director Andrés Goteira, voyeurism dictates everything, and all of Álex’s agency and self-determination prove subject to the perverse whims of several male gazes, even as gender itself proves a fluid ‘skin’ in a game of accusingly unpleasant spectatorship. The harrowing impact on the viewer is Irreversible.
Imitation Girl (2017)
Dhogs ties as my favourite feature of the festival alongside writer/director Natasha Kermani’s Imitation Girl. This similarly opens with the male gaze – or more specifically, with an adolescent boy in New Mexico illicitly obtaining a copy of a girlie magazine that has porn star Julianna Fox (Lauren Ashley Carter) on its cover – but then the skies open, an alien black ooze (rather than male semen) comes splashing down over the page, and the boy flees both the scene and the film.
That goo transforms, parthenogenetically, into a wide-eyed simulacrum of Julianna, and from here on the film divides itself between the joyous attempts of the ‘imitation girl’ to test her new feminine embodiment and the human experiences that such embodiment affords, and the existential yearnings of the real Julianna in New York – a hardened performer of virginal innocence (in erotic ‘cheerleader’ scenarios) where her extra-terrestrial imitator is genuinely ingenuous – for a life different from the one into which she has so discontentedly settled. Taken in by a kindly Iranian brother and sister – alien exiles like herself – the imitation girl eventually locates Julianna, and repays her by revealing the alterity (in its most idealised, abstract form) that Juliana seeks on the other side of the looking glass.
Together these two parallel tales (with Carter doubly good in her dual rôles) form a complementary diptych depicting the confrontation of self and otherness. Devoid of violence or threat, the film may in no way qualify as horror (although it is certainly science fiction) – but as a portrait of female identity, in all its hopes and disappointments, joys and sorrows, Imitation Girl inspires a shudderingly sublime sense of awe that is not ultimately defined by male desires and demands.
© Anton Bitel