All this month, I have paid special attention to horror films directed by women. Inspired by my recent post about Mary Harron’s category-defying satire American Psycho, I thought I would publish some of the notes I took after watching ten particular titles on my October checklist. Ghost stories, vampire romances, slasher pics, period pieces about cannibalism, predatory-mermaid musicals, genre parodies – I tried it all.
The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) – dir. Amy Holden Jones (notes written: Mon. 10/8/18)
Rita Mae Brown, famed writer of the groundbreaking lesbian-themed novel Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), penned the original screenplay for The Slumber Party Massacre (available for free on YouTube), which was made in collaboration with Amy Holden Jones in her directorial debut. Originally intended to be a satire of slasher films, the finished product ends up coming across more like a regular (serious) horror flick than a parody, but in a brief 77 minutes, Jones and Brown deliver an entertaining thriller with plenty of gore.
The plot is simple and straightforward: serial killer Russ Thorn (Michael Villella) escapes from prison and fixates on a bunch of high schoolers as his next victims. Linda (Brinke Stevens) meets a bloody demise in the locker room after her friends have already left; the rest of the group of girls – Trish (Michelle Michaels), KIm (Debra De Liso), Jackie (Andree Honore) and Diane (Gina Smika Hunter) – become Thorn’s targets when they gather at Trish’s house for a sleepover. Two sisters who live across the street from Trish, Valerie (Robin Stille) and Courtney Bates (Jennifer Meyers), initially try to hold back their interests in crashing the party, but they soon realize that all is not well at Trish’s residence, leading the Bates girls to inspect the property for themselves and get ensnared in Thorn’s web.
Like pretty much every other film in its genre from that time period (or this one, probably), The Slumber Party Massacre is a hotbed of gratuitous T&A. It’s not necessary for the camera to lasciviously linger on images of the female characters in various states of undress, like when they take showers after gym class at school or change into pajamas at Trish’s place (in front of an open window, of course), but then again, it was essentially a requirement for nudity and sexual content to appear to some degree in horror films made in the early 80s. Despite the annoyingly predictable objectification of female bodies, what The Slumber Party Massacre gets right is its character development, some good acting among the young leads (particularly Robin Stille, whose Valerie character turns out to be a real badass; sadly, Stille committed suicide in 1996) and a number of genuine thrills and jump scares. That the misogynistic killer’s weapon of choice is a power drill is an effective piece of phallic symbolism on Rita Mae Brown’s part, and the way in which Thorn’s reign of terror is stopped furthers Brown’s point.
I also appreciate Massacre’s nods to some classic horror from earlier generations. The most obvious homage is to Psycho, given the use of the last name “Bates” for two of the main characters, but there is also a scene in which a character’s murder echoes a similar death in Jacques Tourneur’s The Leopard Man (1943), showing a victim clawing at a door that the people on the other side refuse to open, a decision that concludes with the corpse’s blood oozing under the doorway. Massacre also features solid direction by Amy Holden Jones, excellent cinematography by Stephen L. Posey and a suitably unsettling score by Ralph Jones, so there’s quite a bit to recommend the film for your October schedule.
Blood Sisters (1987) – dir. Roberta Findlay (notes written: Sun. 10/14/18)
New York-based filmmaker Roberta Findlay could probably do just about any job required in the motion picture industry. For the horror film Blood Sisters (available via YouTube), she worked as director, screenwriter, cinematographer (I’m pretty sure she shot almost all of her films) and co-editor (with Walter E. Sear, who had additional contributions as producer, production manager and score composer). Mind you, I’m not saying that the end result is any good – Blood Sisters is one of the strangest horror flicks I’ve seen recently – but it has its share of fun aspects.
Findlay’s film is both a stereotypical entry in the slasher genre, concerning a deranged killer stalking sorority girls who are spending the night in a notoriously “haunted” former brothel, and also a supernatural thriller since there really are apparitions in the creaky old house. As we can guess from the film’s opening scene, in which a little girl rejects the affections of a boy her age and he immediately runs to the brothel to shoot all of the prostitutes (including his mother) and patrons, the present-day murderer is that same boy as an adult. During the college students’ stay in the ex-brothel, some of the young women see visions of the dead prostitutes and the clients in mirrors; the appearances by these specters seem to be tailored according to sexual orientation since some of the main characters are shown heterosexual couplings, while the one lesbian in the group is presented with the memory of a sexual encounter between a pair of women.
Despite the usual conventions of the horror genre, the sexuality on display in Findlay’s film is pretty tame, which is somewhat surprising (and maybe a little disappointing) since everything she directed between and 1971 and 1985 was hardcore pornography. I wondered if Findlay was motivated to give horror a try because sexploitation filmmaker Doris Wishman did so with A Night to Dismember (1983), but according to a 2017 interview, Findlay claimed never to have seen any of Wishman’s work. (It’s worth noting, however, that Blood Sisters referenced the title of Wishman’s slasher thriller for its own tagline.)
To recap some of the things you can see in Blood Sisters, I’ll quote the headline of one IMDb user’s review: “Possessed nightgown! Strangulation by garter belt! Lesbian hooker ghosts!“ Sure, Findlay’s film is a low-budget exercise in poor taste, and you’re more likely to roll your eyes than cower in fear, but at least there are gems peppered throughout the dialogue. Two favorite lines: one guy says to another, “Eat my shorts, tampon breath!” (reminiscent of a similar retort in another recently viewed horror film, Campfire Stories – “Stop being such a sanitary napkin, dude!” – evidently part of a tradition of insults inspired by feminine hygiene products), and in a later scene, a character wearing a neon-colored item of clothing is asked by a friend, “Alice, can’t you turn that coat off?”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) – dir. Fran Rubel Kuzui (notes written: Sat. 10/20/18)
Before Sarah Michelle Gellar found superstardom as the title vanquisher of the undead, Kristy Swanson brought the starring role of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to life. As the Valley girl armed with plenty of wooden stakes, gymnastics skills for days and an infinite array of cute neon crop tops and leggings – thank you for your service, early 90s fashion, you were truly inspired – Swanson embodies the heroine of Joss Whedon’s original screenplay and makes her hilarious, badass, sensitive and altogether awesome.
The rest of the cast is stacked with both established actors and newcomers, all of whom do great work: Luke Perry, Donald Sutherland, Paul Reubens (I guess this was one of his first high-profile projects following his 1991 arrest; he’s unrecognizable and a delight to watch), Rutger Hauer, Hilary Swank (making her big screen debut at age 17), David Arquette, Stephen Root (he steals every scene he’s in as the principal at Buffy’s high school), Natasha Gregson Wagner (she has my favorite line reading of the movie, asking her friends with goofy intensity, “Okay, guys, what do you think about the ozone layer?”), Candy Clark, Slash in a cameo as a prom DJ and, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit part, Ben Affleck as a basketball-playing student. According to my TV, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a one-star production, but I say it’s a ton of fun and one of the best horror comedies I’ve seen in a long time.
Embrace of the Vampire (1995) – dir. Anne Goursaud (notes written: Sat. 10/6/18)
Now that it’s October, I plan on diving deep into the wide, seemingly unending selection of horror films that I have not yet seen. Since I am especially eager to become better acquainted with horror projects directed by women, I first took a gander at what was available in decent condition on YouTube and my first (frankly sort of random) choice was the erotic horror thriller Embrace of the Vampire.
Granted, I didn’t bother to Google the film before viewing it, but I knew two things: it starred Alyssa Milano in one of her first “adult” roles and that the director, Anne Goursaud, was best known for her work as an editor on some notable films from the 80s and 90s, including The Outsiders (1983), Crimes of the Heart (1986), Ironweed (1987) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Embrace of the Vampire served as Goursaud’s directorial debut and while I can’t say that it exhibits either an original creative aesthetic or good taste, I do want to congratulate her for casting Martin Kemp as the nameless vampire who haunts virginal college student Charlotte (Milano), luring her via sex dreams and in hallucinations she has while sitting in her art history class. I can’t tell you how hard I chuckled when the opening credits rolled and I said to myself, “Martin Kemp? Do I know this much is true or is that not one of the Spandau Ballet guys?” (It was, he was the band’s bassist.) Unintentional as it was from the director’s point of view, I laughed every time Kemp’s moody character showed up.
Kemp is both a terrible actor and not particularly sexy (sorry, but that matters for this genre of film), so to be brutally honest it makes sense that the only reason why Milano’s character would be drawn to him is through forces outside of her control. On the other hand, Charlotte’s boyfriend, Chris (Harold Pruett), is barely a Casanova either, but I will not comment on his looks since I was saddened to read that Harold Pruett died of a drug overdose in 2002, a tragic end for a former child almost-star. Anyway, the three best performances are from Milano, Charlotte Lewis as a bisexual photographer who lives in Charlotte’s dorm and flirts with her, and Jennifer Tilly as another vampire (or at least I think she’s undead; I don’t remember if it’s explicitly stated). Watching all of these weird characters spout inane dialogue and pursue temptations of the flesh – like an embarrassingly lengthy “orgy” (or more accurately, a lot of topless people making out) fueled by Ecstasy – is often hilariously bad.
I assume that most people would only watch Embrace of the Vampire for its perceived sexiness, but it doesn’t deliver on that count. Perhaps excessive nudity is sufficient for some viewers, but I was let down by the dearth of actual sex scenes. I figured that it was a foregone conclusion that Anne Goursaud’s film wouldn’t rate too highly on the horror scale, therefore replacing thrills with tacky romance, but the lack of smut was pretty disappointing. Maybe things could have gone differently if the vampire had been portrayed by, say, Michael Bolton.
Office Killer (1997) – dir. Cindy Sherman (notes written: Tues. 10/23/18)
Photographer and conceptual artist Cindy Sherman made her sole foray into feature filmmaking with Office Killer, a morbidly funny dark comedy about a put-upon clerk who snaps once her job status has been demoted to part-time. Proofreader and copywriter Dorine Douglas (Carol Kane) is perpetually described as “mousy” and “strange” by her colleagues at Constant Consumer Magazine, owing to her introverted nature, her tendency to jump any time a person touches her, and the fact that she lives at home as a caretaker for her disabled mother (Alice Drummond). After Constant Consumer’s overbearing CEO, Virginia Wingate (Barbara Sukowa), downsizes the staff and subsequently limits Dorine’s office time by making her work partly from home instead, our antiheroine tastes sweet revenge when she is indirectly responsible for the fatal electrocution of one of her other irritating bosses, Gary Michaels (a gloriously coiffed David Thornton), while fixing her computer during after-hours. There is no going back for Dorine after she opts to take the freshly deceased corporate lackey to her house; soon, corpses are accumulating in her basement left and right.
“It is true that to live inside a warm and nurturing environment is everybody’s dream,” Dorine muses in a voiceover, “but as we grow up we also need to experience independence and adventure.“ She takes the initiative to dispatch of all those who have wronged her, and even a few complete innocents to boot. And there are plenty more potential victims to choose from: Kim Poole (Molly Ringwald), an editor who hates Dorine’s guts for stealing one of her articles out from under her; Norah Reed (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Virginia’s second-in-command and one of the few office workers who shows any care for Dorine; and Daniel Birch (Michael Imperioli), who is Norah’s boyfriend and, more crucially, the IT expert who installs a computer in Dorine’s home and teaches her how to use email. With her newfound technological skill, Dorine manipulates the Constant Consumer hierarchy into doing her bidding and keeping her out of trouble with the law.
If the screenplay of Office Killer seems noticeably well-crafted, that is thanks to the talent involved: Cindy Sherman and Elise MacAdam wrote the underlying story, while MacAdam and Tom Kalin (renowned director of the films Swoon and Savage Grace) penned the screenplay and indie auteur Todd Haynes contributed additional dialogue. The performances are uniformly excellent, but above all the film is a showcase for Carol Kane, who is by turns adorable, pitiable and spine-chillingly menacing as Dorine. Too rarely have I seen Kane in leading roles, and certainly never one so deliciously malevolent.
Ravenous (1999) – dir. Antonia Bird (notes written: Mon. 10/15/18)
(Warning: spoilers in the last paragraph.)
Blending gruesome violence with pitch black humor and period-piece details, Ravenous is surely the only movie you’ll ever see about Mexican-American War veterans who are also cannibals. Set during the rough winter of 1847, the film follows Captain John Boyd (Guy Pearce), a military man whose medal for valor in war was actually the result of cowardice – he played dead after being wounded, only getting behind enemy lines because his “corpse” was dragged there by soldiers. Because of the carnage he witnessed on the battlefield, Boyd has lost his taste for meat, but his hunger for flesh will soon return in an unexpected way after he is transferred to a new outpost in California.
Late one night, a Scotsman named F.W. Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle) arrives at the camp, practically out of his mind from malnutrition. Colqhoun tells Boyd, Col. Hart (Jeffrey Jones – how I do continuously find myself watching movies with this creep?), Pvt. Toffler (Jeremy Davies) and some of his other rescuers about the terrifying circumstances of his journey across America. The party he had been traveling with lost its way during a snowstorm and they were forced to take shelter in a cave, where the lack of food eventually drove them to eat each other. Colqhoun escaped the situation when he thought he might be next on the menu, and the next day he leads Boyd and his superiors on a trip back to the cave to see if the last two survivors are still there. Unsurprisingly, this little adventure turns out to be a trap; Colqhoun clearly planned from the start to kill everyone. Only Boyd manages to flee his bloodthirsty attacker, although the price he must pay for attempting to hide in the woods will unleash his own similarly uncivilized cravings.
Pearce and Carlyle’s characters are like oil and water – Boyd is an introvert who only speaks when necessary, while Colqhoun is a loquacious gent with a penchant for flamboyant witticisms – and yet they are drawn to one another, each challenging the other in verbal and physical altercations. On the surface, Ravenous is an over-the-top dark comedy about literally carnal appetites, but the film also functions well as a metaphor for homosexuality. Colqhoun represents the embrace of gayness, while Boyd is repressed but constantly fighting the urge to succumb to the same desires. There is especially intense chemistry between the two main characters in a scene where Boyd comes close to licking blood off of a wound on Colquhoun’s hand. Numerous scenes also employ a female/gay male gaze as male characters view other men’s unclothed bodies, often searching for injuries that have penetrated the skin, to say nothing of the moment when Boyd and Colquhoun actually around roll in some hay during a melee in a barn.
Perhaps the subtext is only there for those who look for it, and the ending certainly raises questions about what the true message is if the narrative is indeed symbolic, but there is no question that Antonia Bird’s film is a delicious morsel. On the downside, Ravenous deserves points off for failing the Bechdel test so badly – there is only one female character, a Native American woman named Martha (Sheila Tousey) who exists solely to serve white men in power and to occasionally explain the local lore of her people – but one cannot argue that the film’s exploration of, shall we say, alternative lifestyles is fascinating.
Dorothy Mills (2008) – dir. Agnès Merlet (notes written: Thurs. 10/18/18)
Despite the claim made on its spooky DVD cover, the Irish psychological horror film Dorothy Mills is closer to Breaking the Waves than to The Exorcist, concerned not so much with demonic possession than with the demons of the past that have loomed large over an insular, fundamentalist community. Like the teenager Linda Blair played in that classic chiller almost half a century ago, the title character in Agnès Merlet’s film (played by Jenn Murray) is a girl not in control of her own mind and body. When a psychiatrist, Jane Morton (Carice Van Houten) is sent to the small island where Dorothy lives in the wake of a violent incident – a couple came home to find their babysitter, Dorothy, attacking their infant – the locals reveal both their hatred of the girl, their opposition to outsiders invading their territory and contradictory opinions on whether Jane should be allowed to investigate and potentially take the teen back with her to the mainland.
I wouldn’t describe Dorothy Mills as horror, but rather as a moving drama that observes how history affects and changes us, particularly with regard to tragedies that we can’t forget. It helps that the acting is solid across the board, particularly from Carice Van Houten as the conflicted psychiatrist, who is battling dark memories of her own, from Gary Lewis as Pastor Ross, whose word is law in this deeply religious region, and from the outstanding Jenn Murray (in her film debut) as the girl at the heart of the conflict. Dorothy is a complex character, to say the least, and Jenn Murray brings so many details to her performance that make watching her absolutely riveting. The cinematography by Giorgos Arvanitis also does a fine job of capturing the moods of the isolated village and its bitter residents.
Kiss of the Damned (2012) – dir. Xan Cassavetes (notes written: Thurs. 10/11/18)
Xan (Alexandra) Cassavetes, the eldest daughter of legendary auteur John Cassavetes, made her debut as a writer-director with Kiss of the Damned, an elegantly crafted horror film that is currently available to stream via Hulu. While the film initially presents itself as a romance, following the unusual courtship of French vampire Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume) and American screenwriter Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), the latter of whom Djuna bites shortly after meeting, but the story soon turns into a critique of upper-class excess. The rich are often portrayed as vampires in the media, sucking the life out of those less fortunate, but in Damned, the undead characters literally do just that; they are consumers in both the materialistic and literal senses of the word. They also indulge in a particular subsection of capitalism that allows for luxuries like fancy bottles of synthetic blood and parties where the immortals gather, mostly to congratulate themselves on no longer being mere humans.
The main conflict in the film arises from the arrival of Djuna’s sister, Mimi (Roxane Mesquida), who gets her kicks from seducing everyone she meets. This spells trouble for Djuna and Paolo, who already have a lot on their plate since they rent their house from another vampire, successful actress Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), and at one point there is an unexpected visit from Paolo’s agent, Ben (Michael Rapaport, who provides some much-needed humor). The supporting cast also includes Ching Valdes-Aran as Irene, Xenia’s housekeeper; Riley Keough as Ann, a teenage devotee of Xenia’s theatrical career; and Peter Vack as one of Mimi’s victims.
The narrative of Kiss of the Damned is thinly plotted and predictable, following the main characters yet never feeling as though much is happening. Instead, Cassavetes relies on evoking a suitably moody atmosphere to fill in the gaps in the story. Tobias Datum’s cinematography and Steven Hufsteter’s score hark back to artistic horror films of the 1960s and 70s, making the film quite aesthetically pleasing even when the acting and writing are not always satisfying.
The Voices (2014) – dir. Marjane Satrapi (notes written: Fri. 10/19/18)
Available to stream now via Netflix, The Voices is not for everyone, particularly those viewers who would rather abstain from seeing a comedy about a murderer who keeps women’s severed heads in his fridge. Even so, let it be said that The Voices is not without its charms. Ryan Reynolds does a fine job of bringing complexity, humor and, when necessary, terror to his part as Jerry, a mentally ill factory worker who stumbles into serial-killing and finds himself unable to stop; Reynolds also provides the voices that Jerry hears coming from his pets, a dog named Bosco and a cat (with an uncanny, David Tennant-esque Scottish burr) named Mr. Whiskers, who act as the proverbial angel and devil on Jerry’s shoulders.
As deeply unsettling as the concepts for the film are, it is also a bizarrely enjoyable experience. The tone sometimes shifts wildly from one scene to another, jumping from surreal satire (the film’s opening is reminiscent of Blue Velvet, introducing us to a picturesque small town with a cloying jingle on the soundtrack) to slasher flick to candy-colored musical. The performances by Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick as two of Jerry’s co-workers (and potential love interests), Fiona and Lisa, bring additional spark to the proceedings, while Jacki Weaver plays the pivotal role of Dr. Warren, Jerry’s sympathetic psychiatrist. The creative approaches taken in telling this story arise from the collaboration between director Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis, Chicken with Plums) and screenwriter Michael R. Perry (his background seems to be primarily TV), and while the film has its shaky moments here and there, it is highly entertaining and it continually kept me guessing what would happen next.
The Lure (2015) – dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska (notes written: Mon. 10/22/18)
Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s debut feature The Lure (which I believe is still available to stream through FilmStruck) is surely unlike any other film you’ve seen lately, blending fantasy, horror and romance into a musical set in Warsaw during the 1980s. A pair of mermaid sisters, Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska), are brought onto dry land by a trio of cabaret performers – singer Krysia (Kinga Preis), her drummer boyfriend (Andrzej Konopka) and a twentysomething bassist (Jakub Gierszal) – who discover that the sisters are capable of transforming their tails into human women’s legs. Silver and Golden are added to the nightclub act, charming customers with backup singing that soon gives the siblings a chance for pop stardom of their own as a duo.
The interior of the club shimmers from the glittery costumes designed by Katarzyna Lewinska (who worked on another great film I saw earlier this year, The Innocents), the cinematography by Jakub Kijowski and the original music written and composed by Marcin Macuk, Barbara Wrońska and Zuzanna Wrońska specifically for the film, modeled on the synthpop and New Wave genres popular in that era. My personal favorite cut from the soundtrack is “I Came to the City,” a poppy ode to materialism sung by Silver, Golden and Krysia during a lavish shopping spree that they embark on while working-class citizens protest outside on the streets of Communist-run Warsaw (“I’m new to the city/I wanted to put my best foot forward/Change what I can change and get their attention/A mention, a nod … the city will tell us what it is we lack!”). Another musical highlight that was not created by the film’s composers, though, is a dazzling cover of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” sung by Krysia after the film’s opening credits as our introduction to the cabaret environment.
The Lure can be seen as an update of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable “The Little Mermaid,” but Smoczynska’s version is markedly more adult. Silver and Golden take different approaches in adjusting to the world of two-legged humans and individually realizing their burgeoning erotic yearnings; Golden entices men and women into sexual situations that she uses to turn them into dinner (the sisters have an insatiable hunger for human flesh), while Silver experiences first love when she falls for the band’s cute, shaggy-haired bassist. Informed by her would-be lover that she will always be “a fish” to him as long as she does not have the typical female reproductive organs, Silver elects to sacrifice her aquatic anatomy by agreeing to undergo a dangerous operation that will make her a “real” woman.
There are consequences for Silver’s decision, however, and The Lure serves as a compelling look at the impact that love and lust have on women, as well as the price women sometimes pay when they think more of a man’s happiness than they do their own. Furthermore, the film explores what it means to inhabit a woman’s body, especially in the context of the importance a man places on a woman having a vagina in order to be perceived as whole and normal. Yes, there is blood, violence and death in The Lure, but the true horror is in how men manipulate women when, in the end, family may actually be the strongest bond of all.