Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part II.

The Final Girl and The Slut.

Cécile De France as the chainsaw-wielding Marie in “Haute Tension” (2003).

SPOILER ALERT: Major plot points of Aja’s Haute Tension are discussed, so if you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it first.

In my previous post on Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’, part I, I identified two of the most common female tropes in horror cinema: the Final Girl and her counterpoint, the Slut. These two form a polarity necessary to the moral undertone of the ‘slasher’ horror film: the virtuous Final Girl survives to confront and (usually) destroy her tormentor, while the Slut provides titillation by disrobing and being sexual, offering up a canvas of eroticized female flesh that the (invariably) male serial killer can cut, slash, mutilate and otherwise penetrate. American film theorist Carol Clover, who coined the term ‘Final Girl’ in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, writes on the integral role the Final Girl plays in the slasher genre:

The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified. If her friend knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with this knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face, but she alone must also find the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B). — Carol Clover, from Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, 1992.

The psychopathic urge that drives the serial killer to commit his atrocities is often imbued with a sexual energy. The killer is simultaneously attracted to, and repulsed by, the sexual desirability of his young female victims. As Clover points out, he is often depicted as “…a male whose masculinity, and sexuality more generally, are in crisis…”, with prime examples being the cross-dressing of Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), or Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). The serial killer’s fluid gender identity marks him as a sexual deviant — and deviance in horror fiction is indicative of that which causes fear and anxiety.

Marie hides from her Serial Killer Cliché in “Haute Tension” (2003).

This point brings us back to Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension, in which one of the main female characters, Marie, is identified as lesbian. Her sexual orientation is relevant to the plot, as it supplies the motivation behind her actions. She harbours a secret passion for her friend Alexa who, evidently, is completely oblivious to Marie’s romantic feelings. When her friend’s family is brutally murdered and Alexa kidnapped by a male psychopathic killer, Marie quickly adopts the Final Girl role and leaps to her friend’s rescue. From the outset, Marie’s short, boyish hair, androgynous clothing and slim, tautly muscled body appears to conform to the masculinized tradition of the Final Girl. As the plot progresses, Marie is poised for her final confrontation with the killer: a large, stout middle-aged man dressed in grimy overalls, his physical appearance every bit a slasher film cliché as hers.

And then comes the Big Reveal. The clichéd male serial killer is exactly that. He is a creation of Marie’s imbalanced mind, as the surveillance camera at the gas station films Marie — and not the stout, grimy man — as she sinks an axe into the back of the unsuspecting male attendant. The Final Girl and the Serial Killer conflate into one: the homicidal, mentally-unstable lesbian. Is this depiction of a queer woman homophobic? There is, arguably, a trace of homophobia in Haute Tension, as Marie’s sexual orientation serves not only as a plot device, but clearly distinguishes her as ‘the Other’, the deviant that is to be feared. Of course, there is a well-established tradition of LGBT themes in horror fiction and the use of ‘queerness’ as a demarcation of Otherness, and this will be the topic of my next post…

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Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part I.

The Final Girl and The Slut.

Unrequited lesbian love gone terribly, terribly wrong in Alexandre Aja’s “Haute Tension” (2003).

Recently, I settled down to watch Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension (2003), a masterpiece of ‘New French Extremity‘ which had eluded me until now. Like many films of its pedigree, Haute Tension features sadistic sexuality, extreme violence, and generous amounts of gore. Without spoiling the end — as the real strength of this film lies near the end — there was also a clever plot twist that plays with gender and the roles typically associated with female characters in the genre. Women are still traditionally cast as victims in horror, and most particularly in the ‘slasher’ or serial-killer subgenre, so it is considered subversive when they are portrayed as the perpetrators of violence. In fact, it is so outside of the ‘norm’ that an additional reason is frequently given for the violent woman’s aberrant behaviour. In the 1978 ‘exploitation’ film I Spit On Your Grave, the motivation behind the female lead’s murderous rampage is revenge for her brutal gang rape. The homicidal intruder in À l’intérieur (2007) has been driven insane by her obsessive desire for a child. In Haute Tension, unrequited lesbian love factors into the killer’s actions. These various reasons — trauma, mental instability, and homosexuality — firmly place the behaviour of these women outside of ‘normal’ and in the realm of the deviant.

The depiction of deviance, women & gender in horror cinema is a big, big topic indeed — one that warrants more than one blog post. Let’s start by looking at two of the most common tropes in the horror genre:

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in the Ridley Scott sci-fi/horror classic “Alien” (1979).

1. The ‘Final Girl’ or ‘The Virgin.’ She’s that pretty, but not too sexy, girl-next-door who just might have a boyfriend, but he’s never gotten passed First Base. In the formulaic ‘slasher’ film — a subgenre of horror that dominated the late 70’s and the decade of the 1980’s — she’s the only girl left standing at the finale. The slasher film is a modern-day cautionary tale, and the Final Girl is spared the violent deaths visited upon her sexier classmates by reason of her virtue. She is frequently characterized as tom-boyish, even androgynous. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from the Alien series is a prime example of the masculinized Final Girl. Recent horror cinema has reconfigured and, at times, even subverted the Final Girl: an argument can be made that Marie in Aja’s Haute Tension is a subversion of this trope (her very short boyish hair, her extreme athleticism, apparent heroism, and her sexual orientation).

Margot Kidder plays Barb, the drinking, smoking, sexually active Slut in Bob Clark’s “Black Christmas” (1974).

2. The Slut. She’s the counterpoint to the Final Girl, the girl in the film who engages in all sorts of nasty vice and most likely has a nasty attitude to match. According to the morality play/slasher film, she’s destined to meet a grisly end, probably twitching at the end of a pitchfork. A big, rigid pitchfork. The chain-smoking Barb (Margot Kidder) from Bob Clark’s genre-defining Black Christmas (1974) fits this role perfectly. While her lifestyle has her marked for an untimely death, she’s also the sororiety sister with the most moxy. (You can read more about Black Christmas in my earlier post on the film.)

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Horror Films 101: The Vampiress.

Carmilla, illustration from The Dark Blue by D. H. Friston, 1872

The vampiress. The very word itself is seductive. From its first syllable vamp we arrive at the image of the aggressively sensual woman, the predatory femme fatale. Then, as if to underscore her dangerous nature, the word ends with an echoic warning: esssssss. The hiss of a snake.

She’s lurked in the shadows of our collective unconscious for just under 150 years. The legend of the female vampire, as we presently know her, began with Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic novella Carmilla, a story that predated Bram Stoker’s Dracula by twenty-five years. Le Fanu’s novella was influential not only on Stoker’s masterpiece, but serves to this day as the source chiefly consulted for the vampiress. Much like her male counterpart, the female vampire is a captivating creature possessed of unearthly powers and the ability to shape-shift into various forms. Almost invariably, she is lesbian or bisexual. It is this latter characteristic which makes her an especially compelling figure. Embodying the male heterosexual fantasy of the ‘femme’ lesbian, her predatory seduction of women is inevitably thwarted by the male hero wielding a pointed, and most assuredly phallic, stake.

OK, I’ll spare you my feminist/queer politics tirade. We’re all grown-ups here. Let’s leave the sexual politics aside — though it does warrant a passing mention — and check out some of my all-time favourite films featuring the female vampire.

1. Roger Vadim’s 1960 vampire film Et mourir de plaisir (translates literally to ‘And to die of pleasure’ but released under the considerably less evocative English title Blood and Roses) is perhaps one of the most stylish and artful treatments of the Carmilla story. Impressionistic and dreamlike, it’s impossibly convoluted plot and bevy of look-alike Gallic beauties make it a gorgeous mess of a film.

2. Britain’s Hammer Studios released The Vampire Lovers in 1970 during a period of increased competition in the market, prompting some film studios to add more graphic content in order to attract an audience. They found it in this softcore account of female vampirism. The cheekbones are high and the bosoms heaving in this campy classic. Ingrid Pitt stars as the sultry Marcilla and Peter Cushing cashes a paycheque in this slap-n-tickle vampire romp.

3. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) is chaste by comparison to The Vampire Lovers. The emphasis of the film rests on story and atmosphere rather than bosoms or gore. Contrary to its title, it’s not especially scary. It does, however, have one memorably creepy scene that involves the female vampire emerging out of a lake.

4. Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) opens with a near-perfect sequence that interweaves an eventful trip home from a Goth nightclub with Bauhaus’s Peter Murphy and a violent monkey attack in a research facility. Stylish and profoundly erotic, it’s a clever update to the mythology of the female vampire. Oh, and it features David Bowie. And Susan Sarandon’s breasts.

5. Although she’s only an ancillary character in Dracula (1979), the appearance of Mina as a vampire is an effectively creepalicious moment in this otherwise lacklustre version of the Dracula story. This scene also boasts Donald Pleasence and Laurence Olivier (??!!) in the role of Van Helsing.