Horror Films 101: 5 vampire films you may not have seen.

The beautiful Delphine Seyrig stars as the bloodthirsty Countess Báthory in Harry Kümel's "Daughters of Darkness" (1971).

1. The stylish Daughters of Darkness (1971) from Belgian director Harry Kümel continues to be one of my favourite indulgences when it comes to eurotrash vampire films. I’ve already dedicated an entire blog post on Kümel’s film, but a recently discovered quote from “dissident feminist” Camille Paglia has reminded me of my great admiration for this lesbian-vampire classic:

“A classy genre of vampire film follows a style I call psychological high Gothic. […] A good example is Daughters of Darkness, starring Delphine Seyrig as an elegant lesbian vampire. High gothic is abstract and ceremonious. Evil has become world-weary, hierarchical glamour. There is no bestiality. The theme is eroticized western power, the burden of history.”

— Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Yale University Press, 1990, p. 268.

Vincent Lannoo's mockumentary "Vampires" (2011).

2. Yet another Belgian vampire film, although the ‘found-footage’ hand-held camera-style of Vincent Lannoo’s Vampires (2011) could scarcely be more of a departure from Kümel’s meticulously crafted film. Touted in the media as “Spinal Tap meets the Munsters”, Lannoo’s mockumentary delves into the culture of contemporary Belgian vampires, all with a wonderfully deadpan, blacker-than-night sense of humour. After several unsuccessful attempts to document the vampire community — as the film crews kept, um, getting eaten — the crew that purportedly filmed Vampires manage to locate an amenable vampire family that allow them to document their daily routines. Even though the found-footage schtick has grown very, very tired in the horror genre, I found myself enjoying the detailed accounts of vampire customs and culture.

Director Larry Fessenden plays Sam, a world-weary bartender in "Habit" (1999).

3. The low-budget indie film Habit (1999) was written, produced, directed, and edited by genre fave Larry Fessenden. This is a grungy and unglamorous revisionist-vampire film that uses vampirism as a metaphor for addiction. Fessenden plays Sam, a world-weary bartender who struggles with alcoholism and the recent death of his estranged father. When Sam meets the mysterious Anna at a friend’s party, things eventually go from bad to worse. While this film offers little in terms of fanged neck-biting, it has an effectively moody atmosphere and some fairly erotic sex scenes.

4. Cronos (1993), written & directed by Guillermo del Toro, was the cinematic debut of the Mexican filmmaker better known for his later film Pan’s Labyrinth. A fairly unique treatment of the vampire mythology in which an ancient and mysterious mechanical device is used to transmit the virus of vampirism. An old antique dealer unwittingly discovers the scarab-shaped device in his shop and becomes infected. Fans of del Toro’s work will recognize his characteristic black humour and fondness for grotesquery.

The priest Sang-hyun saves his dying love interest Tae-ju by rendering her a vampire in "Thirst" (2009).

5. Another clever twist on the vampire legend is Chan-wook Park’s Thirst (2009). Sang-hyun is a devout Catholic priest who, for all intents and purposes, opts to martyr himself by subjecting his body to some radical medical experiments. When these medical experiments result in vampirism, the priest wrestles not only with a heightened desire for carnality, but also a thirst for human blood.

Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: ‘Pushing Boundaries.’

This is the follow-up post to Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: ‘Ghoulish Delights.’

Pushing Boundaries.

Something you don’t want coming at you in the dark (and with that hammer) in REC and REC2.

1. The Spanish horror films [REC] (2007) and [REC]2 (2009) have proven to be a potent one-two punch in recent horror cinema. The second film is less of a sequel as a continuation of the first, with the action literally picking up where the first film ended. This is a very good thing, indeed, as the final third of [REC] set-up an unanticipated and fairly novel plot twist involving the Vatican, some dubious medical experiments, and a solitary priest living in the penthouse of the sealed-off, ‘zombie’-infested Madrid apartment building. It is this unique mashup of zombie-meets-supernatural thriller that makes the [REC] films standout from the recent overabundance of shaky-camera, faux found-footage style horror films. From what I’ve read, the shot-for-shot English language remake Quarantine (which I have not seen) altered the heavy Catholicism of the original Spanish film, replacing all those Virgin Marys with more generic, non-denominational Christian iconography. While the Catholicism would not have the same resonance for the multicultural, multi-faith English-speaking world as it would for the Latin, an easier and more obvious correlation exists between the flesh-eating ‘zombies’ and the characteristically morbid, blood-drenched imagery of Spanish Catholicism than it does for the more ‘sanitized’ versions of Christianity. The only disappointment I had with these films was the ending of [REC]2 which, as soon as a certain character reappears on the scene, is pretty much spelled out.

Catherine Begin as the diabolical Mademoiselle in “Martyrs” (2008).

2. I had purposely avoided Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) after reading the synopsis and questioning whether a plot that hinged upon the brutal and systematic abuse, torture and murder of young women was something I wanted to witness. After relenting and watching the film, I must admit that it pleasantly surprised me. Now, make no mistake — this is a troubling, violent, and gory film that boldly underscores the word extreme in the phrase ‘New French Extremity’, a category of recent French films in which Martyrs is often included. Much like the [REC] films above, Laugier’s Martyrs veers off in an unexpected and fascinating direction towards the end of the film, revealing a secret society of privileged individuals determined to discover — at any cost — the existence of an afterlife. The enigmatic ending will have you scratching your head for years to come.

3. Any film that re-imagines and updates the ‘slasher’ genre immediately gets my attention, as did Alexandre Aja’s superlative Haute Tension (2003). While some horror fans argue that the ‘big reveal’ in the film didn’t work, I give Aja credit for playing with the conventions of gender in the rigidly formulaic slasher genre. In one of my earlier posts, entitled Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, I wrote extensively on this film.

Nothing quite says “revenge” like a fish hook in the eyelid. Jennifer Hills is more of a badass in the 2010 remake of “I Spit On Your Grave.”

4. Like the dated sexual politics of the slasher film, the rape-revenge film is an exploitation subgenre also in need of an update. Much has changed in gender roles and equality since Meir Zarchi made his controversial 1978 cult film I Spit On Your Grave. The 2010 remake, which credits Zarchi as one of its producers, attempts to address some of the shortfalls of the original — at least, shortfalls in the eyes of this contemporary horror fan. In my earlier post Rape-Revenge Girl, I criticized Zarchi’s film for the rather unsatisfying revenge sequences. “The quotient of rape-to-revenge in Zarchi’s film is too much rape, not enough revenge,” I wrote, and “…the deaths of Jennifer’s rapists were not violent and/or gory enough for my — admittedly, gruesome — taste.” As if in direct response to my criticism, the 2010 remake offers up grisly and sickly-twisted revenge killings reminiscent of the stuff you’d find in “torture porn” films like Saw and Hostel. Admittedly, the whole transformation of Jennifer Hills from cheerful girl-next-door, to rape victim, to psychopathic and sadistic killer doesn’t work in any realm other than extreme, cathartic fantasy. Then again, if you’re opting to watch a film entitled I Spit On Your Grave, then you probably know what you’re in store for and will suspend your disbelief long enough to see the blood spill.

Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: ‘Ghoulish Delights.’

Feel that crisp October chill in the air? That chill ushers in my favourite of the festive occasions: you guessed it, Halloween. If the spooky spirit of the season inspires you to celebrate all things horrific — or, like me, you celebrate such things on a regular basis — then below are some suggestions for Halloween-themed film viewing. I’ve grouped my suggestions into two distinct categories, and these I will separate across two blog posts. This first post offers up a small group of films I’ve labeled Ghoulish Delights. These are mainly campy, horror-comedy films best suited for Halloween party gatherings. Oh sure, there’s buckets of blood and disturbing scenes, but they’re all served-up with a big, mischievous wink. A follow-up post will address the second group, Pushing Boundaries, that will focus on horror films with considerable bite. These are films that either challenge or re-imagine standard narratives within the genre, or films that simply push the boundaries of taste and acceptability in contemporary horror.

Ghoulish Delights

Michael Dougherty's sack cloth-headed horror mascot Sam (after 'Samhain', of course) from his little-known horror anthology "Trick r Treat" (2007).

1. A public release date fiasco on the part of Warner Bros. — that unfortunately resolved itself in Trick ‘r Treat (2007) being released direct-to-DVD two years after it initially screened at film festivals — essentially buried Michael Dougherty’s Halloween-themed horror anthology from the general public. However, thanks the internet and a dedicated horror-film blogger community, Trick ‘r Treat has gotten the love it so rightly deserves:

Despite only a handful of public screenings, the film has been reviewed extensively by online journalists and bloggers, especially in the genre/horror communities, and reviews are nearly unanimously positive. Dread Central gave it 5 out of 5 stars and stated “Trick ‘r Treat ranks alongside John Carpenter’s Halloween as traditional October viewing and I can’t imagine a single horror fan that won’t fall head over heels in love with it.”[3] The film earned 10 out of 10 from Ryan Rotten of ShockTilYouDrop.com.[4] It also earned an 8 out of 10 from Bloody Disgusting,[5] who later ranked the film ninth in their list of the ‘Top 20 Horror Films of the Decade’, with the article saying, “[It’s] so good that its lack of a theatrical release borders on the criminal.”[6] IGN attended a screening of the film and concluded, “This well-crafted Halloween horror tribute is a scary blast.”, rating it 8 out of 10 overall.[7] Based on 17 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an overall “Fresh” approval rating from critics of 85%, with an average score of 7.7/10; the site’s critical consensus states “An deftly crafted tribute to Halloween legends, Trick ‘r’ Treat hits all the genre marks with gusto and old fashioned suspense.” — from Wikipedia.

Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat possesses the same irreverent black humour of horror-anthology franchises such as Creepshow and Tales From The Crypt, which gives the film a quality of both nostalgia and homage. Five interwoven tales of the macabre introduce us to the creepy Principal (played to the hilt by the gloriously creepy Dylan Baker), a self-conscious 22-year-old virgin portrayed by a pre-True Blood Anna Paquin, and a school bus packed with the vengeful ghosts of children in Halloween costumes. The one common element throughout all five stories is the presence of Sam, the mysterious and silent trick-or-treater who seems to embody the very spirit of Halloween.

2. I do love me some Bruce Campbell. This veteran actor of the B-horror genre — best known as Ash from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films — was perfectly cast as an old Elvis Presley in Don Coscarelli’s Bubba Ho-tep (2002). When a re-animated ancient Egyptian mummy suddenly appears in the nursing home in which Elvis lives, drastic action must be taken to destroy the creature and free the consumed souls of the nursing home’s elderly occupants. Serious fun.

He's back from the grave and ready to party in "Return of the Living Dead" (1985).

3. Have you ever wondered where that whole “zombies eating human brains” thing comes from? Nope, not from George A. Romero. The brain-eating zombie originated entirely from Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead (1985).* In the words of one of the film’s reanimated dead, zombies seek out and devour human brains because “…it hurts to be dead…I can feel myself rotting” and “brains kill the pain”, however temporarily. So, there you have it. O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead is both a playful satire of, and a respectful homage to, earlier zombie films like those of Romero. Cheesy ’80s vintage camp in all the right places, this film boasts reasonably convincing zombies and the ‘scream queen’ actress Linnea Quigley, who spends almost her entire screen time completely naked save for a pair of blue stockings. Must’ve been a cold shoot for Ms. Quigley.

…and a couple of the usual suspects

4. Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) is another — much, much better — satire/homage to the zombie horror genre. It’s such an exemplary horror-comedy that it’s pretty much a given, and I need not discuss it further here.

5. I mentioned Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell (2009) in last year’s Halloween list, but the strength of this film cannot be overstated. A hilarious horror-comedy with some legitimate scares thrown in — an extraordinarily difficult balance to achieve and quite the accomplishment for Raimi, who adeptly showed us that he still knows how to do it.

*There was a single, zombie-eating-brains scene in Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (1980) but, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first film that truly places brain on the menu for the undead.

Horror Films 101: Summer viewing suggestions from Lady Lazarus.

The dog days of Summer are now upon us, but don’t let those increased hours of daylight discourage our mutual reveling in the dark & macabre.  Summer is the perfect time of the year to relax, disengage your critical thought and wallow in the raunchy, gory, completely tasteless absurdity of horror & exploitation films. For the bookish crowd, there are “Summer Reading” lists offered annually by media sources such as Toronto Life and CBC Radio. Now, don’t get me wrong —  I do love to curl up with a good book whenever the opportunity presents itself. Film geek that I am, however, I derive greater enjoyment from seeking out and viewing obscure, bizarre and, um, not-exactly-high-brow films — such as the films I list below. If your taste in film is rather like mine, then track these films down as a “Summer Viewing” project. You probably won’t find these titles in your local Blockbuster video store, though. If you’re successful in locating any of these, then cue the DVD, pull the curtains, and embrace their insanity. Then tell me what you thought in the Comments section at the end of this post.

Valerie embraced by the 'Polecat' vampire-like creature, who's also the town's high priest and possibly her father (??!!) in "Valerie and her Week of Wonders" (1970).

1. Valerie and her Week of Wonders (Czech: Valerie a týden divů) is a 1970 film from the former Czechoslovakia, directed by Jaromil Jireš. This is the most “artful” of the films that appear on this list and, even though the print I viewed was of very poor quality, the stellar cinematography clearly stood out. The film is a dark, coming-of-age fairytale as only the Czechs could envision. The titular heroine, 13-year-old Valerie, grapples with her burgeoning sexuality, as well as the many priests, vampires, men and women who attempt to seduce and/or kill her. Fortunately for young Valerie, she possesses magical earrings which, when placed in her mouth, rescue her from impending death — which happens with great frequency throughout the film. Disjointed and surreal, you’ll hurt your brain if you try to make sense of the proceedings. Characters often change appearance and, as in the case of the ‘Polecat’, occupy shifting and ambiguous roles. Is he a priest? A vampire? Valerie’s father? A weasel? All of the above? Yes. Don’t worry about it, just enjoy the many beautiful images and the hazy, dreamlike pace of this film.

Christina Lindberg stars as Frigga, the vengeful one-eyed prostitute in "Thriller -- A Cruel Picture."

2. Thriller — A Cruel Picture (Swedish: Thriller – en grym film, also known as They Call Her One Eye, Hooker’s Revenge and simply Thriller) is a 1973 Swedish exploitation film. The film follows the typical Rape-Revenge formula: the heroine suffers tragedy and physical degradation until the latter half of the film, when she exacts bloody revenge on those who’ve abused her. (Read my earlier post on the Rape-Revenge film for my thoughts on this exploitation subgenre.) The teenage Frigga — who has been rendered mute by the childhood trauma of sexual abuse — is kidnapped by the local pimp and forced into both heroin addiction and prostitution. When she is initially non-compliant, Frigga has one of her eyes cut out with a scalpel in a brief but grisly scene that reputedly employed an actual cadaver as a body-double. From then on, she silently endures abuse from her clients while she saves up her portion of the financial transactions. She packs her Mondays (her one day-off work) with karate class, rifle-shooting and driving-really-super-fast class, as she secretly plots her revenge. Montage after long montage, she finally dons a black leather trenchcoat, matching eye-patch, and a sawed-off shotgun, and pays a slow-motion visit to each of her (soon to be former) clients.

The film was marketed as the first film ever to be completely banned in Sweden, although the one that actually was first was Victor Sjöström’s The Gardener from 1912. It has received a cult following and was one of the inspirations behind Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, specifically the character of Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah). In Daniel Ekeroth’s book on Swedish exploitation movies, Swedish Sensationsfilms: A Clandestine History of Sex, Thrillers, and Kicker Cinema, it is revealed that the producers took out a huge life insurance policy on star Christina Lindberg, as real ammunition was used in the action sequences, and that she was asked to inject saline solution during the drug scenes. — from Wikipedia.

There's no joy in being dead, not even 'living death', as evidenced by the melancholic Catherine in Jean Rollin's "The Living Dead Girl" (1982). Oh, the existential angst of it all.

3. The Living Dead Girl (French: La Morte Vivante) is a 1982 campy classic from French fantastique director Jean Rollin. Reanimated by the spillage of a toxic waste goop on her corpse, the aristocratic Catherine discovers she has a new-found taste for human flesh. Like all of Rollin’s films, the aesthetics play a much more crucial role than the story or, indeed, the acting. His films are as gorgeous as they are completely ridiculous. The absurd plot devices — toxic goop dumped on (surprisingly well-preserved, two-year-old) corpse interred in family crypt — exist only to furnish Rollin with an excuse to create his signature erotic-grotesque imagery. Rollin’s The Living Dead Girl is splatter gore-meets-arthouse, served up with a little Jean-Paul Sartre on the side. The existentialist exchange that occurs between Catherine and her childhood friend Hélène is thoroughly hilarious:

Hélène: You were never dead. The dead don’t come back to life. You were put to sleep, drugged, driven mad or I don’t know what. I don’t understand. I never saw you dead, Catherine. They put an empty coffin in this crypt.

Catherine: No. I’m dead, Hélène. I know I am. Don’t you understand? I know I am!

Catherine and Hélène discuss the finer points of existence in "The Living Dead Girl."

Heady stuff, people. Heady stuff.

Horror Films 101: Harry Kümel’s “Daughters of Darkness” (1971)

Delphine Seyrig channels Marlene Dietrich in her portrayal of the infamous Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you are already familiar with my admiration — one might even say, obsession — for European horror films from the 1960’s and 70’s. What these films often lacked in budget, they more than made up for with stunning visuals and style. Of course, when you have a 1000+ years of art and culture sitting at your doorstep, it’s difficult not to look fabulous. Such is the case for Harry Kümel’s highly stylized erotic vampire film Daughters of Darkness (1971). From the architecture of the grand hotel on the Belgian seafront, to the shimmering sequins of Delphine Seyrig’s evening gown and the blonde waves of her 1930’s bob hairstyle, everything and everyone looks beautiful.

Author David Chute wrote an elegant summary of Daughters of Darkness for the recent Blu-Ray release of the Kümel classic which accurately captures the mood of the film:

Art-movie goddess Delphine Seyrig (Last Year at Marienbad) slinks through the plush Eurotrash settings as the deathless Elizabeth Bathory, Vampire Countess, in Harry Kümel’s minor Dutch classic of lesbian erotic-gothic. Blood mingles with water during the languorous shower scenes. Set at an upper-crust seaside resort, the 1971 film recounts Bathory’s plot to replace her current consort (Andrea Rau) with a fresher specimen, an abused newlywed whose brutal young husband is an inconvenience waiting to be eliminated. Although both the bi-sex and the neck-biting violence are tame by today’s standards, the film has a graceful, gliding sense of pace that gets under your skin; something unspeakably kinky always seems to be just about to happen. It never quite does, but the mood lingers. See it with someone you love–or would like to. –David Chute

Stefan (John Karlen) gets all hot and bothered as he and Elizabeth recount the many tortures inflicted upon the victims of the bloodthirsty Countess Báthory.

The phrase “…something unspeakably kinky always seems to be just about to happen…” instantly leapt out at me when I first read Chute’s summary, as this echoes my own experience with the film. If David Lynch had been making Eurotrash vampire films in the 1970’s, he’d probably make a film much like this one. From our first glimpse of the Countess, as she glides out from the backseat of her Bentley and up to the desk of the hotel concierge, there is an unmistakable atmosphere of kink. The camera tightly focuses on the gleaming patent leather of her high black boots as she steps from the car, an image that says fetish more than it does vampire. It is quickly apparent that the relationship between Elizabeth and her “secretary” Ilona has little to do with typing memos, and the scene in which Ilona crouches obediently at Elizabeth’s feet clearly establishes their dominant/submissive lifestyle arrangement. Of course, a bisexual female vampire with a taste for BDSM isn’t an entirely uncommon entity in the realms of horror fiction. The true wild card in Kümel’s film lies in the character of Stefan, the secretive husband prone to fits of violent rage. His rather prurient interest in sexual sadism becomes apparent when he recounts the legend of the bloodthirsty Countess Báthory, writhing with erotic pleasure as he describes the tortures inflicted upon her victims. Later in the film, he savagely beats his wife Valerie with his belt. And then there’s the whole matter of his “mother,” whom he’s mysteriously reluctant to introduce to his new bride. The scene below, where Stefan gives his ol’ Mum a call, is gloriously creepy:

My favourite moment of that scene is when the butler kneels down before Mother, and “Mother” reaches out to pet his bald head in the way one would a family dog. The butler reacts, but only mildly, before he walks away in silence. Kink abounds, but its only ever hinted at.

As the film nears its finale, the body count predictably rises. Ilona slips in the shower and falls upon a straight razor. The abusive Stefan gets his final comeuppance by way of a glass fruit bowl. Yes, fruit bowl. The Countess herself meets her end impaled on an unfortunately located tree branch as she is pitched from her crashing car. The sole survivor Valerie keeps the Báthory legend alive by donning Elizabeth’s fetching black PVC cape — complete with bat-wing trim and campy-vamp high collar — and seductively sidling up to a young couple.

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

The Lesbian Vampire.

Theodora: Is this another one of your crazy ideas?
Eleanor: I’m not crazy!
Theodora: Crazy as a loon! You really expect me to believe that you’re sane and the rest of the world is mad?
Eleanor: Well why not? The world is full of inconsistencies. Full of unnatural beings, nature’s mistakes they call you for instance!

The text above is dialogue from Robert Wise’s film The Haunting (1963) in which Dr. Markway, a researcher into paranormal activity, has assembled a group to investigate the reputed haunting of the gothic New England mansion Hill House. Amongst the group are the clairvoyant Theodora, a bold, outspoken woman who exudes worldly sophistication, and Eleanor, an awkward spinster who’s spent most of her adult life caring for her sick mother. In spite of their differences, Theodora befriends the mousy Eleanor, and there’s even the hint of romantic interest — however unlikely — emanating from Theodora. Director Robert Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding conceived of the Theodora character as lesbian, which would be one of the earliest appearances of a queer character in cinematic horror. Of course, the social climate of the early 1960’s meant that references to Theodora’s sexual orientation were all very codified and subtle, but Eleanor’s accusation of  “…unnatural beings…” and “nature’s mistakes…” allude not only to Theo’s preference in romantic partners, but they clearly establish homosexuality as an indication of deviance and ‘unnaturalness’.

Claire Bloom stars as Theodora (far left), Julie Harris as Eleanor (centre) and Rosalie Crutchley as the stony and gloriously creepy groundskeeper Mrs. Dudley in Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” (1963).

As was discussed in my earlier post on gender & the slasher film, queerness and the fluidity of gender identity in horror fiction is frequently a sign of mental illness. The cross-dressing serial killer — Norman Bates, for instance — and the homicidal, lovesick lesbian from Aja’s Haute Tension are examples of blurred gender boundaries being symptomatic of mental instability. While the character of Theodora in Wise’s The Haunting is not portrayed as violent nor mentally ill, her lesbianism marks her as ‘unnatural’ as the haunted Hill House in which the drama unfolds. This notion is certainly ironic given that it is the socially-awkward Eleanor, and not Theodora, who stands out as “the one who doesn’t belong” within the group.

“Hey! That’s not my neck!” Vampire love bite from “Twins of Evil” (1971).

This takes us to the third most common female trope in horror fiction: the Lesbian, and specifically the Lesbian Vampire. Why vampire, you ask? Simple. This trope has its roots in Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s novella Carmilla (1872) about the predatory love of a female vampire for a young woman. Le Fanu’s novella was influential not only on Bram Stoker’s Dracula — which it predated by 25 years — but serves to this day as the source chiefly consulted for the female vampire. (See my post on The Vampiress for more on this topic). The reason for the popularity of the Lesbian Vampire seems fairly straightforward: titillation, pure and simple. Wikipedia sums this up neatly:

This was a way to hint at or titillate with the taboo idea of lesbianism in a fantasy context outside the heavily censored realm of social realism (Weiss 1993). Also, the conventions of the vampire genre — specifically, the mind control exhibited in many such films — allow for a kind of forced seduction of presumably straight women or girls by lesbian vampires.

In the early 1970’s, Britian’s Hammer Studios created the much beloved Karnstein Trilogy, a series of lesbian vampire films very loosely based on Le Fanu’s novella: The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971). I’ve only seen the first film, which stars the iconic ‘Hammer Girl’ Ingrid Pitt and is quite giggle-worthy. File under ‘guilty pleasure.’

For the most part, the Lesbian Vampire is more softcore than horror, and bears little resemblance to the gender-bending serial killers mentioned earlier. What they do have in common, however, is the demarcation of Otherness — even the racy, breast-biting vampire of Twins of Evil is ultimately portrayed as ‘aberrant’ and ‘deviant.’

In Part IV of this series of posts, I’ll address the Rape-Revenge Girl.

Next post –>

Mother’s Day REPOST: “Your mother ate my dog!”

“Definition of  Freudian slip: when you say one thing, but meant your mother.” –an old joke, as immortalized in Urban Dictionary.

Ever since the days of Sigmund Freud, mothers have endured the brunt of blame for the neuroses of their offspring. The psychologically-complex relationship between mother and child served as the dramatic foil against which the existential angst of Shakespeare’s melancholic Hamlet played out, not to mention innumerable tales of dysfunctional families in horror fiction. There are countless examples of horror movie villains, like Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th series, who have a rather intense and, um, complicated relationship with their mother. In these films, the character of the mother is the creator — both literally and metaphorically — of the monster. Let’s honour Mother’s Day by paying homage to the most memorable mothers in cinematic horror.

Margaret White (Piper Laurie) presses her traumatized daughter against her "dirty pillows" in De Palma's "Carrie."

1. The abusive Margaret White (Piper Laurie) from Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) torments her teenage daughter with her ferocious piety. Unfortunately for Mrs. White, her daughter happens to possess telekinetic powers and a strong desire to attend her high school prom. When the latter proves disastrous, and Carrie finds herself soaked in pigs blood, things go from bad to worse. Convinced that she is “possessed by Satan,” Margaret stabs her daughter in the back before being summarily dispatched by a shower of kitchen knives flung at her by Carrie’s telekinesis. The knives pin Mrs. White against the kitchen door frame in the highly appropriate cruciform stance, offering horror fans one of the most memorable and satisfying death scenes in the genre.

Vera "Mum" Cosgrove gets bitten by the nasty Sumatran Rat-Monkey in Peter Jackson's "Braindead".

2. Long before he ventured into the realm of Orcs and Hobbits, New Zealand director Peter Jackson was much beloved in the horror genre for his “splatter” films. His infamous 1992 horror-comedy Braindead (released in North America as Dead Alive) still holds the title for being one of the bloodiest, goriest zombies films to date. Even highly adept and accomplished splatter-gore directors like Takashi Miike don’t quite attain Jackson’s zany, hilarious, and way over-the-top levels of gore. As if in counterbalance to the excessive gore, Jackson’s Braindead offers an equally excessive character in Vera Cosgrove. She epitomizes the thoroughly controlling, ball-busting mother who simply cannot allow potential happiness to enter the life of her beleaguered son. Once “Mum” is bitten by the Sumatran Rat-Monkey and infected with the virus that transforms her into a zombie, Jackson revels in the sadistic pleasure of having various parts of her matronly body impaled, injected, dismembered, consumed, and otherwise compromised. Packed with many memorable quotes, including “I kick ass for God!” and, one of my favourites, “Your mother ate my dog!”, Braindead is a gloriously gory, campy romp. Just don’t watch it soon after eating.

Nola (Samantha Eggers) gives her newborn a clean -- with her tongue -- in Cronenberg's "The Brood."

3. Procreation doesn’t get more bestial than in David Cronenberg’s 1979 Canadian horror classic The Brood. Samantha Eggars (best known for her role as TV-mom to Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) plays Nola Carveth, a mentally-ill patient who opts for an experimental, and highly controversial, psychotherapy treatment. This unorthodox  “psychoplasmics” treatment causes the patient’s mental illness to manifest physically on their bodies — in the case of Nola, she parthenogenetically births strange, mutated children. This film has all the themes that typify a Cronenberg film: abjection, body horror, bizarre sexuality, and an anxiety/horror over female biology and reproduction. A degree of sympathy exists for Nola, as she’s evidently the victim of childhood abuse perpetrated by her cruel and self-centred mother, although this sympathy soon diminishes once it is revealed that Nola is, herself, abusing her daughter Candice. The ‘birthing’ scene, where Nola licks her offspring clean in the manner of a mother cat, is classic Cronenberg.

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…

Next post –>

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.)

Next post –>

“Your mother ate my dog!”: Lady Lazarus’s favourite ‘Mommies of Horror’.

“Definition of  Freudian slip: when you say one thing, but meant your mother.” –an old joke, as immortalized in Urban Dictionary.

Ever since the days of Sigmund Freud, mothers have endured the brunt of blame for the neuroses of their offspring. The psychologically-complex relationship between mother and child served as the dramatic foil against which the existential angst of Shakespeare’s melancholic Hamlet played out, not to mention innumerable tales of dysfunctional families in horror fiction. There are countless examples of horror movie villains, like Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th series, who have a rather intense and, um, complicated relationship with their mother. In these films, the character of the mother is the creator — both literally and metaphorically — of the monster. Even though Mother’s Day is still several months away, let’s pay homage to the most memorable mothers in cinematic horror.

Margaret White (Piper Laurie) presses her traumatized daughter against her "dirty pillows" in De Palma's "Carrie."

1. The abusive Margaret White (Piper Laurie) from Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) torments her teenage daughter with her ferocious piety. Unfortunately for Mrs. White, her daughter happens to possess telekinetic powers and a strong desire to attend her high school prom. When the latter proves disastrous, and Carrie finds herself soaked in pigs blood, things go from bad to worse. Convinced that she is “possessed by Satan,” Margaret stabs her daughter in the back before being summarily dispatched by a shower of kitchen knives flung at her by Carrie’s telekinesis. The knives pin Mrs. White against the kitchen door frame in the highly appropriate cruciform stance, offering horror fans one of the most memorable and satisfying death scenes in the genre.

Vera "Mum" Cosgrove gets bitten by the nasty Sumatran Rat-Monkey in Peter Jackson's "Dead/Alive".

2. Long before he ventured into the realm of Orcs and Hobbits, New Zealand director Peter Jackson was much beloved in the horror genre for his “splatter” films. His infamous 1992 horror-comedy Braindead (released in North America as Dead Alive) still holds the title for being one of the bloodiest, goriest zombies films to date. Even highly adept and accomplished splatter-gore directors like Takashi Miike don’t quite attain Jackson’s zany, hilarious, and way over-the-top levels of gore. As if in counterbalance to the excessive gore, Jackson’s Braindead offers an equally excessive character in Vera Cosgrove. She epitomizes the thoroughly controlling, ball-busting mother who simply cannot allow potential happiness to enter the life of her beleaguered son. Once “Mum” is bitten by the Sumatran Rat-Monkey and infected with the virus that transforms her into a zombie, Jackson revels in the sadistic pleasure of having various parts of her matronly body impaled, injected, dismembered, consumed, and otherwise compromised. Packed with many memorable quotes, including “I kick ass for God!” and, one of my favourites, “Your mother ate my dog!”, Braindead is a gloriously gory, campy romp. Just don’t watch it soon after eating.

Nola (Samantha Eggers) gives her newborn a clean -- with her tongue -- in Cronenberg's "The Brood."

3. Procreation doesn’t get more bestial than in David Cronenberg’s 1979 Canadian horror classic The Brood. Samantha Eggars (best known for her role as TV-mom to Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) plays Nola Carveth, a mentally-ill patient who opts for an experimental, and highly controversial, psychotherapy treatment. This unorthodox  “psychoplasmics” treatment causes the patient’s mental illness to manifest physically on their bodies — in the case of Nola, she parthenogenetically births strange, mutated children. This film has all the themes that typify a Cronenberg film: abjection, body horror, bizarre sexuality, and an anxiety/horror over female biology and reproduction. A degree of sympathy exists for Nola, as she’s evidently the victim of childhood abuse perpetrated by her cruel and self-centred mother, although this sympathy soon diminishes once it is revealed that Nola is, herself, abusing her daughter Candice. The ‘birthing’ scene, where Nola licks her offspring clean in the manner of a mother cat, is classic Cronenberg.