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 –>

Horror Films 101: Favourite death scenes.

For the past three years, it’s been a pre-Halloween tradition of mine that I compile a geekish list relating to horror films. I’m presently working on 2010’s Halloween list. Doubtless, you are all aquiver with anticipation. Just to whet your ghoulish appetite, here’s a repost of the list I originally created on Facebook last Halloween listing my “Top 5 Favourite Death Scenes from a Horror Film.” Enjoy. Note: NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH.

5. The death sequence that appears in the first 15 minutes of Dario Argento’s Suspiria is fantastically operatic in its baroque excess. Argento blows his cinematic load early, though, as the rest of this cult classic is fairly lacklustre. The music provided by the Italian prog-rock outfit Goblin, however, is wonderful and fittingly creepy.

4. The death of Captain Rhodes in George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead. This character was such a tightly-wound military jerk-off that you couldn’t help but cheer when the zombies finally got a hold of him.

3. Udo Kier plays a pale, sickly Count Dracula in search of “wergin” blood in Paul Morissey’s adaptation of the legendary vampire story, the Andy Warhol produced Blood for Dracula. Dracula meets his final comeuppance at the end of Joe Dallesandro’s axe in a scene of hilarious, way over-the-top gore. Couldn’t find the entire scene on Youtube but here’s a nifty mash-up with the Pixies that features the end sequence.

2. Final death scene in 1958’s The Horror of Dracula. I adore the films of Britain’s Hammer Studios, a.k.a. the “Hammer Horrors.” Christopher Lee stars as Dracula and Peter Cushing as his earthly nemesis, Van Helsing. Many a Saturday afternoon of my youth was spent watching these classic horror films. The video clip below is of regrettably poor quality, but it’s a fantastic sequence.

1. John Hurt births an alien at the dinner table in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Oh, c’mon, who hasn’t seen this famous sequence?