I made the mistake about halfway through watching Ginger Snaps of reading what Brian Collins of Horror Movie A Day had to say about it, and, boy, it got me fired up! He said the movie wasn’t “great,” which, fair enough, maybe it isn’t, but he also dismissed the main characters (two Goth sisters from Canada who battle with lycanthropy and puberty) as unlikable. Even worse, he commented on the unattractiveness of the younger sister and the hotness of the older sister. Way to react like a typical bro-dude.
Horror as a genre typically panders to the male gaze by serving up tits (and lots of them), but part of the whole point of this movie is that the girls, at least up to a point, don’t want the attention of boys and do everything they can to avoid it. When the older sister does finally have her sexual awakening, it’s horrific and doesn’t turn out well for the boys who objectified her. And the younger sister hasn’t even had her period yet, for fuck’s sake! Commenting on her attractiveness, or lack thereof, epically and ironically misses the point.
And so what if the sisters are unlikable? Of course they are. Teenage girls are The Worst. You know who else is The Worst? Teenage boys, but somehow we’ve spent decades – millennia, really – glorifying The Worst tendencies of teenage boys and nobody complains that it isn’t fun to watch. It was nice, in a way, to see teen girl characters that didn’t fit the stereotypes of either the “plucky female heroine” or “bitchy popular girl.” They were unpleasant in a realistic way that actually served a function: to cover up the fears and uncertainties of adolescence.
I know Collins’ attitude isn’t exactly an egregious example of sexism, and it’s perfectly valid for someone to find the movie lacking in various ways, but it still really bummed me out. The failure of a male viewer to understand how much it could mean to girls who love horror but seldom see anything they can identify with bummed me out. I don’t want to turn everything into some kind of feminist issue, but there’s such a dearth of good, female-centric horror with emphasis on feminine anxieties that, in the rare case where a horror film handles these anxieties honestly, I think it’s worth having a conversation. The existence of the Final Girl does very little to make a horror film female-centric and exploiting the (too obvious) fear of vulnerability and rape is just as much about male titillation as it is about a woman’s anxiety. I’m interested to see more about the everyday terror of being a girl, which I thought Ginger Snaps delivered on very well.
Puberty is scary for everyone, but at least boys get cool deep voices, fun erections to play with and a newfound sense of camaraderie. For girls, everything fractures. Formerly close bonds between friends fall apart as secrets become currency and insecurity deepens into an all-encompassing paranoia. Before puberty, you had an identity: a tomboy, a storyteller, a trouble-maker; but after puberty everything that you are is reduced to your sex. You’re either an ugly freak like Bridget or a dirty slut-bitch like Ginger, and there’s no real in-between, unless being invisible counts.
I imagine when a boy is told, “You’re a man, now,” there’s a sense of pride in hearing that. But when you get your first period and someone says that godawful fucking line about being a woman, part of your soul dies because there’s no implication of exciting possibilities or new discoveries. It’s about the crushing responsibility of being a woman, of one day being a mother, of keeping your body safe and your reputation clean. Instead of boners, you get a bloody crotch. Instead of thinking about all the sexy sex you want to have, you think about getting pregnant and turning into a walking cliché – losing your figure, losing your identity.
Being a woman (or a mother) isn’t that miserable, really, but everything feels more dramatic when you’re thirteen. I cringed so hard when Ginger’s mother reminded her she would be getting her period for the next 30 years or so. When I was that age, thinking about those things, I could feel imaginary chains wrapping around me. And I cringed for Bridget, too, watching her older sister cross that line and knowing that the horrors of growing up were waiting for her, lurking around the corner.
No wonder the sisters in Ginger Snaps are so obsessed with suicide. I thought about death a lot when I was that age, too, not because I was truly suicidal but because it seemed so much cleaner than the messy, slow-moving tragedy of life. No wonder they, like all teenage girls, are so sour and unpleasant most of the time. The end of every single day felt like a miracle of endurance, and that is really terrifying.
Horror for Girls
Making a distinction between horror about girls and horror for girls can be a little difficult. A lot of critics cite Carrie when talking about Ginger Snaps; I don’t know if Carrie is really “for girls” the way Ginger Snaps is, but sexual awakening certainly causes anxiety that can be exploited for horror. A recent example is Teeth, a movie about a young girl who discovers that she has a literal vagina dentata. The film touches on many of the conflicting fears a girl can have about her body: sexual assault, sexual prowess, and sexual rejection.
A horror movie doesn’t even necessarily have to be about “women’s issues” to be female-centric; one of my favorite movies is The Descent, about a group of friends who go on a caving trip and discover that they are not alone. The movie doesn’t force a conspicuous “Girls kick ass!” message. The characters happen to be women and they happen to like adventures – this empowers the characters by not making an issue out of it. There’s friendship, betrayal, and loss. Also, monsters.
Another movie I enjoyed was May, about an isolated, socially awkward woman who is more than a little deranged and so starved for companionship that she turns into a clingy mess at any sign of affection. She’s creepy and overbearing, but I sympathized with her, too. I wanted her to make a friend, to have a boyfriend, to maintain any kind of healthy connection that might pull her out of her pathetic weirdness. But I wanted her to still be a little weird. The movie also seemed to comment on what we now call the Manic Pixie Dream Girl phenomenon; other characters in the film see May as quirky and interesting, even though she is clearly insane. People see her as they want to, instead of seeing her as she is – and when they finally have a moment of clarity, they reject her. This is a good example of how women sometimes get trapped in roles they don’t choose for themselves, and punished when they don’t conform to the lie.
May was directed by Lucky McKee, who made another interesting specimen of seemingly “feminist” horror, The Woman. In the film, a man finds a feral woman in the woods and captures her, keeping her tied up in a shed. He tortures the woman in order to “civilize” her and, as he recruits his wife and children to help out, it becomes clear that he terrorizes his family in equal measure. At first, The Woman could seem like another exploitation film, using the blunt instruments of rape and torture to shock the audience, but when the wife and teenage daughter look at the wild girl with empathy in their eyes, the movie becomes an interesting comment on misogyny and how certain men still can’t stand to see a liberated woman. Not exactly a subtle film, but definitely interesting.
This is all to say that I am a woman and I like horror movies. I can get down with the slashing, the damsels who need saving, and the gratuitous boobage of the 80s, but every once in awhile I like my dismemberment with a little feminism.
First of all, I’d like to say I have mad respect for Brian Collins, the super dedicated guy who runs the Horror Movie a Day blog and also writes columns for Badass Digest. True to his blog title, he has watched a horror movie every single day for the last five years. As much as I love horror, I don’t think I have the stomach for that (or the time!), but when the fall season approached I vowed to do the best I could. Mr. Collins and his blog have been an invaluable resource for choosing films to watch; horror is a big genre, and as with any genre, the tropes can get a little well-worn and clichéd after a while. People who don’t watch a lot of scary films tend to complain about how derivative and predictable they can be — and they’re not wrong – but once you’ve watched a shit ton of movies, you start to see the nuances and slight variations that can make a film valuable or interesting despite what might seem, on the surface, to be just another retread. So naturally, as someone who has watched over 1500 horror films over the course of five years, Collins should know what he’s talking about when distinguishing the gems, the curiosities, or the fun twists from the plain old crap.
While not exactly a horror movie a day, here is a comprehensive list of the movies I’ve watched in the last two months:
Sleepaway Camp: I watched this on my friend Holland’s suggestion and I’m so glad I did. She also recommended Slumber Party Massacre to me, which would make a great double feature with Sleepaway Camp because they are both gloriously silly 80s movies that make you wonder how much the filmmakers were in on the joke. My favorite parts of the movie: the short-shorts and cropped shirts worn by all the boys, the cop’s hilariously fake moustache, the scenery chewing aunt, and the creative kill sequences. Also, the ending – oh, the ending!
Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon: This is a neat little piece of meta-horror comedy. Behind the Mask takes place in a universe where Jason and Michael Myers are real and a film crew sets out to document up-and-coming local slasher, Leslie Vernon, as he prepares to execute his first massacre. The humor is winking and deadpan, but not overly precious when it comes to skewering horror conventions. Leslie Vernon himself is charming, affable, and charismatic, nicely subverting the mystique of the evil villain.
Hatchet and Hatchet II: The people who criticize these movies as being dumb don’t seem to understand that the schlocky, over-the-top goofiness is intentional. I liked seeing horror movies that take place around New Orleans and in the Louisiana swamps. Some of the characters are likable, some of the characters you want to see get hacked up (and they do), and Tony Todd of Candyman is always an engaging presence. Mercedes McNabb (Harmony from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is delightfully daffy as an aspiring porn star who shows her tits a lot. All around, these movies are crowd-pleasers.
Recommended with caveats:
Lovely Molly: This is a stripped-down, no-frills “haunting” movie by the guys who made the Blair Witch Project. Even though it’s not exactly a found footage film, it still has the intimacy and simple scares like its predecessor. Halfway through, I realized it wasn’t really a horror movie, but something more psychological. The symbols and themes get a little heavy-handed and your mileage may vary regarding the film’s handling of drugs and abuse. I think I liked the movie because it reminded me favorably of Absentia, another movie that portrays the relationship between sisters and how they confront events that may or may not be supernatural.
The Tall Man: I still don’t know how to feel about this movie, but something about it struck a chord with me. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I will say it’s interesting because of its contradictions: it’s a horror movie that isn’t horror, as well as a nakedly sentimental film that is undercut by a big streak of nihilism. The Tall Man is a film set in America (but made in Canada) by a French director whose other films appear to fall into the extreme horror category, which could explain some of the disconnect in the movie’s tone. The rural setting has a fairy-tale quality that is grim and beautiful, but also suggests the director has never set foot in America, giving it an out of time, out of place atmosphere.
Cabin Fever 2: Spring Break: The first half of this movie is great. Ti West indulges in the quirks that he’s become well known for: retro stylistic flourishes, loving nods to genre convention, and long scenes of characters talking about nothing. For about 45 minutes, this was my new favorite movie, but then the last half hour just got nasty and kind of boring as everything went batshit. I still love you, Noah Segan (from Deadgirl, Brick, and Looper). So glad your career is taking off.
Bloody Birthday: It’s kind of sad this movie has mostly been forgotten about because it’s really well-made for an 80s slasher-type film. And as far as killer kid movies go, this one has some pretty impressive child actors, especially the little girl who is the ringleader of the evil pack. She is equal parts innocent and freaky, but never vamps around or hams it up while playing the villain. Bloody Birthday can be a little slow, but the loose structure and unresolved ending keeps it from being too formulaic.
YellowBrickRoad: The caveat here is that the ending is terrible. Like, really, really terrible. But up until that last 5-10 minutes, it’s a really interesting film, kind of a cross between The Blair Witch Project and Lost. A group of academic types decide to write a book about the inhabitants of a small town in New Hampshire who suddenly walked down a road in 1940 and disappeared forever. As part of their research, they decide to travel the same path; freaky shit ensues. It’s actually a lot like Lost – the overarching question was “What is the island?” and here the question is “What is the road?” Something supernatural is obviously going on and one by one the characters go insane. The movie wisely plays coy about a definitive explanation.
Quarantine 2: Terminal: I thought this was a surprisingly decent zombie/infection movie, considering that it’s a sequel to an American remake of a superior Spanish series. Again, Quarantine 2 is not a remake of [REC] 2, even though the first Quarantine was a remake of the original [REC]. Quarantine 2 takes place first on a plane and then in the personnel areas of an airport where the flight’s survivors are locked in by the CDC. I was bummed out that the characters never escaped into the actual airport because it would be fun to watch the virus run rampant through all the concourses. The film probably didn’t have that kind of budget.
Next time I’ll talk about the movies that aren’t great but are worth checking out for one reason or another and the movies that started strong but squandered their potential.