Below is a text I wrote for Nitehawk on women in horror film in conjunction with the film program, Final Girl…
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” ― Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
Nitehawk’s Final Girl program celebrates fifty years of women in horror film by highlighting the iconic Final Girl. From Georges Franju’s depiction of beauty obsession in Eyes Without a Face (1960) to Adam Wingard’s role-reversing You’re Next (2011), this series focuses on the depiction of the woman’s role within the fictional realm of horror cinema and its association with the reality of daily life. The series eschews the popular bimbo slasher film stereotype by highlighting iconic female characters who experience a revelatory journey from victim to hero. Her on-screen transformation is hardly ever pretty, brutal by sheer necessity, but it realizes an important power shift: the stereotypical male gaze turns into her gaze and then to ours. Embodying Shirley Jackson’s description of Hill House, the Final Girl’s insane break from an “absolute reality” means that it is up to her, our heroine, to restore order when the familiar world becomes an overwhelming space.
When horror films are in top form they provide an incredible cultural analysis. Historically they’ve dealt with socio-political issues, from racism to capitalism, but gender norms have always been a constant. By addressing the patriarchal culture we live in, horror tells us what the possibilities for change are and, in its own visceral way, adjusts the imbalance. This marriage of women and horror actually traces back to 18th century Gothic novels like The Castle of Otranto and the genre has carried on the tradition all the way up to the self-reflexive postmodern heyday of the 1970s-90s. Because horror has the uncanny ability to simultaneously embrace and explode stereotypes when tackling women’s roles, it reveals a victim-to-survivor figure by depicting the “weaker” sex in a position of power with far superior survival skills and intelligence. This is particularly true when they show the struggle and sublimation of women in/out of domesticity via the haunted or evil house; it’s one constant that pops up in horror films and is the commonality amongst all of the films in our Final Girl series.
The concept of the ‘Final Girl’ put forth by scholar Carol Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film applies directly to Shirley Jackson’s above description of the inherently evil atmosphere that permeates her novel The Haunting of Hill House written more than thirty years earlier. The extreme pressure of coping with an unreal horror that becomes the Final Girl’s reality is a commonality shared amongst many, if not most, cinematic horror heroines and it is an essential part of actually being a true Final Girl. This woman, according to Clover, is the person with whom the audience (regardless of gender) identifies with most because we share in her experience and desire for survival in the very strange land she’s found herself in. And ever since she emerged from the Italian giallo and subsequent American slasher movies of the 1970s and 80s, this Final Girl has become a reliable fixture within horror narratives. That is, of course, until post-post modern horror film tackled our comfortable associations with her head on. Regardless, whether she’s the lone survivor amongst her dead companions or the sacrificial lamb to the monster, the historic representation of women in horror is culturally significant. The two appear to be inextricably bound together.
YOU’RE NEXT. One of the best horror films produced in the last decade and the latest release in our series is Adam Wingard’s stellar home-invasion film, You’re Next. It starts out following the standard trope of a family happily gathered together in an isolated location for a celebration when the inevitable trouble arrives: a gang of masked ‘Animals’ starts to systematically kill everyone and ruin all the fun. But Wingard puts a clever twist on the genre and reclaims the power of survival into a woman’s role by revealing that one of the victims (Erin) turns out to be the toughest killer of them all.
THE HAUNTING. Robert Wise’s stunningly brilliant filmic adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House reveals an evil house that has a life all of its own. Immediately after being built by Hugh Crain for his wife, Hill House began its violent history of psychological manipulations and murders. Many years later, when paranormal researcher Dr. Markway invites a group of people to investigate the mysterious home, bizarre occurrences happen almost instantly. One character in particular, pre-Final Girl Eleanor “Nell” Lance, has a strangely natural connection to Hill House and becomes utterly consumed by its past. Noted as being one of the most frightening films in cinema, Wise’s usage of camera angles, soundscapes and special effects made you believe that the architecture is breathing, tracking, and alive as it beckons Nell to “come home.”
SCREAM. Many consider Wes Craven’s Scream to be the end of an era for the American horror film as it folds in all of the genre’s tropes of the previous twenty years into one meta experience. With one of the more shocking first scene’s in horror history (akin to Hitchcock killing off his main female character in Psycho), it establishes everything you need to know about the ride you’re about to go on. More than anything, and without being hokey,Scream is a whole lot of fun as a group of high school students ponder the “rules” of horror movies while a masked killer cleverly guts their peers. At the center of it all is our horror heroine Sidney, a “virgin” who seems to be the target of the killer’s affection.
THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Considered to be the first Giallo, Mario Bava’s seminal film The Girl Who Knew Too Much (aka La ragazza che sapeva troppo) is a beautiful composition of a murder mystery meets horror movie. Nora is a young American visiting family in Rome when the shock of her Aunt’s sudden death sends her into the stormy night…and into her own whodunit. Her obsessive desire to prove that someone killed a young woman on the Spanish Steps involves a rather handsome detective (John Saxon) and a sequence of unfolding haunting events. (One scene in particular was reconstructed by Martin Scorsese in his remake of Cape Fear). As is typical with the Bava’s master cinematography and storytelling, The Girl Who Knew Too Much perfectly balances out the fright with humor and gorgeous imagery as it shows one of the first final girls in contemporary horror film.
HIGH TENSION. A throwback to the grittiness of horror films from the 1970s, Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (Haute Tension) shows two best girl friends, Marie and Alex, who arrive at the country home of Alex’s parents for a quiet weekend of studying. And it all starts off very nicely until a homicidal delivery man (Phillippe Nahon from Gasper Noe film fame) arrives killing everyone, kidnapping Alex but unable to find the hidden Marie. What ensues next is a tense and extremely brutal game of cat-and-mouse in real splatter-style with an incredible twist ending that will undoubtedly shock you.
SPIDER BABY. Jack Hill’s Spider Baby is an absolute horror classic about the Merrye family who have a rare recessive gene that turns them into cannibals after a certain age. Save for the occasional murderous mishap, all is managed just fine by the family butler who takes care of the children and the older cannibals housed in the basement until distant relatives come in to inquire about the estate. Although in black and white, Spider Baby is full of colorful characters like the silently expressive Ralph Merrye (Sid Haig), the greedy Emily Howe (Carol Ohm), and the concerned caretaker Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.). But it’s the young mischievous Merrye daughters who truly steal the show with their distorted grown-up behavior, vocal hatred of people, and the deadly game of playing spider.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of a handful of films that punctuate the very life-blood of cinematic history. Intensely brutal with very little reprieve or consideration for the audience, it came out of a rift of a socio-cultural framework, bursting onscreen with the evisceration of the family structure, youth culture, and cultural fragility in a post-Vietnam United States. Like Night of the Living Dead did five years earlier, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre reveals the unraveling framework of society and places the possibility of horror/death to occur anywhere; not in the Gothic castle nor in the fields of Vietnam but, more terrifyingly, in our surrounding neighborhoods. The film also reveals one of the very first final girls (Sally) in the American slasher genre.
EYES WITHOUT A FACE. George Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage) is a slow-paced meditation on horror. After a car accident disfigures his daughter Christiane, a brilliant surgeon named Dr. Génessier feels such guilt that he kidnaps young women in order to graft their perfect skin onto her face (an act depicted in one of the most graphic scenes in film). Wearing a stoic mask, Christiane keeps to herself and to their guard dogs in their remote French estate but when she discovers what her father is doing for her, she makes sure it never happens again. A mixture of hauntingly gorgeous and disturbing imagery, Eyes Without a Face is an influential part of horror cinema and one that shows the very powerful importance placed on a woman’s beauty.
SUSPIRIA. Dario Argento’s Suspiria is a candy-coated nightmare with an explosion of color and sound, heightening all the gory kills and strange occurrences to an all time pitch-perfect high. (Those bugs, the razorblades, the Goblin soundtrack!). In this horror fairy tale written by Argento and Daria Nicolodi, ballet dancer Suzy Banyon attends the German Tans Academy only to instantly find herself in the middle of a series of gruesome, and supernatural, murders. As she uncovers the dark history of the prestigious academy, the coven of witches tighten their grip on her and her classmates. It’s up to her to fight and solve the mystery before the Black Queen completely consumes her.
REPULSION. The psychological unraveling of Carol’s mind in Repulsion is expressed through sequences of dream imagery, vivid hallucinations, and real life horror as only Polanski can produce on screen. When Carol’s sister leaves her clearly disturbed sister alone in their London apartment as she vacations with a gentleman, it sends Carol over the edge and into madness. From that point on the architecture of London, her apartment and its individual rooms becomes a living, threatening character to Carol: it lets evil men in, houses all foul and decaying things, and literally reaches out to consume her. Men, however how well or ill meaning, are not to be trusted and Carol’s ultimately (and innocently) fights back.
Originally published on Nitehawk Cinema’s blog (September 2014).