monstrous women are rarely rewarded
I’ve been meaning to write something for Women in Horror Recognition Month, which is a campaign to promote women who work within the horror genre during the month of February.
I’m going to look at two films that I think deserve some attention and discussion: Ginger Snaps (2000) and Jennifer’s Body (2009). These two films serve as a useful balance, since the first is smart and thought-provoking, while the second is interesting but muddled.
Ginger Snaps is based on a story by Karen Walton and John Fawcett, the screenplay was written by Walton, and directed by Fawcett. It’s a film about two sisters, Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigette (Emily Perkins), who don’t fit in at school due to their death obsession and Goth tendencies. They are on the cusp of puberty, and therefore an interest in boys is beginning to impinge upon their intense friendship. Ginger is bitten by a werewolf just as she begins to menstruate, and she starts to change in literal and metaphoric ways. Brigette tries to protect her sister as Ginger becomes more predatory and lost within her lycanthrope self. Brigette eventually attempts to forge a path between being a werewolf and being human, while stopping her sister’s attacks.
The film does not make any apologies for placing a tricky issue like female puberty at its centre. The werewolf is both a metaphor for the physical transformation (hair growth, strange appetites and smells) and the emotional roller coaster triggered by the onset of menstruation: mood swings, hormonal imbalances, etc. The obviousness of the metaphor is not a problem for me: this film glories in having a subject that is normally taboo galloping about on the screen tearing chunks out of people. Menstruation – that hidden, messy issue that we discuss in euphuisms (the film’s logline is “She’s got the curse”) – is central to the film, partnered with the uncomfortable issue of coping with a young woman’s burgeoning sexuality. Most films are concerned about controlling women’s sexual appetite, and what makes Ginger so dangerous is that she has the strength to carry out her lethal desires. As she says: “I’m a goddamn force of nature. I feel like I could do just about anything.”
Of course, A Company of Wolves (1984), co-written by Neil Jordan and Angela Carter (based on her The Bloody Chamber stories) also tackled the werewolf/puberty angle in relation to a female character, but in it lycanthropy was mostly a male force. Although, this disjointed, dreamy, fairytale film is well worth watching, and is another favourite of mine.
Ginger and Brigette are complex characters brought to life with convincing performances by the actresses. There is a split of the sexy versus nerdy sister, but not in a simplified fashion – both Ginger and Brigette are appealing and never dismissed based on their appearance. The film is also horrific, in the proper sense of the word, with Brigette having to make a terrible decision by the end of the film. This is a horror film with women at its bloody centre, without compromise or rescue by men. Ginger and Brigette are in it together (forever) and resolve it together. It foregrounds the intense love/hate relationship of sisters, which is rarely represented in films with any gritty truth.
What’s baffling is that Karen Walton, who wrote a superior horror screenplay (far, far better than most of the drek I suffer through on a regular basis), has not written another feature script since this one. She has written television movies and series, but no more horror. I notice that John Fawcett on the other hand has directed plenty of genre television and at least one feature film since Ginger Snaps. The film won eight international awards – including a writing award for Walton – and spawned a sequel and a prequel. I would easily place Ginger Snaps in my top five werewolf movies. Usually, screenwriters who produce such early, critically-successful work are rewarded with more work in feature films, but not in this case. Perhaps Walton did not want to continue to work within the horror genre, and that is certainly a pity.
Jennifer’s Body was written by Diablo Cody and directed by Karyn Kusama, and attracted a certain amount of attention because Cody just won the Oscar for Juno, and the film’s star, Megan Fox, was hotly lusted after by a new generation of teenaged boys thanks to her role in the Transformer films. I do not say these things as negatives – hardly. It’s rare for a film written and directed by women to get any early heat, so it’s great when it happens. Cody and Kusama were vocal in their ambitions to make an interesting female-centric horror film (well documented in the film’s Wikipedia entry). In this regard I find that a pity, because for me the film falls short of its supposed feminist ambitions.
The story revolves around the relationship between Jennifer (Fox) and Needy (Amanda Seyfried), who have been best friends for their entire lives despite the fact that Jennifer is popular and attractive, and Needy is nerdy and plain. They live in the small town of Devil’s Kettle, and attend a typical High School together. An indie band visit the local bar, burn it down, and take away Jennifer to sacrifice to Satan in exchange for fame and glory on the mistaken assumption that she’s a virgin. Because Jennifer is not a virgin she is possessed by a Succubus and must slaughter and eat a man every month to maintain her demonic abilities (which are never properly detailed). This change means that Needy must end up putting a stop to her best friend’s appetites.
This is a film with good intentions, and it’s well put together, however there are a couple of narrative difficulties that hamper it. The film begins with a flash forward so we meet Needy after the main events so she is already transformed. When Jennifer is taken away by the band we don’t see what happened to her initially, but it’s explained by Jennifer in flashback later on. It drains that scene of any horror, and allows it to play out as humour. But, for me the most difficult part in the film is the one-dimensionality of Jennifer’s character. We know nothing about her parents, or her background, other than she’s hot. I disliked the fact that Seyfried’s character was named Needy – that level of explicit characterisation doesn’t work for me without some exegesis of the fact in the film itself.
Plus, there’s the fact that because Jennifer was sexually active she’s turned into a demon when she’s sacrificed – yet the boy band still get their fame and fortune from the Devil. That’s the reward for having sex: even Satan sees you as a whore. I was also rolling my eyes during the scene when Needy’s boyfriend – who is almost dead from blood loss – somehow manages to pick up a pole and impale Jennifer upon it, thus saving Needy.
Needy’s first line in the film “Hell is a teenage girl,” on the surface has that somewhat cool ring to it, but ultimately it offers no strategy for negotiating the difficult waters of teenaged life, except ingesting the blood of a demon so you get wicked super powers and you too can kill people. There is no sense of cost, or of price (there is always a price). Needy’s Mom shows hints of being an interesting character, but she’s not given enough spotlight, and vanishes midway through the film.
I’ve read some criticism of Fox’s portrayal of Jennifer, but I think she acted exactly in character: as a self-absorbed, pretty and selfish yo
ung woman. Seyfriend plays the part well of the sassy, nerdy kid that must step out of the shadow of her more popular friend, but there is little here I haven’t seen before.
I liked that most of Jennifer’s victims seem to be quite nice guys, but there is no sympathy for Jennifer in the film. She is a monster, who was made this way against her will, but she embraces the super power nature of her change without any niggling doubts of conscience. She only sees the power given to her by men (via the boy band, courtesy of Satan) of her killer looks and smart-bomb breasts. When she begins to lose her looks by the end of the month she’s only too pleased to kill a boy to recover her superficial power. After all, if she’s not pretty she might as well be dead.
There’s not much horror in Jennifer’s Body. There are a few scenes which show potential for frisson: such as Needy having hallucinations about Jennifer’s attack while Needy is having sex with her boyfriend. This strange supernatural connection between the two friends is barely described, and never fully ultilised. I didn’t have a problem with the kiss between the two girls, but wish it was played for real effect with an actual impact upon the characters.
One of the problems for women who write and direct is that they carry the weight of expectation upon their shoulders. Women are still in the minority in the industry, so much so that the fact is always commented upon. This year director Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win the Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures from the Directors Guild of America, and it’s likely she will win the Oscar for Best Director next month – only the third woman to be nominated and the first to win (I hope). We’re in the twentieth-first century, folks. This should not be so rare!
Hopefully, we will come to a time when there are so many films made by women that we will be allowed to fail, or do a passable job, without it also being some commentary upon our gender’s ability as writers/directors. Cody and Kusama tripped up on the very tropes of the horror genre that they claimed they would comment upon. If anything they played along with the stereotypes rather than trying to examine what lies beneath the artefacts. It shows either an unfamiliarity with the genre, or a hesitation to push the genre hard enough. In the latter regard perhaps they were being astute, and realised that female filmmakers who transgress boundaries in films are rarely rewarded.
Let’s not forget that very early in her career Bigelow directed (and co-wrote) the excellent vampire flick Near Dark (1987), which was an atypical vampire film for its time. What kudos did she receive for that? She has barely put a foot wrong in her long and well-judged career, and yet has almost never had the backing of a studio (most of her films were financed independently). Only now is she receiving the recognition that she’s deserved for so long.
When women finally attain a level playing field (and we’re not on it yet) it will be thanks to the hard work of those like Bigelow, who pushed for opportunities, took risks and refused to be pigeon-holed despite the weight of the industry’s indifference.