Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Horror of Women Month: 13 Haunted Girls

With the popularity of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo franchise and the #1 box office of Underworld: Awakening the other weekend perhaps Hollywood will notice and bring us more crazy cold blooded killer women in black, and maybe this time less dopey journalists hanging around saying, "Lisbeth, you can't kill people just because they've murdered and tortured women" or snot-nosed cops saying "Kate, not all humans are bad!" WRONG!

I've made a few horror of women lists already, but this is ANOTHER one, with Lisbeth Salander in mind, as well as women who challenge the gaze's desire through their beauty and ambiguity and knife skills, and characters that blur the line between victim and killer, child and monster, red herring and great red shark.

1. Lili Taylor as the Vampire Doctoral Candidate in The Addiction
1995 - dir. Abel Ferrara
It's a crime that this intellectual, druggy, black and white film from druggy intellectual Abel Ferrara isn't out on DVD. Who the hell did he mortgage the rights to, Studio Canal? The story finds NYU doctoral candidate Taylor falling into vampirism thanks to Annabelle Sciorra, who says "Tell me to leave" before biting her right in the club bathroom. Heroin metaphors and Nazi concentration camp stock footage follow, with about eight ponies of Nietzsche under it. After her successfully defended dissertation, Taylor throws a big faculty-and-colleagues party at her pad, filling it with her new colleagues as well as the street urchins she's fanged along the way. Booze is drunk, and "other."

You can smirk if you want at the earnest philosophy but doctorate students defending their theses really do talk that way and Taylor lends a great dusky New Yorker whisper to her philosophical discourse narration. In a cameo as the head vampire who gives her clues on what writers she should be reading, Christopher Walken appears, citing Burroughs in particular. It's that kind of movie, the kind that reads Naked Lunch and isn't afraid to show you the cover. It's Abel's and screenwriter St. John's most uninhibitedly refracted screenplay, a bit like Godard but with none of Godard's more wearying sociological interest, just Nietzsche and Nazis and junkies instead. So where is it?

2. Margaret O'Brien as Tootie in Meet Me in Saint Louis
1944 - dir. Vincente Minelli
Just because you're young and adorable doesn't mean you can't be "the most horrible." Satan bless gentle Vicente Minnelli for allowing O'Brien's unassimilated chthonic malevolence to grow unblemished or checked by dorky MGM-enforced sanitization. Hers is the pre-Lolita Kali energy; her dangerous mission, to attack the grouchy neighbor with flour on Halloween, has just the right amount of dread to be overcome. Possibly anti-semitic vehemence is undercut by the neighbor's appropriately mock-outraged reaction. And for her part, O'Brien conveys the mix of dangerous glee and the sudden emergence of her first empathic feeling, sadism's awful realization of self, with peer pressure the rocket fuel to go on anyway. Rivalry and peer pressure.... Would man have landed on the moon without it?

3-4. Valda Hansen and Jeannie Stevens in The Night of the Ghouls
1959 - dir. Edward D. Wood
* (**** for Wood fans)
This is truly the “Twilight Time” picture for Wood and his shaggy crew. It makes previous defeats seem like exalted victories, but once 16 year-old Valda Hansen (dig the awesome use of frame in the middle shot and atop) as “The White Ghost” appears in her beautiful white gown, crazy nails and long blonde Lillian Gish wig, with cut bangs, like the collapsing point between a blonde Vampira and Dolores Fuller, all is well. When Hansen acts in close-up it’s like watching a whole dramatic theater group in action —her eyebrow twitches, eyes bulge, gesturing spider fingers,and a mouth flashes long beautiful canine teeth, all like separate entities.

The nervous, whiny cop so touchingly played by Paul Marco in all three of Wood's monster films, empties his cowboy revolver at her, and then another unarmed woman–the "The Black Ghost" played by Jeannie Stevens, a brunette who wears a dimestore crown and a black wig with Betti Page bangs. She's very out-of-place with the rest of the film. It's like there's some kid your mom makes you play with, who insists on inserting her Cleopatra Barbie into your threadbare action figure fantasia. But then Stevens shows up in a second role, as a weird prop closet mannequin in a Max Reinhart faerie wig with absurd punk rock bangs (bangs must have been really 'in' back in 1959) and suddenly the movie clicks into place. Finding her there in a dingy prop closet conjures the weirdness of early morning childhood flu nightmares, and all is well once again. (more here)

5. Amber Heard as Mandy Lane in All the Girls Love Mandy Lane
 2006 - dir. Jonathan Levine
It's hard to figure out what to write about this film, it gets everything right... but barely. It's almost Vertigo-esque, with what in his Hitch book Robin Wood called "lordly indifference" to the rules of revelation in suspense (not that I dare give away a single twist), and a good portrait of presumptuous douche bags getting annihilated. The lack of motivation for it all isn't an oversight, it's the icing on a very diverting cake. In style and drive-in aimlessness it makes a good addition to any post-modern grindhouse night, in good company with Death-Proof, Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil, Wild Things and is far better than Kevin Smith's Red State. A rarity: dialogue is spoken rather than shouted. Heard is very good with a whisper, almost seducing a frazzled druggy blonde in a sultry toss-away moment, and generally confusing the hormones of all involved.

6. Megan Fox in Jennifer's Body
2009 - dir. Karyn Kusama
Kusama's big breakout film was Girlfight, which may help explain the ease with which strong women characters come tumbling out of Jennifer's Body: "I have a lot of empathy for those girls who just can’t seem to find a place for their kind of energy, their kind of intensity," she said about Girlfight and that seems a good explanation for the strong sense of "perfect click" between screenwriter Diablo Cody's award-winning sass mouth and Kusama's colorful comic book moxy. They're not afraid to linger on a long close-up lesbian kiss or a gut-munching and have the hipster boy be the one who cries and pines at home while our heroine goes off and rips the joint up. (see more here)

7. Dakota Fanning in Hide and Seek
2005 dir. John Polson
In her recent films Fanning seems a little blank, but Hide and Seek, while it may suck in a lot of ways, finds Dakota with the brakes off.  "With her jet black hair, pale skin, and wide blue eyes, she enters the realm of instant horror iconhood as the alternately frightened and frightening Emily." - I wrote for Muze, and yet you'll spot the plot twists a mile off, and wonder how many rewrites must have canceled each other out for such a crummy script.

8. Chloe Grace Moretz - Let Me In
2009 - dir. Matt Reeves
The original vamp was genderless, feral, Romanian, darker complexioned than the Nordics around her; Moretz is more like a true shapeshifter, female in a way that overflows boundaries of even a single species, and then a vampire pit bull when she goes in for the kill. Moretz is clearly the ace of her age group in this list. She's fathomlessly adult, believably hundreds of years old, the way Kirsten Dunst never quite managed to pull off in Interview with a Vampire.
 (more here)

9. Fabienne Dali as La Bruja - Kill Baby Kill!
1965 - dir. Mario Bava
It takes a few viewings to really appreciate KILL BABY. It's not as highly regarded as some of Bava's other work, which is probably due to a history of bad prints and title changes, but in the beautiful remastering it has now it's my favorite, it's Bava's FOG, the sleeper, the stealth killer of his oeuvre. I suspect if BABY had a more apt title, maybe with 'black' in it, like BLACK MONDAY, it might be thought of in the same reverent tones as Bava's other blacks, SABBATH and SUNDAY. There are beautiful 'old master lighted' bowls of fruit, great wind effects, sedatives ("give her 20 drops") and an array of strange and wonderful women, including an Anna Magnani-ish bruja (Fabienne Dali), a terrified innkeeper's daughter (Micaela Esdra), a stylish and terrified med student named Monica (Erika Blanc)...and

10. Valeiro Valerio as Melissa Graps in Kill Baby Kill!
1965- dir. Mario Bava
To tie the film even deeper into the neutered gender aspect of the original LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, the ghost girl at the heart of the tale is played by a very spooky boy, Velerio Valeri. S/he's so weird, like Italy's Victorian era version of THE BAD SEED times the SHINING's murdered twins divided by Norman Bates in "wouldn't hurt a fly" drag. Not at all inviting the way, say Moretz or Fanning were as blonde child monsters, Valeri's Graps seem frozen in time like one of those weirdly reptillian children in the renaissance century paintings of cupids  (mo' here)

Cupid by Lucas Cranach the Elder

11. Eihi Shiina as Asami in Audition. 
1999 - dir. Takeshi Miike
There are so very few movies where the woman is not only a killer, but a sick, twisted, sexually aberrant type of woman, that Audition would be awesome just for that, but it's also very well directed by that maestro Godard of gross, Takeshi Miike. It sucks you in with its tale of a lonesome widower pretending to hold auditions for an acting gig but really just looking for a girlfriend. He picks the wrong one! As a stand-in for the Japanese salaryman in all his hopelessly patriarchal expectations and double standards, he deserves it. Notes TWI: "the last half hour is so brutal, so grotesque, so disturbing, so violent that you should hang on only at your own risk." I disagree. It's delightful, hilarious, touching, sad, and very poetic and just. You may never look at 'saw wire' the same way again, but you never looked at it before anyway.

12. Beatrice Dalle - Trouble Every Day
2001 - dir. Claire Denis
Here's a glacial, mostly nonverbal film that offers no sense of joy or belonging, only the terror of imagining your own human carnal lust leading you to a grisly agonizing doom; the fate of being ripped apart by a maniacal lover. Such grisly potential forces us as viewers into weird moral positions, like a game of Twister devised by a coked-up pope, as the slow and relentless tug of sexual desire drags lonely people to their deaths like a very long, snaking chain tied to a dropping anchor.I wont spoil the particulars, but the key moment, the grisly highlight, is the sex/devouring scene of Dalle's with a horny neighbor kid who breaks into her locked room, and of course gets far more than he bargained for. Shots of the kids' accomplice downstairs waiting nervously for him, hearing the muffled screams of agony and his ambiguous reaction, reminded me a lot of a key scene, quite similar, in the original I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. And hey, that's a good thing. (more here).

13. Myrna Loy in 13 Women
1932 - dir. George Archainbaud
Imagine of Myrna Loy's character in MASK OF FU MANCHU went off to an ivy league American University, tried to join a sorority, and wound up being snubbed because of her race. That's kind of the backstory to the film you need to know, because knowing a best-served-cold special is on the way helps you endure sleep-inducing scenes of the ladies of the sorority (now 'grown' and led by Irene Dunne) meeting on sunny stage-bound verandas for tea and gossip. Loy meets with her devoted astrologer, Swami Yogadaci (the ever villainous C. Henry Gordon), on a much cooler set, meanwhile, to figure out how and when to assassinate said gossipy snubbers, or failing that, to kidnap and kill their children. Loy's the villain, ostensibly, but you'll be rooting for her all the way (unless you've never felt the sting of a snubbing yourself).
Ascetic Sensualist Junius Pond notes:
Myrna Loy’s evil mastermind [being a "half-Hindoo, half-Japanese" woman who came here from India, her name is "Ursula Georgi" of all things] has some long and sincere speeches about her isolation at school, and how irrational it was that “you whites and your Kappa society” refused to accept her.  The commercial failure of this movie might have to do with how this character, who looks like a stereotypical villain, gets to explain herself in an articulate way instead of just being a target for boos and hisses. 
Right on, the rubes hated complex motivations in their bad guys, and some still do! That in itself should let you know, 13 WOMEN is a film you'll want to see again and again, especially since parts of it are better than Nyqil, which then makes the weird Loy sequences all the more dreamlike as you gaze on them with one eye open.

That's the list! Admittedly random as it is, moving from girl to woman, to child to wolf killer, it can hopefully counterbalance the Super Bowl's testosterone and endless promos for Smash. 

PS - I know it's not 'Horror of Women' Month (see the top title), it's 'Women of Horror' Month! But sometimes dyslexia carries it's own peculiar relevance. Smash

Be sure to check out last February's 'Women of Horror' List!

1 comment:

  1. Another good list, though there are some missing. I find that writing murderous women is a whole hell of a lot of fun.


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