Why female directors matter… even in Horror

I don’t want to claim that films directed by women are inherently different or better. Nevertheless, with another Oscar sweep and round of patting-on-the-back for old white dudes, I think it is worth asking what can female directors bring to the table? Yes, even in a genre like Horror. I want to talk about two films: Nurse 3-D (2013) and American Mary (2012) which both deal with the theme of women’s revenge through violence. To put things in perspective, I have jotted down some comparisons film-by-film. If you haven’t seen them, obviously this post contains spoilers.

Jen and Sylvia Soska wrote and directed American Mary. Douglas Aarniokoski and David Loughery wrote and directed Nurse 3-D.

Both films explore ideas of female sexuality and violence as revenge. American Mary tells the story of a gifted medical student who starts performing radical body modification at a seedy club to pay the school bills until she is raped by her mentor in medical school, at which point she exacts her revenge on him and devotes herself fully to her surgery hobby. Nurse 3-D tells the story of Abby, a former mental patient who becomes obsessed with a newly recruited nurse, Danni, leading to her bloody revenge on Danni for rejecting her affections.

Both films feature an alluring female lead… right down to having the same haircut and overall look -a thick Bettie Page fringe and luscious red lips with a great lingerie collection. Both films used sexually charged and blood-drenched imagery to sell the film on posters and in trailers, including “teaser” shots that showed part of the female lead’s body without the face (sexualising and depersonalising them), many featuring Mary with a medical mask and Abby riding a hypodermic needle. What interested me was that, on the surface, they are two very similar films, but the overall tone is markedly different.

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Nurse 3-D (2013)

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Nurse 3-D (2013)

Writing and tone:

  • Nurse 3-D places itself in the kitsch genre from the start, using old nurse-related erotica covers as a part of the intro sequence and having the protagonist make ludicrous declarations like thinking “I look like a slut” as the first line and later thinking “I love my fucking job” while gyrating on a man she has murdered
  • From the beginning, the first person narration of  Abby tells us that we know every nuance of her thoughts (it doesn’t help that she pouts and simpers through all of her lines) whereas Mary has to be taken at face value from what she says and does, giving her more nuance and room to interpret the role.
  • Both films make a nod to realism by using some realistic medical-ish lingo and Mary demonstrates realistic surgery techniques, but Abby is never really shown in the capacity of a nurse (just walking the halls and having sex, you know, like nurses do).
  • Mary has a beloved grandmother with whom she speaks frequently by phone and she keeps her centred as Mary’s world starts to fall apart. Mary also has as a pet bird that she lavishes affection on. Abby has no living family, as they died rather dramatically during her childhood, and her only affection is obsessive and not reciprocated.
  • The cast of Nurse includes a smart-talking and highly stereotypical Black nurse, Regina, for comic relief, and American Mary cast some genuine body mod enthusiasts who talk a bit about their choices, as well as a cameo by the writer/directors themselves which is pretty gratuitous.
  • Mary is motivated by revenge and by money, Abby has some revenge elements tied to her childhood and jealousy of Danni’s affection, but, otherwise her motivation seems like, “I dunno, she’s crazy and stuff?” It’s also never explained what happened to Abby’s guardian, a nurse she admired.

Sexuality:

  • Both films have nudity, but the only genitals featured in American Mary are the results of extreme body modification, whereas Abby appears semi nude and nude throughout.
  • The wardrobe in both is very sexy, buy Abby and the other nurses wear crisp white uniforms straight from the distant past (a throwback to the days of servile, domesticated women), despite the apparent modern setting, whereas Mary gets some cool, all-black ensembles that look like something out of a tattoo parlour (enviable shoes on both).
  • Abby enjoys her own sexuality with men and women, Mary does not get to enjoy her own sexuality (a somewhat lame romance thread is dangled for a while which remains unrequited) and is raped.

Violence:

  • Both protagonists are shown to have a sexual thrill in the violence that they inflict, but Mary has a conversation about violence and revenge with a bouncer at the club which shows some remorse on her part, while Abby has a freak-out, kill-crazy murder rampage at the hospital which is entirely unexplained
  • Both feature somewhat ludicrous final battles, but the motivation for the final confrontation differs widely -Mary is murdered by a husband angered by her modifications to his wife (which de-sexualised her and made her into a living Barbie doll), while Abby has a final showdown with Danni at the hospital because… uh jealousy? Which leads to many gratuitous deaths but spares Danni and her boyfriend somehow (even after a stab to the throat).

Final feelings:

  • American Mary kills off their lead in the end, but even though Abby survives, it is no victory for women. Mary goes through a character arc which is interesting to watch, if implausible, but Abby just gets to be a sexy, crazy killer throughout. While this may just be put down to better writing, I do think that there is a sensitivity to Mary’s story that is less voyeuristic than Nurse 3-D is capable of. Neither film is high art by any means, but .

Both films feature plenty of violence and sexuality, enough for any Horror aficionado. I think that the main difference is an attention to motivation and practical details in American Mary vs. Nurse 3-D. Directors like Carpenter cultivated a practiced tongue-in-cheek, parodic tone to Horror which was refreshing at one point, but now just serves to heap more abuse on female protagonists. If you want to make a woman a beast, make her scary, not laughable. By making Abby silly and unreal, spitting out goofy one-liners and playing with dolls, it takes some of the bite out of her actions, whereas Mary seems cool and methodical (as well as quieter). I would like to see more female directors in Horror to see how their own voices develop.

 

Feeling the H.P Lovecraft

In our Brave New World of shameless remakes, reboots, and other forms of cultural cannibalism, I am starting to feel like Yog-Sothoth is watching from afar and the Old Ones are closing in on us all, am I right? You have to love the classic, apocalyptic horror from outer-space, but you also must ask why it seems to come up again and again, in one form or another.

H.P. Lovecraft is probably the most enduring horror writer ever; this is a fact. With that said, he was not really an excellent writer. His prose is often florid and the plotting quite formulaic -which is not all that surprising, given the kind of cheap pulp publishing that he worked in.

The house was—and for that matter still is—of a kind to attract the attention of the curious. Originally a farm or semi-farm building, it followed the average New England colonial lines of the middle Eighteenth Century—the prosperous peaked-roof sort, with two stories and dormerless attic, and with the Georgian doorway and interior panelling dictated by the progress of taste at that time. It faced south, with one gable end buried to the lower windows in the eastward rising hill, and the other exposed to the foundations toward the street. Its construction, over a century and a half ago, had followed the grading and straightening of the road in that especial vicinity; for Benefit Street—at first called Back Street—was laid out as a lane winding amongst the graveyards of the first settlers, and straightened only when the removal of the bodies to the North Burial Ground made it decently possible to cut through the old family plots. -H.P. Lovecraft The Shunned House (1937)

What Lovecraft did excel at was the creation of worlds. None of what he wrote was compelling or innovative in a literary sense. While his work was extremely, eccentrically well-informed by his private research and collaborations with other writers (as his correspondence shows), his work is interesting more for the world that it evokes, rather than the writing itself.

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Also, horror used to have a pretty flamboyant palette.

  1. SPACE: Lovecraft references a particular series of spaces in his books. This space is specific enough that fans have used ArcGIS to map it out: http://www.arcgis.com/home/webmap/viewer.html?webmap=c8f5c4165d3140b9bf7c793dab4a6023
    Some of those spaces are real, others imagined, but all hearken back to an earlier era with buildings and populations in unfortunate decay. Many of the places described include almost an anthropological study of the town’s inhabitants, with people very specific to their place (yeah, Lovecraft was into eugenics in a big way). By including the people and the place in the horror of it all, Lovecraft makes a whole universe that stands in the way of his protagonists. The world of Lovecraft is a dark, inimical place that still seems to hold onto reality’s constraints at the surface.

    They have come to form a race by themselves, with the well-defined mental and physical stigmata of degeneracy and inbreeding. The average of their intelligence is wofully low, whilst their annals reek of overt viciousness and of half-hidden murders, incests, and deeds of almost unnamable violence and perversity. The old gentry, representing the two or three armigerous families which came from Salem in 1692, have kept somewhat above the general level of decay; though many branches are sunk into the sordid populace so deeply that only their names remain as a key to the origin they disgrace. Some of the Whateleys and Bishops still send their eldest sons to Harvard and Miskatonic, though those sons seldom return to the moldering gambrel roofs under which they and their ancestors were born. -H.P. Lovecraft The Dunwich Horror (1929)

  2. LITERATURE: This world also has its own literature and other cultural objects, such as the famed Necronomicon, which all of his characters seem to encounter in one way or another. Many of his stories are about characters researching in libraries and reporting “facts” that they have found. This gimmick (ecfrasis) is by no means new to Lovecraft; Poe used it frequently. What is neat too is the way that these things appear only as fragments and sly references across the cannon. By never fully explaining the dark forces at work, they remain grandiose and frightening.

The history of the house, opening amidst a maze of dates, revealed no trace of the sinister either about its construction or about the prosperous and honorable family who built it. Yet from the first a taint of calamity, soon increased to boding significance, was apparent. My uncle’s carefully compiled record began with the building of the structure in 1763, and followed the theme with an unusual amount of detail. The shunned house, it seems, was first inhabited by William Harris and his wife Rhoby Dexter, with their children, Elkanah, born in 1755, Abigail, born in 1757, William, Jr., born in 1759, and Ruth, born in 1761. Harris was a substantial merchant and seaman in the West India trade, connected with the firm of Obadiah Brown and his nephews. After Brown’s death in 1761, the new firm of Nicholas Brown & Company made him master of the brig Prudence, Providence-built, of 120 tons, thus enabling him to erect the new homestead he had desired ever since his marriage. -H.P. Lovecraft The Shunned House (1937)

These things are all part of world-making, and this world has become so pervasive that it penetrates into all kinds of media. What is interesting to me is the way that it is used in new and different ways with different generations, but it still keeps arising, over and over again.

Alien (1979) sets a crew against impossible odds, facing a merciless threat from outer-space which picks them off one by one regardless of rank as in-fighting erupts among the human prey (Necronomicon was also the title of H.R. Giger’s first art book in 1977 which informed the aesthetic of Alien and also had arisen from work with Jodorowsky on a possible Dune film). The Evil Dead (1981) has its own Necronomicon which summons evil spirits, and the hero, Ash, faces his own supposed friends who are sent to strike him down. The Thing (1982) sees a scientific team facing down an alien that destroys and then mimics humans in the Antarctic. All three films express the sense of destructive social isolation and fear of being replaceable.

There are also very direct references to the Lovecraftian world in work such as the comic Neonomicon (2010) and the films Re-animator (1985) and Jacob’s Ladder (1990)  which set Lovecraft in a contemporary environment to explore modern fights for progress against destructive bureaucracy, or Dead Alive (1992) which embodies evil in the oppressive mother-figure, which can also be seen as a stand-in for restrictive social norms. We also see throw-backs like Cast a Deadly Spell (1991) and the comic Fatale (2012) by Sean Phillips and Ed Brubaker, which take the essence of Lovecraft’s work and distill it down to tell a story that melds the genre of horror with film noir in a new sort of pastiche for modern audiences which is nostalgic and essentially without teeth.

And so we have arrived at the ironic age, when Lovecraft is no longer scary, you can buy a cute Cthulu plushie and laugh off Lovecraft’s foibles. In this way, the world of Lovecraft has expanded far beyond the mediocrity of the author’s style, only to collapse in on itself again. Comic films like Ghostbusters (1984), Little Shop of Horrors (1986), Cabin in the Woods (2012), and The World’s End (2013)  pit bookish, unlikely heroes against supernatural horrors from some place beyond to comic ends. I think that, in the end, the appeal of Lovecraft’s world may be that simple: There is something compelling about the lonely protagonist against the oppugnant world. I can only hope that the media over-saturation of Lovecraft will die down and maybe, just maybe, we can all be allowed to fear the Old Ones once more.