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.
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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.