Horror: The New Chick Flick?

In 1980, Roger Ebert reviewed the brutal grindhouse horror movie “I Spit On Your Grave,” about a woman who takes revenge on the four men who savagely raped her. Ebert called the film “a vile bag of garbage” that is “without a shred of artistic distinction.” He said watching it was one of the most depressing experiences of his life. When Hannah Forman, a 26-year-old amateur film theorist and feminist, saw the film for the first time in 2003, her reaction was quite different. “I felt really good after watching it,” Forman says.

Having known about the film since her early teens, Forman was terrified to see it until, drawn in by intellectual curiosity, she gathered a group of friends to watch it. By the end, they were all cheering. “It was one of the first films I’d ever seen that showed a rape in natural lighting and from the victim’s perspective,” she says. “It’s not glamorized or sensationalized in any way. And it shows the woman getting revenge on the men who violated her, and she does it in a way that made me feel very empowered as a woman. I know it’s a controversial viewpoint, but I think it’s truly a feminist film.” It’s worth noting that one of the film’s alternate titles is “The Day of the Woman.”

At first blush, it seems counterintuitive—perhaps even absurd—that horror films could be considered feminist. Historically, the genre’s misogyny has always put it at odds with feminists, as many horror films have featured subjugated, victimized women as their main draw.

The marketing of some recent horror films certainly has done nothing to bolster the argument that horror film is for women as well as men. The official domestic poster for “Hostel: Part 2,” features the ominous, if not exactly provocative image of a sinister man holding an electric drill. But the international posters, which were traded and debated on horror Web sites, are much more interesting. One poster for the film, in which a trio of American women are lured into a horrific, for-profit torture chamber, features one of the stars, Bijou Phillips, standing nude holding her own severed head in her hand. It was a big hit at this year’s Comic-Con convention in New York.

In March, a series of billboards for the forthcoming film “Captivity” drew the ire of many upon their release in Los Angeles and New York. The advertisements featured graphic images of Elisha Cuthbert, the film’s star, being tortured and killed. After Dark Films, the movie’s producer, was deluged with angry letters and phone calls. The backlash was so intense that the Motion Picture Association, which had refused to approve the ads for public display, penalized After Dark by refusing to rate the film for 30 days, effectively postponing its release date.

Such advertisements suggest a twisted male psychosexual fantasy—scantily clad women terrorized by and then later rescued by men. The degree to which the theatrical audiences of horror films traditionally skews male also appears to bear out the notion that horror is not a genre produced with the feelings and concerns of women in mind.

But according to Forman, who edits a ‘zine dedicated to feminist horror critique, and a rapidly growing audience of female horror fans, there’s much more beneath the blood-spattered surface. “If you look at these films just as women undressing and men coming after them, it’s easy to look at that as misogynistic,” Forman says. “But there’s a lot about horror films that can be empowering to women, or can get to issues of feminism and gender in ways that a lot of other genres can’t.”

Indeed, in horror films, even those produced during the 1980s slasher-film era considered by some to be the apex of violence against women on the silver screen, commentary on gender and sexuality has historically been ubiquitous. Whether it was Norman Bates sharing his fractured psyche with the persona of his dead mother or Carrie White telekinetically incinerating her senior prom after a pig’s blood baptism that mirrored her traumatic menstruation, the world of horror has been given women a level of primacy that isn’t often reflected in reality. The reason that horror has been such a lightning rod for accusations of misogyny is because nearly everything that happens in horror films happens to or for or against or about women.

And in many films, a woman is ultimately victorious when the carnage culminates, such as Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode in the 1978 slasher-flick prototype “Halloween.” She succeeds where other women—and men—fail, using her intelligence and inner resources to outwit the killer, while her buxom, boy-crazy girlfriends meet their untimely demises. This is yet another feminist feature of the horror world: women succeed based on smarts, not sexuality. This last woman standing is termed “the Final Girl” by Carol J. Clover, the University of California at Berkeley professor who upended conventional wisdom on the horror genre with her 1992 book “Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.”

In the 15 years since Clover’s book, the new generation of horror filmmakers has only become savvier in its inclusion of female characters. The Final Girl is no longer the only girl, and contemporary horror offers enough provocative gender and sexuality themes to fuel psychoanalytic analyses for years to come. For a rumination on the complexity of female friendships, there’s Neil Marshall’s 2006 film “The Descent,” about an intrepid sextet of female spelunkers who find themselves at odds when they become trapped in a cave with subterranean creatures. Pent-up sexuality causes a woman’s killing spree in Alexandre Aja’s 2005 film “High Tension.” And this year, there’s “Death Proof,” Quentin Tarantino’s neofeminist ode to grindhouse revenge cinema, Rob Zombie’s reimagining of “Halloween” and Eli Roth’s female-centric sequel to his 2005 hit “Hostel.”

In Roth’s first “Hostel” installment, three randy young men traveling abroad, all embodiments of the “ugly American,” are lured to a Slovakian hostel, having been told that the area’s men had been decimated by war and its women were all too eager to bed visitors. They soon learn that they’ve been lured to a dungeon where wealthy businessmen pay for the privilege of torturing and killing innocents. “Hostel Part 2” follows a nearly-identical blueprint, but dramatically alters the playing field by substituting in a trio of American women. “With a sequel you have to raise the stakes,” Roth says. “Immediately I thought of women going through this, and just the thought of that gave me chills, just thinking of what might happen, so instinctually I knew that was the right thing to do.”

Roth insists that putting women in harm’s way is not misogynistic. “Because the intention of horror film is to horrify people, at first, the violence is all people see. So with this sequel, people will think ‘Hostel’ plus women equals misogyny,” Roth says. “But the women in this movie are so smart and so strong, that I truly believe the film will be seen as a feminist film.”

However, few women, even those playing devil’s advocate, view the marketing of horror films as empowering to women. Whereas a two-hour film can reveal layers of nuance, a one-sheet poster is by definition all surface. And that surface, as evidenced by the posters for “Hostel: Part 2” and Captivity,” has become increasingly ugly.

That such advertisements are considered to be effective in marketing horror films is evidence that while some of the horror audience has evolved enough to analyze the meaning behind these films, a lot of that audience has not. “I do think the audience has become smarter, but at the same time, I think the film has to be sold in a clear way,” Roth says. “You have to hit your core demographic, and you can’t be afraid of what the film is.” This puts contemporary horror in the peculiar position of having to objectify women and provide commentary on the objectification of women. To be commercially viable, it has to appeal to misogynists and feminists alike.

Still, the awkwardness of this period of horror’s evolution suggests that a woman’s role in horror film isn’t just to be barely clothed and perpetually victimized, and perhaps it hasn’t been for decades. And as the genre continues to shows strong, resilient women triumphing over evil, Forman says that young women like her will flock to horror films in increasing numbers. “Women can find these films therapeutic,” she says.  “Women have to be scared when we go out at night, and in horror film, you see a woman who is being terrorized, but you know that at the end of it, she’ll survive and she’ll get out of the situation safely.” If only real-life horror offered such relieving resolutions.

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