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The Monstrous Feminine

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema kicked off the month-long Halloween theme with a look at the monstrous feminine, movies in which women are killers or monsters. The horror genre is sometimes accused of misogyny and while there are a few films like that, the issue is oftentimes more nuanced. In the best cases these films reveal the complexities of male and female relationships and offer insight into women’s experiences. Here is the commentary from the show as well as a few additional titles.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

The Bride of Frankenstein was the follow up to 1931’s Frankenstein and it was the first sequel in the Universal Monster series. The original film was a loose adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. The sequel seized on an element of Shelley’s story and expanded it. The film begins with a prologue dramatizing Percy Shelley and Lord Byron listening as Mary Shelley spins the Frankenstein story. Elsa Lanchester plays Mary Shelley in the prologue and then appears in the climax as the titular female monster. The Bride is only featured for a few minutes at the very end of the movie but she made such an impression that The Bride became one of the most recognizable of the Universal Monsters.

Cat People (1942)

1942’s Cat People is about a woman who believes she will turn into a panther if she gets too aroused. This naturally creates a conflict in her recent marriage. The film dramatizes men’s fear of women’s sexuality but also women’s fear of their own carnality and animalistic nature. That quality distinguishes Cat People from some other female monster movies. This woman might be a predator but she’s also aware of the threat she poses to other people and doesn’t want to hurt anyone. A remake of Cat People directed by Paul Schrader was released in 1982.  

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an Iranian film about a female vampire stalking the city streets. While this is not a heroic vampire movie like Twilight or Blade, it has been read as a feminist piece. The title itself is deliberately misleading. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night entertains female victimhood scenarios and then reverses them with a vampire covered in a chador killing men who are engaged in nefarious activities.

Suspiria (1977/2018)

Both versions of Suspiria take place in a German female dance academy that is a cover for a coven of witches. The original 1977 film was renowned for its music and dramatic filmmaking style. The 2018 remake was a more cerebral film that explored the idea of an all-female space and the internal politics therein.

X and Pearl (2022)

In 2022 Ti West released two films: X and its prequel Pearl. X was the story of young people making a pornographic film on an isolated farm in 1979. Their activities arouse the violent desire of Pearl, the old woman who lives on the farm. The prequel tells Pearl’s backstory. Both films feature actress Mia Goth. In X she plays porn actress Maxine and the old aged Pearl and in the prequel she plays the young Pearl. Together these films are an impressive portrait of desire and madness. A third film, Maxxxine, is anticipated to follow the character in the 1980s porn industry.

Basic Instinct (1992)

Catherine Tramell, played by Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, is one of the great movie villains. She is a novelist who may or may not murder her lovers with an icepick. Tramell derives from the tradition of femme fatale characters in film noir and there is a fascinating commentary track on some of the Basic Instinct disc releases featuring academic Camille Paglia describing how Tramell’s feminine and sexual presence disrupts male spaces and authority, namely the police department.

Gone Girl (2014)

Psychotic and violent women are a common theme in stories by Gillian Flynn, most famously Gone Girl. The novel was adapted into a 2014 feature film starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as an apparently perfect couple whose marriage is coming apart. When the wife disappears the husband is the prime suspect but things aren’t quite what they seem. The filmmakers effectively manipulate our expectations about male and female relationships while also skewering true crime media.

Carrie (1976)

Carrie was Stephen King’s first novel and it’s been made into three motion pictures. The best of these remains the first, the 1976 version starring Sissy Spacek in the title role as a sixteen-year-old girl with telekinetic powers and a troubled homelife. It remains such a potent story because Carrie taps into the horror of the female adolescent experience and the character possesses a mix of power and vulnerability. The story has also proved relevant to contemporary concerns about isolated and bullied youth.

May (2022)

Angela Bettis played the title role in the 2002 television miniseries adaptation of Carrie. That same year she played a similar character in the movie May. Bettis was again cast in the title role in the story of a socially isolated teenager. Unlike Carrie, who is fundamentally a nice girl who is viciously victimized until she lashes out, May simmers with sexual repression that eventually turns violent. The movie never broke out to become a major hit but May was one of the best reviewed horror films of the 2000s and it has amassed a cult following.

Jennifer’s Body (2008)

Jennifer’s Body was a horror comedy about a teenage girl who becomes host to a man-eating demon. It’s another example of female sexuality turned monstrous but Jennifer’s Body is also perceptive about teenage female relationships. The film is very much a product of the 2000s especially in its music and sense of humor. Jennifer’s Body features an impressive cast of actors who were mostly unknown at the time but went on to have great success including Amanda Seyfried, Chris Pratt, and Adam Brody.

Species (1995)

Species was an alien invasion picture about an extraterrestrial who is out to mate with a human male as a way of reproducing and taking over the Earth. The creature was designed by H.R. Giger who had also designed the xenomorph from the original Alien and his artwork was renowned for its grotesque sexuality. Species inspired a series of sequels.

The Bad Seed (1956)

The Bad Seed is a 1956 film about an eight-year-old girl who is gradually revealed to be a psychopath. Set in post-war suburbia, the film subversively plays on the idealization of children and especially little girls.

She (1965)

There have been many adaptations of H. Rider Haggard’s novel She, about British explorers who discover a lost kingdom ruled Ayesha, a tyrannical queen who is referred to as “She Who Must Be Obeyed.” The 1965 version was produced by Hammer Films and stars Ursula Andress as Ayesha.

Prevenge (2016)

Directed, written, and starring Alice Lowe, 2016’s Prevenge is a horror-comedy about a pregnant woman who goes on a murder spree. Her killings are promoted by the alleged whisperings of her unborn child.

Death Game (1977) / Knock Knock (2015)

1977’s Death Game is the story of two young women who crash the house of a married man who is spending the weekend alone. What begins as a seduction gradually turns to violence and murder. Death Game was largely unavailable until recent years when Grindhouse Releasing restored the film. Eli Roth remade Death Game as Knock Knock starring Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, and Ana de Armas.

Misery (1990)

Based on the novel by Stephen King, Misery was the story of a novelist who becomes stranded and held captive by an unhinged fan. Played brilliantly by Kathy Bates, Annie Wilkes is obsessed with the fictional character Misery Chastain and is outraged to find she has been killed off in a recent book. The film speaks to the emotional investment audiences can place in stories and in the years since Annie Wilkes has become the patron saint of online fandom.

Teeth (2007)

A female high school student discovers a set of teeth inside of her vagina, giving her the ability to castrate men who attempt nonconsensual sex. A literalization of the myth about the vagina dentata, Teeth provocatively explores the relationships between men and women and the ways in which we’ve imagined female sexuality.