Female-directed horror films are experiencing a bit of a moment in the sun right now. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night have been rightly heralded as feminist horror masterworks, and signal a promising new space for female filmmakers. Women have always been underrepresented in the horror genre, historically relegated to superficial, secondary roles, cyphers for male pain and revenge, or victims of unspeakable, often sexualized violence. Female filmmakers are now subverting these tropes to depict nuanced, realistic portrayals of women in horror, often making films that address specifically female fears such as motherhood, the mysteries of the female body, or threats of male violence. But what happens when women make horror films about masculinity?
Female-made movies about men are nothing new. Kathryn Bigelow, whose vampire film Near Dark I will address later on, often makes films exploring the roles of men in relation to war and violence, and Claire Denis’ Beau Travail explores the futility of male posturing and repressed homosexual desires. Horror films made by women exploring masculinity, however, are few and far between. The key to creating hauntingly effective horror seems to be to write what you know, and an authentic voice will instil authentic fears in your audience. Women who make horror films about men focus on stories that satirize, parody, or otherwise highlight traits of masculinity that ultimately result in death and violence–in other words, the horror of the dismantling and deconstructing masculinity.
Perhaps the most famous example of women tackling a film about maleness in the horror genre is Mary Harron’s American Psycho, an adaptation of the infamous novel by Bret Easton Ellis, with a screenplay by Guinevere Turner. That two women were able to take what is commonly regarded anti-feminist film and create a film adaptation that makes a mockery of the male ego is a cult-film legend.
Featuring monotonous descriptions of horrific torture, rape, dismemberment, and cannibalism of mostly women, interspersed with name-dropping designer brands and exclusive New York hotspots, the American Psycho novel was slammed by feminist group NOW (National Organization for Women) as “the most misogynistic communication” it had ever encountered. The movie version was originally set to be directed by Oliver Stone and star Leonardo DiCaprio, fresh off Titanic. The project was finally given to Harron and Turner, whose first pick for stylish serial killer Patrick Bateman, a still-unknown Christian Bale, axed most of the repetitive and explicit violence to instead capture the satire and absurdity of the white male in corporate America.
Bateman’s obsessions with business card watermarks, 10-step facial cleansing routine, and musings on Huey Lewis and the News are darkly ridiculous when compared with the almost laissez-faire way he murders and maims. He exists in a never-ending loop of attempting to one-up his colleagues, who are nearly indistinguishable from one another, white guys in suits brunching at the same restaurant and snorting the same coke.
Before Wolf of Wall Street, we had the original Wall Street (directed by Oliver Stone, ironically), and other films that celebrated Manhattan stock traders as tough, ambitious sharks, brilliant and power-hungry, and ultimately, icons despite their ethical misgivings. These guys were dicks, but damn if they weren’t admirable. Wall Street‘s Gordon Gekko is confident, self-assured, and truly believes in the power of corporate America. “Greed is good,” he famously says in a monologue that emphasizes how our hunger for power makes us great and leads us to achieve our dreams.
Patrick Bateman and his colleagues, on the other hand, are ridiculous. They believe in nothing, except obsessing over reservations and lunch meetings and decorating their apartments. This group of white men with identical haircuts are so focused on their insular world that the idea of one of their ilk murdering dozens of people doesn’t even register on their radar. These are not men who “get things done,” but men trapped within the absurd world they’ve created.
They may be posturing, egotistical assholes, but the men of American Psycho still hold positions of power. Caleb, the protagonist in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, initially takes on a submissive role as a victim, preyed on by an aggressive female vampire. Mae, the lone female vampire in the film, is just “one of the guys,” and while the budding romance between she and Caleb is a focal point, she doesn’t resemble the femme fatales that tempt male heroes. She is a tough, capable, and adept tomboy, with an authoritative air that the other hillbilly vampires don’t posses. It is Mae who introduces Caleb to the idea of killing as something simply instinctual, and what films about men have been postulating for decades: boys will be boys, and what boys are is violent.
The film avoids aestheticizing violence. It’s dirty, grimy, and unmistakably masculine, situated within grungy Southern bars. Near Dark is a vampire Western, 100 per cent All-American, the vampires emulating gunslinging antiheroes protecting their lives from the outsiders. It is Caleb’s father who ultimately saves Caleb and Mae who becomes human again and, presumably, takes on a more traditional female role as she is restored to a patriarchal homestead.
These films illustrate a bleakly comical look at maleness, particularly male ways of committing and dealing with violence as told through a female lens. While violence is certainly not something only men are capable of, American Psycho and Near Dark both subvert the concept of swaggering male bravado and the blood-soaked male horror hero. Perhaps the reason why these female filmmakers are so adept at depicting nuanced male characters is because women in films, especially horror films, are so under-developed. There is no male ego to protect in these films.
Unencumbered by the pressure to depict heroic and admirable male characters, women are able to delve deep into what makes men weak and ridiculous, as well as monstrous precisely because they are not men. Being an “other” allows women to observe and seek out otherness in male characters as well as female, and use the conventions of horror films to explore how the pressures of the patriarchy affect men as well as women.
This piece is part of Galloween, Cinefilles’ month of all-girl horror coverage. Click the image to read more.