From Last Girl to First Woman?: Blood, Psychadelics, and Pink Dresses

31Oct12

The post was partially inspired by Sarah Marshall‘s piece Beyond Clarice at the Hairpin.

I’ve mentioned several times that I have the fantasy of retreating to a cabin somewhere, watching an egregious amount of horror films (though I wonder how many one has to watch as I’ve already seen around 200), and writing a book called Thinking Horror (named after the fourth issue of Collapse which has had such a huge impact on my thinking on horror. While I want to study horror in a more abstract sense, in terms of philosophical frameworks (horror in terms of its ontology, epistemology etc) I do not want to disregard so much of the work that has been done on the social aspects of horror (quite a bit of which has had a feminist focus). But I do not think that these are diametrically opposed: in fact I think addressing what horror is (outside of the cultural constraints) can allow it to be employed in ways which move beyond them (as long as the cultural problems with the original films is not forgotten). It’s tempting to use Hegelian language here, to suspend the cultural baggage of horror in order to overcome it (not to forget it or pretend it was never there). In fact, the very form of horror (which so often relies upon an initial trauma) allows for this: the formative horror of the killer (here I am limiting myself to slasher films) provides the back story for the film.

One could argue that such pre-grounding is already happening at a meta-level in terms of the tension between reboots and remakes (a tension which Scream 4 beats us other the head with) in that the original is the thing suspended and attempted to be overcome. But, at the same time, there is a weird sense in which it is the short-term-ness of our cultural memory that allows for remakes (ones that were of movies in the 60s are now from the 80s).

Where quite a bit of work needs to be done is women as victims (or really women as girls in terms of being young and sexualized) – while the survivor no longer need be a virgin, the ‘slutty friend’ often still dies first amongst the female characters. Horror movies with strong and realistic women are few and far between (The Descent, Quarantine, Gingersnaps) but it seems that some progress is being made. There is also films with female killers (The Strangers and most recently The Loved Ones) and to say nothing of 13 Women which may be the first slasher whatsoever as well as Heathers or the Sleepaway Camp films (particularly with the gender bending aspect).

There are also strange instances in films from the 60s and 70s were women oscillate between scream queens and more active roles. Valerie Leon in Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb is particularly interesting as she is simultaneously an object, a victim, and the perpetrator all at once.

Leon’s character Tera is possessed by herself, kills the her that is possessing her but becomes a victim (or perhaps a reborn mummy?) in the process…

There is also much to be said about the cultural moment where horror really come out on its own (particularly in slashers) in relationship to both experimental drugs and the sexual revolution. An interesting illustration of this transition takes place in a movie that is not horror proper but somewhere in between horror, thriller, and science fiction.

Panos Cosmatos’ Beyond the Black Rainbow is a strange film and one that seems to polarize audiences. Broadly, the film focuses on a young woman named Elena who is been kept heavily sedated ostensibly to keep her powerful teleknetic powers in check (hough as these only manifest themselves in a drug induced haze it is somewhat debatable. Dr Barry Nyle runs the Arboria institute (founded by Mercurio Arboria whom we see in a informational at the beginning and then in a drugged state at the end) where Elena was kept and where her (mother?) was murdered in ’66 following Barry’s submersion into a black pit of psychotropic tar in which he ‘went beyond the black rainbow’ One is reminded of Sarah from The Descent’s dip into blood and the resulting changes…

What exactly this means is left somewhat unclear. Furthermore, while Barry, his wife, and the aging Dr Arboria are all under heavy drug use it is left open whether the drugs are driving Barry insane or keeping in check the consequence of his dip in the mystical drug tar. Elena, who was submerged as a baby, seems to share powers with Barry though hers are more powerful. Elena’s escape from the institute is remarkable unstressful – being only slowed down by one of the Sentionauts – large zombie like creature that work in the institute corridors (and appear as having baby heads).

The film has mostly been noted for its sharp aesthetics – constantly washed out in intense colors, whiteness and black light, a bright but clinical soundtrack, all of which seem to collide in Barry’s experience in going beyond the black rainbow which I cannot adequately describe: it appears as something between his face catching fire and melting upwards in a spectacular cosmic space of the mind’s eye. The orange-redness which fills the film the most is hard not to take as an homage to Kubrick’s 2001 – particularly the end float in Hal’s computer chippy guts. But BtBR seems to be more about psychological evolution (or the lack thereof) in congruence with drug usage.

That is, if the movie is about anything it is about drugs. It is also feels like drugs more than most movies about them (Natural Born Killers does this as well as I would think a Scanner Darkly manages via rotoscoping). One of the bigger tensions that remains is the structural one between masculine and feminine gazes and masculine and feminine desires (how ever disembodied and non-normative those are). One thing which bogs down the greatness of The Descent is that there’s a bit too much of a fight over a man quality to it (though I’ve argued that the daughter is more important and this is emphasized in the UK cut of the movie more than the US cut). That is, taking BtBR as a pre-sexual revolution fantasy of control (the attempt to recapture Elena is framed in terms of claiming her sexually) and the film ends with Elena sighting a bank of suburban houses alight in TV glow, it is difficult to see the anti-heroine/killer as not someone’s whose heart, always-already, ‘belongs to daddy’ as the song goes.

One of the real strengths of The Loved Ones (in addition to the incredible acting job of Robin McLeavy) is that one is never clear how much of the plotting and madness is the idea of the father versus that of the daughter Lola/Princess. Lola’s desire for her father and for the one is not concocted out of any fear but out of some twisting together of the familiar and the depths of her desire as desire (or Lacan would say drive, to desire to desire). For women not to be bearers of the trauma in the last girl sense there is still a degree of Oedipalization and masculinization they have to escape. But this in turn can lead to a ‘feminine desire is scary’ motif which has its own set of consequences. But the hope is that horror can start to move from the last girl to the first woman whether as killers or more classically defined heroes…what horror is and what horror can do will be all the more clear and better for it.

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One Response to “From Last Girl to First Woman?: Blood, Psychadelics, and Pink Dresses”

  1. A film you may want to check out is May (2002). It’s basically the story of a woman building a queer ragdoll lover/friend by reducing people (who she despises) to their body-parts-as-object-of-desire.


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