I’m a veteran of several years’ worth of short film blocks at Portland’s HP Lovecraft film festival, which is to say, I know the drill: some stuff works, some stuff doesn’t, and everybody likes the funny stuff more than me*. Most of the films screened at the sold-out Women in Horror festival at Athens Ciné last night are steeped in an underground, DIY, punk rock aesthetic; most of the women who work on them aren’t looking to become professional filmmakers. They’re just having a good time, and as part of the audience you can’t help having fun along with them.
Two things struck me during the screening: 1. You can put aside any notions that girls are squeamish about violence, gore, and various bodily effluvia. 2. So many of these films are suffused with a sense of femaleness, by which I mean not any sort of biological determinism, but a real engagement with what living in a female body and being female in early 21st century America is like.
Many of these films cut straight to the subtext–and gush it viscerally all over the screen. The most striking aspect of the night’s program as a whole was the degree to which these films presented a picture of femaleness in such opposition to the mainstream images and ideas with which we’re bombarded constantly: Romcom women. Nurturing women. Women in bromances (god help me, that is the first time I have ever written that “word” out and let it be the last). Selfless women. Not so these women. Belated By Valentine’s Lover, directed by Ruby LaRocca and by turns poetic, surreal, and silly, turns tropes of girlhood and the good girlfriend inside out, following its protagonist from kitchen stove to washing machine, wrapping up a homemade gift for her boyfriend–a gruesome love potion–in a pretty package with a big pink bow. The rage of the berated, bulimic wife in Heidi Martinuzzi & Leslie Delano’s Wretched (featuring the legendary Joe Bob Briggs) is literalized in a series of scenes so gross I couldn’t watch (I have a thing about vomit), culminating in a Gregory Nicotero-choreographed blood-spewing extravaganza. From the supremely disturbing sexual self-loathing in Stacey Ponder and Shannon Lark’s Lip Stick to a little girl’s ambivalent love for her absent mother in Devi Snively’s blackly comic Death in Charge–with AFI funding this was the slickest of the lot–to the gleeful rage of a snuff filmmaker’s intended victim in Maude Michaud’s Snuff, so many of the shorts, consciously or unconsciously, upended notions of femininity that still seem to have such a hold today.
In fact, that girl we’re used to seeing–the one who appears over and over in movies and on television and in commercials, the one who waits anxiously for her boyfriend’s proposal, who reads cheesy romance novels, whose best day ever is the one in which she dons her white wedding dress and walks down the aisle with said boyfriend–well, she appears exactly once in these movies, and she ends up dead in the first scene, stabbed to death giallo-style. Good riddance to her, I say.
*I like a good horror comedy as much as the next girl–Shawn of the Dead achieved a great fusion of humor and horror, even if it did spawn a zombie craze which ran its course years ago and still shows no sign of stopping, like that dumb kid in the back of the classroom who hasn’t figured out that joke was funny the first twenty times we heard it and he won’t stop saying it and now you just kind of want to beat the shit out of him not to mention the fact that zombies as an object of fear or even metaphor are ruined for at least a generation if not more–but by and large I prefer my horror straight, no laugh chaser.