Tag Archives: horror

Don’t Call it a Comeback: The Resilience of Women in Horror

This post makes double sense, because I’m returning to my monster blog after a long hiatus!09-unbreakable-kimmy-schmidt-cult-bunker.w1440.h957.2x The Netflix original series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” premiered this week. I haven’t given it a try yet, because the trailer felt pretty manic to me, but the plot is intriguing. Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper, of The Office and Blowjob Girl fame) plays a young woman who was kidnapped by cult members and held in a bunker for fifteen years. Although it’s obviously not a horror comedy, I really wish that it was.

Here’s the thing about damsels in distress: A study led by the Center for Surgical Trials and Outcomes Research at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that women who had suffered traumatic injuries were 14% less likely to die post-surgery than men with equivalent wounds. These women also experienced fewer complications after their operations.

A protagonist’s ability to absorb stimuli and respond in an interesting way is tantamount to any story, so it’s confusing that so many horror films star female characters who aren’t capable of doing much. I’ll venture to say that male audiences became accustomed to watching the female form in duress throughout the development of horror. Contemporary projects have allowed us to pile on the gore, spraying the blood of innocents all over female protagonists while giving them something interesting to do in response. To me, there’s nothing more interesting and iconic than the determined face of a woman who’s been driven to the brink, whether by monsters or a slasher-murderer or some kind of ghost or demon, her eyes still steely with rage. Let’s see some examples!

youre-next-sharni-vinson-2Thank you, universe, for giving us 2011’s You’re Next, a horror movie that succeeds mainly because the writers tweak a single element in the story: the central character, Erin, is a sweet, unassuming, polite and loving girlfriend dating a guy who is clearly a loser with self esteem issues, but she’s also the only character who leaps into action when the house she’s staying in is attacked by masked murderers. There is a reason for her brutality, which is afforded to us in the second half of the movie, and the explanation is acceptable, although I would have preferred a character who just rocks at killing her way out of a dangerous situation.

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Lady-Directed Horror Films



Ida Lupino, a classic film-era ingenue, directed one of my favorite tense thriller films, “The Hitch-hiker” in 1953. Though it wasn’t her directorial debut, her work in the genre resonates into contemporary horror film-making. While some of the most exciting horror projects directed by women have utilizied issues of femininity and feeling powerless and oppressed as fearful elements, Lupino’s “The Hitch-hiker” is a crime thriller orbiting around the decisions and interactions of men. Richard Koszarski wrote in Oxford University Press, “[Lupino’s] films [as a director] display the obsessions and consistencies of a true auteur. What is most interesting about her films are not her stories of unwed motherhood or the tribulation of career women, but the way in which she uses male actors: particularly in “The Bigamist” and “The Hitchhiker”, Lupino was able to reduce the male to the same sort of dangerous, irrational force that women represented in most male-directed examples of Hollywood film noir.”

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Buzzing Silence: Why “Under the Skin” Disappointed Me


After watching Under the Skin at my local indie theater (really weird date movie, by the way), I tweeted out of frustration that it was basically “12 minute tracking shots of nothing while Scarlett Johansson stared blankly at men”. I’m having difficulty now, weeks later, trying to decide what exactly went wrong for me. Though my first qualm was a lack of depth to Johansson’s character, I rationalized myself out of this by comparing her alien/succubi to similar archetypes in other films. Is Johansson’s “Laura” meant to be an engaging sociopathic or psychopathic character like Travis Bickle or Patrick Bateman? Does that work?

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Dead Funny: How Do Horror Comedies Work?


If you’re not already excited for the 2014 Sundance darling Cooties, you really should be. Leigh Wannell, of Saw and Insidious fame, wrote the screenplay. Wannell stars alongside Jack McBrayer, Elijah Wood and Rainn Wilson as teachers attempting to survive in a school infected by a violent zombie virus. Maybe Nasim Pedrad will come off funnier on the silver screen than she typically does on SNL (she’s in the cast as well.)


Early press photos from the film, which has garnered mostly positive reviews so far, look highly saturated, and they appear more suspenseful in tone than comedic. It’s an interesting question that rises in the production and distribution of a horror comedy: is it enough to cast comedians in an otherwise straightforward horror movie, or should a script do most of the heavy lifting in finding both the laughs and chills in each scene? Let’s take a look at what’s worked for the films that preceded Cooties.

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Sociopaths on Film: The Monster as Performance


It’s difficult to describe how I felt seeing the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, first on the Twitter account of an actor-friend, and immediately afterwards on the Washington Post’s website. How much could a man in his 40s mean to me as an individual, considering we had never met? Well, he meant a lot.

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Monstrosity in Movement


Monsters crawl, slither and lurch…


What about monsters that slink, monsters that scuttle and monsters that creep? Can you tell a monstrous human from a normal human, based solely on the way they move through space?

Let’s expand what we define as “monstrous” to images that are incongruous with their surroundings, visually halting, or out-of-sync. If a character is a monster through movement, they carry themselves in a hybrid of ways that’s unusual to their community. Take Floki from the History Channel’s Irish-Canadian produced drama “Vikings”:


Floki is a visual spectacle when compared to the rest of the characters on “Vikings”: he moves with fluidity, using both masculine and feminine visual cues, and he fights and communicates with a different rhythm than the men (and women) around him.


As opposed to the other Vikings, who hulk and smolder, Floki tends to cling.

I don’t mean to say that characters who operate outside the gender binary are necessarily monstrous, although gender incongruity is certainly a factor in many monsters’ design. Monsters are visually uncanny, and they’re usually combinations of two or more things we don’t like to see combined as a mainstream audience: man and beast, man and machine, man and woman, etc. Problematic, yes. Popular too, though.

Floki has feminine qualities, yes, but more interestingly, his limbs move with different trajectories than those of his counterparts. He crouches and gallops and leaps.tumblr_mjl1jy14Vq1s5jeldo4_r1_250

His dark eyeliner enhances his uncanniness, of course, and the fact that he’s interested in sorcery makes him more intriguing. In arguably the best episode of the series, the Vikings are led by Ragnar to a peninsula inhabited by Catholic monks. While the other Vikings are vaguely confused by the monks’ reverence for gold objects and wooden crosses, Floki is the only one who concerns himself with the emotions of the monks and their followers. He floats around the church making ghastly faces, noting which monks step back and which hold their ground. Eventually, he drinks a goblet of holy water and pushes over a large crucifix, delighted, almost giggling at the outrage he causes.

While the other Vikings consistently meet anger with anger, Floki is the only one who seems to experience mirth at others’ pain.




Floki demonstrates a few tropes of monstrous characters, including his defiance of gender norms through wearing make-up and moving in a delicate way, but his femininity can also be read as child-like. For better or worse, childish adults are often perceived as “strange” and possibly monstrous when they appear on screen.






Take as another example of monstrous movement the mystifying and addictive music video for Belgian singer Stromae’s “Papaoutai” (translation: Dad, where are you?)

Everyone knows how to make a child / but no one knows how to make a father

The incongruous, awkward-on-purpose choreography (is this pop and locking? I have no idea, that’s a cultural blindspot for me) highlights Stromae’s gut-punching lyrics: every dancer in the video is neither child nor adult, dressed identically in pairs but monstrously, strangely different from what we typically humans to look like. The men are just larger-set boys with no aged wisdom or change in mannerisms. It’s as if all the children in this strange town simply get larger without changing internally.


The father figure in “Papaoutai” is the stuff of nightmares: technically present but unreachable, only the flat, unchangeable image of comfort without anything real inside. This, of course, is a large part of why zombies frighten us so deeply. They look human, but they’re not human. Their faces appear the same, but their internal workings are a mystery. Stromae sings about a son abandoned by his father, and in the video we experience satisfying terror when the protagonist finally gives up. His hollow father, unable to move like the living fathers in town (with their creature-like, spinning limbs and jolting eyes), has won.


Try to listen to “Cats in the Cradle” while staring at this face…

As for examples in horror films, we’d be remiss to not examine the ol’ creepy crawl:

exorcist-girl-stairs  tumblr_lmpmr78R8c1qjv0slo1_500 tumblr_lx7075aCF31r8u5joo1_500

What’s so bothersome about a human (or quasi-human) moving on all fours? Could it be that it represents evolutionary regression? Is the creature on screen undoing all of homo sapien’s hard work by reverting to a life on its hands and knees? The second part of this creepy crawl is the flip-over, of course. Reagan’s iconic crawl-down-the-stairs reaches maximum terror because her body is bent unnaturally backwards. Films that came later (and crappier), including Legion and The Unborn, had their monsters flipped over correctly with some creepy additions (longer limbs, gaping mouths, etc).

Although it’s more of a manipulation of the human form  that makes The Thing terrifying, (post on this coming later) there is still some monstrous movement at work in the first remake (note: why is first remake a phrase that exists?):


Nope. Nope. Stay away from anything that uses its tongue to move.

Guillermo del Toro (forthcoming posts on the Godfather of monsters, trust me!) loves monstrous movements, and it’s one of the elements of his films that makes them so exciting. As an overview:


An aquatic humanoid who uses jerking, robotic micro-movements.


There’s a fleshy openness to this guy, like an exposed wound.


The stillness-to-speed trope is popular and very effective.


These girls end up being somewhat normal, but in this shot their limbs have been digitally lengthened, and they sway like anxious animals.


I looked everywhere for a gif of the faun walking, but his minute finger movements and lovely, expressive ears are fascinating too.

Although del Toro is certainly talented in static formats (his sketched and painted monsters are chilling), his attention movement is just astounding. One of my favorites plays itself out in El Orfanato. A creature that initially presents itself as a child in a mask walks in a halting, infantile way from door to door. Something is obviously off with the “child’s” mask, and the viewer is already unsettled. At the end of the hallway, the “child” stops and sniffs the air, showing us in a single, minute move that it is not 100% child.


Human children don’t sniff the air to track their prey, y’all…

In summation, typical human movements can be creepy, but they’re not necessarily monstrous. Humans who move like non-humans, or monsters who move too quickly, or aren’t bipedal, strike a low chord in our perception. Movement resonates with an audience when we feel uncomfortable, and it’s a useful tool in designing a monster.