cult films and b movies week
On the surface, Sleepaway Camp isn’t much different than your average 1980s slasher movie. The comparisons to Friday the 13th can’t be ignored – Sleepaway’s Camp Arawak, much like Friday’s Camp Crystal Lake, is populated by horny teens looking for some summer lovin’, and is the site of a series of gruesome and mysterious murders that threaten to shut down the camp for the whole summer. But unlike Friday the 13th and other slasher films, the twist in Sleepaway Camp isn’t the identity of the murderer, and the final girl isn’t exactly who you’d expect.
I was neither a discerning nor an educated viewer, but even so I quickly cottoned on to the fact that certain Italian directors had produced some above-average horror flicks in the 1970s, characterized by a cavalier attitude toward nudity, pervasive Catholic imagery, and lashings of gore. Ignorant of the term giallo, I proceeded to dub this subgenre “spag-horror,” which isn’t actually an awful name for it.
As my initiation into the worlds of sex and violence, many European horror films of the 1970s no doubt occupy a Freudian subspace of my psyche. Probably the Ur-example of this genre and its strange, ambivalent attitude toward women and sexuality is Dario Argento’s 1977 meisterwerk, Suspiria.
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched Fight Club. Every time I view it, I end up noticing something new. How did I miss that before? This time, Marla Singer (played by Helena Bonham Carter) captured my attention. What would the situations in the movie look like from her viewpoint?
On any dark and stormy night in the fall, it is a wonderful thing to curl up with a mug of mulled cider and watch Clue. The murder mystery based on the eponymous board game may have been a huge flop when it was released in 1985, but it has gained a passionate cult following in the last 28 years, probably due to its infinitely quotable dialogue and gleeful disregard for the pile of bodies amassed as the movie progresses – as well as being shown on cable about once every two hours.
The ethics of the film are one thing, but it says a lot about the world of the movie that it’s able to go nearly two hours without a single important female character showing up on screen. There are no women cops, there are no women in the mob, there are only a couple of wives or passers-by or maybe a drug-addled girlfriend or two. But no one who matters. The acting characters in the film are all overwhelmingly and vocally male.
Even the ethos of the characters, that they will destroy that which is evil, but leave alone the pure and blameless, is inherently sexist. Because when they say pure and blameless, what they mean is the women and children. In this universe, women are not even people enough to do things wrong. We do not have enough agency even to commit evil.
Most feminist criticism of Stephen King’s Carrie has focused on the male fear of powerful women that the author said inspired the film, with the anti-Carrie camp finding her death at the end to signify the defeat of the “monstrous feminine” and therefore a triumph of sexism. But Stephen King’s honesty about what inspired his 1973 book notwithstanding, Carrie is as much an articulation of a feminist nightmare as it is of a patriarchal one, with neither party coming out on top.
Consistently, then, femininity in men is dangerous. It may be actively dangerous, as in Uncle Monty, who assaults Marwood whilst in near-drag, or passively dangerous, in that it makes the feminine man a target for harassment, as in the lout at the pub who calls Marwood a perfumed ponce. Ultimately, it is dangerous because it marks the other, and to be other is to be in danger.
Populated by mostly male characters, The Big Lebowski is, to some extent, a tale of male friendship. Nevertheless, the cult comedy should never be interpreted and celebrated as exclusively a guy’s film. The Big Lebowski offers an amusing, subversive portrait of masculinity and features an excellent comic performance by one of the most gifted actresses working today. What’s more, it suggests that the future is matriarchal.
Perhaps for the movie’s purposes, that doesn’t matter: the story seems to be far more driven by the desire to create an artistic film, rather than an intellectually/ethically/scientifically engaging narrative. The scientific aspect for example—the part of the film I found personally most engaging, that it is possible to tamper with the natural life-cycle, halting the aging process in its tracks—is touched upon but it seems, at least to me, to be more of a plot device for bringing Sarah into Miriam’s life than an attempt to explore an ethically challenging issue. The biology behind Miriam’s present state and the fate of her lovers is similarly irrelevant.
In terms of gender representations, both men and women are shown as the worst possible version of themselves. Barbra swings back and forth from being near catatonic and unable to communicate, to wild and hysterical. Ben even slaps her at one point to get her to snap out of her state. She is weak and unable to deal with the emotions of seeing her brother attacked. Barbra would have already been killed and reanimated were it not for the über masculine Ben to save her from the perils that lie outside.
For the uninitiated, Nikita was the often too realistic story of a drug-addicted young woman who finds herself in jail after a robbery gone horribly wrong. Most filmmakers would have ended there, a cautionary tale of the woman led down the wrong path who ends up punished for her sins. But Besson took the story further; this broken young woman gets turned into an assassin that is used by her government to kill. The killing takes its toll on her, but she values her life and freedom over the other option provided her: death. She meets a guy, falls in love, and at the end of the day Nikita turned out to not be the same story I was used to.
Angel, a 1984 cult film, attempts to be both a melodrama about a teen hooker forced to face her life choices (as the trailer proclaims it “A Very Special Motion Picture”) and a very 80s crime thriller where a tough-talking street kid teams up with a cop to catch a killer, but the resulting film is a mess of clashing tones that seems more campy than hard-hitting.