Women & Gender in Cult Films & B-Movies
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Indeed, the social structure of Westerburg High School is unsettling to say the least. Teens there would rather commit actual suicide than “social suicide.” Their alienation from both reality and ethical values is mirrored not only in J.D., Veronica and the Heathers, but also in the rest of the students. Peer pressure and the dream of popularity result in the “Westerburg suicides,” causing a downright suicide craze. Their supposed actions gave the popular kids depth and humanity and made them more popular than ever. When an unpopular girl attempts to kill herself, the new Heather in charge asserts, “Just another case of a geek trying to imitate the popular people of the school and failing miserably.”
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.
Freaks (1932) is a true cult movie, one that’s ridden a rollercoaster of opprobrium and acclaim since its initial release. Tod Browning’s sideshow-set horror-romance destroyed his career (and several others), caused such disgust in early audiences that one woman (allegedly) miscarried, outraged critics and moral guardians, traumatized some of the performers who appeared in it, languished in obscurity after being banned for three decades, resurfaced on the exploitation circuit in the 1960s, and earned a spot in the National Film Registry archives in 1994 before enjoying its current status as a one-of-a-kind classic. It’s been repeated to the point of cliché, but Freaks, once seen, is never forgotten. Love it or hate it, it will stay with you for the rest of your life.
The Craft presents a lesson that coming-of-age films don’t typically make a point to show. A ballot is cast for prom queen or SAT prep sits on the horizon with college days looming, a girl must get a boy to like her, losing her virginity in the process. But this film is about serving the self—the craft of empowering oneself to surmount the archaic persecutions against women—taking back the threat of female power. But like a genie in a bottle that allows three wishes, this craft must be practiced and understood, respected completely before it can be outwardly used, or else it will perpetuate transgression.
So I asked Twitter the following question: “Who’s scarier: Jason or Jason’s mom?” Surprisingly, despite all the movies (12 in total) in which Jason is seen slashing throats and hanging victims, his mom (who’s only alive and running amok in the first film in 1980) is apparently considered the more horrifying killer. But I’ve always had a soft spot for Pamela. Not that I condone the gruesome murders of innocent people (of course not). But, unlike Jason, Pamela committed crimes of passion. Her crazy antics were actually revenge for her young son’s fatal drowning, which she felt was caused by the unjustifiable neglect of the camp counselors who failed to watch him (a longtime rumor has faulted the counselors for being too busy fornicating and not paying attention to Jason’s cries for help).
Here are some game-changing cult classics, divided into handy genre sections. And while we’re looking at the influence of these cult films, why not check out how they portray and treat women? Almost entirely coincidentally, they’re all from the ‘80s. What can I say? It was a culturally rich period.
The midwestern, puritanical values that American Gothic seems to represent so well win at the end of the film, and quite literally kill difference and sexual and gender subversion. While Riff Raff and Magenta go back to their home planet Transsexual, in the galaxy of Transylvania, Brad, Janet and Dr. Scott are left on the cold ground, crawling and writhing in their fishnets.
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.