Monday, February 11, 2019

Women in Horror: The Hunger by Alma Katsu

The Donner Party started out with prosperity, happiness, and hope for a new future on the west coast. Unfortunately, these feelings are short lived since the mysterious death of a young boy acts as an omen for worse things to come. Normal, expected things happen such as depleted rations, drought, hidden secrets threatening to ruin relationships and reputations, and plain bad luck in choosing to take a supposed short cut. However, something isn't right. Members of the group start to disappear. Is it madness, animals, or something much more sinister?

The Hunger takes a horrific historical event and infuses it with supernatural dread and rich backstories for each character. The Donner Party was comprised of several different families, but the most influential and powerful were the Donner's and Reed's who fight for supremacy. Through the narration bouncing from person to person, each character's inner thoughts, feelings, secrets, and motivation. Everyone has some sort of earth shattering dark secret from cheating to financial ruin to closeted homosexuality that leads each person to find a new life so far from established civilization. Being inside each character allows us to see why they might not take completely logical choices and opt for ways to safe face, keep themselves above others, and keep the masses appeased, which is the most important since not much gets them to be at each others' throats.

My two favorite characters are Charles Stanton and Tamsen Donner. Charles is the main character of the novel and he is harboring a deep dark secret about the woman he loved who died. He promised her in life to never tell it and he's shockingly noble in doing so to the detriment of his own reputation. This on top of not being associated with any of the major factions in the party lead to him being an underdog who runs the risk of being ostracized despite his sound, logical advice. Charles is so easy to like and root as the party goes off the rails. Tamsen, on the other hand, isn't the most moral and pure character in comparison, but it was refreshing to see a woman who isn't a shrinking violet She is completely sure of herself and manipulates those around her with confidence. Her good looks and ability to fake being what people think a woman should be serves her well even though underneath, she is much different. She's unsatisfied with her marriage and her worth being tied to a man. Of course, she's eventually suspected of being a witch due to her penchant for seducing men and her use of protective charms. This character could have easily been a flat seductress, but she proved to be so much more.

The supernatural elements make the already insane story even more terrifying. The party faces starvation, little access to fresh water, dwindling resources, and extremely cold temperatures. On top of these practical, realistic things, a sort of disease can be contracted by both animals and humans that causes them to have an insatiable hunger. The condition is a hybrid of a zombie and a wendigo where the infected slowly succumbs to complete inhumanity and hunger. They can survive much more extreme conditions and injuries than uninfected. Although I felt it took a bit too long to get to them, these creatures are so creepy and threaten these already very vulnerable people. Since they wear the faces of loved ones and people they've been travelling with for literally months, it's hard for the otheres to see them as a threat instead of just sick friends or acquaintances until it's too late.

The Hunger is a chilling story of ill advised travel, creatures, and survival. Each character has a rich backstory and unique motivations. However, the fact that literally everything about this is spelled out and nothing is implicit or left for the reader to fill in even some small details felt weird to me. Other than that, Katsu does such a good job of portraying the hopeless nature, desperation, and eldritch horror of this situation. It also makes me interested in researching the historical event and seeing how exactly she blended the real history with the more fantastical elements.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Women in Horror: Cam (2018)

Alice is a cam girl who puts on elaborate shows for paying men on a website as Lola. She seems to have her life and work well balanced, gaining enough money to rent a nice house and support herself while still buying luxuries for herself and her family. She also comes up with different stories, concepts, and themes for her show to keep it fresh, attract new viewers, retain old ones, and go up the rankings. After going to the Camgirl Clubhouse to do a joint show with a friend, she suddenly can't sign into her account and sees Lola recording live. Then, while struggling to get her livelihood back, her job and her personal life collide in ways she never expected.

Cam is a film that tackles a type of sex work from the point of view of sex workers. Writer Isa Mazzei worked as a cam girl and wanted to "create a film where an audience would empathize with a sex worker." So many films dehumanize sex workers and treat as disposable objects or murder victims. In Cam, we see all facets of Alice's life. We support her as she tries to rise in the ranks of the website and are as horrified as she is when she is somehow copied. She wants to be the best at what she does and Mazzei (in the interview linked above) says the audience shouldn't be expect Alice to do something else and walk away from her career, but there are also other implications at play that affect her private life.

During the first scene of the film, Alice is in a bubblegum pink room as Lola. Her viewers vote on sex toys she should use, but one insistent user suggests a knife and others follow suit with few outliers. Lola slits her throat complete with blood everywhere, acts dead, shows the prosthetic, and says goodnight to her viewers. This scene shows the kind of fantasy Alice is trying to create where unpredictable and make-believe things happen. Her persona Lola is almost always happy. sweet, funny, and flirty except when trying to make her fake suicide look real. To rise in the ranks of the site, Alice wants to provide a show that no one else does and keep her viewers guessing. It also shows the scary side of it where the men seem to want to see her get hurt and play into that fantasy in order to become popular. This is the most memorable scene of the film and could have been a short all by itself. 

Alice in real life is gaining enough tips from her cam job to support herself and still have time to spend time with her mother and her teen brother Jordan. He knows what she does, but she wants to tell her mother when she's higher in the ranks.  In real life, Alice is much less glamorous than Lola. Lola must always look perfect while it's ok for Alice to go without makeup or bite her nails. Alice is a real person while Lola is a perfectly manufactured male fantasy who has nothing profound to say and does whatever she's told. She puts so much into her work and strives to be the best despite hiding her profession from everyone in her personal life. Before anything supernatural happens, her cam life and real life collide in one of her regulars seeing her at the store. It's a brief, uncomfortable interaction that leaves Alice shaken.

The cam community, performers and viewers, are a varied group. Some performers are happy to share methods and tips or do a combination show for views and tips. Alice's relationships with them seem pretty superficial, but it's a job. Not everyone is going to be best friends with their coworkers. On the other hand, Princess_X, a non-nude cam girl, tells viewers to lower Lola's rank and she will strip for them. The campaign is successful and hurts Alice's earnings and feelings. The viewers are essentially faceless behind screen names unless they want a private video with Lola. The two who do so are shown to be pretty scummy. Tink, a hypocritically religious man, stalks her and knows that something is going wrong. He does nothing about it and happily masturbates to the double's show after he promised he would help her. The other man, Barney, seems to think he controls these women's success and has power them even as he throws gobs of his own money away. Alice willingly meets him in person, but is careful to meet him in a public place and not in his room. When he sees the double on her feed, he attacks her. The ones who stay online, get their fantasy, and leave her alone until the next show are preferable to these two men.

When Alice can't get into her account, a double of her, essentially what the persona of Lola is, still performs on her channel. Every attempt to reclaim her account is stymied and nothing is done when she calls law enforcement after running out of options. Alice's image, earnings, and livelihood are taken in one fell swoop. The Lola double is also Alice being unable to control her image or income. The double breaks her three personal rules blatantly, sending viewers to her door and sharing things about herself that she would never do. Her videos are passed around to people she knows, leading to an embarrassing revelation at her brother's birthday party and outing her as a sex worker in a way she would never choose. As a result, her family abandons her in her time of need while they are also mocked by others over the revelation. She loses agency to this double who is even better at her job, eventually rising all the way to the top of the rankings.

The film brings up other issues about sex workers. To stay relevant on the site, cam girls have to put in long hours and keep their shows interesting. Their income is entirely dependent on the viewers, so time could go uncompensated. The social stigma of being outed as a sex worker has a significant part of the story. An awkward interaction with a high school acquaintance has Alice looking successful in comparison to the other woman works a retail job. When that woman witnesses the revelation at Jordan's party, she smirks and doesn't feel so bad about her own minimum wage job. The cops who come to her house judge her for her chosen profession and objectify her while they dare her to admit to outright prostitution, giving them the slightest reason to arrest her. That scene disgusted me the most because sex workers are seen as less than others and less than deserving of basic human decency to many, including law enforcement.

* spoilers *

Where the film stumbles in resolving the issue of the double. Alice finally talks directly to the double and makes a bet with her to get the password to the account. After smashing her face on a table and having the double copy her, the viewers choose her as winner, being entertained by the weird situation and injury, and gets the password. She deletes the account. I was underwhelmed by the method of beating the double. While I liked the metaphor, it seemed a little confused and underdeveloped. The other woman who was copied had died, but it wasn't clear if Alice would die or if the death was incidental. The research seemed to be leading to a big reveal, but proved to be pretty useless. I do like that the phenomenon still exists after the finale and affects other girls, as all those things about having presence as a sex worker online does. After recovering from her injuries (and sporting some new scars), Alice has a new ID and persona, choosing to keep doing what she likes and what she's good at despite the dangers. When her mother asks what she'll do if the bot copies her again and Alice says she'll just make another account and another. She won't let these drawbacks keep her from the job loves and excels at.

Cam is a film about sex work written by a sex worker, showing her own experience. It's a varied portrayal that shows many of the bad things and some of the good things too. From beginning to end, we are on Alice's side even when those closest to her are not. While the double metaphor didn't always work for me, most everything else did. Madeline Brewer does a wonderful job as both frantic Alice and empty Lola. The directing doesn't objectify the cam girls even if their bodies are exposed. The cam girls seen are incredibly varied and not all one body type or skin tone. This is an important film and rewatching it made me re-evaluate my first judgment of the film. Knowing the background and focusing more on what's underneath the plot and characters changed my opinion. This film is readily available on Netflix and is well worth your time.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Women in Horror: The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco

Okiku died 300 hundred years ago and roams the earth killing men who murder children. She travels all over the world, largely unnoticed, ignoring everyone except her targets until she sees a boy with moving tattoos. His name is Tark and she finds herself drawn to him. For the first time in centuries, she becomes embroiled in his life and cares about protecting him from another spirit who follows him wherever her goes.

The Girl in the Well takes a trope, changes the perspective, and makes it feel fresh and new. Okiku, a vengeful spirit, tells this story directly from her own point of view. She travels as she likes around the earth, not always truly conscious, and kills murderous men. The spirits of those he has killed are tethered to him and unable to escape for the duration of his life. It's a truly chilling prospect for those poor spirits to not only die horribly, but to be forced to witness others dying the same way and following around their own killer for decades. When Okiku kills the men, the spirits are freed while she is still stuck on earth, looking for more spirits to free. Her descriptions feel a bit detached because she's lost much of herself in death and views most things with little emotion. My favorite part of her narration is the dramatic page breaks that both slow the tempo of reading and accompany a rare glimpse of intense emotion within her (usually followed by her attacking or scaring someone).

The legend of Okiku, or at least her image, is familiar because of Japanese films and American remakes like The Grudge and The Ring. She has long black hair, usually obscuring her face, and wears a white dress. In life, she was a servant who tried to serve her king well by warning him of treachery by a trusted advisor. The traitor broke one precious plate in a set of ten and in turn accuses Okiku of breaking it. The king believed him and allowed her to be tortured and killed, thrown down a well to drown. There are a few variations on this story, but she always ends up in the well in the end. Because of her background, she targets murderous men and continually counts everything: people, cars, dolls, ceiling tiles, anything in any given place. If she ever counts only nine, she has a violent outburst to destroy one of the objects to change the offending number. This trauma from her past hundreds of years ago persists to this day.

Even Okiku is surprised when she's drawn to Tark and the ghost woman in black tethered to him. She forms a sort of friendship with him as she becomes entrenched in his life. Callie, his older cousin, doesn't quite warm up to her and set to remind the audience that Okiku is still dangerous, not quite human. The plot involving Tark takes a lot of surprising turns, subverting the tropes of Okiku type stories. My favorite development was looking into his mother's background as a shaman. She gave up a life of protecting people and capturing evil spirits to be with Tark's father. She came from a powerful collective of women that served their community for the greater good that Tark later returns to for help with the spirit bound to him. The conflict between Okiku and the masked woman is pretty epic and leads to inner growth in Okiku.

The Girl from the Well definitely surprised me with its change in perspective and complex view of Okiku. On one hand, she's an avenging death angel who kills murderers without remorse and on the other, she's rediscovering her humanity and connecting with living humans. Her point of view is refreshing because this figure seems to always be painted as a malevolent presence when she was wronged in life and didn't start out that way. Her journey and narrative in the novel are fascinating and it took me almost no time at all to read. There is a sequel called The Suffering that I immediately bought and I can't wait to get to.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Friday, February 8, 2019

Women in Horror: Lizzie (2018)

It's 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts. Lizzie Borden lives with her sister Emma, her father Andrew, and stepmother Abby. The family has wealth and lives comfortably, but Andrew rules the family with an iron fist, relying on psychological cruelty with withholding money to keep them in line. Bridget comes to the house to be employed as a maid, where Abby will call her Maggie as with all her Irish maids, and she and Lizzie form a friendship that turns into romance. When Andrew catches them together and threatens Lizzie with incarceration and already followed through with disinheriting her in his will. The next day, Andrew and Abby are found dead, killed with a hatchet and Lizzie goes on trial for their murder.

I've personally been fascinated with Lizzie Borden and the murder of her parents since a young age, mostly because of the famous rhyme and my mother's strong opinion that I should go by my full name (Elizabeth) because any shortened version reminded her of the supposed murderer. I've read quite a few books on the subject that belabor where everyone claimed to be and the possibilities of who the murderer might be, but this film shows a different perspective. It recontextualizes the story into what Lizzie's life would be like in 1892 as an unmarried, queer woman. Her close friendship with actress Nance O'Neil in addition to a huge fight and later estrangement with Emma when she was much older may point to this being the truth, but we'll never know.

Lizzie doesn't care what society might think of her being unmarried and going to social events by herself. She's portrayed by Chloe Sevigny as headstrong and confident, only bending when her father is especially cruel or a plan of hers backfires. Because of her father, she can't have a career of her own or take over his business, so she's relegated to taking care of the home and going to social events. Women at the time were essentially property that the men in their lives could do what they wanted with them and face no legal or societal repercussions. To go out on her own would be to have absolutely no resources and be completely ostracized from the society she lived in for her whole life. Being openly queer is also out of the question unless she wants to be put in an institution, which her father threatened her with when he caught her and Bridget together. Their relationship is an escape for them both, but acknowledges the troubling difference in their social standing where Lizzie has considerable power over Bridget. When her father reveals he disinherited her, it's the final nail in the coffin of her freedom. She would be equally beholden to her uncle who made it clear he doesn't care if she and Emma starve to death.

Many factors put Lizzie's future in danger. Andrew Borden was first and foremost because he controlled what happened to his money with a will and proved to be quite unpopular because of his unsavory business dealings, which seems plausible considering the state of Fall River at the time. Threatening letters were dropped by their house and broke family members try to ingratiate themselves with him for money, further muddying the mystery and competing with Lizzie for her father's money. On a more personal level, Andrew was incredibly frugal, keeping the house free of electricity and running water even though he could afford the luxuries. The film portrays him as a cruel man who rapes women on his staff and commits cruel acts. After Lizzie defied his wishes and embarrassed their family by having a seizure at the opera, he kills the pigeons she lovingly kept as pets and served them for dinner the next day. Looking at all of these things, there is a case for Lizzie killing her stepmother and father for her own safety and to secure the future for herself and her sister in addition to her own freedom.

The film Lizzie is so different than any other portrayal of Borden I've seen and opens up many more questions. Other films make her a beautiful, smiling monster like the Christina Ricci Lifetime movie and series, where she killed a huge amount of people and kept getting away with it. This one shows the precarious nature of her position as a woman and a lesbian in 1892. The structure of the film works well, at first skipping over the murder, hearing Lizzie's version of events as she was questioned, and then flashing back to it at the end to reveal their version of events. Chloe Sevigny makes Lizzie relatable while still keeping her straight forward demeanor that put off police officers that questioned her. Jamey Sheridan makes Andrew a repugnant, angry man that I was frankly glad to see dispatched. Lizzie is well worth your time and a passion project from Sevigny to show a different side to this notorious figure.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Women in Horror: Kingdom of Needle and Bone by Mira Grant

Lisa Morris, a young girl who gets regularly vaccinated, gets sick and dies of a particularly virulent strain of measles known afterwards as Morris's disease. Unlike regular measles, this strain spreads quickly, doesn't seem to be affected by the measles vaccine, and leads to the deaths of millions. Unfortunately, Lisa went to Walt Disney World when she wasn't feeling very well, also passing through an international airport, before she died in a hospital near her hometown. The world is in chaos afterwards as the disease spreads and it doesn't stop there. Now, factions form on whether or not immunizations should be forced. Waves of other disease hit and the true horror of Morris's disease shows itself.

Kingdom of Needle and Bone shows a dystopian future of increasingly virulent diseases in part caused by the obstinate anti-vaccination movement, which is based on nothing scientific and responsible for recent outbreaks of measles. Morris's disease starts out as a normal measles infections with a runny nose, fever, and sore throat and then progressing to Koplik's spots. Measles rashes appear in day 4 or 5, but instead of darkening, the rashy skin softens and weakens until moving puts the infected a rick of tearing, infections, or encephalitis. As Lisa moves around Walt Disney World and later through the airport, the narration explains exactly how scores of people are infected by her, even though she is careful to cough and sneeze into her arm. It spreads all over the world leaving 30 million infected, 17 million as carriers of the virus, and 10 million dead.

Now, with other waves of much more severe versions of diseases, a fatal side effect of Morris's virus reveals itself: the infection leads to permanent immune amnesia, meaning no vaccines will ever work on the survivors of the disease. I looked up this phenomenon and it's apparently an aftereffect of measles, but doesn't last forever. This article details how immune amnesia can reduce herd immunity, which we see in the novel on a much wider, more permanent scale. I had never heard of this at all and it makes the recent real life outbreaks of measles in California and Washington much scarier and have farther reaching consequences. Both of these outbreaks were caused by parents (who are probably vaccinated themselves) simply putting their personal beliefs above the safety of others, including their own children. Considering this, doing away with personal belief exemptions for attending public schools would be an effective step in stopping these outbreaks.

Back to the story, Dr. Isabelle Gauley, Lisa's aunt, is working to vaccinate as many people as she can to prevent further outbreaks and infection. She's caught between two factions: one against bodily autonomy in favor of forced immunizations and one for bodily autonomy and against forced immunizations. Of course the bodily autonomy argument gets lumped in with abortion rights, with the anti-choice movement gaining more fervor. Angry mobs stand outside of her clinic due to the limited quantities of vaccines. Her own sister Angela, the one who latches on to any borderline terrorist movement, parades her dead daughter around to head the forced immunization cause even though she spent almost no time with her and gave her up for adoption to their other sister. Both are disgusted by Angela's mercenary use of their loss. Isabelle comes up with a sort of solution after she finds out about the permanent immune amnesia that seems extreme, but would keep the uninfected safe from contagion.

Kingdom of Needle and Bone is a short novella that lays out this dystopian world of disease. Isabelle at first seems like an innocent bystander, but her actual role in everything makes so many things about her become clear. The reveal felt like a slap in the face since we've been by her side for the whole story. If I had the time, I would have read the entire thing with that in mind. She is such an interesting character because she's ok being a monster if it gets the results she wants. Familial bonds, feelings, and the Hippocratic oath don't phase her at all. I would love for this to be part of a larger series that continues and further examines the characters, but it's only just come out. Mira Grant puts a shocking amount of research into each of her novels and this is no different. The things I thought for sure would be science fiction are fact, sometimes made to be more extreme for the novel. In addition to that, she always rights diverse casts to represent a wide range of people and makes them feel eerily real. I highly recommend this book (and all of her books). If the Subterranean Press price tag daunts you out of read this, keep an eye on Amazon for discounts.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Women in Horror: Current and Upcoming Projects

Here are some projects you can experience right now or in the near future.

* Braid (2019) - limited theatrical release and VOD

synopsis: Two wanted women decide to steal from a wealthy and mentally unstable friend who lives in a fantasy world. To get her money, the fugitives must take part in a deadly and perverse game of make-believe in a sprawling yet decaying estate. As things become increasingly hallucinatory and violent, the duo soon realize that obtaining the cash may be the least of their worries.

Braid looks insane in the best way possible. The needlepointed rules, the sadistic game, and Madeline Brewer as the villain combined make me so excited for the film. It seems like a mixture of Alice in Wonderland, Would You Rather, Intruders, and Perfect Host. I am excited to see Madeline Brewer after her impressive role in Cam and Sarah Hay after leading the show Flesh and Bone, which should have had more than one season. Writer-director Mitzi Peirone gives the film a unique look and combines some famliar tropes to create something new.

Braid has a limited theatrical release starting February 1st, so it's only playing at one theater near me late at night. However, it is readily available on VOD (Amazon has it for $5) and I can't wait to dive in.

* Tigers are Not Afraid (Vuelven) - close to getting distibution, film festival circuit

synopsis: Estrella is 10 years old and her mother never came home. She joins a gang of four homeless orphaned children struggling to survive in the wake of a deadly drug cartel and clings to bits of fantasy that provide her with 3 wishes.

Tigers Are Not Afraid was my favorite movie I saw last year. It didn't appear on my official top 13 list because it didn't get distribution yet. It's a beautiful, heartbreaking story of survival from the point of view of children and the modern answer to Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone. The drama elements are compelling in and of themselves, but the fantasy elements elevate the story. Fantasy here is more like original fairy tales with serious consequences and a reflection of reality. Writer-director Issa Lopez creates an atmospheric, awe inspiring film that will haunt you.

Lopez recently posted on Twitter that the film is hopefully close to getting distribution. I will definitely be posting when it's official.

* The Lodge - festival circuit

synopsis: In this psychologically chilling slow burn, a young woman and her reticent new stepchildren find themselves isolated in the family's remote winter cabin, locked away to drede up the mysteries of her dark past and the losses that seem to haunt them all.

I honestly don't know much about what the film is about. It's written and directed by duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. They are also the writers and directors of Goodnight Mommy, one of the most chilling and tense films I've seen. There isn't a trailer to my knowledge, but I'm so excited to see what they have in store for us next. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on when it gets distribution or try to check it out at an LA film festival.

The Lodge played at the Sundance Film Festival to positive reviews.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Women in Horror: M.F.A. (2017)

* spoilers *

Noelle is stagnating in her art in her Masters of Fine Arts program and classmates and teachers alike are critical of her run of the mill efforts. Meanwhile, she meets a classmate she likes and he brutally rapes her at his party. She leaves in a daze and tries to report the assault only to be interrogated like a criminal. Noelle tries to resume her classes as normal, but can't attend classes with her rapist. She confronts him while he acts like he did nothing wrong and he ends up falling to his death. Noelle sees this accidental death as a gateway to making rapists who avoid punishment pay.

M.F.A. is a rape revenge film that takes place at a college, a hotbed of rape, sexual assault, and the suppression of reporting both. This setting is brilliant as this problem has existed for a long time and the college system has seemingly little interest in actually fixing the problem if it means decreased enrollment. Our heroine is Noelle, a struggling artist in an M.F.A. program who often dresses in black hoodies and stays away from people. Noelle's classmate Luke, a particularly pretentious and obnoxious artist, catches her eye and she agrees to go to his party. He seems nice at first, taking her to his room to see some new sculptures of his. Then they start kissing, at first gently and then more and more forceful on his part. He shoves her on the bed and brutally rapes her while she screams, cries, and struggles to fight back. When it's over, he acts as if they had consensual sex and she leaves stunned, reeling from the pain and trauma. People gawk at her, implying that Luke has a reputation of assaulting women. This scene, while horrific and sad to watch, shows how things can go from consensual to coercive quickly and the stark difference between the two to those in the room.

Afterwards, Noelle tells two people about the assault. The first is Skye, her sunny neighbor, who advises her to not say anything, accept it as a bad day, and go on with her life. At first, I was outraged, but she goes on to point out that Noelle will be subject to intense scrutiny and afterwards, he probably won't pay for the crime in any significant way. She has a point since we see this happen on the news time and time again. Skye is the only person in the film who truly has Noelle's wellbeing in mind. Noelle goes to class as normal, but has to leave. The flashes of torture in the art being studied shows the trauma she experiences when he walks into the room, reflecting her mental flashbacks to the event. She goes to the psychologist on campus. The woman is clearly uncomfortable with the situation and her questionnaire takes the tone of an interrogation, asking questions multiple times as if to catch Noelle in a lie or get her to change her story. Of course, the questions include who witnessed the attack, how much did you have to drink, did you say no, and did you make sure he heard you. All infuriating and victim blaming questions designed to make her drop the case that are typically asked by law enforcement and lawyers.

Noelle decides to confront Luke directly and demand an apology. As expected, he acts like she's crazy, insists they had sex, and puts everything on her. They start to fight physically and when he says to stop acting crazy, she pushes him hard and shots "I'm not crazy!" He falls to his death and she quietly leaves. Her vehement rejection of his gaslighting, which transitions into physical abuse, is satisfying to watch. She then researches other rapists who got away with their crimes, leading her to Lindsay, another survivor. When they talk, Lindsay admits she wished she hadn't said anything since she was seen as a slut, a liar, and the attack took away her choice to have children. Her rapists, on the other hand, are completely fine and continuing their college and sports careers unimpeded socially or otherwise. This is yet another woman showing that putting yourself out there and officially accusing a rapist many times goes nowhere and leaves the survivor in an even worse place than she started.

The conversation with Lindsay solidifies Noelle's course of action to seek out and kill rapists who have escaped punishment. In her first intentional murder, Noelle dons a pink wig and a revealing outfit to go to the fraternity party where the football players who raped Lindsay live. She finds one of the rapists, leads him to a room, and roofies him. As he thinks they are going to have sex, she echoes the same things he said to Lindsay, which she knew because the footage of the attack is online. Noelle dispatches rapist after rapist in different ways, choosing to forgo the seduction aspect altogether by the third murder. By the end, she wants them to know why they are dying and hear some of their excuses. Unfortunately, the wider world mourns these men and idealizes them in the media. To the wider public, their bright futures are tragically cut short and the rape allegations have been successfully swept under the rug.

Noelle joins a woman's group on campus to see what can be done in a legitimate way to lessen the threat to women. They appear ridiculous with their bake sales, color changing nail polish to detect roofies, and pat themselves on the back for "raising awareness." This group doesn't have a lot of authority in the first place and they focus on women protecting themselves because the wider world and the university refuses to do it. Noelle points out that all the precautions in the world may still result in rape and the others have no real response to that. Although they have all the good intentions in the world, raising awareness and telling women to avoid getting raped isn't going to challenge the social structure that is the underlying cause. Noelle remains in the group despite her criticism maybe because she feels some obligation to help in a legitimate way even though it's not very effective.

Through her journey researching, finding, and killing rapists, Noelle finds that the sexual assault rates for the college are at zero and sees the system that seeks to suppress reporting to keep the college looking welcoming including that awful psychologist she later threatens. During her snooping, she finds that Skye was raped and was actually relaying her own story earlier in the film. Noelle decides to conceal everything from her and pursue her rapist without her knowledge. Not only is this a huge betrayal to her only friend, but when he's attacked, the police go right to Skye. Despite her best intentions, Noelle is hurting the survivors because they are once again confronted with their past, those memories, and interrogated for the crime when the two we see in the film have successfully moved on. Is she doing more harm than good? The trauma doesn't die with their rapists. Noelle violently rejects a classmate she was perfectly happy kissing when he touched her in the way her rapist touched her and a flashback hit her to show that her trauma remains even though she's happy and successful. This question is never really asked in rape revenge films because it's usually one woman's experience only. M.F.A. widens the lens and shows how it affects other survivors.

Noelle never loses her humanity, always having sympathy for fellow survivors and keeping real relationships with her teachers, classmates, and few friends. In many other rape revenge films, the survivor goes too far somehow, kills too many people or becomes even more monstrous than her attackers in some way. The end of the film has Noelle giving a speech on exposing the truth even if it makes others uncomfortable. She is arrested right afterwards, since her latest victim survived and woke up. Noelle isn't broken and stands by her actions. The ending shows that this isn't a fantasy film. It takes place in the real world where friends die and her crimes are found out in the end. However, she did what she thought was right and what she could to try to change the status quo.

M.F.A. is written by Leah McKendrick and directed by Natalia Leite and it shows. The rape scenes are horrific and never titillating and they flash back like they might for survivors with PTSD. Noelle and Skye are fully realized, flawed people with a wonderful friendship. No female nudity is shown during the assaults. The film poses real questions about rape culture on college campuses and in the world at large. It examines why women choose not to persecute their attackers and why survivors seem to be more on trial than the accused rapist. Last year, Christine Blasey Ford's name and character were dragged through the mud so extremely that she wasn't even able to live in her home due to threats while her rapist now sits in the highest court in the country. M.F.A. shows how something has to fundamentally change in our society to refocus these issues, support survivors, and stop these attacks from happening in the first place.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Monday, February 4, 2019

Women in Horror: Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

Marion is trying to keep it together for her family and take care of everyone as her mother can't. Her father was killed in a hit and run accident and now their whole lives are being uprooted to Sawkill Island, where girls go missing in increasing frequency. Rumors of a supernatural creature called the Collector swirl around the town, but no concrete answers are found. Zoey was friends with the last girl who disappeared and fights to find out what happened to her while the rest seem happy to not think about it. Val knows exactly what's happening, but doesn't know if the path her mother laid out for her and wants her to follow is what she wants anymore. All three girls can choose to unite and be more powerful together despite their differences or fight against each other instead of the evil that plagues their town.

Sawkill Girls is an amazing novel all about girls: their friendship, romance, anger, grief, conflicts, self discovery, and the way others try to exploit them. The world feels a bit like our world with things hidden underneath that people explain away like Sunnydale in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Most on Sawkill Island see the Mortimer horse farm, the scenic cliffs, and the run of the mill inhabitants, but the decades of unsolved missing girls cases with no evidence pointing to what really happened to them, the increasing number of these incidents, and an urban legend about a creature known as The Collector points to something deeply wrong about the town under its facade.

The three main characters all occupy a different space in the town and seem like unlikely choices for teaming up in any way. Marion is the new girl in town who hasn't quite found her place yet. The death of her father still feels raw and she's filled with anger and self doubt, which she pushes away to be the pillar of support her family's needs, especially alleviating pressure from her mom. When Charlotte disappears, it's another huge blow to the remainder of her family. I feel the most for Marion because I also lost my father and her feelings and actions all ring true to me. Trying to act normal while your own life feels like it's falling apart is incredibly hard and draining. Later in the book, her budding relationship with Val felt wrong because of Val's secret life, but it's the one thing she has for herself only and not anyone else. The romance is so sweet and wonderful, but also throws a bit of a wrench in what was previously a straight forward good vs. evil story.

Zoey is a pariah in her community because of rumors around her breaking up with her boyfriend Grayson and as one of few African American people on the island. After being intimate with him, she finds that she's asexual and uninterested in repeating the act. She doesn't want to hold him back or make him regret their relationship, so she decides to end it without discussion. I haven't ready many books with asexual protagonists and it was eye opening to see society's view of sexuality making her question if she's broken in some way. On top of that, her best friend Thora is missing and presumed dead. Everyone seems to have moved on and given up but Zoey, who does everything she can including snooping through her cop dad's things to find answers. She suspects Val had something to do with it and rightfully doesn't want to work with her later in the book.

Val rules as the queen bee of the island, always the center of social situations, throwing parties, and living in luxury. Underneath it all, she and her mother are enslaved by the creature known as the Collector and have to do what it says as it grows in strength or it will hurt them. Growing up this way had Val accept that this is just her way life. Her mother is bonded with the creature while she is being groomed to take over, like a sick arranged marriage. Looking at the history, her grandmother bonded with it in order to escape abuse in a time when women had status equal to property. Now, the same traditions are expected to continue through three generations when it's not really needed anymore due to physical and emotional threats from the Collector. Meeting Marion makes Val reject this future and forge her own path instead of repeating her mother's mistakes. Val started out being my most hated character and by the end she changed to my favorite because of the way she worked through pain and suffering in order to find her own way.

* spoilers*

All three girls have powers emerge that will equip them to defeat the Collector. Together, they perform a sort of exorcism on Val to release her from its influence. Instead of a patriarchal figure like a priest, the three girls accomplish this on their own. Unfortunately, a cult called the Hand of Light thinks the three girls need to kill each other in order for the creature to be temporarily defeated. They are straight up misogynists that believe the girls' gender makes them inherently weak even though they have incredible powers never given to men. Like a way worse version of the Watcher's Council in Buffy, these men have decided that extraordinary girls are disposable and merely objects to break for a goal. The girls prove them wrong in the end and I've never been so pumped for a book's ending like this one.

Sawkill Girls is a novel I want to push into everyone's hands. It's dark, twisty, and twisted with fully fleshed out girls and their journeys at the center of it all. The mythology, relationships, and background are all well built. At its core, the messages are about girls having power over the trajectory of their lives whether or not it's deemed acceptable by society. My only tiny criticism is that parts of it were a bit heavy handed, but it makes sense with the target audience. I want to devour every book by Claire Legrand like right now and then impatiently wait for more.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Women in Horror: Revenge (2018)

* spoilers *

Jen is flown out to a luxurious home in a remote desert for a romantic getaway with her married boyfriend, Richard. The plan is to have a nice, sexy weekend together before his annual hunting trip with his two friends Dimitri and Stan. The first night goes as planned, but the day, the two friends arrive early and create an awkward situation since Richard wanted to keep her a secret. They party together that night with drinking and dancing. The next morning, Jen finds herself alone with Dimitri and Stan. She tries to ignore them, but Stan won't leave her alone and eventually rapes her. Richard is angry, but then wants Jen to live in Canada with a bribe to save his friend. When she refuses, he pushes her off a cliff and leaves her for dead while he and his friends go hunting. Jen isn't dead and embarks on a grueling journey for survival and revenge.

Revenge is one of my favorite rape revenge films mainly because it's actual from a female perspective that gets so many things that men don't. Right from the beginning, Jen is viewed as an object. The camera focuses on her butt in a skimpy pink bikini. The men at the party view her through binoculars, seeing one part of her at a time. This type of gaze makes it clear that she is an object, only seen in bits and pieces and never as a whole, full person. She is only valued for her appearance. It's off putting to watch, but will change as the film goes on. Coralie Fargeat includes so many excuses that people use to blame women for rape here. Jen is sleeping with a married man. She wears revealing clothing and skin baring bathing suits without caring who sees or judges. She dances sexily with Stan when Richard refuses. Victim blamers would say "look what she's wearing," "she led him on," "what did she expect," but Fargeat lays the blame squarely where it belongs: on the rapist and the men who did nothing to stop it.

Richard leaves the next morning to sort out their hunting trip and leaves Jen alone with Stan and Dimitri. Once Stan is alone with her, he thinks he can claim what he views as Richard's object. He starts a conversation with Jen, seemingly lighthearted, that gets increasingly insistant. When she lightly rejects his advances, he demands to know why she found him attractive last night and then suddenly not today, focusing on her dance as a tease and a come on. The scene where he questions her is so uncomfortable. Jen does so many things to try to reject him in a socially acceptable way like playing a game on her phone to avoid eye contact, uncomfortably laughing, angling herself away from him, and trying to placate him. This felt so real because coming out and saying no or leave me alone can come off as rude. Being alone with someone, especially an entitled man, and being entirely at their mercy is frightening and women are still expected to put the man's (or whoever's threatening them) emotional comfort above their own physical comfort. Stan ignores every cue, invades her personal space, and eventually attacks her.

Too many others films of this subgenre focus on making the rape scene graphic and titillating while this one focuses entirely on Jen's experience. This puts the focus on Jen's emotions about what's happening to her instead of being exploitative. Right before, Dimitri had walked in on them, clearly seeing her in distress. Stan crudely says to join in or leave and Dimitri returns to the pool with snacks. During the assault, Jen's face is seen through a floor to ceiling glass window while Stan shoves her against it. Dimitri turned up the TV so he couldn't hear Jen. The only sounds during this scene are the loud TV, Jen's cries, and the rhythmic pounding against the glass. Beside Jen's face, Dimitri's reflection is seen as he floats in the pool. Dimitri's indifference is squarely in front of her and she can hear it in the loud TV. This puts Jen's emotion and experience into focus rather than the assault itself. This is done very rarely in a rape revenge films, the only other one I can think of being the Soska Sisters' American Mary. It puts Coralie Fargeat's view in comparison to almost every other rape revenge film that clearly views men as their audience to titillate rather than other women who could relate to the woman's experience.

Afterwards, Jen locks herself in the bedroom until Richard returns. He is angry at Stan, but only because he views Jen as an object. In his view, Stan essentially played with the toy Richard brought for himself. Richard's solution is to force Jen to move to Canada, get her a new job, and give her a bunch of hush money without regard to her life, family, or her well being. Jen understandably rejects his offer and threatens to tell his wife everything. In response, he pushes her off a cliff where she is impaled on a tree. Richard and his friends leave for their hunting trip and plan to dispose of her body after they come back. She defies their expectations and survives, getting out of the tree in an ingenious way. From this moment on, the men completely underestimate her. At first, they think she's dead. When they return to see her gone, they view it as just another hunting trip with a weak, wounded animal in their sights. They don't take the proper precautions like staying together, being watchful, or getting prepared in any way.

Jen doesn't say much after this point in the film and speaks with her actions. After dispatching Dimitri, she steals a dirt bike and tries to escape on it. It eventually runs out of gas, but she walks to a cave and makes a fire to warm herself, eats the peyote hidden in her locket, and tends to her wounds. While some aspects of this are unrealistic, it's more about the metaphor. Through the fire that gets her off the tree and this fire, she is reborn as a revenant in a hallucinogenic haze, emblazoned with a phoenix that healed her wound. The next morning, nightmares upon nightmares visit her, reminding her that she's still being hunted. What follows is an intense cat and mouse game with Stan and Richard that has moments of each getting the upper hand before the men are killed. Before he dies, Richard screams "Women always have to put up a fucking fight" in Jen's face because he's frustrated that she won't just roll over and die. It's wonderful to see such entitled, privileged men get what they deserve and have a woman deliver justice. Jen survives and it's implied that she escapes on the helicopter meant for the men.

Revenge is a satisfying piece of cinema that captures a woman's perspective in a rape revenge story. I was pleased and surprised to see even small details, like the uncomfortable conversation between Stan and Jen, ring true to my experience and what I've seen happen to others. While it's not the first, it's amazing to see and it won't be the last. It has elements of the brutal French extremity movement, but stays squarely with Jen, her feelings, and her experience throughout the film. I look forward to what Coralie Fargeat does next and I hope she will stay in the horror genre for a while.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Women in Horror: I Am Not Your Final Girl by Claire C. Holland

I Am Not Your Final Girl is a poetry collection, each poem from the point of view of a woman in a horror film from final girl heroes to (seemingly) monstrous villains and everything in between. Claire C. Holland skillfully captures each character, their mindset, and their emotions completely. They are sorted into four categories: Assault, Possession, Destruction, and Transformation.

The introduction of the book contextualizes the collection with Holland's feelings about the current state of affairs in the United States with the Trump presidency and the resulting and increasing attacks on women physically and in legislation. Women's bodily autonomy is constantly debated and, by extension, so is our humanity. She sees final girls and real life women willing to stand up for their rights as those to look to, emulate, and help us deal with our darkest moments. Through this lens, Holland takes characters in horror films and makes them more than the trope they fall in or often how they are portrayed onscreen.

In the section titled Assault, women survive or succumb to many different types of assault. Holland takes their conflict in the film and relates it to things that women experience every day. Rosemary from Rosemary's Baby (1968) shows how her husband, who gave her up like an object, is worse than the Devil himself. Carla from The Entity (1982) points out how doctor's don't believe her about her condition or how much pain she's in, which is a typical experience for many women with fatal results. Sara from The Descent (2005) describes her mindset at the very last scene of the film, where she is surrounded by creatures and haunted by her daughter and the sins of her past. Holland perfectly articulates the feeling behind Sally's maniacal laughter at the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)  in the back of the pickup truck, glad to be alive but not sure if she can continue. My favorite of this section is Laurie Strode from Halloween (1978), who shows that this situation of men killing women happens literally everywhere and that she is just trying to live her life.

The second section titled Possession has some unexpected entries. Bea from Honeymoon (2014) puts her story into her context, where her husband is frightening of change in his new wife and also changing to be continually interrogating her and abusive. Shideh from Under the Shadow (2016) focuses on her lost career and how women are meant to give up everything they are when they become mothers, leaving parts of themselves to rot with disuse, while men are exempt. Nola from The Brood (1979) is also focused on society's view of motherhood as the most important thing in the world contrasted with society's treatment of mothers. Ginger's poem from Ginger Snaps (2000) is my favorite. People surrounding her viewed her as sexually available with their catcalls, gossip, and name calling. When she became sexual and embraced it, she became a monster in their eyes. This poem in particular captures the entire film and its message an only a page or two.

The third section title Destruction includes many characters deemed as monstrous. Francisca from The Eyes of My Mother (2016) and May from May (2002) both want to connect with people. While Francisca bathes her dead father and mourns her lost connection, May collects parts like cloth scraps for a new friend and longs to be truly seen. Amelia from The Babadook (2014) thinks of murderering her child and freeing herself from the burden, something women might think of if parenting isn't what they expected or wanted. India from Stoker (2013) is titillated by her own expression of violence. Elsa's poem from Splice (2009) really changed my view of the film. I hadn't really liked it and found it problematic in many ways. However, this view of the creature reminds me more of Frankenstein, where men are obsessed with mothering, giving birth, and creating monsters to do the horrific things they simply can't. She longs to remake the world in her own image in return.

The fourth section titled Transformation has some less obvious choices that focus more on interior rather than exterior transformation. One of the contentious scenes in Black Christmas (1974) is when Jess remains in the house even though she was told the killer is there. Her poem shows how she isn't satisfied waiting outside to be saved and has to do what she can to save her friends. Mia from The Evil Dead (2013) also has the strength to fight for and save herself. Dana from The Cabin in the Woods (2011) refuses to be sacrificed for a broken world and braces herself for whatever changes that brings. Carrie (1976) rejects responsibility for original sin heaped upon her and fights back covered in blood. Clarice from The Silence of the Lambs (1991) finds it hard to tell the difference between men and monster since both look at her while stripping her down. Selena from 28 Days Later (2002) rejects the military's effort to rebuilt society with rape when that world is already gone.

I Am Not Your Final Girl is not something I would normally seek out. I am not the biggest fan of poetry, but so many reviewed it favorably that I had to read it. I have never been so emotionally affected by poetry. Claire C. Holland masterfully captures each character as they are in the film and relates their experience to women today, whether it be in surviving emotional or physical abuse, being ignored, rejecting the status quo, not fitting into society's view of women, or long for some sort of connection. I was happy to see new perspective of films from the point of view of the character and so much variety in the film choices. I will eagerly read whatever Holland writes next.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Friday, February 1, 2019

Women in Horror Month X!!!

It's the tenth Women in Horror Month! Although I haven't participated every year, this event has truly reshaped how I viewed films and read books. It made me venture out of my comfort zone in many ways and look at horror and stories in general more critically. It also made me pay more attention to female filmmakers because it seems to still be a small percentage of films made by women. Just because a film features a woman as the main character doesn't mean it's automatically a feminist film and just because a film has rape or misogyny in it doesn't make it a misogynistic film. This year, my goal is to publish an article a day and feature most if not all works by directors, writers, and podcasters who are women.

The Women in Horror website and Twitter features and retweets events for this month, so follow them to support other creators. They are also offering a free month of Shudder, an excellent horror movie streaming service that is definitely worth your time, with code: wihmx. Happy Women in Horror Month!!