‘Long may it continue’, I said earlier in the year about the BFI’s ‘Cult’ strand. Well now it has ended (though replaced by something very similar called Terror Vision) but at least its last showing, curated by feminist film collective the Final Girls, dredged something up from the depths of obscurity. At any rate, I’d never heard of it.
I did wonder if the Final Girls are secretly making these films themselves and passing them off as ‘vintage’, but it’s more likely that I just haven’t been paying attention. Mind you I doubt if Mirror Mirror had a wide release at the time, although it does feature some familiar faces, notably Karen Black (disappointingly underpowered as the heroine’s mother Susan) and Yvonne De Carlo, formerly Lily Munster. The scene in which the latter – a kind of proto-Goth girl – argues over possession of the titular mirror with the teenage Goth heroine has a certain satisfyingly self-reflexive resonance to it.
But the real star here is Rainbow Harvest. She may sound like a character from My Little Pony, but she has real presence as Megan, transplanted from LA to become hands-down the coolest girl in her new school – not that her conventionally-attired classmates realise it, especially when she gets off to a bad start by walking into the classroom dressed like Dracula’s rebellious teenage daughter and suffers a (painfully apt) collision with a skeleton.
Indeed she is soon set upon by bullies, with only one girl, Nikki (Kristin Dattilo) making an effort to get to know her. The ease with which her sullen outcast mien gives way to bland friendliness at this approach might seem absurd, but on the other hand isn’t it actually quite true to the instabilities of a teenage personality? And Harvest’s performance has an appealing vulnerability as well as an intensity that hints at darker depths.
What is less true about her character is the surprising lack of paraphernalia in her bedroom – no posters on the wall, and she doesn’t even appear to listen to music. Still, she has the Satanic mirror inherited from the house’s previous owner (yes, there’s a story) and there’s a sense in which that’s enough. Certainly it would be hard to think of a more appropriate object for a misfit teen in a horror film to obsess over.
The powers it confers announce themselves a little feebly when the chief bully (a girl whose campaign to become class president is transparently based around the size of her breasts) is struck by a severe nosebleed; but it isn’t long before they are arranging for the same girl to be killed by a blast of scalding steam in the showers. Her vapour-obscured death scene is intercut with shots of the other girls swimming, filmed underwater with only their heads lost to view above the surface of the water – a curiously poetic juxtaposition that might be an oblique comment on ‘the male gaze’.
Indeed, if the film is ‘about’ anything it may be that. The camera spends more time looking out of than into the mirror, and although the director, Marina Sargenti, is female, the mirror’s gaze belongs to the demon, which is (we assume) male. Megan’s ‘possession’ is signaled by her sexing up her look; meanwhile, other female characters exhibit a similar desperation for male attention, from the bully thrusting her breasts towards the camera in her campaign video to Megan’s widowed Mom leaping on the first man to call at the door (the pet cemetery guy, as it happens, the mirror having made off with her pet dogs).
So it’s possible to conclude that the male gaze (and, moreover, its power over women) is the film’s ‘real’ demon. Except that this isn’t the kind of film that one can speak of as having a thesis. It’s trashy fare, starting off clunky but gaining momentum as it progresses. As well as devouring the dogs the mirror also claims the bully’s boyfriend, who makes the mistake of resisting Megan’s attempt to seduce him. It even causes Mom to get her hand chewed off by the waste disposal. But although Megan is at the centre of this maelstrom she isn’t really evil. She has just made the common mistake of confusing her mirror image with her real self, when in fact it has nothing to do with her.
The ending seems arbitrary, but still….broken by Nikki the mirror catapults both her and Megan back in time to assume the identities of the previous owners, two sisters, one of whom killed the other to ‘save’ her from the mirror’s influence. It’s as if the mirror is ultimately stronger than their identities; as if, in fact, they are determined by the mirror’s (male) gaze.
It’s a disturbing idea, especially in a feminist context. Is that what a ‘feminist horror film’ is then? A film that deals in notions that might disturb feminists? If that is the case, there is certainly no shortage of them.
But on the other hand is it a horror film in which female characters are empowered through a mysterious transformation or simply one in which they manage to survive? Happy Deathday is worth a look in this last context. This is essentially Groundhog Day reconfigured as a slasher movie, in which a female student relives the day of her murder over and over again until she works out who did it, and stops them.
In this way the female victim gets to transcend her victim status and live happily ever after – in the context of a genre littered with women’s corpses this is certainly refreshing. Our heroine, Tree (Jessica Rothe) who starts out shallow and unsympathetic, also gets to grow as a person through her experiences and the day that started with her waking up in a boy’s bedroom after a one-night stand finally, after many repetitions, ends with her in a relationship with that boy – because, like Groundhog Day, this is secretly a romance.
But looked at another way the film, directed by Christopher Landon and written by Scott Lobdell, represents an utterly brutal triumph for the patriarchy. What it presents us with is nothing less than a means of turning a ‘bitch’ into a ‘good girl’ – by stabbing her repeatedly to death in a process analogous to the tenderising of meat.
This is a ‘knowing’ film (it ends with Tree declaring that she has never seen Groundhog Day) but is it knowing enough to be aware of this implication? Well maybe – this might be why it is careful to make the killer a woman, Tree’s roommate, in a rather frivolous twist. Even the alternate ending on the Blu-Ray only offers up another female killer – the wife of a doctor Theresa was having an affair with. In this way, the film evades – or tries to conceal – its real dark side.*
It did occur to me at one point that the boyfriend, Carter (Israel Broussard) might turn out to be the killer, but this seemed too cruel and perverse, and would have produced the kind of ending that ‘wouldn’t have played with audiences’ – or even with me, to be fair.
Yet it has a kind of logic to it – Carter, if he were in on the concept, would be able to carve up the girl who is only too eager to walk away from him at the beginning into ‘girlfriend material’. Not that the relationship would have much of a future once she’d unmasked him (unless it was a really perverse film) but although it could probably never have worked something of this unmade other film lingers like a nasty aftertaste when the real film is over.
Another possibility would have been to make Tree a perfectly ‘innocent’ victim, and grow gradually more bitter and twisted as she got killed over and over again. As well as dispensing with the notion that Tree is being ‘punished’ for bad behaviour this recommends itself as psychologically plausible – being endlessly stabbed to death would piss you off. She could even have been ‘rehabilitated’ at the end, if there was time.
As it is Tree’s ‘conversion’ is all too slick and with no real intrigue around who the killer is (a known maniac already under police custody is the main suspect) and with Tree becoming increasingly bland, the repetition simply becomes a bit boring.
It could be argued that the unmade – unmakeable? – version, in which Tree, murdered by her future boyfriend, does not escape victimhood but rather becomes the ultimate victim, is the real ‘feminist horror film’ here. However, it implies a feminist perspective that is too dark for Happy Deathday to accommodate; so it is, as it were, repressed. Knowing is one thing, thinking another.
In Thelma, a venture into genre territory from arthouse director Joachim Trier – whose excellent Oslo August 31st is about the last day in the life of a suicidal young man – the eponymous heroine (Eili Harboe) goes to university and faces not only having to shake off the influence of overprotective and devoutly Christian parents and the realisation that she has fallen in love with another woman, but the discovery that she has mysterious psychic powers as well, devastating but not entirely under her conscious control.
This last is the crux of the matter: when, disturbed by her own feelings towards fellow student Anja (Kaya Wilkins), she causes her (without exactly willing it) to disappear, she breaks down, returns home and succumbs to life under a regime of drugs which suppress not just her capacity to wreak psychic havoc but her entire personality.
This fate, previously visited upon her grandmother, who had similar powers, clearly fulfils a psychological need in her parents for control and revenge (Thelma having, again not consciously, caused the death of her baby brother and crippled her mother years before). Eventually she recovers and reasserts her ‘true self’ (resulting in her father’s death), and returns to university to resume her relationship with Anja, who has reappeared as mysteriously as she vanished.
The film ends with the couple exchanging bland compliments about swapped clothing, then disappearing into the crowd as the camera looks down on them, providing what might be taken as a low-key happy ending to a ‘feminist horror film’ – the patriarchy has been overturned and female power (and lesbian love) defiantly asserted.
However, Thelma, written by Trier with Eskil Vogt, is a rare example of a film that really does manage to consciously accommodate two quite different interpretations. Because it is impossible not to concede that the father has a point – Thelma’s powers are exercised without her conscious control, so even if she were entirely ‘trustworthy’, at the back of her mind there still exists a force that represents a danger to herself and others.
But the crucial point is made by the father when he questions whether Anja’s love for her is real or whether Thelma’s powers are compelling her. On one level – the psychological/metaphorical one – this is a further attempt to undermine Thelma’s identity, to crush her; on the practical level, however, it may be true. We have already seen Anja walking to Thelma’s hall of residence in her sleep, waking with no recollection of how she got there.
While it looks like – may even be – a ‘happy ending’ the last shot also leaves us with a note of disquiet about the lovers’ relationship – what if Anja is just a plaything, a dress-up doll with no will of her own? That it presents a ‘God’s eye view’ from above is also telling: is the lovers’ disappearance into the crowd ‘blessed’ or is this viewpoint a manifestation of patriarchal (directorial?) anxiety – an anxiety that is meant to linger on…
Uncertainty is all, making this a ‘feminist horror film’ in both senses – while it is clearly on Thelma’s side emotionally, and while it does celebrates female power it is also careful to create unease around it. So there’s something to unsettle everybody. And that’s a happy ending in my book.
*It might be worth pointing out that Groundhog Day has its own alternative moral, which might go something like: in order to become part of society you first need to let it drive you insane through banal repetition. But this is perfectly in keeping with the tone of Bill Murray’s performance and doesn’t work against the film.