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Archive for the ‘women in horror’ Category

Ghouls on Film

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

It was great fun to attend GHOULS ON FILM yesterday, a Women in Horror Recognition Month event organised by the indefatigable Nia Edwards-Behi (who you can find over at as well as manning the decks during my favourite horror fest of the year, Abertoir). Despite the best efforts of the British transport system, we arrived in good time to make our way to the venue. The Mixing Bowl, based in Birmingham’s Digbeth district, is an independent small theatre and cinema in a small hub of eclectic shops and businesses known as the Custard Factory: despite a minor gripe with the venue’s rather lackadaisical attitude to getting going on time, it provided a decent space and a good atmosphere for the event.

First up on a busy schedule was a selection of short films. Pop Art, although not strictly horror, was a diverting, warm and well-made film about a boy who befriends a very strange new boy at school…followed by the tongue-in-cheek Movie Monster Insurance (who doesn’t need peace of mind against attacks by popular monsters?) and then a film that couldn’t be more different in tone, Snuff. Snuff, directed by Maude Michaud, uses a super 8 camera to show the making of a snuff movie – but who will kill whom? A subversion of expectation is also the case in Melanie Light’s film, Switch, where a would-be killer gets more than he bargained for when pursuing a woman (through a gorgeously snowy landscape).

For me, the best in the selection were Faye Jackson’s film Lump and Natalia Andreadis’s Without. Lump shows a young woman undergoing a lumpectomy from her breast. The operation is a success – but another lump seems to form immediately. She tries to take control of her situation, but finds the medical professionals she encounters completely indifferent as they just repeat, ‘the lump was benign…this is very common…nothing to worry about…’ As she undergoes repeat operations her sense of normality begins to disappear and she begins to suspect that her surgeon is far from helping her to get better. This film captures the anxiety and helplessness generated by medical intervention, particularly where, as for many women, that intervention impacts upon your sexuality and autonomy by its very nature – this is a very good short film, which achieves a great deal in just twelve minutes. Without, in just four minutes makes a similar play upon a particularly feminine anxiety – but to describe it would be to kill its punchline!

Next up was a Q&A with Melanie Light, director of Switch; Kate Glover, the director of feature Slaughtered, and of course Ms. Emily Booth: this was fun. The ladies talked about their experiences in filmmaking before inviting a more general discussion about horror films…you’d never normally get the opportunity to talk at length about things like this, and, whilst I didn’t agree with everything that was said (Kate Glover – adding a love story element to your film to make it ‘appealing for women’?) this was definitely a worthwhile addition to the programme!

There was also time to show two full-length features: Slaughtered (2006) and the Soska Sisters’ Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2008). Slaughtered – written, produced and directed by Kate at the tender age of 22 – is a slasher set in a bar in small-town Australia, where the staff and punters are getting dispatched in increasingly bloody ways. Whilst I’m not a huge fan of this genre, the whole film is a testament to determination and enthusiasm, and it’s to Kate Glover’s credit that she was able to create a feature-length film completely under her own steam.

To close the event was the outrageous Dead Hooker in a Trunk! That’s a hell of a title…

The Soska twins – who directed and starred in the film – manage to channel the spirit of grindhouse and black comedy in this story the morning after the night before (in which you find a dead prostitute in your car!) Although perhaps a little over-long, the film was by turns grisly and hilarious and the two sisters are really watchable. Jen and Sylvia Sosker are definitely two ladies to watch – do check out their official site for more info:

So, a good time was had – Nia deserves to be very proud for organising a successful and fun event. I’d certainly go again and if this becomes a regular occurrence it’d really be a welcome addition to the horror calendar…

Women in Horror – Theda Bara

Friday, February 5th, 2010

As part of Women in Horror Month I could think of no better subject than the late, great Ms. Theda Bara…

Although Theda – born Theodosia Goodman in Ohio, 1885 – didn’t star exclusively in horror films (such as the distinction could be made at this early stage in film) she became well-known for playing the archetypal ‘vamp’ – a desirable femme fatale and a woman to be reckoned with as, amongst others, the famous wantons Salome (1918) and Cleopatra (1917) as well as a host of she-devils and sinners. Her chosen name is rumoured to be an anagram of ‘arab death’, which, if true, neatly conflates the blend of the exotic and the macabre which she was known for, and which publicity campaigns happily played upon during her film career.

Theda was, from the outset, sold to the public as a sexual being in her own right – never blithely awaiting approval or starving herself away to a husk, but using her sexuality as a weapon with which she wreaked havoc. In an era of ‘flapper girls’ and the commencement of the twentieth century’s obsession with fashionable female malnutrition, Theda stood out as a curvaceous, vivacious woman. Her costumes were equally daring: just 16 years after the death of Queen Victoria, Theda’s Cleopatra was flashing a scandalous amount of flesh (and the coming Hays Code would put paid to this level of display from the major studios for a generation!)

Sadly, most of Theda Bara’s work – like so many silent films – is now lost. A few seconds remain here and there, but one film has come down to us complete: A Fool There Was (1915). This film was based on a Rudyard Kipling poem, which itself was based on ‘The Vampire’ (1897) by Philip Burne-Jones – a painting which shows a voracious young woman presiding over the lifeless body of her lover (below). Incidentally, this painting was exhibited in the year Bram Stoker’s Dracula was first printed, and – although there is no suggestion of blood-drinking, Theda Bara’s film has been credited as the first ‘vampire’ film (and she is credited only as ‘the vampire’).

In A Fool There Was, Theda’s character uses her sexual allure to seduce and destroy a lawyer and family man. There is no purpose to what she does – her treatment of him is sheer personal entertainment (one of the most famous silent film title cards preserved for posterity must surely be Theda’s glib ‘kiss me, my fool!’) Not even the claims of his children, whom his deserted wife finally brings to him, can detach him from this villainess. In many ways, A Fool There Was anticipates much later films in its unstinting cruelty, but it is important to place it in context, where it demonstrates several anxieties about the changing role of women in the early twentieth century. Theda’s character is a woman of independent means; she can afford to travel unchaperoned and dresses in costly garments, and, whilst free of old constraints, she can still call on convention when she requires (such as when she plays vulnerable in order to persuade a porter to stop an old victim approaching her at the station). Most notably of all, it is her sexuality which rips and rends its way through polite society. Old ideas about female sexuality were dying hard during this period, as were old anxieties about the effects of sex upon men: as Dr. William Acton put it during the late Victorian period, ‘the danger [from] venereal excess’ was considered a genuine threat to male health and sanity. One can only wonder what Theda Bara’s emancipated vampire character demands of her lover, as he literally withers away…

This anxiety about the potential destructive power of female lust and ambition has stayed with us, and the threatening women which embody it have formed an important part of the modern horror genre. So, Theda Bara, the first screen vamp, I salute you!