All the Horror: Women in Horror Month 2020

All the Horror Presents Women in Horror Month!

Jump to the article of your choice below.

During the month of February, a group of podcasters and writers, including yours truly, are highlighting many leading women and final girls of horror films! Be sure to follow @AllTheHorror18 on Twitter for the links to all the podcasts and written articles from the participants in this limited time engagement. Each week starting on February 3rd, I will provide you with a character analysis of some of my favorite women in horror, and hopefully some of yours too! For the sake of simplicity, I will add each article to this blog entry. Be sure to visit last year’s Women in Horror article for character analyses of Nancy Thompson, Ellen Ripley, Annie Wilkes, and Clarice Starling. The horror genre, from its inception, has consistently been the most candid, progressive, and powerful of all the genres. Furthermore, it possesses an innate ability to be more truthful than a typical drama because we give it permission to challenge us in intimate ways. While there are many reasons for the timelessness and thought-provoking nature of horror, we are here to specifically focus on the women of horror. You don’t want to miss any of the great content coming your way during the month of February. Enjoy!

Click Below to Jump to the Article of Your Choice:

  1. Elvira (Feb 3rd)
  2. Sidney Prescott (Feb 10th)
  3. Lin Shaye (Feb 17th)
  4. Annie Graham (Feb 24th)

Elvira

In terms of horror movie hosts, there is probably no one more famous than Elvira the Mistress of the Dark (brilliantly played by horror legend Cassandra Peterson). While the character of Elvira only starred in two movies, she left two huge impressions on the horror community of fans. And it’s for her contribution to the community that I want to highlight her in my Women in Horror series. Many, if not most, horror fans love bad horror movies. There is something to be said about a schlocky horror (or science-fiction) movie that unites us in laughter. Perhaps it’s the infectious energy of the room to which we are drawn. These are the kinds of movies that we enjoy because they are usually made by fans of the genre, not unlike ourselves. Part of the experience of these movies is laughing at or along with it because it’s just so over-the-top or highly campy. Elvira knew this, and she found a way to package these movies in such a way that inspired a generation of filmmakers and lovers of the genre. From hosting late-night horror movies to starring in them, she is the perfect way to start out Women in Horror Month 2020.

Before the cult classic Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, Elvira began hosting Elvira’s Movie Macabre where she would host B-grade (and even lower) horror and sci-fi movies. This is where she took essentially what Vampira did, and improved upon it, in the opinion of this critic anyway. Vampira certainly has her dedicated fans too. While many in Hollywood and around the world would so quickly dismiss these movies as television or cinema fodder, she breathed new life into them! In a manner of speaking, she is chiefly responsible for teaching us to appreciate these bad movies then and now! Podcasts like School of Schlock specialize in highlighting these terrible movies that we cannot help but love. Aside from her trademark provocative look, Elvira resonated with audiences because she would say the very things that we were already thinking. B-horror movies aren’t ones that you sit silently soaking in–you and your friends form the peanut gallery and lampoon everything from the actors to the script to the costuming, set design, and more! Elvira took what was happening in your living room and movie theatre, and channeled that, put her sultry, satirical valley girl spin on it, and championed it! And of course, she loved her double entendres and jokes about her two biggest assets.

After several years of hosting her TV show, Peterson co-wrote Elvira’s cinematic breakout role as the title character in 1988’s Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. Without getting into the plot specifics, Elvira’s big screen debut was crafted in such a manner that it embodied what we loved about her TV series–her poking fun at bad horror movies–all the while the story is incredibly clever in its subversion of horror conventions and even includes a heartwarming subplot and theme of diversity and acceptance. Elvira is truly the medicine that the uptight, puritanical small town needed in order to grow as a community. Specifically, Elvira is the source of character-driven conflict that upsets the sense of normalcy in the town. As personable as Elvira is with everyone, although she does throw shade when needed, most of the townsfolk refuse to accept her. While town leader Chastity Pariah (yup, that’s her name) calls her “slimy, slithering succubus, a concubine, a streetwalker, a tramp, a slut, a cheap whore” because of her different style of dress and loud personality, the film shows us that it’s the town that has a problem.

True to her character in this movie and her hostess self, she was always so much more than her sultry, overly sexed appearance, she shows audiences that you can be courageous, vulnerable, strong, crafty and still wear low-cut dresses all at the same time. These are the qualities we love about our final girls, and she embodies all of them. Despite the constant barrage of sex and tits jokes, she is a great example of the feminist heroine. Elvira also inspires us to strive for a positive body and self image through how she takes complete pleasure in (1) who she is (2) what she has to offer to the world and (3) the refusal to conform to antiquated societal norms or expectations. Elvira teaches and learns from the community but never loses herself or forgets who she is. After Elvira saves the town, she inherits the money she needs to open her Vegas show! So at the end of the movie, she experiences her dream  and performs in Las Vegas! This highly entertaining moment is a brilliant reminder that success is often only achieved when you believe in yourself, even when nobody else around you does.

Cassandra Peterson’s Elvira also inspired a long-running theme park show at Knott’s Berry Farm as part of its Halloween event Knott’s Scary Farm with her headlining. She is also a fan favorite for her high level of interaction with fans through her former Knott’s show as well as making regular convention rounds. Her trademark big hair, big boobs, cleavage-showing black dress, and high contrast makeup paired with her witty sense of humor and twisted optimism transformed her form one-time obscure horror movie hostess to a global brand! But she is so much more! Her influence reached beyond movies, TV, and theme parks. She became a cultural phenomena and icon in the gay community. And not just for drag queens; although, many drag queens–still to this day– love to impersonate her trademark physique as an homage to her positive impact on their lives. The gay male community (and the same can be said for the queer community at large) is often attracted to characters (or actors) that have to overcome societal prejudices, withstand ridicule, being thought of as less, and encouraged to simply conform for the sake of the larger community of people. Both in her debut movie (less so Haunted Hills) and TV series, she championed the ideas of positive self-worth, expression, inclusivity, acceptance, and sticking by one’s personal convictions. Her shows and movies aren’t about these ideas per se, but the subtext is consistently alive and well.

Before I close out the article, here is what some of Elvira’s fans love and respect about her:

Shawn of the Brunch With the Halliwells and Movie Geek and Proud podcasts states “I grew up watching Elvira’s movie and I have been to her Knott’s show countless times. I love Elvira for being a sexy and sex positive role model who is proud of her body. I love seeing a strong woman who dresses how she wants, and is strong willed and confident.”

Kahlib of the Macabre Media Podcast states, “Always love having diverse voices in the discourse and entertainment. Having a woman in mainstream horror convo breaks away from the male centric perspective.”

And Ph.D. in Criminology candidate Cassandra at the University of South Florida states, “to be perfectly honest, I’ve never seen her TV show or movies, BUT as a member of this society, I even know that Elvira has transcended past the niche market to which she technically belongs. Yes, she is campy, but she is highly respected for her being a touchstone of pop culture. She may not the traditional symbol of sexy; but her punk rock, gothic, busty self exudes confidence that we can all appreciate.”

As you can see, Elvira is loved by her fans for not only how much fun she showed we can have with “bad” horror and sci-fi movies, but she was and is an icon of positive body image and confidence. Furthermore, she paved the way for the subculture of horror fans to let their freak flag fly, so to speak, in mainstream culture. One could say that she is the intersection of mainstream pop and geek subculture. Because Elvira loves her fans, you can often find her at Comic and Horror Conventions such as Spooky Empire, at which I had the privilege of being a guest panelist last year. For the longest time, Elvira never revealed to fans what HER favorite horror/sci-fi movie of all time was, and in a 2016 interview with People Magazine she revealed that her favorite horror movie is the Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, a movie that I saw for the first time over Christmas break with my family. Can’t say that it is a favorite of mine, but I can see why she is proud of it! Elvira used B and even C horror and sci-fi movies to inspire us to be proud of our guilty pleasure movies and the uniqueness that makes us who we are.

Sidney Prescott

Ghostface “Do you like scary movies?”

Sidney “What’s the point? They’re all the same. Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act, who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door. It’s insulting.”

That opening question and brilliant rebuttal is synonymous with Wes Craven’s masterpiece Scream. It also sets the groundwork for the meta horror movie that we are about to watch in that it is fully aware of the traditional rules of the horror game. Not only was Scream a pivotal horror film that redefined the versatility of the genre, but Sidney stepped into the shoes of all the legendary final girls before her, and took the role in a new direction that cemented her in with the likes of Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson, and others. Unlike other Craven final girls, she stands as the only one to survive a Wes Craven franchise. Yes, Nancy is brought back in New Nightmare but she is killed off in Dream Warriors. While the final girl conventions had been well-defined up to this point, Wes Craven used the character of Sidney as a conduit for the audience since the rules of slasher horror were all too cliche at this stage in the evolution of the American horror film.

Much like with past final girls, Sidney is resilient, resourceful, sensible, and has an uncanny survivor’s reflex that is so incredibly well developed that she can simultaneously manage life’s complications and death with demonstrable hyper-focus. Furthermore, Neve Campbell’s Sidney was a powerful character for women because she demonstrated strength amidst adversity and responsibility when faced with difficult decisions. However, Sidney is not always the “good girl.” One of the longtime tropes of a final girl is one whom is chaste, but Sidney has had sex with her boyfriend prior to her mother’s brutal murder; however, she chooses when and only when she is good and ready, and when she isn’t dealing with the demons of her past or the serial killer of the present. Much like in the vein of Nancy Thompson, Sidney’s ability to outwit and survive Ghostface is based upon her cunning, not how “good” she is. She is ready and willing it fight for her life, and will stop at nothing until she rescues herself. 

We witness the emotional turmoil inside Sidney early on in the first Scream film when she decks Gale Weathers for asking her about the testimony that ostensibly put a man in prison for Sidney’s mother’s murder. When Ghostface threatens to take control of Sidney’s life, she responds by taking command of the stalking—to become the stalker instead of the one whom is stalked. Throughout the movie, we observe how Sidney displays strength of agency in her relationships with her boyfriend, friends, family, and others in Woodsboro. Although she turned down Billy when he wanted to have sex, early in the film, she finally determines that he has earned that privilege, and questions her decision not. This isn’t her first time with Billy, but the first time since her mother’s murder. Sidney isn’t the typical good girl or a superhero-like character in that she has complex emotions, many flaws, makes mistakes, and doesn’t always instantly know the best course of action to take. Even when she is at a loss of what to do, and feel overwhelmed, she never allows herself to become a victim of circumstance. Further evidence of her strength is shows by Sidney’s ability to laugh in the face of danger and love in the face of heartbreak and death. All of her qualities point to the desire to survive.

Prior to Scream, slashers rarely targeted a single victim. For example, Laurie Strode happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in Halloween, the same can be said for Alice in Friday the 13th. Less so with Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street where Freddy eventually targets Nancy because she discovers his vulnerability. Even different from how Nancy was eventually targeted, Sidney was the sole focus of Ghostface from the very beginning. This target on Sidney means that killing her is the singular focus of Ghostface; and like Sidney’s internal need to survive, Ghostface will stop at nothing until Sidney is dead. But because Ghostface (Billy and Stu) has a flare for the theatrical, he torments, manipulates, and singles her out until Sidney finally fights back in that climactic third act where she turns the tables on Ghostface by using his own tools and knowledge against him. From using his own voice modulator on strategically creepy phone calls to using his own costume to frighten him, Sidney makes intentional decisions that greatly effect the balance of power. While Ghostface holds significant power in the beginning, Sidney erodes that power and takes it for herself.  She proves that she has an even greater understanding of horror movies than Ghostface himself, or perhaps the versatility of the rules. Eventually audiences witness Last House on the Left levels of revenge. Interesting because Last House on the Left is Wes Craven’s breakout writing-directing project and redefined the genre with its sexploitation revenge plot.

More so than any other Wes Craven (or horror movie in general) final girl, Sidney feels. She feels deeply. As mentioned earlier, even before the movie begins, she is dealing with the loss of her mother and the effects it has had on her other relationships, including her boyfriend Billy. From the moment we meet her to the last moment on screen, she is going though her own personal hell. Pressures are mounting all around her, but she never caves under them. Even when her friends and classmates are getting killed by a deranged masked killer, she rises to the occasion to face off with Ghostface. And not because she is endowed with superhuman strength, agility, resilience, or other uncanny ability, quite simply she knows that she has no other choice but to fight. Without seeing the film, if someone was to read my description of her actions, one may be inclined into believing that she is so strong and courageous that she is unrelatable or unbelievable. Not true. Upon watching the iconic film (or its sequels, of which Scre4m is the best IMO), it becomes clear just how believable and relatable she is. Never once does any of her actions come across as easy or convenient. Sidney earns every moment of survival through smart work and determination.

While a lot of the attention paid to Sidney involves her relationship and confrontation with Ghostface, she is the conduit through which we explore the power dynamic in romantic relationships as well. And the fact that her boyfriend is also her tormenter, offers bountiful material to explore. In many ways, the relationship between Billy/Sidney and Ghostface/Sidney parallels one another. Ghostface wants to penetrate Sidney with his knife, but she refuses to give up on resisting; likewise, Billy desires to penetrate Sidney with his own weapon but she withholds until she has worked through her personal demons. Billy attempts to make Sidney feel guilty for not engaging in her “girlfriendly” duties, as a misogynist such as Billy would put it; likewise, Ghostface tries his best to make Sidney feel guilty for the death of her mother. These parallels are why Sidney defeating Billy/Ghostface is so important and meaningful. Not only does she kill the demons that are presently haunting her, this defeat also allows Sidney to finally close the book on the demons of her past trauma.

I asked #FilmTwitter what it thinks of Sidney, and here are some of the responses I got!

Ian states, “Sidney Prescott is the final girl who breaks the rules and gets away with it. She’s tough, vulnerable, and will take things into her own hands. A great entry into the canon.”

The Boy, Booze, and Blood podcast states a rather contrarian opinion, but I appreciate it nevertheless, “I can’t stand Sidney in the first two movies…she’s so pompous…like, she’s too good for this to be happening to her. I love when she overhears the cheerleader in the bathroom that knocks her off her [high] horse…I’m team Gale all the way.”

Lydia states, “I think she was the 90s attempt at a Jamie Leigh Curtis type heroine. Tough, no nonsense, with the character development to show the impact the events have on her life and mental health. Much like you see with Laurie Strode.”

Charles shares these thoughts, “I thought it was very telling that Sidney wasn’t the most popular girl. She road the bus home, seemed very studious…but a very beautiful young lady obviously loyal but her spirit wounded. Maybe she actually KNEW about her mother’s affairs…that’s why she didn’t wanna have sex with anyone, not Billy, no one. Her convictions, smarts, and strength carried her through the murders.”

I love the variety of opinions on Sidney! One thing’s for certain, she will never be killed off in a Scream movie because Wes Craven stated explicitly in his will that no more Scream movies were to be made after 4 (however, MTV got around that with the TV series). Even though there was the short-lived TV series, the character of Sidney cannot be included and killed off. She will live eternally! Perhaps she isn’t among the most talked about final girls, but she definitely left an indelible mark upon the slasher genre.

Lin Shaye

Do you love Lin Shaye? If not, I urge you to reevaluate your priorities because she is incredible! There’s no arguing that Lin Shaye isn’t the matriarch of horror–our Horror Queen! From A Nightmare on Elm Street to 2001 Maniacs to Insidious to Room for Rent and even the remake of The Grudge. she has been delighting audiences with her memorable characters and creepy performances that keep us wanting more. Differing from a scream queen, a horror queen is a female actor whom has played numerous prominent, scene-stealing roles in horror, whether or not she is a “final girl”! Very early in her acting career, she began with A Nightmare on Elm Street as Nancy’s teacher–I mean, come on–it doesn’t get any more iconic than that! Not only did Shaye appear in one of the greatest horror movies of all time, but Freddy Krueger quite literally runs through her veins because she is the sister of New Line Cinema founder Robert “Bob” Shaye who took a chance on a Wes Craven screenplay, and literally made history! Lin was supportive of her brother back then, and continues to honor his legacy of horror in her own outstanding career that has spanned four decades. Her career is also a testament to all those who think they are too old to begin something. She didn’t begin acting until she was in her 30s, and the best years of her career didn’t truly happen for another 30 years. Sure she was working regularly, even appeared in films such as There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber, but she wouldn’t become the household name she is today until Insidious. Although she has appeared in films outside of horror, most of her performances have been in horror and horror-adjacent pictures. And she wasn’t just in them; every scene she is in, she instantly takes command of the screen and your attention. She has a way of instantly drawing you into her characters through her unapologetic authenticity and genuine emotion.

Placing horror queen Lin Shaye in a movie is essentially a guaranteed box office success for audiences and investors. In a manner of speaking, what we are dealing with here is a legitimate movie star. Truth be told, 21st-century cinema does not see movie stars in the same way that the early and mid 20th century did. In early days of cinema, films were built on the back of the studio system stars. It was a Betty Hutton film, a Humphrey Bogart movie, a William Holden picture, a Bette Davis film, etc. I’d argue that Tom Cruise is the closest to a contemporary era movie star in the traditional sense that we have. But by extension, you can apply the same attributes to Lin Shaye by the cache that she brings to her films–she IS the box office draw for the films in which she is featured. Her name alone, attached to a horror movie, is enough to excite audiences and drive ticket sales. She is so much fun to watch in all of her horror movies. She is often portrayed as a kind-hearted grandma-type, but beneath that facade is often a sadistic executioner, wicked witch, or tortured soul. Tho, sometimes she is the hero as well, as we have seen in the Insidious movies. Perhaps she isn’t the lead in most of the movies that she is in (Room for Rent being an exception), but she steals the screen every moment she gets. No matter what kind of role she plays, she consistently looks as if she is having the time of her life playing all her serious and ridiculous characters.

Like Robert Englund, Lin Shaye’s characters have always been quirky (There’s Something about Mary), delightfully odd (Insidious), and even sinister (The Grudge), or a combination of all the above, which is the case with her character in 2001 Maniacs. She also kicks other franchise installments up a notch with movies such as Ouija: Origin of Evil and The Grudge. If nothing else, what we can learn from her legacy is how much fun she is having! Whether it is a schlocky horror flick or the next contender for an award, she gives her characters 100%. Never phoning in a performance. Go big or go home. And it doesn’t look like she has plans on taking it easy anytime soon, Lin Shaye laughs as she remarks, “now that I’m 146 years old, I’m in demand. I love the fact that in a way, I’m defying people’s expectations. It’s great to be my age. I love that I’m 76 years old and I’m proud of it, but that isn’t my focus” (The Hollywood Reporter). She isn’t solely focussed on defying expectations, she isn’t fixated on being a leading lady, she doesn’t get caught up in her celebrity or making appearances on TV to stay in the eye of the public, she is focused on supporting horror and having the time of her life while doing it. She truly cares about her audience and fans more than simply working for a paycheck or earning credits.

If you remove/replace Lin Shaye in the Insidious series, for example, the movies would likely not play out nearly half as well as they presently do. Lin and her characters are such a staple in the horror genre; she has regularly breathed life into numerous B-movies and indie films from campy to downright nightmare-inducing. You have to look no further than Critters, Dead End, or Midnight Man to witness her powerful screen presence. While she has appeared in far more B-movies and indie films than commercial blockbusters, it is clear that the producers of the Insidious movies recognized her pull with audiences because in each and every movie after the first, her character of Elise continues to rise in prominence. That really says something, ya know? It says something about her fanbase–it’s very much youthful! The target audiences for many horror movies is, I’d say 20 and 30-somethings. Of course, horror transcends the generations to continue to be a crowd favorite period. But the bulk of her fanbase isn’t our parents or grandparents, it’s us (speaking as a 30-something)! Perhaps that’s because of when she began to regularly pop up in commercial and indie films. Shaye attributes some of her success to her very youthful fanbase. She often remarks she is deeply touched that so many young people love to watch her films. How can we not?!? She continues to penetrate our emotions and thoughts with every character, with every film, with every horror convention.

Not only is Shaye a prolific actor, but she is not satisfied in abiding by all the rules that came before her. She seeks to redefine what it means to be a “scream queen.” Prior to David Gordon Greene’s Halloween and Blumhouse’s Insidious, the term scream queen was largely used to describe a teenage or young adult female actor who was most often the “good girl” or final girl in a horror movie. While the term has some under increased scrutiny because some see it as something that a young female actor shouldn’t want to aspire to, I argue that it is an honor to be considered a scream queen! These are the characters that we love to remember and talk about. For the longest time, it did not seem that an older female actor could become a queen later in life, as there weren’t many movies or significant roles for older female actors. As progressive as the horror genre has always been–and yes, that means more progressive than straight dramas–there was an absence of defining roles for older female actors. Even older men had prominent roles in the genre. Think Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger–and you know what, that’s great! But, where were the roles for older women?

Enter 2010’s Insidious and 2018’s Halloween. In addition to being crowd favorites, and not just great horror films, but great films period, both of these films intentionally made the lead/chief supporting characters older women. And with that, Lin Shaye and Jamie Lee Curtis redefined what it meant to be a queen in the horror genre! I would be remiss to not mention Toni Collette’s Annie Graham in Hereditary and her Sarah Engel in Krampus and Vera Fermiga’s Lorraine Warren in the Conjuring or Norma Bates in Bates Motel as being more evidence that older women can capture our imaginations and give us nightmares! I love how the horror genre, more than any other, is giving these women a platform to exhibit such outstanding talent! Whether they are screaming or making us scream, all of these outstanding actors are pushing the boundaries, and redefining what being a scream queen (or horror queen) is all about. And these women are not playing some different iteration of the same character, each of these characters is unique! What they share in common is a fierce independent spirit and a strong refusal to become a victim.

I asked #FilmTwitter what it thought of Lin Shaye, and here are some of the comments!

Andrew from FriGay the 13th podcast states, “We [Andrew and Matty] met Lin Shaye at HorrorHound and she was the nicest, kindest, funniest person…her lineup of films throughout her career is unimaginable! A class act! And even in bad films, she is the standout.”

Take Too podcast exclaims, “a true horror movie icon!”

Drinking and Screaming podcast states, “Lin Shaye is a delight to watch on screen. Her career spans over [four] decades, making multiple iconic horror films along the way, making her a true Scream Queen. The Insidious series would NOT be the successful saga that it is without her.

And the Final Boys said, “Ohhhhh boyyyy 🙂 Lin Shaye is a legend! She truly embraces and embodies the horror genre.”

Lin comments on the secret to her success, “I love finding my character, no matter what. I never really made a distinction between bit player and a big role. I’ve always just been obsessed with storytelling and feeling like I had an ability and talent to step into other people’s lives and live as that character. And that for me, that was always the fun. I become that other person and Lin sort of disappears in the background” (LA Times). Shaye is an incredibly talented character actor! Her level of talent, entertainment, and thrill is consistent. You are never disappointed by any of her performances. No matter how big or small the role, Shaye takes the fantastic and mediocre horror films to new levels to transform them into cinematic experiences that are incredibly enjoyable.

Annie Graham

“I am your mother!”

And the Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Leading Role…ironically did not include the BEST performance of 2018, Toni Collette’s Annie Graham in Hereditary. And not just best performance in a horror film, but best performance period. The Academy mostly, but also the big award shows in general, continue to ignore horror genre when it comes to nominating motion pictures. While I could write an entire article on the greatness and relevance of the American horror film (as that is my area of expertise), I want to focus on the character of Annie Graham (and Collette’s performance) specifically. Her performance and character was a watershed moment, of sorts, for the American horror film. It had been quite a while since horror delivered such a complex character brought to life in a command performance. Not that this was the first outstanding lead performance in a horror film, but it was the first in a long time. The character of Annie is a true-to-life relatable character because she is going through grief, not unlike the grief that we experience when we lose a loved one. Because this is a film, it was necessary for Ari Aster to externalize all of her emotions. Motion pictures are a visually driven story medium after all.

Collette’s captivating, terrifying performance as Annie Graham is one that certainly screamed Oscar contender. We are hard-pressed to find and encounter another more compelling and gritty performance.  Annie is both a tortured daughter and reluctant mother, and provides us with so much material to analyze. Whether talking horror or other genres, the role of Annie Graham will go down in the record books as one of the most gut-wrenching characters of contemporary cinema. Collette’s performance is spellbinding as you get forcibly sucked into this twisted world of a family-heirloom evil. From the crazy outbursts to the intense brooding, lingering moments, Annie is our conduit for facing greatest fears of the far-reaching effects of loss in this unapologetic exploration of how hard it can be to cope with major losses while managing a marriage and motherhood. Being a mother is tough, sometimes on the best of days; and when great loss and a disconnect to that which was familiar happens, it tests the mind and heart’s ability to cope.

We cannot truly discuss the complexities of Annie without addressing that which isn’t even explicitly shown on screen. In order to fully understand Annie, we must first take time to acknowledge the context clues that point to the trauma of her past, a trauma that already existed even before the loss of her mother and daughter within a short time of one another. Part of Annie is stuck in this tortured past that is hinted at through the miniaturized, dollhouse-like pieces of art she crafts with meticulous precision. This is Annie’s method for coping with the ghosts of her past. We do not know precisely what happened to Annie as a girl, but she most likely grew up under the watchful eye of an overbearing, controlling mother. Only this depiction is one that she can control. But when events happen that are out of Annie’s control, she loses that sense of control and all hell breaks loose. We can relate to her on this level because we also go a little mad–“we all go a little mad sometimes”–when we cannot control the conflicts, struggles, and obstacles around us. I doubt many, if any of us, could keep composed when losing our mother and a child (or sibling) at nearly the same time. Annie is real, gritty, and transparent. While she may be collapsing under pressure, she refuses to give in to ending her own life, which she expresses a desire to do after she discovers the headless body of her daughter in her car.

Loss, guilt, isolation, and grief are three of life’s experiences that we can all connect on because we all encounter them on out own journeys. And when we are suddenly hit with one (or more) of them, we grasp at straws trying to figure out how to cope. It’s a disruption in the patterns and rhythms by which we live our lives. What I love about the character of Annie is her determination to (1) deal with the trauma of her past (2) navigate the ocean of emotions associated with the two losses suffered and (3) maintain her marriage and motherhood of her son. She is unrelenting in her refusal to become a victim. This struggle to not fully give into the uncontrollable anger is not without its consequences or outbursts of a loss of momentary control. She is human. And she wanders the murky, windy path of grief, looking for answers to why. Of course, it’s this quest for answers that leads her down a dark road that Annie cannot possibly control. We cannot control how we manage grief, we have to allow the coping to take a natural course. Just like Annie, we too look for ways of overcoming the psychological and emotional pressures that come part and parcel with the effects of the loss of a loved one.

Even when Annie tries to get her family to believe that she is a medium and can contact the dead, they either do not believe or choose not to believe. There are plenty of times in the movie that Annie simply wants someone to listen to her, hence why she makes the connection with Joan. When you listen to someone (not just passively hear them), but actively listen, you form a connection. It’s a means it heal the broken connections caused by loss and grief. And that is tangible evidence that Annie is searching for. Visible connections to begin to re-establish her life and role as a mother. Like Annie, we too desire to form meaningful connections. Without human connection, we can so easily lost our way or retreat into isolation. Annie’s fights these feelings of being isolated by her family, but she has an incredibly difficult time. We can relate with her struggle, as we too have experienced similar feelings. Annie is truly us in so many ways, and that is the power of the character. Genuine pain and anguish is depicted in the film and Annie responds to it in ways not unlike our own.

Perhaps the character of Annie will not be as memorable as other leading ladies of horror, but the performance by Toni Collette will certainly be talked about for a long time. Annie teaches us that navigating the complicated paths of loss, grief, guilt, and isolation can be difficult and take an immense toll on the human mind and body. I appreciate how she externalizes so much of what goes on inside the human mind.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

 

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All the Horror: Women in Horror Month

All the Horror Presents Women in Horror Month!

During the month of February, a group of podcasters and writers, including yours truly, are highlighting many leading women and final girls of horror films! Be sure to follow @AllTheHorror18 on Twitter for the links to all the podcasts and written articles from the participants in this limited time engagement. Each week starting on February 4th, I will provide you with a character analysis of some of my favorite women in horror, and hopefully some of yours too! For the sake of simplicity, I will add each article to this blog entry. The horror genre, from its inception, has consistently been the most candid, progressive, and powerful of all the genres. Furthermore, it possesses an innate ability to be more truthful than a typical drama because we give it permission to challenge us in intimate ways. While there are many reasons for the timelessness and thought-provoking nature of horror, we are here to specifically focus on the women of horror. You don’t want to miss any of the great content coming your way during the month of February. Enjoy!

  1. Clarice Starling (Feb 4)
  2. Ellen Ripley (Feb 11)
  3. Nancy Thompson (Feb 18)
  4. Annie Wilkes (Feb 25)

For my 2020 article, click HERE.

Clarice Starling

When I think of strong female characters in horror, one name instantly jumps to the front of my mind, Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster) in The Silence of the Lambs. Not only is she, in my opinion, the single most important female character in all horror, she is one of the most influential and important female characters in all of cinema! Perhaps there is no greater example of a dynamic, unassailable female central character in a horror film. Not only is the character one to be revered and admired, but Foster won the Academy Award for Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of Clarice. Incidentally, The Silence of the Lambs is only one of three films to win the Big 5 Academy Awards (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay). But we are here to analyze the character of Clarice.

Even before we learn anything about Clarice’s wit and intellectual prowess, we witness her hard-working nature on the obstacle course in Quantico, VA, well-known for being the home of the FBI training academy; her status as an FBI academy student is solidified by her shirt. Furthermore, we observe her holding her own in a field dominated by men. This opening sequence of shots is important to visually convey Clarice’s raw determination to achieve what she wants. We don’t have to know the particular area of the FBI in which she wants to specialize, all we need to know is that she will stop at nothing to realize her aspirations. Even when she dies in a simulation, she does not excuse her lack of response, but she states why she died in a purely objective way. We learn later on in the film, that Clarice is haunted by a childhood trauma of a combination of her father dying during a burglary and the slaughter of lambs at her uncle’s ranch. She is driven by her desire to protect and free the innocent from dangerous humans in the world. Hence why she pursues a career as a special agent in the FBI. Her career aspirations are a means for her to overcome the emotional chaos of her childhood by stopping at nothing to land her position in the Behavioral Sciences division of the FBI under Jack Crawford.

One clear motif throughout these opening scenes is this idea of a woman in a man’s world; moreover, it’s the depiction of female agency. Although not one of the most memorable quotes from the film, Clarice’s line “If he [Buffalo Bill] sees her as a person and not just an object, it’s harder to tear her up” this is the line that highlights this often overlooked theme central to the plot of the film. Moreover, there is recurring imagery of the male gaze and the defiance thereof from colleagues, superiors, officer counterparts, and Dr. Lecter. Entire articles have been written on cinema and the male gaze, and I don’t have time to go into all the details in this character analysis of Clarice; but for the majority of its existence, cinema has reflected heterosexual male dominance–objectifying women–whether its overt through action or subtle through subtext. However, The Silence of the Lambs combats this practice by subverting the voyeuristic male gaze by forcing the audience to see Clarice (and all women in the film, by extension) as unique individuals and not objects.

One of the most admirable aspects of Clarice is her well-rounded nature as a character. She shows signs of strength, vulnerability, innocence, determination, independence, and a willingness to learn. By way of the manner in which Director Jonathan Demme chose to have the male characters, friend or foe, look directly into the camera lens when addressing Clarice and Clarice looking just off camera when responding predisposed us to identifying with Clarice’s character–we place ourself in her shoes. As the male characters look into the camera addressing Clarice, we feel that they are gazing at and addressing us. But my Clarice looking away from the camera lens, she visually subverts the male gaze as she becomes the one with the power in the scene. Great way to visually communicate this theme to the audience. But it’s more than just communicating a theme, this action gives Clarice power often attributed to male characters therefore increasing her level of dominance.

Clarice is everything that we want in a horror or thriller protagonist. And the beauty of this film is that it is both a horror and suspense thriller. And she works as an admirable, brave, and authentically human for both. More than a strong protagonist, she is a feminine icon who needs no qualifiers. Simply stated, she broke the mold of what was expected of female protagonists in general, and specifically horror. All the while she is working diligently at tracking down Buffalo Bill and learning how to best work with Dr. Lecter, she faces both overt and subtle discrimination but does not flinch a muscle. It’s her sheer chutzpah, authenticity, and respect for Dr. Lecter that endears her to him. Has she shown weakness, a facade, or patronized Dr. Lecter, it’s entirely possible that he may not have taken a liking to her. He realized that she was truly a match for his wits, a worthy opponent. Continually, she displays strength of character and impressive intellectual prowess. Well written central and opposition characters often have a symbiotic relationship (that was partially highlighted in David Gordon Green’s Halloween), one cannot truly exist without the other, or at least one is not as interesting without the other. The more interesting Clarice is, the more interesting Hannibal is. They both display traits that complement one another. It’s this complementary nature that Dr. Lecter finds intriguing and worthy of his admiration. And in the same way, Clarice is attracted to certain qualities of Dr. Lecter that prompt her to respect him as an individual despite his heinous crimes.

A couple of examples from the film in which men feel threatened by or undervalue the level of excellence that is found in the person and career of Clarice can be found in Dr. Chilton and the sheriff’s deputies in the funeral home after the body of Buffalo Bill’s first victim was discovered at which she is sidelined by Crawford and gawked at by the deputies. When Dr. Chilton learns that Clarice was able to connect with Dr. Lecter in her brief when he’s been selfishly attempting to for years, he seeks to subvert Clarice’s efforts, to no avail thankfully. His masculinity was threatened by a female, and Chilton was not about to have that. Good thing he got his comeuppance. When in the funeral home/morgue of Frederica Bimmel, Crawford intentionally sidelines Clarice because he felt the details were too disturbing for her; she shows him by taking control of the room by forcing the sheriff’s deputies out of the room because she has it under control and gets up close and personal with the victim. This is also the scene where she finds the telltale death’s head moth that has become synonymous with this film. In that scene we witness Clarice recognizing her unequal treatment, and rises to the occasion to show that she would not stand for it because she was objectively qualified to continue in her work without hand-holding or patronization.

Outside of the two etymologists, the only male character to not show any signs of misogyny nor gender discrimination is Dr. Hannibal Lecter himself. As highlighted earlier, he recognized her as a formidable opponent in his mind games. Although he certainly tries to get in her head, make her feel uncomfortable, and face her past demons to silence the lambs, nothing he does is motivated out of sexual desire or gender discrimination. Nothing in her role is truly defined by her gender. In fact, much like the character of Ripley in Alien was originally slated for a male character, the character of Clarice Starling could also be a male. I am glad it wasn’t because the narrative would lose some power. But the point is, that she is in no way defined by her gender, instead is defined by her integrity, character, and intelligence.

Even when taking on “masculine” traits and existing within a male dominated field of work, she never ceases to remain a feminine character. She and Alien‘s Ripley share this in common.  Jodie Foster states in reference to her iconic character, “Clarice is very competent and she is very human. She combats the villain with her emotionality, intuition, her frailty, and vulnerability. I don’t think there has ever been a female hero like that.” The character of Clarice Starling is one that should serve as a model for other female central characters. She contributed significantly to the world of cinema, but specifically the American horror film.

Ellen Ripley

This. Is. Alien. You are with. Sigourney Weaver. Aboard–the starship–Nostromo. Caution. The area you are en-ter-ing is extremely dan-ger-ous. Something has gone wrong… If you get why I punctuated that the way I did, then you remember the Alien scene on the former Great Movie Ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (oh how I miss that attraction). We cannot talk Women in Horror without analyzing the boundary busting, glass ceiling breaking Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver). Ridley Scott’s science-fiction horror masterpiece that convinced us that “in space, no one can hear you scream” is still the definitive science-fiction/space horror film. Sitting between Halloween and Friday the 13th, this film came as a surprise for the horror genre because it countered the direction that the horror genre was going by reimagining the emerging slasher genre in a setting that is more terrifying and limiting than a house or town in which a serial killer is slaughtering teenagers. The strength of this movie is not in the Xenomorph, the effects (albeit great), or even the first characters you spend time with in the film, the strength of this film is in the ineffaceable character of Ripley.

Although she is, for all intents and purposes, not even on our radar for nearly 45mins into the film, following a tragedy, she is thrust into the forefront of this mission. Scott’s Alien dared to challenge the status quo in order to deliver the first female action hero, and place her in center stage. The long and short of it is that Ripley subverts the typical science-fiction hero trope to embody both the feminine and masculine to redefine what a hero is within the sci-fi/horror genre. Breaking gender norms for the time, she was neither arm candy, simply a side kick nor required rescuing by a male character. Her character and actions were not defined by gender. She is our final girl, and so much more. Not only did the character of Ripley contribute significantly to horror, she also broke ground for female heroines in the world of cinema at large.

Your central character need not always be the first or second character we encounter in a screenplay. This is true with Ripley as she emerges as the central character midway through the film. However, we are given hints at her destiny throughout the first act in subtle ways. It was important to the plot to establish her as a woman in order to make her actions later on in the film so kickass and assumption shattering. Had she been seen as “masculine” or strong from the onset, then we would not be as impressed with her actions–we would expect them. Part of her power as a strong female character in horror is taking what we assumed about her (or a female character in general) and subvert our predisposition. Whereas Ripley is not the first female heroic character in a horror film, she is one that never becomes subjected to the male gaze or becomes some fantasy version of a woman. Even though female heroic characters who wear sexy clothes, wield phallic guns, or use their bodies as femme fatals can be strong characters, they are still some heteronormative fantasy for a male screenwriter or director.

Essentially, the aforementioned female characters lack an authentic humanity. Ripley is strong, vulnerable, independent, scared, mortal; these elements that make her believably human. There is so little suspension of disbelief in her character that she could nearly exist in real life. Furthermore, her character is incredibly complex; she exhibits strong intuition and intelligence, chutzpah, is brash, talks about PTSD, outspoken, rigidly wants to go by the book instead of saving a man’s life, has a natural beauty but doesn’t spend much time on hair or makeup. All these traits portray someone who has incredible depth and dimension. She is a survivor. No matter how grizzly, messy, constricting, or frightening her soundings become, she remains steadfast, collected, and brave. As the 1970s saw many changes in censorship, ratings, guidelines, etc., the ability to show gorier, more visceral body horror special effects, and on screen violence allowed Scott to confront the character of Ripley with cinematically innovative ways to test her resilience and survivorship.

The character of Ellen Ripley is also a strong pillar of the American horror film by virtue of her representation of gender politics. Even before it became popular, in more recent times, to use both male and female characters in motion pictures as a conduit to comment on the state of affairs for a particular group within our society, Ridley Scott crafted a visual masterpiece that did just that. Highly innovative, forward thinking, and progressive. The subtext of the film confronts us with a woman trying her best to fit into a man’s world. In addition to that subtext, research into the screenplay for this film shows that all the characters were written as gender neutral. Interesting stuff, right?!? Another gender-related observation in the character of Ripley, is her both metaphorically and physiologically clothing herself in masculinity all while remaining a women. In one scene, Ripley steps into a space suit. And this space suit can be read as Ripley playing the role of a man while remaining a women at her core in order to challenge the patriarchal system to prove that she is capable of anything that a masculine hero is.

Ripley is a highly intelligent character, realizes that about herself, and does not allow herself to be patronized or undermined. She does her job aboard the Nostromo like a legit boss. She knows procedure and protocol, and will follow it in order to protect her crew. Figuratively, she is protecting the ship from being willfully penetrated by a foreign object. This could be read as a commentary on rape. She is forcefully overruled, and we all know what happens next. Further commentary depicts male characters “forgetting” that Ripley is the senior officer. But because she is female, they feel they know better. I bet they wish they had followed her orders. Although much of what I’ve written deals with the masculine qualities of Ripley, her character would not have been as powerful a character if it wasn’t for her feminine side as well. When all hell is breaking loose, she soothes the nerves of the crew and offers comfort. Exemplary motherly qualities. Had a man been in her role, then he would most likely have not exhibited such love for the crew. Her success as a hero has as much to do with the touch of a women as it does the chutzpah of a man. Another motherly quality found in Ripley is her persistent urge for the crew to function as a group. Through the brilliant cinematography, we are consistently shown a group that is fractures and continually fails to band together until it is too late. Interestingly, each character meets his or her demise because of a tragic flaw and failure to group together to function as ONE crew instead of self-centered individuals. Had the group functioned as one, then more may have survived. This hypothesis is witnessed in the Ripley in Act 3 because she essentially embodies all the good qualities found in the other characters (think Captain Planet). She combines what everyone did well into one character. That is why she is the final girl. Only by combining all the qualities of the crew was she able to go toe-to-toe with the Xenomorph killing machine.

There are actually three prominent female characters in Alien. Ripley, the Xenomorph, and The Nostromo. Although Ripley is our central character, I would be remiss to not mention the other two that could be analyzed individually themselves. Much like Ripley exhibits both masculine and feminine characteristics, so does the Xenomorph with a mouth that oscillates between vaginal and phallic in nature. And finally, The Nostromo ostensibly gives birth to all the astronauts at the beginning of the film; and therefore could be referred to as the mother ship. Playing around with gender does not stop there. The facegrabber impregnates a male character and he gives birth to the Xenomorph. Underscoring so many elements and conflicts in this film is this idea of subverting gender identity with the intent to horrify by tapping into primal heteronormative fears. And let’s face it, child birth is terrifying. Unfortunately, all the sequels failed to live up to the substantive nature of the original and devolve into a generic futuristic action-adventure series; but the original Alien delivered a nightmare-inducing “haunted house” movie set in the far reaches of space where “no one can hear you scream,” and provided us with the breakthrough character of Ellen Ripley.

Nancy Thompson

“Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.” More than a final girl, Nancy is a live girl. While Halloween‘s Laurie Strode often gets credit for being the original final girl, and with good reason, a solid argument could be made that A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Nancy Thompson (played by Heather Langenkamp) is the OG final girl. For my third character analysis for Women in Horror Month, I want to explore the character of Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Unlike the previous two analyses, Nancy is not yet an adult, pursuing her career in law enforcement or the far reaches of space. She is an every-man with whom we can identify, because we were all, or maybe still are, teenagers facing everyday struggles with our relationship with our parents, love interests, and our friends. With death surrounding her on all sides, she powers through the grave conflict, to face her nightmares, and defeat the Dream Master himself Freddy Krueger. Well, set him back anyway. Haha.

Unlike Laurie Strode, Nancy is not the final girl by default; she completely Home Alones Freddy and continually fights back without ever backing down. She takes an active role in ensuring her survival. Furthermore, no one comes in to aid in her rescue or the defeat of Freddy; Nancy is alone in her endeavors. Despite her strength of character and resilience, she is largely overlooked by fans. Her co-star Freddy Krueger (played by the incomparable Robert Englund) steals the spotlight. Although Freddy is my favorite horror slasher villain, I often wonder why Nancy doesn’t get the same treatment that Laurie gets in Halloween. Making her debut in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, Nancy appears again in Dream Warriors, and New Nightmare (as Heather, but she is still very much Nancy). Grab your coffee, and stay up with me as we explore Nancy Thompson!

We aren’t given much insight into the degree to which Nancy excels in school, but she is undoubtedly quite the scholar! Not that whether or not she is a member of the honor society makes a difference, but it does aid in showing us that she possesses superior critical thinking skills. If not for her brilliant combination of street and book smarts, she may not have survived this very real nightmare. Unlike many final girls who are often on the defensive, she spends much of the movie on the offense–she goes looking for Freddy. Who does that??? Nancy, that’s who! We witness Nancy read books to learn more about dreams and newspapers to learn more about Fred Krueger; furthermore, she experiments with booby traps and methods to remain awake or force sleep. Resilient, resourceful, and ready. A great alliteration to describe Nancy. Her survival does not happen by default or through a deus ex machina, she survives through grit, determination, and a willingness to learn and place herself in harm’s way. It’s this notion that she transcends what we think of as a final girl to even go so far as to subvert our predispositions. Whereas typical final girls merely survive, Nancy takes control of the Freddy conflict in a revenge fashion to win. “I’m into survival,” as Nancy so brilliantly puts it.

Nancy is not concerned with innocence or following the rules to maintain the status quo. While she still may be a “good girl,” she is not concerned with playing the good girl card in order to somehow survive Freddy. On display in this film is the cinematic and literary construct of the maiden turned warrior. We witness a psychological growth arc paralleling a physiological transformation, in the character of Nancy, that takes her from everyday teenager, complete with the angst, to heroine. And her inner-personal journey is not without its own obstacles and conflict. At every step of the way, Nancy encounters loved ones in her life (be they family or friends) who consistently do not believe in her–until it is too late. All of Elm Street doesn’t believe her, but she knows that Freddy is killing the Elm Street kids in their nightmares, and she is going to prove it and stop him.

One of the messages that I preach to my screenwriting class is the importance of communicating character thoughts and feelings visually (only write what you can see), and Wes Craven does precisely that to communicate how everyone feels about Nancy’s claim that Freddy is back. For example, Nancy’s mother violates her body by subjecting her to sleep tests and even making her a prisoner of her own home with the bars on the windows. A close reading of the imagery associated with the trauma Nancy experiences can be read as a metaphor of adolescence, transitioning from childhood into adulthood. Whether experiencing direct or implied trauma from Freddy, her family, or friends, she endures gaslighting, imprisonment, mental rape, and attempted murder all within the confines of the home–and more specifically–the intimacy of the mind. Not only does Nancy prove that she may in fact be the definitive final girl, though overshadowed by Laurie, by her active role in ensuring her survival against Freddy, she also survives psychological and physiological trauma enacted upon her by loved ones. Her voice was silenced, her path to escape was barred, and her claims that Freddy returned from the dead into the dream world were completely dismissed. This parallels what many women face every day–they are not taken seriously or they are patronized. Her character is a metaphor for what many women face daily.

One may conclude that Nancy lacks the vulnerability and (heteronormatively speaking) feminine nature that is required, traditionally speaking, of a final girl. Certainly the preceding paragraphs skew toward ultimate horror badass, but the beauty of Nancy’s character is that she grows from a vulnerable female teenager into the final girl that we know today. Her all-too-human feminine vulnerability is shown through her white pajamas with pink roses, her teenage angst, crying when she is upset or feels dismissed, and she experiences the emotional rollercoaster that we all, but especially teenagers, ride. After rewatching A Nightmare on Elm Street in the cinema for a 35th anniversary special one night only screening, I was reminded of just how much of a girl she is throughout the whole movie. Not only does she get scared and cry and even take cover behind Glen early on in the film, but she also wears clothes that reinforce the idea that she doesn’t need to take on masculine traits in order to defeat evil. Her character transformation occurs in the mind and she proves that a girl can do anything that a guy can do. She does not allow the constant barrage of dismissal or people telling her that she’s crazy to detour her from what she knows to the nightmarish truth.

Further distinguishing Nancy from other final girls is the manner in which she does defeat Freddy Krueger. Whereas we assume she hasn’t had sex with her boyfriend Glen and does not appear to use illicit drugs or undermines authority for her own selfish pleasure, she does not defeat Freddy because she is a “good girl.” Nancy relies upon resilience, wit, and confidence; ultimately, she defeats Freddy by refusing to give him anymore of her emotional energy (a feminine trait) instead of wielding some phallic weapon like a knife, machete, or bludgeoning tool. Unlike other final girls whom become a de facto male character during the showdown, she remains committed to her femininity. Unlike the gender politics of Alien, the character of Nancy doesn’t oscillate between feminine and masculine. Instead, she transforms from normal, innocent teenager with many of the same familiar and friendship conflicts we face to the brave, determined, proactive smart heroine that defeated Freddy (temporarily anyway), all while never shifting from her typical female behaviors and identity.

After Freddy’s Revenge (and you can hear my review of this installment on Cocktail Party Massacre), Nancy returns in Dream Warriors as a graduate student working and studying at a psychiatric hospital. She may have exchanged her pink rose pajamas for 80s power suits, but she is still the same Nancy. The Freddy experience has certainly had an effect upon her, but she has taken that traumatic experienced, harnessed the power of it and channeled it in a positive direction to help others who are experiencing psychological trauma that has real world physical traits. Specifically, she researches the mental and physical effects of nightmares. Without diverting into a plot analysis of this tertiary installment in the franchise, she is able to successfully transfer her strengths to the Elm Street children. Completely unrelated to the character of Nancy, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite Freddy quote of all time that appears in this movie, “welcome to prime time, bitch!”

Even before meta horror became popular, and Wes Craven himself would write and direct the definitive meta horror Scream two years later, he returned with full creative control to the Nightmare franchise to write the final chapter (until Freddy vs Jason and the awful 2010 remake) in the reign of Freddy, he gave us New Nightmare. Despite her death in Dream Warriors, “Nancy” stars once again in the Nightmare on Elm Street third chapter New Nightmare. Nancy is in quotes because it is the actress Heather Langenkamp as a character in this meta Nightmare film. She is Heather but very much Nancy all at the same time. In addition to Heather playing herself playing Nancy, Robert Englund plays himself playing Freddy. Other actors/characters from the original A Nightmare on Elm Street have appearances as well. In this film, Heather faces her reality fracturing as a nightmarish specter from her past comes to haunt her. It looks like Freddy, but it is much more sinister. What I love about Heather/Nancy is the fact that she channels her Nancy from the original and Dream Warriors. But she doesn’t phone in her performance or give us the same character. Her “Nancy” has grown. One of the biggest differences between Nancy and Heather is that Heather is now challenged with protecting her son at all costs. Through her passion, wit, confidence, and unyielding ability to face the darkness head on, she confronts Freddy to once again, become the final girl.

Annie Wilkes

Do your ankles hurt just at the thought of Annie Wilkes? Well, they should because she is one of the most terrifying Women in Horror ever. Perhaps you do not remember her by name, but you most likely know the film Misery. Based on the best-selling novel by Stephen King, Misery is widely regarded as one of the most terrifying psychological horror films ever. Directed by Rob Reiner, it stars then-newcomer Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes. Playing opposite Kathy is James Caan as celebrity author Paul Sheldon. Just a quick note, the sultry Lauren Bacall also makes an appearance in this horror film as Sheldon’s agent. While my other character analyses for Women in Horror Month focussed on final girls, for this final entry, I desired to explore a truly sinister female character whom captivated us with her outstanding performance. In a quintessential Hitchcockian fashion, Rob Reiner crafts a phenomenal adaptation of the King novel that mostly takes place in one location. But this one location houses two indelible characters, one of which is a wildly disturbed and frightening fangirl. Annie convinced us that anyone who claims to be your No.1 fan may actually be your No.1 worst nightmare. Next time a nondescript motherly figure invites you to her picturesque cabin in Colorado, you may want to consider staying at the local Holiday Inn instead.

Talk about a character with incredible depth! Annie Wilkes is one of those exemplary characters in horror that provides ample opportunity to apply critical lenses to analyze her psychology and sociology. Clearly she displays signs of psychopathy, but there is so much more to her character. And those layers are what makes her one of the most terrifying characters in horror film history. On the surface, she is a monster-like human; but beneath that sociopathic behavior, she is clearly suffering from severe mental disorders brought on by past trauma. Collectively, we can surmise that Annie’s past traumas left her feeling that everyone and everything is out to get her. Therefore, she runs a countryside farm in mountainous Colorado away from everyone. Her only interaction with outsiders is when she has to run to town to pickup food and supplies. In addition to her mental disorders, she also displays signs of agoraphobia. Although some of her mental disorders have direct impact on her violent nature, other disorders are largely indirectly responsible, such as her likely obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Evidence supporting this can be seen in her immaculately clean and organized house. Her OCD contributes significantly to her obsession with Paul Sheldon. The only joy in her life comes from the romance novels that she reads–a vicarious way to experience a full life–namely the Misery series by Paul Sheldon. Essentially, she is the perfect storm of psychological and emotional disorders all wrapped up in a an unassuming citizen of a small Colorado town. She could very well be your neighbor or one of your social media followers. Perhaps she is YOUR No.1 fan.

Although screenwriter William Goldman adds in a subplot of the town’s sheriff investigating the disappearance of Paul Sheldon, which works very well for the film even though it was not in the novel, the story is about two characters (representing two sides of the same coin) trapped in a room together, locked in a psycho-social battle of wills. Ostensibly, this story features two characters whom represent the creative mind of Stephen King during his real addiction to alcohol. I mention this real-life time of darkness in King’s life not to glorify it because it helped inspire one of his greatest novels turned film (need I mention Velvet Buzzsaw), but it helps us understand the depth and power of the character of Annie Wilkes. Both Sheldon and Wilkes work so well because they represent real life villains in the life of King. King’s real battle between his healthy mind and drug-induced state parallels Paul Sheldon’s battle for freedom with Annie Wilkes standing in his way. In a most brilliant fashion, the sadistic former nurse Annie is the manifestation of how controlling a drug addiction can be–how it makes the user a prisoner of one’s own mind and body. This subplot is strategically woven into the main action plot then delivered through the character development and character-driven scenes in the story.

Annie is not completely evil. Early on, she shows us that she cares about victims as she could not have known that it was Paul Sheldon that she was rescuing from the car crash. Being his No.1 fan, as soon as she saw him, she knew precisely who he was and therefore her obsessive nature takes over. There is a moment that encapsulates one of the film’s themes that is often overlooked. Prior to caring for Paul, Annie takes his attache full of manuscripts and tucks it under her arm thus symbolizing that Paul’s work is more important than Paul’s life. But that doesn’t confirm her psychopathic nature. Even upon the more formal introduction of Annie, she shows us that she cares about Paul’s recovery as she crudely splints his broken legs. Why not take him to the hospital? Well, because she is his No.1 fan and no one can take care of him the way she can. She goes on to shower Paul with accolades. Claims to have read his Misery novels several times, even committing them to memory. Furthermore, she closely identifies with Misery Chastain (the series’ central character), so cares deeply what happens to her. Albeit being hospitalized in a stranger’s private residence is a little disconcerting, Paul grows to trust and even like Annie. He trusts her so much that he allows her to read the unpublished manuscript for the final Misery novel. And this is where things take a turn for the worse, Paul’s hospital is about to turn into a prison ran by the sinister warden from hell.

During Annie’s rage over the offensive swearing in the unpublished manuscript, she spills the hot soup on Paul and we begin to see the signs of her mania, twisted morals, paranoia, and negative effects of OCD. Obviously, we learn more about her psychopathy as the scenes unfold, but in retrospect, we witness the signs in big bold letters from this moment on. But she doesn’t continually behave in such a neurotic manner. She oscillates back and forth. This oscillation is an important aspect to her character because it drives up the tension and suspense because we don’t know when or where to expect her dangerous behavior. There are moments that we anticipate a violent outburst, but then she fools us by not delivering. By the same token, there are moments that we don’t expect it, and she terrifies us. The character trait of Annie’s that makes her one of the most terrifying in the Blockbuster of horror is her lack of feeling. Everything she does, she rationalizes without regard for quality of life or humankind. The very definition of sociopath.

The psycho-social disorders affecting the behavior and psychology of Annie are never confirmed, and don’t need to be. We don’t need to know precisely why or what causes Annie to behave the way she does. Because if we fully understood her, she would cease to be as nightmare-inducing as she is. It’s important that Annie Wilkes remain a type of Boogeyman. However, we can gather from the film that she suffers from a form schizotypal personality disorder, OCD (which I’ve mentioned), and meets most of the criteria of borderline personality disorder. A trifecta of disorders that creates the monster that we encounter in the film. She copes with these disorders by executing numerous defensive mechanisms including denial, projection, rationalization, regression, fantasy, and more. Whereas we often talk about her psychopathy and sociopathy, we often neglect to recognize her highly intelligent mind. Too bad her intelligence isn’t matched by empathy and and human kindness. Her intellect is observed through how she anticipates Paul’s movements and knowing when he’s been out of his room. And an intelligent villain is the most dangerous and unpredictable of all.

Aside from her disorders, unpredictable behavior, and lack of empathy, attributes that can be found in other horror villains, she stands out because she is a women. It’s her feminism that enables her to stand out against similar villains such as Norman Bates, Jack Torrance, Buffalo Bill and others. When we typically think of female characters or women in general (and I realize I am over-generalizing), we think of someone whom is kind, hospitable, nurturing, passive, and empathetic. Annie subverts those notions in so many ways, many of which have been outlined in this analysis. She makes Joan Crawford from Mommy Dearest look like Mrs. Brady. As out of control as Annie behaves, she is very much in control. She IS the one holding all the cards and calling the shots in this prison. While other characters (male or female) with similar disorders or backgrounds that parallel Annie’s have lost their minds, Annie knows precisely what she is doing, and is supremely strategic when she does it. We may be cheering when Paul finally kills her with the typewriter, in brilliant ironic fashion, but she is an incredibly strong female character who can hold her own, backs down to no one.

Not only is Misery one of the top psychological horror films ever made, but Annie is a noteworthy female character in the horror genre. While the final girls get most of the attention when we talk Women in Horror, it’s important to not forget that horror has given us terrifying women as well. Whereas so often the most interesting villains (or characters of opposition) get to be played by men, this film would not be as powerful is the roles were gender swapped. The fact that this psychopath is a women makes her all the more disturbing. She crafts such overwhelming sense of dread that is more frightening because we aren’t used to female characters as the main villains. Kathy Bates was a perfect choice for this role, and she has gone on to play all kinds of roles but the horror community gets extra excited when she plays a horror role. While horror doesn’t often win awards at the Oscars, Kathy Bates won the Academy Award for an actress in a leading role for her work in Misery.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“Blade Runner 2049” film review

Just as mesmerizing as the original! Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is nothing short of a future classic that demonstrably possesses the soul of the original and pairs it with a new plot brought to life by a fantastic cast. Every minute is filled with beautiful cinematography that is perfect in every way and a haunting score that penetrates down to the bone. At its core, Blade Runner 2049 wrestles with this one central question: what does it mean to be human? A question that can spawn hours of debates or an exquisite nearly three-hour motion picture. Considering that Ridley Scott has not delivered the same quality for which he provided precise and poignant direction, it was a solid decision to attach Villeneuve as the director. This sequel 35 years in the making may not have had the classic Ridley Scott at the helm, but Villeneuve channels his inner Scott to provide audiences with the same profound cinematic experience today as Scott did when Blade Runner first released. From the color palette to the lighting to the sound design, this motion picture is one that typifies the power of the art of motion pictures and one that will surely be regarded as iconic as the years more along, very much in the same way that the original has been regarded over time.

Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is tracking down the remaining legacy Replicant models created by the infamous Tyrell Corporation, and his latest mission takes him to an obscure farm in the middle of dessert California. After retiring the replicant at the farm, K uncovers what will become a metaphor for Pandora’s Box, as it opens a mystery that law enforcement and the Wallace Corp. seek to solve. The secret contained within the box is one that could potentially plunge all “humanity” into complete chaos, not there there isn’t enough of that already for those left on earth. K’s journey takes him from the gritty, grimy streets of Greater Los Angeles to the dust bowl that was once Fabulous Las Vegas. There, he meets former Blade Runner Deckard  (Harrison Ford) who has been hiding from law enforcement and the Wallace Corporation for three decades. Together, they must work to locate the miracle that no one ever could have thought would happen–or could happen.

Despite not pulling the numbers that Blade Runner 2049 was forecasted to bring in over its October opening weekend, the film did what fans wanted–it kept the very essence of the original movie alive and well. For all the artificial intelligence in the film, there is nothing artificial about this long-awaited and highly anticipated sequel to the Ridley Scott classic. The reason for not pulling the numbers that it was predicted to do can likely be attributed to the tone of the film and the stylistic filmmaking approach that borders on neo-noir meets the avant-garde. Although not completely necessary, it is incredibly helpful to have seen the first film. And seeing the first film gives an appreciation for the sequel that cannot be experiences without having knowledge of the first. The slow-pace and dark atmosphere may be some of the reasons why more people did not wish out to see it as the weekend moved along. Looking at the two films side by side, this film is a direct extension of the original so the authenticity of this universe and story is genuine and almost visceral. For those who prefer more dialog or higher concept plots, the film may not strike the same level of enthusiasm because of the heavy visuals and dark themes in addition to the profound questions. This combination is not one that will attract the general populous in doves; however, this film IS what it needed to be. Sometimes a long-awaited sequel has to be made to remain true to its soul because that is what the fans want to see, and it’s the true fans who continue to visit the cinema year after year. Blade Runner 2049 may not win over new fans, but it keeps the diehard ones happy.

At the heart of Villeneuve’s cinematic masterpiece are existential questions that drive the plot forward. A plot driven by such questions told through a sedated pace is one that is not as easy to digest as one that is more superficial and more rapidly paced. Still, these questions are profound and cause one to think hard about what it means to be human. What sets this film apart from other science-fiction rapid fire blockbusters is the commitment to visual storytelling and the art of creating a motion picture. Blade Runner 2049 mirrors its predecessor and remains true to the experience of the first. Cinephiles will especially appreciate this film for it harkens back to a time when German expressionism was at the foundation of the set design and lighting. There are many exaggerated and elongated shapes that exist in a world of harsh shadows and dimly lit alleys throughout the film. Although the look of the future world in the original was one that audiences may not have believed would come true or could come true is seen differently by today’s audience that can easily see just how accurate the world of the Blade Runner movies actually is–the mediation of society today seems to be not that far off from this not-so-distant future.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins captures a wold through the lens that seems to go on forever in a world of greys and beiges. The only color to be found is in the prolific advertising on the sides of buildings. Deakins further extends the artistic approach to the cinematography by paying homage to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in a shot that was actually added to one of the more recent recuts of Scott’s Blade Runner. That score, though. The sound design and score are an audible extension of the visual landscape. Composers Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer have created one of the most haunting scores to ever be heard in the cinema. The combination of ghostly groans and blood curdling howls echo the very look and feel of the landscape. I’ve rarely encountered such an immersive sound design and score in a film. Just as the world on screen is an uneasy place to live and one that contains faint images of the grandeur of a world that once was, the score accompanying this motion picture places you in the midst of this post-apocaltyic world that most natural-born humans have left.

Definitely a film that I want to watch for a second time in order to appreciate this film, boasting with artistic achievement, even more than I already do. Although most of the themes and subtext are centered in and around “what it means to be human,” there is a real message regarding the importance of bees. An important visual statement in the film because the populations of bees, the most prolific pollinators, are dwindling. Not for the casual movie-goer, this film is for those who want to experience a sequel in the vein of the original that shows the artistic side of the creation of motion pictures.

“The 5th Wave” movie review

FifthWaveAnother cliche wave of ‘only attractive young people can save the world because they are special’ movies. Really??? Do we really need another one of these films with an overly used and tired plot? I suppose so–or at least that is what Sony Pictures is hoping for. Once again, the world is at the brink of destruction by an alien race that has taken over most adults. It is up to a small band of rebel young people to save the world by overcoming the impossible. Only this time, the dialog and plot are so incredibly blasé that you may likely find yourself often glancing at your watch to see when this painful movie will be over. Can we survive the fifth wave??? That question is all too apropos. From the unimpressive digital effects to the crazy quilt consisting of pieces and patches from every other  YA fantasy action thriller, hopefully this movie signifies the last wave of boring and predictable franchises that try to compete with The Hunger Games but fail miserably.

I normally summarize the plot here, but I am pretty well sure that you already know all that you need to know, given the repetition of such films in this sub-genre of young adult movies.

If you simply enjoy mild, mindless, cliche young adult (trying so hard to appeal to teens and adults) entertainment, then this film is for you. On the other hand, if you are tired of this same vapid plot that we have been accosted with for the last several years, then this is not the way to spend the weekend. Haha. I wanted to see The Boy instead last night; but unfortunately, it was not getting a Thursday night release. I think distribution companies and theatre chains should have released it instead last night, and saved this travesty for today.