There is such a rich history of horror films and thrillers dissecting female neurosis that it was impossible for me to only write one blog post about it. Women who lie, who kill, whose sexual desire manifests in culturally unacceptable ways are perfect fodder for a genre that revels in the taboo and the forbidden. For audiences who watch these films, not to mention the male directors putting them together, women who behave outside of what is respectable are a source of cultural anxiety that can easily be turned into uncomfortable, unpleasant, and even horrifying films.
These four movies all deal, in their own way, with women’s sexualities, and the deep-seated apprehension that arises when that aspect of women’s lives, usually so controlled and restricted, becomes ungovernable.
David Lynch, 2001
The story: A mysterious dark haired woman survives an attempt on her life and, confused, wanders into an empty home. Shortly after, peppy aspiring actress Betty Elms arrives and finds the woman asleep in the bed. The woman doesn’t remember who she is, and she and Betty become close. At the same time, a man in a diner tells his friend about a nightmare he had, only to collapse when the figure from that dream shows up behind the restaurant. A movie director is told to cast a specific actress in the lead role of his film by the mob, and is also kicked out of his house when he finds out his wife is cheating on him.
Why you should watch it: In typical Lynchian fashion, the film twists and turns, focusing on characters that seem to have nothing in common, and never staying in chronological order for long. To this day I’m not entirely sure what’s going on. In fact, the first time I watched it I paused for a nap halfway through, and when I started it back up again was convinced I was watching a different movie. But it’s all rather purposeful as part of a meditation on love, obsession, jealousy, and revenge, and the heady cocktail these emotions create in the mind of the decidedly less than perfect Betty.
Robert Wise, 1963
The story: Dr. John Markway wishes to study the paranormal activity reported at Hill House, and brings together a psychic, Theodora, and Eleanor, who dealt with a poltergeist as a child. The two women grow closer as they almost immediately begin to experience supernatural phenomena, and Eleanor’s mental stability rapidly declines as her mysterious affinity for the house increases.
Why you should watch it: Mulholland Drive taught us that queer desire will *~*mess with your mind*~* and the same can definitely be said for The Haunting. Though Theodora is one of the few non-predatory early lesbian characters in film, it can definitely be argued that her effect on the already timid and guilt-filled Eleanor leads to the latter’s susceptibility to the house’s evil. Based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the film’s off-kilter, distorted shots make every scene feel threatening and claustrophobic, and at no point does Hill House feel safe, especially for Eleanor.
Ken Russell, 1971
The story: In 17th century France, the Cardinal Richelieu has convinced the king that decreasing the independence of the country’s cities by tearing down their fortifications will stop the rise of Protestantism. The city of Loudun is governed by the priest Urbain Grandier, who is both very popular and very promiscuous. Sister Jeanne des Anges, the abbess of the local convent, has become sexually fixated on him, to the point of harassing a young woman whom she finds out Grandier has married. As revenge, when the authorities come to tear down Loudun’s wall but are stopped by Grandier, Sister Jeanne reveals his affairs, and accuses him of witchcraft, leading to horrific interrogations, mock trials, and misery for all.
Why you should watch it: The Devils was extremely controversial when it came out, and remains an uncomfortable film to watch to this day (think orgies, enemas, masturbation, torture, that sort of thing). But there are some gorgeous visuals to be found, and the themes of desire and religious hypocrisy are endlessly fascinating to me. Vanessa Redgrave manages to pull off Sister Jeanne’s repressed, obsessive lust perfectly, terrifyingly.
William Friedkin, 1973
The story: Actress Chris MacNeil is living in Washington DC with her twelve year old daughter Reagan who, after playing with a Ouija board, begins behaving strangely. She swears, complains that her bed shakes, and is abnormally strong. After consultation with many doctors, who all come to the conclusion that there’s nothing physically wrong with Reagan, Chris decides that her daughter is possessed and that an exorcism must be performed. She calls on two Catholic priests, including an archeologist who may have encountered this particular demon before.
Why you should watch it: Having accidentally watched the much longer—and frustratingly slower-paced—director’s cut, I’m recommending The Exorcist almost exclusively for its extremely influential place in horror film history. It was groundbreaking in many ways, including its use of special effects, and many critics have read Reagan’s possession as a metaphor for her growing sexuality. When thought of this way, the endless scenes of Reagan surrounded by male doctors and priests trying to figure out what’s wrong with her, how to render her docile, take on a whole new meaning.