31 Days of Feminist Horror Films: EXCISION


The likability of female characters is one of the most over-discussed questions in film discourse, but in Richard Bates’ Excision, he makes a hard and fast distinction that our protagonist Pauline is not going to be the typical final girl in horror, and she won’t ever be likable.

Obsessed with sex, death, and especially blood, Pauline (AnnaLynn McCord, playing against type to great success) is unpopular in high school not only for her unusual interests, but because she’s an ugly duckling, and places no importance on personal hygiene. Pauline is the sort of unkempt that borders on masochistic, and it’s a rare thing to see a female character who revels so fully in her lack of traditional beauty or desire to fit in among her female peers. She also faces extreme stress at home as her middle-class parents focus on her saintly younger sister (Ariel Winter) who’s dying of cystic fibrosis. Pauline develops two selves to deal with the limitations and frustrations of her real life — in her fantasies, she’s beautiful, dominant, and often covered in blood, while the real Pauline can barely be bothered to brush her hair or speak up in class.


Pauline’s retreat into her vivid interior life provides the film with its most memorable sequences, as we see her baroque, bloody fantasies of sex, worship, and power — these scenes are truly gorgeous (though very NSFW) and make Excision stand apart from many of its independent horror peers. Like many other female misfits, reality will never be as good as the fantasy life Pauline is able to conjure. But, these fantasies give Pauline confidence boost in her own life, and she eventually convinces the school’s hunk, Adam, to take her virginity. Bates subverts any traditional take on this scene by including menstrual blood and oral sex as major factors. He also uses this scene to explore male repulsion at the idea of period sex only when it’s reflected back to them, not during the actual act, which mirrors how Adam feels about sleeping with Pauline overall — he’s happy to do it if it’s kept a secret, but if other folks find out they’ve slept together, he vehemently denies his participation in the act.


This rendezvous destroys any reputation Pauline had at school, and reality slips further from her grasp as her focus on her fantasies begins to dominate her life. Pauline decides to help her sister the only way she can: amateur surgery! The film’s conclusion is grotesque and unavoidable, and even with the inevitability of the film’s final moments, it’s still fascinating to watch Pauline reach her ultimate character destination. And even if her attempt a DIY lung transplant is horrifically miscalculated, Pauline, who struggles to feel empathy for anyone throughout the film, still sees it as the most loving thing she can do for her sister. Bates isn’t afraid to make Pauline foul, misguided, and morbid, which is a bold choice not only in mainstream film as a whole, but especially in horror when a woman’s purity often ends up saving her life. Excision is a beautifully bloody character study that eschews all notions of female likability in order to create an incredibly memorable female horror protagonist.

31 Days of Feminist Horror Films: HONEYMOON


Writer-director Leigh Janiak (recently hired to remake The Craft) proves just how much can be done with a small cast, an inventive premise, some really great female body horror, and the eternal question of “how well can you really know another person?” with her debut feature, HONEYMOON. 

Twentysomething newlyweds Bea (Rose Leslie) and Paul (Harry Treadaway) head to her family’s’ cottage in upstate New York for their honeymoon, but the bad vibes descend quickly when a local shop owner, a childhood friend of Bea’s, and his wife, (seemingly the only other folks in town) tell them to leave immediately. The young couple tries to forget about the strangeness of the day, caught up in their newly-married lust, but later that night, Paul finds a naked Bea in the woods with no memory of what happened or how she might’ve gotten there. Bea brushes it off as sleepwalking, but as her behavior becomes weirder and weirder in subtly disarming ways (one of the film’s biggest strengths is showing how even the most minute changes in behavior from an intimate partner can be incredibly upsetting) Paul begins to worry about what might’ve happened to her out in the woods. He immediately jumps to rape or abuse, but Bea dissuades him, and tries to keep things light between the two of them.


Eventually, Bea’s behavior grows more irrational, and tensions boil over when Paul notices strange bites on her inner thighs, a sure sign of rape in his mind. Bea locks herself in their bathroom, where Paul finds her mutilating her genitals in an attempt to get something out of her. In the gnarliest birth scene in a horror film since The Fly, Paul helps Bea expel a huge, spiny worm, which momentarily brings her back to her old self. She explains that mysterious lights in the forest drew her to them, and she was subsequently impregnated by a creature that’s slowly taking away parts of her personality…and that they’re coming for Paul next. Bea tries and fails to save Paul by drowning him, and communes again with the forest lights, now joined by the shop owner’s wife. It’s a bleak ending, but the ambiguity of what exactly has impregnated/possessed Bea only makes the film’s conclusion scarier. 


While the vaginal body horror in Honeymoon provides the narrative with its most shocking, unsettling moments (Janiak tackles male fears like vagina dentata and impregnation by another man head on), it’s the rapid downfall of Bea and Paul’s blissful union that provides the film with its most harrowing moments, keeping in the grand tradition of other horror films about marriage, like The Brood and Possession. The idea of marrying someone, then seeing the personality you fell in love with disappear, bit by bit, is truly terrifying, and the visceral nature of horror allows for this disintegration to become realized in vivid, bloody detail. Janiak’s film warns young couples against marrying too soon, keeping secrets from your partner, and for male partners in heterosexual relationships, having an inherent fear of your lady’s business. Honeymoon is a thoroughly millennial horror film, and one that proves less is often more in horror, especially when it comes to primal fears about coupling, pregnancy, and the violation of women’s bodies.

31 Days of Feminist Horror Films: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN

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On its face, We Need To Talk About Kevin may seem more like a prestige drama, primed for the awards race. However, Lynne Ramsay’s take on Lionel Shriver’s acclaimed novel is ultimately a horror film about motherhood, and what happens when mother and child hate each other.  A mother who feels no love or affection for her child is one of the most alienating character bases in fiction, and when Eva Khatchadourian reaps what her incredibly troubled relationship with teen son Kevin has sown — 11 dead at Kevin’s school, and the murder of his own father and sister — the audience is forced to confront the idea that sometimes parents do fail totally, and it leads to catastrophic consequences.

Shriver’s novel, told from Eva’s first person perspective in letters to her dead husband Franklin, is incredibly powerful, and Ramsay seizes on this first-person POV for her Eva, played by the always fantastic Tilda Swinton. In Ramsay’s version of Kevin, the repeated visual motif of swaths of red — crushed tomatoes in the streets of Spain when Eva was young and carefree, the oppressive domestic red of a supermarket aisle, and red paint that angry, grief-stricken parents splash on Eva’s house after the massacre — become almost nauseating as we draw closer to the inevitable conclusion.


Ramsay also draws upon a single repeated image throughout the film — billowing white blinds hanging off a sliding door while the tick-tick-tick of a sprinkler drones in the background — to signal the Eva’s horrific discovery of her dead husband and daughter in their backyard, killed by her own son. This extreme domestic horror is also present when Eva, absolutely at the end of her rope because a preschool age Kevin won’t stop wearing diapers, throws her son against the wall and breaks his arm. Kevin covers for his mother and lies for her, forever sealing their symbiotic bond of silence about each other’s failings.  All of these moments are incredibly unsettling, and feel every bit as disturbing as any kind of creature that goes bump in the night or barrage of blood and guts.


The story’s conclusion feels like something straight out of EC comics — in her final jailhouse visit with Kevin (Ezra Miller, who matches Swinton’s intensity at every turn and really feels like he could be her son) Eva realizes that, for better or worse, she and Kevin are all each other have in the world now, and that she will wait eagerly for his release from jail. Kevin, on the verge of being sent to an adult prison, also realizes that he’ll need his mother’s support upon release, and struggles to make sense of what ultimately inspired his crimes — it’s suggested that Eva and Franklin may have been on the brink of divorce due to their disagreements about Kevin, but Kevin admits that he’s not sure of what motivated the shooting anymore. It’s a disturbing beat of poetic justice, and while the unlikability of nearly every character in Kevin is off-putting to many, it’s an important, confrontational look at motherhood and parenting.

31 Days of Feminist Horror Films: THE BABADOOK


Not wanting to be a mother, or worse yet, being a mother and not loving the experience is still one of the biggest taboos for women in modern society. The Babadook’s greatest frights come not from Mister Babadook himself, but from the terror of being an isolated, broke, single mother with a problem child and no support system.

Essie Davis turns in what should have been an Oscar-nominated performance as Amelia, a single mother to Sam (Noah Wiseman), whose erratic behavior and temper tantrums only intensify after the mysterious storybook of Mister Babadook shows up on their doorstep. Sam becomes convinced that Mister Babadook has taken up residence in their home, and in one of the film’s key scenes, he interrupts Amelia with this knowledge while she tries to masturbate. Female masturbation in film is still fairly rare, and writer-director Jennifer Kent provides a really empathetic beat for Amelia with this scene. Sam has stolen Amelia’s privacy and personal autonomy in every area of her life, as children often do. When Sam invades this incredibly private moment, it’s easy to understand why Amelia has lost all patience with her son. Kent uses this scene to explore how being a mother has neutered Amelia sexually, which mirrors common sentiments about how women lose their sexual agency after becoming mothers. 


Already at the end of her rope and feeling like a madwoman when local authorities intervene (Kent certainly highlights the fact that women are usually put off as paranoid or delusional when dealing with danger, as is the case when Amelia tries to convince police of Mister Babadook’s existence), things only get worse for Amelia when Sam breaks the nose of a young friend after she teases him for not having a father, totally isolating them from their support system. The absence of Amelia’s husband, who died driving Amelia to the hospital for Sam’s birth, looms large for mother and son, and Amelia places a lot of undue blame on her son for his death. Most of Amelia’s characterization stems from the resentment and anger she carries for her son for his role in her husband’s death, when of course he had actually had nothing to do with it — it’s an unlikable stance, but certainly a believable one. When Mister Bababook possesses Amelia, it definitely seems as if she might murder her own child in an attempt to get her husband back, something Mister Babadook has promised. It’s an incredibly bold choice to portray Amelia as ready to kill her son in an attempt to get her husband back, but given Sam’s behavior throughout the film, the audience is able to see where Amelia is coming from, even if they can’t fully empathize with her.



Sam’s love ultimately helps Amelia rid herself of Mister Babadook (though not before she tries to strangle him in another maternal taboo-busting scene), but as the storybook promises: you can’t get rid of the Babadook. So, Amelia and Sam learn to live with Mister Babadook in their basement, and the film’s message is ultimately that you can’t ever really get rid of grief or darkness, but you can learn to live with it. Amelia learns to live with her resentment of her son for his inadvertent role in her husband’s death, and can finally reflect on how her own grief-based failings as a mother have impacted Sam’s development. The Babadook is ultimately a horror film about growing through grief, and how the bond between mother and child, even when pushed to the very limits of sanity, can supersede anything that goes bump in the night.