31 Days of Feminist Horror Films: MAY


Lucky McKee’s second feature creates an indelible protagonist in May, thanks in no small part to the moving central performance from Angela Bettis that anchors this film. Socially inept because of debilitating shyness brought on by a lazy eye, vet tech May struggles to deal with even the most minor aspects of adulthood. She still spends much of her time talking to Suzie, a childhood doll kept in a glass case, given to May by her mother who suggested that May can always make a friend if she can’t find one in the real world. May is a misfit protagonist very much in the mode of Carrie, and even when a bit of kindness comes into her life — a potential romantic interest that initially seems game for May’s morbid sexual tastes until she draws blood while they’re making out, blind children who are charmed by May’s stories and ability to connect with them as an outsider, a friendship with a beautiful co-worker that May aspires to be — her lifelong rejection from “normal” society has rendered May unable to deal with normal social interactions.

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It’s difficult to watch May try to function within normal society and fail over and over again, and McKee’s film is totally sympathetic towards her, even after blood starts flowing. May is one of the best examples of character-driven horror, and it’s impossible not to feel for May as she struggles to engage with cultural standards of female beauty and friendships, romantic relationships, and simple human interaction. Female misfits, antiheroes, and unlikable female characters are still fairly rare as protagonists, but in horror, where the outsider is often king (or in this case, queen), there are more opportunities to explore female otherness than in most other major genres.


After Suzie is accidentally destroyed by May’s young friends, she cracks, and decides to take her mother’s advice to heart: she’ll build a new friend out of the leftover body parts from those who have wronged her throughout the film. But she’s still not satisfied as Amy, the new friend, cannot see. May turns to self-mutilation in order to make Amy perfect in a way she can never be, and finally rids herself of the eye that has caused much of her awkwardness and shame. It’s clear that McKee wanted to combine parts of the Frankenstein story along with the thematic notion of beauty being in the eye of the beholder to guide May’s final actions, and the film has an incredibly moving final moment that blends May’s fractured reality with the fantasy life that has always been kinder to her. May simply wants what we all want — human warmth and affection — but because she’s always been the misfit, the weirdo, the outsider, she goes about it in a violent way that leaves her more alone than ever. McKee’s film has more empathy for its protagonist than most other horror films, and May is a powerful story of the need to belong, told from the perspective of a thoroughly strange female protagonist.

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.