Tuesday, February 3, 2015

UNEXPECTEDLY FEMINIST HORROR FILMS: JOHN CARPENTER'S 'THE THING' (1982)

John Carpenter arguably created his masterpiece with THE THING. Although it remains within the science fiction subgenre, THE THING also falls within the same realm as a monster movie or a body-horror film. Considering the main antagonist of THE THING, is non-human and the rest of the characters are male, many people forget that THE THING is also a great example of feminism.  By definition, feminism the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.  Emphasis on EQUALITY.  The patriarchy (or a male-dominated society) doesn't just hurt women, it hurts men.  John Carpenter's THE THING is an excellent film to analyze masculinity in a patriarchal society.

The story of John Carpenter's THE THING follows a group of Americans studying in the Arctic tundra that come across a group of Norwegian soldiers chasing after a dog.  After the Norwegian helicopter traveling to destroy the dog explodes, the Americans take the dog as their own without any explanation as to why the Norwegian’s were chasing the dog in the first place.  Shortly after, the Americans investigate the Norwegian’s base camp only to discover the mutated remains of what appears to be two individuals.  Simultaneously, the dog they have brought to their camp mutates, attacks the other dogs, and attacks the crew coming to destroy it.  The Americans find themselves in the midst of an invasion from an alien capable of imitating other life forms and attacking anything that attempts to stop it.

The men in THE THING can safely be assumed to be very masculine characters.  As many of them are soldiers or working for the military, their livelihoods alone give the impression that all of these men would identify as masculine.  However, not all of the men in John Carpenter’s THE THING are completely devoid of feminine qualities.  In the original screenplay, Bill Lancaster’s character descriptions note that many of the male characters aren’t completely alpha-males.  An alpha-male is defined as the individual in the community with the highest rank.  In order for there to be a hierarchy, there must be a system of classification. For instance, the character Blair is described as “sensitive”, Palmer is said to have “slight sixties acid damage” and Norris is suffering from “an incipient heart condition”.  With Lancaster choosing to showcase these men as imperfect and vulnerable, it allowed for a ranking system.  To contrast from the vulnerable men, the character Childs was described as “Six-Four. Two-fifty. Black. A mechanic. Can be jolly. But don’t mess.”  These words clearly showcase Childs as the epitome of an alpha-male character, leading the audience to immediately associate him as a leader, and a force to be reckoned with.

RJ MacReady, the undisputed leader of the film is originally seen isolated from the rest of the group in a shack.  This action shows that MacReady is the lone wolf separating him from the rest of the pack, establishing his dominance through distance.  Speaking ethnologically, alphas may achieve their status by means of superior physical prowess and/or by way of social efforts and building alliances within the group.  This sort of classification would lead Childs towards being the alpha-male, but as MacReady doesn’t follow through the traditional norms, it allows him the potential for achieving alpha-male status.  At this point of the film, the exposition alone has already set a hierarchy that would normally remain unchallenged if it were not for the intrusion of the “thing”.  The male community remains unfazed after interacting with the Norwegians, as the American male community was associating with a Norwegian male community.  This further emphasizes the sociological definition that masculinity is not barred by cultural differences.  The men are comfortably living in their hierarchical stasis with no real need to try and change their positions.  Once the “thing” is presented into their environment, the hierarchical positions begin to change drastically.  As previously stated, many times alpha-males will attempt to gain status by violent means.  The question remains, why would the “thing” act as such an impacting variable?  If masculinity is a direct response to femininity, and the struggle for alpha-male status is a power struggle for men when their positions are questioned, it would only be assumed that the “thing” is of a female species.  The male gender is a control in this environment, and only violent responses in an attempt to gain alpha-male status occurs once the presence of a female is known.  At the very beginning of the film, the first sign of aggression shown in the film is from MacReady, after he loses a game of digital chess, voiced by a woman.

The alien “thing” is a shape-shifting creature capable of absorbing the body and creating a perfect imitation of whatever it has absorbed.  This is clearly an attempt to showcase the idea that women are a constant threat to the male status quo.  Women can "absorb" an aspect of a male, and produce a similar life force.  Simply put, it's a giant metaphor for childbirth.  Without this invasion from the female alien, the men at the camp would be living in nothing more than a monotonous lifestyle in the frozen tundra.  It takes a woman to threaten the very livelihood of these men and cause a rift into their common activities.  As the men struggle to determine who remains human and who is nothing more than an alien imitation, violence is used almost as a currency.  For example, when MacReady is accused of being the “thing”, he secludes himself (yet again) in a room filled with explosive devices and a brightly lit flame.  He threatens to blow up the entire base camp if anyone tries to kill him or hurt him.  MacReady is not only defending his status as a human, but also maintaining his role as alpha-male by use of ultimate force.  The threat of extreme action through violence is enough to force the rest of the men to accept defeat, and back down.  In a patriarchal society, brawn is almost always valued higher than brains, which keeps MacReady at the top of the totem pole, and the rest scrambling to align themselves under his leadership.
Once MacReady has gained control of the men and established himself as the alpha-male, it is only a matter of time before the rest of the men begin to battle for higher power positions.  In the infamous “blood test” scene, MacReady has tied all of the men to a couch and has taken samples of their blood, to which he will apply heat in an attempt to force a reaction from the “thing”.  The character Clark resists and tries to use violence to take down MacReady, only to be shot and killed in defense by MacReady.   With his authority established over the other male characters, MacReady then asserts his male authority over the female “thing.”  Before testing the blood he says, “When a man bleeds, it’s just tissue; but blood from one of you things won’t obey.”  This statement can be argued as MacReady drawing a parallel to the menstrual cycle of a woman, in that women are able to bleed consistently for days at a time while menstruating without dying.  To put it simply, the blood doesn’t obey the “laws” of nature.  This female alien is showing its variability with its blood, forcing the hostile response of the male counterparts.  While the remaining men sit on the couch, they begin to use different tactics to assert their masculinity in the hopes that MacReady will release them.  Childs uses a guilt tactic by calling MacReady a murderer, in a sense, emasculating him by pointing out his inability to use reasoning behind his actions.  Alas, his efforts are useless as MacReady fails to remove any of the men unless their blood is proven to be "right."  Again, his ability to withstand ridicule keeps him in the powerful male position.
Towards the end of the film, the final battle between MacReady and the alien occurs.  Once the alien transformation of Blair rises from the ground, as if being “birthed” by Mother Nature, MacReady fights back with a phallic object, a stick of dynamite, to destroy the beast.  His overtly masculine role is confirmed by this action, showcasing that his successful means to destroy a female creature, was by inserting something in her that resembled the male genitalia. Throughout the film, the assertion of male dominance between the characters is done through violent measures.  In a constant battle for alpha-male status only to be taken by MacReady, John Carpenter’s THE THING delivers a startling look at the way men behave when within the confines of other men, and the struggle for power between men in a patriarchal society during times of crises in response to a threat of a feminine nature.  Examining the expected gender roles of men and the disastrous results it causes makes THE THING an unexpectedly feminist movie.  Had both the men and the female "thing" been presented as equals, we wouldn't have had a conflict...or a movie.

Monday, February 2, 2015

UNEXPECTEDLY FEMINIST HORROR FILMS: EVERLY (2014)


THERE ARE MILD SPOILERS. IT'S AN ANALYSIS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
 
EVERLY is arguably not a horror film, but because it contains some elements of real-life horror, a ton of kills, a lot of blood, and comes from one of the horror genre's biggest fans, I felt it necessary to include as part of this year's Women In Horror Recognition month blog series.

Promoted as "DIE HARD in a room," director Joe Lynch's thrilling shoot-em-up flick EVERLY would seem on paper to be just another run-of-the-mill misogynist action/horror film.  The story follows the titular Everly, a prostitute who works for a brutal criminal overlord named Taiko.  When it is discovered that Everly is being traitorous (by trying to bring down his organization) he promises that by the end of the night (sometime around Christmas) she will be murdered.  He sends his men to torture, rape, and kill her, but Everly does everything in her power to fight back, and try and make it out alive.  Prostitution, violence, rape, and torture are some of the quickest "go-to" storytelling tactics in a woman-hating film, but EVERLY is unexpectedly an incredibly feminist film.

First of all, EVERLY is pro-women of color (WOC).  Originally, the titular role was supposed to be played by Kate Hudson, but replacing her with Salma Hayek completely changes the racial dynamic amongst the hispanic Everly and the Japanese men that she works for.  Throughout the course of the film, Everly speaks in her native tongue and the men that encounter her celebrate her ethnicity without ever fetishizing her.  We are introduced to a gaggle of other prostitutes; spunky white girls, a "Milf-esque" white woman, a strong independent black woman, and our stereotypical "unique" woman in a colored wig.  All of these women are examples of the archetypal roles given to sex workers, and despite many of them falling under the Western ideal of beauty, Everly is consistently praised for being the most desirable.  However, her desirability is never addressed as being due to her "exoticism," therefore, meaning her Mexican heritage isn't being fetishized.  While this may not have been intentional in the script, the casting decision of Hayek added this layer to the film.  Much like George A. Romeo's casting of Duane Jones in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, picking the best actor for the role offered representation for a minority without making the character token.  This. Is. Important.  It's one thing to write a role specifically for a person of color, but it's something entirely different to have a role that could have been played by anyone, and deliberately casting a person of color.  A study from Martha M. Lauzen in 2013 covering the Top 100 films of the year showed that only 5% of the female roles were played by Latinas.  Joe Lynch casting Salma Hayek as a titular role is not only incredibly smart when selling a film to foreign audiences, but it's also a powerful statement in an industry that barely supplies work for non-Caucasian women.  Not to mention, Everly is played by Salma Hayek...a 48 year old woman.  This. Is. ALSO. Important.  Unlike what Russell Crowe has to say about roles for women over 40, there are plenty of older actresses that are able to play complicated and interesting roles that aren't the ingenue.  EVERLY is not an ingenue, but she is a dynamic and powerful role (with sex appeal) played by a woman that is pushing fifty.
EVERLY is also pro-sisterhood.  For whatever reason, Hollywood has a tendency to believe that once a woman pops a human out of her body, that is officially the only thing she can ever do.  Everly is a complicated woman with an even more complicated past.  However, Everly is still a mother and the women around her respect this.  When we're introduced to the other prostitutes, we see that the sense of camradarie that these women share that is vastly different from the bonds between the male characters.  The women talk to each other like people and support each other to the best of their abilities.  Even when Taiko is doing everything he can to turn these women against each other, they all express remorse for their actions...and showcase a moral code that exists merely because they're "sisters."  Not to mention, the defense and respect these women have for a sense of motherhood.  The men are ruthless and mean in terms of Everly's motherhood, using her daughter as a bargaining chip, while the women draw the line and understand, innocent daughters do not deserve to suffer because of the mistakes of their parents.  On a purely familial level, we also get the opportunity to meet Everly's mother and Everly's daughter.  The bonds of womanhood are tested among 3 generations.  These women switch roles often between protector and protected.  While Everly is our protagonist, she's still someone's child, and we all need our mothers.  There truly isn't another bond like motherhood, and Everly's mother proves this.  The unconditional love is something that cannot be matched or beaten by even the toughest thugs.  It's only fitting that Everly's daughter meets her mother in a bloodbath and is essentially reborn.  Yes, it's a vagina metaphor. Deal with it.

Perhaps what is most surprisingly, is the angle of pro-sex workers in EVERLY.  Before I go any further, I want to specify that "Pro" in this discussion means "not against."  Think of it like being pro-choice.  Pro-choice means "if you have an abortion, you're not a scumbag that deserves to rot in Hell" NOT "we should kill babies for fun."  In the same way, being pro-sex workers doesn't necessarily mean, "everyone should start selling their bodies" but merely, "if you are a sex worker, that doesn't make you a bad person."  On a basic level, the prostitutes are the toughest, because they're all in for themselves vs. the gang mentality of the men.  Before it's discovered that these women are not prostitutes, but victims of human trafficking, they are still never regarded as "sluts," or "whores."  Even those that refer to these women as "whores" are immediately reprimanded and made to look like the bad guys.  Never once are these women "slut-shamed" for their line of work and never are they made to look like they deserve any of the carnage brought to them.  If anything, this film is anti-trafficking and pro-woman because although these women are victims of a heinous situation, the audience is seeing everything through the lens of a woman who herself, is also a victim.  We identify with these women and we empathize with them, anyone that says otherwise is immediately seen as a monster and we crave punishment for what they've done.

There is a big difference between a misogynist film and a film that has misogynist characters.  EVERLY is the latter.  Violence against women does NOT equal misogyny, it's a matter of presentation.  Much like the rape-revenge films of the exploitation era (but without being exploitative), EVERLY sends a message that women are not fragile and delicate flowers that need saving, but rather that the people who believe this to be true, are the ones that will be punished.  It's a pro-female action film with feminist undertones that doesn't pander to its audience, and it points the finger of blame to the responsible villains without ever making our female lead look like she deserves what she's getting.  EVERLY is unexpectedly feminist, and totally kick-ass.

EVERLY is available on VOD services and will be available in theatres soon.  
Joe Lynch and Adam Green's podcast THE MOVIE CRYPT has the exclusive list of dates and theatre locations.
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