Monday, April 6, 2015

THE IMPORTANCE OF CASTING WOMEN OVER 50 IN HORROR

In the world of horror fandom we have become obsessed with Scream Queens but rarely do we acknowledge the ones that aren't the ingenues that eventually grow older and seem to fade away thanks to studios wanting younger leads to carry their franchises and remakes. It's important to acknowledge the need for older women in horror movies and to celebrate their efforts and contributions. More often than not actresses over 50 are simply cast as "crazy old ladies" or simply as victims, or set pieces. It's these women that are needed the most on screen as they depict what we choose to ignore the most in society.  We as a society place no inherent value to their experience or the accomplishment of surging as long as they have. Now, when we put that mentality towards horror, we can understand why it has always seemed women over 50 might as well be dead in Horror before they even get a chance to die on screen.

Actress Jill Larson
Adam Robitel's film THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN went largely ignored until it hit Netflix and took over the end of year "best of" lists.  The story follows documentary filmmakers following a woman diagnosed with Alzheimer's but discover something far more sinister intruding into Deborah Logan's life.  One of the many reasons why this film works is due to the fact we're watching an older woman suffering from a disease that many of us have witnessed overtake our family and loved ones.  Had Robitel selected a disease like cancer that effects people of all ages, he could have easily cast the role as a twentysomething; but it would not have been the same film.  Casting Jill Larson as the titular Deborah Logan was an absolutely brilliant choice.  Larson is a veteran actress and with that comes decades of experience and talent.  We're not watching a new actress try and hold her own, we're watching a professional do what they've had years of practice to perfect.  Larson delivers with a level of commitment that would be hard pressed to match by other people working in the business.

Women over 50 have survived and endured far scarier things to get to where they are - children, the Women's Right Movement, even gravity has tried to defy their bodies. Take a pick from the multitude of experiences that temper an older woman's resolve and determination to survive and put that against any cinematic killer. Perhaps women over 50 simply refuse to play victims in real life so it's harder to transition that socially constructed belief to film? God forbid you even depict one with a healthy sex drive too. We can serve audiences more dutifully by portraying women over 50 as they really are. This can serve as the classic formula that Horror has always served; act this way, you survive - don't, and you die. This is an important tool because it shows younger audiences something to aspire to, while bringing in a new older audience with characters they can identify with. Hollywood - please listen - older people like Horror movies too. They enjoy sex and violence like the rest of us, and because of their age, they've probably seen more of it than anyone reading this.

Actress Barbara Crampton
And what of our aforementioned scream queens?  Despite what Hollywood would like us to believe, we all get older.  Creating roles for older actresses not only helps enforce stronger storytelling, but it allows the actresses we know and love to continue working long after their days of believably playing a high school cheerleader have passed.  Case in point: Barbara Crampton.  For many of us, Barbara Crampton was one of our earliest cinematic crushes after starring in films like FROM BEYOND and RE-ANIMATOR.  After taking a slight hiatus, Barbara Crampton re-emerged as talented and as beautiful as ever, but in a new character type.  Crampton's roles in films like WE ARE STILL HERE and YOU'RE NEXT have solidified her strength as a mother figure.

Our genre favorites can still perform as the need for their skills is still desired by ticket buying audiences. We all age. No one has gravity defying looks forever. It's the beauty of sharing that we take on new roles in our lives, as parents, as role models, and it's these new roles that aren't being reflected as much as thy could be in today's genre films. What happens when we say "They're too old" or "They're not sexy anymore" or "I don't think they could handle the action" is when we see desperate measures taken in the form of rampant plastic surgery and other truly horrific treatments. Isn't the prize of surviving a Horror film the chance to live life? Then why are we so afraid of depicting what happens when you do? You get old is what happens. You get wrinkles, you lose hair or what you don't lose turns grey, and all of that is okay! Film freezes a moment of time in our lives that thrives in posterity long after box office revenues are calculated, but that doesn't mean we should attempt to freeze our icons in those roles forever either.

Actress Lin Shaye
One of the arguments often presented has to due with marketability, but to say that twenty-somethings are the only people "marketable" to an audience is just not true.  Case in point: Lin Shaye.  The veteran actress has popped up in films of a wide variety of genres for decades, but she has become a horror genre staple now that she's entered an older age.  Perhaps most interesting is that Shaye's characters have never been overtly "scary old lady" style.  Her roles in films like CHILLERAMA, and 2001 MANIACS allowed her to, well, play.  In CHILLERAMA she tacked on a humorous dialect and played a role that would have normally been reserved for the late Zelda Rubenstein, while in 2001 MANIACS, she was able to manipulate a bunch of Yankee Bros with southern charm.  Most recently, her stint as the leading face of the INSIDIOUS franchise throws the "marketability" argument out the window.  INSIDIOUS is one of the most profitable horror franchises of recent memory, and Lin Shaye is the through line of all three films.  She proves that a horror film can be a financial success without relying on the "hottest star from Vine" to be on the cast list.

Why is it important to cast women over 50 in horror? Why care? Is it because men over 50 are routinely cast now in genre films, well past what older Hollywood would have considered their prime? It's a reflection of what the studio system, filmmakers and ultimately us as an audience place box office value on. Where are the female counterparts to the Liam Neesons, Stallones, Schwartzeneggars, etc? Simply by not including them in the equation factors them out almost completely.  While there's admittedly a problem casting older actresses, the problem is even worse for older actresses of color.  The three examples in this article may all share the fact they're over 50 years old, but they're also all white.  Just some food for thought.  Scary things don't just happen to perky twenty-somethings. We may celebrate in watching a slasher cut down those in the prime of their lives but we as an audience have accepted Hollywood's sliding scale of ageism to change our perceptions of what time of our lives is considered our prime. If you really want to root for a Survivor Girl, look at your mother or even your grandmother and ask, "Why aren't there horror movies with people like her in it?". Your mother has survived the very worst you could throw at her, now let her tackle Freddy or Jason or Myers.

Want tougher? Go with the Grandmother because she survived two generations of this cinema fueled patriarchy.

(special thanks to Zach Shildwachter for helping me write this article. Cancer has dramatically changed the way my brain works, and he was able to help me ensure this article was a bit more coherent.)
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