The monstrous female is a tricky beast. Within the realm of ’60s and ’70s body horror cinema, she manifested inside the shadows of what she was not: a fetishised image of womanhood, all prim and proper, constructed by the male gaze. The male directors who blacklisted the destructive forces of her rage are to be held responsible for nurturing this stereotype as much on-screen as in the real world, for the two were inevitably strung together: the death drive and bloodlust of female vampires, witches, and werewolves superimposed onto the internalised fury of the mute housewife.
Auto Italia and writer-researcher Harman Bains collaboratively navigate the history of the monstrous female across the sub-genre of body horror and exploitation film in the exhibition “Nature of the Hunt”, on show at the East London project space until 3 September 2017. Spanning a “disembodied survey” of 20th century (s)exploitation cinema, the exhibition hones in on themes of violence, vengeance, sadomasochism, schizophrenia, shame and hysteria that inform both Eastern and Western imaginings of the female monster: from the soft-core pleasure chambers of Japanese pinku eiga (“pink film”) pros including Kôji Wakamatsu, to the psychosexual obsessions of South Korean Ki-young Kim’s housemaids and the campy vampires of Jesús Franco.
From the street, seven weapon-wielding women can be seen posing side-by-side in a blow-up poster of the Taiwanese action-adventure “Golden Queen Commando” (1982). This playful prop appropriately conceals the more subversive film essay playing on loop in the darkened back room of the gallery. Clocking in at under half an hour, the video offers a collage of scenes from around two dozen exploitation films. Bains’ own voice weaves in intermittently over the muted clips to offer a larger analysis of the social and cultural symbolism of these films and question their underlying motives. Through Bains’ unwavering criticism, the hysteria of these monstrous women develops an emotional vulnerability, morphing from villain to victim – all while their bodies convulse and evaporate, imploding into abject potions of blood, slime, and fear: the torturous and nebulous power structures of the patriarchy.
Is there any way out of this stereotype of the raging female, whose origins and psychosexual neuroses are simultaneously feared and invalidated by the male gaze? Is it possible to subvert the phallocentric understandings of the feminine penchant for violence, as driven by unfulfilled desire? In a sub-genre characterised by this deep-rooted misogyny, is there any space to re-claim the agency of the female monster?
Essentially, yes. The game is changing, Bains suggests during our discussion of the monstrous female’s contemporary on-screen descendants: from Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour’s vampire western, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” (2015), to this year’s most talked about vegetarian-turned-cannibal from French director Julia Ducournau’s “Raw” (2017).
But why vampires in particular? Because there is nothing more powerful and threatening than a female monster who can reproduce without the other half, Bains explains. In choosing her victims, the female vampire is free to select women as much as men; furthermore, she often keeps on these mothers, daughters, wives as reformed companions—“seducing the daughters of the patriarchy.”
Finally, the vampire confuses the division of human and animal: “crossing the animalistic desire of wanting to empower attack with the human desire to not.” For the female vampire, biting (and transforming her victim into a mirror image of herself) is as revolutionary as an act of sexual pleasure as it is an act of self-love. “Female vampires [like ‘Girl Walks Home…’] are so beyond the realm of being abused,” Bains explains. “She forms her own identity through her own being.”
While today’s vampire reclaims her emotional agency as a political metaphor, the female directors of the ’70s and ’80s who willed her into existence were not so lucky. “This ability was largely denied to female directors of body horror cinema, from Italy to Japan,” Bains tells me, referencing the exceptional cases of Barbara Peeters and Doris Wishman, who were only able to lay claim to this sub-genre through their filmmaker husbands.
But as the monstrous female continues to subvert the male gaze, there is a positive kickback in today’s film culture: a new empowerment of the female director. We can begin to ask how she wants to represent the female on screen—and through all manifestations of womanhood, fur and fangs aside.