This essay contains spoilers (and incoherent ramblings).
I recently watched (in some cases rewatched) a handful of horror films in quick succession; The Babadook, The Ring Two, It Follows, and, for reasons unfathomable to most, the third film in the Urban Legends franchise called Bloody Mary (it was written by two screenwriters that I have previously enjoyed!). Whilst It Follows was far and away the superior film from this clutch of mediocrity (and worse), it fell into familiar and unhelpful horror movie patterns of victim blaming and the condemnation of women who have the audacity to have sex. The film flirts with and in some cases outright embraces the worst tropes of ‘classic’ slasher horror, in particular virgin-praising/promiscuity punishing killers, whilst the overbearing 80’s synth score and retro costume design give the disagreeable impression that this was a purposeful choice.
Maika Monroe’s Jay is the victim of a violent encounter after she has sex, and she is pursued by an unstoppable, unknowable force of nature that will kill her if it catches her. This curse, or sickness, is incurable, it wants only to be spread like a virus. So, with that subtle set up we know that this movie is concerned with the act of sex and it’s potentially disastrous consequences for the unwary. Amongst other things I was struck by the way the film continues to sexualise Jay even after the traumatic event, and there is a near constant male-gaze objectification directed at the three principle female characters. Jay’s childhood crush Paul is still hung up on her and he constantly throws unrequited lustful glances her way (toes touching on the couch is wrung out for all the eroticism it can offer) and the local bad lad is looking to score with Jay too (and her sister and her best friend). I think the intention of this is to demonstrate the constant and overpowering presence of sexual intention inherent in the young, but it seems strange to me that Jay is so ok with this. She has just suffered a violent sexual encounter and is now suffering the effects of a very dangerous STD but she is not affected enough to be wary of new potential sexual partners. She is somewhat conflicted about sleeping with someone to ‘pass on’ the curse, but her emotional state and potential qualms about having intercourse again are never explored or even touched on. Essentially the film presents this curse as the ‘cost of doing business’ for a young woman exploring her sexuality. Maybe that is a statement of some kind about the way society views sexually active young women, but it isn’t a clear message if it is and I’m not entirely sure what side the film makers end up on.
The four films I mention above all feature female protagonists, and those lead characters have varying, but universally disappointingly low, degrees of agency. Without exception each becomes the victim of a malevolent force imposed upon them by the actions of an external actor (child/demon, child/ghost, parents/ghost, lover/curse) and they suffer unimaginable terror as a result. They are pursued, haunted, stalked, and hounded not because of their own actions, but because of the actions of others, or indeed just because they are there. The real world is indeed a harsh place and people suffer many terrible wrongs for no other reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the stories we choose to tell on screen aren’t actually about real life, they’re about monsters and ghosts and robots and aliens. Why then are we so keen on watching women being punished for no particular reason? Whilst we ponder that let’s add another. Do we believe only men are adept at strategising and complex problem solving? In these films the female lead is often aided, successfully or not, by male characters. In fact those men are usually the ones who come up with the big plans and strategies to take on the forces of evil. Regardless of whether these plans work out or if instead the protagonist faces into the terror with nothing but her gumption and moxy I find it more than a little disappointing that it takes the whole movie for the women to actually do anything in their own defence. They don’t come up with plans, they don’t move the plot forward, they just wait and worry whilst the supporting characters take action and the monster acts on them. At least that is until they finally break down in the final act, and that usually just entails screaming at the evil thing about how they won’t backdown.
In the frankly still unbeaten modern horror The Ring (and it’s Japanese forebear) Naomi Watts’ character Rachel is an investigative reporter and she puts her skills to good use as she tracks down the source of the haunted video tape and goes about lifting the curse. Sure she gets scared in the face of unknowable terror, but she takes action, makes plans, and goes down a bloody terrifying well to take on a ghost skeleton. In abominably mis-judged The Ring Two Rachel is instead buffeted about by events out of her control and basically just revisits the clues from last time without uncovering much of anything – this key difference, the lack of a strong central figure around which the audience can rally and care for is one of the main reasons The Ring is amazing and The Ring Two is a joke. Similarly in the recently overly-hyped The Babadook and that mess of a film Bloody Mary the female protagonists mostly just sit around looking sad, being affected by the ghosts whilst they live their drab lives. In its favour It Follows at least has some tense moments and a palpable sense of terror throughout, but it remains the story of a young woman whose world has an impact on her rather than the other way around. If it’s a strong female character, genuinely unsettling moments, and a truly unique horror experience you want you’d be much better off watching the criminally underrated Oculus.