Series: Top 5 of the Past 25, #2 – Female Killers

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[…in which I expound on the great genre darlings of the past 25 years in everyone’s favorite format:  the tried-and-true, oh-so-digestible Top Five List.]

So, I’m a chick.  A chick and a horror fan.  This is really pretty okay with me.  As a rule, it seems like female horror fans are looked at as something of an anomaly (though probably not quite as rare in nature as the elusive Gamer Chick).  Still, it’s not so bad – we find our own and bond accordingly.  I think we’ll all admit that horror, in film, has the tendency to be a total sausage party; that a lady working in our beloved genre will surely run the risk of being relegated to a career of “Gets Her Tits Out, Then Dies”.  While I myself am by no means a scary-militant feminist, I do think that the subjugation of women in horror is still a problem, and one that needs to be addressed (we, as a blog, take an in-depth look at this in the first edition of our podcast, “Cast Into The Dark” – get an earful of Women in Horror Month 2012, Part 1 and Part 2 when you’re done here!).

Now don’t get me wrong:  all that said, I do think horror has made great strides in providing avenues for women to really shine, whether we find ourselves the final girl or the fatal female.  We’re not always there to just Be Hot, and this is absolutely something to be celebrated.  Through the years we’ve seen such icons emerge as Elsa Lanchester, Barbara Steele, and Ingrid Pitt; more recently, Jamie Lee Curtis and Adrienne Barbeau have carved their names in the halls of horror history.  While I’m super stoked on the idea that these awesome ladies (and others) have gotten their moments in the spotlight, there’s one specific vixen I especially dig; one that I’d love to see more of in the horror world:  the Female Killer.

So here it goes, sickos:  my Top 5 Female Killers of the Past 25 Years.

#5:  “La Femme” — Béatrice Dalle in À l’intérieur (Inside) (2007)

Why She’s So Badass:  When a scalpel (or a medical degree) is hard to come by, the nearest pair of scissors will do just fine.

I’ll say it:  there’s no kind of crazy like Baby Crazy.  It’s a special kind, a whole different animal, and when the wrong woman catches this fever, chances are, shit is going down.

All hail French horror!  It’s totally refreshing to see such a balls-out gorefest handled so adeptly by this film’s two leading women.  La Femme is so brutal, she’s almost feral.  The interesting thing here is that we feel for her, even in her crazed attack on another, super-pregnant, woman.  She’s not just spraying it all over the place, either:  her motivation is actually righteous, and coming from a really dark heart- and head-space that many are never unfortunate enough to find.  Her focus is what makes her so dangerous to her victim, Sarah (Alysson Paradis), who is really no slouch either, and even though we’re not moved to really like her, she’s pretty damned tough.

By the time the film gets to where it’s going, it’s hard not to feel shitty about how things went down for everyone involved, victim and killer alike.  Dalle took what could have been a pretty stock character, the psycho killer, and gave her depth.  Each of these women, though, had nature on their side, which pretty much boils their situation down to “fight or die”.  La Femme, in the end, just fought harder.

#4:  “Asami Yamazaki” — Eihi Shiina in Audition (1999)

Why She’s So Badass:  Her bag of tricks.

When you dig down past the (copious) blood and guts offered up by Takashi Miike’s Audition, it’s not hard to see it as a pretty harsh commentary on sexism and gender politics.  That said, most people probably won’t be thinking much deeper than the thing with the dog bowl.  Since I’m already hailing things, I have to say it here too — all hail Japanese horror.

Asami is a perfect villain because she keeps it simple.  Her disguise is the actual thing she’s supposed to be:  the demure little Japanese woman, attractive and sweet. So she’s hiding in plain sight, and the dating “audition” is the perfect venue for her to carry out her plans with little contrivance.  Through the film, we learn Asami’s motivations for the retribution (and the level thereof) that she feels she has to enact; again, as in Inside, it’s not hard to find a bit of sympathy for someone with the ridiculous amount of baggage she’s got strapped to her psyche.  Asami’s evil is born from the evil done to her by her childhood abusers, so there’s a logic working for her that surpasses any morality that would stand in the way of her reckoning.  She’s broken, and a woman broken like that is one hell of a powerful creature when she harnesses that power for payback.

Female revenge in cinema seems to be of the especially heinous ilk, and it’s a theme that has been explored in horror before; I Spit On Your Grave (a.k.a Day of the Woman, 1978) and Ms. 45 (a.k.a. Angel of Vengeance, 1981) are seminal films in this vein, and should both be seen at least once in an education of the genre (not included here, of course, since I’m sticking with more modern horror in this series).  I suppose it’s not surprising that most of the revenge plots involving female antagonists are, specifically, rape-revenge stories.  Rape is universally considered to be the ultimate transgression, and is therefore deserving of the ultimate retaliation.  Asami, in the case of Audition, is almost pragmatic in this respect:  going about her bloody business is a proportional response.  As the saying goes, Hell hath no fury like a woman with a piano wire… isn’t that how the saying goes?

#3:  “Annie Wilkes” — Kathy Bates in Misery (1990)

Why She’s So Badass:  Her aptitude for the complexities of the sledgehammer.

Fandom can be a slippery slope.  As genre enthusiasts, it’s a familiar thing.  Many of us have attended the odd convention here or there, and for others, it’s something of a lifestyle.  Through their work, we forge connections to our horror heroes that are sometimes quite powerful, but are almost always unbeknownst to their objects, and it’s when that connection births a need for reciprocation that we run headlong into stalker territory.  Enter Annie Wilkes, the super-fan of all super-fans.

Let’s be honest here:  who among us isn’t a little bit afraid of Kathy Bates?  She’s one intimidating lady, and not just when she’s portraying a batshit-crazy, sledgehammer-wielding Stephen King character.  Bates won the Oscar for her role in Misery, and with good reason:  she’s perfectly in tune, reaching a level of wild fixation and menace that fit right into King’s universe.  One thing about crazies — King knows how to write ‘em, and Bates knows how to play ‘em.

In the beginning, it’s easy to see Annie Wilkes as reminiscent of Kathleen Turner’s Beverly Sutphin in Serial Mom (1994).  She hates profanity, and masks her more psychotic tendencies with a sickly-sweet disposition (and please, for the love of everything unholy, go watch Serial Mom).  The difference here is obviously in the tone of the piece; while John Waters is obviously spoofing on the American media’s voracity for serial killers, King and director Rob Reiner clearly aren’t looking to tell any jokes.  Annie reaches a level of rage and obsession far beyond the scope of satire, couching these in her role as Paul Sheldon’s savior.

Interestingly, the character of Annie is inspired by the real-life serial killer Genene Jones, an “Angel of Death” (a.k.a. Killer Nurse) who mostly targeted infants and children in the 80s.  Angels of Death like to induce medical emergencies in their patients, intending to “fix” them later, so they can play the hero.  Annie’s past as such a killer is revealed within the narrative, and it makes sense that her propensity for violence would manifest itself in her fascination with Paul Sheldon (James Caan).  In the end, her hostage manages to get the upper hand, and even though she was clever, she never saw it coming; obviously, nobody ever told her that you catch more flies with honey than with sledgehammers.

#2:  “Baby Firefly” — Sherri Moon Zombie in House of 1000 Corpses (2002)/The Devil’s Rejects (2005)

Why She’s So Badass:  She’ll break your heart.  And then she’ll probably eat it.

Okay, Rob Zombie is a pretty polarizing director.  For some, he falls into the love-to-hate category normally reserved for directors like Uwe Boll and Michael Bay (kill me now).  Personally, I don’t get this.  Zombie is a horror fan, making movies for horror fans; not only that, he’s making these movies funny, slick, and gory as all hell.  I could go on about this for another few pages — I really don’t see what’s not to like, but hey, to each their own.  Simply put, I myself like Rob Zombie a lot.

Anyway, moving on.. 2002 brought us House of 1000 Corpses, and with it came Baby Firefly.  The red-hot pinup of the Firefly clan, she’s their secret weapon:  she’s bubbly, giggling and gorgeous.  Who better to use as victim-bait than a total sexpot-damsel-in-distress?  It’s obvious, through the course of the two films, that she’s relied upon for this by her family quite a bit, though she soon proves herself totally capable as a stand-alone maniac.

Baby is present and accounted-for in House of 1000 Corpses, but she really gets to strut her sexy stuff and exercise her chops a little bit more in Zombie’s 2005 sequel, The Devil’s Rejects.  Sherri Moon Zombie is really a fine actress, and she legitimately holds her own in the role.  I know a lot of Zombie’s critics will downplay her abilities due to the fact that she’s getting it on with the director, but personally, I think she’s grown a lot.  Either way, she’s totally convincing and breaks the stratosphere of the hot/crazy scale.  I especially love the little montages you get of her in House, when she’s rocking out in her skivvies with a bunch of cadavers – you dudes out there are lying if you say that didn’t get your secret motor running just a little bit.

I really like how Baby’s character is fleshed out in Rejects.  She just kicks total ass and never caves or breaks down, even in the face of torture-by-staple-gun.  Baby’s tough, she’s a scrapper, and she’ll fight you ‘til you’re dead.  Of course, it’s quite possible that she’ll grind her witchy business all over your bloody remains when it’s over.. you know, if you’re lucky.

#1:  “May Canady” — Angela Bettis in May (2002)

Why She’s So Badass:  Loneliness is a powerful thing, especially when you have a weapon.

It’s obvious that Lucky McKee worships at the altar of Angela Bettis, and I’m with him.  May is one of my all-time favorite films for the Halloween season – fuck it, it’s really one of my favorite movies ever, and I’m sure I’ll get around to reviewing it for this site before long.

May is relatable from the get-go because it plays on a fear we’ve all had to some degree:  that our physical imperfections will render us un-loveable and forever alone.  May’s lazy eye did this to her, leaving her profoundly alienated throughout her childhood and young adult years.  Children being what they are, she was teased mercilessly for her eye patch, written off as “weird”.  She finds her single friendship in a glass-encased doll she names “Susie”, and her mother tells her, “If you can’t find a friend, make one.”  May takes this to the literal extreme.

“Imperfect” for most of her life, she begins to fixate on the perfection she sees in others:  Adam (Jeremy Sisto) and his hands; her flirty friend Polly (Anna Farris) and her beautiful neck.  Adam “likes weird”, which seems perfect for May, but she ends up coming on a little (creepy) strong.  So he rejects her, and Polly does too.  Who wouldn’t come a little unglued?  Being that her only friend is still just a doll, she sets out to make a real friend.  You know, out of people parts.

I love May’s transformation from shrinking violet to super-violent.  Her determination comes from a real, deep place; she’s another easy one to pity.  We get a great montage of May in “collection” mode, dressed as Susie and harvesting her favorite parts of the people around her to build the perfect companion.  Being that she never really connected with anyone (and that everyone refused to connect with her), the value of human life is all but lost on her, enabling her to take what she wants without remorse.

May is really a product of her environment, and that’s the thing that keeps on ringing so scarily true in her story.  The universe acted upon her too harshly for too long, and she finally lost it, with a little help from the business end of a blade.  Bullies and neglectors of the world, take note.

As many of the best movies are, May is a character study, and it treats its subject as reverently as she still somehow deserves.  As in many of the cases here, it might feel strange to feel sorry for, or even identify with, women who are capable of this much damage, but you know, May’s inherent weirdness (in both the character and the film itself) is the reason I love the whole thing the way I do.  What can I say?  “I like weird.  I like weird a lot.”

[All you splatter fiends out there, check in with me next week for a celebration of carnage in Top 5 of the Past 25, #3 — Gorefests!]

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About Kara_E

Kara is a Senior Office Assistant for the Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics at Indiana University. A past English major and lifetime writer, she has also served both as an actress and behind-the-scenes assistant for several projects with our friends at Clockwerk Pictures. Kara lives with her husband in Bloomington, Indiana. In her spare time, she is a freelance editor/proofreader for international students at Indiana University, and serves as an organizer of the Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).

Other posts in this series:

  1. Series: Top 5 of the Past 25, #4 -- Zombie Movies (May 7, 2012)
  2. Series: Top 5 of the Past 25, #3 – Gorefests (March 27, 2012)
  3. Series: Top 5 of the Past 25, #2 - Female Killers (March 8, 2012)
  4. Series: Top 5 of the Past 25, #1 - Films about Serial Killers (March 1, 2012)
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