Yesterday, I received the third issue of Ax Wound Zine, a homegrown feminist horror zine, in the mail. One of the articles, Mother Blood: A Look Inside by M. Brianna Stallings, discussed some of the themes of a 2007 French horror film, À l’intérieu or Inside. The article piqued my interest so much that I found and watched the film. (Warning: spoilers ahead). The film’s plot concerns itself with Sarah, a young pregnant woman who’s husband is killed in a car crash in the first scene of the film. She and her unborn child survive but Sarah is left despondent and isolates herself from everyone, her mother, her employer and even her cat. On the night before her induced birth (Christmas Eve), she is assaulted by a menacing woman. What at first seems like a frightening but ultimately harmless altercation explodes into a brutal, bloody and violent night of unrelenting horror. I was absolutely enthralled by the film; I found it terrifying and evocative on multiple levels and haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I watched it. After watching it, as I read the IMDb page for the film, I made the mistake of reading some of the comment threads about the movie. Several people talked about how stupid and pointless the movie was and how it, “like most all horror movies”, was merely a vehicle for gore and violence. And some of the defense for the film wasn’t much better; it consisted mostly of ‘horror isn’t supposed to have a point! That’s why it’s enjoyable!”.
Now let me take this chance to discuss my own views on horror as a genre. I love horror. Absolutely love it. I would even go so far as to say it’s my favorite genre of film. It’s very difficult to discuss the hows and whys of what horror is and can be and what it does as a genre, just like with any other genre of film; any branch of film is going to be so multi-faceted and rich with subgenres that it takes awhile to wade through it all. But one of my favorite aspects of the horror genre is the way it explores themes of sex, gender, societal views on men and women and sexuality, etc. And in regards to these specific comments about the film being pointless: I’ve been reading Carol Clover’s Men Women and Chainsaws and if there’s one thing (among many) I’ve taken away from it so far is that even the most low-brow, unconscious of films can be analyzed. Because we as a people do not create art in a vacuum; our art is always in some way influenced by the environment and society that we live in. Whether or not a piece of art chooses to recognize that and make some kind of comment on it is really here nor there; the influences inherent to any given society are still recognizable within a piece of work. And, furthermore, just because one person doesn’t recognize something in or read into a piece of art the same way another person does, doesn’t mean that those factors don’t exist within the film. For example: just because hundreds of people don’t think or recognize that privilege and white guilt plays a huge part in the narrative of Avatar doesn’t mean that those ideas are still not inherent to the narrative and easily recognizable to other people.
Getting back on track: Inside is about as far from a pointless film as you can get. Pregnancy and the fears and anxieties surrounding it have been fodder for horror and SciFi for a very long time. The very idea of an entity that is itself a separate being existing within another body or host is an unsettling premise and one that hasn’t escaped the horror genre. Inside plays with these ideas of anxiety before the attacker even shows up via a very graphic dream sequence in which Sarah projectile vomits a milky looking substance (breast milk perhaps?) all over the floor before the fetus expels itself upwards and out of her mouth. This idea of the body rejecting all things to do with the pregnancy-the milk that nurtures baby, the baby itself-is a reflection of very real anxieties experienced by pregnant women: what if something happens to the baby? What if my body doesn’t take care of it right? What if something goes wrong? What if my body can’t house this life properly?
Beyond just themes of the horrors of pregnancy, Inside also explores relationships between women in three ways: the interactions between Sarah and her mother, Sarah and the attacker and Sarah and a female police officer. Sarah’s depression over the death of her husband has caused her to push away her mother, whom she refers to by name and is increasingly frustrated and curt with. Sarah refuses the offer of Christmas dinner with her mother, insisting more than once that she’s “…full. [She’s] really full.” The choice of words very clearly has multiple meanings other than her not being hungry: Sarah is literally and figuratively full. Physically, she is very heavy with child (the implication being that she may be overdue, hence the impending induction); her belly protrudes far out from her small frame and she is often seen walking with her hand bracing her back. Emotionally, she is full to the brim with anxieties and depression as a result of her husband’s death. And yet, despite all of this burden, she continually refuses help from her mother. She doesn’t even want her mother to drive her to or be present at the birth of the child.
After Sarah’s first encounter with the film’s unnamed antagonist, during which she tries to harass Sarah into letting her in by calling out her lie about her husband sleeping and thereby revealing that she knows just a bit too much about Sarah, the police arrive. A female officer makes the immediate assumption that Sarah is being harassed by the father of her child and then later gently insists that perhaps Sarah is mistaken in thinking the assailant is a woman. The ideas inherent in the officer’s immediate assumptions are 1. that pregnant women are more likely to be harassed by the men who have impregnated them (which isn’t a completely unfounded idea) and 2. that women in general are not of such a brutal nature to harass one another violently. These assumptions are completely undermined by the narrative but betray persistent ideas about pregnant women (as very vulnerable and oftentimes hysterical, unreliable sources of information) and women in general. And it’s very interesting that the ideas are put forth by a woman who is cast in a profession that is traditionally coded masculine; it may possibly represent a barrier that is sometimes constructed between women who are, in some way, coded differently from one another in terms of gender (in this case pregnancy is coded feminine whereas the rough and tough life of a cop is coded masculine).
But the real meat of the film lies in the relationship between Sarah and her assailant. It is initially unclear why this woman is hassling Sarah, insisting that she let her in. Our sense of safety is shaken as we see her, lurking in the background unbeknownst to the vulnerable Sarah. Tension builds as the woman walks about the house as Sarah sleeps, searching for the proper tools to set her work in motion. The weapon she chooses, a pair of shears, is used persistently throughout the film as is a knitting needle (in Stallings article, she noted that these are feminine crafting tools being put to use in sinister, deadly ways). As I watched the unnamed woman poise her weapon against Sarah’s distended tummy and actually penetrate the flesh I began to think about the purpose of pregnant women in horror and the female body as a completely penetrable object.
The presence of a pregnant woman in a horror movie immediately creates a sense of tension or dread; the character is clearly pregnant for a reason, even if it’s not a driving plot element as in this film. I recently watched Cheap, a very low-budget exploitation film directed by Brad Jones (aka The Cinema Snob). One of the peripheral characters is heavily pregnant and the instant she walks on-screen, if you’re aware of the film’s premise, you know that something bad is going to happen to this character otherwise the screenwriter wouldn’t have made her pregnant. And something bad does happen to her and it’s all the more unpleasant because of her pregnancy. In this sense, pregnant characters create a state of fear; we are afraid for these characters much the way we’re afraid for a small child or an animal because in the context of horror films they are more vulnerable than a full-grown, able-bodied person.
A pregnant woman in a horror film has already demonstrated in the most literal sense that she is penetrable. She has, in most cases, had sex with a man and it has resulted in a life inside her body. Beyond that, a pregnant woman is extremely vulnerable to external penetrative forces that threaten the life of her and her unborn child. Sarah is an extreme example of this: she is one day shy of giving birth and every brutal act in this movie is all the more gutting because the viewer knows this. We know that the child inside her is experiencing the physical repercussions of the violence (and not just because of the intermittent CGI shots of the child being physically distressed in utero) and it fosters a sense of constant tension. Even as Sarah sits in the increasingly bloodier bathroom, which she does for over half of the movie (more penetrability; she locks herself inside and her attacker continually tries to penetrate the door), she is experiencing non-stop emotional and mental terror that threatens the well-being of her unborn child.
The relationship between Sarah and her attacker is the most developed of the film. Her assailant shifts back and forth from quiet threat to raving madwoman to maternal caregiver (in the darkest senses possible). She is simultaneously maternal and murderous towards Sarah while fetishizing her pregnancy. Her obsession with Sarah’s child, the driving force behind her madness, exemplifies the darkest side of maternal instincts. We learn that Sarah and her assailant have more in common than is initially thought (spoilerspoilerspoilerspoiler) when it is revealed that this woman was in the other car involved in the accident that killed Sarah’s husband and that the crash resulted in her miscarriage. Both women lost something in this accident and neither are to blame but both react in different ways. Where Sarah sinks into isolation and depression, the other woman descends into madness, deciding that she will take from Sarah what she believes Sarah has taken from her. “Will you kill me again, Sarah?” she asks as Sarah is about to deliver the killing blow, giving her pause, “You’ve already killed me once.” This sense of distorted kinship, of dark intimacy unsettles the viewer by forcing us to sympathize with our mad killer. She is older than Sarah, clearly in at least her mid-forties; it’s not outside the realm of reality to believe that the child she lost was her last chance to conceive. And for someone who may already be mentally unstable, that kind of deep, traumatizing loss could push them to horrific limits.
In terms of thematic elements, this film is not lacking. To claim that this is a ‘pointless gore flick’ betrays a complete ignorance of the fundamental elements of the story itself. This is one of the most visceral films I’ve ever seen. It is unrelenting and potentially traumatizing or triggering. There is much bloodshed; while watching I lost track of where all this blood came from and found myself several times shocked by the amount of blood-spray on the walls and floor and covering the characters. But the gore itself is not, in my opinion, just pointless blood. Pregnancy, and more specifically birth, is bloody. It is gory. It is visceral and tender and red and unbearable to watch at times. Inside is a haunting story, that is loaded with ideas and themes of the horror of pregnancy, of living in a penetrable female body, and the sometimes dark and twisted kinship between women. In the world of the horror film, the female body is one of the most vulnerable places to live in; you are open to penetration of all kinds. I recommend this film to fans of the genre or to anyone curious enough to seek it out but, as I said, it is a very emotional film to watch. If seeing the delicacy of pregnancy continually brutalized is something that could potentially upset or trigger you, take caution. But the film was a satisfying cinematic experience for me. It is a layered and purposeful film that evokes critical thought about motherhood, pregnancy and the female body.