Tag Archives: Sex & gender

The Foxy Grey Fox

By Andreas

Howard Hawks mystifies me. A former pilot and avid outdoorsman, Hollywood’s “Grey Fox” was tight-lipped in interviews and is popularly viewed as the poster child for Hollywood classicism. By and large, his movies are old-fashioned genre fare about teams of professionals in tough situations (a synopsis that covers 4/5 of the movies on this list). Whereas some filmmakers give me an impression of flamboyance or eccentricity, Hawks feels vanilla and taciturn—the strong silent type.

But this vague sketch is totally insufficient when it comes to Hawks’s films. I’d rank his masterpieces alongside those of his modernist collaborators, like Hemingway and Faulkner; they’re sublime works of art made by an utter genius. Clearly, more was going on beneath the surface than Hawks chose to give away. This extends to the realm of sexuality: on the surface, Hawks was just a thrice-married heterosexual filmmaker who specialized in action/adventure movies. But buried in his work were strange, compelling sexual undercurrents. I’ve already discussed the queerness of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, so here are a few other Hawks films with surprisingly sexy moments…

Throughout Hawks’s gangster classic Scarface (1932), anti-hero Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is pretty preoccupied with the sexual comings and goings of his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak). He slaps her around for daring to dance with other men, and is consistently abusive and controlling. Yet in the film’s last scene, as he’s holed up in his steel-shuttered bunker and surrounded on all sides by cops, Cesca is there for him. When he asks why she didn’t kill him (he did murder the man she loved, after all), she explains that it’s “because you’re me, and I’m you.” This scene blazes with incestuous tension, and when Cesca dies moments later, it does not play as a brother/sister death scene. “I’m no good without you,” says Tony as his sister breathes her last. It’s pretty obvious what he means.

As Sugarpuss O’Shea in Ball of Fire (1941), co-written by Billy Wilder, Barbara Stanwyck is a firecracker of compressed libido. She’s a stripper on the lam who stumbles upon a coven of academics working on an encyclopedia, and decides to tap into their latent desires… especially those of the lanky, sexually unaware Bertrand Potts (Gary Cooper). He’s an easy mark, as Sugarpuss introduces him to the wonders of “yum yum,” a slang term that becomes a running joke. You get one guess about who gives the film its title. (1941 also saw Stanwyck seducing the professorial Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve, which is a better film and contains a hotter seduction.)

Hawks had the rare privilege of working with Hollywood’s hottest couple twice, first in To Have and Have Not (1944) and then in his noir masterpiece The Big Sleep (1946). Both films contain scenes of explosive sexual tension: the former has the infamous “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” exchange; The Big Sleep has the brilliant horse-racing conversation. Bogey and Bacall throw double entendres back and forth, metaphorically mixing sex and detective work with talk of being “rated” and “who’s in the saddle.” When Bogey says “I don’t know how far you can go,” they’re not discussing horses anymore. It’s a remarkably crude-but-subtle way to undermine the Production Code in the name of sexy, sexy art.

I think this image from Hawks’s Red River (1948) gets the erotic point across pretty well. Matt (the very gay Montgomery Clift) and his potential rival Cherry (John Ireland) have just met and, knowing one another by reputation, decide to test their “sharpshooting skills.” To do so, they trade “guns” and evaluate how well each “gun” handles. Maybe, just maybe, you can detect some subtext. As usual, Hawks’s use of sexual metaphors is unobtrusive and undeniable, saying exactly what he wants it to say with minimum fuss and maximum erotic power.

Although credit for directing The Thing from Another World (1951) technically goes to Hawks’s frequent editor Christian Nyby, everyone and their grandmother agrees that it’s covered in Hawks’s auteur earmarks. So I’m including it for its bizarre but fun example of fairly explicit bondage. Kenneth Tobey, playing a tough military man stationed in the Arctic, expresses a romantic interest in the only woman at the base, played by Margaret Sheridan. He offers to let her tie him up, if she has a drink with him, and she takes him up on it. The hand-tying always strikes me out of nowhere: so much of The Thing feels conventionally 1950s, and then it’s like, “Bondage!” Oh, Howard Hawks, you perverted devil.

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Gender, Sympathy, and the “Monstrous Hero”

By Andreas

Forever ago (i.e., last October), I wrote about my horror-centric comps project. I planned to analyze Cat People, The Haunting, Carrie, and May to glean what each film had to say about female sexuality, and how these ideas manifested themselves stylistically. Well, over the past few months, I wrote that 30-page paper, revised it twice, gave a public presentation on it, and now the process is done! So, just in case you’re really eager to read a mammoth research paper about these movies, I give you my comps paper: “Gender, Sympathy, and the ‘Monstrous Hero’ in the American Horror Film.”

After the jump, read over 8,000 words of theory and textual analysis on horror and sexuality…

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Hell is Other Ballerinas

I finally saw Black Swan, and so did Ashley, right before the big holiday weekend. She had a lot to say about it, including the fact that Mila Kunis was really sexy. I thought that Winona Ryder didn’t get enough screen time. (It’s bullshit: she’s still a fantastic actress, but now every online story about her has to include the word “shoplift” somewhere [that was nine years ago, people], and she has to play a jealous ballet has-been with a mangled leg.) Both Kunis and Ryder, however, have to play second fiddle to the all-enveloping psychoses of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), the perfectionist who’s going to play the Swan Queen in her ballet company’s production of Swan Lake – that is, if her hallucinations don’t kill her first.

It’s certainly something new. It starts out with the same painful realism as Darren Aronofsky’s previous film, The Wrestler (2008), following its heroine back and forth from practices with sleazy ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) to the apartment she shares with her beloved smother mother (Barbara Hershey), a woman who cares just a little too much about her “sweet girl.” But as she keeps itching that rash on her back, and as she keeps suspecting that Lily (Kunis) is trying to steal her spotlight, Nina snaps and starts losing it. Black Swan turns into a record of her persecution fantasies, her “lezzy wet dream,” her imagined murders and suicides, and every other psychological dysfunction Aronofsky can cram into two hours.

Portman is incredible as she plays multiple sides of the same self-destructive diva, and Black Swan beautifully mixes observational details about her life and relationships with free-flowing visual sensuality; Aronofsky is clearly enamored with the look of blood against flesh, feathers, and tutus. However, as the film retreats into Nina’s head, it does wrong by its supporting cast, who become mere accessories to her madness – especially Cassel, who – although he excels at it – has little to do but stand around being lecherous and unethical. At least Kunis gets several scenes to steal, as does Hershey, who creepily channels Piper Laurie in Carrie.

But like Polanski’s Repulsion, from which it steals a few cues, this is a one-woman psychodrama about one hell of a crack-up. It’s never clear whether Black Swan‘s surreal visions – which also delve deeply into Cronenberg’s The Fly – will end up amounting to much, or if the lesson is just that art is madness, obsession leads to death, etc., etc., but it’s a gorgeous, brutal trip while it lasts, with some juicy insights about the fruits of sexual repression. You could say it’s All About Eve (or, more appropriately, Showgirls) in the ballet world – but with Nina as both Eve and Margo, a duality that culminates in a disturbing, amazingly weird reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky. With, as always, several pillows worth of feathers and buckets of blood.

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Selling Out on the Street of Shame

Over at Shadowplay, David Cairns’ The Late Show – a blogathon devoted to directors’ late and last movies – rages on. Since I contributed to it on Sunday with a post about Eric Rohmer’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), I’d like to travel back half a century and halfway around to the world, to postwar Japan. While the legislature debates banning their trade, a group of prostitutes working side by side must fight both poverty and the stigma attached to their profession in Kenji Mizoguchi’s final film, Street of Shame (1956) or Akasen chitai – more accurately translated, according to the Eclipse DVD case, as the nonjudgmental “Red Light District.”

Released just months before Mizoguchi’s tragically early death from leukemia, Street of Shame is a fitting capstone to a career spent chronicling the abuses suffered and sacrifices made by Japanese women. Although it might not reach the aesthetic heights of such incomparable masterpieces as Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954), it still contains all the marks of Mizoguchi at his prime: deep focus photography (by Kazuo Miyagawa) used for visually dense storytelling; the evocation of extreme pathos coupled with a flickering hope for future happiness; and richly drawn female characters, both good and evil.

In less than 90 minutes, Mizoguchi juxtaposes the stories of five women working at Dreamland, a brothel in Tokyo’s Yoshiwara pleasure district. Each has her own attitudes toward her job, and motivations for taking it, but they all have one thing in common: an uphill battle. They’re oppressed enough as women, but as sex workers, they’re directly told, “You’re merchandise.” Socially marginalized beyond the point of visibility, and with the government threatening to cut off their only source of income, they have to take desperate measures just to survive. Poor Yorie (Hiroko Machida) gets married, thinking of it as an escape, but returns when her husband turns out to be as dictatorial as any pimp.

Yume (Ayako Wakao), meanwhile, tries to keep her son from seeing her at work; his shame later leads to a confrontation where he renounces her as a mother. Mizoguchi doesn’t sugar-coat anything, nor does he exaggerate the extent of his characters’ miseries. He just honestly shows every one of the pressures converging on these women as they’re simultaneously exploited by their managers and customers, and rejected by their families in their hours of need. But, in the midst of all of this grim realism, he finds a possible silver lining – the tight-knit community formed by the women, for better or worse.

When their ties with the outside world are cut and the future promises nothing but self-commodification and inescapable debt, at the very least the women still have each other. Like the cast of Pedro Almodóvar’s comparable Volver (2004), the women don’t always support or even like each other, but the basis of their relationships are shared experiences; they each have the same understanding of what it’s like to be coerced into selling yourself. This works both ways, though, as the sly, enterprising Yasumi (Aiko Mimasu) lends out money to her impoverished sisters and makes a killing in interest, earning herself the nickname “Lady Shylock.”

Yasumi’s story is the most telling of the five, since at the end of the film, she’s the only one who successfully leaves the black hole that is the brothel. Her escape, however, comes only through her readiness to play the femme fatale, extorting and betraying those around her when necessary. She knows better than anyone the value of a yen, and she’s bitterly justified in her callous actions. She’s no more “evil” than Ugetsu‘s Lady Wakasa, willing to sacrifice those around her for the sake of self-preservation. Yasumi’s story arc reveals the cruel flip side to Mizoguchi’s vision of female camaraderie.

And speaking of Lady Wakasa, Machiko Kyo reappears here as the brassy young Michiko, who takes on the Americanized name “Mickey” (like the mouse). She’s introduced wearing a flashy, low-cut dress, dancing around in a giant shell à la The Birth of Venus. If Street of Shame‘s women were the seven samurai, Mickey would be Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune): the spunky, frivolous newcomer who doesn’t yet understand the group’s complex dynamics. She initially showcases her sexual allure and seduces away the other women’s customers, but over the course of the film, the routine grinds her down and her vulnerabilities start to show. By the final minutes of the film, she’s an old hand who readily shows the ropes to a shy teenage neophyte.

Thus, Street of Shame (and Mizoguchi’s career) concludes with a disturbing reminder that all this sacrifice and oppression is cyclical. Not only that, but unsolvable, unless economic opportunities and the treatment of women improve. It’s a far cry from the grand, all-for-love melodrama that ended his pre-war masterpiece Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939). The new prostitute hesitantly tries to attract potential customers wandering through Yoshiwara, calling out quietly as she retreats behind a wall. With that lingering image, Mizoguchi’s thirty-plus years of filmmaking fade into open-ended darkness.

What do you think of Mizoguchi, or his representations of women’s suffering? Any and all comments welcome.

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Link Dump: #13

Inspired by today’s Kindertrauma Funhouse, the above picture comes from Roger Corman’s early black comedy A Bucket of Blood (1959), something of a companion piece to Little Shop of Horrors (1960). In it, Dick Miller plays Walter Paisley (a character he would play many more times), a busboy who wants to be a beatnik artist. He gets the chance when he accidentally stabs his landlady’s poor kitty, Frankie, and turns the corpse into a sculpture. What follows is Corman’s usual Faustian drama wrapped in dark humor, all filmed on recycled sets with a budget of pocket change. And yet another horror movie kitty bites the dust (or, I guess, bites the clay).

And now, to celebrate our lucky 13th Link Dump, I’ve got a ginormous parade of links that runs the gamut from depressing to hilarious to fascinating and back again. The Internet was pretty talkative this week, and now you get to reap the fruits of my copy-and-paste labor. Enjoy!

  • As you’ve probably heard, actor/comedian extraordinaire Leslie Nielsen died last Sunday at age 84. The Internet is full of remembrances; here are a few from Paracinema, My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second, True Classics, and Roger Ebert. Also, here are my own Twitter-bound reminiscences.
  • Here are two awesome LGBTQ lists: one of comic book characters and one of 2010 books.
  • Empire has a fun time-waster: a poster quiz featuring individual letters from movie posters. I got 16/46, including Showgirls. (Who could forget that typography?) What score can you get?
  • Over at Splitsider, former Simpsons writer/producer (and Mission Hill co-creator) has been writing about the Simpsons writing process; most recently, he’s done a detailed look at the evolution of “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song.”
  • The Criterion Collection! Female filmmakers!
  • Leo McCarey’s hard-to-find My Son John (1952) is on Netflix Instant! Let’s all go watch it, quick! [Thanks to the Self-Styled Siren for the tip-off.]
  • Artforum has 2010 Top 10 movie lists from John Waters and Mark Webber. The latter’s list is mostly avant-garde, while Waters’ is predictably wild and eclectic. Alas, out of all 20, I’ve only seen Dogtooth and Life During Wartime. Better get watching! (And more: Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw’s best of 2010.)
  • From a Vanity Fair interview: Johnny Depp on his characters’ sexualities and his desire to play Hamlet.
  • Terence Malick’s making a movie immediately after The Tree of Life!! Has anyone checked to make sure this is the same Malick we’re talking about? His new project (potentially titled The Burial) will – according to the TheWrap.com article linked above – feature Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem.
  • Hey, it’s that time again! Censorship Time! Thanks to the Catholic League and Speaker of the House John Boehner, a David Wojnarowicz video piece has been removed from an exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery. Don’t you just love the abuse of political power to supplant the artistic expression of a man who’s been dead since 1992? JESUS. (Literally – the piece was about Jesus.) [GLAAD has another article about the censorship.]
  • As a pick-me-up, how about some terrible but still funny typography jokes?
  • Matt Mazur of PopMatters wrote a long, in-depth essay on one of my favorite movies, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. I love it when people do that.
  • Speaking of long, in-depth essays on movies I love, Ed Howard at Only the Cinema has one on Edward Dmytryk’s disturbing, underrated film noir The Sniper! “Stop me. Find me and stop me. I’m going to do it again.” Arthur Franz is terrifying.
  • We all love Criterion’s gorgeous DVD cover designs, but some genius decided to make fake Criterion-style covers for movies like The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) and Bio-Dome (1996). Delightful.
  • This just in! Sarah Dopp wants to make a marketplace for genderplayful clothing! It’s a super-cool idea, and you should totally show your support! Yeah!

We’re running tragically low on funny/weird search terms because of how WordPress has reformatted their system, but I still have some porntastic treats for you. For example, “the horny lady in the caravan” is a pretty enigmatic search, as is the horrendously spelled “sex pusy bleak girlls.” One of those four words is not like the others. (It’s “bleak.”) Someone sought out “xander berkeley + sexuality,” which I applaud. (Berkeley, for what it’s worth, is an underappreciated character actor in films, TV, and animation; he played insensitive husbands in two of my favorite films of the ’90s, Candyman and [Safe].) And finally, we had that old classic, “pussy om nom nom.” And a merry pussy om nom nom to you too, dear reader!

[Note from Ashley:  Andreas is no longer allowed to pick the pictures for the link dumps. He picks too many disturbing pictures of kitties and it upsets me greatly.]

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Filth, Fame, and Divine

I really really love John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972). It’s one of the most infamous cult movies of all time; it’s also hilarious, unrelentingly in-your-face, and endlessly enjoyable in the most tasteless ways. Hell, I love it so much that I wrote a 12-page paper on it a week ago called “Divine, Pink Flamingos, and the Politicized Body.” Therefore, I’d love to share with you what I learned from this paper. The fruits of my intellectual labor, if you will! And better yet, I’ll present them via a bulleted list, as my gift to you.

  • The mother: Within the film, Divine’s body is squeezed into a lot of roles. She’s a loving mother, a sexy starlet, and a mass murderer. The conflation of these gendered identities subverts them all, making for some pretty acrid social commentary. Babs Johnson’s brood is the American family run amok (complete with incest and chicken-fucking), and she’s an exaggerated, parodic portrayal of the ideal suburban homemaker – June Cleaver as a fat, foul-mouthed drag queen.
  • Sexualization: Divine (the character) isn’t just a mother; she’s also a horny gal raring for some action. Or as she puts it: “Why, I’m all dressed up and ready to fall in love!” She embraces a clichéd 1950s image of what attractive women are, and how they act, even if that image is self-evidently ridiculous. Like the film as a whole, she undercuts social norms by claiming as her own the lowest, tackiest, most degraded forms of cultural discourse.
  • The transgressive body: Early in Pink Flamingos, Divine buys a slab of meat and warms it up “in [her] own little oven” by holding it between her legs. Later, she barbecues the meat and serves it to her family for dinner. She’s the homemaking matriarch, but she also rubs food against her genitalia, licks furniture, and eats shit. The actions don’t suit the role, but Divine does them anyway.

  • Violence: As Michael Tinkcom points out in Working Like a Homosexual, John Waters totally anticipated the tabloid glamorization of criminals, and did it better than Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994). Divine and her family are a pack of fugitives, “the filthiest people alive,” and this only compounds her sex appeal. As Pink Flamingos sees it, there’s no difference between pin-up and wanted posters. (Female Trouble delves even deeper into this – “I’m so fucking beautiful I can’t stand it myself!”)
  • Celebrity: Pink Flamingos is really about the cult of celebrity. In Divine, his cinematic muse, John Waters blends Jayne Mansfield with the Manson Family. (The film quotes a scene from the Mansfield vehicle The Girl Can’t Help It [1956], and it’s dedicated to “Sadie, Katie, and Les,” three of the Manson girls.) By mixing sex, violence, and press coverage, Waters is essentially writing a love (or poison pen?) letter to postwar mass culture. (Also, for what it’s worth, I think Divine might be the Lady Gaga of the 1970s.)

So there you have it! It’s my reading of Pink Flamingos in just a few bite-sized pieces. It was a little more complicated than that, but you get the general idea. I talked about Rachel Adams’ Sideshow U.S.A., especially her take on Zoe Leonard’s photographs of bearded lady Jennifer Miller; also, I included this very vital quote from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble:

The replication of heterosexual constructs in non-heterosexual frames brings into relief the utterly constructed status of the so-called heterosexual original. Thus, gay is to straight not as copy is to original, but, rather, as copy is to copy. The parodic repetition of ‘the original,’… reveals the original to be nothing other than a parody of the idea of the natural and the original.

So remember that the next time you have to write an academic essay about drag! Finally, I noticed a great visual tidbit in the entryway to the Marbles’ house in Pink Flamingos.

Yes, that’s right: next to that poster for Joseph Losey’s campfest Boom! (1968) is an Andy Warhol print of Elizabeth Taylor. Since I had recently written a paper on Sixteen Jackies (1964), I was very cued into Warhol and his ties to celebrity culture, mass production, and drag. Like Pink Flamingos, Warhol’s work frequently links consumer culture with death, albeit in subtler, less over-the-top ways. More importantly, the grids of near-identical faces in his many series of celebrity prints (like those of Liz, Jackie, and Marilyn) resonate with the ways that Divine imperfectly embodies the personas June Cleaver, Jayne Mansfield, and Charlie Manson.

My ideas about Waters vis-à-vis Warhol aren’t fully fleshed out quite yet, but there’s a start. After finishing this project, I adore Pink Flamingos more than ever, from Ms. Edie’s demented, egg-centric babbling to Connie Marble’s intense bitchiness (“my kind of people, and assholes!”) to, of course, the divine Divine. A final note: If you want to learn more about drag, Divine, Warhol, and everything else, I highly recommend Marjorie Garber’s indispensable and entertaining Vested Interests. It’s a fantastic book.

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Addicted to Fear, or Why I Am a Horror Junkie

It’s Halloween. The best holiday of the year. So I’d like to wax autobiographical for a minute here, and talk about my own personal relationship with the horror genre. If you’ve spent any time peeking around Pussy Goes Grrr, you know that Ashley and I are horror junkies. We crave all the neurochemical releases that accompany a good scary movie; few experiences thrill us more than discovering an new, bold horror masterpiece that scares our socks off. But, you may ask, where did this cinematic bloodlust come from? What childhood disease did we acquire that made us seek out things that scare us? If Andreas is so terrified of insects (it’s true!), why the hell would he intentionally watch any iteration of The Fly?

The answers, of course, are long and complex. I don’t even know all of them. Where do any artistic preferences come from? How do you account for any taste? But I would like to talk about a few childhood experiences that probably contributed to my critical idiosyncrasies. You see, a lot of my cinephilia stems from the kind of family I grew up in. When I was in elementary school, a common family activity was indulging in a VHS of some Universal horror, or a 1950s Vincent Price vehicle, or something bad like Plan 9. (My childhood arrived at the tail end of the VHS-and-video-store era, so despite being born in 1990, I still get to be nostalgic for their distinctively analog delights.)

As you can probably tell, my family’s viewing choices hewed to older fare, so I was inculcated into a very specific kind of old-fashioned horror fandom. John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and even George Romero didn’t mean much to me until after I started college; instead, as I grew to really appreciate scary movies, it was all about Tod Browning, James Whale, Roger Corman, and other such pioneers. But before my understanding of film became that sophisticated or auteur-centric, it was all about the images. That’s what I’m really here to address. Iconic horror movie images became displaced in time, space, and authorship. They become universal possessions of the collective unconscious. It’s a beautiful, mysterious process.

So: when I was little, we had all these books about horror movies sitting around. My father had accumulated them over the years, maybe from bookstores or thrift stores or book sales or forever. I still have the cover of John Stanley’s Revenge of the Creature Features Movie Guide burnt somewhere inside my brain. The books’ titles consisted of every possible permutation of the words “scary,” “horror,” “movie,”  and “guide.” Maybe, on occasion, “flicks” or “encyclopedia” would worm their ways into the titling algorithm. For the most part, they were generic compilations of short reviews, cast listings, and black-and-white stills. These stills were really the selling points: they were one-frame money shots, showing off the most hypnotic, gruesome artistry the movie had to offer.

They were also one of my first exposures to horror’s perverse, forbidden, slightly erotic pleasures. Horror movies showed me deformed faces, exaggerated bodies, and every other conceivable mutilation of the human form – all with a strangely sexualized twist. Even though all of pre-1968 cinema was supposed to be clean and safe for kids’ enjoyment, it actually contained festering, potent traces of sensual yearning and sinful desire. And, in its own illicit way, this unspoken aspect of horror was also very educational. I’m an outspoken advocate for the (usually) secret-but-pervasive sexual side of horror, and it’s partially because as I reflect on my childhood, I realize how profoundly it influenced me as a person.

Here are a few of those images. They’ve all taken on curious, shadowy lives of their own in the mind of pop culture. They’ve all acquired a set of meanings and associations in the years since they were created. And they all have strange and powerful significances to me as an individual.

There is so much I could say about Bela Lugosi in Dracula. It’s the role that defined his career, and the film set the stage for every horror talkie that followed it. It also codified the image of an aristocratic, caped vampire. It has enormous resonance for me – in fact, resonance above and beyond almost all other horror movies. I can’t help it. It’s not because of how well it’s made; that’s a nonissue with Tod Browning films, and there have been far better adaptations of the source novel. (Like, say, both versions of Nosferatu.) Maybe it’s some combination of the dilapidated castle, the Karl Freund camerawork, and Lugosi’s body language that drilled this movie into my brain. Despite his classical training, Lugosi always looked like such an outsider in American movies. Maybe the inherent pathos and tragedy of the Lugosi persona struck me through this movie. I couldn’t say.

This remains, I think, one of the most inexplicably compelling, mystifying, and disgusting images in all of film. Even going beyond Freaks‘ moralizing showmanship, just trying to look at it rationally… all logic fails when applied to this image. It appeals to something deeper than logic. This might be what draws me so forcefully to Tod Browning: even though his films are often nonsensical, amateurish, and tawdry, they nonetheless get to something in the bestial recesses of the human mind. Cleopatra’s incomprehensible, dehumanizing fate is so psychosexually loaded, because a “beautiful” woman has been forcibly and maliciously transformed into a voiceless, ambiguous being. It’s all intensified by the real question: how did the freaks do this?

I saw Janet Leigh’s screaming face years before I ever saw Psycho. Like the image of Freaks, it depicts a woman’s body being mutilated; it’s explicitly sexualized violence. But it’s also laden with intertwining threads of meaning. It’s not just an expression of unadulterated misogyny. (Those who pelt the horror genre with tired accusations of unadulterated misogyny are really underestimating the depth of these films. Although, of course, some horror movies are full of straightforward misogyny.) Consider part of Carol Clover’s argument in Men, Women, and Chain Saws: in a slasher film, the viewer is constantly shifted in identification between the attacker and the victim. It’s not just that we see ourselves in Mrs. Bates as she hacks into Marion, because we also see ourselves in the dying, shrieking Marion. It’s about fear and vulnerability. It’s about gender anxieties and sexual curiosity.

This is just a little hint of why I love horror so much, but the main reason is that I love to be scared. Yes, it’s perverse (in the truest sense of the word) and yes, it’s very counterintuitive. But fear is important and it can be useful. By watching something that scares you, you can learn more about yourself and your relationship to the world around you. I believe that for several reasons – industrial, aesthetic, and otherwise – horror is also sometimes capable of saying more than other genres. In short, I love horror movies. Happy Halloween.

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