Category Archives: Old Movies

Mommy Dearest

CarrieAfter pumpkin carving last night, we were in the mood for some Halloween-appropriate viewing. We decided on the original 1976 Carrie, and watching it got me thinking about the role of mothers in horror movies overall. [Uh, warning: spoilers for various movies ranging from 1960 to 2013 ensue.]

It’s been remarked elsewhere (and bloody hell, of course I can’t find the specific posts/articles) that there’s a shortage of depictions of motherhood, pregnancy, and even women over 30 in speculative fiction, and generally positive portrayals are even scarcer. When it comes to horror movies, things get worse. Let’s take a look.

Carrie’s mother actively harms her through physical and mental abuse; she inactively harms her by withholding information and through her choice of an extreme religious lifestyle. If she hadn’t been so repressed and felt the need to rebel, would Carrie have turned out the way she did? On the other end of the religious spectrum, Regan’s mother in The Exorcist is offered up in multiple ways as a possible cause for her daughter’s condition. Living an atheist lifestyle and failing to provide her daughter with a religious education and moral guidance has either left Regan open as a vessel for a literal devil, caused her to crave religion so badly she acts as though she’s possessed, or caused her severe delusions that manifest as a demonic possession. Either way, her mother harmed her through her choice of lifestyle, and in the end, only the church can save the day.

So, mothers, whether they mean to or not, are detrimental to their children. Moving on, we have mothers who have absorbed cultural values and actively pursue their children’s downfall.

Black Swan presents the stereotypical mother living her dreams through her child, causing the problems that ultimately lead to her daughter’s death. This motif harkens back to fairy tales such as Snow White, where the jealous mother or stepmother hates and fears her daughter’s youth and beauty with its unspoken implication that now that her childbearing years are behind her, the mother is obsolete and all value will be transferred to the next generation. Norman Bates’ mother doesn’t even get a break, and she’s dead. While it’s clear in Psycho that Norman has problems of his own, its strongly implied that most of said problems are rooted in his mother’s controlling nature, which persists beyond the grave. He is subsumed, adopting her persona to commit his murders, allowing her to continue into life after death through her son, and in the process, erasing him.

Those are only a few examples.

So where can we go for a positive portrayal of mothers in horror movies? Mama. Bear with me. I’ll present a semi-convincing argument, I promise. Perhaps it’s because the movie’s dirty little secret is that it isn’t a horror movie at all. Regardless, it puts not one but two positive (if unconventional) mother-figures on the screen.

On one hand, we have the entity referred to as Mama. Over the course of the movie we see she wasn’t the best of mothers while alive. When they tried to take her baby away, she chose suicide, taking her child with her. In a twisted way, her choice shows a fierce kind of protectiveness, an extreme love leading her to believe that even death would be better than letting her child be raised by someone else. It’s the same logic that informs her protectiveness of the two abandoned  girls she adopts after her death. Sure, to the outside eye the girls aren’t being raised in a healthy environment: They’re at least half-feral, and anyone who thinks they can do a better job raising them tends to die or be threatened with death at Mama’s hand, but still – Mama’s heart is in the right place. She loves the girls; she saves their lives initially, and continues to keep them alive against all odds. She protects them, and beyond that, she’s an engaged parent. She plays with the girls, she spends time with them and takes an interest in their lives – something many living parents neglect on a regular basis. Certainly Carrie, Regan, Nina, and Norman’s mothers never really took an interest in their lives beyond trying to impose their desires and values.

On the other side of things, we have Annabel, a woman thrust into motherhood when her boyfriend finally finds his long-lost nieces after years of searching. Annabel actively hates the idea of motherhood, but she does her best, and in the end she comes to love the girls in her own way. Despite her own fears, she chooses to make them her family and in the end, her love is what saves Victoria. By the same token, it’s Mama’s love, as twisted as it is, that saves Lily. (Yes, I choose to see the scene where Lily is taken away as positive, so there.)

Mama

At it’s heart, Mama is a rather sweet movie about the power of the family you choose, all dressed up in horror’s clothing. Sure the jump scares are there, along with the moody lighting, the unsettled atmosphere, and the sense of creeping dread. It works as a horror movie, but it also works as a movie about love, and in its own weird way, it shows motherhood in a positive light – a rare thing for horror movies from any age.

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To Jessica, With Love

Jessica Rabbit

I recently joined the fine blogging team at Apex Books. March is Noir Month, which gave me the perfect excuse to extoll the virtues of my favorite femme fatale, Jessica Rabbit. She’s smart, she’s sexy, and she turns Noir tropes on their head. What more could you want? You can find my inaugural post here, and while you’re at it, browse the many other wonderful posts that make up Noir Month including a post on the female writers of Noir fiction by Gary B. Phillips, and Fran Wilde chatting with Gregory Frost and Jon McGoran about the defining features of Noir, to name a few.

And for those of you who, like me, obsessively watched and re-watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit as a kid, and who have an undying love for Jessica, Roger, and Eddie, dare I mention that The 25th Anniversary Edition of Who Framed Roger Rabbit will be available in just a few days? Yeah, it makes me feel old, but nonetheless I’m eagerly awaiting my copy and the chance to reacquaint myself with some old friends.

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Control Issues

My recent post about women in horror movies sent my brain on a tangent regarding possession and exorcism. I held Regan from The Exorcist up as a a female character allowed to be monstrous, until I really thought about it, and realized Regan is a problematic example. Her body becomes monstrous, her actions are monstrous, and at no point is she in control.

Then I tried to come up with a possession/exorcism movie where a male character is the one possessed. I drew a blank. A quick internet search suggested The Amityville Horror and the Shinning as possible candidates. To my embarrassment, I haven’t seen the Amityville Horror, so I can’t speak to that one, but the Shining is pretty questionable. The possession issue is pretty open to interpretation, and I personally lean toward the he-just-went-bat-shit-crazy-no-demonic-possession-involved school of thought. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that’s one male possession candidate, which I had to search for, whereas just off the top of my head I identified The Exorcist, the Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Devil Inside, and Stigmata, as movies featuring female possession.

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Women in Horror

February is Women in Horror Month, and ChiZine Press is celebrating with a month of interviews with purveyors of horror. They were kind enough to interview me; you can read the results of said interview here.

The interview got me thinking about women in horror in more general terms. While the genre is by no means 50-50, as evidenced by the table of contents for many horror magazines and anthologies, it’s not as much of a boys club as it used to be. People are (hopefully) no longer as hard-pressed to come up with the name of a female horror author, and they’re (hopefully) no longer stunned to learn such strange creatures exist in the first place. What I’ve been thinking about though, is women on the content side, not the production side, particularly women in horror movies.

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A History of the Future

While catching up on Tor.com’s wonderful Saturday Morning Cartoon feature, I discovered the existence of this – Disney’s Mars and Beyond. Mars and Beyond originally aired in 1957 as part of the Disneyland series. Obviously, this was before my time, but I still felt a strange kind of nostalgia watching it, a longing for a past that isn’t mine. To me, this is Disney as it should be – the sense of wonder, the beautiful hand-drawn animation, and even a touch of the dark and the bizarre.

Though I am not fanatically to devoted to the ‘Future as it Was’ in speculative fiction, and I do love modern speculative fiction too, there is a place in my heart for the past’s view of the future. (I do want to believe in canals on Mars, dammit.) Mars and Beyond satisfies that itch with its (now)-retro space ships and martians, and an unshakable optimism that Mars is firmly within humanity’s reach. Uh, sorry, past-people. Also, we don’t have flying cars yet, either. The last segment of the episode ends with a detailed plan of how we will (not might) get to Mars. Beautiful.

There were a couple of thing I found especially note-worthy. In talking about earth’s history, evolution is presented as an absolute fact, in 1957, when people still throw a fit about it today. There’s also a great segment that lovingly mocks pulp stories in popular magazines. Besides just being fun, the thing that really impressed me about the segment was that it featured a kick-ass, self-rescuing heroine. Go 1950s Disney!

The empire of mouse may be something different now, though I still don’t think it’s all bad, but once upon a time Disney was just a man with a sense of wonder that he wanted to share with the world (head in a jar and nazi conspiracy theories aside). Mars and Beyond provides a glimpse of the Disney that Ray Bradbury loved and it’s definitely worth watching.

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Vampire Double Feature

I’m still slowly working my way through the 50 Horror Classics DVD set. Clearly my plan to blog about the films as I watch them has done nothing to keep me on track. To make up for being a slacker, I offer you a double feature review. Warning, the reviews will contain spoilers, but given that these movies are all at least forty years old, I figure they’re fair game. First up…

The Vampire Bat

This 1933 film staring Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Melvyn Douglas, despite the title, features absolutely no vampires. Rather, it is about a mad scientist who uses superstition, fear and carefully placed puncture wounds to disguise his nefarious crimes. The movie is predictable, but well acted, though Fay Wray is under used.

As usual, the mad scientist’s plot is delightfully illogical. As far as I was able to tell, he was murdering people and stealing their blood for the sole purpose of feeding a living, breathing sponge – makes perfect sense, right? There is some nice humor, but no real scares. The subplot was more interesting than the main plot, with a mentally challenged man being suspected of the murders simply because he’s different. The movie misses an opportunity to make a statement regarding prejudice and the disturbing power of mob mentality though. The innocent man is chased to his death without a moment’s remorse and is never exonerated or even mentioned again.

Not the best of movies, but not a complete waste of time either. Onwards to…

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Horror Classics

I’m a sucker for old horror movies. A couple of years ago, I picked up one of those ’50 Horror Classics’ sets (classics being loosely defined here) – the kind they sell for $10. How could I resist? I’ve been slowly and sporadically working my way through them, and I thought blogging about them might encourage me to get through all of them, plus remind me which ones I’ve actually watched. Last night when I was trying to pick one, I couldn’t tell which I’d already seen. See, the current generation isn’t the only one that cranks out tons of movies with similar/near-identical plots based on what seems statistically likely to put butts in seats.

I finally settled on The Monster Maker, a 1944 ‘classic’ starring J. Carrol Naish and Ralph Morgan. Mad scientist Igor Markoff deliberately infects concert pianist Anthony Lawrence with a horrible disfiguring disease that will ruin his life and leave him ripe for blackmail, as Markoff is also the only one who can provide a cure. The disease is kind of like low-grade elephantiasis, and causes swelling of the extremities. Hands are extremities, concert pianists tend to use their hands quite frequently…and you begin to see the problem. Why does the mad scientist do all this? Because he wants to marry the concert pianist’s daughter of course, who happens to be the spitting image of said scientist’s dead wife, who died under “tragic circumstances” and who was named (what else?) – Lenore!

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