Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Month: October 2019

Dracula

YEAR: 1992
DIRECTOR: Francis Ford Coppola
KEY ACTORS: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Anthony Hopkins, Sadie Frost
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 7.4
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 73%

SEX SCORE: 1/5
✔️ This passes the Bechdel Test as Lucy and Mina talk about other topics than men…but really not often!
❌ But it’s not rewatchable. It’s too ridiculous and I don’t get it.
❌ I don’t want to fuck the cast – I love Keanu Reeves but his accent is too terrible and Gary Oldman, well, just no.
❌ And it’s not sex positive. In fact, its incredibly sex negative, particularly regarding women. Independent women with a free sexual spirit are punished – and deserve it!
❌ There’s also nothing to fantasise about. The idea of a man who has waited across time for you may be an old fashioned romantic ideal, but it felt really non-consensual here and unwanted.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: NowTV, Sky Cinema subscription, Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.99), YouTube (from £2.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: this includes discussions of abusive relationships and non-consent]

Poster for Dracula, showing a screaming gargoyle of Dracula’s face

I was 15 at the turn of the century, which meant that I was absolutely the perfect age for Buffy the Vampire Slayer! I was 12 for the first season and avidly watched it every year so I was 17/18 by the time of the fifth and sixth seasons. I mention these seasons specifically because these were the ones where I fell in love with Spike and developed some pretty strong feelings about Buffy and Spike’s violent sexual energy. He was so so hot. The ultimate bad boy, an angry and dangerous man with a leather jacket and bleached hair, who loved that damaged girl. Angel was always a bit meh in comparison – was I too young for him or was Angel just too much of a nice guy? Spike was everything.

I mention this because this early supernatural crush means that I’ve never doubted that vampires are hot! They fulfil a very particular fantasy that plagues many women of a ‘damaged, morally questionable young man who nevertheless can serve as her protector while she reforms him.’ I describe yearning for this kind of love with this kind of partner as a plague because it’s really not healthy – vampire stories are just brightly painted supernatural versions of those damaging relationships where we are drawn to the drama of a dangerous lover, kid ourselves that our love will fix them and stop them treating us like crap, but instead run the risk of falling into potentially abusive patterns. These lovers may not be vampires, but they can still drain you if everything that keeps you alive.

I’ve written before about the abusive control used by Fifty ShadesChristian Grey and his character was inspired by a vampire, Edward Cullen in Twilight. Even Spike is not really a better role model either – his behaviour in the early series is hardly something I’d want to use as a model for my own relationships and later, when he is reformed and his love means that he does recover his soul, he just becomes the exception that we all cling to when really we’re just experiencing the rule.

Because vampires are hot, but also (because?) they are dangerous. Not because they drink blood and kill; the idea of a vampire is dangerous because of what it says about female sexual agency. And, no surprise, it’s not a good message.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! I chose 1992’s Dracula (or Bram Stoker’s Dracula to give it its full name) because it is renowned for being overtly sexual and erotic. I’d seen it years ago and, honestly, I’d thought it was too ridiculous for words, but after hearing a podcaster gush about how hot it was and how attractive Gary Oldman is, I thought I ought to give it another try.

Image from Dracula showing young Dracula dressed as a dandy, wearing a top hat and round purple glasses

Dracula is very faithful to Bram Stoker’s novel, even maintaining the epistolary style with letters and diary entries marking time. It begins in 1492, telling the story of a young, heartbroken count (Oldman) whose bride has just killed herself. In his grief, he calls on demonic forces to avenge her and curses himself forever. Jump forward 400 years and Jonathan Harker (Reeves), a lawyer from London, is sent to Transylvania where he meets a creepy old man who traps him in his mysterious castle, leaving him at the mercy of his three horny wives who fuck and feed on him. Meanwhile, Dracula travels to London to find Mina (Ryder), Harker’s fiancée who Dracula believes is the reincarnation of his bride. Once in London, and looking more like his younger self, he wreaks havoc, killing a young woman, Lucy (Frost), and turning her to a vampire for no apparent reason, kidnapping Mina and prompting a chase across Europe where he is eventually killed.

From a film buff perspective, Coppola made some really interesting choices for the cinematography, deciding to use only traditional practical effects and utilising actual magic tricks in some places. It’s no surprise that among its Oscars win for costume and make-up was one for sound effects. These techniques give the film a very real but knowingly dated feel that I quite liked. It feels appropriate for 1897, a time when cinema was first beginning.

Sadly, from a feminist perspective, I stop agreeing with Coppola’s creative choices. I’m sorry for those who rate this film as I really did not like it! It’s so over the top that it’s essentially a caricature and is only a hair’s breadth away from actual farce. Disconnected shadows mimicking strangling Harker and Dracula admitting that he doesn’t drink [dramatic pause] wine feel straight out of Leslie Nielsen’s spoof movie, Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

Image from Dracula showing Oldman in full elderly vampire make up, bouffant white hair and long fingers with his hands dramatically over his face

But my main concern with his exaggerated style comes when looking at the sexual content. Because Coppola chose to make his Dracula a dramatic romance, rather than a horror, and ‘his accent on romance has dissipated Dracula’s single overwhelming force: evil.’ Are we supposed to sympathise with Dracula? Understand his plight? His horrific and frankly abusive actions in the novel or other retellings were more palatable somehow when he was clearly the enemy but he envisioned here as a tragic hero.

Problems with this characterisation arise because I can completely ignore everything supernatural about him, and Dracula is still fucking creepy. ‘Many women are flattered when a man says he has been waiting all of his life for them.’ Roger Ebert claims, ‘But if he has been waiting four centuries?’ It’s creepy! It’s manipulative and creepy and patriarchal and I don’t get it. How is this romantic? Maybe Dracula is a horror movie after all!

Except there are no jump scares, no tension or dread. At its core, this is much for of an erotic film. For example, Harker becoming a meal for the vampire brides is definitely an orgy – three beautiful women, including Monica Belluci, are topless and writhing all over him, kissing his neck, tearing off his clothes and biting his wrists and neck. There are long, lingering shots of licking tongues and at one point, I’m almost certain they’re feeding off his cock – shots of belts being removed are followed by a vamp woman kissing down his stomach, at which point Harker jumps up screaming. Is he screaming because someone has bitten his cock, or because he is being sexually assaulted?

Image from Dracula showing Reeves on the bed with three vampire women kissing him

Dracula himself also feeds in a very sexual way. When feeding on Lucy, he either is in the form of a wolf, mounting her like he’s fucking her – a ‘literal sexual predator’ – or he appears as a mist, covering her writhing body as she struggles and moans beneath him, sounding more and more orgasmic as her transformation progresses. Oh, and her tits are out too. Even Mina, straight-laced and conservatively dressed Mina, becomes more naked as Dracula’s hold over her increases. She becomes more wild, more bedraggled, which of course needs gaping clothes.

Image from Dracula showing Dracula in his wolf form mounting a scantily clad Frost

Now, my issue isn’t really with the nudity – although it does feel gratuitous and there’s not enough male nudity in response. In fact, so gratuitous is the nudity that Roger Ebert describes it as ‘an orgy of visual decadence, in which what people do is not nearly as degraded as how they look while they do it.’ But I mainly take issue with this choice as at only serves to exaggerate the already concerning sexist tones that are implicit in the Dracula story, creating an ‘overt, intentionally discomfiting’ sexual atmosphere.

As I alluded to above, the study of vampires has long been the story of female desire and how terrifying it is to men and the patriarchy. Talking to NBC, Anne Stiles, an assistant professor of English literature at Washington State University, described how obvious the ‘sexual undercurrents’ were in the original novel: ‘You have penetration, an exchange of bodily fluids. He has mesmeric powers. He is very seductive. It’s an easy, veiled way to write about sex without censorship.’

And the moral judgement associated with having sex and being sexual is made clear through the two female characters, Mina and Lucy. Mina is modest and chaste, wearing dresses with high necklines and holding out for marriage; Lucy has a more ‘aggressive sexuality,’ wearing more revealing clothes, dreaming about sex and flirting with her three suitors. The simple act of courting three suitors invokes judgement from Mina, and so the audience who are experiencing events through Mina’s words. Lucy is supposed to be shocking, indiscreet, even indecent, and so she is punished.

Image from Dracula showing Mina and Lucy, and their differing levels of exposure

In ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers,’ Sady Doyle argues that Lucy’s transformation into a vampire symbolises the transformation from girl to woman, and Lucy’s sexual desires certainly become more explicit the closer she becomes to being a vampire. She is no longer flirting with faux-innocence and innuendo; Lucy is asking directly for what she wants and who she desires. So, obviously, she’s a monster now. She’s terrifying. The girl needed to be saved, the woman needs to be destroyed.

It’s also never explained why Dracula chose to transform Lucy into a vampire. He could have just fed on her – but again, it feels like an unnecessary risk when there are so many other random people in London who wouldn’t draw such attention. Unless you take Van Helsing’s (Hopkins) view that she was asking for it. Lucy was outrageous and sexual and flirty so she called Dracula to her; she deserved what happened to her. Oh, rape culture, so good to know that it still existed in 1992 (and 1897 for that matter!).

Professor Abraham Van Helsing: Hear me out, young man. Lucy is not a random victim, attacked by mere accident, you understand? No. She is a willing recruit, a breathless follower, a wanton follower. I dare say, a devoted disciple. She is the Devil’s concubine!

Except that Lucy never expressed a wish for Dracula or for the darkness or the Devil. She was just flirty with a high sex drive and the privilege of enough independence to choose how she wanted to live her life and who she wanted to marry, which is terrifying to the patriarchy.

The other aspect of the vampire sexual cannon that Coppola maxes out here is the idea of the dominant vampire and helpless victim. Whether using mind tricks or just their animal magnetism, the vampire’s victims feel compelled to follow, compelled to wander out into the night and into the arms of their attacker. This, again, gets my feminist hackles rising as it’s intended to rob women of their own sexual agency. ‘It’s the idea that women can’t be blamed for desire,’ can’t be blamed for falling under the spell of a more powerful man who is ‘virtually unassailable in terms of power, and generally intellectually superior due to the centuries of wisdom he has accumulated.’ Women can’t be blamed but they can be still be punished, because giving in to their desire is accepting the demonic influence of sex. It’s not our fault, we’re too weak and inferior to cope with such strong emotions. Urgh…

An image from Dracula, showing Mina drinking blood from Dracula’s chest

But even beyond this, the use of mind control has huge implications when considering whether Mina in particular consents to what Dracula does to her. It’s pretty clear that Jonathan doesn’t and I’m highly suspicious of Lucy’s ability to give informed consent, although I guess she could be so horny that she follows a random wolf-like stranger into the garden on the promise of sex, but I don’t believe Mina fell in love with Dracula in any kind of normal way. He forces himself upon her, he stalks and manipulates her, she feels his presence everywhere. When she finally capitulates, does she love him? Or is she under his spell?

The final feature of Coppola’s Dracula that makes me angry is the explicit connection that Coppola makes between being a vampire and AIDS. 1992 was a difficult time in the history of HIV and AIDS. The AIDS epidemic had been spreading throughout the 1980s and by the early 90s, the virus was known and the method of transmission was known, which meant that the stigma associated with HIV was also in full swing. AIDS was a disease that predominantly killed gay men, intravenous drug users, and other groups of people who were vulnerable and marginalised. Treatment options at this time were limited at best. Being diagnosed with HIV was synonymous with developing AIDS as there was no way to prevent the progression of disease. Sufferers became increasingly unwell, becoming thinner and weaker, almost as if some unseen force was sucking their life away until they died.

And it’s all about blood. Blood and penetration, and sexual indiscretion. ‘Does Dracula have AIDS?’ asked a panel of AIDS experts, in an early example of clickbait; ‘I’m not living in the dark anymore’ stated an AIDS leaflet from Illinois that used Dracula as its figurehead and warned against going ‘batty’ over someone. As the AIDS crisis escalated, it was suggested that Dracula could be ‘more terrifying as a political metaphor for the spread of contaminated blood.

Coppola makes sure the connection is forced home by including clips of microscope images of blood cells when Dracula is feeding and talking about infected blood – vampirism is a blood-borne illness, he seems to be insisting, passed on by these hyper-sexual dominating monsters who prey on those who are weaker or infect those with a rampant and uncontrolled sexual desire who willingly taste his blood. ‘Love and blood equals…oo-er, death’ mocks a review in the Independent, such is the clumsy, overloaded nature of the analogy. To which I say, fuck you. Even in 1992, we knew better than this. Fuck you for perpetuating stigma by suggesting a link between AIDS and evil, fuck you for belittling the suffering of AIDS victims by insinuating blame or weakness. Just fuck you.

Actually fuck you to this entire film.

I cannot believe that 1992 was so long ago that these exaggerated patriarchal depictions of female sexuality or clumsy metaphors for the dangers of sex were acceptable. Is it satire? Is it farce? Frankly, I hope it is – otherwise it’s just offensive.

Sorry. This one isn’t for me…

Next week: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Halloween

YEAR: 1978
DIRECTOR: John Carpenter
KEY ACTORS: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 7.8
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 96%

SEX SCORE: 2/5
✔️ Halloween is rewatchable – I’d not seen it before but I will watch it again
✔️ It does pass the Bechdel test as Laurie and her named friends talk about babysitting and school, but most conversations do end up about men.
❌ But this film is not sex positive – it was the big hit movie that spawned the idea that sex means death, which isn’t really a message I’d want to promote!
❌ And it didn’t inspire fantasies – there’s too much murder to be appealing!
❌ The cast isn’t fuckable either. Jamie Lee Curtis looks incredible with amazing 1970s Farrah Fawcett hair, but I didn’t want to fuck her. Which, in a way, is lucky for her as it’s her virginity that saves her!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: NowTV, Sky Cinema subscription, Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: a brief mention of possible trauma and insufficient mental health treatment]

The Halloween poster, showing a fist and a knife made to look like the face of a jack-o-lantern and the tagline ‘the night He came home’

I came to horror films late in life. As I mentioned in my Practical Magic review, that movie terrified me so much that I avoided all horror films for years and years afterwards, but I have been trying to catch up. As a wannabe movie buff, I do want to see all the important ones but somehow I’d not seen Halloween until this week. And that was a definite lapse as this film is hugely important. It wasn’t only the most successful independent movie ever when it was made but it is also the movie that launched an entire genre – the slasher movie.

Now slasher movies almost feel wrong for this blog – I’m supposed to be writing about movies that promoted sexual fantasies or changed the direction of my sex life, which slasher movies did not, but they are definitely about sex – and not in a good way – so I couldn’t ignore them.

Halloween was the first significant slasher movie. It contains so many movie tropes that the whole thing almost feels like a cliche, except that this was the first time they’d been seen. It was the first use of the creeping Steadicam footage to show the perspective of the attacker, disorientating the viewer and allowing paranoia to grow; the first masked murderer who cannot be killed; one of the earliest films to connect risk with having sex and, of course, one of the earliest Final Girls. At the time of its release, these ideas were so new that they were shocking and terrifying. Roger Ebert described it as a ‘visceral experience,’ warning viewers not to attend if they didn’t want to be scared. And it still works. It’s lost some of its power through repetition and poor imitation, but it’s still fucking creepy!

Halloween tells the story of Michael Myers, a boy who brutally murdered his sister when he was six years old (while dressed as a clown! Why is it always clowns?!) and ends up locked away in a secure psychiatric unit. Jump forward 15 years and Myers has escaped. He returns to his home town and, dressed in a boiler suit and creepy blank William Shatner mask, begins a killing spree, murdering several young women who were working as babysitters before finally being stopped by Laurie (Lee Curtis), the bookish, virginal final girl. Of course, Myers’s body vanishes, opening the door for a whole series of sequels…

Image from Halloween showing Laurie holding a knife

Considering Psycho is one of the few horror movies I’ve seen and enjoyed, I loved how much Halloween was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, and it has so many links to that horror masterpiece that it almost feels like a fan tribute! The psychiatrist is named Sam Loomis (Pleasance), as was Marion Crane’s boyfriend; the stabbing scene at the beginning reminded me so much of the infamous shower stabbing scene from Psycho with flashing knives, fleshy stabbing sounds, but no visible penetration; and Jamie Lee Curtis is Janet Leigh’s daughter, and Janet Leigh played Marion Crane in Psycho! Considering Psycho remains the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, it’s not a bad source of inspiration.

Image from Halloween showing Laurie sat by a door with Mike Myers sitting up in the background

Before I dive into the sexual politics, I can’t go on without mentioning that Dr Loomis is a terrible, terrible psychiatrist! He’s clearly absolutely terrified of his patient and uses incredibly damaging language to describe Myers, calling him ‘the Evil’ and insisting that he ‘isn’t a man.’ I find his language choices so difficult because there’s no suggestion at this stage that Myers is supernatural in any way. There’s no possession by the devil, no evil spirit or hint that Myers is anything other than a ‘psycho.’ The film just seems to suggest that he’s unwell and his illness is what is causing him to murder.

I’ve written before about my deep concerns with connecting mental ill health with ‘evil’ behaviour and the stigma that this perpetuates, but viewing Myers as unwell rather than evil also has the effect of significantly changing how the plot is viewed. My brief rotation in psychiatry as a medical student taught me that there are very few mental health disorders that affect children and this knowledge means I almost feel sorry for Myers. What kind of fucked up childhood leads a six year old to murder their sister? What has he seen and what might have been done to him to make him act that way? And after that, what kind of mental health treatment did he receive under Loomis’s care? Myers’s illness is clearly beyond Loomis’s expertise to treat and yet there’s no evidence that he sought help or a second opinion. He just locked him up: ‘I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up, because I realised that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply…evil.’

Gif from Halloween showing a young Mike Myers wearing a clown costume and holding a knife, having his mask pulled off

Maybe they did intend Myers to be a supernatural being, and his immortality despite being killed repeatedly in the later films does provide evidence for this, but the way he is presented here in the original make him look more like a traumatised child who grew up to become a traumatised man who acts out in the only way he knows. He’s been let down by an incompetent doctor who is deeply afraid of him and who lets his fear prevent him from treating Myers objectively. And that’s really sad.

But, dangerous as this outdated view of psychiatry may be, this is a sex and relationships movie blog and there is a shit ton of sexual politics to talk about too!

Because Halloween created the rules of the slasher film, a place where ‘sex becomes death becomes sex, where a knife is never just a knife’ and women must suffer. I’m once again quoting from Sady Doyle’s ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers’ in her analysis of the sexual themes in slasher movies. She describes how, according to the patriarchal construct, girls are pure and perfect and innocent and must be protected, but women are damaged and tainted and dangerous and should be feared or destroyed. And, of course, as virgins we remain girls, ‘whole, sealed, and unbloodied…until a man comes along to break [us] open.’ Urgh…

It is all down to penetration – both the patriarchy in general and the entire sexual philosophy of slasher movies put forward by Doyle: ‘Men penetrate, women are penetrated; men are predators, women are prey; men desire and pursue sex, women flee or become victims of men’s desire.’ Which is why there’s so much stabbing! Sadly I can’t find the source now but I read something that claimed none of the villains in slasher films use projectile weapons – no guns or bombs, just knives and hands – because their killing needs to be intimate, needs to be penetrating. It’s sex; dangerous sex that destroys the one being penetrated because that’s what losing your virginity means: ‘penetration is seen as a means of conquering and humiliating the penetrated; to open your body is to bleed, suffer, and die.’ Again, urgh…

Logically, within this construct, those who have already lost their virginity are already damaged, already humiliated, and so deserve to be killed. And that’s exactly what happens – almost all of the murders in Halloween occur after the character has had sex or exposed themselves in some way. In fact, the only people who survive are virgins – Laurie and the children, plus Loomis himself who one review described as asexual. All those other girls who use their babysitting jobs as opportunities to have sex without adults present are ruthlessly slaughtered. In the slasher world, sex is dangerous!

Which leads on to the Final Girl, the chaste virgin who survives – another one of the horror movie Rules that Halloween popularised. First described by Carol Clover in ‘Men, Women and Chainsaws,’ the Final Girl is often boyish and manages to resist penetration, both sexual and homicidal, by rising ‘above all the sexual humiliation’ to outwit the killer. Laurie is the archetypal Final Girl. She’s a good girl, running errands for her father, actually looking after the child she’s babysitting rather than sneaking off to have sex, and is doing so well at school that she can’t get a date as ‘guys think [she’s] too smart.’

But I liked that she wasn’t evangelical in her virginity – she doesn’t act like she knows she’s morally superior and she doesn’t judge her friends for their behaviour. It almost feels like she’s only a virgin for want of opportunity rather than choice.

Image from Halloween showing Laurie

Despite being the original, Laurie doesn’t quite fit all the requirements of the Final Girl as she falls victim to another sexist stereotype – she needs to be rescued by a man. It is Loomis who stops Myers, Loomis who fires the gun. Laurie is perhaps more accurately the final survivor as all she really does is scream. And, wow, she can scream! I’m really not surprised that Jamie Lee Curtis inspired so many more Final Girls in the future.

Everything about Halloween was among the best in its class, so it’s not surprising that it launched such a flood of similar morality tales that by 1981 ‘over 60% of American releases were of the stalk’n’slash genre.’ And they were hugely popular, especially and most surprisingly with young women. It seems that by the end of the 1970s, the teenage target audience had swung back from the free love of the 1960s to form a ‘deeply conservative audience who liked nothing more than to see their own kind viciously punished for supposed social transgressions.’ According to the New York Times, John Carpenter has consistently denied that he was ‘trying to punish the promiscuous,’ despite the significant evidence to the contrary, but this theme definitely becomes more explicit in later slasher movies, especially the Friday the 13th franchise. And, of course, 1996’s Scream made sure that the rules Carpenter created couldn’t be misunderstood: ‘There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex…BIG NO NO! BIG NO NO! Sex equals death, okay?’

So why are these puritanical movies so popular?

Sady Doyle in ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers’ has a theory about why women in particular enjoy slasher movies – they ‘are a release [from rape culture], in part because they give a name and face to the problem…giving us monsters to fear and heroines to root for.’ When women already fear walking alone at night because of hidden and unknown threats, having a real villain to scream at and, importantly, to defeat is hugely validating. And so we keep going back for more – to scream in safety because the horror is on screen and not actually following us home.

Image from Halloween showing masked Michael Myers bursting into a wardrobe

And Halloween is scary. It’s the patriarchy distilled into it’s simplest form – men wielding sex like a literal weapon and punishing women who seek sex outside of marriage or for their own pleasure – and that is fucking terrifying…

Next week: Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Jennifer’s Body

YEAR: 2009
DIRECTOR: Karyn Kusama
KEY ACTORS: Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 5.2
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 44%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ Are the cast fuckable? It’s Megan Fox as a hot cheerleader. Of course, the cast is fuckable! She’s deliberately sexy but it works!
✔️ And it passes the Bechdel Test – Needy and Jennifer talk about a demonic ritual if nothing else!
✔️ I’ve only watched it once but I really enjoyed it and would watch it again so, yes, rewatchable!
❌ But it didn’t inspire fantasies. The sex is, well, inexperienced and I have no desire to literally eat men…
✔️ It is sex positive, however. Both main characters have sex – the hot one and the nerdy one – and nothing bad happens to them because they’ve had sex! It also showed realistic first/early sexual experiences with obvious condom use that wasn’t really played for laughs, beyond the simple intrinsic hilarity of comfortable, consenting sex!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £4.49), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: this review contains discussions of trauma, sexual assault and rape]

Jennifer’s Body poster, showing Megan Fox in a short cheerleader skirt sat in front of a blackboard that says ‘Hell yes!’

I’m starting to think I need to change the subtitle of this blog – it is a blog exploring movie sex and movie love but it is increasingly becoming a blog where I rant about the patriarchy and feminism. Because I’m starting to realise quite how much movies reflect the attitudes of the time that they were made, and because they are produced in an undeniably male dominated industry, they seem to act as magnifiers for all the niggling problems that grate against women. And horror movies and their obsession with sex and women make it even worse!

So here we are again – week two of my Halloween specials, and I’m writing about another film that was critically panned when it was released and yet hindsight has revealed a film that is not only good but was significantly ahead of its time. It’s just that it wasn’t made for men or for the male gaze (regardless of what the marketing may suggest) and so was completely misunderstood.

Jennifer’s Body tells the story of two teenagers who had been friends since they were children – Jennifer is hot and mean; Needy (I don’t know why she’s called that if not as an over obvious label) is bookish and quiet, but they’re friends. They go to see a band in a dive bar and the venue burns down in mysterious circumstances. In the chaos, Jennifer gets a lift with the band, supposedly for safety but actually because they had picked her out for a violent demonic ritual. Unfortunately for them, Jennifer isn’t a virgin as they’d expected so the ritual backfires, turning her into a demon succubus who feeds on other teenage boys. After she kills Needy’s boyfriend, Needy fights back, killing Jennifer and ending up in a secure mental health facility.

Image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer and Chip, dressed for the prom and in a dirty pool. Jennifer has blood all around her mouth after taking a bite from Chip’s neck

Doing my research for this film actually made me really angry – there was just too much sexism! Together, it had a cumulative effect of not only infuriating me but also damaging the careers of some very talented women. Jennifer’s Body was written by Diablo Cody, straight after she won the Academy Award for writing Juno; and it stars Megan Fox in her first role after Transformers. It should have been an escalating point for both of their careers but it wasn’t. It’s critical failure meant that Cody moved to writing for TV until 2018’s Tully and Megan Fox hasn’t yet done anything really impactful (Sorry to Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles fans!).

What upset me most was that they were both affected by different but equally cliched patriarchal bullshit and neither did anything that would have been more than a blip in a male colleague’s career. Cody made a poorly received film, sure, but she was subsequently brought down by the fact that women aren’t allowed to fail. Our actions not only speak for all women and our failures risk closing doors for other women in our industry, but we are certainly not allowed second chances. As Anne Cohen wrote for Refinery29 last year, there was a disquieting tone to the reviews – ‘as if by this one critical failure, Cody had signed her own Hollywood death warrant.’ And it proved to be true.

Megan Fox’s story is more troubling but no less typical. After publicly criticising the work environment on the sets of the Transformers films, she was fired by Michael Bay who also published a letter from some of his film crew that ripped her to pieces in an unnecessarily personal and vitriolic fashion. Should she have criticised Bay so publicly? Probably not. But did she deserve such an obvious and sadly successful attempt to blacklist and discredit her? Absolutely not! Calling her ‘everything from “dumb-as-a-rock” to “Ms. Sourpants” and “Ms. Princess” to “trailer trash…posing like a pornstar”’ is not an objective and fair appraisal; it’s mean and cruel and reeks of that attitude shared by angry men who have been slighted by a woman who they feel is beneath them.

Which, sadly but not unexpectedly, brings us around to the #MeToo movement. Frederick Blichert writing for Vice expresses hope that ‘a poor-faith campaign to frame an actress as difficult may meet some resistance today’ after the methods Harvey Weinstein used to blacklist women who displeased him have been revealed and themselves discredited. But it’s not just the treatment of Megan Fox that hasn’t aged well now – Jennifer’s Body as a whole is a movie that should be looked at completely differently now we are in a post-#MeToo world.

An image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer in a prom dress, covered in blood, floating above a dirty pool

Because the entire plot revolves around the question of what happened to Jennifer in that van with the band. Except we don’t really need to ask what happened; the implications are clear. Just as in Practical Magic, the supernatural is used as a metaphor or substitute for emotions or experiences that are too powerful or difficult to explain – rather than being assaulted or raped by the band, Jennifer is ritually sacrificed. She then processes her trauma by acting out a ‘cathartic fantasy…using her victimised, violated body to wreak bloody vengeance on the patriarchy.’ In a dark, twisted way, it’s kind of empowering! These men have used her body for their own gain and yet it is her sexuality that allows her to take revenge, using that body to ‘entrap and feed on those who once objectified her.’ Jennifer really is a feminist revenge hero!

And there are two particularly interesting aspects of her revenge that I wanted to mention. Firstly, her actual attackers almost get away with it, and they definitely benefit from the ritual, enjoying huge success until Needy wreaks her own bloody revenge. Instead, it is the people around Jennifer who suffer. Considering how rarely abusers and rapists are convicted, this feels right somehow. And despite occurring in a supernatural movie, it feels real. Constance Grady at Vox felt that this reads as a ‘dark bit of satire’ now when we consider how many men have had abusive behaviour revealed during #MeToo but whose career has not suffered long term. Trauma and abuse cause a lot of collateral damage around the people who have been abused, but too often there is devastatingly little impact on the abuser. In fact, many recent reviews mention the election of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court and how it sent a message to teenage girls that ‘whatever their male peers do to them in their youth doesn’t really matter.’ That’s not supernatural; that is real.

But more interestingly and more importantly, Jennifer’s Body is a slasher film that doesn’t punish its female characters for having sex. Spoilers for next week’s post on Halloween: this is not common in horror films! Characters losing their virginity is usually the same as signing a death warrant, but Jennifer is saved by her sexual experience…in a dark, twisted way. If she were a virgin, she would have died when she was sacrificed but her sexuality gave her the power to fight back. And once again, that’s kind of empowering. No wonder the patriarchy and all those male critics didn’t enjoy this film!

But they’d be almost forgiven for expecting Jennifer’s Body to be a ‘normal’ horror film with sexy hot girls getting naked and being killed, because that’s exactly how it was marketed. And I’m afraid that I was one of the many, many people who were put off by the aggressively sexual promotion – I’m wary of slasher films as I don’t like jump scares and I didn’t need to see another overly sexualised film where another naked girl is killed, so I didn’t bother.

Promo image from Jennifer's Body showing Megan Fox in a cheerleader outfit, lying down

It has been suggested that the marketing choices were deliberate and were supposed to draw in a male audience: ‘Come for the scene of Jennifer and Needy making out, get hit in the face with an hour and forty-seven minutes of female storytelling. How do you like that, boys?’ It feels like the much trailed kiss between Jennifer and Needy was only there to appeal to this demographic as it doesn’t quite fit with my interpretation of the rest of the film and felt unnecessary. Megan Fox is hot and is ‘on display for men to pay to look at’ but she’s knowingly hot, knowingly sexy. She’s exaggerating and playing up to the cheerleader stereotype so that her ugliness (in massive inverted commas as she’s still gorgeous) when she’s hungry is more pronounced. She even jokes about looking normal when she’s supposed to look rough. But there seemed no reason for the kiss, except to exaggerate Jennifer’s sexual predator status…and to appeal to the male gaze.

Image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer and Needy at school. Jennifer has no make up on and looks relatively plain

But if that was the tactic, it seriously backfired! Critics and horny viewers didn’t get it. It wasn’t sexy enough to be hot, wasn’t funny enough to be humorous, wasn’t scary enough to be horror, and wasn’t trashy enough to be trash!

Watching it now, I can’t believe that no one realised at the time that it was satire – hilarious, cutting, subversive satire that turned all those movie tropes in on themselves. And it is not a fantasy for men! Roger Ebert describes it as Twilight for boys, with Megan Fox in the Robert Pattinson role, except that I recall Pattinson was shirtless’ as if straight boys want ‘demonic cheerleaders’ in the same way straight girls want vampires. The more I read about how badly the film was received initially, the more I wanted to scream ‘it wasn’t made for you!’

Because Jennifer’s Body is about being a teenage girl. It’s about how cruel we can be to each other and how we cling to toxic friendships way beyond their natural life because so much else is changing. Jennifer was an arsehole to Needy long before she became a demon. In fact, her possession didn’t really change her personality that much – just her focus. But it took that kind of dramatic crisis to end their friendship. There were no demonic possessions at my school but, wow, there was drama! We really hurt each other and were mean and screamed at each other. And we’d run home and cry at how much someone had changed and how we couldn’t believe the way they were acting, and then we’d make up the next day and start again. Being a teenager sucks!

Image from Jennifer's Body showing Jennifer and Needy in front of their school lockers. Jennifer is pulling a strand of Needy’s hair

And Jennifer’s Body is about how there is no perfect victim – something that is too often forgotten. Jennifer was a bitch and went to that bar intending on hooking up with the band, but that definitely doesn’t mean that she deserved what happened to her. As was so eloquently put in that Refinery29 article, ‘Jennifer may be a mean girl possessed by a demon, and her murderous rampage sets her up as someone who needs to be stopped, but she’s also a victim. She’s a beautiful girl with low self-esteem whose been taught that her entire self-worth is wrapped up in her looks and sex appeal. Wouldn’t you want revenge for that?’

Megan Fox got in. She knew exactly what she was doing, vamping up her sex appeal and exaggerating her plastic and bouncy character, as it made her vulnerability during her attack more shocking. She did it so well that I actually felt quite sorry for her when Needy finally killed her. And she knew how important it was to be that imperfect victim, that real person who does bad things but still did not deserve her fate: ‘If I was to have a message, it would be to be a different kind of role model to girls….It’s O.K. to be different from how you’re supposed to be.’ Fox told The View and quoted in the New York Times. ‘I worry that’s totally lost.’

And it was totally lost. ‘2009 just wasn’t ready for this movie’ Vox claimed, and I am so pleased that it is finally receiving the recognition it deserves, appearing on lists of top horror movies directed by women and being reclaimed as a ‘forgotten feminist classic.’

It’s just a shame it’s taken so long for these women’s voices to be heard…

Next week: Halloween

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Practical Magic

YEAR: 1998
DIRECTOR: Griffin Dunne
KEY ACTORS: Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman
CERTIFICATE: 12
IMDB SCORE: 6.3
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 21%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ It is indeed rewatchable, but it took me a long time to get there!
✔️ With so few significant male roles, I’d worry if this failed the Bechdel Test but luckily it passes with ease!
✔️ Considering this film has a predominantly female cast, and I’m quite underwhelmed by the men on screen, and I’m straight, this perhaps shouldn’t get a mark from me but even I can’t deny that the cast are fuckable. 1990s were a successful time for them both and arguably their hotness peak so yes, fuckable!
✔️ I almost didn’t give it a mark for inspiring fantasies but I couldn’t ignore that kiss. Sally and her husband’s kiss to Faith Hill’s famous song, This Kiss, is everything.
❌ But despite much soul searching as I love the feminism of this film, I can’t give it a mark for sex positivity. ‘Since when is being a slut a crime in this family?’ Gillian asks but she does suffer. She is the more promiscuous sister who is shown to party with millions of friends and makes jokes about locking up husbands on her return, and she ends up in an abusive relationship. She suffers for her sexuality, and it saddens me that this is the case because it is otherwise a hugely positive and feminist movie.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), YouTube (from £3.98). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

[Content warning: this review discusses bereavement, abusive relationships, effects of trauma]

Practical Magic poster showing Bullock and Kidman looking out of the poster above a cluster of lit candles

I remember when I first watched Practical Magic. I was fourteen and at a sleepover. We’d put aside our usual action films and chosen a selection of horror movies from Blockbuster instead, in aide of Halloween. This was the first film that we watched and it terrified us (me) so much that we couldn’t watch anymore and had to return to Die Hard again to recover. Witches, possession, reincarnation; it was too much. This used to be my benchmark for years – I couldn’t watch Practical Magic and that was only a 12! How could I watch any real horror film?

And I didn’t watch it again for years. Until last year, in fact, when all of the 20th anniversary articles made me realise that it may have just been too much for a fourteen year old and I should try it again. Honestly, it is even more terrifying now but in a completely different way, and I loved it. I loved it!

Practical Magic is a film about the Owens family, a matriarchal line of powerful witches who live under a powerful curse – any man who falls in love with an Owens woman dies young. Gillian (Kidman) and Sally (Bullock) are sisters whose father dies because of the curse and whose mother then dies of a broken heart. They move in with their spinster aunts who are more open with their witchcraft, providing curses and love potions to needy villagers. Despite being so afraid and trying everything to avoid love, Sally does get married and has two daughters, before her husband is killed. Gillian, choosing pleasure, runs away and falls for a dark enigmatic man, Jimmy, who ends up abusing her. While trying to escape, Sally and Gillian accidentally kill him, raise him from the dead, and then kill him again. Jimmy ends up haunting them, possessing Gillian and it takes an entire coven of women to rescue her. (This summary is much too simplistic – go watch it!)

Gillian dancing next to a pool surrounded by admiring men

Practical Magic terrified me so much more watching it as an adult because it is essentially a story about how dangerous love can be – dangerous if you fall for the right guy as he could die and leave you heartbroken, and dangerous if you fall for the wrong guy as he could abuse and hurt you. Love is pain and despite the message that it is possible to survive, there is so much hurt in this movie that it terrified me.

I am in a hugely fortunate position as I have never been in an abusive relationship so I cannot personally relate to Gillian’s experience and I have not been significantly bereaved so I don’t know Sally’s pain, but I could imagine it; I could feel it. I was sobbing within the first 25 minutes of the film as Sally wailed that ‘he died because I loved him too much.’ That’s the fear. That’s the big one. I definitely have an optimistic outlook but it is based on a knowledge, or even perhaps a morbid expectation, that it could all come crashing down at any time. In the back of my mind, meeting and marrying the man of my dreams only means that I’ll be even more destroyed should he die; a potential pain that I would never experience if I were alone. It sometimes seems the only way to balance out the extreme joy and happiness I have experienced, so Sally’s bereavement because of her love projected my ultimate fear onto the big screen.

Of the two sisters, I am definitely Sally. Gillian ran headlong into love, wanting to feel so much that it was worth any pain, but Sally was more realistic and tries to avoid the risk. She even uses logic to wish for a man so perfect that he couldn’t exist because ‘if he doesn’t exist, I’ll never die of a broken heart.’ Cold logic, it’s the best way to proceed!

Sally looking into a candle flame

Magic is used so powerfully in this film to signify unavoidable emotional experiences. Sally tried and tried to avoid falling in love but she couldn’t. Yes, she was pushed towards her husband by an incantation from her aunts but once she’d open her heart to it, their love was real. Devastatingly, that’s why her husband was killed. In the film, it’s magic; in real life, is the force behind love any less powerful?

This use of magic as a metaphor for emotion is even more powerful if Gillian’s possession is viewed as a metaphor for trauma. She has fought to leave an abusive and harmful relationship but she cannot escape, even when her abuser is dead. She is literally haunted by her relationship, literally haunted by her past. And when Jimmy possesses her, she acts and speaks and feels in ways that aren’t how she would usually behave – they’re remnants of Jimmy, they’re her trauma made real. She’s exhausted by it; she’s almost destroyed by it. And she needs her people to save her. She needs her family and sister and community to help her break free, long after she has physically left her relationship. And, as Refuge discussed with Stylist magazine last year, ‘it hammers home the point that “leaving an abusive partner can be very dangerous…Women are at the greatest risk of homicide at the point of separation or after leaving a violent partner.”’ It’s exaggerated, it’s magical and supernatural, but it feels so real.

Gillian and Sally performing a resurrection spell on dead Jimmy

Practical Magic handles the issue of Gillian’s abuse with a lightness that could be misinterpreted as disinterest, but I think actually creates a much more realistic story. Buzzfeed felt that this is why critics didn’t like it when it was first released, and I think it’s 21% Rotten Tomatoes rating might be the lowest I’ve posted yet: ‘Many of them didn’t understand the tone of a film that smirked and made jokes and leaned into love even as it took on a story about abuse and the hurt that comes from it.’ But women have a long history of laughing off abusive behaviour from partners, both to minimise it to themselves and to others, and to protect themselves from recrimination. Gillian jokes that she drugs Jimmy so she could get some sleep at night but we all understand that this strongly hints that he doesn’t accept her refusal or believes in consent and suggests that he has also sexually abused her. Her quiet ‘he’s strong. So much stronger than me’ at Sally’s concerning questioning broke my heart. But the film doesn’t overdo it. We know what’s happening and it’s enough to see the effects. It’s even perhaps more powerful for that – we believe her without seeing.

Gillian looking resignedly forward, trying to brush off Jimmy’s attention as he tries to kiss her neck

Despite these difficult and heartbreaking themes, Practical Magic ends up being a really life-affirming and heartwarming film – and not because Sally gets a happy ever after. That plot line with her too-perfect-to-be-real police officer is almost an annoying distraction, although Buzzfeed’s review did correctly note that it’s the light and dark next to each other that enhance both: ‘The movie acknowledges that abuse and trauma are things that happen. But it puts a love story side by side with that hurt, a reminder that life does go on even after it tries to tear you apart.

But, for me, the true happy ending is between the women themselves and between the witches and the community. As Aunt Frances, played by the fabulous Stockard Channing, states, ‘we need a full coven.’ Gillian is saved by her bond with Sally but it took everyone to put her in a position to do that. And that includes the community that shunned them. I loved this idea that finally ‘coming out,’ as one character dubs it, is what brings them together. Distrust and division are perpetuated with secrecy and insincerity, and although there was definitely a risk in revealing themselves, it is a great feminist message that women don’t need to fight or fear each other and are much more powerful together.

Which, of course, brings me on to the fact that they’re witches. As my first Halloween themed post in a feminist movie blog, it had to be witches!

Gif of Gillian and Sally dresses as witches

Witches are the ultimate feminist hero and embody everything that the patriarchy fears: ‘Witches, sluts, and feminists are the trifecta of terror for the patriarchy…[they] embody the potential for self-directed feminine power, and sexual and intellectual freedom’ historian Kristin J Sollee explained to The Guardian in 2017 to promote her book on this subject. Most witch traditions seem to stem from groups of women who didn’t need men, who defied the patriarchy and so must be evil and untrustworthy. Only someone in league with the devil could survive without a man! Buffering the Vampire Slayer, my favourite Buffy podcast, tells the story of the Alewives – women who brewed ale and were financially independent because of this. They were important members of the community, didn’t need men to survive…and traditionally made the ale in large cauldrons while wearing pointed black hats, suggesting they were an early source of the idea of witches. And, even more terrifying to the patriarchy, these groups of women can’t be controlled, which in some countries is still ‘enough to sentence her to death.’ And so they can be blamed for anything, for everything.

Practical Magic presents an interesting perspective on the story of witches as they sit on the border between horror and fantasy. Some witches are evil and terrifying and come from darkness – crones, hags etc – whereas some witches are good and fluffy and light – Sabrina, Wizadora etc – but Sally and Gillian are neither and both. They’re friendly and sunny with the ‘thickest, most lush movie hair’ yet seen and grow herbs to make lotions, and yet are capable of murder and reincarnation and both know deep, deep darkness. I mentioned Sady Doyle’s book ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Motherslast week and she writes about how witches have always lived ‘on the razor’s edge between benevolence and malevolence, horror and fairytale,’ which is why they are so terrifying – they are unknowable. Are they helping or harming? Are they good or bad?

Except, of course, that there is one eternal truth of witches: ‘they kill men who harm women.’

Next week: Jennifer’s Body

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Gif from GIPHY.com. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.