Friday, October 19, 2018

Horror's History with Violence Against Women, feat. Tragedy Girls, Evil Eye, & What Have You Done to Solange?

Previously: The Lobster and The Killing of the Sacred Deer

Every October I devote at least one blog post to Giallo films, but I have to deviate this year.

Giallo is a fascinating genre, and I owe Ryan Boyd for helping me jump into it. These are Horror movies about people who are guilty of something, or who got too close to the orbit of crime to wash the dirt off of them. Giallo lets its protagonists be wrong in ways no other sub-genre of Horror does.

But they are also sleazy, eager to sexualize young women and assault them in ways that can be even more off-putting than American Slashers. Some of the most lauded Giallo have problematic art to how they like to destroy girls. This month, after a year of #MeToo and yet another suspect of sexual violence being voted onto the U.S. Supreme Court, I have to interrupt the Giallo vibes a bit. Horror has too few ladies who get to be the killer and be proud in the way it lets Freddy, Jigsaw, and Pennywise.

So today we're going to look at two Giallo films and how they treat women - but only after we look at The Tragedy Girls, a Horror Comedy about a pair of BFFs who are tired of waiting around to be filler victims. These girls are going to become the killers, and get famous off of it.

Tragedy Girls (2017)
Tragedy Girls doesn't care that the bar for women in modern Horror is to be strong heroines who fight against cruelty. It happily picks two teen girls, who are petty and sometimes hilariously short-sighted, and makes them both the lead characters and the killers. The opening of the movie is one of them pretending to neck with a local boy in the efforts to fish out a serial killer.

Oh, they don't want to stop they killer. They want to catch him and study under him. This business is hard and they want professional advice.

In the vein of Cabin in the Woods and Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil, Tragedy Girls is a deconstruction of Slasher tropes, but for once the comedy comes from eagerly participating in the industry. McKayla and Sadie are mean girls and woefully unpopular. They barely get any retweets. They know the best way to get attention is grief. They’ve been studying spree killers, and even captured one to try to get him to teach them how it’s done. Mentorships are rare in this field. Their plan is to kill off students they don’t like and then pose as grief-stricken classmates for mainstream media. They’re going to get so many followers on Twitter.

The humor is more ruthless than the killers. McKayla and Sadie are masterfully played as unflinching monsters with perfect make-up, whose greatest flaw is not always covering their tracks as well as they could. They’re more concerned about a kill being tacky than with becoming suspects. They have their crushes, and their in-fighting over whether boys are right for them or right for the grave, but they get each other. 

It's a cheeky story that doesn't mind slamming nose-first into their selfishness with the same glee Freddy Kruger gets to play with in the Nightmare on Elm Street series. Many Slashers are built around rooting for the killer; this time that angle is being used for profound empowerment, because their stereotype are the sorts of girls who were thrown into late 80's scripts to pad body counts. Even the society around them barely thinks of them as suspects because they don't take teen girls seriously, and that's something for them to change. While the girls grow, their arcs do not bend towards turning into sweeter moral Survivor Girls.

They are the next generation of Slasher killers, and they’re adorbs BFFs. The scariest thing would be if they turned on each other.

It is fun from the first twist all the way to the end credits. All of the right things go wrong, and who you’re supposed to sympathize with moves surprisingly slyly. We’ve seen allegedly enlightened takes on the Slasher genre before, but it’s usually about the politics of victims. Making the kind of girls who are usually victims of the killer into the killers gives them enough mileage for at least a couple sequels. Tragedy Girls is brilliant. Watch it.

The Evil Eye, AKA The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963)

After getting a taste of Mario Bava last year with Blood and Black Lace and Bay of Blood, I had to come back this year. Evil Eye shows  up on so many Best of Giallo lists, and is frequently credited as the first true Giallo.

In the course of one day, Nora Davis flies from America to Rome, has her hostess die of a mysterious illness, is mugged on her way to getting help and loses her ID, gets a head wound that causes amnesia, and witnesses a grisly murder to which she is the only witness. By the time she’s coherent and remembers the murder, all evidence of it has vanished, and the local authorities stick her in an asylum.

Poor Nora. She's stuck in the plot of three movies at once, and doesn’t get agency over any of them.

This movie is packed with badly directed and badly acted set-ups. Nora is stalked  by a mysterious figure, falls in love with a possessive creep, and stumbles upon the notes of a serial killer whose victims’ names correspond to letters in the alphabet. There’s one scene where it seems like ghostly voices are chiding her into an abandoned house. Also there’s a painting that keeps looking at Nora’s butt.

What stands out most is that nobody takes Nora seriously. She is mocked by doctors as an alcoholic since a cop once smelled alcohol on her breath. The murder victim she witnessed the demise of has vanished, so cops ignore her pleas and say she got the idea from reading cheap books. Her love interest takes the “next step” in their relationship by pretending he’s going to murder her, and then instead grabs her for a make-out session that she doesn’t seem to enjoy that much. Over and over, she’s treated like someone with an unimportant role in her own life. That she’s clearly onto a plot (or five plots, given how packed the movie is) doesn’t reduce how awkward the movie is.

Evil Eye is the American cut of the movie, and is supposed to be a little goofier, but both versions of the movie have a lot of camp. It’s aged into something that feels like Horror’s doofy grandparent. There’s a trombone sound when two people bonk heads getting into a cab, and Nora defends her home by tying loose strings around the hallway. The acting is wooden in a way familiar of the black-and-white era, but there’s a serious lack of chemistry even the lovers are on top of each other. For everything Nora goes through, she at least deserves better than that.

What Have You Done to Solange? (1972)

Above every other movie I cover this October, this one needs a Content Warning. It is an exploitative Giallo about a serial killer at a Catholic school stalking teen girls and killing them in explicitly sexual manner. It is deliberately messy and uses that to powerful ends, condemning the Catholic values that marginalize girls and make them objects of scorn. It also brutalizes those same girls in ways the modern MPAA board would never let you get away with. This film is EXTREMELY NOT FOR EVERYBODY.
While the DNA of later Slasher films is obvious in this Giallo, what sets it apart the hardest is how little it shows of its murders. Only one happens on screen, and most of them are depicted through brief suggestive shots, and through the discovery of cadavers. Instead the focus is on how horrible it is that the deaths happened, and how distraught the friends, families, and lovers are. They keep it tense by fostering the fear that this will happen to more people. The victims are more humanized, even though they’re more transgressive in life than most of their Slasher counterparts would be a decade later.

It’s also a clearly formative movie on those Slashers. The legendary Ennio Morricone scored the film, and his mutilated violins here are the same thing that the early Friday the 13th films would rely on a decade later. It also features a killer’s POV tracking shot two years before Black Christmas and six years before John Carpenter’s Halloween. It’s hard to believe that none of these filmmakers saw this movie. There’s so much strong about this movie that I can see why it would influence aspiring Horror creators. It doesn’t make me think less of their movies (it only makes me think less of the feud between Black Christmas and Halloween supporters).

What Have You Done to Solange? is doing  different things from those movies, particularly in how it treats its cast. Friday the 13th is about sexually active tweens, but they’re supposed to be relatable in their indiscretions now that they’ve escaped adult supervision. Black Christmas has a slightly more transgressive cast, but it doesn’t feel nearly as transgressive as the status quo in What Have You Done to Solange?.

Here the main characters are a teacher and student having an affair at a Catholic school, with a supporting cast of friends who are the ones who roll their eyes at Mass and smoke in the shower. These are not the carefree teenagers of Friday the 13th. They are smarter, they are closer to each other, and are sneaking their pleasure into an oppressive daily life of intrusive parents and stalkers. Their transgressions are supposed to make them complicated, not guilty.

Those non-judgmental complications might go too far for some modern audiences. Particularly the guiltless affair between the teacher and student ignores the obvious power dynamic between them, treating it as a consensual romantic joy. It is even sympathetic that the older man needs to hide this from his employer’s and the girl’s father, which screams for a #MeToo intervention. But Giallo doesn’t care whether it’s transgressing against that kind of norm, anymore than it cares that its leads are disrespecting the stifling nature of their school at every turn.

Revisiting the classic Slashers reveals movies that feel less like punishment narratives for teens, and more movies where teen audiences are supposed to relate to transgression and root for the cast to survive. It was later that rooting for the killer became the B-movie norm, and makes those earlier movies more interesting because they recognized young people deserve a break, not a chainsaw.

The best Giallo, like What Have You Done to Solange?, goes further, not treating sneaking a blunt as cute, but natural. The real transgression is that things regressed as they went forward. Something like The Tragedy Girls should have come out within a decade of this, not fifty years later.

Coming up Monday: Paralysis Movies! Upgrade and Short Night of Glass Dolls

1 comment:

  1. Tragedy Girls sounds fascinating. Thank you for my continuing education. I don't 'do' movies so won't see it for myself.


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