15 February 2011


Women in Thrillers
(A "Women in Horror" offering submitted to From Midnight, with Love, because The Mike understands that Thrillers are "little baby Horror movies")

So is it really true that the Chinese character for "trouble" can be broken down to read "three women in a house"? I ask because rhetoricians and essay writers seem to take it for granted, but I've never really checked.

Still, it's a useful cultural meme which reminds us that there's something truly terrifying about women battling each other for top position at home. And seriously, three women is kind of excessive: as long as the third person in your "house" is a man (or a baby!) you only really need two.

My Top 5 "Girlfight" Movies

1) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

Let's begin at the genre's Gothic roots, with this campy classic that will never get old. Some critics pooh-pooh the idea that this is a Horror movie, preferring to call it a Psychological Drama. I can't say I see their point. To me, Horror already is Psychological Drama.

Sibling rivalry is so much more explosive when you can mix in some professional envy. Jane is a former child performer who has never got over the waning of her star--and who likely has a Post hoc, ergo propter hoc way of looking at her own sister's more "serious" acting career, which took off at around the same time. And probably the only thing harder to get over than something like that is that childhood summer when your little sister, who has always been cuter than you, dropped her ice cream cone and your father, who always liked her better than you, took yours away to make her happy again--which is what happened to Blanche.

These two "old broads" (Catch the reference?) have had it in for each other since childhood. And that is why they find themselves without anyone but each other in middle age: having spent so much energy on mutual hate, they both end up with no one at all to love. Which, of course, only makes both of them more bitter. You know there's only one way a relationship like that can end, right? (Right.)

2) The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

This Thriller gives us one of the best female villains of all time--so badass that she can take on two nemeses. Women viewers can't decide whether to hate her or love her. (In case you are wondering, I am leaning towards love.)

For Payton Flanders embodies every woman's secret fear: she's beautiful enough to steal your husband, nurturing enough to siphon the affections of your children, and intelligent enough to make you think it's all your fault. That's probably why every woman would like to be her as well.

Claire Bartel stands a chance for our sympathies because she's a genuinely lovely person . . . and also kind of plain. (All the women reading this know what I mean!) If Payton had decided to steal the husband, children and home of a woman less "deserving" and more put-together, we'd probably say the other woman totally had it coming.

Catharsis is usually enough for me, but I am totally impressed that that this film also asks the essential question about the standards by which women are judged as "successes" or "failures." Claire's best friend jokes that it takes no less domestic skills (homemade lasagna), sexual appeal (b***j***) , and a career outside the home (50 grand a year!)--a subtle hint that there's no such thing as The Perfect Woman. No, not even Payton.

3) Single White Female

A block of flats, with its guarantee of impermanence (Do you love that paradox or what?), has its own special brand of Gothic. People move in and out all the time: they're like family members who can pack up and leave forever when things don't work out. It's not the best living arrangement for someone who needs to be in a relationship to feel complete.

I'm not just talking about the one you might know as the "psycho" of this story. The "normal" one is just as bad. It is she who sets the events of our story in motion when she advertises for a flatmate to fill the void the breakup with her boyfriend has left in her life. So she can't really complain that she ended up with someone trying to fill an even bigger void caused by the loss of a twin.

Hedra is an unusual villain for our list because doesn't want to steal someone else's life, but to share it. She is driven off the deep end when Allie, supposedly our Good Girl, goes back on their agreement in the flatmate equivalent of "no-fault divorce." Some relationships are supposed to end, and the flatmate bond is designed to be one of them. But that's like saying some promises are meant to be broken: it's an excuse not to apologise when you don't keep up your end of the bargain--which is the one thing flatmates do owe each other. Hedra might be the "flatmate from hell" by virtue of her mental illness, but Allie, who is the Single White Female of the title, is no picnic to live with, either.

4) Orphan

You might remember that the seeds of this Top 5 List were planted when I did my Twelve Things about Orphan post.

Esther is probably the only Bad Girl on this list I didn't want to root for even once. Perhaps it's because I didn't see what she was up to until the end. (I want to be in on the evil schemes, you know?)

Orphan plays a bit with the idea of the Electra Complex--little girls becoming jealous of the love their fathers reserve for the girls' mothers alone. And there usually is a man involved when two or three women in one house cause the expected trouble, although in this case, most little girls decide they'd rather be children and let their mothers be the adults. Which is the win-win ideal.

But Horror doesn't do ideals. This genre magnifies the dark side of human relationships and insists on worst-case scenarios. Here, it takes on all the power struggles in all the homes of all the ages that have been between mothers and their daughters who are just coming of age. In Horror for children (which means fairy tales), the mother figure usually tries to kill or banish the daughter--and we root for the beautiful princess rather than the evil queen. In Horror for adults, however, we see the other side of the story. Sometimes, the queens are perfectly justified in their actions.

5) Aliens

There's something to be said for a big shoot-em-up blockbuster in which the climactic fight scene is between two mothers. (Besides, I can't let this list fill up entirely with Thrillers!)

We've seen that some homes are simply not big enough for two strong characters. For Ripley and the Alien Queen, apparently the same is true for the whole of outer space. Through most of the movie, their conflict seems to be a dominant species thing: humans and "chest-bursters" simply can't share a single habitat. And every human viewer considers the "nuke the place from orbit" option a perfectly reasonable approach to dealing with these "animals." We don't really remember, do we, that on that planet, we are the alien subspecies?

The Alien Queen is a worthy adversary precisely because she won't take our human chauvinism lying down. Which is to say, she takes it personally. If Ripley sublimates the loss of her own daughter (or if you prefer, her former crew) into a fierce desire to protect Newt, why shouldn't the Queen sublimate the loss of her eggs into a fierce desire to disembowel Ripley? If we could understand her screeching, we'd hear that it is she, not Ripley, who first says the famous "Get away from [them], you bitch!" If Ripley had been content to rescue Newt and leave the eggs alone, the Queen might have let them go.

And please note which of them really gets the last laugh in Alien 3. =P

Image Sources: a) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? poster, b) The Hand That Rocks the Cradle poster, c) Single White Female poster, d) Orphan poster, e) Aliens poster


Sullivan McPig said...

I only saw Aliens and What ever happened to Baby Jane and I loved both of them, so will have to keep an eye out for the others.

Dauvit Balfour said...

Possibly a worthy addition to the list would be Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte. I still haven't seen Orphan and, though I'm intrigued, I'm not sure if I will.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sully -- My favourite among all these movies (by "Girlfight" standards) is The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. The perfect casting of its three main actresses (Rebecca DeMornay, Annabelle Sciorra, and Julianne Moore in her first movie!) do wonders in making one overlook its flaws; and as I've hinted here, it has intellectual as well as sensational appeal.

Single White Female is very "90s" and its style hasn't aged too well, but it's still watchable for Bridget Fonda's and Jennifer Jason Leigh's performances.

Dauvit -- I just watched the trailer for Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte and am creeped out!

Orphan is something I wouldn't have watched, either, if it hadn't been on cable one night when I had several hours to kill. It's more Horror than Thriller, though: that's one thing to have in mind.

r said...

"Two women under a roof" is a myth which is probably a joke on 安, the character for peace, being a woman under a roof. (I don't know where my reference book of Chinese radicals has gone to so this is not confirmed by research.)

Enbrethiliel said...


That makes sense. After all, as you can see, all it takes is two!

One woman under a roof = peace

Two women under a roof = strife

It so works!

Lesa said...

I have seen all but Orphan. Aliens and baby Jane would be my faves-- I've watched them both several times.

There is one movie I just mentioned to another blogger that you might like. It is Leave her to Heaven from 1945-- also a book that I hope to find and read someday. Have you heard of or watched it? No girlfights that I remember but a very scary lady-- she loves so obsessively that she offs any competition.

Enbrethiliel said...


I haven't seen that one yet, but you know I'm always in the mood for a scary lady. ;-)

The Mike said...

Good stuff ma'am! I was kind of in love with The Hand that Rocks the Cradle as a child, and recently caught back up with it. Ernie Hudson was seriously a hero of mine as a kid between it and the Ghostbusters flicks. :)

Avid Reader said...

I love What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, such a great movie. I'm going to have to check out the Hand That Rocks and SWF. I've heard of both, but haven't seen them.

Enbrethiliel said...


The Mike -- Thanks! I was surprised to see how well The Hand That Rocks the Cradle has held up over the years. It won't ever be a great classic because of its story (which is the same problem The Nanny starring Bette Davis has), but it's not bad, is it? =D

Avid Reader -- What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is one of the greats! Bette Davis was a consistently strong actress her entire life!