Teaching Daddy a Lesson
Run, daughter of horror, run from your crime. But behind you the policeman with the face of your father, the face of your first victim. Pursuing you relentlessly through your haunted dreams. Hunting you mercilessly through the twisted corridors of your tortured mind. The horror that will track you down! The horror that will destroy you! Run. Run. Run. Guilty. Guilty. guilty! Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. If you could only wipe out the curse of your guilty past. If you could only become somebody else before it is too late.
By setting up stark and compelling oppositions between his two leads in both What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Joan Crawford and Bette Davis) and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland), Aldrich deserves a fair share of the credit for fortifying what would become a new trend in female psycho-killer cinema, one that is hinted at as far back as Meshes of the Afternoon. Aldrich’s tactic, also employed by William Castle in Strait- Jacket and Reginald Le Borg in So Evil, My Sister, is to eventually turn the tables on his viewers, showing the “crazy” woman to be sane (at least relatively speaking) in comparison with the seemingly/superficially “normal” woman, who is exposed towards the end as the killer.14 (In Meshes, Deren uses innovative camera tricks to show multiple visions of herself as the protagonist/antagonist.) Brian De Palma gives this convention perhaps its most creative treatment in Sisters, by making it appear that “bad twin” Dominique is the murderer when, in fact, Dominique has been dead for years and “good twin” Danielle suffers a form of schizophrenia in which she adopts Dominique’s primitive mannerisms and homicidal tendencies during sexual encounters with men. Previously, Roy Ward Baker had experimented with collapsing the “good girl/bad girl” dichotomy in the “Barbara and Lucy” segment of his 1972 British anthology horror film, Asylum. Unlike De Palma, however, Baker strives to blur the boundaries between supernatural and realist horror by providing numerous “objective” shots—mostly eyeline matches— of Barbara’s (Charlotte Rampling) projected double Lucy (Britt Ekland), shots that function to validate Lucy’s existence “independently of Barbara’s hallucinatory visions” (Schneider 2002a, 127).
At least on the surface, it would seem that most female psycho-killer films strive to take the ideologically easy way out by leaving unambiguous the “good girl/bad girl” character dichotomy, according to which a dependable, sensible, sexually conservative, attractive but not stunning wife, girlfriend, or daughter (Tobie Williams [Donna Mills] in Play Misty for Me, Beth Gallagher [Anne Archer] in Fatal Attraction, Sylvie Cooper [Sara Gilbert] in Poison Ivy , Claire Bartel [Annabella Sciorra] in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Amy Miller [Shiri Abbleby] in Swimfan ) is paired off against her virtual opposite—a sexy, promiscuous, uncontrolled and out-of-control mystery woman with few if any meaningful family ties and an obsession with getting rid of her competition for the affections of a particular man. This same basic formula, with minor twists, can also be found in Basic Instinct, The Crush (1993), and Hush (1998). Although the love-triangle plots effected in these films via the inclusion of a doubly desired male lead may at first viewing seem like a straightforwardly sexist wish-fulfillment narrative, it is crucial to recognize that the men in question are usually portrayed as distinctly unheroic and frankly unsympathetic: more often than not they are lying fathers, cheating husbands, unreliable co-workers. Though Hollywood convention may see to it that these men survive in the end, even attaining a measure of forgiveness from their unrealistically understanding spouses and children, they never escape their flings unscathed. While the madwomen usually wind up dead, institutionalized, or in jail, the men are left contrite, grateful to still have their families and, presumably, more fully domesticated than ever before.
Just as important, it should be pointed out that what initially looks to be a clear separation of these films’ female leads into wholly separate psychological and experiential spheres is frequently undercut by the narratives in which they appear, thereby tapping into a powerful male anxiety that, lurking inside even the most tranquil and nurturing women is the capacity for uninhibited, irrational, uncontrollable violence. In films like Play Misty for Me, Fatal Attraction, and Swimfan, the progression (or rather, the deterioration) of the female psycho-killer’s mental state goes from a cheerful acceptance of casual sex with a “taken” man to an “understandable” and frankly flattering desire for intimacy and commitment, and only from there to episodes of stalking, jealous rages, and eventually attempted murder.15 And in films like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Hush, and Fatal Attraction, the seemingly (stereotypically) perfect mother/girlfriend/wife finally succeeds in summoning the requisite anger and spite to engage in direct physical or psychological battle with her competition, who comes across less as a wholly unfamiliar Other than as the “return” of her own repressed self.16
It may be tempting to conclude in these latter cases that what we have is simply a variation on the “Final Girl” character from conventional slasher movies—a masculinized female who, as Clover has shown, enables heterosexual male viewers to experience at least a momentary thrill of cross-gender identification. But to take such a stance would mean overlooking or ignoring the fact that, as opposed to the paradigmatic slasher movie Final Girl, the women in question are not portrayed as masculine (where this is understood by Clover, Prince, et al. as “active, aggressive, empowered”) throughout the films’ narratives; rather, they arrive at this state of being only after things have gone terribly awry, and only after they have broken free of their enculturated domesticity. And so, it would seem that much of the potency of female psycho-killers in American (if not international)17 horror cinema stems from the various ways in which they give nightmarish expression to the “flip side” of patriarchal femininity, whereby passivity becomes possessiveness, vulnerability is replaced by viciousness, and maternal love is transformed into maniacal, passionate hate.18