Lesbians and Bugs. Degeneration, Sexual Transgression and the ‘Abhuman’ in Lucky McKee’s Sick Girl

Posted by Tom Paskins on January 04, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , ,

Masters of Horror was an American television series which was created by horror film director Mick Garris and ran for two seasons between 2005 and 2006. It brought together renowned directors of horror films such as John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Stuart Gordon, Dario Argento etc who each produced a one hour long episode for the series. Each director was allowed complete freedom to do what they liked with their episode in terms of story, script actors et al which led to an interesting and diverse series being produced. Some of the episodes were adaptations of classic horror stories e.g. Gordon delivered a brand new adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat and Hooper came up with a take on Ambrose Bierce’s short story The Damned Thing. Some directors however decided to take a risk and have a go at producing their own original stories. One such director was Lucky McKee who was responsible for May in 2002. This was an interesting, sensitive, yet also truly unsettling film which provided a nice contemporary spin on the Frankenstein story and was helped by an excellent central performance from actress Angela Bettis. McKee’s entry in the series was entitled Sick Girl and while being one of my personal favourites it is none the less an entry which at times poses a few difficult and somewhat troubling questions to try and answer. I will now attempt to address the issues raised.

The story centres around the character of Ida Teeter (Angela Bettis) who is a shy, lesbian entomologist who is struggling to successfully form a satisfactory relationship. This is mainly due to the bugs that she keeps housed in her apartment which simply just end up creeping out all of her prospective partners. As anyone who has seen May will probably testify, one thing McKee does exceptionally well is  portray characters who deviate significantly from the perceived social norm, struggling to fit in with the rest of modern society. Ida’s luck seems to change when she meets Misty (Erin Brown) who instead of being put off is fascinated by her profession and her somewhat unconventional pets. Trouble however is soon afoot and a large, unidentified and highly aggressive insect which Ida received in the post from an anonymous mailer is at the centre of it.

Bettis herself portrays Ida as being in possession of a thin, stick like somewhat skeletal frame. Throughout the film she makes sudden, mechanical type movements with her limbs and wears tight fitting clothes which help to emphasise her wiry structure. She is insect like and this calls to mind sociological theories such as those of Claude Lévi-Strauss which emphasised the intimate relationship which existed between a single person and the object or animal with which they came to be associated. This was to the extent that the person came to incorporate the characteristics of this animal or object within their own personality and movements. The relationship between Ida and her bugs is certainly intimate as there are frequent comic scenes where she is depicted talking to them as one might talk to a much loved dog.

Most of the action takes place in Teeter’s apartment building, which is frequently used in contemporary urban gothic as a modern reworking of the traditional Gothic Castle. Hideo Nakata’s J horror Dark Water (2002) and Tobe Hooper’s The Toolbox Murders (2004), which incidentally also starred Angela Bettis, made heavy use of this trope. The building is presided over by homophobic matriarch Lana Beasly (Marcia Bennett) who thoroughly disapproves of Ida and Misty’s relationship as well as Ida’s bugs. She views the two of them as degenerates and is worried that they will pollute the mind of her young granddaughter who sees Ida as a role model and always goes about the place wearing a lady bird costume. She therefore has chosen to identify herself with the bugs which Ida possesses. Lana attempts to keep their relationship concealed from the eyes of her granddaughter and this eventually results in her deciding to throw the two of them out of the apartment building. It is her voice which reflects the archaic ideals of ‘the antihomosexual Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1888’ which failed ‘to include acts of “gross indecency” between women’. This was because of their fear that the very act of mentioning it…might end up spreading ‘such unspeakable filthiness even further’.[i] Her view is that denying her granddaughter knowledge of lesbian practices will result in her not becoming sexually attracted to women herself. Therefore as in the early gothic novels of Radcliffe et al, the building becomes a site of female oppression where the heroine is forbidden from pursuing and consummating a relationship with a partner of her own choosing.

There are also echoes of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm as well as David Cronenburg’s brand of body horror when the mysterious bug secretly bites Misty in the ear and both her body and her personality undergo changes. This is reminiscent of the suggestion that Lady Arabella in Stoker’s text may have been bitten by the worm at some point in her early years which results in her body physically developing serpentine qualities. Misty herself is certainly seen to degenerate; she suddenly becomes aggressive with both Mrs Beasly and Ida. Kelly Hurley talks about how at the fin de siecle the female body was viewed as ‘intrinsically pathological, and the subject inhabiting that body was erratic and unstable’. [ii] Therefore as the film progresses Misty is seen to conform more and more to this outmoded way of thinking. Again, anyone who has seen May will know that McKee has a tendency to portray his female characters in this way. Eventually in the outrageously grotesque climax to the film it is revealed that as a result of her bite Misty’s body has literally taken on physical qualities which are very similar to those of the vicious bug. She now also has the ability to transform from a human into a gigantic monstrous insect at will. By this time she has murdered Mrs Beasly which depicts her as conforming to Lombroso’s idea of the criminal. ‘Innate criminality bespoke itself in certain physical stigmata: Physiognomical characteristics shared with lower species or “lower races” (Hurley p.93). It is by taking on the qualities of the lower race of insects that she has been driven to commit criminal acts. She has regressed to an abhuman state.

Ida has now become imprisoned within her own apartment and is at the monstrous Misty’s mercy. When her lab partner and close friend Max (Jesse Hlubik) races over to save her, Misty instantly and gruesomely dispatches him. He has acted throughout as the voice of science and reason throughout and was seen to voice the opinion that it was impossible to cross an exoskeleton with an endoskeleton, therefore suggesting that within the language of modern science such a metamorphosis of the body as the film has portrayed is impossible. After this Misty allows the original bug that bit her to do the same to Ida.

It becomes apparent that Ida’s body underwent the same transformations as Misty’s did for the next and final scene depicts them as living happily together in the apartment, both of them are pregnant and waiting to give birth to a couple of hundred or so bugs as Ida describes. They are both also currently in their human forms. This scene has a comedic yet heart warming resonance to it as it suggests on the one hand that the film is telling an idealistic story about love conquering all, yet on the other it also poses some troubling and somewhat chilling questions.

It becomes difficult to work out exactly what McKee’s stance is on the homosexuality issue: the homophobic character has in effect been expelled from the castle but in order for them to freely enjoy their relationship they have both had to degenerate to this abhuman state. Therefore are they just conforming to Mrs Beasly’s original opinion of them? There are also apocalyptic themes underlying this. They are about to let hundreds of those bugs loose on the modern urban world which could result in physical human degeneration occurring on a massive scale. The scientific voice which didn’t allow for this has also been expelled. Therefore unlike in Stoker’s text humanity has not got the scientific resources to fall back on in order to defend itself from a monstrous animalistic onslaught.

Watch the Trailer.


[i] Terry Castle, The Apparitional Lesbian, (New York, Columbia University Press 1993), (P. 6)

[ii] Kelly Hurley, The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and degeneration at the fin de siecle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996), (P. 120)

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