What Women Fear: The Horror of Viscera Film Festival

Posted by James Morgart on March 08, 2012 in James Morgart tagged with

When I began dating my wife (Jen Morgart) over seven years ago, her paintings introduced me to what she considered to be her own brand of feminist-response artwork. As a filmmaker and student of Gothic horror, I was immediately drawn to the anxieties that some of these paintings exhibited. In some instances, Jen chose to feature themes that people of any gender would identify with such as loss, heartache, and insecurities of the body. In other works, she featured anxieties and fears occurring on multiple levels. As one of Jen’s paintings from a series titled “Headless Woman” illustrates, it is the attempt to balance these anxieties and the fear of dropping one’s responsibilities or falling short of social and cultural expectations that becomes the main thematic thrust of the work. My interest was piqued, and I was immediately curious about this sort of relationship to my own artistic medium: film. In other words, I had found one woman willing to put her anxieties on a canvas (and I was lucky enough to have convinced her to marry me), however, what about women writing and directing their own horror films?

Jen Morgart's HEADLESS WOMAN #3 depicts the challenging task of juggling the multiple anxieties of a GOOD WIFE.

A female protagonist in horror films is obviously nothing new, and has become the “norm” since the 1980s gave birth to a slasher film formula that revolves around a “final girl.” These films, however, have largely been written by and directed by men. This isn’t to say that horror films written and directed by men have never featured female anxieties and fears. Gothic films such as Vertigo and Rosemary’s Baby, arguably, contain anxieties and fears that some women may relate to. Hitchcock’s film features issues of identity as Scottie’s own existential meaning is called into question while Judy’s anxiety of changing herself for the man she loves becomes a focal point once her perspective is briefly revealed midway through the narrative. Polanski’s film is more overt in underscoring the anxiety of a pregnant newlywed being managed by others through heavily limiting its narrative to the perspective of Rosemary. As well-done and well-conceived as these films are, they are often focused on one anxiety or fear that, generally speaking, are cultural stereotypes. In Hitchcock’s case, a woman worried about her outward appearance in order to please her lover. In Polanski’s case, a woman worried about external threats to her child. As Stephen King would say, these films pick out one nerve and press on it.

In my search for films that would deviate from this in a manner similar to Jen’s artwork, I eventually came across the Los Angeles-based Viscera Film Festival. Viscera is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization that screens and promotes horror films written and directed by women. However, the organization also considers itself to be engaged in a social role as their website states that they are seeking “gender equality in the film industry” by expanding women’s “knowledge and [growth] through the creation of genre films.” I was so taken in with the organization and their directors, Shannon Lark and Heidi Honeycutt, that I volunteered my services and have worked with the organization for the past year as their Director of Media and Distribution. What I have found in Viscera is that it is not simply about serving up pleasing rhetoric, but about content that often offers a perspective that male-created horror featuring female protagonists, ironically, lacks. Furthermore, this perspective comes in both forms I described above – the singular “press-on-one-nerve” approach and the management of multiple horrors simultaneously.

Viscera Film Festival features genre films written and directed by women.

The singular approach is fascinating when one considers the nerves that these women filmmakers have chosen to press down upon. In Faye Jackson’s Lump, for example, the protagonist is forced to repeatedly visit her doctor to have a reoccurring lump removed, only to suspect her doctor of not being as helpful as she would have liked. Shanon Lark’s own Lip Stick, a film by a cast and crew made up entirely of women, features a protagonist whose mentality is founded upon the notion that her sexuality and body are the most important aspects to her existence. According to Lark, the protagonist “hates her body” yet is consumed by it to the point that she has become a “walking orifice.” Although these shorts are, arguably, singular in their individual focus of what anxiety they’re seeking to articulate and explore, they are anxieties articulated by women and for women. In an industry where even the most canonical genre films offer a limited perspective of a woman’s anxieties in spite of featuring women protagonists, it has been refreshing for me to come across independent short films that offer something new.

Faye Jackson's LUMP draws on the anxiety of a reoccurring tumor.

The second approach, as described earlier, is one that tackles multiple anxieties with an overriding theme of attempting to manage these horrors. Two films utilizing this approach that gained a great deal of attention when they were screened at The Pennsylvania State University this past February were Thomai Hatsios’s Gasp and Heidi Honeycutt’s and Leslie Delano’s Wretched. Hatsios’s film centers on a single black mother suffering from a debilitating case of asthma. When the electricity is disconnected in the family’s apartment due to a default on the bill, Eva Pierce (as played by Anishika Jontae) must determine a way to collect the money for the bill or risk losing her life and leaving her daughter parentless. Eva soon finds herself begging for a loan from a neighbor, attempting to use her body for payment, staving off a would-be rapist, and trying to find a way to dispose of some rather unpleasant and traumatic evidence of a crime she commits. Unlike Rosemary’s Baby where Rosemary’s maternal instinct to protect her child drives her to the brink of hysteria, Gasp portrays a single mom being as pragmatic as possible in order to maintain stability for her daughter while simultaneously managing multiple horrors that systematically enter and exit her life like clockwork.

Eva's daughter gazes at her mother in Thomai Hatsios's GASP

Honeycutt and Delano’s Wretched is similarly impressive in its own approach to the management of multiple anxieties and horrors. Their film centers on Jenny (played by Jamie Andrews), the wife of an overbearing, insulting, and abrasive husband (named Eric and played by Joe Bob Briggs) oblivious to the emotional and psychological pressures that bear down on his wife. As the two sit in a diner, Eric berates Jenny for being lazy and for failing to complete “one simple task” he had asked of her to take care of while he was away at work. Jenny repeatedly interrupts these brutally harsh and condescending sessions to run to the bathroom to deal with an eating disorder. Not sparing any detail, Honeycutt and Delano illustrate the system that Jenny has derived for herself in order to maintain the “easiest” method of binging and purging by limiting the film to Jenny’s perspective as well as providing internal monologues during each visit to the bathroom. What the film ultimately displays is the horror that an underappreciated married woman must endure and how she quietly manages and juggles the verbally abusive husband, the ability to simultaneously hide her habit from him, the importance of ingesting her food in a certain order, the pressure of maintaining an unruffled appearance post-purge session, and the desperate desire to salvage what is left of a quickly deteriorating level of sanity. Rather than focus simply on the insecurity with one’s own body, the film depicts the multiple horrors that can arise from the trigger of an eating disorder and a failing marriage.

A burnt out Eric and an internally battered Jenny in a moment of quiet desperation.

A question that is often posed to filmmakers and organizers at Viscera Film Festival screenings is “Do you believe that there is a difference between horror made by men and horror made by women?”

Although the answer is that there doesn’t have to be a difference, it could be argued that the contextual nature of gender and identity can lead (and has led) to films being made that do display a difference. In other words, both a man and a woman could easily write a horror film about the abduction of a child with chilling effect. However, a man writing a horror film about a single mother attempting to manage the horror of her life may very well differ from a woman writing the same film. Whether or not this is entirely true is difficult to prove or maintain, even if it only appears to make sense that men and women do not share similiar experiences in relation to cultural and social pressures. However, what Viscera ultimately does is provide a forum for women to voice their repressed anxieties and fears through their art, and it appears to offer the horror industry a new and innovative approach to a genre that has suffered from tired formulas for far too long. Perhaps it is time that we men perked up our ears and eyes to pay greater attention to the concerns and to the art of our talented counterparts.

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