WORD OF WARNING: There’s a lot of screwed up stuff discussed in this post. Beware.
My good friend Kristen sent me a link to the trailer for an indie horror film called Deadgirl. The film screened at various film festivals in the fall of 2008 and will be released at a limited number of theaters across the US tomorrow. Its concept will make many squeamish: two teenage boys discover a dead girl tied up in the basement of an old insane asylum. They soon realize that the dead girl is, in fact, undead and decide to use her as a sex toy. Play the red band trailer below for a peek:
When Kristen initially sent me the link, I wondered if I would be able to see this movie based solely on the description. Watching the trailer, however, made me reconsider. The film appears substantive in its contemplation of the moral and ethical ramifications of the boys’ actions. Like many rape-revenge narratives of the past, it also looks like the boys face grave consequences for their behavior, with the film illiciting sympathy for the monsterous dead girl a la George Romero. In short, this looks like the most promising horror premise since Teeth. But as with Teeth, I expect that Deadgirl will remain relatively obscure to most moviegoers due to the heavy subject-matter.
What most fascinates me about Deadgirl is the way that it echoes famous real-life instances of sexual violence toward girls. Two cases immediately come to mind: The Fritzl case and the Sylvia Likens case. The Fritzl case occured in Amstetten, Austria, where in April 2008 a 42-year-old woman named Elisabeth Fritzl told police that her father had held her captive for 24 years in a hidden basement chamber. During that time, Elisabeth’s father repeatedly raped her, fathering seven children. Thankfully, Fritzl and her six surviving children (three of whom were raised above-ground by Elisabeth’s parents) currently live at an undisclosed location where they receive pscyhological treatment at the Austrian government’s cost. Fritzl’s father received a life sentence for his crimes.
As a film scholar and horror enthusiast, a case like this drives home the limitations of the film medium to capture the lived experience of a person like Elisabeth Fritzl. Film could never, for instance, replicate the experience of being deprived of daylight for twenty-four years. I count this as a positive since such a possibility would give the medium far more power than I am comfortable with it having. Ultimately, film can inspire sympathy, but will always fall short of evoking empathy in the viewer in cases such as this one.
This inability to fully identify with a character’s pain raises questions both philosophical and political. I am reminded specifically of Elaine Scarry‘s study entitled The Body In Pain. Scarry contemplates the vulnerability of the human body and the ways in which those who suffer have a limited ability to articulate their experiences of pain. On the flip side, Scarry points out the inability of individuals to fully empathize with those in pain. The recent discussions about water-boarding in the media demonstrate this disconnect and the political consequences of our inability to understand the physical experience of drowning that results from this method of torture (See Chuck Kleinhans’ essay in Jump Cut for further reading). Similarly, while horror films clearly attempt to evoke pain for the spectator, replication will always be impossible.
What all films, including horror, can do is cultivate sympathies for characters, but how they do this and with whom we are to identify can be ideologically fraught, particularly in representations of true crimes. Specifically, the balancing of sympathies between various characters sometimes requires omitting details that occured during the actual events. For example, the 2007 film An American Crime depicts the true crime story of the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens.
In the fall of 1965, Likens died of a brain hemorrhage, shock, and malnutrition while under the care of Gertrude Baniszewski, a single mother with several children of her own who offered to take care of Likens and her sister Jenny while their parents traveled as carnival workers. After an ambulance was summoned and authorities brought to the scene, Jenny relayed the terrifying details of the events leading to Sylvia’s death. Angry at Sylvia for allegedly spreading rumors about her daughters and stealing from her, Baniszewski physically abused Sylvia. The abuse escalated and Sylvia was eventually locked in the cellar where neighborhood children beat her at Baniszewski’s behest. Baniszewski and one of the neighborhood boys carved the words “I’m a prostitute and proud of it” into Sylvia’s stomach with a hot needle, and, most notoriously, Sylvia was forced to masturbate with a Coke Bottle. An American Crime depicts or implies many of these abuses, as you can see in the trailer below:
While the spectator’s sympathies most clearly lie with Sylvia (played brilliantly by Ellen Page), a humanist approach is taken with regard to the perpetrators. Gertrude (portrayed by the talented Catherine Keener) is presented as asthmatic, overmedicated, and struggling to make ends meet. These details reflect the facts of the case and highlighting them provides insight into Baniszewski’s motivations; however, An American Crime omits some of the more grotesque details of the crime. While there may be many reasons for excising certain events (to avoid sensationalism, to keep the audience engaged with the story, etc.), I believe that one reason may be that such cruelties would jeopardize the audience’s sympathy for Gertrude and her children.
In contrast, the 2007 film The Girl Next Door, based on the Jack Ketchum novel inspired by the Likens case, takes an opposite approach in its characterizing of Sylvia’s torturers. The trailer demonstrates this difference:
Ruth (the character based on Baniszewski) lacks any kind of depth or likability. She serves the neighborhood boys beer, preaches misogyny, and abuses the angelic Meg (based on Sylvia) and her disabled sister Ann (based on Jenny). While An American Crime highlights the sexism inherent in the Likens torture and murder, The Girl Next Door takes this element up to 11 by including a scene of rape and genital mutilation. Ruth also dies at the hands of Davey, the film’s primary protagonist and narrator. As a result, Ruth takes on the qualities of a psychopathic killer who must be murdered to stop her violent rampage.
An American Crime easily tops The Girl Next Door in terms of form, content, and sophistication (in other words, I would NOT recommend the latter film). As Carol Clover points out while discussing Hollywood’s coopting of the rape-revenge subgenre, there is something gained in a broader, more nuanced treatment of violence and its social impact, but there is also something lost. At times, I felt like An American Crime tried too hard to make Baniszewski sympathetic; reading the full details of the case, I couldn’t help but see her in the monstrous light in which she was portrayed in The Girl Next Door. While I am more politically inclined toward the aims of An American Crime and find its version of the events more “true to life,” some emotional needs aren’t served with its approach.
Hence, the three films discussed in this entry differ greatly in their portrayals of those who perpetrate sex crimes against girls. Where all three of these films align is through the use of the basement to examine misogyny. That these sexual crimes take place in this underground space speaks to the hidden nature of such real life crimes. But while sexual assaults may often occur in private, the silence surrounding many of these incidents is what truly keeps these sins under wraps. All of these films grapple with the ways in which a group mentality of agreed secrecy and intentional ignorance enables such terrifying acts. I would argue that Americans perpetuate such blindness about sexual assault by refusing to acknowledge the problem. All three of these films confront these issues head-on, attempting to bring these crimes to light, to pull them out of the cellar and onto the screen.