Midsommar. The Invisible Man. Hereditary. It’s a common staple of horror, but lately lots of genre films have featured (white) women who are perceived as weak-minded and unstable until suddenly (and sometimes horrifyingly) they are not. Recent film criticism has interrogated the implications of such depictions of hysteria and emotional weakness in women leads. Remember when the internet ignored prophetic foreshadowing and lost its collective cool when the daughter of the Mad King…went mad?
Trailers for new horror movies featuring women losing their grip on reality are swiftly met with groans. The pendulum has swung so far towards positive representation of women that, effectively, it is often presented as a fault of the film if a female protagonist is anything but aspirational. Incompetence, fright, raised voices, and hesitation will no longer be tolerated in our femme heroines.
Don’t get me wrong, we love our strong female leads. The sight of Laurie Strode popping shots (and practicing proper muzzle control, so hot) in her backyard and hunting down The Shape in Halloween (2018) will satiate my generation for this entire misogynist election cycle. But variety is the spice of life, and the real truth is, sometimes we don’t know what we’re doing, and sometimes we’re actually frightened to face the things that haunt us. We need the raw truth of quaking, misguided feminine muscles flexing alongside the toned and fearless ones.
Roxanne Benjamin seems to agree. She is a beast in the horror industry. Wiith her segment in Southbound (2015), the Sitges and Rondo nominee displays an early love for women who make a series of poor decisions. “Siren” follows three band-mates in The White Tights as they place a little too much trust in a nice-looking couple. (Things go poorly for the trio.) Two years later, Benjamin threw down “Don’t Fall,” a tightly-paced segment in the all femme-helmed XX which falls under the Go-West-and-Die! umbrella, as a group of campers find themselves woefully unprepared for the malevolent wilderness. (Things go poorly.) Both shorts, along with the “Birthday Party” XX segment that Benjamin co-wrote (which takes the question, “How badly do you want your child to have a perfect day?” to an extreme conclusion) show a penchant for femme protagonists doing all of the things that we would never, in our infinite wisdom, ever do in their situation.
With her feature debut Body at Brighton Rock, Benjamin expands on her (arguably) favorite type of character– the flawed woman lead. Wendy (Karina Fontes) is a part-time summer employee at a state park who trades spots with a friend to tackle an advanced trail assignment. Determined to prove her incredulous friends wrong, she insists that she can handle it. Things go poorly, Wendy gets cut off from both civilization and radio, and she accidentally discovers a possible crime scene. Marrying the rugged aesthetics of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet with the “Actually, I’m a capable person” spirit of Wait Until Dark, Benjamin’s star character is a true-blue young woman making real-deal Holyfield bad choices. You would never put in your earbuds and blast music while navigating an unfamiliar path in the woods? Wendy does. You would guard the map with your life? Wendy doesn’t. You’d treat your supply bag as your lifeline and would never leave it unattended? I’ll give you one guess as to who does.
The common critical wail is the assertion that human fallibility (in women) is an unbelievable flaw in character, and thus an unforgivable fault of the film. Benjamin is having none of it. She tells Slashfilm, “I feel like in a lot of movies people want their protagonist to have flaws, but still be better than them so they can put themselves in their shoes and feel like they’re in better shoes than they actually are. You want them to be able to kick ass mid-way into the movie and that’s not real life.”
That’s the long and short of it. We all want to be Ripley and tote a flamethrower in one arm and a little adopted blonde cherub in the other without complaint. We want to flick our lighters open in the darkness and calmly lay out a neo-Nazi-killing plan like Green Room‘s Amber. But the truth is that we screw up, and sometimes the screw-ups mount into a Failure Peak of our own making, and sometimes we’re not up to the task at first. When Wendy discovers a decomposing human body, she kind of does the right thing. After screwing up and touching the body, she gets on her radio and calls it in, to which basecamp responds that she needs to do her job and secure the scene until she is located and picked up the next morning. Her voice cracks. Her eyes well up. F-bombs drop. Despite her earlier insistence to the contrary, Wendy does not have the grit to complete this task.
But Benjamin does what good horror storytellers do: she makes it so that our Wendy has no other choice. Whether it’s a hospital in Halloween II (1981), a parking structure in P2 (2007), or underground tunnels in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II (1986), what first seems like a safe space becomes a potential tomb. As Carol J. Clover wrote, “the same walls that promise to keep the killer out…quickly become the walls that hold the victim in.” From this moment on, Wendy has no choice but to recognize her capacities and fight back.
The way Wendy fights back is singular: she stops running away from the problem. No spoilers, but this heroine’s greatest threat is to her sense of independence and competence. When you’re seen as a worrisome bundle of failure, sometimes the greatest victory you can achieve is to make it through the night and finish the job. We need that depiction just as badly as we need the fearless Final Girl double-tapping her assailant. This Women in Horror Month, we screw-ups are thankful for Roxanne Benjamin.
Body at Brighton Rock is currently streaming on Hulu (US).