Wild women with steak knives: SPELLBINDER
Editor’s Note: In each Wild women with steak knives Entrance, author Alexandra Heller-Nicolas examines a horror film directed by a woman that has been largely overlooked or forgotten. Read them all here!
The Female-Directed Horror Movie of the Week can be viewed now on YouTube for free here. Note, however, that it’s also available on Amazon Prime in some regions with much better quality, and Kino Lorber has released a Blu-ray that also includes commentary from director Janet Greek (these are unsponsored links and offered only in the spirit of helping you access the film)
I have plenty of time for American filmmaker Janet Greek, known primarily for her efforts as a feature filmmaker, The ladies’ club (1986) and the film I want to talk about today, Sorcerer (1988). But Greek had learned the tricks of the trade long before moving on to filmmaking with enormous experience making prime-time TV shows like Saint-Elsewhere, Los Angeles Law and, mainly, Babylon 5 (For horror nerds, which I know you all are. She also has associate producer credit on one of the best horror movies ever made for television, Dark Night of the Scarecrow in 1981).
Greek is a really interesting figure to approach in terms of female filmmaking as she maintains and subverts assumptions and stereotypes about female directors. On the one hand, yes, she does what you might call “women’s stories”. But the women whose Greek stories choose to tell aren’t exactly the idealized women we so often assume we’ll see at the center of female-directed films about female characters. She is interested in deceitful women. Greedy women. Damaged women. Dangerous women. This may be true for female horror directors in general, and one of the many reasons their films are worth considering (this, and the fact that a lot of them really are, really well, although they have been largely ignored outside of a few famous examples for too long).
On this front, there is a thrill in gender politics in Greece that appeals to me immensely. Perhaps this potential of the Greek being a fly in the ointment to some extent is what attracts me to his work; I love that she does her own thing. But I see something really exciting about the way Greek approaches gender politics; she doesn’t assume women are always right (we aren’t) and gives her characters huge space to be flawed. There is something truly liberating about these films because they seek so resolutely to make us question our own assumptions about what we think women can and cannot do in the context of a feature film.
Take, for example, his revenge film about gang rape of girls, The ladies’ club. I’ve published three books on revenge for rape, and there are hardly words to say how much I love this movie. A policewoman is sexually assaulted, and when justice is not done (is it ever?), She teams up with the doctor she met in the hospital after her rape, who she learns has lost a daughter, victim of ‘rape-homicide. Together, they mobilize with a group of other survivors and get to work; they have an elaborate strategic plan to trap and surgically castrate known rapists who escaped punishment. Like the best rape revenge movies, however, the film ends with important questions about the effectiveness of this type of self-defense justice – does it really help these women in their recovery from trauma? What is the relationship between justice and revenge, and is it as clear-cut as the rape-revenge fantasy a larger category would have us believe?
The ladies’ club is useful for framing the less controversial horror movie Sorcerer, with the late Kelly Preston. It is apparently a film about witches and witchcraft, and about a beautiful young woman who falls in love with a hero-lawyer and begs him to help her escape the clutches of a powerful and violent clan. While it all sounds nice and fun and supernaturally abstract – and of course, it is – what’s more immediately recognizable is that it deals with much more earthly and pervasive types of gendered oppression from the start. After playing a game of basketball, Jeff (Timothy Daly) witnesses a man who verbally and physically assaults a woman on the street whom we assume to be his partner. Jeff intervenes and nobly brings the shaken woman back to his apartment to protect her, and they soon fall in love. Oh.
The woman is Preston’s Miranda, and there’s a lot of swooning and blurring action as the young and handsome couple begin their romance. But the specter of his past abusive relationship hangs over them, and things get complicated. But never the determined white knight, there is no limit that Jeff will not go to protect his beautiful maiden. The question is, does it even need protection? Without revealing too much, at the heart of both The ladies’ club and Sorcerer lie questions about whether women are able to take care of themselves. Instead of the empowering optimism of drumming girls that normally responds with a “and how!” emphatically, in these two films, Greek turns to a more complex and downright provocative answer: “yes, but …”.
Sorcerer soothingly invites us to think very specifically about women and their capacity for action (or lack thereof), then turns the situation around to ask us to reconsider these assumptions. These are, to be clear, barely experimental art films; Greek has earned his stripes on TV, and these two really have that made-for-TV quality. But there is a fundamentally radical spirit in these films – especially in the context of their era of production – that makes them such a beloved watch. Greek is a fascinating filmmaker because she so joyously looks forward to going beyond pampering her audiences on what he presume women filmmakers are “supposed” to do. The Greek fights for patriarchy as much as any feminist filmmaker of this era who identifies as I can think by head, but she does so in a way that is difficult in that she refuses to pamper us. by simply reaffirming where we might assume that empowered women are sitting on the moral compass. Janet Greek movies might not be for everyone, but they’re really tailor-made for me.
Click below to watch Sorcerer now: