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The Final Girls Berlin Film Festival has christened its eclectic international showcase of feminist horror cinema by appropriating the perfect trope. In the horror film genre, the Final Girl is the last woman standing, the one who lives to tell the tale after watching her friends get tortured, eaten, incinerated, chopped up into little pieces, or what have you. She suffers. She is a screamer.
According to Carol Clover, the film scholar who coined the term, the Final Girl is “abject terror personified.” As the genre has evolved, however, Final Girls have also begun to fight back against their (almost exclusively) male antagonists.
Now in its second year, Final Girls Berlin Film Festival, which curator Sara Neidorf brought from Germany to screen at the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA) on July 10, 2018, provides a platform for horror films written, directed, or produced by women, trans men, and nonbinary people. The 11 short selections screened at PhilaMOCA all happened to be directed by women.
Some were explicitly and intelligently critical of a genre organized around the male gaze. Jennifer Proctor’s 2017 Nothing a Little Soap and Water Can’t Fix used found footage from dozens of Hollywood films. Spliced together, they highlight the ubiquity of what we might call the “bloodbath” trope.
Example after example shows a beautiful woman sinking into a bath, indulging in solitude, contemplation, and sexual gratification, or at least a luxurious sigh of deep contentment that can be understood as standing in for the depiction of orgasm. Then, of course, she must die, usually at the hands of a man with a knife who arrives just in time to punish her for experiencing phallus-free pleasure. Proctor efficiently demonstrates the ways in which female desire has consistently been constructed as dangerous, evil, and even unrepresentable by mainstream cinema.
A woman scorned
Other films subverted existing horror tropes. The damsel-in-distress in Catherine Fordham’s 2016 Consommé is first shown waking up bruised and bloodied in her bedroom, and flashbacks follow of the previous evening when she was pursued and attacked by a strange man on the street. She staggers to the bathroom and vomits. Up comes an intact human ear, bitten off of last night’s would-be-rapist during their struggle.
This damsel proves more than capable of defending herself. She cheerfully flosses her teeth as the credits roll and an energetic punk song plays her into another day of dismembering dirtbags.
Several films follow long-suffering wives exacting vengeance on husbands whose attentions have strayed. In Sofía Landgrave Barbosa’s 2015 Levantamuertos, a woman tries to resurrect her husband’s sexual interest in her, only to find that he is repulsed by the appearance of her aged body and prefers to make eyes at the 20-somethings in crop tops promenading down their street. She neatly solves this dilemma by cutting out her man’s eyes with scissors and resuming conjugal bliss.
Traditionally feminine tools of domesticity are also repurposed for violent ends in Elaine Xia’s 2015 Metamorphosis, in which a middle-aged female protagonist discovers her husband cheating. She kills him, cooks him, and serves him in meat pies to patrons of the restaurant where she works — her husband’s young mistress among them.
Several of the Final Girls selections were highly polished and easily horrifying enough to make an audience jump or gasp in unison. But the great pleasure of a festival like this one is the diversity in the curators’ capacious definition of the genre.
Haunted houses and body horror shared the bill with such charmingly DIY efforts as Kayleigh O’Keefe’s 2014 Flabzilla, which sends up societal fears of fleshy women; its corpulent director and star rampage nude through a diminutive cardboard metropolis. Thirza Cuthand’s 2015 You Are a Lesbian Vampire parodies hookup culture and the concept of queer temporality.
A traditionally “lowbrow” genre, horror was largely developed by and for men who find images of beautiful women in pain exciting. It has long been ripe for reinvention.
Considered together, the Final Girls films show that the world is full of talented, female filmmakers capable of using horror to do sophisticated and important cultural work. Destabilizing the genre by turning its own most crass and degrading conventions against it, they undermine the enduring allure of misogynist violence.
What, When, Where
Final Girls Berlin Film Festival. July 10, 2018, at the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art, 531 N. 12th Street, Philadelphia. (267) 519-9651 or philamoca.org.
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