The Witch, Robert Eggers’ 2015 debut film, tells the story of a Puritan family exiled from the Massachusetts Bay colonies for patriarch William’s (Ralph Ineson) unorthodox beliefs. While the haunted house story is the traditional model of American familial horror—The Shining’s domestic terror growing like a goldfish to fit its massive new tank, the alienating and all-consuming vastness of the titular building in The Orphanage—The Witch instead treats the house as a fragile membrane between love and ruin, the family’s rough homestead on the edge of a vast wilderness a visual metaphor for the precarity of their bond.
Sometimes it feels like Deadwood never happened. With shows like Maniac and Bojack Horseman dominating conversations about mental illness in TV, it’s easy to forget that back in 2004 David Milch’s bloody, profane gold rush period piece broke trail on some of the most daring and empathetic portrayals of mentally ill characters in television history. It’s not my intent to look down my nose at people who enjoy Bojack Horseman’s therapy-session style of discussing depression and anxiety, but I’ve never found it particularly interesting. As my friend and fellow critic Sean T. Collins put it in a review of Netflix’s Maniac: “When I think of lines from films and television shows about mental illness and suffering that have really moved me, it’s not stuff I’ve heard before cutting a check to my psychiatrist for my co-pay, it’s stuff I’d never thought of before at all, but rang true the moment I heard it.”
When the titular mythical creature in Rankin and Bass’s The Last Unicorn is transformed by magic into a human woman, her first reaction is despair. “I can feel this body dying all around me,” she sobs. It’s a gut punch of a line. The way she delivers it, it’s almost impossible not to start thinking about your own body rotting where you sit, the sag of your flesh as it inexorably loosens and thins, your bones as they grow brittle, your eyes as they cloud and fail. To the unicorn, untouched by time, the experience is as shocking and transformative as a child’s first brush with death.
“Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights,” Sister Jeanne of the Angels (Vanessa Redgrave) cautions the nuns under her care near the opening of Ken Russell’s The Devils. Released in 1971 to an immediate public backlash, extensive censoring, and outright bans for obscenity and blasphemy, almost 50 years later The Devils remains one of the most extreme and contentious films ever made. But bound up in the strident horns and Day-Glo blood, the gonzo all-white sets and bondage-collared nuns, there’s a raw, unflinching exploration of how we react to and judge ourselves and our desires.
In December of 2003, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens’ Return of the King—the third and final film in their trilogy adapting J. R. R. Tolkien’s beloved fantasy epic Lord of the Rings—premiered to a gigantic opening weekend and critical acclaim. I half-remember its sweep at the Oscars the following year, the tides of fanfiction that flooded the internet, the memes, the sudden swelling of fantasy’s cachet. I wasn’t yet Online enough, so to speak, for that vast boom in the world of internet fandom to register for me.
When Ridley Scott’s 1979 sleeper hit Alien arrived in theaters, it revolutionized special effects and kicked the wheezing horror genre into high gear. While Alien is without question Scott’s best movie, tightly paced and claustrophobic, Swiss painter H. R. Giger’s legendary creature design is what sets it apart from everything that followed it. Aliens, its 1986 James Cameron-helmed—yes, he used to make good movies—sequel, builds on and exaggerates Giger’s work so effectively you’d be hard-pressed to find modern sci-fi unmarked by its slimy fingerprints.
While teenage best friends Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra) lounge in Em’s bedroom watching Yasuharu Hasebe’s 1970 exploitation flick Stray Cat Rock and wearing red raincoats in imitation of the film’s protagonists, masked men surround the house. The camera drifts down halls and through empty rooms, looping in silence around the suburban house and up to the eaves to peer in at the distracted girls. Slowly, as first Em and then Sarah is taken hostage, the tension grows. More men slip in through jimmied windows and doors left ajar. One by one, they begin snatching the teens.
In many ways, womanhood in the Western world is a zero-sum game. You’re the “it” girl or you’re nothing. You’re beautiful or ugly. You’re virtuous or evil. You’re fresh or you’re spoiled. But where does this brutal, winner-take-all model leave friendship between women? Or romance? If another woman’s beauty could spell irrelevance for your own, how could you feel anything for her but paranoia and jealousy? Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2016 horror thriller The Neon Demon, the story of a young, beautiful ingenue breaking into the modeling scene in LA and running afoul of a coven of envious women, digs its gleaming talons deep into that question.
The giant mecha genre is, at its heart, a teen power fantasy. Step into a cockpit and suddenly your body is a hundred times larger, armored and invulnerable. You can fly through space, dodge missiles, and cut starships in half with swords made of diamond-edged light. Nothing can stop you. Neon Genesis Evangelion—Hideaki Anno’s brutal, convoluted 1995 anime in which three teenagers must bond with and pilot the bio-robotic constructs known as Evangelions to prevent humanity’s annihilation— turns this central conceit inside out so violently you’d need an umbrella to keep the spatter off.
Pornography—notoriously difficult to define, its moral weight and cultural impact bitterly contested not just by prudes and lewds but by opposing factions within movements like feminism—has always been a dicey subject for discussion. Is it art or exploitation? Does it objectify women or empower us? In Park Chan-Wook’s 2016 twisty lesbian thriller The Handmaiden, the complex nature of porn takes center stage, explored with real insight in a story concerned not just with the abuses and ugliness of pornography, but with the beauty and connection it can foster between lovers.
A rusted portcullis rises, concealed machinery rattling as sand falls from the bulwark’s blunt durasteel teeth. Beyond, a pair of pinprick eyes gleam in the deeper darkness. Gnarled talons unfurl, and the snorting breath of massive lungs cuts through the laughter in Jabba’s court above. The rancor, portrayed by a foot-tall rod-operated puppet designed by Phil Tippett and the artists of the Lucasfilm creature shop, appears for all of perhaps a minute and a half, but its impact on both the field of special effects and the minds of the millions of children who saw Return of the Jedi in the spring of ‘83—and the tens of millions more who’ve seen it in the decades since—has been tremendous.
As a genre, horror focuses overwhelmingly on women. Our bodies are its medium, whether sensuously posed and slathered in gore or twisted into monstrous forms to reflect our fears and anxieties. Think of Dario Argento’s lovingly butchered maidens covered in gallons of vibrant red paint, or the Alien Queen hunkering bloated and distended among her thousands of eggs, a monstrous reflection of Ellen Ripley’s maternal instincts. But for all horror’s fixation on our suffering—sometimes gratuitous, sometimes revelatory—and inner lives, horror films actually written and directed by women are few and far between.
From Breaking Bad’s arrogant, embittered Walter White to Conan the Barbarian’s titular brute, the masculine urge to dominate is a prevalent narrative force in popular art. How many movies and shows consist more or less solely of men struggling with one another for control over a lover, a kingdom, a company? Katsuhiro Otomo’s legendary 1988 animated sci-fi feature Akira, a brutal film about a futuristic Tokyo gripped by unrest and corruption, a gang of rough-edged young biker punks, and the mysteries surrounding a group of children with terrifying psychic powers, delves deep into this stock element of so much action-driven fiction, probing at the seldom-touched origins of masculine violence with surprising poignancy.
Editor’s Note: This piece contains graphic imagery.
“Emotional.” The word refers not to the experience of having emotions, but to being overwhelmed by them, to becoming a vector for their messy, difficult expression. It conjures up images of puffy red eyes, snot oozing over trembling lips, voices twisted by grief into unintelligible squeaking.
It’s also a word used almost exclusively to refer to women. Our culture has a deep aversion to the uglier aspects of women’s inner lives—not just tears and anger, but the things that fester inside us from our girlhoods to our deathbeds. Our deepest resentments, our smothered dreams, our cruelly cultivated hatred for our own bodies.