The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article Misogyny is one of those words. It reminds me of George Carlin on the term ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’. He traced the evolution and application of a phrase that started in the First World War as ‘Shell Shock’: two syllables, forthright, immediately understandable, simple. Then after World War Two, it became ‘Combat Fatigue’: gentler, less obvious, in need of explanation and more syllables. ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ now needs a handbook definition, has acquired an academic sheen of obscurity, and is both longer than ever and further away from the thing which it purports to describe. Misogyny has likewise become the term to use. Think how different academic books would read if we used something like ‘woman hate’ or, as Camille Paglia might have it, ‘woman fear’.

A fear of women is evident throughout the film V/H/S, and the film’s relationship to woman hate is murky. While we could argue that a portmanteau horror film might necessarily be inconsistent, V/H/S - despite having multiple authors - displays a remarkable consistency in the object of its fear and loathing. There is a case to be made that the film that it is ‘about’ woman hate, but a close inspection reveals an endorsement of woman hate via a legitimized woman fear.

Each individual narrative - and the overarching narrative of the burglary of the tapes - is inhabited by gross men whose attitude to women is brutal and degrading. These men are almost all behaving badly, in a way that is so extreme as to make the filmmakers to presumably position themselves apart from this behaviour. The characters of Tape 56 (I’m using the subtitles to the segments provided by Wikipedia) earn money by grabbing unsuspecting women in public places and pulling up their tops to reveal their breasts. The sexual assault is filmed and the cassettes sold. This is creep porn of the most despicable kind, and the numbskulls who perpetrate it are so abhorrent, it is obvious that their demise is framed as a kind of punishment. One question to the filmmakers might be, however, why show a repeated clip of the assault (tits and all) during the funky end credits? Horror movies often walk the exploitative line, but this seems like an indicator that would belie any claim that the film is about hating women rather than participating and validating it. Likewise, the protagonists are almost unique in the film in being murdered by an old undead man rather than by the women, or the women like-things that have been the subject of their punishment.

There is a case for seeing some of these segments as punishing the despicable sexist attitude of the male protagonists as they seek to exploit women. In Amateur Night, a trio of men hit the town with a pair of spectacles fitted with a hidden camera in hopes of seducing a woman and filming the results. They bring back Lisa and Lily. Lisa passes out on the bed and one of the men reluctantly gives up trying to have sex with her. However, when he turns his attentions to Lily, she begins to have sex only to reveal that she’s a succubus, and proceeds to kill the men one by one, leaving the sensitive-seeming (but glasses-wearing) Clint until last. Lily’s big eyes seem to be a response to the men’s toxic voyeurism, as if already by staring back at them she is taking in much more than they are seeing. We as viewers see much more than the intoxicated (Patrick) and lustful (Shane) friends, noticing Lily’s weird feet and her back transforming before she attacks.

The male longing for sex also has a demonic reflection in Lily’s utterly absorbed concentration on Clint: ‘I like you…’ she says repeatedly. And when she attacks him she first tries to fellate him before realising he doesn’t feel the same way about the blood-drinking woman. In contrast, male lust seems childish, fetishistic and gimmicky. Sex for them is a series of substitutes, rather than the thing itself (whatever that is). Their attempts to objectify sex, by making into a group thing, or a recording to be watched later in the safety of their own privacy, preferably with no women nearby. Lily perhaps represents a truly terrifying engagement in sex. She wants to have a man, suck him dry etc, etc. She is the violent vocabulary of sex made flesh. She is too intimate; too affectionate (‘I like you…’), and her disappointment is inevitable. This is one girl you can’t satisfy.

Clint, Patrick and Shane are misogynists, who - like the thieves of the framing narrative - get what they deserve. But their punishment also validates their worldview: women are fucking scary. In the following episode, a married couple go on a Second Honeymoon. The guy is a bit boring and at one point accuses his wife of taking money from his wallet, but compared to what we’ve seen so far, he’s Joe Normal. And yet there is someone stalking them, coming in their hotel room at night and filming the intrusions. The intruder presses a blade against Stephanie’s skin and rubs the rim of the toilet bowl with Sam’s toothbrush, a prank which smacks of the idiots watching the film. However, it is revealed that the ‘loved one’ is actually Stephanie’s female lover who slits Sam’s throat as he sleeps. At a push we could say that this is a tale of a worm that turned and that Sam is punished for his complacency and self-satisfaction, but the horror is more to do with being killed (indirectly) by someone who you trust; someone who you sleep with.

Likewise, in another two of the films unwitting men are lured to their deaths by dishonest women. In Tuesday the Seventeenth, a group of friends travel to the woods, not knowing that they have been fooled into going by Wendy, who wants to use her friends as bait to trap a killer who appears as a flicker on the screen. Wendy’s idea is foolish beyond belief, and her motivation seems the least likely of all the films. There is something gleeful about the fact that she eventually becomes a victim, since she is punished for having tried to catch the killer in such a callous way. 10/31/98 has perhaps the nicest bunch of guys. They’re not obnoxious or virulently hateful of women; more fool them, suggests the film. On entering a house under the mistaken belief there is a Halloween party taking place, they interrupt what seems to be an exorcism. Having already started to run away, more noble motives prevail and they return to rescue the girl. The girl however proves to be truly demonic, and they are left locked in a car on the railway tracks as a train heads at full speed towards them.

So women are deceptive, murderous, possessed, demonic, unscrupulous, pitiless and, in Wendy’s case, a combination of these with a large dollop of stupidity on top. There is one film in which a boyfriend via a webcam manipulates a woman who thinks she is living in a haunted house: The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger. In fact, she is giving birth to weird alien children who torment her, and her boyfriend is in on it. Although we are rightly repulsed by his manipulation of trust, our sympathy for Emily is likely to be tempered by her passivity, her masochism, and the fact she keeps giving birth to weird alien children. Women are unfathomable even when they are victims, as in this case - and they are scary.

To say that this film is woman-fearing and woman-hating is not to say it’s a bad horror film. Horror films often have a tendency towards reactionary politics. As reactionary politics are frequently based on fear, so fear frequently draws on reactionary politics. V/H/S is almost too nakedly honest in its airing of male preoccupations with female otherness and perfidy. In one of the intervals between tapes we see a man trying to make a sex tape with his unwitting girlfriend and being caught out, ‘Why’s this light flashing?’ This glimpse is perhaps a good analogy for the whole film. What Men Really Want, the movie implies, is to see the tits without actually engaging with that fearsome beast, woman.

This Alternate Take was published on December 02, 2012.

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