by Kristin Battestella
Be it Pregnancy and maternal dilemmas or adulterous affairs and marital discord, this quartet from decades past and present features some wonderful grand dames doing their best horror thrills, chills, and sexy kills.
The Butterfly Room – The ever classy Barbara Steele (Black Sunday) leads a slew of familiar horror faces including Ray Wise (Twin Peaks), P.J. Soles (Halloween), Adrienne King (Friday the 13th), Camille Keaton (I Spit on Your Grave), James Karen (Returning of the Living Dead), and Heather Langenkamp (Nightmare on Elm Street) for this 2012 American/Italian co-production. Blood in the bathtub and a rigid, abusive response to budding womanhood and left-handedness fester alongside morbid butterfly pinning, acidic supplies, dangerous elevators, moth balls in bulk, and bigger quarry. Struggling mothers, cute kids, and old lady neighbors should make for a quaint, endearing apartment tale – but viewers know better thanks to mirrors, hidden doors, and peephole points of view inspiring a through the wardrobe darkly mood. Classy dames up to no good, little girl hustlers, and grandmothers with sick hobbies warp the expected mother/daughter roles. Moms aren't supposed to hate their kids growing up yet we all love 'em as babies – and such conversations pass the Bechdel test, too! Judgments are cast on over protective mothering, women trapping men with pregnancy, prostitution fetishes, abortion, and a single mother thinking she needs to be rescued by a man, however these harsh attitudes help reveal the badly misplaced maternal instincts and deceiving appearances. Everyone dismisses it as imagination when a little girl speaks up amid the unauthorized renovation notices and calculated, sociopath décor, but the careful escalates into dirty cover up kills and quirky madness. The timeline shifts with sepia tints and interesting rewinding visuals, and while this unraveling over the ninety minutes intensifies some twists, the editing should have been tighter. Lookalike girls add to the confusion at times, big spoiler the black man dies first, and several relationships feel too superficial for such heavy topics. In some ways, this villain isn't wrong in wanting to protect little girls with bad moms. Unfortunately, these symbolic butterflies are plucked from grace too soon as a demented result. Whether it was her choice to take an acting sabbatical or a lack of quality lady horror scripts, I'm glad Barbara is back. She still has it, and truth be told, an older woman can carry a film all by herself. Oh, how shocking!
Dressed to Kill – Steamy showers, nudity, and lovely violin themes open this 1980 unrated thriller from writer and director Brian De Palma (Carrie) starring psychiatrist Michael Caine (The Dark Knight), classy mom looking for fulfillment Angie Dickinson (Police Woman), her nerdy son Keith Gordon (Christine), and Dennis Franz as New York cop, big surprise. Superb scene setting and slice of life voyeurism add to the silent seductions and museum artwork with an anticipating and tantalizing score to match – this is a dance, a ballet of will she or won't she crescendos. Whirlwind camera angles, splice editing, and slow pans parallel the saucy onscreen, but of course, the allure is not what it seems. There will be titular consequences, and a half hour in to the 105 minutes, the escalating elevator suspense and slasher violence undercut the risque with more shocking red on white and a witness to the crime. Granted, the killer transvestite cliché is old now, however the intriguing twists are given up front. Each character has a piece of the puzzle, but the audience is in on the taboo case via onscreen windows, partitions, mirrors, and De Palma's expected split focus or split screens as well as zooms on reading materials one isn't supposed to see, binoculars, and eavesdropping. A whiff of parody also layers the unlikely but shrewd amateur investigations, multi layered plots, and subway dangers with disbelieving police, scandalous talk show clips, all sex is sin shame shames, and gasping ninnies. It's nice to see that sassy, older, and edgy New York frankness, too. Unfortunately, that can't hide the obvious Psycho comparisons or similarities to De Palma's later Raising Cain. It's tough to see then Mrs. De Palma Nancy Allen (Robocop) as a high class prostitute, other characters are also thin, the logistics don't always work, and not everyone will like the ending. It's much better to go into this cold and then study the feature-laden Criterion blu-ray. Despite some obviousness, it's fun suspecting the killer and waiting to see the mystery come together in a wicked finale.
The Neighbor – Crocodile Dundee gal Linda Kozlowski joins warped OBGYN Rod Steiger (In the Heat of the Night) for this 1993 Oedipal thriller. It's a quaint 1943 start with a period Vermont patina, endearing sons, and babies on the way, but army widowhood and orphan resentment linger for the present day doppelgangers moving to this seemingly wonderful old house. Antiques and lovely woodwork maintain the past mood, and there aren't too many bad nineties looks – just giant phones, answering machines, and petty thieves stealing a tape deck, gasp! Of course, yuppie husband Ron Lea (The Strain) dismisses his wife's seemingly unfounded paranoia, for a doctor's poor bedside manner and old houses making noises are no reason for him to stop inviting the increasingly intrusive and obsessive doctor to dinner. Despite her past miscarriage, new pregnancy carefulness, and the cute dog beware, our aptly named Mary is on her own in admittedly contrived and surprisingly tame plot turns from Kurt Wimmer (also writer and director of the delightfully outside the box Equilibrium and Ultraviolet). A four months pregnant sick woman who has lost a previous baby at five months is going to climb into a tiny open window to snoop? I think not. Rather than the same old gross man and women on each other's side trite, perhaps the story would have been more interesting if the female doctor was the parasite with a maternal complex. Steiger is a twisted but devoted son praying before a Madonna-esque shrine with photos of his mother, however the up close camerawork and predictable editing hamper his icky and stall the pace. In 93 minutes, there's no time to insert extra reaction shots and break the awkward simmer or building suspense. Audiences can tell this is director Rodney Gibbons' (Slow Burn) debut, for the film style here looks like every other nineties thriller – but hey, retirement home road trip and microfilm montage appearance! Thanks to Steiger's nonchalant sneaking and jump scares, the doctor know how, patient compliance, and lengthy needles are horror uncomfortable. Heartbeats, ultrasounds, switched pills, and gross implications raise suspicions, and Mary isn't overreacting when her unborn baby is at risk. Though pedestrian at times, this offers some frightful moments, a pleasant cast, scary finale, and relatable fears for expectant mothers.
Season of the Witch – A spring thaw reflects the cold marriage and empty nest that drives housewife Jan White (Touch Me Not) to witchcraft in this 1973 feminist leaning thriller from George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead). Repressed dreams with through the peephole distortions, cages, and dual mirror reflections match subtle wedding ring moments and not so subtle slasher style violence. There's a lingering sexual guilt, a her fault, asking for it societal mentality festering because women weren't supposed to talk to or about their slap happy husbands much less get their kit off and question sense of worth after motherhood. These upscale housewives are trophies gussied up just to drink – but our Joan lets her hair down, goes for a tarot reading, admits her fears and sexual curiosities. Moans and naughty innuendo add to a sensuous, pretty in its own way seventies color with patterns, fringe fashions, and bright make up. The psychoanalysis is of the time, as are dated ladies gossip and erroneous witchcraft clichés – buy a how to book and a silver chalice and boom you have empowered yourself scandalous! Although some obnoxious acting and muddled meta conversation is poor, there is a teatime frankness on the emerging seventies lifestyles and well put occult discussions countering the stereotypes. It's an interesting culture clash when these still fifties-esque hypocrites want to be the seventies kids doing grass. If the MILF wants kicks and it's a joke to the stud, who is using whom? Neither the extreme repression or the escalating wanton is healthy, nor is replacing a crap marriage for the latest risque, dangerous vogue. Yes, this is a desperately bare production, and cheap editing leaves the ninety minute version looking more like leftovers than a polished film. Fortunately, the bizarre accents the changing women's attitudes and sexy, suspenseful encapsulation of the era. Instead of today's curious young thang, the realistic cast delivers some fine feminine nuggets here. But really, the character's name is “Joanie” Mitchell? Hehehe.
For more Lady Horror fun, read our "20 Feminine Horror Films" article at Horror Addicts.net -- an essay also featured in the Horror Addicts Guide to Life anthology!