For the past few weeks, Ebert Presents At The Movies has been featuring some of the special episodes from Sneak Previews (back when the late, great Gene Siskel was across the aisle). I hadn’t been born when “Women in Danger” originally aired in 1980, and watching it now is like seeing some strange peak in thoughtful dialogue on TV. Living in the age of reality TV probably strengthens this impression more than a little, but I digress. In this episode, Siskel and Ebert discuss (what was then) the emerging trend of exploitative violence against women in horror movies.
One thing that’s striking about their discussion is how time has desensitized people to the trappings of the “Women in Danger” genre. After this show, I got the impression that one of the present At The Movies critics, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, found Siskel and Ebert’s negative reactions to these films a bit antiquated. To be perfectly fair, neither of these critics had time to do anymore more than offer brief, closing thoughts. And while the other critic, Christy Lemire, had things to say that were more in line with Siskel and Ebert, she offers up Jamie Lee Curtis’ character in Halloween as an example of Vishnevetsky’s assertion that (from the show’s transcript):
MANY OF THESE FILMS WHERE WOMEN ARE QUOTE/UNQUOTE VICTIMIZED OR PUT IN DANGER ARE WHERE WOMEN TRIUMPH OVER DANGER. HORROR IS THE ONLY PLACE WHERE YOU CAN FIND A FEMALE PROTAGONIST.
Jamie Lee Curtis’ character (Laurie Strode) is the example that Ebert and Siskel use as the best – a very notable exception – of the “Women In Danger” genre. Many of these films (then and now) often feature women as one-half of a film’s protagonist, along with their tormentor, and I’m not sure that most of them “triumph,” exactly. In the original Friday the 13th film, the protagonist narrowly defeats the slasher only to be struck down by her son (Jason Vorhees) in the sequel. In this context, if Laurie Strode does triumph, maybe that’s because she fights back and survives the threat of Michael Myers despite the sequel’s more sensationalized template of the original. Here’s a snippet of Siskel and Ebert talking after showing a scene in the first Halloween where Laurie is fending off Myers in a closet (Note: This is from their transcript ‘as is,’ but this section has a few glaring errors that I’ll try to fix intent-wise in non-caps and one strikethrough):
YOU KNOW WHEN I SAW THAT SCENE, I MUST ADMIT I WASN’T WORRYING AS MUCH ABOUT THE WOMAN, BUT I WAS THINKING ABOUT THAT KILLER AND HOW I WOULD HANDLE it. I APPRECIATE THE FACT THAT HALLOWEEN NOT ONLY (doesn’t) HATES WOMEN BUT IT LOVES FILM AND FILMMAKING. THE MUSIC IS FABULOUS, THE WAY HE STARTS ONE THEME AND KEEPING THE OTHER THEME REALLY GOOD. ALSO THE LIGHT COMING THROUGH THE SLATS IN THAT CLOSET. IT’S A FILM THAT’S UP. THAT SCENE IS UP AND YOU ARE JUMPING RATHER THAN GETTING DEPRESSED AND FEELING SORRY AND FEELING SORRY THAT YOU ARE WATCHING.
ARTISTRY CAN REDEEM ANY SUBJECT MATTER. THAT’S WHY I HAVE BEEN OPPOSED TO CENSORSHIP. I DON’T BELIEVE IT SHOULD BE OFF BASE. WHAT DOES THE ARTIST DO WITH IT? HOW DOES HE PUT IT THROUGH HIS ART IN ORDER TO MAKE A STATEMENT ABOUT IT OR TO MAKE IT INTO A COMMERCIAL FILM OR A SERIOUS FILM. I BELIEVE IN THE CASE OF THE MOVIE LIKE HALLOWEEN, WE CAN ENGAGE IN THAT JOY OF FILMMAKING THAT YOU TALK ABOUT. THAT’S NOT THE CASE WITH THE OTHER FILMS THAT REALLY ADDRESS THEMSELVES TO THE LOWEST POSSIBLE COMMON DENOMINATOR.
“Triumph” in material catering to the lowest possible common denominator is a strange thing.
It was pretty soon after his appearance in Friday the 13th that people started rooting forJason Vorhees. The movies that featured him always had scenes of teens being stupid or promiscuous, and Jason would dispatch of just about all of them. And maybe the one or two most virtuous teens would temporarily stop him at the end. As a kid I tended to see most of the victims in horror movies as being nice enough. And I always found it pretty jarring that even when a protagonist was crafty enough to win, that the villain somehow scored a win, too, by only being temporarily stopped, or leaving such an overwhelmingly haunting psychological impression.
All of that is what makes the creation of a character like Buffy Summers special. You have to admire the sensibility in which the “pretty, shallow girl” who goes down an alley is as inexplicably strong and dangerous as her tormentors are. And the encounters with the things she faces, in the long run, make her less shallow—not that being shallow, or simply naïve, ever made her the deserved fodder for monsters. Being aware of that makes triumphing a tiny bit more meaningful.