Wading Into Horror

Growing up ain’t easy

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

I’m not a huge fan of scary movies. Growing up, I skipped the giant Ursula parts of The Little Mermaid, and the Fib from Outer Space episode of VeggieTales gave me recurring nightmares. I don’t know much about the horror genre, despite working at a video store and an art house theater. What I have gleaned is that horror has a rich history, a dedicated and devoted fan base and is often misunderstood. As I’m cautiously wading into horror (during daylight hours only), one trope I’ve come to appreciate is the female coming-of-age horror story.

And so, from my limited wealth of knowledge, I bring you a few of my favorite female coming-of-age horror films, from Carrie to Coraline.

Carrie (1976, Brian De Palma)

Carrie White is one of the most iconic females not just in horror, but also on film. In fact, what’s so interesting about Carrie is how little the male characters actually matter. John Travolta and William Katt are merely the sidekicks of their girlfriends. Carrie spends most of the film reacting to how the women in her life mistreat and abuse her, and discerning the changes in her body, from getting her first period to her first fits of telekinesis.

Carrie is a marriage of De Palma’s dreamy, 1970s aesthetic and Sissy Spacek’s memorable performance. Spacek brings a vulnerability and sincerity to the role that elevates Carrie White from shy wallflower to apprehensive, guarded and ultimately powerful protagonist. That’s the most affecting part of Carrie to me, the duality of Carrie’s gentleness and naivete as compared to the sheer and horrific murderous rage she displays in the film’s last 30 minutes. Her transformation is polarizing and fascinating. 

Coraline (2009, Henry Selick)

The stop-motion animation of Coraline terrifies me as much today as it did in high school, at which point I was already older than the film’s target demographic.

Feeling neglected by her parents, Coraline travels to an idealistic parallel universe, only to become trapped by evil forces. Unlike Carrie White, Coraline Jones is adventurous, outgoing, rebellious and kind of whiny. Coraline also hinges on a conflict between its two female leads. This time it’s Coraline and Other Mother from the parallel world. Other Mother is a manipulative, sinister matriarch who feeds on the souls of children. She also takes the final form of a giant spider, which is one of the most unsettling claymations I’ve ever seen.

What I’ve always admired about Coraline’s title character is her tenacity, bravery and independence. Growing up as an only child, I related to her boredom and seemingly constant need for attention. Now, I see Coraline more as a restless and energetic preteen with an incredible amount of resolve. Much of the film contains quickly escalating terror and, like Violet Baudelaire before her, Coraline rises to meet the occasion with resourceful determination. Coraline’s continued willingness to face her fears is admirable, especially for a film geared toward girls her age. 

Stoker  (2013, Park Chan-wook)

The terror here is not a supernatural threat, but a familial one. Stoker follows India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), after the sudden death of her father and the introduction of her long lost Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). 

Much like the film, India is meticulous and hypersensitive to small sounds and details. India’s transition to adulthood is marked by her upsizing of shoes, given to her by her father, and eventual transition to heels, gifted to her by Uncle Charlie. Like Carrie, India is an outcast at school, and has a strained relationship with her unstable mother (Nicole Kidman). Unlike Carrie, India becomes intrigued by and eventually infatuated with her Uncle Charlie.

Stoker emphasizes adult fears as well as adolescent ones; losing a spouse, uncovering a family secret and losing a child’s affection. Nicole Kidman excels when expressing callous jealousy and vile resentment, and Mia Wasikowska’s steady, cool and collected response to her mother’s cruelty give me chills. They both are really killing it here.

India Stoker’s journey may be darker and more unconventional than most, but the emotional core of her story, as is the case for Carrie, Coraline, and many other female protagonists, is about the loss of innocence.

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