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Racontesse Musings… Victims Are Doing It For Themselves

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

These women aren't screaming, running away from trouble, but are calmly walking into it…

The 'Last Girl 'trope is common to traditional Slasher horror films. For those not familiar with it, it usually goes like this: a group of young people, often college students, are picked off one by one by a psychopathic killer. But one girl has the resources and intelligence to outwit her assailant and make it alive to the end of the film. Her innocence – she doesn't drink, smoke and is a virgin – is the reason for her survival. Her friends, the low down dirty sluts, are dead due to their filthy transgressions.

In recent years a new type of horror has emerged, which has upturned the 'Last Girl' standing trope completely. I like to think of these films as the 'Lady Macbeth' horrors (after, the film Lady Macbeth). Her adversaries die. Usually at her own hand. But these are no ordinary psychopaths and could be said to have valid reasons of their own.

I've chosen three of my favourites to share, which in my opinion are essential viewing.

If you haven't seen Lady Macbeth, (Dir: William Oldroyd, 2016) then do it. Immediately. It is truly original and shocking. Ostensibly, a period drama this film contains all the expected tropes of Gothic horror: a lonely heroine, an isolated Northumbrian mansion and the cruel constraints of Victorian existence. The costumes are exquisite and Katherine Lester (Florence Pugh) looks like the perfect wife of a rich, landed gentleman. But, in this environment cruelty is the only currency. From the head of the family to the lowest servant, everyone is tied into a system that breeds misery and crushes compassion.

Katherine has effectively been sold to a husband twice her age and is expected to produce an heir and live a life of servitude and obedience. Katherine thinks not. From then on in almost everything you know about costume drama is subverted. She wants sex and isn't afraid to take one of the grooms as a lover and accomplice. Unapologetic and aggressive Katherine refuses to live the life assigned to her, with murderous consequences.

Florence Pugh is magnificent in this role and communicates the frustrations of Katherine's situation with subtlety, and her malevolent intent with menace. The understated nature of the film requires all the performances to maintain reserve. This accentuates the film's quiet cruelty. The increasing violence is shocking because it feels real. I believe in – as you will - Katherine's grim and audacious determination to be free of her social shackles.

Understatement is also the key to the film, Midsommar (Dir: Ari Aster, 2019). A tense folk horror in, which a group of American college students accompany a Swedish friend to Hälsingland, in the north of Sweden. The group's anthropology students in particular are keen to witness the Hårga Midsummar festival, celebrated only every 90 years.

Florence Pugh plays Dani Ardor a woman traumatised after her sister Terri kills herself and their parents by filling their home with carbon monoxide. The cold, almost uncaring reaction of her boyfriend racks up the tension and Dani's sense of isolation from the outset. Intending to leave his 'needy' girlfriend behind, anthropology student, Christian Hughes arranges the trip with his college buddies. But their mutual friend, Pelle invites her along when she discovers Christian discussing the group's plans. As emotionally traumatised girlfriend, Pugh makes herself so small and subservient that it's excruciating to watch - familiar to anyone who has suffered in a dysfunctional relationship. Her emotional ticks become physical habits.

Treated with respect and caring, Dani is drawn into the rituals and emerges as central to the festival. The glare of the sun and the seemingly benign, smiling cult members create a mysterious sense of claustrophobia. Dani's confusion is palpable as the story unfolds and leads to her unwitting, but not entirely unwelcome complicity.

Beast (Dir; Michael Pearce, 2017) is a British psychological thriller, again both subtle and tense. Loosely based on a true story, the population of Jersey are on-edge due to a glut of unsolved rapes and murders. Jesse Buckley, plays the troubled and directionless Moll Huntingdon. Due to past misdemeanours she is forced to live with her dominating mother, Hilary Huntingdon played by the rather convincingly strict, Geraldine James and is expected up to care for her father who is living with dementia. Moll is both taken for granted and alienated by her family.

Moll is rescued from unwanted sexual advances by the hunting, rifle-wielding poacher, Pascal Renouf (Johnny Flynn). Craving love and excitement, Moll is enthralled by him, even though he's a suspect in the murders. As a teenager Moll stabbed a classmate, but claimed it was self-defence, protecting herself from a bully. Sharing her past with Pascal, their relationship intensifies. The question then becomes 'who is the beast' and by extension who can be trusted.

Protecting Pascal, Moll lies to the police about his whereabouts. She is torn between her love for him and her own suspicions. All the while we are encouraged to believe that she is capable of extreme violence. Pascal proclaims that they are the same; that they can be together because they understand one another. This is tempting for the outcast, Moll. She has to make a decision about who she wants to be and it's no easy choice.

Jesse Buckley embodies the loneliness and desperate need for love, whilst making the audience unsure and uncomfortable about the extent of her violent past and her potential future, drawn towards even greater acts of violence. Her performance treads this horrific path, one we can only follow.

As a story-teller myself, I love how each of these films beautifully portray alienation and isolation. They are subtle in the telling and as the plots develop it's easy to understand the motivation of all three protagonists. The use of rural landscape highlights each woman's loneliness. Violence is done in stunning surroundings – nowhere is safe. Each soundscape is honed from nature and music is rarely used, which keeps us in the moment. Our emotions remain intact, without artificial manipulation from the film score. Intelligent psychological horror is haunting. The audience isn't waiting for the next surprise, but is slowly intertwined and entangled in the world of these women. We are left bereft, whilst they are the last women standing.

Sarah Gray

3 August 2020

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