Scariest female monster ever? Patty McCormack as The Bad Seed

When I started this Mini-Marathon of Cult Horror Movies featuring Female Monsters, I was pretty sure I’d be seeing a lot of cheesy films as I explored the dirty underworld of how filmmakers associated women with monstrousness. But the subject matter has taken over — the more I explore, the more seriously I view these films’ underlying themes. Oh sure, it’s all fun and games to talk about the Bitchez From Outer Space subgroup, or those Crazy Science Experiment Ladies (The Wasp Woman, Mesa of Lost Women, etc.), or about how these films invariably show women doing the Evil Sexy Dance of Death to lure men to their doom. But then I uncovered this rich vein of My Mother Made Me a Monster films.

Curiously, these are undeniably better films than the aforementioned cheese. (Why? Please send answers!) Rather than imagine Sex In Space or answer questions about what would happen if you injected women with wasp venom, Mother/Monster films raise questions about whether nature is destiny — whether an evil mother inevitably produces demonic qualities in her child, and whether even a good mother is to blame for producing a monster. From Cat People (1942) to The Bad Seed (1956) and eventually Carrie (1976), a whole genre of cult horror films swirl around mother-hating or mother’s guilt to produce an exceptionally riveting set of questions.

*****

The most claustrophobic of all cult films is surely The Bad Seed, 95% of which takes place in that awful middle-class 1950s apartment inhabited by the Penmarks and their super-perfect 8-yr-old daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack). Rhoda’s pigtails are always neat, her shoes never scuffed, and her dresses always as girly as possible.

Let this be a lesson to all of you who complain that your daughters are slobs: thank your lucky stars, for it doubtless means your daughters are normal.

Is Rhoda just a nasty little piece of work? Oh no, friends. She is a bad seed (or, in the parlance of our day, a psychopath). She acts all sweet and treacly, but then get her on the topic of why she didn’t win the school medal for penmanship, and you see a little monster come through. So much of a monster, in fact, that she murders the prizewinner, takes his medal for herself, and expresses no remorse.

Told through the eyes of Rhoda’s mother Christine (Nancy Kelly), we find ourselves trapped in that insidious, nightmare-inducing space of that apartment (yes, this was originally a stage play) — sympathizing with and yet infuriated by Christine’s passivity and mother love for a monster of epic proportions.

Christine’s suspicions about her daughter lead her to delve into her own past. She has always suspected she was adopted — and after pressing hard on her father, she learns the truth: her own mother was a psychotic murderer, and only by fluke did the 2-yr-old Christine end up with loving adoptive parents. But this means, of course, that unwittingly she has given birth to a Bad Seed (and that it’s genetic). Now that she knows she’s responsible for passing this gene along to her daughter, what will Christine do about it? If someone is to be punished, is it the mother or the psychotic, manipulative child?

Needless to say, The Bad Seed could be paired with We Need to Talk About Kevin for one of the most disturbing double features ever. (Who would come to such a double feature?) These films also seem to confirm the notion that even very young children can be psychopaths (that recent NY Times article even discusses the fact that the public inevitably blames mothers for having psychotic children).

*****

A similar set of questions undergirds Jacques Tourneur’s excellent Cat People, which might be the best horror qua noir film ever. It all starts out so innocently, with guileless Oliver flirting with that fetching girl at the zoo. She turns out to be Irena (Simone Simon), a Serbian immigrant and fashion designer who harbors an eccentric fascination for the big cats in their cages — even more eccentric than most, considering that we find out that her drawings show the panthers speared through the heart with a sword.

Fast forward to love and marriage (and I mean fast), and suddenly we have a problem: Irena fears she has inherited the evil taint of her Serbian village’s devil-worshiping past, and that she is a Cat Person. Is it possible? or is it all in her pretty little head? Naturally, Oliver is inclined to believe the latter, and signs her up for visits to psychiatrist Dr. Judd.

But Irena doubts the answer is so simple. She’s haunted by fears and dreams. What about the fact that her father died so young, so mysteriously — and that they accused her mother of being a Cat Person, responsible for his death?

She’s always kept people at a distance, but breaks down her defenses because she loves Oliver so much. Still, on their wedding night, as she sits in the restaurant with a wedding party, a strange, ominous-looking woman (with the best 1940s up-do) stares at her from across the room. “Look at that woman,” says one of her guests. “She looks like a cat,” another guest responds. The woman approaches and speaks to Irena, repeatedly, in Serbian. Irena crosses herself and looks terrified.

“What did that woman say to you, darling?” Oliver asks after the woman leaves. “She greeted me,” Irena replies. “She called me sister.”

One of the many things Irena learned growing up was that she must avoid growing angry or jealous, for those heightened emotions will bring out the evil inside her. Let’s pause for a moment to let that sink in: if she gets jealous or angry, she becomes a murderous, vengeful panther who stalks and kills those responsible. This makes Bitchez From Space look mild in comparison.

So Irena determines the best response is to keep Oliver at a distance: they sleep separately. Which places such pressure on the marriage that Irena begins to suspect — correctly — that Oliver and his work pal Alice have fallen in love with each other. When Irena sees the two of them together in a restaurant late one night, she knows the truth — and thus begins some terrific horror/noir sequences in which Alice is hunted by a big cat through lonely city streets, and Irena is haunted by (animated) dreams of cats staring at her, surrounding her. It’s all so distressing that we see her, crying by herself at her alienation in the bath.

There’s so much to say about this film — about the confusion over the protagonist (Oliver is decidedly not sympathetic; both Irena and Alice are, yet they wind up in a cat-and-mouse game against one another), the beautiful filming, that terrific animated sequence of cats:

But let’s stay focused on the My Mother Made Me a Monster theme, which obtains throughout this film and becomes even more prominent in the (weak) sequel, Curse of the Cat People (1944), which is all about fraught relationships between mothers and daughters. No wonder Irena fears sex and love with Oliver: it makes a woman unpredictable, dangerous, even one as sweet as Irena. No wonder that in the sequel, mothers and daughters are far more at war.

*****

And finally there’s Carrie, based on the Stephen King novel, a film that encapsulates so much of the horror of pubescence and high school that I’m tempted to term King a genius. The opening sequence alone is a brilliant piece of horror/ porn all packaged up in a wrapper of female trouble. A pointedly anodyne musak tune plays while the opening credits move us through a high school girls’ locker room as the girls dress and horse around. As we gradually move toward more full-frontal nudity and the steam of the showers, we find Carrie (Sissy Spacek) luxuriating alone in the hot water, all soft-focus and slow motion — eyes closed, hand running a bar of soap all over herself slowly, pleasurably.

Then she starts to bleed — she’s started her period — but not knowing anything about menstruation, she starts to scream and beg the other girls for help. Being typically unsympathetic high school girls, they taunt her, smack at her, and throw tampons at her until she cowers, naked, bloody, and dripping, in a corner of the shower.

When she gets home, she tries explain to her domineering, religious fanatic of a mother (Piper Laurie), “Why didn’t you tell me, Mamma?” Her mother hits her over the head with a biblical tract and has only one thing to say:

Mamma, reading aloud: And God made Eve from the rib of Adam. And Eve was weak and loosed the raven on the world. And the raven was called sin. Say it: the raven was called sin! 
Carrie: Why didn’t you tell me, Mamma? 
Mamma: Say it. [hits Carrie in the face with her tract] The raven was called sin. [hit her again]
Carrie: No, Mamma. [gets hit yet again, finally relents] And the raven was called sin! 
Mamma: And the first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse. 
Carrie: I didn’t sin, Mamma. 
Mamma: Say it. [hits her again
Carrie: I didn’t sin, Mamma! 
Mamma: The first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse. 
Carrie: And the first sin was intercourse! Mamma, I was so scared. I thought I was dying. And the girls, they all laughed at me and threw things at me, Mamma. 
Mamma hits her again: And Eve was weak! say it! 
Carrie: No! 
Mamma: Eve was weak! 
Carrie: No! 
Mamma: Eve was weak! Say it, woman! 
Carrie: No! 
Mamma: Say it! 
Carrie: Eve was weak, Eve was weak. 
Mamma: And the Lord visited Eve with the curse, and the curse was the curse of blood! 
Carrie: You should have told me, Mamma! You should have told me! 
Mamma kneels down and takes Carrie’s hand: Oh, Lord! Help this sinning woman see the sin of her days and ways. Show her that if she had remained sinless, this curse of blood would never have come on her! 

Then, of course, her mother locks her in a closet with the most terrifying Jesus-on-the-cross figure ever. I mean, come on — is this not the creepiest horror scene you can imagine? And this is long before the pig’s blood starts flying!

The film never tells us whether having to deal with such an insane mother was the trigger that initiated Carrie’s gift of telekinesis. But it’s clear that Carrie’s extreme social withdrawal is the result of such mothering. She’s so withdrawn that the other kids at school find her an easy joke, a target. Her mother keeps her so naive that she doesn’t know about menstruation, after all.

And her mother displays a fear of men and an antipathy to sex that colors everything her daughter does. When Carrie decides to go to the prom with hunky Tommy (William Katt), her mother prays desperately, ecstatically, in that awful attic room while Carrie makes her own dress.

“I should have killed myself when he put it in me,” Carrie’s mother says late in the film, as she explains that Carrie is the product of her own sin. Does it matter that this comes from the fevered imagination of a crazy woman? What we do know is that Carrie and her mother ultimately go down together, locked in a strange reverse-maternal embrace, as the creepy eyes of the Jesus figurine look on.

*****

My mother made me a monster. It’s a theme that has been the source of much cheesier filmic material than in these three films (see for example She-Wolf of London [1946] and Cobra Woman [1944]) but isn’t this theme more interesting when done well?

I think it’s appropriate that I end this Mini-Marathon of Cult Horror Movies about Female Monsters on this note — after watching three films that problematize femininity via that scary mother-daughter bond, via questions about nature, nurture, Jesus and the Devil. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when Hollywood created female monsters, its writers and directors tried to work out their own crazy, stereotyped and contradictory ideas about women along the way.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling awfully grateful for the mother I have — a woman I’m going to see tomorrow, and who’s promised yet another couple of days of relaxation in her beautiful garden. And I’m going to remind her how lucky she is to have a daughter who had a messy room for all those years.

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“I’m perfect, but nobody in this shithole gets me, cuz I don’t put out!” yells the lead singer of The Stains, Corinne (a very young Diane Lane) to an unhappy audience.  A local news anchor later objects to that anthem, telling Corinne, “It doesn’t make sense to wear a see-through blouse and no bra and say ‘I don’t put out.'”  But Corinne’s got an answer to that:  she snaps back in her characteristically surly tone, “That’s not what it means.  It means don’t get screwed.  Don’t be a jerk; don’t get had.”  It doesn’t matter, really, whether the 30-something anchor buys it (actually, she does):  Corinne’s female fans go berserk with this profound statement and mimic everything she does.  Even more important than wearing see-through tops is to mimic Corinne’s hair:  they dye it two-tone, and call themselves Skunks.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains makes a great cult punk movie, and that goes for more than the fashion and the hair.  Most of all, it’s got a crazily appealing feminist screed at the center that makes it look far more radical than last year’s The Runaways.  It’s also stacked with good actors at the beginning of their careers.  Lane was 15 when the film was shot, still only a year or so out from her little-girl début in A Little Romance (1979) and long before her descent into middle-aged chick-flick pablum; she was backed up by a 13-year-old Laura Dern, Ray Winstone, and Christine Lahti, all still basically unknown.  And those are only the actors.  Paul Simonon from the Clash, ex-Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook, and The Tubes’ Fee Waybill and Vince Welnick all populate the film and alternately mock themselves and put on a good show.  The music is great, and those skunk hairdos — damn, I would’ve dyed my hair too in 1981 if I’d known.  The thing is, no one knew about this movie — it received no theatrical release at all until 1985, and only in the late 80s and 90s did it gain its true/cult audience by means of late-night screenings on cable TV.  Is this a great example of film art?  No.  Does it offer an interesting take on women, feminism, music, and the media nevertheless?  Damn straight.

If there’s one thing Corinne has learned in her short, unhappy life in that miserable Pennsylvania factory town, it’s that the older generation doesn’t have much to offer her.  But she’s also learned that no matter how old people view her, people of her own generation respond to what she says.  The opening scene consists of Corinne being interviewed on a local TV station about her disaffection with the world:  as the interviewer tries to discredit her, she simply snarls at him, refuses to succumb to his girl-gone-bad narrative, and slowly paints herself with vivid red eyeshadow (is that where Lady Vengeance got it from?).  Perhaps due to that experience, Corinne treats the media as yet another adversary.  But no matter how much middle-aged TV anchors might disapprove, her words speak to a world of young girls:  “She said things I’ve always wanted to say, but wasn’t able to,” gushes one be-skunked acolyte.  And when a woman TV reporter begins to champion her in the news, she reports that Corinne has articulated something new:  “the power of young girls to resist life as we know it.”

That’s why this makes a great cult film — those glimpses beyond the film’s flaws to a message of resistance that speaks to a grassroots audience.  Even more specific:  for girls to resist.  The dialogue may not be Shakespeare, but it’s always surprising and actually weirdly riveting.  Critics have mentioned this film’s influence on the Riot Grrls of the 90s, but let’s be historically specific here:  even if this message resonated later on, the early 80s was a nightmare for both feminists and nonconformists, at least in sad-sack remote locales like the rural Pennsylvania depicted here.

I want to be careful in touting its feminism, as this film like all other similar films curtails and “complicates” the feminist message, ending up  ambivalent about both Corinne’s and her fans’ possibilities for liberation.  But the film’s 80s-era ambivalence about female resistance still looks radical by today’s standards.  When Corinne yells out a bunch of questions to her female audiences — “What’s so wonderful about getting married?” — they scream back, “Nothing!”  And we know for certain by the end of the film that even if The Stains won’t always reject mainstream values, they’ve lit a fire for at least some of their fans.

It’s exhilarating to see Lane use her narrow eyes and pouty lips to such unsmiling effect, particularly after all those recent rom-coms in which she seems too eager to please.  Most of all it’s great to see an alternate message about why girls turned to rock music as liberation from social expectations, a theme The Runaways seemed to miss entirely.  Written by top-shelf, Oscar-winning screenwriter Nancy Dowd (of Slapshot, among others) with help from consulting journalist Caroline Coon, who’d documented the London punk movement of the late 70s, the story of the film’s creation and disappearance is almost as interesting as the film itself — and has been told in a 2000 documentary available on YouTube.  In fact, Dowd ultimately removed her name from the film due to pervasive sexual harassment on the set.  It got no video release; fans taped copies off TV and passed them around amongst themselves; somehow members of Nirvana, Bikini Kill, and Hole became big fans and even considered recording covers of the film’s songs.  Eventually the film made its way to the art-house circuit and got itself onto DVD in 2008.  So watch Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains with a healthy dose of generosity; but I still think you’ll be impressed and surprised.  In the end, isn’t that one of the reasons we keep watching?