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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According to Roger Corman’s classic cult film The Wasp Woman, the first in my mini-marathon of Cult Horror Movies about Female Monsters, we should be worried about two things: women’s fear of aging (who doesn’t know that?) and science (again, duh). Early on, the experimental scientist Dr. Zinthrop tries to explain to his boss that he thinks he has found a miracle anti-aging drug in the royal jelly of queen wasps. The man replies:

“Listen, Zinthrop, I understand about science, and progress, and all that, but you were obtained to extract queen bee royal jelly. Now, it’s a health food! A cosmetic! It’s not a miracle drug or an elixir of youth! That sort of thing is impossible!”

Oh, Zinthrop, why didn’t you listen?

Like any good would-be mad scientist, he heads for New York City — where cosmetics magnate Janice Starlin is meeting with her team to talk about why the company’s profits have taken such a nosedive. Why? one brave marketing douchebag asks mockingly — because you, Janice, have gotten old. Her haggard face makes the whole company look bad. Who wouldn’t agree with those lines and the bags under her eyes? horrors! and I haven’t even shown you an image of her terrible glasses!

Don’t get the wrong impression: as unflattering as that screen shot is, Janice Starlin is no bitch. Now, I’m relatively new to the genre of female monsters, but it seems to me that ultimately these films address what we might call the Bitch Semiotic, in honor of the classic Sigourney Weaver line in Aliens: “Get away from her, you bitch!” delivered to the gigantic alien monster mother. Film monster women might have many reasons to be bitchy, and many manifestations of their bitchiness. Janice, in contrast, is merely tragic — tragically desirous of a more youthful appearance.

She tries to explain Zinthrop’s wasp jelly plan to a member of her company’s marketing team named Cooper, but he won’t have any of it. In fact, he’s a font of condescending and questionable entomological wisdom:

“I’d stay away from wasps if I were you, Miss Starlin. Socially, the queen wasp is on a level with the black widow spider. They’re both carnivorous, they paralyze their victims and take their time devouring them alive. They kill their mates in the same way, too. Strictly a one-sided romance!” [har, har.]

With bad jokes like that, I could hardly wait till Cooper’s own foreshadowing did him in.

Naturally, Janice arranges with Zinthrop for secret injections of the wasp serum — in deliciously perverse needle scenes set in classic Hollywood laboratories. Naturally, when the reverse aging process doesn’t proceed as rapidly as she’d hoped, she sneaks into the lab and injects herself with more. Naturally, someone says (prophetically), “Cosmetics are one thing. Medication is another.” And naturally, Zinthrop’s experiments weren’t thorough enough to show the dangerous side effects:

But my favorite is the great line, muttered amongst some company employees baffled by the mysterious changes to company policies: “It’s not funny any more, Mary. There’s something going on in that building — [dramatic pause] — and I’m gonna find out what it is.” Screenwriters of yore, where have you gone? Why can’t we enjoy scintillating, literary subtlety as in days gone by?

Don’t get me wrong — there are many things to recommend The Wasp Woman: 1) it’s only 73 minutes long; 2) it’s streaming on YouTube and Archive.org as well as Netflix; and 3) in refusing to engage with the Bitch Semiotic, this film allows its star, Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot) to appear so genuinely appealing that she actually subverts the plot a little bit.

You’d think this would devolve into a simple tale of a woman driven mad (and carnivorous, and murderous of her mates) by her need to appear younger-looking — heaven knows that’s what all of Cooper’s foreshadowing indicated. But in matter of fact she’s surprisingly touching. It’s hard to hate her when she prances into the office one morning looking to-die-for gorgeous. She asks her secretary how old she looks. 23? the secretary guesses. Maybe 22? at which Janice looks wistful, for that’s the age at which she started her cosmetics company — 18 years ago. (Yes: that means she’s 40 years old!) The film doesn’t demand that her delight in looking young would itself make her a monster of vanity, or a killer of more beautiful women, like the evil Queen in Snow White who stands in front of her mirror all the time. (Are there really two Snow White films coming out this year? Groan.)

I started this marathon of cult horror films not just because I love cult films and need more excuses to see them, but because I think the subject of female monsters seems rich with interpretive possibility. It seems to me there are at least two primary questions that help us assess the genre: what causes their monstrosity? and, what does their monstrosity make them do to the other characters, aka men?

I’m willing to guess that most female movie monsters are driven to their monstrosity by singularly female traits. Whether it’s their desperate desire to be beautiful, their overpowering sexual drive, their crazed dementia after being dumped by a man, or (as in Aliens) a maternal instinct on steroids, Hollywood’s female monsters are — I suspect — just the flip side of Hollywood’s typical gender code. These are Girls Gone Wild, except usually in a bitchy way.

In playing out these narratives of women who’ve let their natural lady-ness take them way too far, I’m guessing The Wasp Woman is a bit of an outlier. Not only does it refuse to turn Janice into a bitch, but there’s no sex, no dangerous lady-temptress luring a man into her web of lies.

What’s next? Depends on availability and information. I’ve been constructing a list that includes the following:

  • Astounding She Monster (1957)
  • Attack of the 50-Foot Woman (1960)
  • The Bad Seed (1956)
  • Black Sunday (1960)
  • Cat People (1942) and Curse of the Cat People (1944)
  • Cat Women of the Moon (1953)
  • Cobra Woman (1944)
  • Devil Dolls (1936)
  • Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
  • Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
  • Gill-Women of Venus, or Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women (1968)
  • The Gorgon (1964)
  • Mesa of Lost Women (1953)
  • Queen of Outer Space (1958)
  • The Reptile (1966)
  • She-Wolf of London (1946)
  • Wild Women of Wongo (1958)

I have yet to work out the kinks in my system — after all, I want women who actually turn into monsters, not just sexy vampires or sexy prehistoric women, so some of these titles may have to go. I’m also taking suggestions.

Some advice to all us ladies: go out there and kick your own Bitch Semiotic today. Why, the next thing you know, we’ll have our own Hallmark holiday.

Marathon announcement! Join me in watching some cult horror movies featuring female monsters!

If there’s one thing you might say about me, it’s that I enjoy cracking myself up. To me, I’m hilarious. Which is one of the reasons I had such a very good time last year hosting my own little mini-marathon of cult movies about female rockers — meaning I rented a bunch of cheesy movies, popped myself some popcorn, laughed my butt off, and then wrote posts discussing the relative feminism in each. Some of those films (not all) were just terrible (feminist or not), and I enjoyed every minute.

Naturally, I’ve been scouring BlogLand looking for fresh ideas for a second marathon, when JB’s terrific blog The Fantom Country suggested a vision quest in the form of this amazing title: Gill-Women of Venus, aka Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women (1968), which has possibly the lowest imdb.com rating I’ve ever seen (2.4/10). Here’s the capsule of the plot:

Astronauts landing on Venus encounter dangerous exotic creatures and almost meet some sexy Venusian women who like to sunbathe in hip-hugging skin-tight pants and seashell bras.

And yet it’s directed by Peter Bogdanovich, just a few years before The Last Picture Show!

Isn’t it interesting that most of the monsters out there in horror films are male? Now that’s a great opener for a conversation, if you ask me. Just imagine the possibilities, once I’ve set aside the need to find quality filmmaking. Plus, with a marathon focus like this one, I doubt seriously I’m going to uncover much feminism … yet just imagine what such storylines might say about male fears about women. I suspect we’re going to get very deep into the male psyche here — and we might well be laughing our butts off while we do so.

Plus, I’ve always wanted a good reason to see the 1950s classic, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, which also looks terrible. I can hardly wait.

Sorry, the Alien franchise is out — those are objectively good films, and plus we’ve all seen them before. But I’m looking for recommendations.

A few rules: I’m really not interested in evil women; I want actual female monsters. Also, I do like a good vampire, but not for this marathon. I want Wasp Women, 50-Foot Women, Gill and/or Prehistoric Women, and so on. And I do love the idea of other people out there, watching terrible cult films with me while they eat their popcorn — so once I’ve finalized a few titles I’ll let you all know.