The Marriage Plot: Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum's The Woman (2011)

Posted by Charles Reece, October 16, 2011 10:29pm | Post a Comment

Having never seen Offspring (Andrew van den Houten and Jack Ketchum's adaptation of the latter's novel about a Northeastern cannibalistic kin, who first appeared in the book Off-Season), I took its sequel's opening pre-credit sequence to be a phantasmagoric continuation of I Spit On Your Grave where the eponymous Woman retreated into nature after having escaped the tyranny of Man and patriarchal culture. Surely, Lucky McKee and Ketcham's The Woman is more than an accidental synecdoche for the original title of Meir Zarchi's classic, Day of the Woman. Their film is, at its core, another rape-revenge film, but with the twist that the victim is feral, so outside of man's law. The misogynistic repression perforce comes from a different place than horror's generic South, since its resident hayseed hordes are uncultured and would likely sympathize with the bestial Woman. Zarchi's victim-protagonist Jennifer HIll, on the other hand, was an urbane writer who had culture stripped from her by barbarous rednecks. The Woman has just as much dirt under her fingernails as those rednecks, her language isn't much more than a growl, plus she's a cannibal (a taboo even greater than the use of the contraction "y'all"). Therefore, her victimization is a form of structural violence, that which is the repressed base of the status quo. The central fear expressed by The Woman isn't in having the Woman's culture dismantled (as it was for Jennifer) -- for she is pure cultural Other and has none -- but that cultural normativity is structured around the primordial violence she represents. Hillbillies can't victimize her any more than animals can victimize other animals, but the nuclear family can in the same way that a suburban adolescent might torture a cat.

With the family as the go to metonym for repressed violence,The Woman is but the latest example of a thematic trend in contemporary American horror films that Robin Wood noticed back in the 70s as beginning with the influence of Pscyho (It's Alive and Texas Chainsaw Massacre being two prominent examples). Because of their clearly feminist intent, McKee and Ketcham have constructed a familial dynamic most closely resembling that of Joseph Ruben's The Stepfather. The patriarch has nothing but contempt for femininity (e.g., repulsion at any sign of the teenaged daughter's sexuality, complete domination of the mother's voice) which develops from a regimented order at the beginning to explicit violence by the end. As Patricia Brett Evens has argued, what makes The Stepfather feminist is that patriarchal repression is overcome through the female bond (between the mother and daughter) rather than the influence of some other male who restores the patriarchal order. Because she's psychoanalytically inclined, Evens sees this outcome as a celebration of the pre-Oedipal stage when the identification with the mother is most prominent. Likewise, the law of the father is dismantled in The Woman when the daughter identifies with the captive female cannibal, freeing her to take dietary vengeance on the monstrous father-son dyad. (It's hard not to get Freudian here, since an injunction against cannibalism accompanies the Oedipal stage.)

If one wants to play white knight, then Lars von Trier's Antichrist makes for better sport. Identified only as She, the wife in his family horror is regressing to a pre-Oedipal stage, shown through her obsession with Wiccan mythology and a strong identification with nature. The feminine is pre-culture, pre-law, and pre-order. Despite her husband He's attempt to reestablish order through an endless stream of rationalizing gibberish, "chaos reigns." It's likely that She participates in infanticide (by letting her child die) in addition to nailing He's ankle to a heavy object. The feminine is truly monstrous and to be feared by civilized folk (re: the patriarchy aka von Trier). The Woman is where Antichrist meets My Fair Lady: you can remove Eliza Doolittle from the brutish East End, but you can't take barbarism out of culture. The Woman has no language, no (recognizable) voice, so the father intends on teaching it to her like the colonialists brought culture to the savages. He'll continue to keep her chained up, to rape her, and to threaten her at gunpoint until she internalizes the domination, speaks with his voice, becomes part of his symbolic order. Only then will the fear of chaos qua femininity be rationalized, repressed and safe.

spoiler warning

As with the visitor in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema or Takashi Miike's Visitor Q, the introduction of the Woman dialectically destabilizes the status quo. The anemic, emaciated mother witnesses her husband's obvious attraction to the full-bodied, child-bearing curves of the feral Woman, realizing how she's been used up over the years. But, rather than free their captive, the mother remains faithful to her Stockholm Syndrome-marriage until its too late. And you'll get your face eaten in this movie for betraying the sisterhood. The son seems fairly normal at the beginning, but after his first voyeuristic encounter with the nude Woman chained up in the shed, he proves to be a chip off the old patrilineal block. Dad tells him not to do anything he wouldn't do, so his first sexual encounter involves applying needle nose pliers to her flesh. Little wonder, then, why the two daughters desert the remnants of their family and follow the blood-soaked Woman back into nature.

end spoiler

The dipshit who was so morally outraged at the film's Sundance screening couldn't have been more confused: it isn't anti-feminine, but anti-masculine. However, what should've really offended him is the relentless and assaultive use of emo as the soundtrack, which is the worst choice for music in a horror film since hair metal in the 80s.


Essays referenced:

Patricia Brett Evens, "The Stepfather: Father as Monster in the Contemporary Horror Film," from The Dread Difference, ed. Barry Keith Grant

Robin Wood, "The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s," from Hollywood: From Vietnam to Reagan ... and Beyond 

Relevant Tags

Feminism (18), Lucky Mckee (1), Masculinity (3), The Stepfather (3), The Woman (1), Horror (213), Visitor Q (1), Teorema (1), I Spit On Your Grave (3), Jack Ketchum (1), Antichrist (2)