I’m as good a feminist as the next semi-consc(ient)ious woman living on planet Earth. But I’m sick and tired of people reflexively classifying horror and other types of unsavory cinema as misogynistic. While it may very well be true in some cases (and it sure doesn’t help that so few of these films are actually directed by women), it would be more accurate to say that such movies are simply misanthropic in general—isn’t their overall sense of hopelessness and doom part of their appeal? Male characters certainly don’t walk away unscathed, and in fact they often come off worse, as they serve as the aggressors far more frequently. But, yes, as in life, men remain dominant when it comes to power. Correspondingly, movie women have to be brutally victimized and/or have a traumatic backstory to be allowed to take charge, and, yet, with only a small trace of guilt, I can say that no matter the specifics—victim or villainess—I can’t resist getting excited when this is the case. But of course, the path of villainy is always the more fun option. We’re all familiar with the assorted femmes fatales of film noir, the stalkers of Fatal Attraction, Misery, Single White Female, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and The Crush, and the monstrous mothers of Psycho, Carrie, and Mommie Dearest, but let’s now get acquainted with some lesser-known twisted sisters worthy of notoriety—whether mentally unstable, cursed, or just plain evil—available for your streaming pleasure.
The Strange Vengeance of Rosalie
A sort-of precursor to Misery’s iconic nut job Annie Wilkes is the teenage Rosalie, a backwoods half-breed—okay, if you say so—who wears a sack for a dress (and wears it well, because it clothes a gorgeous Bonnie Bedelia in an early screen role). Rosalie buries her dead grandfather in the first scene of Jack Starrett’s 1972 The Strange Vengeance of Rosalie (Amazon, $2.99 rental/$7.99 purchase; quality: highly questionable) and, now alone, goes in search of a new companion. The unlucky target: nice-guy Virgil (Ken Howard), who stops to give her a lift, unaware just how deep in the New Mexico desert she actually lives—or that she plans to also have him call her shack home. (The IMDb plot description claims she lures him home “for some sexual escapades,” but that’s far from the truth—unless there’s some raunchy unrated cut out there that I’m unaware of.) Slashing Virgil’s tires, breaking one of his legs with the blunt end of an axe, and keeping him prisoner, Rosalie hopes he’ll eventually give in and agree to become her husband. Virgil, of course, is interested only in getting the hell out of there, but maintains a respectful manner toward her, even to the point of feeling protective, as audiences may too, even knowing that at any second the unpredictable girl could erupt into a violent frenzy. And while, being a red-blooded dude, he can’t help but check her out every so often—and who can blame him, really?—his shame is visible when he does. (The dynamic between the two characters, thanks to the actors’ spot-on performances, is something to behold.) Alas, despite Rosalie’s best efforts to possess him, Virgil remains a perfect gentleman all the way to the film’s shocking, albeit silly, finale.
It’s not youthful naïveté but fear of aging that makes the female protagonist desperate to hold on to her man in Tam Lin (aka The Ballad of Tam Lin aka The Devil’s Widow; Amazon, free for prime members; quality: pretty good). The one and only film directed by Roddy McDowall, this psychedelic oddity from 1970—based on a Scottish ballad in which true love frees the title character from the clutches of a wicked fairy queen—stars Ava Gardner as Michaela, the super-wealthy leader of an exclusive cult whose members she invites to live with her, and who she hilariously refers to as “you torpid collection” when they begin to bore her. But there’s one she’ll never tire of: Tom (Ian McShane), with whom she enjoys a torrid affair until Janet (Stephanie Beacham) enters the picture. It’s love at first sight—and how could it not be when on first meeting, the young and glowing newcomer catches his Frisbee in one hand while holding an adorable puppy in the other—which results in Michaela’s instant raging jealousy. A sorceress of sorts, she’s used to getting all that she desires, and so when she realizes her powers aren’t quite strong enough to hold onto Tom, she commands her minions to hunt him down for the kill. It’s at this point that the film—full of comical musical cues, erratic pacing, bizarre cross-cutting and freeze frames—really comes alive. But ultimately, Tam Lin is all about the eyes: Gardner’s, evil and cat-like; McShane’s, dreamy and puppy-dog; and Beacham’s, shiny and big as saucers.
Rino Di Silvestro’s 1976 fascinatingly ridiculous Legend of the Wolf Woman (aka Werewolf Woman; Amazon, $2.99 rental/$7.99 purchase; quality: pretty bad, and the English-dubbed version to boot) explores the possibility of a curse of another kind. It’s not initially clear if Daniela is in fact a werewolf who metamorphosizes at the onset of a full moon, as depicted in the dream sequence that opens the film, or if she has an “ancestral complex” (she does bear an uncanny resemblance to a doomed woman earlier in her bloodline), or if she’s suffering from some weird sexual disorder, as a result of having been raped at 13, that makes men repellent to her. Early on in the film she masturbates while spying on her sister making love to her husband, and that same night, seduces and brutally murders him in werewolf fashion (but without actually transforming into a monster, so there goes that option). She’s placed in a mental hospital, escapes, and then, very much to her surprise, falls in love with a genuinely nice guy. But things fall apart again and the film essentially mutates, somewhat satisfyingly, into a rape-revenge thriller. Bonuses: endless amounts of gratuitous nudity and violence, as well as some truly absurd mumbo-jumbo coming from the mouths of the film’s (male, of course) doctors and cops—and it doesn’t hurt that the lead (Frenchwoman Annik Borel) comes with a pretty fully loaded arsenal of crazed expressions.
It certainly wouldn’t feel proper to discuss unhinged women without mention of Joan Crawford, a silver-screen bad girl and a real-life nasty, as famously depicted in Mommie Dearest. It was tough to choose which of her films to go with, but in the end William Castle’s Robert Bloch–penned Strait-Jacket (Amazon + Google play, $2.99 rental/$9.99 purchase, or iTunes, $3.99 rental/$12.99 purchase; quality: very good) won out, simply because it’s so damn amazing. Seriously. It’s beautiful schlock, shot in black and white, and features some jarring violence for its time (1964), a particularly good Crawford performance, and a shock ending that makes describing the film in any detail tricky. Crawford plays Lucy Harbin, whose seven-years-her-junior hubby brings home a bar pick-up while she’s out of town. She comes back earlier than planned, sees the two asleep in bed through the window, grabs an axe, chops them up as her daughter looks on, is declared legally insane, and institutionalized—all before the opening credits roll! The remainder of the film takes place 20 years later, when Lucy, declared mentally sound, is released and sent home to her brother and soon-to-be-married daughter (Diane Baker). But it soon becomes apparent that all is not well: Lucy’s paranoia and strange behavior resurface—and the axe murders begin anew!
Also fresh out of the loony bin are the two teenage girls at the center of Jean Rollin’s 1981 The Escapees (Netflix; quality: decent, with the occasional image flaw and missing subtitle). This is one of the fantastique filmmaker’s more reality-based works, and one of his most obscure (I can’t say if that’s for good reason or not, as I’m admittedly not all that familiar with his oeuvre—yet). At first its lead characters seemed iffy candidates to serve as full-on crazies in this column’s lineup; sure, they’ve both been institutionalized, but they are so young and clearly neglected and/or mistreated (very little is revealed about their pasts) that we can’t help but wish for their salvation. Strangers at first, these two polar opposites—wild, angry, self-sufficient Michelle (Laurence Dubas) and skittish, fragile, needy Marie (Christiane Coppé)—flee the hospital together and in no time develop an unbreakable bond. There’s no real plot or impetus driving the action, and Rollin himself calls the film “a bit of a disaster,” yet there’s something so arrestingly dreamlike about watching the girls’ adventures, as they fall in with mostly suspicious sorts, that it’s hard to look away. But The Escapees is essentially a tragic tale. Nothing really goes the girls’ way, and much violence ensues, fully earning Michelle and Marie their bad-girl badges.
While far from obscure—in fact, she is quite possibly the most famous evil woman in history—Elizabeth Bathory seemed a most fitting subject to close on. And some of the many films she inspired aren’t as widely known as the actual details of her life: the Hungarian noblewoman (1560-1614) killed, or was at least responsible for the death of, countless young virgins whose blood she believed could restore her youth. I watched just two, which take very different approaches. In the 2008 Bathory (aka Bathory: Countess of Blood; Netflix; quality: just fine), Anna Friel gives the title role her all, but dreadful production values and too much time spent on battles and history lessons make getting through the film’s nearly two-and-a-half hours a textbook-like chore. More interesting, from the following year, is the much more up-close-and-personal The Countess (Netflix + Amazon, free for prime members, quality: even better), adapted for the screen by Julie Delpy from Rebecca Johns’s fictionalized memoir. Delpy also directed—finally, a woman!—and stars as the vain killer, convicted for 80 deaths, though the number’s believed to be as high as 650! It’s a cold and sterile film (as perhaps it should be), and Delpy plays it strangely flat (and French—why?). But despite its flaws, it has a strikingly stark look, boasts an impressive supporting cast (including William Hurt and Anamaria Marinca), and is true to its period setting. There’s probably a definitive version of this story out there somewhere—or perhaps it’s still waiting to happen... In a sense, Bathory, the original female serial killer, is the ancestress of all the many breeds of wicked women (and at least one man, as it’s said that she partly inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula) who will forever continue to crop up in life and on the screen.