Herror Movies: Women and Film

"Horrible! Why this script is just horrible!" I first thought after I read "The Commune." And also terrific -- as in terrifying -- in so many ways.
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"Horrible! Why this script is just horrible!" I first thought after I read "The Commune." And also terrific -- as in terrifying -- in so many ways.

When you think about it, many of us human beings love paying other people to scare us witless. Roller coasters are designed to scare us half to death. Horror films are the roller coasters of film. You either love 'em or hate 'em. I'm more in the "hate 'em" category; nonetheless, I want to support the hell out of "The Commune," which premieres on June 5 at the Dances With Films Festival, in Los Angeles, and not merely because the filmmakers are acquaintances.

For years, I've been a fan of two women in particular who keep track of women and Hollywood. Melissa Silverstein publishes a weekly newsletter, "Women and Hollywood," and blogs about the simply sorry statistics for females on screen and behind it too. (http://womenandhollywood.com/) I am also grateful for the intrepid work of Dr. Martha Lauzen, Executive Director of The Center for Study of Women in TV and Film at San Diego State University. Silverstein writes about Dr. Lauzen's statistics which are the stuff of employment horror for women.

Dr. Lauzen's summary provides employment figures for 2008 and compares the most recent statistics with those from the last 10 years. This study analyzed behind-the-scenes employment of 2,706 individuals working on the top 250 domestic grossing films (foreign films omitted) of 2008 with combined domestic box office grosses of approximately $9.4 billion.

Overall, in 2008, women comprised 16% (similar statistic to US Congress) of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents a decline of 3 percentage points from 2001 and an increase of 1 percentage point from 2007." As is true in many industries, Hollywood is extremely unfriendly -- nay, hostile -- to women and girls.

Heidi Hornbacher and Elisabeth Fies, executive producer and writer/director/producer respectively, have joined the ranks of Hollywood first-time filmmakers with a horror movie as their starter flick. They stand on mighty shoulders. Roger Corman -- the King of horror films -- launched the careers of some of our most important white male filmmakers and stars: Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, James Cameron, Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, and Sylvester Stallone are a few. Strategically speaking, it makes sense that women with celluloid in their blood and popcorn on their breath follow the horror movie career path. You could say that, instead of a "chick flick," they've made a "her-ror" movie.

I've now gotten to see as well as read "The Commune," and I was sufficiently grossed out to be able to highly recommend it for many reasons. These folks have pulled together a movie on a shoestring budget that proves they have real futures in movie-making. Statistically, if young men had made this film, they'd be looked at as up-and-comers. Hornbacher and Fies should be considered that way too. Indeed, they are highly promising talents in the hard world of Hollywood.

One way we can make Hollywood pay attention to Hornbacher and Fies is to attend their premiere. First weekends and premieres matter for any filmmaker but especially for women in film.

If you don't care for scary movies, why should you care about supporting a woman-made scary film? First of all, human beings are story-tellers and story-listeners. It's how we convey values and illustrate lives well-lived or wasted. The paucity of films that depict women and girls in a meaningful way keeps us stuck as arm-candy for male dominated stories, or as "ho's," sometimes "madonnas," but very rarely just people in our own right. The more women who create films that are not only good but make money, the more apt we are to have women-driven stories. Women's stories, right now, are not considered to be "universal" but white men's stories are. And that's because they dominate what gets made and by whom. Women who succeed within the current system are required to make content the "white boys" will buy.

"The Commune" is an accomplishment in many ways, and anyone who knows about producing knows what it takes to get anything done that goes on screen. Beyond that, it's highly entertaining. However, what's of particular interest to me is that it also employs women in significant roles. Many screenwriters literally write scripts that guarantee low employment figures for women. "The Commune" features the "trinity" of women's roles in life: the virgin, mother and crone. The villain of the piece is an astoundingly creepy cult leader who relates to women not as people but as their reproductive capacities. "The Commune" creators manage to create terror without having to resort to vampires or phantasmagoric figures. These creeps are real.

While I long for the day that Hornbacher and Fies can use their obvious talents in other film fare, they are well on their way to being taken seriously. From script to screen, "The Commune" is a great first film and horrific as it is, it deserves our support.

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