By Jed Mayer and Ken Cancelosi | Press Play July 17, 2013 at 8:35AM
[Original script follows:]
Everyone loves a winner. This is why most films have happy endings.
Such films seem empowering, especially when the characters have to struggle through difficulties before rising triumphant.
Although we all know these are fantasies, they also mirror our real life aspirations.
In the 1970s women demonstrated in the hopes of realizing their aspirations to be treated equally.
But the most striking films from that decade tell a different story.
There are two sides to any social movement, tales of victory and tales of defeat.
Horror movies tell us tales of defeat, usually involving women. Most people would say that horror films are generally anti-feminist, even misogynistic.
But the stories of victims are just as important as those of victors. The war on women has been going on for many years, and the stories of its victims still need to be told.
Before the modern horror film, the melodrama told such stories to women. Most melodramas follow the lives of people who encounter great misfortunes. In the golden age of Hollywood, melodramas flourished. Such films came to be called “women’s pictures.” Back then, women were expected to be seen and not heard. There was no open forum where women's issues could be discussed. But women could connect with others through the medium of film. They saw their own stories reflected in those of characters played by their favorite stars. These lives were generally filled with suffering, and this suffering was largely caused by men.
The modern horror movie takes this scenario to an extreme. This is the melodrama’s dark unconscious. Victimization is taken to an extreme, and this makes us uncomfortable. In the best horror films, the viewer learns what it's like to have every last vestige of power and control stripped away.
For all of Roman Polanski’s own questionable behavior with women, his films are uniquely attuned to their plight. Rosemary’s Baby, from 1968, anticipares the 70s and horror by focusing on the vulnerability of women in a male-dominated world. This scene cuts in and out of Rosemary’s dreams. This emphasizes the fact that we are seeing the world from a female character’s perspective. That world is a very scary place, filled with very scary men. Such scenes linger in the mind. They create a sense that anything can happen, and all is not as it seems.
Or is it? Polanski leaves this in doubt until the ending of the film.
After keeping her feelings bottled up inside for several months, Rosemary spills out her troubles.
Her husband then tries to regain control, but this only makes Rosemary more suspicious.
But at last Rosemary makes a decisive break from the sinister circle that seems to be tightening around her. Farrow’s marvelously fragile and nervous delivery draws us in to her vulnerable state. We share her nervousness: certainly no one will believe her. When he does, a door of possibility opens and we share her relief.
But as the door to her examination room is about to open, the camera shifts to her perspective. When the door opens to reveal her husband, and the sinister Dr. Sapirstein, we share her entrapment.
The moral of the story? Don’t hire Charles Grodin as your obstetrician.
One of the worst injustices against women is when a complaint of sexual harassment or charges of spousal abuse are disregarded as oversensitivity or the delusions of female biology. Rosemary’s Baby captures that experience of being a victim who isn’t taken seriously.
Unlike melodramas, horror films don’t simply negate the experience of suffering by tacking on a happy ending in which everything comes out right. This can make for grim viewing, but it also challenges us to endure even when hope seems dim or even non-existent.
Whether it’s physical abuse, rape, or simply a quiet life of desperation under the glass ceiling, you don’t just get over it. There’s no “closure” for women living in a sexist society, but most Hollywood films would like to make us forget that.
Thankfully the horror film has a way of shutting that whole thing down.
Ken Cancelosi is the Publisher and Co-Founder of Press Play.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.