Deadly Role Reversals: Birds Eye View’s Horror Shorts

Short Lease

Birds Eye View

8-17 March 2011

BEV website

As part of its focus on girls who do gore, the Birds Eye View Film Festival programmed a selection of new horror shorts by female filmmakers. Screening at the ICA in London, the seven films revealed what happens when women take on a historically male-orientated genre. Namely, they take their revenge.

Nowhere was this more keenly felt than in Melanie Light’s Switch. Set against a lovingly shot snow-swamped English landscape, the film opened with a fairly familiar set-up: a lone female jogger running down a deserted country lane; an obvious victim-in-waiting. Spotting the lonely figure, a male driver slows down his car, calls his girlfriend to say he’ll be home late and hangs up (‘Bitch!’ he shouts). Putting on his leather gloves, he heads off to follow the girl but in a skewed reversal of roles, the poor murderer-in-waiting is given no time to enact his crime; the female jogger gets in first, launching a horribly vicious and bloody attack in the pure, white snow. The victim has switched and, in turn, the genre switches towards black comedy. Leaving him for dead, the jogger dusts herself off, unperturbed, to continue her run. The twist is cleverly handled, playing nicely with audience preconceptions of the male attacker and the female victim.

Male victims were common across the board. In Helen Komini Olsen’s Daddy’s Girl, an angelically blonde, ringlet-ed woman serves up her own dead father to a party of dinner guests. In Kate Shenton’s Bon Appetit, a woman sits down to eat a plate of male genitalia, making her partner squirm as he sits opposite her (granted, he is tucking into a Salome-style offering of his girlfriend’s head). In Sun Koh’s Dirty Bitch, a wild, pregnant, pigtailed girl ties up and attacks a male acquaintance after she finds his diary of sexual fantasies. In Laura Whyte’s stop-motion animation, Nursery Crimes, we may not see violence against male characters but we do get a strong female instigator of violence: a kick-ass and utterly satanic Little Bo Peep. These were all women on a mission.

And it is with American director Devi Sniveley’s I Spit on Eli Roth that we learn what might lie behind this female offensive. There’s the misogyny of the slasher genre but there’s also a certain chauvinistic culture in mainstream horror circles. The film follows an angry group of women seeking to protest against Eli Roth’s ‘chick vision’ feature on the DVD release of his film Cabin Fever by finding new and exciting ways to torture Roth. The action comes to a halt when the fairy godmother of horror, The Bride of Frankenstein, appears and makes the women understand that they are acting no better than Roth himself. Seeing the error of their ways (‘We’ve become our own worst nightmare’), the women instead offer an impassioned plea to horror fans: ‘This didn’t have to happen, y’ know – horror can be an intelligent, socially conscious genre. It’s made us laugh. It’s made us scream. It’s even made us piss our pants and vomit. It’s even made us think… Friends, don’t let friends denigrate the horror genre.’ While there’s a throwaway, DIY feel to the film, it’s an astute point about the problems that can plague some, but not all, horror films.

Singaporean filmmaker Sun Koh also uses her film to raise questions about cinema and filmmaking. Commissioned by the Rotterdam International Film Festival, the work was inspired by a heavily censored video copy of Claire Denis’s Nenette and Boni, which Koh rented from a library in Singapore. Feeling appalled that the censors had edited out teenage fantasies about dirty talk, Koh decided to embrace the topic. The result is a bonkers whirlwind of filthy talk set to music, ultra-violence and dancing baby dolls. The film concludes with the female lead meeting with a board of censors. As she sits opposite these imposing figures of authority, she slowly realises that they are no different from herself or anyone else; but by pretending to be above others, they have become hypocrites.

As might be surmised from these descriptions, the films chosen for the programme do not strictly adhere to conventional definitions of horror; in fact, they are quite circumspect in their approach to the genre. Most involved violence of some sort but chose to move away from being a straightforward horror film and, watching the films, it was actually easy to forget that this was a horror screening at all. Some involved a lot of gore without much build-up (the bloody meals of Bon Appetit, the vengeful attacks in Switch and Dirty Bitch); some detached themselves from the material enough to create black comedy (Switch, Daddy’s Girl and Nursery Crimes) and some acted as polemics on filmmaking (I Spit on Eli Roth and Dirty Bitch). Only one of the shorts was a direct horror film in the traditional sense: Prano Bailey-Bond and Jennifer Eiss’s Short Lease. While the other films offered food for thought, Short Lease seemed to be the only one to stick to its brief for its entire duration. Bailey-Bond and Eiss’s film was incredibly effective in creating tension with classic horror tools: a lonely, isolated setting; a big, deserted house; and a supernatural, inexplicable force haunting and tormenting its human victims. Following in the mysterious, gothic style of M.R. James, the film left a lot of questions unanswered and a strange, lingering feeling of discomfort in the viewer. But while the haunted staircases left a chill, it was heartening to see an example of intelligent horror, with a female victim but without the misogyny, directed by women filmmakers.

Listen to the podcast with Jennifer Eiss, Melanie Light and Kate Shenton, read Jennifer Eiss’s article, ‘Do Women Prefer Psychological Horror?’ and Eleanor McKeown’s ‘Warped Women: The Emergence of Female Horror Directors in the UK’.

Eleanor McKeown