Celluloid Diaries: Women in Horror and the TV Movie Genre that Embraced Them

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Women in Horror and the TV Movie Genre that Embraced Them

women in horror

This is a guest post by Amanda Reyes, author of the book Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999 

Rising from the ashes of the slasher heyday of the early 1980s, academics and fans alike have embraced the notion of the female-centric horror film. The term “Final Girl” has become part of the genre’s everyday lexicon, and the character has evolved in many different and fascinating ways. Charting the direction of the Final Girl from Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978) to Neve Campbell in Scream (1996) communicates the ways in which horror filmmakers have addressed female spectatorship. And if you were to dig even deeper (and may have already if you read Richard Nowell’s excellent Blood Money), then you can see how second-wave feminism played a part in cultivating the types of images and themes that might attract a female viewer. This goes all the way back to the mid-seventies when Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) gave Olivia Hussey a chance to demand independence, foster female friendships, and direct herself in ways that spoke to the self-aware women in the audience. But even before that seminal proto-slasher set the tone, television was already doing the same work, in an attempt to reach that female demographic, most notably in the made for TV movie, where women were considered the most desirable viewer.

Television executives targeted women because as housewives they were seen as the prime consumer of the home, and advertisers would pay big bucks to get those eyes on their commercials. Therefore, many telefilms were set in domestic spaces, and/or dealt with familial issues. A good example is the drama The Astronaut (1971), which is a film about a space mission gone wrong. When an astronaut dies in the middle of trip to Mars, he’s replaced with a doppelganger and sent home to live with the dead man’s wife. The first fifteen minutes set up the premise, but afterward, most of the film takes place inside one house, as we watch the wife learn about her husband’s death and fall in love with his replacement. While the telefilm begins with a focus on the doppelganger and a larger government conspiracy, it quickly switches gears and is shaved down to its essence, moving the center of the story to the female protagonist’s point of view, and how this new man affects her home life.

black christmas olivia hussey

The genre fare of this era was very much in line with films like The Astronaut, although these telefilms often took it one step further, building largely female ensemble pieces within the cosmoses of the horror film. A very early example of this is the proto-slasher Five Desperate Women (1970), which also comes with an interesting subversive bent. Predating the blueprint that would arrive after the release of Halloween, Desperate features a group of women who find themselves stranded on an island with a killer. The sharp, but sometimes unintentionally campy script plays down the violence but also plays up the characters, and each woman is given a distinctive, and often sympathetic, flavor. The film boasts a marvelous pedigree of actresses, including Stefanie Powers, Joan Hackett, Denise Nicholas, Anjanette Comer, and Julie Sommars. The two men in the TVM (Bradford Dillman and Robert Conrad) may be potential killers but are really just window dressing to get the drama rolling. And, while this film is light on violence and death, and there are several survivors, the woman who rises above the ranks as the most together survivor is Nicholas’ character who is a high-priced call girl. Not only does Desperate feature an African American “final girl” but her work in the sex profession also adds a tinge of rebellion to the mix, and makes the film that much stronger.

The following year, the small screen almost exploded when the ABC Movie of the Week was able to land four golden age film actresses (Helen Hayes, Mildred Natwick, Sylvia Sidney and Myrna Loy) in the fantastic comedic thriller Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate. The four find themselves entangled in a murder mystery after they create a fictional woman for a computer dating service, and find they’ve lured in a homicidal stalker. As I’ve said in other articles, this movie is like a precursor to The Golden Girls if the ladies traded sex for booze! It’s all about crisp dialog, a knack for comedic timing and some interesting dark tones as the women root out a villain! While not proto-slasher, it remains a progressive marker of the way television saw the appeal of mature women in a less conventional scenario. This is one of the great lost films of the Movie of the Week era.

a vacation in hell 1979

But, perhaps the finest example of the female ensemble in a horror telefilm is the 1972 chiller Home for the Holidays, which features a wonderful cast of women who are being picked off by an unseen menace. Like Desperate, Holidays is driven by the female dynamic… and what a cast! Eleanor Parker, Jessica Walter, Jill Haworth, Julie Harris and Sally Field all bring their immense talents to this little potboiler. Holiday also places a heavy emphasis on family, basically equating dysfunctional gatherings with murder! So, the melodramatic aspect of the script, which is viewed as a female hook, mixes well with another female aesthetic, the gothic. And, although there are plenty of scares to be had, it’s the maladjusted sisters who make the film the classic it is today.

Other horror films followed suit, including Satan’s School for Girls (1973), The Possessed (1977), The Initiation of Sarah (1978), A Vacation in Hell, She’s Dressed to Kill (both 1979), and Deadly Lessons (1983). Each one pivots the female cast as its driving force, and while they aren’t all proto-slashers and may not even have much in the way of murder, each of those telefilms still builds on an empowering motif that would eventually become what we now call the Final Girl. It’s important to remember that some of its earliest roots can be traced to the small screen.

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About Amanda Reyes



Amanda Reyes is an archivist and historian. She sometimes works as a freelance writer and runs the popular blog Made for TV Mayhem, which gives her an excuse to watch everything from Snowbeast to Danielle Steele's Daddy. Amanda also loves soap operas, Hart to Hart, her husband, and two cats (but not always in that order). In 2016, she contributed an essay to the book When Animals Attack: The 70 Best Horror Movies with Killer Animals. She recently published her first book, Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium 1964-1999.

READ NEXT => Interview with author Amanda Reyes

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