Note: Spoilers abound.
I've always had an idiosyncratic love of horror films, but the more attuned I've become to the sexualization of women in entertainment, the harder it has become to enjoy them. The genre isn't known for its stellar portrayal of its leading ladies, and, for me, the thrill of watching horror is lost when I spend the entire movie wondering why all the female characters need to be dressed in sheer wife beaters and panties during their death scenes.
So I was pleasantly surprised that Evil Dead — a remake of the 1981 horror camp classic and one of the most joyfully gory horror films in recent years - somehow managed to depict a strong female character without turning her into fodder for sexualized torture. The film, which dominated the box office last weekend, is most certainly not an example of feminist film-making par excellence, but it can't be dismissed as just another misogynistic genre film either.
Evil Dead's premise is as basic as they come: pretty people come to a cabin in the woods, read from a book bound in human skin (like you do), and demon-fueled mayhem ensues. But it made me feel warmer and fuzzier than usual about the portrayal of its female characters for a couple reasons:
1. There is no sex scene.
As such, there is no formulaic comeuppance slaying of a designated, sexually-liberated female character.
2. In a refreshing transgression from the typical "good girl survives until the end" scenario (exemplified by the prolific presence of babysitters, virgins, and girls next door in these types of films), a troubled young woman outlives everyone.
Said woman is Mia, who has recently almost died from a heroin overdose and brought her friends to the cabin to help her kick the habit. Evil Dead isn't the first of its kind to have a non-angelic lady come out swinging, but it was still an appreciated element of characterization.
3. There is a dopey blonde gal, but she comes across as more mild-mannered than ditzy. She also yells "F*** you!" (or something) and cuts off her arm with a meat saw to slow the demon's virus-like possession of her body after it bites her hand.
It's an act of insane desperation, sure, but it's also a surprisingly bad-ass moment of defiance from an otherwise forgettable female character.
4. A guy starts all the drama when he doesn't heed Mia's warnings against messing with magic stuffs and arrogantly reads from the Necronomicon, summoning the big bad.
5. There are no boobies! Seriously, even a shower scene, while vomit worthy, is fully-clothed.
6. I lied, there are some boobies.
But they belong to a slimy demon thing that has risen from the ground. It makes sense in the scene, they are barely seen, and if you got off on rotting flesh crawling through the mud I don't know what to tell you.
7. A guy doesn't save the day — even if he thinks he does.
Mia's brother David, ostensibly the leading man, thinks he's being gallant when he blows up the cabin and a demon inside of it, when in fact all he's done is leave his little sis alone with the worst undead thing yet.
8. After David goes out in his blaze of glory, it's up to Mia to end things in the goriest, slipperiest demon showdown of all.
After getting pinned beneath a car, she frees herself by ripping her own hand off and, in a gender-reversed nod to the 2nd film of the original franchise, slices the final demon in half with a chainsaw.
Let me repeat that. Mia rips her own hand off and slices the demon in half with a chainsaw.
9. What's more, she does so while wearing a long-sleeved red dress that's thick enough to prevent any nips from making a cameo in the blood rain that's pouring down.
I didn't know it was possible to defeat evil without the aid of dominatrix garb (hello Underworld, Aeon Flux, Resident Evil), but there you go.
So what prevents Evil Dead from being waved around as a triumph of feminist horror cinema? Well, there's a completely unnecessary rape scene.
For those not in the know, one of the most controversial and disturbing moments from the original The Evil Dead involves a woman being brutally violated by a tree. Though Sam Raimi has admitted that he regrets including the infamous scene in his original film, it has (literally) wriggled its way into this installment.
This time around the filmmakers have attempted to de-sexualize the act of demonic possession via hoo-ha, in that the tree refrains from tearing off the heroine's clothes (how considerate), but the scene is still gratuitous. And the fact that the rape is pinned next to scenes of purposefully ridiculous gore and violence makes it come across as nothing more than additional gross-out entertainment, almost tame in comparison with the carnage that occurs throughout the rest of the film. In a culture so enamored of denying the devastating reality of rape in the first place, a scene that turns it into entertainment doesn’t deserve to be here.
It's disappointing, to say the least, because otherwise Evil Dead does a pretty bang-up job of avoiding misogynistic horror film cliches. I left the theater feeling a lot less pissed off than I thought I would, and in a genre infamous for its degrading portrayal of ladies, that's not nothing. Maybe someday I won't have to be on the lookout for token moments of female empowerment sans sexualization in horror films in the first place.