Film critic Robin Wood wrote that the basic structure of every horror movie is simple: “Normalcy is threatened by the monster.” This seems so basic as to be almost unhelpful, until we reflect on how ambiguous two of the words are in this construction: “Normalcy” and “monster.” How a horror film defines these two ideas tells us a great deal about the film’s world view and where it stands on the political spectrum.
Prevenge and The Monster both feature single moms as protagonists, but offer very different takes on what it means to be a single mother. In both of these films, the single mom is unhappy with her lot, and falls spectacularly short of being a good-enough mother for her daughter. The difference lies in how much sympathy each film has for the mother, and where the films place the blame for their protagonists’ dissatisfaction. In both cases, the mother is monstrous, but the films reveal extreme ideological differences in how they understand this monstrousness, and in how they understand what it means to be a “normal” mother. In interesting ways, each of these films speak to one side of our current political debate over society’s responsibilities toward mothers.
Prevenge is the brainchild of writer-director-actor Alice Lowe, who starred in this film during her real-life pregnancy. While it’s a British film, it’s take on issues of motherhood and gender are just as relevant to this side of the pond. The film tells the story of widowed Ruth, who believes her unborn baby is encouraging her to kill the people responsible for her partner’s accidental death. The film veers back and forth between outright horror and pitch-black comedy, but with enough gore to keep away those without strong stomachs (including a bloody castration scene). But the social commentary is sharp. Early in the film, Ruth targets a middle-aged DJ living with his mom. As is often the case with female killers in horror films, Ruth uses her powers of seduction to get the DJ alone; she promises that she’s not interested in anything more than “having some fun,” and the DJ happily goes along until he discovers she’s pregnant. In the world of this DJ, and many men like him, a woman who is pregnant cannot be a sex object, and women who are not sex objects have no value. Ruth is also ignored by the corporate world, as she obtains a job interview with a female business executive, only to be told that her pregnancy makes her unhirable. Again, Ruth is without value to the larger world, and spends most of her time in the film alone.
So when Ruth brutally kills her victims, the audience understands, even if stopping far short of condoning. And while the stated reason for these deaths is the role that these people played in her husband’s death, the reality is that each of the victims inhabit a social role that perpetuates Ruth’s marginalization. Because of her pregnancy, Ruth has been excluded from the realms of sexuality and work. Even when Ruth is shown kindness by one of her soon-to-be-victims, the voice of her baby tells her that it’s all a trick: he’s only pretending to be nice. When the whole world ignores you, it’s easy to feel suspicious of even genuine kindness. While Ruth is both protagonist and monster, she’s a monster that the audience can relate to. And in the worldview of the film, “normal” is a society that pushes women to the margins when there are no longer useful, after their sexuality has expired.
Writer-director Bryan Bertino’s The Monster presents another kind of protagonist entirely, and a completely different worldview for what constitutes “normalcy” in the realm of motherhood. Single, alcoholic Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is driving daughter Lizzy (played beautifully by fifteen year-old Ella Ballentine) to see Lizzy’s father. Their car breaks down late at night on a deserted road, but while they’re waiting for help to arrive they begin to suspect the presence of a hungry something-or-other in the woods. It’s a setup straight out of Cujo, but the film draws a lot of tension out of the simple plot structure. But the film isn’t satisfied with being nothing more than a suspenseful 90 minutes. The film’s at least as interested in the broken relationship between Kathy and Lizzy as it is in the titular monster.
From the beginning, Lizzy is portrayed as a young girl who’s had to grow up too fast. In the film’s opening scenes, her mom is still asleep while Lizzy picks up bottles and empties ashtrays from last night’s party. Throughout the film, Kathy is presented as a woman who has never grown up, forcing Lizzy into the role of maternal protector. It’s only at the film’s climax, when Kathy sacrifices herself for her daughter, that Kathy is able to redeem herself.
In The Monster, there is no question of societal responsibility for the plight of this single mother; Kathy’s problems are simply immaturity and poor choices. She finally grows up in the end by sacrificing herself for her child, but the responsibilities for her failures clearly lie on her and her alone. It’s an isolated view of the world in which there is little connection between government policy, societal responsibility, and the individual.
One of the major questions of our current political landscape revolves around societal responsibilities for children and expectant parents. Not only is there a heated discussion around continued funding for Planned Parenthood (with many on the right seeming to believe that the organization is little more than an abortion provider), but there’s also an ongoing debate about whether health insurance plans should be required to provide maternity care, or whether these services should be something that people can choose to add-on to their policy as some sort of optional rider. (The AHCA, passed by the House just yesterday, allows the states to define “Essential Health Benefits” on their own, such that insurance policies may or may not cover things like maternity care if this bill becomes law.) Of course, in this view the only people who would be paying for maternity care are those who might be in direct need of maternity care at some time, i.e., women. The photo that went viral a short while ago, of a roomful of middle-aged white men in suits debating the question of essential benefits, spoke volumes about the problems with the current state of the debate in Washington. (Not to imply that there wasn’t a lot of diversity represented in this photo – there were bald white men, white men with glasses, and even one white man who apparently couldn’t afford to buy a suit jacket.) In this environment, “benefits,” like maternity care, are seen as optional, the responsibility of the individual expecting a child, not the responsibility of the collective.
When seen through this framework, The Monster represents a conservative view of motherhood, in which poor choices are the result of individual failures. Prevenge, on the other hand, presents a holistic worldview, in which the challenges of motherhood are the result of a society that doesn’t value mothers (and, it seems clear, women as a whole). One of the very view helpful people Ruth meets throughout Prevenge is the government health-worker assigned to her; this caseworker approaches Ruth with at least some degree of empathy and compassion. But her help is clearly not enough, and she is unable to realize the depths of Ruth’s troubles. Maternity care is a necessary first step, but not enough – Prevenge presents a society that needs to change how it values women, that needs to rethink how it understands not only motherhood but the personhood of all women.