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Stranger With My Face Festival 2016: ‘Evolution’ and ‘The Love Witch’

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Horror and femininity run hand in hand. A genre unnaturally fixated on womanhood and feminine psychology, much of horror thrives on the mysteries of our bodies: the horror of birth, the allure of sex and our otherness. We are heroines and victims, objects of desire and fear. Women rule horror. The alienness of womanhood feels so bizarre and foreign because it’s seen from the outside. Woman horror fans find refuge in the genre by reading subtext that might never have been intended. Many woman horror fans find catharsis in seeing the monstrosity we feel inside, reflected onto the screen.

But, more often than not, we’re cut out from the production. While women directors struggle to find equality in any genre, in horror the battle seems especially precarious — and it’s not because of lack of interest. The need for events like Tasmania’s Stranger With My Face Festival, focused primarily on genre and horror films produced by women, exhibits its utmost essentialness in paving the way for the future of the genre. In its 4th edition, the festival showcases some of the brightest talents in the horror genre — offering audiences a dark and disturbing journey into the feminine psyche.

Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Evolution, likely the highest profile film of this year’s edition, lets mood override narrative. Set on a mysterious coastal village, inhabited only by “sick” prepubescent boys and their all-female caretakers, grotesque and eerie imagery — tied to the unnerving creatures and images from underwater worlds — dominate this film. Cast in cold blues and eerie greens, the film wittingly inspires your hair to stand on end, channeling the brisk feeling of stepping out of the water as a cool wind blows through. Couple that with the creeping feeling that your body is no longer your own, Evolution may be the only film to inspire a hysterical form of Morgellons disease — a delusion of having fibers and objects growing under the skin.

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The intensity of this mood might be unrelenting, but the coldness is so pervading it borders on stagnant. Challenging the audience to piece together a mystery with no real resolution, the rather brisk running time feeds bits and pieces of information in short spurts. Although told from the perspective of an oblivious, though suspicious, young boy, we’re clearly meant to interpret the world through his eyes. Like a child, the behavior of adults feels bizarre and mysterious, and those fears are justified in this case, the gauze of inexperience ultimately means we’re left in the dark. The motivations and emotions of just about everyone remain so carefully guarded that they border on non-existent.

Evolution will certainly “wow” some people, and under the right circumstances, it can really get under your skin. But ultimately, it lacks something to hold onto aside from that pervading creepiness. In many ways, it’s not altogether different from Mike Flanagan’s Hush — a well made horror experiment with little below the surface.

In stark contrast to Evolution, Anna Biller’s The Love Witch — a playful ode to Giallo and Euro-horror of the 60s and 70s — brims with substance. Far more than mere homage, the film utilizes the feelings and subtext that many of us feel watching these films. The idea of the tortured and beautiful woman destroyed by love or desire resonates deeply, but in most Giallo films (even my favorites), the stigma of emotions are cast aside as irrational and monstrous. What Biller manages to accomplish with The Love Witch, however, is nothing short of astonishing — not only in the painstaking recreation of the mood, sets and look of the films she’s referencing, but how she spiritually re-appropriates that decorative world into something radical and new. I’d even go so far to argue that The Love Witch succeeds as one of the finest visual essays I’ve ever seen; a loving and critical portrait of the genre.

As Elaine, a modern day witch bent on finding love through magic, Samantha Robinson glows. Channeling the spirit of Edwige Fenech, she has the unmistakable Giallo “look”: long black hair, cat eyes and extravagant costuming. More than embodying appearances, however, Robinson gives a performance filtered towards the surface. Her emotions are worn on her sleeve, polished with the veneer of artificiality suiting the decorative nature of the film. This artificiality, in appearance (the film carefully deconstructs the work that goes into looking good) and temperament, has rootings in the text. One of the great gems of the writing and direction has to be the treatment of the female body, notably menstruation, which is not stigmatized at all — a rare feat for a film wrapped in the trappings of horror.

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As Elaine embodies an ideal woman, calculated to inspire lust in men, she conceals an insecure and twisted inner life. Like all great villains, her biggest flaw has been carefully rooted in her greatest strength: Elaine believes in love. As a woman who wants love, she will literally stop at nothing to achieve it. As those around her question her methodology, she tries to conceal her fear that no man will love her for who she really is, that all men want is fantasy. In a late interior monologue by a male character, those fears are confirmed. How are women expected to be themselves, if that will never be good enough?

Though not without its flaws, The Love Witch demonstrates an astonishing amount of potential for all those involved. What Anna Biller managed to achieve, with limited resources, easily stands up with the films of Lucio Fulci, Dario Argento, and Massimo Dallamano. But, not satisfied in mimicry, the film channels everything I love about those films with an air of self-awareness. The hopelessness and beauty that excites me in a film like Suspiria or A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, which feels incidental rather than calculated, stands front and center in The Love Witch. Biller brings to her film what I had hoped and searched for in my favorite horror movies, things that I injected because it was what I needed to see and feel to make sense of my intense reaction to these types of movies.

The Stranger With My Face Festival has all the markings of a cinematic revolution. Small and relatively remote, it nonetheless has consistently featured some startling and original films. Beyond the feature program are some really promising shorts. The raw trauma of Samantha Ferguson’s Abaddon matches brutality with overwhelming emotions. Shoshana Rosenbaum’s The Goblin Baby tackles the fears and anxiety of motherhood, focusing on feelings we’re not “supposed” to express. Hopefully, the festival will open doors for these filmmakers, who are very much strong and new voices within the horror genre.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.

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