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The Bewitching Terror of Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘The Neon Demon’

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*SPOILERS*

“What are you?… Are you food or are you sex?” These chilling, cryptic lines are spoken by make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone) to a young, beautiful, entry level fashion model named Jesse (Elle Fanning) in The Neon Demon, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. This question is spoken as Ruby explains to Jesse (and models Gigi and Sarah) how lipstick companies give their products sexual and food oriented names to heighten sales. When Jesse does not respond, Sarah replies “She’s desert…because she’s so sweet.” This initial conversation between these young ladies comes only moments after the film’s visually bold introductory shot of glassy-eyed Jesse, lying on a couch, covered in fake blood, as she is photographed by an amateur photographer. Both of these scenes foreshadow various perilous encounters which befall Jesse and ultimately her death. Refn’s story focuses on mankind’s vain obsession with physical beauty, the ugliness of the human thought and the actions evoked by this obsession.

Refn graphically reveals that Jesse is coveted in both the contexts of sex and food. The Neon Demon makes a statement about the cut-throat nature of the modeling industry and, more broadly, the scrutiny which all women face. In delivering these messages, Refn concocts a delicious horror cocktail, with the primary ingredients of witchcraft and vampirism, cannibalism and voyeurism, sprinkled with a little bit of Stanley Kubrick and John Carpenter aesthetics. Refn provides a movie with universal appeal, displaying how pathetic and desperate human beings can be in their moments of weakness, insecurity and greed.

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The voyeuristic and cannibalistic elements of the film are quite literal. What is less readily explainable and recognizable is the suggested subtext of vampires and witches. Refn does not outrightly state that viewers should take these horror elements at face value, yet at the same time he does leave plenty of visual cues and lines of dialogue that hint at the possibility. A delineation of and appreciation for these aspects of the film can render an audience response to The Neon Demon of mesmerization versus repulsion.

According to Carol F. Karlsen, author of The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, witches lured new recruits with various enticements including wealth, material possessions and security. When these types of enticements did not work, witches used torture, particularly with knives and blows the recruits could not bear, as a method of persuasion. Jesse’s seduction and torture imply the work of witches. If the knife attack of Jesse by Hank, the hotel manager, is only a nightmare, that would still be consistent with Karlsen’s description of witches, stating they would sometimes put their victims in trances or dreamlike states. In the photographer’s house where Ruby stays and Jesse seeks safe haven, Refn places a stuffed cougar in her room in deep focus. This cougar is reminiscent of the cougar that attacks Jesse’s motel room when she first arrives in L.A. Karlsen mentions that witches were aided in their attacks by animals or the devil himself. One speculates whether Ruby disguised herself as the cougar that attacks Jesse’s room. Tattoo-like markings appear all over Ruby’s chest while she is watering her plants. This is consistent with Karlsen’s indication that witches could be identified by the presence of the Devil’s mark on their bodies, evidencing the seal of a bargain with Satan.

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When it comes to the subtext of vampirism, I am not implying that Ruby, Gigi and Sarah are vampires in the traditional sense. Rather, I believe they may be viewed as an alternative type of vampire akin to those of the 1971 horror film Countess Dracula. In that film, Countess Elisabeth Nadasdy discovers that her youthful appearance can be temporarily restored by bathing her body in the blood of virgin women. She enlists the help of two friends to find virgin girls.  This is eerily similar to The Neon Demon when Sarah and Gigi help Ruby kill Jesse, then bathe in her virgin blood. After doing so, Sarah and Gigi are again viewed as young marketable talent by their modeling peers and talent scouts, and Ruby seems to have restored her life essence.

With that being said, one can still find traditional vampire traits in The Neon Demon. In the opening photography sequence, Jesse is covered in artistic blood, the origination of which appears to her neck. Ruby, during her introduction, is shown wearing a red tie around her neck, symbolic of her demonic ways. It is also inferred that Ruby hardly ever sleeps. She works in a morgue and likes to lay naked in cemetery soil. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dracula needs to rest in a box filled with his native Transylvanian earth. The Neon Demon‘s Sarah literally sucks the blood from Jesse’s wrist, possibly believing that she can restore her youth and enhance her beauty. This concept is similar to Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, who reverses age by drinking the blood of others.

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In order to ground viewers in a horror/thriller mind set, Refn alludes to the works of Kubrick and Carpenter. First, when Hank, the hotel manager, has a conversation with Dean (the amateur photographer/boyfriend), the former refers to Jesse as a wild cat and real hard candy. He also tells Dean about a female tenant from Sandusky, Ohio, describing her as “real Lolita shit.” This is a reference to the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, which Kubrick adapted for the silver screen in 1962.  Both the book and film are about a middle-aged man who becomes obsessed with a teenage girl.

Refn also provides multiple references and visual allusions to Kubrick’s film The Shining (1980). The first is the name of Gigi’s favorite lipstick, Redrum, used by Ruby to draw a dead face on her mirror. Redrum is the iconic word that Danny writes on the hotel wall in The Shining, which is “murder” spelled backwards.  Another characteristic appears in the film presentation of Ruby’s residence when the camera cuts away from Jesse to show a montage of interior house shots. This includes the stairway that leads up to the outdoor pool and the hallway that leads from the pool to the kitchen, followed by a phantom carriage ride shot of the living room. The camera glides through the living room, followed by a shot of Jesse looking at the dead face mirror drawing. Jesse is later chased by Sarah and Gigi through these exact locations and ends up dead in the pool (which is where the sequence began). Similarly, Danny, in The Shining, sees images that foreshadow Jack’s attempted murder of his family and the murder of the hotel’s head chef, Dick Hallorann. The locations that Danny passes in his POV bike ride scene come into play during the final chase sequence.

The Neon Demon montage of images also bears a striking resemblance to the shot montage at the end of John Carpenter’s Halloween. After Michael Myers is shot by his doctor six times, the camera cuts away from Michael’s presumably dead body to a brief conversation between Laurie and the doctor, who looks back to see that Michael is no longer on the ground. The camera provides a rapid cut montage of places that he could be hiding. These are all the same locations in which Michael commit his murders. The connection that Refn seems to be making between Halloween and The Neon Demon is a state of uncertainty. At the very beginning of Halloween, Michaels Myers appears to be a regular human being who happens to a lunatic, and Ruby seems to be just a jealous makeup artist in The Neon Demon. Over the course of both films, viewers are provided a number of visual and narrative hints that suggest there is more to these people than meets the eye. In the end, though, neither director gives any confirmation of the true nature of the antagonists. This, in a nutshell, is what makes The Neon Demon such a compelling movie to watch — that dreaded sense of uncertainty. Was the cougar breaking into Jesse’s room Ruby’s doing? Can Ruby shapeshift? Is Ruby a vampire? Are Ruby, Sarah and Gigi practitioners of witchcraft and in league with the devil? One can never know for sure, just like Nicholas Winding Refn intended.

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture. 

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2 replies »

  1. “more broadly, the scrutiny which all women face” – YES! I feel that this aspect of the film doesn’t get enough focus and praise.

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