The Strange Colors of Your Body's Tears

The Strange Colors of Your Body’s Tears

Horror, more than any other cinematic genre has the ability to subvert normative structures of culture, thought and fantasy. It can be used to reinforce conservative values, but filmmakers can also twist the genre’s elements of visceral shock and uncanny fear for subversive purposes. A drama attempts to tell a grand story. Comedies are used to evoke laughter. A good horror movie aims to destroy notions of safety, often not caring to observe traditional narrative etiquette or matters of taste. In short, horror cinema has no problem with breaking the rules. Andrea Juno and V. Vale state that horror and other strange films, “often present unpopular—even radical—views addressing social, political, racial or sexual inequities, hypocrisy in religion or government; or, in other ways assault taboos related to the presentation of sexuality, violence, and other mores.[1] Horror holds the potential to destabilize normative structures even more than avant-garde film, because it makes no claim to even be part of an artistic cannon. Radical horror is what the cultural ouroboros vomits out. Through this breach of safety, viewers are confronted with an object (often depicting the abject) that allows and encourages them to fantasize in a destructive frenzy that may create new conclusions, insights, and pleasures about socio-cultural issues. In the case of Cattet & Forzani, their films attack the normative structures of gender and sexuality, depicting them as flawed and oppressive. This cinematic attack offers viewers access to new spaces of fantasy and desire, which are not necessarily queer, but rather torridly kinky. Their films succeed not only through their reliance on incoherent giallo tropes, but how these can be enmeshed with avant-garde aesthetics. This formidable combination of horror and avant-garde can then be further combined with other genres, for example Amer as a women’s film. To reiterate de Lauretis on The Night Porter, the women’s film is one “that deals with female experience from within, that investigates the deeper strata of female experience, that seeks answers, causes, and the dialectic nature of that experience rather than presenting only a surface, whether polished or scarred.[2] Cattet & Forzani compound multiple genres for the most extreme effect. Amer is a film that succeeds in showing that the female experience is often absolutely horrifying.

In her book Recreational Terror, Isabel Cristina Pinedo states,

“The tendency to see the horror film as monolithically destructive of female subjectivity overlooks the contradictory dynamics within the genre as well as the complexity with which audiences respond to it. The antihorror discourse sees only how the genre has been formed by antifeminist backlash but overlooks how feminism has informed the genre. The horror film is a contradictory form that must be understood in all its complexity lest we misinterpret popular culture or underestimate its subversive potential.[3]

While some horror films are contradictory through their ambivalence, others—such as those by Cattet & Forzani—are contradictory because they focus on the irrational emotions of desire. To condemn or underestimate the latter is a huge mistake for anyone attempting to make progress in discourses on the socio-cultural inequities of gender, sexuality, race, class, etc. Daily life is unpredictable and often terrifying to many people. Horror cinema is a controlled reflection of these discomforts and difficulties that allow apt viewers to feel a sense of temporary mastery over these states. The oneiric art-horror of Cattet & Forzani leaves much of the plot and ending open, not attempting to lie to viewers as more conservative filmmakers do, but rather giving their audience something to identify with, but not use as a pacifier. This may come as a challenge to many people, but avid horror fans will welcome such a style, especially since it is referential to the earlier giallo style they may have been familiar with for many years previously.   

At the end of her landmark book on horror cinema studies, Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Carol J. Clover answers the rhetorical question “Why Horror?” Out of the many replies, she writes, “Because horror is a marginal genre that appeals to marginal people (not, by and large, middle-aged, middle-class whites) who may not have quite the same investment in the status quo.”[4] While there is certainly culture industry Hollywood horror that aims to shock and then be easily forgotten about, audiences of art-horror and excessive-shock-horror are often a marginal community of people who continue to think critically about the films long after they have ended. The last of Clover’s answers to the above question is, “Because at least some horror filmmakers read Freud.”[5] Many makers and viewers of the genre dare to go against the status quo in art and life, as the subject matter of horror is ultimately about a violent disturbance in contemporary culture. An awareness of psychoanalytic thought sheds critical light on what may just seem like the furious killing and fucking of an uncensored Id. From Mary Shelley, to the black-clad, make-up-wearing crowds of late 1970’s and 80’s post-punk shows, this gothic preoccupation with the dark side of life spills over into certain areas of cinema including Cattet & Forzani’s films. This preoccupation works as a signifier that often evokes pleasure from depictions of sadomasochistic sex and violence, while also anticipating change. One must endure the horror to find out what possibility lies ahead.


The New York Ripper

Ian Olney’s recent book Euro Horror examines trashy cinema of the 1960’s and 70’s, giving a compelling argument that these films, from gialli to soft core S/M, can be viewed as progressive in and of themselves. For example, regarding Lucio Fulci’s notorious giallo The New York Ripper, Olney states that “the film actually represents a recognizably feminist effort to deconstruct the figure of the male killer and prompt the viewer to interrogate, in a performative act of spectatorship-as-drag, the sadistic male gaze.[6] What Olney fails to note, however, is the viewer’s ability to just as easily identify with the male killer and the sadistic male gaze, reveling in the misogynistic acts played out on screen. While original gialli do often destabilize the identification of gender, they are mostly ambivalent films at best, that are in no way recognizably feminist. They may contain a latent feminism, which is what I am able to identify far more easily in the neo-gialli of Cattet & Forzani. From the novels of Ann Radcliffe to Amer, the gothic victim-heroine ultimately triumphs in murky feminist conclusions only after they have endured masochistic acts of aggression and terror. This endurance and survival is far more realistic in relation to the progress of women’s equality than utopian visions of feminism that only exist theoretically. If viewers of horror are dismissive of feminism as a practice that is beneficial to their lives, I encourage them to watch the films more critically, reconsidering possible subtexts. It is a recent trend in which the films of Cattet & Forzani, as well as their British cohort Peter Strickland, have harnessed the iconography of giallo and other Euro-sleaze films in order to deploy it in an arguably feminist fashion. From the examination of failed masculinity in Strange Color, to the Sapphic sadomasochism of Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (2014), retro-horror and psychosexual aesthetics have returned in a wash of abject blood, out-of-synch screams, and a flurry of butterflies. They have created a rich field for conversation about representations of gender and sexuality in contemporary cinema. If only more artists realized the subversive potential of perverse horror, perhaps more works of art would be made that bring a liberatory value to such extremely important issues. Sometimes audience members need to be shocked out of the system they comfortably exist in before they realize the bizarre, wonderful, sometimes scary possibilities available to facilitate new avenues for fantasy and desire.        

The Duke of Burgundy

The Duke of Burgundy


[1] Juno, Andrea & V. Vale. RE/SEARCH #10: Incredibly Strange Films. V/Search: San Francisco, 1986. p.
[2] de Lauretis, Teresa. “Cavani’s “Night Porter”: A Woman’s Film?” Film Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Winter 1976-77) p. 35.
[3] Pinedo, Isabel Cristina. Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing. Albany: SUNY Press, 1997. p. 71.
[4] Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992. p. 231.
[5] Ibid. p. 232.
[6] Olney, Ian. Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture. Bloomington, Indiana U Press. 2013. p. 117.