The Quiet Ones Are The Worst
You're in a different league--I know that. You have this great personality, you've got this great style, you run your own business. You're always going to find somebody. You've got to be stupid to think that you won't.
--Hedra Carlson to Allison Jones, Single White Female (dir. Barbet Schroeder, US, 1992)
Dangerous women have long been a cinema staple from vamps to femme fatales. Women with a darker side have long been a subject of both horror and fascination. But then there’s also the “quiet ones”; the seemingly normal, maybe even shy, timid characters that descend into brutal madness. Perhaps they were mad all along, or are just better at hiding behind a grotesque mask of how a “good woman” should behave.
OFFICE KILLER and SINGLE WHITE FEMALE are two films that play with this idea; the quiet woman, gone bad. On first glance, Hedy Carlson and Dorine Douglas, the respective antagonists of the films, may seem like the quiet girls in the corner, but just how far will they go to find acceptance?
Upon its release, Barbet Schroeder’s psycho-thriller was heavily criticised for its blunt contrast of an unattainable idealised 90s femininity (Allie, played by 90s it-girl Bridget Fonda, as the idyllic female role model, a beautiful, wealthy “strong woman” trying to make it a man’s world) and Hedy (Jennifer Jason Leigh, cast here as the shy, solitary, clingy and less attractive counterpart to Allie). When they meet initially, the relationship seems too good to be true, that must eventually turn sour. Because women cannot be friends.
But Allie, whilst intended to be the character we identify with, is unrealistic. A woman shown to ‘have it all’: strong, independent, professionally successful, the ultimate ‘cool girl’. Though exaggerated in its approach, Hedy Carlson is one of the most interesting onscreen female villains to date and perhaps, one of the most relatable. Hedy is a villain who wears her motivations on her sleeve: the fear of loneliness, obsession, overwhelming jealousy and feelings of inadequacy - all are relatable to viewers, both male and female. Hedy (short for Hedra, meaning ivy in Latin) is exactly that: an initially manageable life-form, that soon evolves, taking over every part of your home (and your life). Hedy herself, and the chaos that ensues, is a portrait of a woman’s attempt at fulfilling the unreachable expectations placed on her.
From one high-concept horror to another, Cindy Sherman’s only feature film, OFFICE KILLER, bombed on release, was disowned by its director and largely forgotten. Part of the problem is that the film is hard to define - not scary enough to be a horror film, too dark to be a campy comedy, too on-the-nose for political satire. It’s a dark, cynical version of a “chick flick” or a postmodernist slasher.
With so many femme fatales being the creation of a male director or screenwriter, it isn’t difficult to see why the female villain is often criticised as a product of male myths and fears about female behaviour. Or more so, the fear of feminism which challenges preconceptions around traditional gender roles. So, what happens when the gaze is flipped on its head? How does a female portray the complexities of female relationships? And what does a female villain look like through the eyes of a female director?
Sherman was eager to transform the formulaic narrative structure of the slasher film in a way that would resonate with a female audience. Dorine Douglas (Carol Kane), the mousy protagonist of OFFICE KILLER, challenges the expectations around “the good girl” and “the final girl” tropes. Rather than adhering to traditional genre structures where beautiful teenagers are at the centre of the film, Sherman wanted her villain to be a middle-aged outsider - a woman who she (and her audience) could identify with. Dorine is all at once, the victim, the villain, the heroine and the final girl herself.
Similar to SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, OFFICE KILLER is an exploration of the difficult dynamic of relationships between women and their battles for independence and power. Most of Dorine’s victims are her female co-workers, the men are almost an afterthought. The women seem to be punished for entering the male world and yielding power, and also for mocking Dorine instead of supporting her. OFFICE KILLER is a natural progression from Sherman’s photography and her critique of the male gaze and is, ultimately, the story of one woman’s attempt to assert her own power over those that threaten her.
OFFICE KILLER and SINGLE WHITE FEMALE were both screened on MUBI in December 2016 as part of an on-going partnership with The Final Girls.