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March 2, 2010

While She Was Out - The Perils of Gender Roles in Horror

2008, Dir. by Susan Montford.

There's something about a film like While She Was Out that instantly appeals to me as a horror fan. A housewife-trying-to-survive-immoral-punks flick like this is designed to capture one of the things I adore about horror movies in its purest form. That which I desire, fair citizens, is a simple thing - the chance to see women given the kind of brutal power that cinema normally reserves for large males. But there's a moment I look for in a film like this, the kind of moment where the balance of power shifts and the whole film gets knocked off its axis. And, despite extremely competent work from all who're involved, I never found that moment in this film.

I guess I need to look at my expectations for 1) a film that had nary a theatrical release and little fanfare when it hit disc; and 2) the woman-in-peril-who-fights-back film. For starters, there's the movie itself. Written and directed by first-timer Susan Montford, whose only Hollywood experience before this film was a producer credit on the machismo-fest Shoot 'Em Up, it's a more than capable film visually, and the idea behind the story is a nice variation on a timeless tale. The acting, led by Kim Basinger as the Red Riding Hood character and Lukas Haas as the not-so-big-or-wolfy Bad Wolf is also sufficient - no one's going home with a statue for this one, but the cast doesn't take away from the film's effectiveness. The biggest problem with the film from a technical standpoint is that it seems to meander a little - dragging its feet from scene to scene with little emotional punch. The film never really seemed focused on what its characters were doing, with Basinger's lead doing something brave and/or violent, then degenerating back to the point of being a sniffling mess.

But is my problem with the film's portrayal of its lead, or is my expectation of what the lead should be like the problem. In the male-centric classrooms of cinema, we're taught that the way to survive is to get bold, to to shed your fears, to "cowboy up". But am I doing the women involved an injustice by hoping for them to show these male traits? Is it less impressive for a woman to survive an ordeal if she doesn't throw out a few one-liners or stand with her legs at shoulder-width while the camera frames her from the knees up?

When I look at a film like this, I want to see the female lead make a stand and buck the stereotypes that we've been force-fed for as long as cameras have been rolling. But what I came to consider while watching While She Was Out is that I'm also hoping for them to step into another stereotype that has been overused. In hoping for the empowered female takeover, I may have come to expect something that fulfills my expectations more than it fulfills their needs.

Sure, we all want to see Ms. Bruce Willis with a bow on her head and screaming a variation of yippe-kai-yay, but that doesn't mean it's the best example of what a woman in peril situation would or should look like on film. In the case of While She Was Out I'm not sure it matters - the film never establishes itself as a special survival flick regardless of gender - but I'm grateful that the film got me thinking about gender roles in cinema and the perceptions that viewers like myself bring to the table when viewing these films. Women deserve to be given a strong voice in horror, and films like While She Was Out are the instruments that can make that goal a reality.

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