Women’s Studies has long titillated with promises of a “feminist” horror film. I remember hearing about the indie production a year or so ago and eagerly anticipated its release. As a female horror fan who also wrote my college thesis examining The Texas Chain Saw Massacre through the feminist lens, sometimes I find it hard to find decent horror flicks that don’t malign their female characters. I want strong female characters that can take care of themselves in my horror films, but that is usually a rarity.
So, you can understand my excitement when I heard about the film Women’s Studies. When I finally received a screener, I was very hopeful that the film would present a witty and intelligent story told from a feminist perspective. What I wanted and what I received, though, are two very different things.
Instead of an insightful, woman-centric horror film I got a stereotypical, cliché-driven and dull horror movie with some pretty awful production values.
After months of interning for Senator Gayle Hamlin (Judith O’Dea in a pleasing cameo), Mary (Cindy Marie Martin) is driving back to college with her doctor-in-training boyfriend, Zack (James A. Radack), awkward friend Iris (Laura Bloechl) and best friend Beth (Melisa Breiner-Sanders). On the trip, Mary’s car is stolen from a roadside café. Luckily, a young woman named Judith (Tara Garwood) offers to put them up at her all-girls college, Ross-Prentiss Academy. Mary gladly accepts, but Beth is a little creeped out by Judith and her strange classmates. There’s Diane (Kelly Slagle), who’s tall, gaunt and only speaks French, the bitter and pregnant Sharon (Mundy Spears) and the bohemian Melissa (Tiffany James), who takes an extra-special liking to Iris.
As they wait for word from the police about their car, the foursome kick back at Ross-Prentiss. Mary starts hanging out with Judith, Zack finds one of the students to be overly friendly and Iris quickly falls in with the academy girls. Beth goes poking around where she shouldn’t and mouths off to Judith, a big no-no on this particular campus. She conveniently “disappears,” but Mary still insists on waiting around for word on her car. Things take a decidedly darker turn as Judith and the rest of the academy girls try to recruit Mary to make a stand against the patriarchal society…at whatever cost necessary.
You know, to call yourself a “feminist” film you first have to actually celebrate women. Instead, Women’s Studies decides to skewer women and represent all feminists as murderous, man-hating, goddess-worshiping lesbians. The heroine, Mary, wasn’t much better and came off a bit bland and thick-headed, though she did manage to kick some major ass towards the end. I will applaud the filmmakers for actually having a female-driven cast and not copiously featuring gratuitous female nudity, but the characters were as clichéd and stereotypical (perhaps even more so, because this film actually passes itself off as “feminist”) than any other horror movie.
Just as clichéd as the characters was the story, written by Lonnie Martin (who also directed), which was basically the same ho-hum plot of a group of people trapped in an isolated location with no cell phone service and no way out who are trying to survive some killer. I was hoping for more background on the school, like a visit into a classroom to see just what the women were being taught. Except, the entire campus was empty…what’s the school’s enrollment anyway…five students?? And the opening scene in the strip club really had no bearing on the rest of the story, either. There were lots of little niggling details like this that just drove me mad, on top of the fact that it wasn’t a feminist movie at all. The motivations of Judith and her followers were never explored as in-depth as I would have liked, especially their purpose for killing people, especially other women. Couldn’t they just let them go on their merry way? The story also dragged and had terrible pacing…there were scenes that should have been edited much more.
Along with the editing, there was some horrible direction and cinematography. In some of the shots, the framing was all off, so the camera was pointed at a wall for a few minutes while characters talked on the periphery of the shot. This was absolutely atrocious and amateur-looking. I will say that the outdoor cinematography was much better than any interior shots, which suffered from poor lighting as well as poor framing. The one scene that was shot with talent was the fight between Judith and Mary in the middle of the woods. It was pretty much the only exciting thing in the entire film!
What should have been more exciting were the kill scenes…but these too were pretty disappointing and unmemorable. The women used huge knives, which were pretty cool to look at but didn’t get much action.
As for the acting…well, it is a low-budget picture, so it wasn’t all bad. I think the main problem was that all the dialogue was dubbed in post-production, creating stale and fake-sounding emotions/reactions. The problem was probably the dialogue in the first place, but the actors tried to work around that. I thought Cindy Marie Martin as Mary and Tara Garwood as Judith were both excellent, but the other actors didn’t really get to do much. We never really got to know much about the Academy Girl’s characters, which is maybe because the writer doesn’t really understand women enough to write them as anything more than shallow, clichéd characters.
The last time I was so pissed off at a so-called “feminist” film was the misogynistic Teeth. I wouldn’t call Women’s Studies misogynistic, but it does misrepresent women and feminists. Even forgetting the whole “feminism” aspect of the film doesn’t change the fact that Women’s Studies is a chore to sit through. Its plodding story, ho-hum acting and bad production values make Women’s Studies one to skip!
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