Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel’s Deadgirl (2008) was difficult to watch at times because of the vulgarity present throughout the film, as well as its bleak worldview. It was quite pessimistic, with all the male characters being the worst possible teenagers anyone could imagine (especially JT). Also, the one male who seemed like the only nice guy (Rickie) turned out not to be as nice as we thought he would be. Women were repeatedly objectified and treated as things to possess and use. Truly, the film painted a horrifying and extreme image of the world that would disgust the audience. However, I think that this is why the film works and succeeds in bringing about intelligent discussion.
In Deadgirl, we are presented with an impossible being – a seemingly dead body of a woman that isn’t actually dead and cannot die. We are never offered an explanation as to what makes this possible, and for the most part, the characters in the film did not care. Instead, the moment JT discovers that she cannot die and realizes that he could do whatever he wanted with her since she was bound, he treated her as a passive object and used her to satisfy his own desire for sex, control, and power.
JT was the one character that was so despicable I saw him as more of a monster than the film’s actual Monster. He didn’t care that what he was doing was wrong and even seemed blind to the morality of his actions as long as his needs were being satisfied. He egged others on and influenced them to adopt his behavior. “This is the best we are ever going to have,” he told Rickie, towards the end of the movie. This was telling of what drove him to his actions. To him, he was an outsider who couldn’t get anything better, and the only thing that could boost his ego was to have power over something else – the ultimate object – the deadgirl. JT was the embodiment of repressed desires gone wrong, turning into rape culture and everything we hate about the abuses of male domination.
If JT was the most repulsive character in the film, Rickie, on the other hand, was the character that let me down the most. Even if his infatuation with Joann was problematic from the beginning (he barely knew her anymore and she really was a fantasy meant for his pleasure), he seemed like the only character with a moral compass, and so he seemed like the one who might be able to bring any kind of redemptive element to the movie. As a viewer watching an incredibly bleak movie, I couldn’t help but hope for that. However, towards the end, we see that Rickie gives in to his repressed desire to have power, to possess, and to control. Like JT, he was also a teenage outsider. He had an abusive father at home. Rickie needed something to reassure himself of his manhood, and Joann rejecting him, telling him to “grow up,” when he was telling her that he loved her was probably the last straw. In the end, when we see Joann turned into a deadgirl, we see that Rickie did not really love her and it didn’t matter that Joann didn’t love him back. He just had to have her and make sure that the “nice guy” didn’t finish last.
The portrayal of women in the film was problematic because it presented them as passive objectified bodies and the film mostly disregarded their desires. They existed to satisfy male needs and to be victims. The only times they were humanized were the times we were made aware of their emotions, but at the same time, some of those instances also colored them as monstrous. For example, the deadgirl’s resistance to her treatment in the castration scene revealed her will to fight back, but then her action made her look violent and feral. Joann rejecting Rickie while he was trying to help her may be seen by some as harsh. This kind of turning the woman that fights back into something monstrous then implies that a woman that doesn’t do so and remains a victim is normal.
So what does it mean for viewers that are able to sit through Deadgirl, a film with so many problematic elements? If the cinematic gaze is meant to be pleasurable, was there something in the film that reflected the audiences’ desires or is there something in the audiences that like horror films like Deadgirl?
Tudor discusses this question and proposes a number of reasons. He talks about the “beast within” approach, saying that the basic human condition is “primal, instinctive, and animalistic at its core,” or that humans are “rotten at the core” (Tudor, 2002) and that horror reflects this feature, which is why people are drawn to it. We may feel discomfort but we keep watching anyway because something in us resonates with what we are seeing. Tudor also talks about how audiences may enjoy the thrill of the narrative tension brought about by the monster, or how they may like a film because they feel that it somehow articulates social concerns of the time (which Deadgirl does with male ego and rape culture).
However, later on, he mentions the way horror evolves and how horror films can be transgressive. A film like Deadgirl went beyond socially accepted boundaries, and one could even call it extreme as it includes scenes some people would say went “too far.” This could result in reactions of disgust and repulsion and would turn people away from the film, or it could change the boundaries of horror.
Personally though, I appreciated the way Deadgirl challenged boundaries since it didn’t look as if the film used vulgarity and violence gratuitously. Instead, what I saw was a deliberate attempt to disgust the audience with things that they should be disgusted by, in order to provide social commentary. There were many disturbing scenes and characters in Deadgirl, but the film trusts that the audience will call out what is problematic and engage in a discussion about it.
Andrew Tudor, “Why Horror? The Peculiar Pleasures of a Popular Genre.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002)