Gender and genre

Back in 2010, as Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director, debates swirled about her war drama The Hurt Locker and about her body of work as a whole.  Both detractors and supporters were quick to point out that the aesthetic of Bigelow’s films was decidedly unfeminine.  She didn’t make romantic comedies, nor did she seem to be allied with the feminist avant-garde or indie circles.  Her films weren’t about women “finding themselves” or the bonds of sisterhood or the paradoxes of female sexuality.  They were mostly about…men.  One notable exception is her gynocentric cop drama Blue Steel, starring Jamie Lee Curtis; but even here, Bigelow could be accused (and was by some, I’m sure) of quite literally dressing up a strong woman in male clothes, casting her into the masculine genre of the police thriller. 

Bigelow is thus a difficult figure to place within a conventionally feminist history of cinema.  Because I like difficult figures, I appreciate her willingness to fuck with a whole host of expectations that attend the figure of the Female Director.  Her gravitation toward conventionally masculine genres and material, though, also means that I’ve often been as bored by her work as I am by most male-authored cop dramas and war films.  I was thus eager to sit down with Bigelow’s first feature, the well-regarded vampire flick Near Dark (1987).  As an avowed horror fan, I held out hope that this would be the Bigelow film for me.

Near Dark is so unlike what I consider to be the great horror films that I’m tempted to call it a horror film for people who like noir Westerns and action thrillers more than horror films.  Some obligatory blood-sucking aside, Near Dark is basically about a gang of outlaws who prowl the roadhouses and highways of the rural West, preying on truck drivers and massacring locals.  Its milieu is that of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple (1985): sleazy motels, isolated farms, vast expanses of interstate; its vampires come off as Hell’s Angels with bigger teeth.  While these settings have lent themselves handily to other genres, they seem a poor fit for horror.  Many of the best horror films are characterized by a lush sensuality that seems at odds with the grittiness of the West.  There are certainly classic horror movies set in Western locales (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre being an obvious example), but they generally transform these locales into visceral, grotesque, otherworldly places.  The very texture of such films becomes infused with a sense of unease that’s heady and frequently erotic.  Near Dark, by contrast, does little to infuse the drab world of its setting with any real atmosphere.  Its conventions are also those of other genres: its showdowns are the same as in any number of by-the-numbers action films, dominated by shoot-outs and car chases.  Bigelow has not only succeeded in claiming male genres as her own, she has also made the horror genre over in their image—hard, tough, and frequently dull.        

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