The Dark Art Of Seduction: Femme Fatales From Noir To Horror, And Back
'Your hand, your tongue, Look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under 't.' - Lady Macbeth
'Appearances are deceptive.' - Aesop
Typical Film Noir stories usually revolved around some sort of criminal investigation carried out by a private detective or amateur sleuth. Characters are usually presented as flawed and alienated. Certain archetypal characters reappear throughout many film noirs – one of which is the figure of the femme fatale.
Actresses such as Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity), Jane Greer (Out of the Past), Rita Hayworth (Gilda) and Lana Turner (The Postman Always Rings Twice) made names for themselves portraying femme fatales who tried to attain their hidden purpose by exploiting their sexuality and allure. Sometimes these women were also portrayed as victims of circumstance caught in situations from which she cannot escape. Other actresses who portrayed notorious femme fatales in more modern takes on film noir (often referred to as neo-noir) include Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct), Linda Fiorentino (The Last Seduction) and Kathleen Turner (Body Heat).
Nowadays the femme fatale is not just a staple of the film noir, she is a figure that has also become synonymous with the erotic thriller – an off-shoot of the neo-noir sub-genre. Neo-noir refers to crime dramas and mystery films that were produced from the mid-1960s onwards, and while they can’t really be considered true film noirs as they are shot in colour and do not always evoke the visual style of classic film noir, they still utilise the same themes, archetypes, and plots that film noirs did. The late Eighties and early Nineties for example, boasted a slew of big budget sexually charged erotic thrillers featuring big name stars seemingly all too eager to slip into something ‘more comfortable’ – usually as little as possible. This saw the return of the femme fatale in films such Body Heat, Single White Female, and perhaps most importantly, Fatal Attraction.
Fatal Attraction also belongs to a group of similarly themed films that came out in the early Nineties. The ‘cuckoo-in-the-nest’ films featured the plight of middle class American families whose idyllic white-picketed lives and lushly furnished homes have been shattered by the invasion of a deranged outsider (who only really wants to be accepted/find a friend/avenge a past misdeed) – usually with severe mental health issues. These outsiders come in the guise of psychotic nannies, roommates, lodgers and step-mothers. This cycle of ‘psychological thriller’ titles were essentially big budget blockbuster variations of slasher movie conventions. Titles included Single White Female, Pacific Heights, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Unlawful Entry, and most of them featured variations on the femme fatale. Even Made-for-TV movies got in on the action with a slew of titles including Preying Mantis (starring Jane Seymour in an against type role as a serial killer) and The Perfect Wife all featuring vengeful femme fatales involved with convoluted plots to either further their own gain or help them obtain bloody revenge for a past misdeed.
While certainly not as box office friendly as Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct, another erotic thriller from the early Nineties is camp cult favourite Poison Ivy. Starring Drew Barrymore and Sara Gilbert, Poison Ivy features Barrymore in provocative vamp mode and attempting to move in on Gilbert’s father and become the new matriarch of her friend’s family. Poison Ivy was directed by Katt Shea (who would later go on to direct The Rage: Carrie 2) and was succeeded by a number of sequels – Poison Ivy II, Poison Ivy: The New Seduction and Poison Ivy IV: The Secret Society. Whilst the sequels all headed straight to DVD they were still a massive hit amongst fans that were still obviously salivating for more. The series’ knowing campness and highly charged scenes of sexual prowess combined with overwrought revenge schemes and sociopathic anti-heroines appears to be a winning formula. The last instalment, Poison Ivy: The Last Seduction featured the exploits of Violet – sister of the original ‘Poison Ivy’ from the first film. She has her sights sight on destroying the family of her childhood friend Joy, whose father Violet holds responsible for tearing her own family apart. The Poison Ivy films were springboards for several actresses including Jaime Pressly and Alyssa Milano and of course the first film helped Drew Barrymore reinvent herself and establish some distance between the roles she portrayed as a younger actress. The success of the series is undoubtedly due to its unabashed willingness to be as daring and trashy as it can be and still have fun. According to film editor John Rosenberg, who worked on the third instalment of the series, as well as on titles such as The Convent and Body Count: “They reinforce the risk and potential bad consequences for men who get involved with seductresses.”(See below for full interview).
Most recently Cody Diablo penned Jennifer’s Body – which, amongst other things (including peer pressure, friendship, the pressures and anxieties faced by young women in high school and wider society), features aspects of the ‘seduction horror’ flick. It wears its influences on its bloodied sleeve and has generated the next incarnation of the femme fatale as demonically possessed school girl.
In all her guises and various incarnations – from 'The Vamp' to the 'Bunny Boiler' to the 'Demonically Possessed Prom Queen', the smouldering glances, devious conniving and deceptive intentions of the femme fatale look like they’ll be with us for some time to come. Proving to be one of cinema’s most compelling archetypes, she has what it takes to slink along with the times, making herself irresistible to generation after generation…
Interview With John Rosenberg
As the editor of titles such as Poison Ivy 3, The Convent and Body Count, John Rosenberg is no stranger to piecing together dark tales of sex, violence and mayhem. I caught up him to ask him about the ongoing fascination cinema audiences have with the mysterious and alluring figure of the femme fatale.
Rosenberg: I’d worked with the director, Kurt Voss, on a previous film, Horseplayer, which became a popular selection at the Sundance Film Festival. Kurt and I got along great — I really liked his edgy, offbeat style and he appreciated my editing, so he gave me free rein in cutting Poison Ivy. I’d worked on bigger budget films before then, including Prancer with Sam Elliott and the Alan Rudolph film, Made in Heaven, and I didn’t expect much from this one except the fun of working with Kurt. I don’t think either of us imagined it would become this cult film that people would still be watching years later.
In terms of the editing, the film revolved, for me, around the pool scene where Jaime Pressly strips naked and goes for an early morning swim while her childhood friend’s father watches from the upstairs window. It was a perfectly erotic femme fatale moment because you knew she knew the father was watching and he had no idea that this is the beginning of his end. I decided to cut the scene more as a montage joined to music than a strict narrative sequence. Through the juxtaposition of shots you see the father enjoying this guilty pleasure, a term that Maxim magazine gave to the entire movie, and Violet skinny dipping. I found an 18th century aria, a quite ethereal piece, to place against the scene. It evoked a sense that the father, for a brief moment between his coffee and heart medicine and scurrying off to work, was experiencing his version of heaven. At one point he’s distracted by the maid and Violet leaves the pool unnoticed. When the father looks back expecting to see Violet, she’s gone. Except there was no shot of the empty pool. So I combed through a bunch of takes and found one where the camera was lining up for the shot of the pool with Jaime Pressly, but she hadn’t found her mark yet. It was before the slate. I grabbed the shot and stuck it on the end of the scene, before the final shot of the father’s disappointed face. When I showed the scene to the director and producers they loved it. I don’t think we ever changed a frame of it, which is rare. The composer, however, went a different direction with the music.
A fourth instalment of the series was recently released. Why do you think the series is still on going? What do you think the appeal is to fans?
Rosenberg: Frankly, I was surprised to see it resurrected after so many years. I thought Poison Ivy 3 had finally nailed the franchise. But I guess there’s always a new crop of teenage boys who’d like to see a film like this. I think Jaime Pressly was terrific in Poison Ivy 3. When I teach at UCLA or The Art Institute many of the college guys tell me it was one of their favourite films growing up.
Why do you think the figure of the ‘femme fatale’ is still so captivating and compelling for audiences?
Rosenberg: Because there is some truth in it. And it incorporates two elements that moviegoers seem to like – sex and violence. Also, although these films are often edgy, they’re actually more like cautionary tales that uphold the status quo of conventional relationships. They reinforce the risk and potential bad consequences for men who get involved with seductresses. And visa versa for the women who play that role.
Rosenberg: Other than Poison Ivy 3, my favourites include Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Barbara Stanwyk in Double Indemnity, Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. One of my top votes for femme fatale however, is Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential – a wonderful performance played, for the most part, contrary to the genre’s stereotype.
Can you tell us about any projects that you are currently working on?
Rosenberg: I’m writing a book about modern film editing which will be published later this year by Focal Press (Poison Ivy 3 will surely be mentioned in it!) and editing a feature documentary for a company out of New York. The doc is full of fascinating and quirky characters, which I like. And the city plays a significant role as well. A bit of a departure from the thriller genre!