(MASSIVE spoilers for Housewife follow.)
n the acerbic opening sequence of Monty Python's comedy classic, The Meaning of Life, a woman gives birth to a wrinkled, nondescript infant. After towel-drying the baby as vigorously as one might rub at their damp post-shower hair, the nurse waggles the newborn briefly in front of the mother's face before whisking it away for poking and prodding and monitoring. The sweating mum props herself up onto her elbows and meekly asks, "Is it a boy or a girl?" John Cleese, serving his best furrowed austere brows, chides, "It's a little soon to be imposing roles on it, don't you think?" What should be a natural miracle had become sterilized and assembly-lined; what should be a beautiful moment for a parent had transformed into an impersonal, forced nightmare (but a funny one, in Python's case).
Can Evrenol's sophomore feature, Housewife, scored its North American premiere at the 2017 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, where it blew audiences away with a full genre lean into the same gender elements that Cleese & Co. used to troll viewers worldwide. There's even a childbirth sequence, to boot.
On a snowy night, indistinct whispers over a menacing portrait of an old matriarch turn to a disturbed younger woman clutching a rosary, praying before said portrait. This is Mama (Defne Halman). Mama is fervently praying away what her children refer to as "the visitors," who only visit when her husband is away -- like tonight. Meanwhile, her daughters Hazel and Holly play in their locked bedroom downstairs. Hazel suddenly begins her period, to which a distraught Mama reacts with fear and worry. The mother instructs her youngest to shut her eyes and count to 100. Before Holly can reach 20, her door opens. The wind howls as she tiptoes down the candle-lit hallway to discover her mother drowning her older sister in a bathroom toilet and flees, just in time for Papa to come home and see his wife with a dagger in her hand. In the ensuing struggle, Papa's throat and face are slashed. Holly's lasting image is that of her crazed mother, bathing in the blood of her father and screaming her child's name.
Evrenol and co-writer Cem Özüduru thusly wrap Holly's womanhood within a sense of shame from the beginning. Clémentine Poidatz infuses her role of the now-adult Holly with a muted sense of loss and numbness. During sex, her face is a blank one, the same expression pulled as she chops wood or pees in her bathtub. She also pees in sinks, the result of the unaddressed trauma of witnessing her sister's bathroom murder at the age of 7. The role of adult woman is one that Holly inhabits uncomfortably.
Holly's first smile flashes when addressing her husband Timucin (Ali Aksöz), an "author, esoteric researcher, and painter" (according to the summary on his book jacket). She brings him food and acts as his muse; his first book was written about the incident in her childhood. Evrenol's implication is that the marriage is Timuchin's deed of ownership towards his wife; she literally serves him (a breakfast which he doesn't eat) as he searches for "motivation" for his next book cover, based upon her past torment. Later in the film, Holly reveals shards of resentment towards him for this, implying that he used her for creative inspiration and success. He may have her docile cooperation, but not her implicit consent to act as fertile creative ground for his work. As such, the role of muse is an ill-fitting one for her.
Of all the hats Holly wears, the one of mother is the one she bristles against the most. Blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments have her staring at a nearby black-as-pitch stroller and grimacing at the thought of bringing another life into the world. When Tim announces to a pair of friends that the couple are trying to grow their family, wifey looks as mildly surprised as the audience is. He clearly didn't discuss such plans in depth with her; like so many positions she passively fulfills, it's more summarily assigned than actively sought for. Early in the film, Holly wanders over to a snowbank and finds a broken mirror shard. It's a reflection of her fragmented self, in a cold world.
The fragments become more pronounced with the re-appearance of a familiar face -- and the introduction of a new one. As it turns out, Holly has a former friend, Valery (Alicia Kapudag) who disappeared shortly after joining the Umbrella of Love and Mind (ULM). Helmed by Bruce O'Hara (David Sakurai), the clan believes in a pending apocalypse, and puts out heavy Heaven's Gate vibes. Along with Holly's husband, the trio are a hot mess, sharing each other like Skittles before and after Valery's Irish exit two years prior.* Valery convinces Holly and Tim to attend an ULM seminar the following night, in the hopes that they'll meet Bruce and the family.
It's no mistake that O'Hara comes out to KC and The Sunshine Band's "I'm Your Boogie Man."
It's no mistake that O'Hara comes out to KC and The Sunshine Band's "I'm Your Boogie Man." David Sakurai wisely channels Jim Morrison instead of Charles Manson, and the result is a charismatic enigma that can hold a room at length with his piercing stare. At first glance, he's a textbook charlatan, claiming to know things about audience members that could easily have been fed to him through his earpiece. As the seminar rolls on, though, it becomes clear that Bruce is gifted with a dark power. By placing a hand on Holly's head, he enters her mind and allows her to see her own repressed memories. He's convinced that the woman is the ominously whispered "master visitor." At first, she's energized and content to meet someone who can help her truly recover … that is, until Bruce shows her disturbing trappings of her psyche that contradict her reality.
Cinematography and relentless sound design steep the viewer in drain-swirling madness, Holly's madness. A sentimental moment in which she is looking at a newspaper clipping of the toilet incident is abruptly cut short; the emotional music drops, and reality rudely cuts in. A loving earth-toned dream is interrupted with Holly's awakening in a room of sobering blues on the opposite side of the color wheel. The hue oscillation is consistent throughout Housewife's 82-minute runtime, but its meaning changes. Cold tones can be symbolic of the present truth, and 10 minutes later they flood a nightmare sequence. Evrenol incrementally undermines reality (for viewer and star) as unforgivably as Herk Harvey does in Carnival of Souls. Valery is sympathetic; "When you enter his frequency," she says, "your fears materialize." The writer-director takes pains to establish those fears in the first act; Bruce simply takes them to a logical, foul extreme. Holly's survivor's guilt manifests in a vision of her sister's murder -- by her own hand. Matriarchal fears find flesh-and-blood footholds in Holly's brain with the terrifying sight of her blood-soaked mother. In Housewife's world, sisterhood, womanhood, and motherhood are all at once familiar and alien.
The dichotomy intensifies in true Grand Guignol fashion in the third act. It turns out that Holly truly is special: She is chosen as the mother of the Second Coming, as easily and meticulously as Dani is chosen as the May Queen long before her journey in Midsommar. Once Bruce deems it time to begin the ceremony, the body count rises exponentially. Valery's services are no longer needed, so she is dispatched. Tim tries to run interference and pays dearly -- we'll circle back to that. Swimming in Bava-stark bordello lighting, both Hazel and her mother appear before Holly; her mother kneels, and Bruce peels her skin off above the jaw, going full Leatherface and donning it for the rest of the ritual.
Holly's impregnation is an entirely different type of rape scene: Surrounded and stripped nude by a protective circle of hooded, giggling children, Bruce's fingers penetrate her mouth. To the orchestral swells of composer Antoni Maiovvi’s brass-heavy Judgment Day composition "Birth,” O'Hara's bloodied hand palms her belly before it grows to full gestation size within seconds. Now it's clear why Bruce wears Mama's face to facilitate and receive the birth: The blessing (curse?) must be passed from mother to child, woman to woman, down the matriarchal line. Holly cradles her child, visually calling back to the Cronenbergian patri-horror The Brood. The entire sequence is a festival of grotesquery with intent and purpose.**
Evrenol equates the journey to womanhood and motherhood as equally monstrous and harrowing. Continuing a cinematic tradition that, in this decade alone, spawned The Prodigy and Prevenge, the Baskin director treats his protagonist's creation as both alien and human. In unpacking Rosemary's Baby and 2001, Vivian Sobchack described the films' respective baby sequences as the visual, metaphorical clash of "an irrational, unthinkable past and an unimaginable future," resulting in a radical upending of what is traditionally portrayed as a miracle of life.  The same can be said for Holly's childbirth scene: a natural act rendered unnaturally. Her past: filled with terror, loss and shame. Her future: a child she didn't necessarily desire, but for whom she considers it her duty to fill the maternal role.
Resist, flee, scream at the void until you're blue in the face -- you are not significant enough for the cosmos to care.
The paternal role is worse than stolen -- it's unnecessary. As Holly begins the ritual to transform into the Master Visitor, Bruce strikes hubby Tim down with nary a blink, and the proceedings continue without a hitch. Both he and O'Hara lay claim to Holly's body and mind in their own respective ways, but O'Hara's victory in the brief rumble is a harsh interrogation of the family unit: If the father is God, then God is dead. Housewife's father is further removed than the sinister father who relinquishes his paternity to Satan in 1968; this father is irrelevant entirely. Holly's entire impregnation, gestation, and delivery goes off without a hitch, without a moment of rest, and without the input of her man. So, while Housewife isn't donning a pink pussy hat and marching on Washington anytime soon, there's something to be said for the film's refusal to align with the old patriarchal institution. One could almost call it empowering.
In the end, Holly is still a pawn towards someone else's end game, but is it a flaw? Hardly. The won-battle, lost-war ending is a common element of the cult horror film. On the surface, the low-hanging critical fruit is there: Rosemary rocks the cradle and accepts her role, but who imposed that specific role upon her? Midsommar's Dani smiles as the credits roll, but is she truly with a caring family now? Likewise, when Holly swaddles and gazes upon her sudden infant, there is a simultaneous sense of relief on her behalf and cosmic horror at the forces whose hands she played right into. Those who decry these roles as non-empowering (and present the statement as a negative mark against the film) miss the maddingly simple point: It's a horror joint. The bleak victory of women protagonists against these sinister clans is a feature of the subgenre, not a bug. These endings aren't relegated to women, either: Kill List. The Invitation. Race With The Devil. All cult horror films starring men who win (by surviving) ... but ultimately lose. It's always been their destiny, as it has always been Holly's. Agency doesn't figure into it; this is why the cult horror film is a down-home distillation of the old-school cosmic horror that Lovecraft eventually became famous for. Resist, flee, scream at the void until you're blue in the face -- you are not significant enough for the cosmos to care. After all of your mewling and squirming, you will bend the knee to the timeless, overwhelming forces that insist that you've always been the caretaker here.***
Housewife is utterly fascinated with the roles and fate of women in the home, and in the ways that men habitually cross the line and claim ownership (both internal trauma and external submission) of them -- often without their consent. Evrenol's femme-horror opus deserves the intense dissection and reverence that Ira Levin received for Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives because, even in adulthood, "it's a little soon to be imposing roles."
* Evrenol makes the singular decision to centralize Holly's desire and sexuality with a masturbation scene that, for once in a horror film, makes narrative sense. In depicting Holly performing a bit of self-love on her living-room floor, two things are accomplished: first, a rebellion against the Stepford Wife role expected of her (her sexual fantasy is not so much for her man as it is for Valery); second, to show how overwhelming and unrelenting her trauma is. With a lean into genre elements, editors Osman Bayraktaroglu and Firat Guler cross-cut flashes of Hazel's brutal murder. One would think it would kill the vibe, but Holly lives so closely with her trauma that she climaxes anyway.
** The Turkish filmmaker is no stranger to balls-to-the-wall climaxes; his feature debut, 2015's Baskin, bathes his doomed cast of policemen in blood, bone-crunching auditory assault, and viscera for your viewing entertainment.
*** Eat at Arby's.
 Sobchack, Vivian. "Bringing It All Home: Family Economy and Generic Exchange," The Dread of Difference. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1996: 149.
Anya Stanley is a lifelong horror fan and writer whose work has been seen at BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH., Collider, Dread Central, Vague Visages, Diabolique Magazine, and F This Movie!. She’s also contributed in print to Rue Morgue and Britain’s Suspiria Magazine, and has appeared on such podcasts as Certified Forgotten, the /Filmcast, and SPLATHOUSE. Follow her staunch defenses of Halloween 6 and other shenanigans on Twitter and Instagram.