Wild Women With Steak Knives: SPELLBINDER

(Janet Greek, 1988) Girl trouble

By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas · @suspirialex · October 22, 2021, 3:00 PM PDT
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Editor's Note: In each Wild Women with Steak Knives entry, author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas examines a woman-directed horror film that's been largely overlooked or forgotten. Read them all here!


This week’s woman-directed horror film of the week can be viewed currently on YouTube for free here. Do note, however, that it is also available on Amazon Prime in some regions at much better quality, and Kino Lorber put out a blu-ray that also includes a commentary by the director, Janet Greek (these are unsponsored links and offered solely in the spirit of helping you access the film)

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I have an enormous amount of time for the American filmmaker Janet Greek, known primarily for her feature film directorial efforts, The Ladies Club (1986) and the film I want to talk about today, Spellbinder (1988). But Greek had learned the ropes well before she moved to directing movies with an enormous amount of experience directing prime time television shows like St. Elsewhere, L.A. Law and, primarily, Babylon 5 (for horror nerds, which I know you all are. She also has an Associate Producer credit on one of the very best made-for-television horror movies ever made, Dark Night of the Scarecrow in 1981).

Greek is a really interesting figure to approach in terms of women’s filmmaking because she both maintains and subverts assumptions and stereotypes about women directors. On the one hand, yes, she makes what we might call “women’s stories.” But the women whose stories Greek chooses to tell aren’t exactly the idealized women we so often assume we will see at the center of women-directed films about women characters. She is interested in duplicitous women. Greedy women. Damaged women. Dangerous women. This is, perhaps, true of women horror directors more broadly, and one of the many reasons their films are worth paying attention to (that, and the fact that a lot of them are really, really good, even though they have been widely ignored outside of a few famous examples for far too long).

On this front, there’s a thrill to Greek’s gender politics that appeals to me enormously. Maybe this potential of Greek being a fly in the ointment to some degree is what draws me to her work; I love that she is doing her own thing. But I do see something really exciting about how Greek approaches gender politics; she doesn’t assume women are always in the right (we’re not) and gives her characters enormous space to be flawed. There’s something genuinely liberating about these films because they seek so determinedly to make us question our own assumptions about what we think women can or cannot do in the context of a feature film.

Take, for example, her girl gang rape-revenge film, The Ladies Club. I’ve published three books on rape-revenge, and there are barely even words for how much I love this movie. A policewoman is sexually assaulted, and when justice is not served (is it ever?), she teams up with the doctor she met at the hospital after her rape, whom she learns lost a daughter, the victim of a rape-homicide. Together they mobilize with a group of other survivors and get to work; they have a strategic plan mapped out to trap and surgically castrate known rapists who escaped punishment. Like the best rape-revenge films, however, the film ends with significant questions about the effectiveness of this kind of vigilante justice - does it really help these women in their trauma recovery? What is the relationship between justice and revenge, and is it as clear cut as the fantasy of rape-revenge as a broader category would lead us to believe?

The Ladies Club is useful in framing the less controversial horror film Spellbinder, starring the late Kelly Preston. This is ostensibly a film about witches and witchcraft, and a beautiful young woman who falls in love with a hero-lawyer and begs him to help her escape the clutches of a powerful, violent coven. While it sounds all nice and fun and supernaturally abstract - and sure, it is - what is more immediately recognizable is that it deals with far more earthly, ubiquitous kinds of gendered oppression from the very outset. After playing a round of basketball, Jeff (Timothy Daly) witnesses a man verbally and physically abusing a woman on the street that we assume to be her partner. Jeff intervenes and takes the shaken woman nobly back to his apartment to protect her, and they soon fall in love. Aw.

The woman is Preston’s Miranda, and there’s lots of swooning and soft-focus action as the young, attractive couple begin their romance. But the specter of her past abusive relationship looms large over them, and things get, well, complicated. But ever the determined white knight, there are no lengths that Jeff won’t go to in order to protect his fair maiden. The question is this: does she even need protection at all? Without giving too much away, at the heart of both The Ladies Club and Spellbinder lie questions about whether women are capable of looking after themselves. Instead of the drum-banging girl power optimism that normally replies with an emphatic “and how!”, in these two films, Greek turns towards a more complex and frankly challenging reply: “yes, but…”.

Spellbinder soothingly invites us into thinking in a very specific way about women and their agency (or lack thereof) and then turns the tables back on us to demand we reconsider those assumptions. These are, to be clear, hardly experimental art films; Greek earned her stripes in TV, and these both very much have that made-for-television quality to them. But there is a fundamentally radical spirit to these films - especially in the context of their time of production - that makes them such a valued watch. Greek is a fascinating filmmaker because she so gleefully delights in moving beyond coddling her audience regarding what they assume woman filmmakers are “supposed” to do. Greek is gunning for the patriarchy as much as any self-identifying feminist filmmaker of this era I can think of off the top of my head, but she does it in a way that is challenging in that she refuses to coddle us by simply reaffirming where we might assume empowered women sit on the moral compass. Janet Greek’s films might not be for everyone, but they sure as hell are custom-made for me.


Click below to watch Spellbinder now: