By Evan J. Peterson and Heather Marie Bartels
Join us at Naked City Brewery in Greenwood for SHRIEK: Women Horror Directors Fest! We’ll continue viewing and discussing a range of horror films directed by women; next up, Mary Harron’s immensely popular horror-satire of 1980s masculinity, American Psycho.
Tickets available here.
Stats on American Psycho (2000)
Director: Mary Harron
Writers: Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner (screenplay), Bret Easton Ellis (novel)
Major Actors: Christian Bale, Cara Seymour, Chloe Sevigny, Willem Dafoe, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon
Music: John Cale
Nudity: male and female, very often male
Sexual Assault: Yes. Consensual sex turns into nonconsensual violence
Gore: frequent yet understated (far more blood than gore)
Does it pass the Bechdel-Wallace test? Nope.
In 1991, Bret Easton Ellis published his novel American Psycho. I disliked this novel so strongly that I committed an act reserved for only the worst-of-the-worst: I quit reading the book before I had finished it. I’m told I didn’t miss much.
Let us all raise our hands in praise of Mary Harron, Canadian filmmaker, who took this piece of sexist, self-indulgent, repetitive garbage and turned it into a brilliant satire of bourgeois misogyny. Her film American Psycho was released in 2000, and it is heads and tails above its source material. The film is a period piece that takes place at the height of American indulgence, not just on Wall Street, not just in New York City, but on Wall Street in New York City in the 1980s. Harron takes on yuppie culture and its cookie cutter inhabitants with a vengeance.
Where American Psycho shines the most for our viewing purposes at SHRIEK is how the main character, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), is presented. I’m sure you’ve all heard the term “male gaze” before, and some of you may have even read Laura Mulvey’s profoundly important exploration of the concept in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” I have included a link to the essay here and definitely recommend taking the time to get through it. Don’t worry if it seems dense and abstract; that’s basically the only way that we film theorists know how to write.
In short, Mulvey uses Freudian theory to argue that the camera itself usually presents the world of a film from a heteronormative male perspective. Women exist to be looked at, and men are the ones doing the looking. The easiest example of this would be the introduction of Megan Fox’s character in Michael Bay’s Transformers 2, image here. This is an absurd representation of a female mechanic, when this image is an example of what a female mechanic typically looks like while working. Fox’s character is blatantly styled for the straight male viewer and shown through the male gaze.
American Psycho is the perfect example of a disruption of this norm. Bateman is presented from a heterosexual female gaze, clearly. Some examples of this are here, here, and here. He spends a good amount of the film mostly nude, primping, working out, looking in a mirror and talking about himself. We are looking at him, and he is looking at himself. This brilliant act of filmmaking turns a misogynist story into a commentary on misogyny. This makes the film’s violence all the more potent and interesting, and the (potentially confusing) ending the ultimate statement on it. American Psycho is at last about identity and the reality is that Patrick Bateman is so boring, so unimportant, so empty that not even extraordinarily brutal rage against women and men can make him memorable.
Director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol, The Notorious Betty Page) says this is both a horror movie and social comedy. It is indeed both. While Bret Easton Ellis’s book presents a blistering satire on the level of A Modest Proposal and Dr. Strangelove. The book skewers Reagan-era greed, malevolence, and conformity, but the film treats the female characters with significantly more empathy than the book.
Murderous protagonist Patrick Bateman’s apartment is like Bateman himself: calculated, lifeless, white, and sealed off from the world. I love that the affluent men of this film mostly look alike, just like the business cards they scrutinize.
Unlike many lovable murderer protagonists, from Hannibal Lecter to Lestat, there is no tenderness inside Bateman. He is entirely loveless, all surface and rage, nothing else. His murders range from zany to completely deadpan. Sometimes he’s oddly likable even as he’s burying an axe in another man’s head. Once Bateman starts killing women on-screen, it’s no longer funny, and this element is carefully rendered by the director.
One of the remarkable things about Christian Bale’s performance, and Harron’s direction of him, is that the character is a huge dork, and the other characters seem to know that. He’s awkward, self-conscious, and insecure, and he overcompensates constantly. Bateman is also curiously effeminate, even in his muscled physique and high-powered finance job. Masculinity in the film is fastidious and polished, a mask to cover flaws. It is constructed, neither easy nor natural.
The first nudity we see is male. This is important in a genre often defined by female nudity and the vulnerability of the female body. Mary Harron wastes little time adding nudity to her horror film, but it’s the male body that’s the object.
The first sex scene is very telling; Bateman begins with his awkward attempt at romance and tenderness with the two sex workers, but he cannot help lecturing and criticizing them, nor can he resist watching himself in mirrors rather than the women. There’s something very gay about this. The scene ends with a turn from humorously awkward sex to ice-cold abuse of the women.
Harron constructs the film so that moments of absurd comedy are contrasted with dead-serious brutality, often followed by lulls of relaxation and luxurious pampering. Harron’s rapid tone shifts are calculated and effective.
Is it a slasher film? Not quite. The killer does wear a “mask.” Perhaps he’s little else. The film doesn’t play out like a traditional slasher film, though. The killer is our narrator and perspective character; the plot doesn’t resolve the way a slasher film usually would. I’m glad that the murderer doesn’t really have a psychotic break until after he’s killed several people in cold blood. He’s a psychopath but not psychotic when he commits many of the murders. He’s mostly a raging narcissist who brutalizes anyone he finds tedious. This helps somewhat to break the trope of horror film murderers being mentally ill, as opposed to just plain malevolent.
Enough spoilers. I’ll leave it to the audience to fill in with your own insights and interpretation.
Join us this Sunday, October 30th, for SHRIEK: American Psycho! Contact wordmercury[at] gmail.com for more info. Tickets available here.
This is our final showing for the Women Directors Fest, but SHRIEK returns to Naked City Brewery in just two weeks for The Witch, Sunday Nov. 13!
Evan J. Peterson is a college professor, author, and journalist. He is a Clarion West alum, and he received his MFA from Florida State University. His writing has been featured in The Stranger, BoingBoing, Weird Tales, Queers Destroy Horror, Nightmare Magazine, Best Gay Stories 2015, and TheBody.com. His books include The Midnight Channel, Skin Job, and Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam: Gay City 5. He lives in Seattle with his werewolf, Dorian Greyhound.
Heather Marie Bartels is the Managing Director of the Rainier Independent Film Festival, graduate from the University of Washington Cinema Studies department, and host of the film and feminism podcast “Turn Up The Ladybro.” She spends most of her spare time introducing the uninitiated to the wonders of horror and finding the best ramen in town.