Last week I wrote about what I called “the best horror movie I’d seen in 2011”, but I misspoke a bit. You see, there was another that I liked equally well, if not better.1 Not surprisingly, it also has a heavy queer and trans* component to it. That film is the awfully-titled but beautifully-made Blood Moon.
Blood Moon was originally produced for Canadian television all the way back in 2001, where it was known as Wolf Girl (a somewhat better, though still terrible, title). If you’ve never heard of it, I’m not surprised. Here in the states it was re-titled and packaged as a violent werewolf movie, a ridiculous mislead which no doubt accounts for its terrible IMDB user rating. It’s a shame really, because what Blood Moon does it does better than most any other movie of its kind. I can’t help but think American distributors were kind of vexed by it; I mean what do you do with a film that pointedly takes aim at traditional masculinity and femininity, heteronormativity and cisnormativity, abled-bodiedness and everything that’s considered “normal”? Relegate it to the dustbins of Netflix, I guess.
It has a memorable, if not exactly A-list, cast. Tim Curry is on hand, along with Grace Jones (who turns in an gorgeous performance). Lesley Ann Warren shows up in a couple scenes. And Shawn Ashmore, who most people will remember as Bobby Drake/Ice Man from the X-Men films, is outstanding as the bully-with-a-secret 2. They’re joined by a large cast of lesser-knowns, prime among them Victoria Sanchez, who carries the film as Tara the Wolf-Girl.
This is not a film with a lot of soaring crane shots and huge “money shots”. Nonetheless, it’s imagery is often indelible. It was filmed in Romania, a favorite locale for horror films on a shoestring budget, and it makes good use of locations and color palette. It resonates late autumn to me: Beautiful and chilly and sad and mysterious. No wonder it was the centerpiece of my big Halloween horror movie blowout last year 3. It’s also not shy about flesh; I don’t know what the standards are for Canadian television, but I was shocked and delighted at the way it treated its characters’ bodies.
And to be sure, bodies and body image are at the heart of this film.
Tara is a member of Harley Dune’s traveling freak show. Suffering from hypertrichosis, she’s covered head to toe in hair. She plays the role of “wolf girl” in the show, even adding fangs and snarls and a bestial demeanor to her performances, but beyond the tents and the audiences, she’s just a regular girl who wants to do regular girl things. Harley, himself not a freak, warns her that such daydreams are dangerous, and her fellow performers offer her the best comfort they can. They are a family surviving the only way they know how, at the margins of society. Or as my friend Jaded and I sometimes like to say, the spaces in between.
But when the show rolls into one particular small town, everything changes. A young boy named Ryan sees her and seeks her out; his mother is a scientist developing depilatory products for a cosmetics company and as it turns out, he has access to an experimental drug that might cure Tara of her condition. Without a question Tara wants it, but the cure does more than just help her shed body hair…with each passing day, she becomes increasingly feral, drawn to the forest and the night…and to violence.
Tara’s foil is Beau, the leader of a local gang of bullies. From the very beginning Beau and his henchmen take an unpleasant interest in Tara, flinging shit during performances and generally terrorizing her. As much as Tara is driven by her need to have a normal life, she is driven by the persistent persecution from Beau and people like him. But even Beau can’t live up to the standard of “people like him”; he has a secret that should endear him to Tara a lot more closely than to any of the people he actually keeps company with, but he can’t bring himself to accept that. And in the end, just as with Tara, it’s the suffocating need to be “normal” that undoes him. In fact, his final scene is one of the most profound statements I’ve ever seen regarding our fucked up priorities as a species: As he lays there on the forest floor, naked with his throat ripped out, his friends gather around his corpse and expel gasps of undisguised revulsion…not because of the gory carnage on display, or because a close friend of theirs is dead, but because of his unusually tiny penis.
Behind all of this is Harley Dune’s show itself. We have Harley, “normal” to all outward appearances, who seems to have good intentions, but clearly sees himself as a savior. There’s Athena, the archetypical “fat woman”, who is the loving heart at the center of the performers, and a mother-figure of sorts to Tara. And Christoph/Christine, the half-man/half-woman (again, played brilliantly by Grace Jones), who gets the movie’s second-best moment: A wonderful musical number featuring a pair of transgender dancers, playing off the expectations of het cis expectations to demonstrate just how amazingly sensual and seductive trans* bodies can be. Altogether, it’s a surprisingly layered, sure-footed film, one that I gladly wrap my arms around and hold close. 4
(for another, even more in depth look at Blood Moon, take a look at my friend Christianne’s blog. This was one of the rare films I had the privilege of introducing her too, and as you’ll see, she loved it as well.)
There are a lot of messages we can take from Blood Moon, and most of them are well-tread tropes that we’ve all heard before. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Be happy with who you are. Be careful what you wish for. The real monsters don’t look like monsters. And so on. But there’s a cautionary tale there too, one that resonates with me personally.5 And not just because Tara and I share an appreciation for radical depilation techniques.
Something I discovered after coming out and getting involved in the trans community was that there was an enormous amount of internalized transmisogyny among trans women. That may seem weird, but it’s like anything else…we grew up in the same world as everyone else, a world with a pretty dim view of transgender people, so why should we be exempt from all its messaging? But it goes deeper than that too; transsexualism (distinct as a subset of transgenderism) is practically defined by the loathing we feel for the bodies we have. There’s no gentle way to say it: a lot of us (myself included) wish we were cis people. Impossible as that may be, it makes reconciling bad messaging really hard. We don’t have a long history of pride, but rather a culture of “passing” and “stealth” that tells us the best way to be trans is to not be trans. Not just in a metaphorical way either; we give each other advice about not being seen in public with other trans people (each additional trans person exponentially raises the chances that you’ll be clocked!), about nurturing relationships with cis women for that oh-so-valuable “female socialization” that apparently only they can provide, about how to talk and how to walk and how to put on makeup, and a million other things.67
I remember being at a trans event once and sitting down with a middle-aged woman, maybe a little older than myself, who was off by herself and looking completely miserable. She told me this was the first community-related thing that she’d been too in a number of years…since long before she’d had her surgeries. She wasn’t even sure why she’d come, some sense that she should reach out to others now that she was doing pretty well in life, she guessed. But she wasn’t reaching out; she was sitting there alone looking on the verge of tears. Being among us, she said, was like being dragged back to prison after getting a taste of freedom.
We had a lot of metaphors for what it meant to be trans, apparently. It’s a prison. It’s a disease. Whatever it was, the message was always the same: It was something you wanted to put behind and try to forget. These were the lessons I took with me into my transition. I had always avoided support groups like some sort of plague, but in the first year of my “real life experience”, I cut off contact with most of my meatspace trans friends, and even my online activity took a dip. I nurtured relationships with cis women, just like I was supposed to. I made unflattering generalizations about the trans community as a whole, becoming my own version of the “special little snowflake”. I hurt people who had never hurt me.
Fortunately, somewhere along the line, I must have got fed up with my own bullshit. Or something. It wasn’t an epiphany or sudden revelation exactly; at some level I knew what I was doing was wrong the whole time, and so it was definitely a process. And the thing was, even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to, I still talked about trans stuff all the time. That was the one rule I couldn’t follow; I could cut out everyone else, but I couldn’t cut away a whole chunk of my own life, no matter how bloody and raw it was. I remember talking to my friend (and transition sister) Christianne one night and saying something along the lines of, “Jesus, how can I ask people to accept me when I don’t accept people like me?” In her typical way, she didn’t offer me an answer…she knew I had already found it. And from that point on, everything was different for me. It’s a good thing too, because one of the few things that hasn’t wavered these past couple years, while the rest of my world crashed down around my ears, is the friendship and love I found in the trans and queer communities.
I’d give almost anything to have a body that does the kinds of things I want it to do. The right kind of sex. The potential for children. All that stuff. Hell, just being able to shop for reasonable clothes and not always getting stared at in public would be nice. But if having those things meant losing my perspective and forgetting these hard lessons I’ve learned, then no, I don’t want them. I tried once to be “normal” and all I succeeded at was being kind of monstrous.
The idea of a magical cure for the things that “ail” us – hypertrichosis, the wrong reproductive system, or what have you – is the stuff of fantasy. Surprisingly, it hasn’t gotten much attention in my games. My current Warhammer Fantasy RolePlay game pivots on the actions of a trans NPC whose intense need for transformation may just satisfy an ancient Slaaneshi prophecy and usher a new age of chaos into The Empire. But beyond that, I’m drawing a blank. Maybe I avoid that stuff in my games because it’s too obvious a choice for me. Maybe I’m just not interested in magical cures…at least not without significant consequences.
I feel like I need to play some Monsterhearts.
- I almost didn’t see it at all; my roomie picked it out for part of our October Horror Movie Challenge and at first I resisted. The box art looked cheap, the trailer terrible, and I’d never even heard of it. Yes, my horror fangirl ego got in the way. Thankfully, Matt was insistent. ↩
- Shawn is quickly becoming a go-to guy for me, having starred in three of my favorite horror films of the last decade: Blood Moon, Frozen, and The Ruins. ↩
- Seriously, if you can be in SE Michigan the last weekend of October, you need to make friends with me now, because my horror-fest is not to be missed ↩
- The screenplay was written by Lori Lansens, who apparently left the film industry shortly after Blood Moon was made and has since enjoyed a successful career as a novelist. I’ve been eyeing her books on Amazon, curious to see what else she has to say. Has anyone ever heard of her, or read any of her fiction? ↩
- I really want to point out that although this film works as a metaphor, and was probably intended as such, there are a lot of people for whom this is no metaphor at all. As the second user review at the IMDB makes clear, as much as I might love and relate to this movie, it’s not ever mine to claim. ↩
- It’s worth noting that the medical community was complicit in the shaping of a lot of these ideas, and ironically, second-wave feminism was complicit in shaping the ways the medical community dealt with trans people. ↩
- The complexion of the trans community now, just a few years after my transition, is radically different than the community I found when I first came out; although an “old guard” still exists, clinging to the archaic disease model of transness, a new majority has emerged for whom gender and identity can not simply be reduced to a set of rules. ↩