Hungry Final Girls: Brazilian Horror Films in the 21st Century
Still From Handball (Handebol, Anita Rocha da Silveira, 2010)
In recent years, the production of horror films in Brazil has been experiencing remarkable growth. Laura Cánepa (2016), an authority on Brazilian horror cinema, noticed a “revival” of the genre in Brazil from the mid-2000s onwards, right after the release of Embodiment of Evil (Encarnação do demônio, 2008), by José Mojica Marins, a key figure in Brazilian horror film. 1 In the same year, 2008, there was also the release of Mud Zombies (Mangue negro), a low-budget environmental horror by the self-taught filmmaker Rodrigo Aragão. This film became an instant cult hit, having launched a mini franchise (The Night of Chupacabras/A noite do chupacabras, 2011, and Dark Sea/Mar negro, 2013) and inspired a new generation of horror filmmakers in the country. Alongside this burgeoning film production and its disclosure both in commercial cinemas and in more authorial exhibition circuits, it is possible to recognize a growing acceptance and demand on behalf of the audience, a heightened attention by scholars and film critics, and the multiplication of specialized festivals like CineFantasy (São Paulo, since 2005), RioFan (Rio de Janeiro, from 2008 to 2013), CRASH (Goiânia, since 2009), and Fantaspoa (Porto Alegre, since 2005).
The Night of Chupacabras
Dark times often yield dark films. As Luiz Nazário stresses, “Each social crisis that modifies a future perspective produces a new generation of monsters” (1998, p. 175), and so does Noël Carroll: “It is frequently remarked that horror cycles emerge in times of social stress, and that the genre is a means through which the anxieties of an era can be expressed. That the horror genre should be serviceable in this regard comes as no surprise, since its specialty is fear and anxiety. What presumably happens in certain historical circumstances is that the horror genre is capable of incorporating or assimilating general social anxieties into its iconography of fear and distress” (1990, p. 207).
Brazilian violent history includes the colonial experience, slavery and exploitative relationships, genocides of black and indigenous populations, and authoritarian regimes – past traumas that the country is yet to come to terms with, and that are perpetuated in a violent present marked by poverty, racism, inequality, and fear. Furthermore, a kind of backlash has taken over Brazil in the last decade, with the expansion of authoritarian movements and censorship, which culminated, in 2018, with the far-right wing’s rise to power through popular vote. Horror cinema has acted as a kind of mapping of these local tensions, addressing social and political problems that permeate Brazilian society.
It’s possible to suggest that these films deal with yet unresolved matters caused by tensions that society experiences in Brazil. In a way, personal, social, and work relations in the country are not far removed from backward notions rooted in slavery and are just beginning to be dealt with through the horror perspective – understood as the representation of our feelings in the face of the threat of a deadly explosion of violence. Our origins as a society have been dealt with by Brazilian cinema in different ways throughout its history (comedic, use of Carnaval, melodramatic, revolutionary, anarchistic, crime film, etc.), but new generations have possibly found a new language – horror – to regard them (Cánepa, 2016, pp. 137-138).
In addition to Cánepa, the film critic specialized in horror Carlos Primati (Nestarez, 2019) and the renowned filmmaker Dennison Ramalho (Stancki, 2019) consider that it is possible to speak of a second “Golden Age” for Brazilian horror cinema. The first would have taken place approximately from 1963 to 1983, and it was comprised of an extensive, diverse and dispersed production. According to Cánepa (Ferrari, 2017), it included strong authorial proposals such those by Mojica, Walter Hugo Khouri, and Carlos Hugo Christensen, genre’s parodies (Ivan Cardoso, Adriano Stuart, Amácio Mazzaropi), and the particular local exploitation from Boca do Lixo 2 , that mixed soft pornography with supernatural elements (John Doo, Jean Garret, Luiz Castillini).
Looking at this brief and superficial history of the genre in Brazil, 3 one can notice the exclusive presence of male filmmakers – nothing very different from cinema in general, be it authorial, experimental, or anything else. Fortunately, this second “Golden Age” that prospers in Brazilian horror is characterized by the large presence of female filmmakers among its creators. 4 Although there has been an increase in the participation of women directors and screenwriters in Brazilian cinema since the late 1990s, this growth is particularly eye-catching in horror productions, or those that flirt with the genre. No wonder: Brazil is the 5th country in the world in number of femicides, a rate that has been growing. A woman is murdered every 2 hours, there is a rape every 11 minutes, 503 women suffer physical violence per hour, homicide of black women increased by 54% in 10 years. 5 It can be scary to be a woman in Brazil.
In this article, I intend to draw an overview of the female filmmakers who have been working with the horror genre in Brazil in recent years, as well as discuss their works and how they are refashioning the genre through a feminist (Freeland, 1996) and peripheral perspective, also connected with Brazilian political and social issues, especially the various forms of violence that affect our daily lives.
The company of wolves
Juliana Rojas must be the most internationally known name of this new generation, and is a kind of celebrity in the universe of independent Brazilian cinema. She has developed a fruitful partnership with Marco Dutra since they were students at university, and together they have created an extensive and impressive body of work that largely deals with horror codes and influences while infusing them with a national flavor. Their capstone project The White Sheet (O lençol branco, 2004) was released at Cannes as part of Cinéfondation, establishing a lasting relationship between the festival and the duo. The White Sheet approaches themes such as motherhood, loss, and an oscillating enchantment/strangeness by the body’s fertility (in multiple senses), which will be usual in their following works.
The White Sheet
The White Sheet
In A Stem (Um ramo, 2007), where small plants grow in the protagonist’s body, and Hard Labor (Trabalhar cansa, 2011), both also launched at Cannes, the extraordinary is seen as absolutely normal, shifting attention to horrific but current and normalized situations. As Kim Wilheim Dória pointed out about Hard Labor: “In a work populated with ghosts and unearthly creatures, the horror is not in the horror, 6 but it appears in passages presented among sequences marked by the uncanny: in mundane and normal situations. […] It’s from the criticism of the naturalization of horror that the film shows its greatest originality” (2015, p. 782).
Together with Neighboring Sounds (O som ao redor, Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2012) – and to a lesser extent The Tenants (Os inquilinos, Sérgio Bianchi, 2010) and Body (Corpo, Rossana Foglia & Rubens Rewald, 2007) – Hard Labor was a groundbreaking and definitely influential film when it comes to appropriating horror codes in recent Brazilian cinema. It was a key film for the formulation of the popular notion of social horror, by Cánepa (2013). The researcher distinguishes two substrands or “spheres” within the recent surge of horror in Brazilian cinema: the standard sphere, which adopts the canonical elements of the genre aiming at a niche audience; and the social sphere, which employs a hybrid form together with other genres – films that can hardly be included in the horror category but still interact with it, flirting with the genre in a less methodical way. 7
If we take “artistic horror” 8 into consideration, since it deals with the expression of a feeling disseminated in human experience – anxiety and speculation around the possibility or imminence of death and bodily destruction – several variations can be found which don’t necessarily follow the models that became the basis for the genre. This more diffused perception of horror may contribute to the debate about Brazilian feature-length films released in the second decade of the 21st century, when generational anxieties and national issues took on a hybrid approach within the horror universe (Cánepa, 2016, pp. 135-136).
Hard Labor portrays a middle-class family trying to keep (economically) their heads above water, the exhausting conditions of the world of work that do not lead to wealth, and the class relations (impregnated by tension and resentment) in the context of the working classes’ climb in the country. The husband loses his job as an executive in a big company and goes through some embarrassing interviews to try to relocate. Meanwhile, the wife opens her own business (a small supermarket), hires her employees, including a maid to look after the housework and the couple’s daughter. Strange things start to happen in the grocery (products disappear, a water stain grows on the wall, a strong smell emanates, big hammers and chains are found in the warehouse, etc.) and a monster – a mummified werewolf – ends up appearing. However, the real fear comes from the other (and from the rights owed to them), from unemployment, from the failed promises of entrepreneurship. Homo homini lupus est. “Ironically, it is not the specter of communism that, in fact, scares and challenges the prosperity of the middle class in Hard Labor, but the very notion of economic failure within the capitalist system” (Figueiredo, Siciliano & Miranda, 2019, p. 10). 9
As a solo short filmmaker, in The Countess’s Maid (A criada da condessa, 2005), To Sleep Quietly (Pra eu dormir tranquilo, 2011) and Doppelgänger (O duplo, 2012) Rojas approaches A Stem and the protagonists’ lack of control over what happens to them: inexplicable and inevitable events plague their ordinary routines. As horrific as their actions are, Rojas is generous and understanding with her monstrous characters. In addition to other shorts (neighboring to the horror genre or not), Rojas also directed some works for television such as The Crying Boy (O quadro do menino que chora) and Good Guy Doll (O boneco amigão) for the project Urban Terrors (Terrores Urbanos, 2018), a collection of horror urban legends, and episodes of Netflix’s Kissing Game (Boca a boca, 2020), about an unknown disease that spreads in a high school – to the despair of the horny teenagers, the contagion is through kissing.
The Countess’s Maid
With Dutra, she would return to motherhood as a central subject in their most recent feature film Good Manners (As boas maneiras, 2017), without giving up their interest in relations between social classes, which is deepened by involving intersectional issues of sexuality and race. Alone in the world, Ana (the rich and white employer) and Clara (the poor, black maid) share their desires, without ever dismantling the hierarchy between them. Joel is the little werewolf left by Ana to Clara, who will have to deal with this both blessed and cursed inheritance. Awarded at Locarno, the film is a vibrant mosaic of references ranging from horror to musicals to Disney classic fairy tales, intertwined with Brazilian folklore legends. Comedy also shows up in this film, although laughter is usually accompanied by discomfort and embarrassment, as in Hard Labor.
Rojas would strongly embrace comedy in her first solo feature Necropolis Symphony (Sinfonia da necrópole, 2014), 10 in which she makes fun where one least expects it: a cemetery. The protagonist Deodato comes from the countryside to São Paulo, and is an apprentice gravedigger who is afraid of corpses. He falls in love with a new colleague who comes to the cemetery to redesign it and make it profitable. Necropolis Symphony is a horror film, a musical and a bildungsroman at the same time; lighthearted and absurd, it manages to immerse the audience in a delusional plot. The film also shrewdly discusses real estate speculation by using cemetery’s refurbishment as a metaphor for the urban elitist and hygienist renovation underway in Brazil. It abuses and scoffs at terms typical of the grandiose entrepreneurial rhetoric such as modernization, expansion, high standards, new times. In this fable of losing innocence in a 21st century Brazilian metropolis, not even the dead escape gentrification.
Have you noticed that the city is disappearing?
The organization/division of cities and the cutthroat manoeuvres of property development has been a hot topic on several creative fronts in Brazil, and cinema has focused in a special way on the theme – Hard Labor is about that, too. Marina Meliande and Anita Rocha da Silveira also rely on an inventive use of horror to discuss these issues in their films, both set in Rio de Janeiro: Sultry (Mormaço, 2018) and Kill Me Please (Mate-me por favor, 2015), respectively.
Meliande is an acclaimed editor, having worked on about 20 Brazilian films in this role. She was also one of the founders and programmers of the already mentioned RioFan. With Felipe Bragança, she directed The Escape of the Monkey Woman (A fuga, a raiva, a dança, a bunda, a boca, a calma, a vida da Mulher Gorila, 2009) and The Joy (A alegria, 2010), in addition to coordinating the collective work Neverquiet – Film of Wonders (Desassossego – Filme das maravilhas, 2010). Released in Rotterdam, Sultry depicts the overwhelming, undemocratic and violent urban transformation experienced by Rio de Janeiro on the run up to the World Cup and the Olympics. In a few months, the city was taken over by demolition crews, forced displacement, and construction sites that made most inhabitants feel expelled from and unwelcome in their own city.
With a realistic beginning that includes disturbing documentary images, Sultry moves forward in exploring how this anguish impacts the body of the protagonist, the young prosecutor Ana, who falls ill because of and together with the city. During a worse-than-usual heat wave (which intensifies a suffocating and oppressing atmosphere), Ana defends a poor community from an impending eviction, while she herself is being forced to leave her apartment in a wealthy area due to the construction of a luxury hotel complex. There is a deliberate contrast between the removal process experienced by each social class, but Ana, in being involved in both personally and professionally, somatizes the wounds that result from this traumatic context.
As opposed to the cold, standardized, lifeless apartments that she visits with the intention of buying them, her home is solar, full of plants and vitality. As her plants die and her fruits rot, her skin itches and forms bark that resembles the texture of fungi and mold, indicating Ana’s organic relationship with her home. Sultry is a body horror like A Stem, but while the latter deals with unaccountable circumstances, in Meliande’s film Ana’s mutation metaphorizes the dilemma of a city.
Kill Me Please, screened for the first time at Venice, echoes the construction sites and sunny, empty post-apocalyptic landscapes from Sultry. The film follows the daily life of four 15-year-old friends – the teen years is a universe that the director had already explored in her short films, also seasoned with the horror genre: The Noon Vampire (O vampiro do meio-dia, 2008), Handball (Handebol, 2010) and The Living Dead (Os mortos-vivos, 2012). While in the midst of the angst and pleasures of that age (love affairs, sexual curiosity, rivalries, changing bodies, self-image, the search for identity), the girls face a wave of murders of young women in the neighborhood where they live in Rio. These two narrative focal points are interwoven in a permanent tensioning and slackening that oscillates between realism, fantasy and dream sequences, and the use of coming of age and slasher motifs, in addition to parodies of these. The slasher is a horror subgenre characterized by the stalking and violent death of teenagers, and one of its tropes is the final girl: a strong (and well-behaved) female character able to survive the bloody scenario thrown at her, and who will confront and beat the serial killer (Clover, 1992).
In Silveira’s film no one is well-behaved: these girls look, 11 stare challengingly, while also presenting themselves to be looked at – not passively, but always in an active, inviting, and at times threatening way. Instead of being careful because of the murders, the characters become more and more careless. This enchantment with death, however, appears to have more to do with the typical adolescent desire to live life intensely: they are voracious. With clear references to Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) and Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977), the sexual awakening of the characters turns them into monsters, but the monstrosity has positive value here.
In another slasher appropriation, in which the places that are removed from the dangers of the big city not only fail to protect the residents but also become a nursery for living nightmares, Kill Me Please also mocks the bourgeois desire to reside in suburban areas where even the most innocuous movement is suspect and the commonplace is threatening. The film attempts to enact one of the facets of the weakness that comes with this type of suburbanization, a kind of “American dream” of the tropics that promises to fix all problems and offer a perfect life. 12
The causes of the horror in Kill Me Please are connected to the isolation and alienation of the middle and upper classes, as well as violence against women. On the one hand, the possibility of femicide is real. On the other hand there is the discovery of sexuality and the power gained from it, generally pruned back by an upbringing that perceives sex as a duality of pleasure and danger, involving teenagers in a psychological terror film driven by questions of surveillance and perpetual vulnerability. In July 2021, Rocha da Silveira presented at Cannes her latest feature, Medusa, in which she goes further in her interest in intertwining mythical and real-life violence against women, the complexities of sexual awakening in a repressive society, and political topics much in vogue in Brazil today.
The dead don’t die
As in Kill Me Please, a ravenous, bloody and neon-bathed female sexual awakening is at the heart of Sick Sick Sick (Sem seu sangue, 2019), by Alice Furtado, released at Cannes. The film follows Silvia’s sensorial journey from love to loss: her hemophilic boyfriend bled to death and she desires to bring him back. Concerned about Silvia’s well-being and lack of productivity, her parents take her from Rio de Janeiro to a distant beach, which turns out to be a kind of magical island that only deepens her obsession as she comes to know local stories involving zombies. The nature there is a blissfully and intoxicating oasis of life, embodied by a pregnant dog. Silvia’s total surrender to her feelings (emotional and physical: she hallucinates, vomits, orgasms, is feverish) is vehemently opposed to the dynamics of her parents, who represent a functional existence, the urban rationality, a sterile disconnection with the world. Furtado’s film is praise for lovesickness in a world that doesn’t allow that kind or time of devotion.
A teenager who must deal with the death of a loved one (in this case, her mother) is also the motto of Cecilia’s House (A casa de Cecília, 2015), Clarissa Appelt’s first feature film. Here, instead of zombies, there are ghosts that haunt and restrain the melancholic Cecilia in a house filled with anachronistic furniture and objects, which disappear as she is able to free herself from her memories and stop being a child. In this journey, Cecilia is guided by a mysterious, irreverent and defiant girl who invades and shakes her monotonous and lonely routine. Simultaneously, a stain spreads across Cecilia’s room’s wall, as the result of a leak from the attic, a place feared by the protagonist. As in Sultry, the house in Appelt’s film represents something beyond physical space.
There are also ghosts lurking in The Mysterious Death of Perola (A misteriosa morte de Pérola, 2014). Ticiana Augusto Lima and Guto Parente made the film while studying in a small village in France, where they lived in the shady apartment where the story takes place. They never felt alone there, like their characters: Perola covers windows and doors but is chased by shadows, noises and by looks from the paintings that adorn the walls. One never knows if she fears something supernatural, if it is an emotional imbalance, or if there is only a confusion between dream and wakefulness, but the tragedy is certain, having already been announced in the title of the film. Later, his partner settles in with a camera that works as a ghost catcher and eternalizer (what cinema is, after all?). Watching the footage on television, he is able to meet the heroine, just as she tirelessly met with Edith, from Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage, Georges Franju, 1960). Among other sinister repetitions, he will not escape the same tragic fate of his beloved.
Once there was Brazil
In addition to The Mysterious Death of Perola, Lima directed shorts and an episode of the collective film The Dreamt Animal (O animal sonhado, 2015), but is especially recognized as a dynamic producer. Among her recent works in this role, Tremor Iê (idem, Lívia de Paiva & Elena Meirelles, 2019) stands out, having had its international release at FID Marseille. Remarkably visionary, the film moves between horror, science fiction and experimental to depict a dystopian “future” in which Brazil is under an authoritarian, hygienist and controlling government, and fits perfectly in the category of social horror proposed by Cánepa. A collective work in which Paiva and Meirelles signed as directors of a feature film for the first time, Tremor Iê both examines the outcomes of 2013 movements and outlines Jair Bolsonaro’s government discourse and aims even before its rise.
Its characters – mostly black women, lesbian, from the outskirts, with non-normative bodies – occupy the empty and nocturnal urban spaces (prohibitive both in the diegesis and in reality, as part of the feminine traumatic and fearful imaginary). There is a mixture of timelines that seems to indicate the perpetuation of oppressive structures that are renovated to continue existing, with the presence of a latent past to which the characters are condemned, as if today’s horror has always existed. Keeping moving (dancing, cycling, running), in the film, is a kind of resistance to the historically imposed immobilization. The women also challenge history by stealing the remains of a dictator. Set in Fortaleza, Tremor Iê joins other similar aesthetic and thematic proposals made recently by women in this city: the short films Frighten (Espavento, Ana Francelino, 2018) and Storm Drain (Boca de loba, Bárbara Cabeça, 2018).
Sugar (Açúcar, Renata Pinheiro & Sérgio Oliveira, 2018), launched at Rotterdam, is another social horror that employs the genre’s potential to approach contemporary debates. Pinheiro is especially interested in topics related to the history and culture of her state, Pernambuco, as noted in her previous works: SuperBarroco (idem, 2008), Walt Disney Square (Praça Walt Disney, with Oliveira, 2011) and Love, Plastic and Noise (Amor, plástico e barulho, 2013). She is also an art director, having worked in dozens of films such as Mango Yellow (Amarelo manga, Cláudio Assis, 2002) and Zama (idem, Lucrecia Martel, 2017). Sugar addresses colonial idiosyncrasy in the local way of life: the slave heritage, the monoculture of sugarcane, the class conflicts and their intrinsic racial tensions.
The protagonist Bethânia Wanderley is a brown woman who is proud of her (artificially) blonde and straight hair, of the land she inherits and the sugar mill that bears her family’s name – although she cannot afford the decadent structure of the place, where she settles in order to renew it. Supernatural events (and others not so much, like persistent racism) will put her identity in dispute: she believes she belongs to the Big House, but despite her past and her efforts, it is up to her to serve the white upper class who is prejudiced, arrogant, passive-aggressive, and jealous of its “historical” rights. At the same time, she finds herself in an ambivalent relationship of repulsion and attraction to the adjacent black community.
Close to Sugar, the land, the monoculture (this time, the coffee), the traditional and ostentatious surname of foreign origin, the wealth that has passed from generation to generation since always, and the collapse of this structure are also the themes in the found footage horror The Young Baumanns (Os jovens Baumann, Bruna Carvalho Almeida, 2018). The plot is articulated in two times: VHS images of the Baumann heirs on vacation at their farm in 1992; and current images that show the same spaces, now empty, with a voice-over that relates the mysterious disappearance of the group in that place that year.
The amateur records are relaxed, disconnected, jumping from one situation to another without purpose or depth, as usually happens in home movies. The apparent banality, however, is contaminated by apprehension: either due to tense dialogues (on the dam that flooded entire villages, the horse that runs frenziedly, a fleeting commentary on land reform), or due to strange and creepy moments (someone that runs across the bushes of the coffee field, the several candles in the house, the telling of horror stories around the fire at night). The cousins’ personalities do not develop, and they function as a group and what it represents. The narrator has no intention of unraveling the Baumanns’ whereabouts and sounds indifferent in announcing that the heirs’ vanishing meant the family withdrew from national life. It seems like a relief to be rid of that horrific and archaic way of life that the Baumanns epitomized.
Bear Family Secret
In the multi-award winning The Bear Family Secret (O segredo da família urso, Cíntia Domit Bittar, 2014), a family also encapsulates the violence of a moment of the country’s history. The opening note “1970. Brazilian military dictatorship” paves the way for this reading: the father as the oppressor, the mother as negligence, and the problematic and emblematic naïveté of the protagonist little girl. Oblivious to the political context, she seizes the frightened “creature” that appears in her playroom as if he was a toy, without questioning the weirdness of the situation, even though she is aware that there is something wrong. The political tragedy that is reproduced in the family cell in The Bear Family Secret is illustrated like a horror movie, plagued with darkness, shocks, cryptic sounds, and chilling characters (none of them crazy or from another world, but normal people above suspicion).
Authoritarianism and repression within the family are also in Bittar’s next short film, The Girl Alone (A menina só, 2016). In an isolated farm in some remote corner of Brazil, it is said that a devil occupies the barn. However, what scares the titular girl is not out there, but inside her own house. As a very specific type of final girl, she will fight her monster, as will the girls from Tarantula (Tarântula, Marja Calafange & Aly Muritiba, 2015). Also living isolated in a country house, they are visited by a man who promises to complete their incomplete lives. But they are not interested in his offer, and go on to cruelly destroy him.
Blood is life
Prior to Tarantula, Calafange directed Tate Parade (idem, 2013), in which Sharon Tate takes revenge on her murderers in a bright, colourful and bloody film essay. Other short films deal with themes such as revenge or the protection of the woman’s body, like 11 Minutes (Onze minutos, Hilda Lopes Pontes, 2018) and Meat (Carne, Mariana Jaspe, 2018). The former narrates an episode, taking a taxi at night, which should be trivial (and it is for men), and turns it into a terrifying experience (as it usually is for women). The latter follows the heated arguing of a couple and the differences that arise from the disclosure of a sexist mentality. It is the first horror film in Brazil written and directed by a Black woman and with an entirely Black cast.
These films would more properly belong to standard horror, according to Cánepa’s description. There is a lush production of young independent filmmakers in this terrain, among which we can mention Amanda Maya, Geisla Fernandes, Larissa Anzoategui and Taísa Enne Marques. There are also several works by Brazilian directors that live and work abroad, with English dialogue and aimed at the international market: Dark Amazon (Darcyana Moreno Izel, 2014), MFA (Natalia Leite, 2014), Lilith’s Awakening (Monica Demes, 2016) and Don’t look (Luciana Faulhaber, 2017).
Demes has a prolific trajectory that includes several horror short films, and despite living between Spain and the United States for over a decade, she is very present in the Brazilian scene. In her first feature Lilith’s Awakening, Lucy shares her life with a repressive husband, an authoritarian father and a harassing co-worker. She begins to be haunted by a mysterious woman, who triggers in Lucy a powerful process of transformation and discovery of her own body, despite the efforts of male figures to control it.
Similarly to Lilith’s Awakening, in Gabriela Amaral Almeida’s films Friendly Beast (O animal cordial, 2017) and The Father’s Shadow (A sombra do pai, 2018) men are neither protagonists nor move the narrative along, but their behaviors are key to understanding the journey of the heroines. Both are tragic portraits of the failure of the standard masculinity, the idea in our society of what a man should be, and its impact on everyone’s life. In The Father’s Shadow, this matter is closely intertwined with the increasingly absurd demands of the world of labor in contemporary capitalism. It accompanies little nine-year-old Dalva, suddenly forced to grow up while her familiar sphere disintegrates. After her mother’s death and her aunt’s departure, she is left to fend for herself, in charge of the household chores and taking care of her father Jorge, whom she believes is turning into a zombie.
Solitary and bullied, but resilient, Dalva has horror films as faithful company, and is inspired by them to conjure her mother and then reconnect with her father. Jorge is a bricklayer tormented both by painful memories and toil, being consumed by illnesses and psychic disorders that make him become more and more oblivious to reality, at the same time as his co-workers kill themselves or are killed. He is a villain and a victim of the system that prevents his bonding with his daughter and exploits him to death. Like a Frankenstein, we know that his attitudes are terrible, but we also know where this evil comes from. The film explores the harsh daily life of a Brazilian working-class family and the monsters that consume it: while the country was seduced by the myth of growth and development, the lives of most people were falling apart.
Almeida’s short films The Comforting Hand (A mão que afaga, 2012) and Freeze! (Estátua!, 2014) also focus on issues such as the relationship between children and parents, the difficulty of communication and the loneliness in big cities. Both are set in claustrophobic and dim apartments, where the mothers need to withdraw from because of their jobs, the fathers are nonexistent, and all the characters are needy and lost. As in The Father’s Shadow, horror is used in these works as a puissant cloak for the intimate dramas of the characters, which are totally helpless and taken by insecurity, anguish, and fear.
While in those films there is a thick cloud of suspense hanging in the air the entire time, and a slow-burning tension is built in layers, never reaching an explosion, Friendly Beast is assembled by a chain of explosions. As Almeida commented in several interviews, 13 the very process of producing the film was an explosion, having been carried out in a few months, in a troubled political moment in Brazil (mid-2016, during the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff) in which the filmmaker claimed to be full of anger herself. The film begins led by the entrepreneur Ignacio, who rehearses before the mirror his performance as a model of success, sobriety, knowledge, charm, virility. One night, he insists on keeping his elegant restaurant open beyond its regular working hours, and the place is robbed. Due to the thieves’ mistake, Ignacio manages to turn the tables, taking advantage of the situation to exercise his power and vent his violence. But the hunter will become the hunted.
The restaurant is like a microcosm that reflects the world: the distribution of power, social roles and boundaries are visible and conventionally determined. In the course of the robbery, though, the conventions collapse, and everything that differentiated those present (color, gender, profession, education, money) is worthless. In this context where the situation’s control changes hands every minute, the characters try to negotiate a solution, but end up surrendering to instincts and barbarism, in a setting soaked in blood, vomit, cum, urine, saliva and human meat.
The same way as Ignacio is an example of (imposed) masculinity, the client Veronica is also a model of (imposed) femininity, seen as a beautiful object that never has a voice. This is also the case with the devoted waitress Sarah (that nurtures a platonic love for her boss), who is often mistreated and whose will is silenced. The policeman and the lawyer (other clients), symbols of institutional justice, are wrecked – here, justice is different, a poetic justice. Ignacio, convinced of his superiority, skillfully uses his false cordiality and manages to run the show for a long time. Nevertheless, when all his masks fall, he will be the most affected, being literally eliminated, victim of a long-waited and visceral response.
Through an explicit, saturated and gore aesthetic, Friendly Beast subtly develops a discourse on Brazilian society and the need for destruction of certain structures and behaviors. The film enacts the end of a world, from whose symbolic apocalypse the employees who refused to work after hours escaped, and two final girls survived: Djair (the trans woman chef) and Sarah.
Sarah’s action discloses the repressed potential inside her. As with countless female characters cited throughout this text: tired of being constrained, marginalized and annihilated, they attack, seeking to satisfy an immemorial appetite. Hunger is a frequent allegory in the films discussed, and the horror genre is productive in processing it in a vivid fashion. 14 In the same way, Almeida wrote in a 2019 article, “Women filmmakers are like rare and hungry plants”. This eagerness has been unleashed, and it has shown how intense this latent hunger is, but as she continues: “We are many seeds – but we still need soil to flourish”. In the horror film that Brazil has become in the last few years, it is expected that more starving final girls will emerge from its screens as part of this wave that have refreshed the genre.
Agência Patrícia Galvão. Dossiê Feminicídio, 2017. dossies.agenciapatriciagalvao.org.br/feminicidio/.
Almeida, Gabriela Amaral. “Mulheres cineastas são plantas raras e famintas, diz diretora”, Folha de São Paulo, 5th May 2019. www1.folha.uol.com.br/ilustrissima/2019/05/mulheres-cineastas-sao-plantas-raras-e-famintas-diz-diretora.shtml.
Cánepa, Laura. “Configurações do horror cinematográfico brasileiro nos anos 2000: continuidades e inovações” in João Batista Freitas Cardoso and Roberto Elísio dos Santos (Eds). Miradas sobre o cinema ibero-americano. São Caetano do Sul: USCS, 2016, 121-143.
Cánepa, Laura. “Horrores do Brasil”, Filme Cultura, n. 61, 2013, 33-37. revista.cultura.gov.br/item/filme-cultura-n-61/.
Cánepa, Laura. Medo de quê? Uma história do horror nos filmes brasileiros. PhD Thesis in Multimedia. Campinas: Universidade Estadual de Campinas, 2008. repositorio.unicamp.br/jspui/handle/REPOSIP/285159.
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart. London | New York: Routledge, 1990.
Clover, Carol. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Doyle, Sady. “Hunger. Female Directors and The Rise of Girl-Cannibal Horror”, The Fearsome Is Female, 20th June 2017. medium.com/s/the-fearsome-is-female/hunger-bc723010ee27.
Dória, Kim Wilheim. “O horror não está no horror: A matéria histórica resiste ao gênero” in Afrânio Mendes Catani et al. (Eds). XVIII Estudos de Cinema e Audiovisual Socine. Anais de textos completos. São Paulo: Sociedade Brasileira de Estudos de Cinema e Audiovisual – SOCINE, 2015, 779-785. www.socine.org/wp-content/uploads/anais/AnaisDeTextosCompletos2014(XVIII).pdf).pdf.
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Freeland, Cynthia A. “Feminist Framework For Horror Films” in David Bordwell & Noël Carroll (Eds). Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996, 195-218.
Miranda, Marcelo. “#02. Gabriela Amaral Almeida, cineasta”, Saco de Ossos, 23rd April 2019. anchor.fm/sacodeossos/episodes/02-Gabriela-Amaral-Almeida—cineasta-eb482m.
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Nestarez, Oscar. “A beleza do cinema de horror brasileiro é não se preocupar em imitar. Entrevista com Carlos Primati”, Galileu, 16th October 2019. revistagalileu.globo.com/Cultura/noticia/2019/10/beleza-do-cinema-de-horror-brasileiro-e-nao-se-preocupar-em-imitar.html.
Prysthon, Angela. “Furiosas frivolidades: Artifício, heterotopias e temporalidades estranhas no cinema brasileiro contemporâneo”, Revista ECO-Pós, v. 18, n. 3, 2015, 66-74. revistas.ufrj.br/index.php/eco_pos/article/view/2763/2340.
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Links to Films Cited in Text
The White Sheet (O lençol branco, Juliana Rojas & Marco Dutra, 2004): https://vimeo.com/362622966 [with English subtitles] 15:30 min.
A Stem (Um ramo, Juliana Rojas & Marco Dutra, 2007): https://vimeo.com/73746546 [with French subs] 15 min.
The Countess’s Maid (A criada da condessa, Juliana Rojas, 2005): https://vimeo.com/114612820 [with English subs] 11 min.
To Sleep Quietly (Pra eu dormir tranquilo, Juliana Rojas, 2011): https://vimeo.com/38516526 [with English subs] 15:30 min.
Doppelgänger (O duplo, Juliana Rojas, 2012) https://vimeo.com/397618578 [English subs] 24 min.
The Noon Vampire (O vampiro do meio-dia, Anita Rocha da Silveira, 2008): https://vimeo.com/59063066 [no dialogue] 19 min.
Handball (Handebol, Anita Rocha da Silveira, 2010): https://vimeo.com/150850180 [with English subs] 19 min.
The Living Dead (Os mortos-vivos, Anita Rocha da Silveira, 2012): https://vimeo.com/65501097 [with English subs] 20 min.
SuperBarroco (idem, Renata Pinheiro, 2008): https://vimeo.com/18791604 [no dialogue] 17 min.
Walt Disney Square (Praça Walt Disney, Renata Pinheiro & Sérgio Oliveira, 2011): http://portacurtas.org.br/filme/?name=praca_walt_disney [no dialogue]
The Bear Family Secret (O segredo da família urso, Cíntia Domit Bittar, 2014): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGzR7njQ51Y&t=26s [no subs] 20 min.
Tate Parade (Marja Calafange, 2013): https://vimeo.com/56402068 [no subs] 9 min.
Lilith’s Awakening (Monica Demes, 2016): https://vimeo.com/154636630/13e80f5b4b [English dialogue, Portuguese and Spanish subs] 78 min.
The Comforting Hand (A mão que afaga, Gabriela Amaral Almeida, 2012): https://vimeo.com/51218649 [with English subs] 19 min.
Freeze! (Estátua!, Gabriela Amaral Almeida 2014): https://vimeo.com/337895228 [with English subs] 24 min.
11 Minutes (Hilda Lopes Pontes, 2018): https://vimeo.com/259231529 [with English, French and Spanish subs] 17 min.
- Mojica (1936-2020) was a director, producer, screenwriter, and actor. One of the most prolific horror filmmakers in Latin America, he has made 24 feature-length films and more than 20 short films since 1953, not counting innumerous radio and television programs, theater productions, advertising campaigns, theme parks, and comic books. Besides horror, Mojica has worked in other genres such as Westerns, melodramas, and pornography, but has always maintained elements of horror iconography. In 1964, At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul (À meia-noite levarei sua alma) was released, the first Brazilian horror film to be called as such. Besides achieving public success, the film transformed Mojica into a media phenomenon with the creation of the character Zé do Caixão (Coffin Joe), a sociopathic funeral agent played by Mojica himself. At Midnight I Will Take Your Soul was the first part of a trilogy that also included This Night Will Make Your Corpse Incarnate (Esta noite encarnarei no teu cadaver, 1967) and Embodiment of Evil, which represented the triumphant return of both the character and the filmmaker, and to some degree, Brazilian horror. ↩
- Popular name for the downtown São Paulo neighborhood that served as the unofficial hub of movie producers and distributors in the 1970s. ↩
- For an in-depth history of the horror genre in Brazil, see Cánepa, 2008. ↩
- For a historical overview of the participation of women filmmakers in Brazilian horror cinema, including the last few years, see Saldanha, 2019. ↩
- For more information about this data, see Agência Patrícia Galvão, 2017 and Velasco, Caesar & Reis, 2020. ↩
- As formulated by Júlio Bressane in the short-length film Horror Palace Hotel, directed by Jairo Ferreira, 1978. ↩
- It is also interesting to recover the notion of realism under erasure proposed by Angela Prysthon (2015), who notes that, in contemporary Brazilian cinema, the predominant realism of the 2000s gives way to more ambiguous narratives, in which artifice is a strategy to tear apart, underline and criticize the real. It does not mean that in the past decade there were no films that elaborated such strategies, but the researcher draws attention to its predominance and greater recurrences post-2010. Although Prysthon is more specifically dedicated to science fiction, her thinking can extend to horror. See also Solomon, 2018. ↩
- See Carroll, 1990. ↩
- For an in-depth analysis of Hard Labor, see Souto, 2019. ↩
- Necropolis Symphony is an extended version of the telefilm The Cemetery Opera (A ópera do cemitério, 2013). ↩
- See Williams, 2015. ↩
- For a study of the film and its relationship with the city, see Richmond, 2017. ↩
- Among them, an interview with Marcelo Miranda for the podcast Saco de Ossos, in 2019. ↩
- It’s not by chance that several directors invoke as inspiration films that are also pervaded by this idea: Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001), In My Skin (Dans ma peau, Marina de Van, 2002), Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama, 2009), Raw (Grave, Julia Ducournau, 2016), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) and The Bad Batch (2016), both by Ana Lily Amirpour. See Doyle, 2017. ↩