"Mercy Black" and the Success of Female-led Horror Films

 This article contains Spoilers for films currently streaming/in theaters. 

Including: Pet Semitary (2019), Us, and Mercy Black 


Slowly, we’re seeing the nature of horror change to include three-dimensional female characters that often shoulder the film’s success. This past week, I watched the new "Blumhouse” direct-to-Netflix film, Mercy Black. The film follows the mental health and past trauma of Marina, who engaged in a Slenderman-esque game as a child. What makes this film unique is the 75 percent female cast. Of the 12-member cast, there are only three male characters. Two of them fade out of the narrative before the second act, and overall, only one of them is intrinsically important to the plot.

This is relatively new for the horror genre. Horror stems from the problematic tradition of exploitation wherein women are cast as sex objects or characters to die bloody-gore-filled deaths. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’d get a revenge based narrative where women could be vengeful spirits or horrific demons. Although many of these traditional elements are still featured in “Mercy Black,” there is no focus on sexuality or the exploitation of it.

This kind of horror movie is a growing trend as seen earlier this year with Jordan Peele’s Us, in which Lupita Nyong’o tries to keep her family safe from a group of murderous doppelgängers. Nyong'o’s character and her double are the film’s focus and are fully developed within a film that feels like an old-school slasher, only with more plot and none of the exploitation. Lupita’s double in the film is the primary antagonist, a concept also used in the new Pet Semitary film, wherein women can be complex antagonists that enact violence outside of the typical revenge arch where a woman is assaulted or wronged by a man and thusly corrupted into a violent being.

Instead, these independently violent or heroic characters are fully developed humans, acting within their own agency. Pet Semitary (2019) does this by flipping the script, literally. The story follows Louis, his wife Rachel and their children Gage and Ellie after they move to a new house. Both in the original film adaptation and the novel, the novel’s primary antagonist in the end is the family baby Gage, as a strange zombie. However as seen in the new film’s trailers, this version has the daughter, Ellie, come back from the dead. The clips used show Ellie attacking her mother while her little brother Gage, alive and well, looks on from his crib. Within the original versions, her actions were limited to nurturing her little brother and worrying over her father, acting out the archetype of women in film being ‘mothers’. In making Ellie into a murderous self-concerned creature, her actions become a progressive step towards showing different women in film.

Progress does include showing murderous, terrible women because those types of people exist. However, within the film world women are typically restricted within a false dichotomy. They are either mothers,) a woman embodying traditional femininity and nurturing), or a slut (an angry bitch, that embodies masculinity). This restriction isn’t found within male roles that run the gamut from femininity, masculinity and everything in between. In showing blood-thirsty, deceptive and even ‘evil’ women, we give them room to express all the in-between possibilities experienced within humanity. We enjoy films with complex characters because they’re based on real human experiences. Relegating female roles into this binary of mothers vs. sluts we ignore all life that falls outside this feminine/masculine binary when in real life all people are made up of bits-and-pieces of both the masculine and feminine.

These stratified roles can be used alongside developed characters, as seen in Mercy Black. The antagonist Lily falls into the typical patterns of the slut architype. She is underdeveloped, lacks motivation, and acts violently within the tradition of hyper-masculine slashers like Jason Vorhees or Michael Meyers. Her character is a stark contrast to the other women leading the story. Marina's sister within the film is a mother, but her character exists in the context of her family's trauma having motives outside of her role as a parent. Alternatively, Rachel in Pet Semitary embodies the undeveloped 'mother' architype. Rachel is more developed than Lily, due to Rachel's childhood trauma revolving around her chronically ill sister, Zelda. This added characterization is used as motivation within a few lines of dialogue and promptly vanishes until it's used for Rachel's death towards the film's end. Outside of this Rachel exists entirely as a concerned mother, nurturing parent, and the stereotypical feminine voice of superior morality, as seen when she disagrees with Louis' decision to resurrect Ellie. Both Lilly and Rachel feel uncanny because of their empty and inhuman characters.  

Us, features two realistic mothers that are not defined by their children but rather their own experiences and independent motives. Nyong'o's characters often use masculine characteristics of violence, and feminine characteristics of parenthood without letting those aspects become the character itself. In doing so Jordan Peele, completely ignores the binary of slut and mother. This departure from the tradition of the horror genre works, as seen in how the film passed $200 million world wide only three weeks after it's release. All three of these films are maintaining their own versions of success and are drawing attention to how horror can change. 

The reality behind horror films that draws people in is the terrifying reality of how evil people can be. To ignore the internet complexity of existence for female roles is a disservice to that basic idea. Films like Mercy Black, Pet Semitary (2019), and Us are changing the way we write women in movies and making it closer to the horror idea of human complexity. Although there are still successful exploitative films with flat female characters, (See the upcoming: La Llorona) these three films show that female led horror, not only works, but thrives.