Back in October, Vicky and I went to GeekGirlCon down in Seattle, a convention “dedicated to promoting awareness of and celebrating the contribution and involvement of women in all aspects of the sciences, science fiction, comics, gaming and related Geek culture.” We had a great time, obviously, and saw a lot of badass female geeks, nerds and dorks discussing everything from atheism to comics, Doctor Who to horror movies. One of the more memorable panels we attended was Beyond the Scream Queen, moderated by Hannah Neurotica and featuring Jenna Pitman, Jessica Dwyer, Shannon Lark and the Soska sisters Jen and Sylvia. While it was undoubtedly Shannon Lark’s short film Lip Stick that stole the show — an incredibly visceral examination of self-destructive sexuality featuring the world’s most uncomfortable sex toy — it’s Jen and Sylvia Soska’s much more crowd-friendly Dead Hooker in a Trunk that we’re looking at today.
Let’s start with the trailer:
The acting is wooden and awkward in the best film student tradition, the plot and characterization veer wildly between non-existent and insane, and there’s gore everywhere, all of which are Dead Hooker’s strengths and weaknesses simultaneously. It’s deeply unsatisfying as a story, because you’re never really given a reason why any of this is happening or why everyone involved seems to think it matters, but I don’t think the movie’s really concerned with any of that. The Soska twins started out intending to be stuntwomen, not filmmakers, and so they make only the slightest of concessions to anything that isn’t going to be balls-out awesome or crazy or crazy awesome. Characters are so sketchily filled in that they don’t have names, only vague cognomens like “Badass” or “Junkie.” Plot is just something that happens on the way to chainsawing an arm off, popping an eyeball out or drop-kicking a cowboy pimp in the chest. While the Soska’s clearly have a love on for Robert Rodriguez–that’s El Mariachi’s Carlos Gallardo as a taxi driving “God”–Dead Hooker is much closer to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead than anything else. Minute for minute, there’s a lot of bloody humor crammed in here: a sequence at the very end of the film has the main characters dumping body after body into the same body of water. As they stand against the setting sun, one of them observes, “I can’t believe there weren’t any repercussions from any of that crazy shit.”
I’m not sure what to make of the gender politics at work here. According to the probably reliable IMDB, actor CJ Wallis was a last minute addition to the cast, as the actress formerly cast in his role dropped out at the last minute. The four principals were originally all women, adrift in a mostly male world. As it is, the villains are all male — ranging from religious serial killers to corrupt cops to the aforementioned Cowboy Pimp — but if that’s part of some larger statement it’s not made explicit. There’s a constant cycle of reciprocal, gendered violence: a hapless trucker rips the Junkie’s arm off accidentally and the Badass takes him down with one brutal fist; a shadowy male figure knocks the Geek’s eye out and they torture him to death; two uniformed policemen try to blackmail the Badass into fucking them, and she knocks them out and handcuffs them together. In a film that took itself slightly more seriously all of this would seem like transparent revenge fantasy; here, everything’s so disconnected and chaotic that none of the violence seems truly systematic. Early on, there’s a scene where the twins’ father accidentally murders their mother and is then killed by the eight-year-old Badass. On paper that sounds as simplistic as Zack Snyder’s similarly, er, archetypal Sucker Punch, only where Snyder milks child abuse as a lazy way to flag his villain as truly villainous, the Soskas seem content to use it to establish that their characters have always been what they are. Badass kills to revenge her family or friends — never protect, mind you, always revenge — while the Geek is detached from everything, literally in another room, incidentally playing with a tarantula.
It’s that willingess to subvert convention without letting that subversion get in the way of the fun that elevates DHIAT. Evil Dead took the idea of the Scream Queen or Last Girl and inverted it: Ash is cowardly, stupid and sexually promiscuous, but survives everything in spite of himself, in defiance of horror movie conventions, but that never becomes the point of the movie the way it does in Wes Craven’s Scream. Dead Hooker in a Trunk plays with tropes in the same way, but it never lets any of that slow it down. Badass just kills and Junkie just lights up and no one ever feels the need to point out that THESE ARE LADIES YOU GUYS, and really who cares? There’s blood to spray and arms to reattach!