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COMMENTARY : Pretty Women, Pretty Scary : Movies: In UCLA's film series starting Saturday, there's hell to pay when a woman unleashes her sexuality. Freud, you've a lot to answer for.

January 12, 1994|KRISTINE McKENNA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Let's see, exactly where are we on the feminist timeline? On the evidence of "Scary Women: Female Monsters and Fiends in American Film," a new film series at UCLA exploring female monsters in American movies, we're still strictly in the Stone Age.

The series--curated by Andrea Kalas and Andrea Alsberg for the UCLA Film and Television Archive and featuring 19 films from 1935 to 1992--repeatedly reiterates a belief women have been struggling against for centuries. Permeated with traditional Christian perceptions of feminine virtue, virtually all these films pivot on the idea that there's hell to pay when a woman unleashes her sexuality.

This comes as no surprise; however, a handful of unanticipated themes do surface in the series, which begins Saturday at UCLA's Melnitz Hall and runs through Feb. 1. At the top of the list is the idea that more often than not, feminine evil is rooted in a perversion of the mothering instinct. Mothers who are unable to release their offspring into life (as well as mothers who just don't give a damn) turn up left and right in stories in which the drive to nurture accelerates into a need to control, which ultimately explodes into total mayhem.

Equally noteworthy is the omnipresence of psychoanalytic theory in these movies. By the 1930s, when this series commences, the ideas that rocketed out of Vienna had had a profound effect on Hollywood, and abnormalities of any sort had come to be seen as the terrain of psychiatry. Hence, shrinks are prominently featured in eight of the films, and Freudian notions about sexuality are central to nearly all of them.

The series falls short in a few regards, most notably in its failure to examine state-of-the-art scary women who haven't yet solidified into archetypes. Where, for instance, is Julia Roberts' "Pretty Woman"? (She's just a cute kid in need of some quick cash. Turn a trick? No problem.) Or how about Madonna in "Truth or Dare," in which she gives a narcissistic display of steely control so extreme that it's terrifying? Or Sherilyn Fenn in "Boxing Helena," a film that took the idea of female victimization to new depths of depravity? How about Demi Moore in anything? Her shameless immersion in the cult of the body is disconcerting, to say the least. (Last year's "Indecent Proposal" was like a mash note to Moore's well-toned rear end.)

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The closest the series comes to addressing current scary film females is with the 1992 movie "Poison Ivy," which features Drew Barrymore as a sociopathic stoner chick whose problems are the result of an abandoning father and inadequate mothering (oh, that again). What makes this threadbare story contemporary is Barrymore's wardrobe (she's got lots of tattoos) and the fact that changes in censorship laws made it possible for Barrymore's Ivy to seduce her surrogate daddy on screen in a surprisingly graphic sequence.

The evolution of censorship in film is thrown into high relief when one rewinds from "Poison Ivy" to the pair of films that open the series Saturday. Chaste little thrillers that center on female characters whose unresolved relationships with their mothers make them vulnerable to malevolent poltergeists, "The Haunting" (1963) and "The Uninvited" (1944) seem quaint by today's standards of on-screen horror.

We're clued in, for instance, that the female protagonist of "The Haunting," played by Julie Harris, is being pushed to the breaking point by pesky ghosts when she gets drunk and paints her toenails red. It is, however, a non-supernatural fit of sexual jealousy that finally pushes Harris over the edge.

Sexual jealousy is a leitmotif that turns up in virtually every film in the series, and it drives the plot in many of them. The idea of the woman whose jealousy transforms her into a depraved stalker is central to Jacques Tourneur's 1942 film "Cat People," which explains itself in a voice-over (from a therapist) as being about "the descendants of an ancient race of people who fell away from Christianity and began to worship Satan and are afflicted with corrupt passions that drive them to transform into cats and kill" (woman as a cunning, catlike creature is an ancient stereotype). Tourneur tips us off at the beginning that we're dealing with a loose cannon in his film: In the opening scene his heroine introduces herself as an artist, then throws a wad of paper on the sidewalk--a catperson and a litterbug to boot!

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