The Psycho Bitch From Hell sub-genre – in which an ostensibly appealing, covertly monstrous woman disrupts a happy family unit, usually with homicidal intent – has plenty of outliers in film noir (Leave Her to Heaven), gothic horror (most versions of ‘Carmilla’) and psycho thriller (The Nanny), but had a flourishing period in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, thanks to the likes of Fatal Attraction, Poison Ivy and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. There were even a few Psycho Bastard From Hell movies to provide some sort of balance of misanthropy – The Stepfather, Unlawful Entry. Given that a proliferation of these things tends to spur a lot of think pieces and academic courses about whether or not it’s useful to present diva lead actresses as archetypal nightmare feminists, it’s unsurprising that these things are still around but seldom get made without a ton of footnotes.
Lucky McKee’s The Woman is actually an inside-out take on the PBFH formula, with an overtly monstrous woman taken in and tormented by a hideous family unit – and McKee now returns to the field with a nuanced take on the original premise. If it were a 1990s VHS movie, it would be called The Aunt – though down-with-her-niece Sadie (Caitlin Stasey) is at least as intent on slyly wrecking her sister’s life as she is on supplanting the teenage heroine. Chloe (Thora Birch, frighteningly well cast) is a grown-up who resents being a spoilsport, having had her own daughter Nicole (Sasha Frolova) at an early age and furthermore been stuck with the care of her irresponsible younger sister Sadie – who bonded with her niece in a primal scene they both remember as the aunt (still a child herself) saving the kid from death on a Pet Sematary-like rural road, though suspicions bubble as to what exactly happened. With her daughter almost at an age when she doesn’t require round-the-clock care-and-attention, Chloe is starting to see a neighbour Alex (Macon Blair) but doesn’t yet want to break the news to Nicole, whose best friend Shay (Shonagh Smith) is Alex’s hoping-her-parents-reconcile best friend. Into this complex idyll comes Sadie, back from a spree and eager to take up with her family again – either to claim Chloe as her Mom or Nicole as her bestie.
Stasey, who was in McKee’s All Cheerleaders Die, gives a powerhouse performance as an insanely selfish and immature woman who is nevertheless a lot of fun to be around … for a short time. Sadie is young enough to pose as Nicole’s sister when – in masks and anime finery – they go to a high school party together, leading to a funny-creepy-sexy-disturbing scene were twentysomething Sadie roleplays fifteen-year-old virgin in a makeout session with the bewildered teen host (Liam Booth). When Nicole twigs that her aunt is crossing way too many lines, Sadie reacts with scheming PBFH stratagems designed to make the kid look bad, inevitably leading to a body count. A significant image that recurs in several of this year’s FrightFest selections is a dolls’ house being played with by someone trying to actualise her own domestic fantasy – and then trashed as the situation spirals out of control. McKee has always been very good with outsider girls – in May and The Woods, especially – and here gives all three of his leading ladies an emotional, histrionic workout.
It’s a colourful film, with teenage bedroom décor, dress-up-and-play costumes, dye-streak hairdos, a music box score, and a delicate, feminine nastiness that finds poignance in madness but never forgets the pain of those who have to tidy up afterwards. A few touches subvert the conventions of the field – in so many of these films, a perfect frame is whipped up to make the patsy look guilty but here the psycho makes as big a hash of crime as everything else in her life.