When it’s busy, walking through Leicester Square can feel like moving underwater. Getting from A to B is a question of negotiating eddying currents of people as bubbles of noise erupt round buskers and tour groups. Even then, the last few weeks have been more rammed than usual; first, the British Film Festival, hosted at the Prince Charles itself, then the blockbuster UK premiere of Dune, all red-carpets and rain-coated fans searching for “Timothée!” Amongst the noise, the Prince Charles cinema has also played host to a season of classic gender-bent horror: The Female of the Species is More Deadly than the Male. They’re by turns dark and camp – jostling ‘silly’ sci-fi against gruesome violence (often based on real serial killers). Screening at the time of nightclub spikings and Wayne Couzens’ sentencing, it is a thin (and sometimes uncomfortable) line to tread, but, in communication with a live audience, these screenings emerge as affirming, entertaining fun.
The curator, Sophie Determan, started sharing horror movies with friends as an undergrad in Utah: “I started hosting these ‘31 Nights of Horror film series. I would host them in my apartment and people would come over.” Not the bright lights of a flagship Odeon, but eventually: “they became more and more popular to the point where I couldn’t even host them in my room anymore because I was violating fire codes […] So I used to show them either in an empty classroom or one of the campus cinemas where I was working.”
Arriving at the Prince Charles genuinely feels like finding a refuge. And it is a refuge for independent film: a rebel-agent in the midst of London’s chains of overpriced cinemas. For Sophie, searching for a host for her programming project with the National School of Film and Television, it was a match made in heaven. Not only is the PCC the oldest running indie cinema in London’s West End, but she’s also always admired an evident “dedication to genre and cult cinema”. For many, the Prince Charles’ sing-a-longs, movie marathons and monthly interactive screenings of cult rotten-tomato, The Room (2003), are a fun way to see films with friends. For Sophie, they open the door to a unique experience: “You don’t just watch [movies] as art. You’re encouraged to interact with them as people.”
The communicative possibilities of a movie theatre might be a saving grace. It isn’t so much a case of old films bearing up where others might have aged; the four movies Sophie has selected rely on audience reclamation to hold up at all. They are, after all, films written and directed by men, in which women are often the vehicles of lust and rage for the men around them. Take Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), the first of Sophie’s choices – a gloriously silly sci-fi which sees the Doctor emerge from cryogenic freezing to invent forcefields and mystifying body-swapping machinery. His victim is resurrected after drowning herself, inhabited by her vengeful ex-boyfriend and compelled to go on a killing spree. Coincidentally, the transformation also turns her blond and removes most of her clothes. Naturally, it is this incarnation that makes the poster. Movie magic.
The final screening and the film which inspired the series, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde has marked similarities. Another reclusive man of science realises there is not enough time in the world for him to cure each and every disease, so he tries (of course) to make more time by inventing an immunity potion. No forcefields, just the power of “nature’s elixir: female hormones.” Along the way, we meet a host of creeps, from drunken sailors to a mortician “particularly fond” of female corpses, and Jekyll’s respectable friend, a professor who spends most of the movie “researching” blondes. It might be all too unsettling without its share of flirty one-liners, straight from the Bond playbook. Ralph Bates also manages to cut a somewhat camp figure as Jekyll; with shoulder-length hair, he looks like the lovechild of Colin Firth and Rupert Everett from St Trinians.
It is probably the most impressive film of the season. Director Roy Ward Barker brings powerful visual coherence to proceedings with a purposefully choreographed sequence of imagery (all knives and hair and splatters of blood) for each murder. There’s a show-stopping depiction of Jekyll’s transformation in one shaky, slowly panning shot. And Barker uses everything from broken mirrors and stained-glass windows to prosthetics to depict the fractured personhood Jekyll has created. It’s a testament to the staying power of Barker’s cinematography that Edgar Wright nicks the recurring shot of a knife held in the air for Last Night in Soho. She Wolf of London (1946) may have been the darkest showing of the season (set mostly in fog-shrouded parks), but David Whitaker’s score makes Sister Hyde the most disquieting; it is by turns stark and juddering before, in moments of violence, becoming rackingly discordant. I can hear people grimacing all the way back to the projector.
Entertaining, yes, but do these films offer any genuine or honest representation? A student of horror movies, Sophie explains it is significant enough “that the protagonists of these films are the monsters.” Significant, also, that these monsters are female and each of them not (here Sophie invokes the latest, questionable reincarnation of The Mummy franchise) a “really flat, one-dimensional villain who’s just there to ruin everyone’s day.” For better examples in recent years look to (Sophie’s suggestions) Midsommar (2019) and Prevenge (2016) or (for my money) a series like Brand New Cherry Flavour off Netflix earlier this year. Cherry Flavour comes across like a parting blow to the silver screen: it’s a witchy, deranged romp through the world of Harvey Weinstein, with a character brazenly based on the infamous producer. It’s the kind of writing made possible by the #MeToo movement and, in many ways, it approaches a film like Sister Hyde from the other side of the looking glass.
In celebration of its fiftieth anniversary, we’re joined at the PCC by Sister Hyde herself: two-time Connery-era Bond Girl, Martine Beswick (recorded in the credits for From Russia With Love (1963), presciently, as “Martin”). She describes a “family” dynamic with writer Brian Clements and the rest of the crew, and a particularly close bond with her co-star, Ralph Bates. Some aspects nonetheless seem uncomfortable. “Being Hammer [Horror], they wanted to go NUDE.” Beswick pulls a cartoon grimace for this last word, like a teenager saying something rudely: “I thought that was a bad idea.” It wasn’t in the script, but it caused “a really big fight” and, when it came time for DVD release, director Roy Ward Barker was at Beswick again, pushing for more nudity.
Beswick relates all of this with a laugh, then she’s off with flowers and champagne to celebrate. This is, deservedly, a victory tour, not an interrogation. In stark contrast to her slinky, knowing performance, Beswick is all laughs: telling stories of first dates watching Dracula (where Beswick, ironically unable to stand the sight of blood, fainted). Like the series itself, it’s fun and often silly but it’s also a literalisation of the conversation we open with old movies as an audience. When I spoke to Sophie she was keen to tell me that these films – most especially Dracula’s Daughter – have since become “cult classics in LGBT circles” partly because of the quirk that victims “don’t seem to be gender-bent to fit” gender-bent monsters. “This creates a very queered gaze: when you have women staring predatorily at other women.”
Speaking at the showing, Beswick says she was alive to those possibilities on set. “I’ve always figured,” she says, “all of us have male and female in us […] sometimes the male or the female is more dominant in what you do in your life.” Equally, she wishes she’d “had a bit more fun” toeing the line between ambiguity and suggested queer relationships. Her most surprising answer of the night, then, is that she cannot stomach the notion of a gender-bent Bond. The irony seems lost on Beswick until she goes on to suggest the new guy should be “quite gorgeous, but really hard – even harder than Craig.” Who can begrudge her that?
It feels at once like a gawkish declaration of the obvious and an understatement: we do not, tragically, inhabit the world of Rudyard Kipling’s lethal “she-bears” and “squaws” (the poem from which Sophie takes the title of the series). Wayne Couzens, the policeman who kidnapped, raped and murdered Sarah Everard, was sentenced to life on the 30th of September. In the closing week of the season, thousands of women boycotted bars and clubs across the UK after over 250 reports of drink and needle spiking were recorded in the last two months.
To take these films on such serious terms seems unfair when, at least in the PCC, they never land entirely seriously. Having trawled through the dubious canon of gender-bent horror (from Lesbian Vampire Lovers to The Wasp Woman) Sophie is happy admitting “they’re not good but they’re interesting.” Importantly, this series sidesteps, for the most part, sexploitation and one-dimensional women (“nudie cuties with fangs and a cape”). There are uncomfortable moments and often a sense of the male gaze underwriting these films, but equally, those are often the moments that now get a laugh from a live audience. This balance is a testament to Sophie Determan’s selection. “I watched so many lemons,” she says, “trying to find films which fit the theme.” For this season, the female of the species is more deadly, and not all heroes wear capes.