Beauty is Pain [Part 1]: Brutal Beauty in Horror Movies
The old adage ‘Beauty is Pain’ is definitely alive and well in many genre films that depict the pitfalls women are exposed to in a pursuit to be ‘beautiful’. How a woman appears; her body, her hair, the clothing she chooses to wear, and the expectation and scrutiny of her looks has seemingly always been a part of cinema. Ever watched a woman run for her life in high heel shoes? Seen a female in the apocalypse looking pruned and waxed? Or even witnessed a ridiculous age gap between actors because employing an older woman just ‘wouldn’t sell a film’? Then you are clearly aware of the ridiculous standards in the film industry, both on and off of the screen.
It’s no surprise then that these beauty standards have been explored and critiqued through the Horror genre in numerous ways. Whether it’s a female character desperate to stop and reverse the ravages of time or a woman intent on changing her body to fit the perfect mold the genre loves to twist these tropes and create something horrifying or disturbing out of them.
For part one of ‘Beauty is Pain’ here are five genre films that deal with women’s hair and beauty through a nightmarish lens.
Hair & Beauty
The Stylist – Harrowing Hairdressing (dir. Jill Sixx Gevargizian, 2020)
Hair envy is something I’m sure most people have been guilty of, and as one patron of Claire’s points out, “we all want what we can’t have”. Claire is a hair stylist and her only real connection seems to be with her clients, she is lonely and outcast, wishing she could be the different women that sit in her chair. This leads to her becoming obsessive and then psychotic as she scalps her customers in order to wear their hair and live their lives. Based on a concept short film by the same director, The Stylist explores loneliness and female envy whilst making its audience think twice about their next trim.
Dumplings – Age-defying Delicacies (dir. Fruit Chan, 2004)
Ah, the female sin of aging. Expanded from his short segment of the same name in Horror anthology film Three…Extremes, Dumplings is a disturbing look into the severe measures aging actress Mrs Li is willing to take to regain both her youthful looks and the faithfulness of her cheating husband. She seeks out Aunt Mei, a local chef, who is known for her rejuvenating dumplings and discovers that the secret ingredient to her cooking is fetuses. The restorative outcome of these products outweighs Mrs Li’s disgust at what she is ingesting and, driven by vanity, social expectations and the pressure of being replaced by her husband for a younger woman, she continues to seek out the ‘ingredient’ at any cost.
Beauty Water – Socioeconomic Skincare (dir. Kyung-hun Cho, 2020)
We’ve all seen the adverts for ‘miracle’ beauty products that can transform the way you look and feel in an instant. Most of them are lies fabricated by beauty companies, but ‘Beauty Water’ seems to be the real deal. Adapted from an episode of Oh Seongdae’s webtoon Tales of the Unusual, Beauty Water is a Korean animated Horror about Yeji, a makeup artist who is teased about her appearance after appearing on television. She buys the titular product that allows her to shape her face and body into what is perceived as the perfect woman. There’s great social commentary and critique of the superficial and the beauty standards women are expected to live up to.
The Rejuvenator – Brains for Beauty (dir. Brian Thomas Jones, 1988)
Ageism is not a new thing in the film industry and it’s bias is predominantly laid at the feet of women. In an attempt to keep her career as an actress when her age causes the roles to start drying up, Ruth employs Dr Gregory Ashton to create an eternal youth potion that uses certain fluids from the human brain. It works wonders, but of course there’s no happy ending and it leaves Ruth as a monster by the film’s climax. The Rejuvenator was based on Roger Corman’s 1959 film The Wasp Woman which is based on a very similar concept about a cosmetics company owner which was also remade by Corman in 1995. How incredible that this concept of a woman’s worth being placed around her youth and beauty has spanned across four decades.
Bad Hair – Wicked Weaves (dir. Justin Simien, 2020)
The female experience isn’t a singular one, it’s individual to each woman depending on their age, class, sexuality, race and personal identity. Bad Hair is about female beauty standards in the black community and the pressure of presenting in a particular way as a black woman to fit in with societal expectations. Anna is an assistant at a television station who hopes to move up the ranks and is told by her boss that she needs to change her hair to fit in with the new ‘look’ of the station. After getting a weave Anna sees her career begin to take off but supernatural phenomena begin to take place and her new hair seems to have a thirst for blood. This satirical Horror is ambitious in it’s tackling of identity issues and the external factors to a black woman’s success.