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I just had a chance to watch the independent film American Fable, and while it’s not quite the classic GU story, it hits enough points (and the general tone) to warrant an Honorable Mention here. It is perhaps a less fantastical Pan’s Labyrinth, or a less grim Tideland, both of which have been covered here previously, and both of which feature an innocent and story-obsessed girl caught up in the harsh world of adults. The fantasy and dreamlike elements could have been turned up a notch in my opinion, though they were very well done.
11 year old Gitty lives with her family on their farm, her only friend a beloved chicken. While she is close with her father, her parents are both nonetheless distracted by the possibility of losing their farm, and some other intrigue she doesn’t understand. One day Gitty stumbles upon a man who appears to be being held prisoner in their old grain silo – although she intuits that her family has something to do with it, she eventually befriends the man, even going so far as to descend into the silo to spend time with him (not quite underground, but a journey down at least). In a way, everyone is a potential adversary for Gitty – the man himself, who turns out to be a threat to her family, her own parents who are hiding things from her, the strange woman they seem to be colluding with, and possibly most of all her older brother, who ends up in a final, violent confrontation with her when he discovers she’s been fraternizing with the enemy. The imprisoned man could also be seen as her companion, and/or the one she is trying to rescue in classic GU style.
Gitty sees the world through the lens of stories (The Power of Story), making sense of what she experiences by relating it to the tales she knows well. And so what is on the one hand a mundane situation – a farm being threatened by economic failure and the response of desperate people – becomes a fairy tale from a different angle, surreal and moving in its telling.
Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors (listed on Amazon Video as World of Crooked Mirrors) is a wonderful Russian allegorical fantasy film drawing heavily on Alice Through the Looking Glass.
Olya is a little girl living with her grandmother (so, presumably an orphan). When her cat dashes right through the mirror to another world, Olya naturally jumps in right after it (like any good Girl Underground). She meets her reflection Yalo (everyone living there has backwards names) who becomes her companion. Together they chase after their cats, but end up befriending a young mirror maker. This boy is imprisoned by evil leaders for the crime of making mirrors that actually reflect reality, rather than the warped mirrors that the government prefers.
Olya and her reflection must rescue the boy and defeat the evil Reptile, Toad and Kite adversaries, and return the mirrors in the kingdom to their proper function. They are helped by a kind chef, and Olya encounters doubles of things in her normal life (such as the King being named the reverse of the word for “parrot”, a bird belonging to her grandmother). The whole production is delightfully Carrollian with obvious political overtones.
Midnight’s Child is a pretty mediocre made-for-tv movie from the early 90’s featuring Olivia D’Abo as the Adversary and a very cute young Elisabeth Moss as the girl she threatens. Since this was recommended to me as a potential GU story, at first I thought it would be the little girl who was the protagonist (especially since she’s the magic age of 7, and her parents are pretty self-absorbed and distracted), but in fact this turns out to also be one of the classic variations with an older, adult “Girl Underground” who is trying to save her child. And, in a way, the Adversary herself was clearly once a Girl Underground. So it’s a trifecta!
From the perspective of Kate, the mother, the au pair she hires to watch her daughter turns out to be using a false identity (that of a girl she actually killed to take her place), but worse, she is grooming the child to be the next bride of a dark entity – they keep saying it’s Satan toward the end, but all the imagery is reminiscent of the Erlking of folklore, which would make sense since the au pair is Scandinavian. This evil nanny seduces her husband (thereby making him a companion who betrays her) and is able to get the daughter right to the point of the ritual dedication, when Kate inexplicably manages to get through to her daughter and husband at the last minute (even though she does almost nothing right, and they were all entranced by the Adversary a moment ago), which somehow defeats her.
But the Adversary was once a child bride of the devil herself, who has grown old enough to find him new girls. One wonders if she might have had her own GU story, the rare kind that ends with the girl choosing to stay with her male Adversary lover.
Just got back from seeing Lights Out. It was not what you would call a “good” horror movie, but nevertheless it was Girls Underground, possibly from two different angles. I’m not going to tiptoe around spoilers here because really, this wasn’t worth it.
At first I thought the Girl Underground was Rebecca. After having moved away from home as soon as she could because of her crazy mother, she finds herself drawn back in order to rescue her little brother, who is the victim of the mother’s same old delusions…except of course they’re not delusions, she is keeping company with some kind of creature (not really a ghost per se, but a girl who was once alive and now isn’t, who was evil and abnormal even as a living person) who wants to destroy everyone in her life. Rebecca’s companion is her boyfriend, it mostly takes place in a house, she has a dead father and distant mother, so it all fits. But in the end, it’s her mother Sophie who ends up defeating the monster, and does so in order to save her own children. So if you look at it from her perspective, she might be the Girl Underground – the adversary attached itself to her at a young age, drove her even more mad, and is out to kill her loved ones. She can only defeat it by sacrificing herself.
After recently re-watching New Nightmare, I thought I might re-visit some of the other installments of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and ended up on 4: The Dream Master. Terrible movie, really, but what’s interesting from a Girls Underground perspective… the main character is named Alice. Now, I’ve noticed over time that Alice in Wonderland references pop up in a lot of GU examples. In this case, it’s not just the name – Alice is a pretty solid GU (no mother, useless father, trying to save friends and brother, faces adversary alone, etc.), but more importantly, she enters the otherworld through a mirror. And in fact, manages to defeat Freddy by showing him his reflection in a mirror. I always wonder if these allusions to Alice are intentional on the part of writers with GU stories.
The Final Girls is probably just an Honorable Mention as far as the GU archetype goes, but worth mentioning, as it cleverly references the old slasher movies that are often themselves Girls Underground stories. I will also note that early on, there is a mention of the Persephone myth, and GU examples often will reference other GU stories (most often Alice, but sometimes older myths and fairytales).
Max loses her mother in a car crash, and years later tries to connect with her memory by going to see a showing of the movie that made her momentarily famous, an 80’s slasher film called Camp Bloodbath. Max and her friends get magically transported into the world of the movie, complete with killer on the loose, and Max finds herself trying to rescue her “mother” (really the character played by her mother). They become the “final girls” once all of Max’s friends and the other characters are killed off. But it is only when her mother sacrifices herself that Max gains the power to defeat the adversary – which somehow magically rescues all her friends and sends them home…. or so it seems.
Here’s another horror movie sequel that is a GU story in its own right: Hellbound (Hellraiser II).
Like the first movie, Kirsty fights both human and otherworldly adversaries. Having been put in an asylum, she must escape the machinations of her evil psychiatrist, who has summoned back her evil stepmother from the Cenobites’ dimension, as well as the Cenobites themselves (led by Pinhead). She is also trying to rescue her father, who may still be trapped there. She is helped by a much saner psychiatrist, and by a fellow patient who has been mute for years. Together they must navigate the labyrinthine (and carnivalesque!) otherworld.
Like many Girls Underground, Kirsty manages to defeat her adversary through clever trickery – however because this is the Hellraiser universe, it involves donning the bloody skin of her stepmother. Ew.
I mentioned Nightmare on Elm Street all too briefly in one of the earliest posts on this blog, and it remains the gold standard in my mind for GU horror movies. But I realized that I should make a separate post for the seventh film of the franchise, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which takes things to another level.
In this “metafilm,” the actors mostly play themselves – the protagonist is Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy in the original movie. Heather begins to have nightmares about the adversary, Freddy Krueger, coinciding with a pitch to make a new film in the series. Her husband is killed (by Freddy, althoug she doesn’t know it yet) and her son begins to exhibit strange behavior, and is unwilling to sleep because he is afraid of Freddy. So therefore Heather falls into the common adult GU role of having to rescue her child from the adversary.
The theory in this film is that there is a real evil spirit who predated Freddy but was sort of “captured” by the character… and then released into the real world when the series ended, still embodying the famous Freddy Krueger and still coming after his old prey by attacking the actress who played her. There is a sort of “betrayal by a companion” when one of Heather’s co-stars (who played her father and still acts as a father figure to her) is sort of possessed and becomes his character, instead of helping her.
Freddy takes Heather’s son to his realm in the otherworld, and she follows, going underground to his lair. In the end, she manages to defeat him for good. After returning to the real world, she finds a screenplay detailing everything that’s happened, including her defeat of the adversary, which she reads aloud to her son.
Aside from being a solid version of the GU horror trope, this is also a striking and somewhat chilling example of The Power of Story. Additionally, it’s interesting to note that Craven shows the evil entity behind Freddy was also the one behind the witch in Hansel & Gretel, another GU connection.
At the Devil’s Door is a fairly mediocre horror movie but with an honorable-mention level GU plot. You might think that the first character you meet, a teenage girl, is the Girl Underground, but it’s a bit more complicated. This girl is tricked into letting the devil take over her body, but the adversary hardly stops there.
Fast forward a couple decades, and there’s a real estate agent showing a house, when she sees the first girl in the hallway, and thinks it’s the missing daughter of the house’s owners. After finding out that the girl she’s seen is actually the first girl, the one who supposedly committed suicide in the house in the 80’s, the real estate agent confronts the devil-possessed girl and is killed. Another potential Girl bites the dust.
The real Girl Underground here is the agent’s sister Vera, who begins to uncover the story behind these events. She finds out that Hannah (the first girl) was pregnant when she died, although a virgin. Apparently the devil has been trying to bring forth a supernatural child to inhabit. Vera confronts the devil but is thrown out a window and goes into a coma for eight months, after which she discovers she is about to give birth to a baby. Vera is understandably freaked out, and gives the baby up for adoption.
Six years later, Vera decides to find her daughter, presumably possessed by the devil, and kill her. She confronts the little girl, who technically doesn’t confirm anything but acts creepy enough that you know she’s right. But Vera cannot bring herself to kill her, and so she takes the girl with her instead. This suggests another “girl loses” version of the archetype, which seems to mostly be present in the horror genre.
I just watched Mr. Frost for the first time – somehow I missed this 1990 gem with Jeff Goldblum, who I love, and had to track it down on Youtube. Partway through it occurred to me that it was probably a GU story (which it is, although I’m only considering it an Honorable Mention since it’s missing a lot of the finer details).
Mr. Frost is clearly the adversary, a man who may or may not be the devil himself. He volunteers a confession to some brutal murders but then immediately falls silent, and is eventually put in a mental asylum, where he meets Dr. Sarah Day. Frost will only speak to Day, and tells her that he plans to goad her into killing him. She treats him like a mental patient, obviously, even though the detective who arrested him (her companion in this sense) keeps warning her that Frost is truly evil.
After several displays of his power, Day is gradually convinced that Frost is indeed the devil and that she must murder him to save others. But when she does, it appears to open the door in turn for her to become possessed by the devil. While she “wins” in the sense of defeating the adversary, she ultimately loses – like some other thriller/horror GU stories, such as The Dark, In Dreams and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.