Few things in this world spark more fear and anxiety in an audience than a woman’s body turned in some way beastly. It can be overt, like Trick ‘r Treat’s werewolf plot, or more subtle, like 2009’s Grace. Recently I’ve been thinking more on the idea that it isn’t the creatures we turn into that scare us, but the deception of something ordinary and beautiful turning out to be deadly...
...Earlier this year I wrote a piece for the ten-year anniversary of Jennifer’s Body, in which I talked mostly about the way it was short-sold because the men on staff wanted to target the wrong audience—that is, young teenage boys. When it turned out to be less of the sexy-teen-girl-fest they were expecting and more of the young-woman-cannibalizes-men-to-survive feminist piece it was meant to be, it got drowned in bad reviews and Megan Fox got hate mail so often she only started talking about it again this year. A woman’s body was made more horrific than the “target audience” expected, and they got so twisted up about it that they tanked the movie. It warms my heart to see Jennifer’s Body making a comeback with its true audience—young women—and finding its rightful place in the coming-of-age-as-a-young-woman subgenre of horror.
While I don’t think 2009’s Grace suffered in quite the same way, it did make several male members of its audience get up and leave the theater because they were made so deeply uncomfortable. Grace is, at its core, nothing more than a story about a woman willing to do anything to make sure her baby is able to survive, even if it means killing. But there are scenes in it that make the female body a terrifying subject yet again, and it seems the easiest way to unsettle is to take the familiar and the meant-to-be comforting and twist it into a nightmare.
Marla aims to do this with one of the touchier real-life subjects of women’s health: birth control. It tells the story of a woman, Marla (played by writer/director Lisa van Dam-Bates), who gets offered the too-good-to-be-true opportunity of getting an IUD for free from a family friend (Jason Strange), a doctor with unimaginably horrifying motives of his own…though I’m not quite sure what he hopes to gain. You see, this isn’t the first time he’s offered free IUDs. In fact, he’s been doing it for years as a basis for some unexplained experiment on women, and Marla’s isn’t the first to have deadly consequences—though it may be the first to turn against men.
Though not exactly the same, Marla does share some things in common with 2007’s coming-of-age feminist horror film Teeth, in which a teen girl finds sexual freedom, control, and revenge through her rare case of vagina dentata—a condition that spells disaster for any man who strikes her as a threat. Both films make the case that women moving toward more sexual freedom and power are to be feared, though Marla takes this point to its most extreme. Dawn can control who gets attacked, Marla can’t. Marla also doesn’t seem to have quite as much agency—she cannot control or predict the intensity of the attacks, her nefarious doctor refuses to remove her IUD when she begs him to, and if she takes it out herself, she could die.
The concept for Marla has potential to be both terrifying and powerful. A man asserting destructive control over an area of a woman’s life meant to make her more independent and freer to do as she likes, and ultimately suffering bloody consequences, sounds full of great feminist horror possibilities. There’s just one problem. Where the effects do well, the acting falls flat. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of emotion behind the delivery, so while I wanted to connect with the characters and get invested in the story being told, I found myself more often than not incredibly aware of this as something being read rather than felt. The “why” of Dr. Lourdes’ sinister plot is never explained—the scariest thing about him is the actor’s real-life status as a fugitive after a 2006 armed robbery and arrest that came as a result of press for the film—and as a result the motivations of the characters gets lost in translation. So, while I think it deserves a chance—especially if something like Teeth is your jam—there are certainly other movies with similar ideas and better execution out there.
Marla releases on VOD on November 5th from High Octane Pictures.
By Katelyn Nelson