Filminism is a smart-ass (but occasionally silly) bi-weekly column about the intersection between film and feminism.
I'd love to kick off this column with something a bit more pleasant, but Filminism is ultimately a forum to discuss and reflect upon what's happening in our culture, and "The Life Zone" unfortunately fits the bill. Of course, it's easier to engage with problematic material when that material is genuinely provocative, but when something as legitimately terrible as "The Life Zone" comes around, it raises questions as to whether a poorly conceived issue film can actually do its proponents more harm than good.
When I pitched this article, the angle was simple.
What happens when a vehemently pro-choice feminist (hi!) watches a "pro-life" horror movie? I pictured my head exploding, my eyes bleeding, my fingers nimbly racing across the keyboard after sitting through "The Life Zone," a movie I'd seen the trailer for way back in 2011. I was expecting a fetal freak-out along the lines of David Cronenberg's "The Brood," where pretty young Samantha Eggar gives birth to horrible eggs that hatched murderous child-things, or "Inside," a French film with such unabated gore and terror that it actually prompted a full-on panic attack. I've never seen the rest.
I was ready to be grossed out by "The Life Zone." I was ready to be upset. I wasn't ready to be bored (it turns out that the trailer was a bit misleading; it's more of a thriller than a horror movie, but ... It wasn't too thrilling, either.) After all, abortion is one of the most hotly contested topics in society today, and although horror movies often use the female body as a stomping ground to play out our fears and desires, few dare touch something as dicey as abortion in any outright way. Sure, there are symbols and allusions, but even Juno turns away from Planned Parenthood after a picketer — another high school girl she knows — tells her that her baby has fingernails. Movies like "Vera Drake" and "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" are few and far between.
If a small company like Justice for All Productions cares enough to make a movie with a message about abortion, you think they'd bring their big guns, right? Screenwriter/producer Ken Del Vecchio even gave up his career as a judge in New Jersey to pursue his life as a filmmaker (well, only because a NJ judicial panel ruled that it "created an ethical conflict," but still.)
Nope, even going to a real "Hell House" sounds scarier (and perhaps more persuasive) than "The Life Zone." I mean, just look at the amazing poster.
Three young women wake up in a grimy-looking room and discover they're prisoners of the icy Dr. Wise, played by Blanche Baker (she was the blonde older sister whose nuptials overshadowed Sam's birthday in "Sixteen Candles"). They were kidnapped from "the operating table" at the abortion clinic of their choice and carted away to this nameless place where they will be forced to carry their pregnancies to term (the only legitimately scary aspect of the film might be its sneaky rhetoric). To add insult to injury, each woman has been chipped with something like an RFID tag with the ability to shock and drug her should she wander too far from the flock; it was placed in the back of each woman's neck with "minor laser surgery," because that's how medicine works. With lasers!
Each woman has her own story of how she ended up at a clinic. Lara Posey, a tough criminal lawyer and former homecoming queen played by Angela Little, wanted to put her career first. Natalie (Nina Transfeld) is a sweet-faced twenty-year-old whose boyfriend pressured her to have an abortion. We don't know why Staci Horowitz (Lindsey Haun) chose to have an abortion, or wanted to anyway, and we don't know if she's related to Cher Horowitz, but what's important is she's the one that Dr. Wise and Mr. Lation can't break. Oh, Mr. Lation? That's just Oscar nominee Robert Loggia playing a creepy old man who occasionally Skypes in to growl at our heroines. His best line is probably "Pregnant women! Always eating, never thinking!" It's crazy how women have to eat more so their bodies have enough nutrients to grow extra humans inside of them.
Lara, Natalie and Staci are forced to watch brain-numbingly boring videos that are supposed to encourage discourse and even create what Dr. Wise refers to as an "abortion think tank," because think tanks are comprised of hostages and a bitter OB-GYN who declares that the worst drug of all is true love. True love! It's the worst. Almost as bad as pregnant woman, right, Mr. Lation? (Free TV show pitch: "Breaking Love." Love instead of meth. Just as addictive, but you lose less teeth in the long run. Free for the taking!)
It's revealed in a very emotionally moving flashback that Dr. Wise is jealous of these brooding broads because she is unable to have children herself. After her husband left her for some hot young thing whose loins were juicier and ready to party, she tried to kill herself, but the worst was yet to come. Her parents, who are with her in an examination room for some reason, lecture her on all of her failings: She waited too long, she didn't exercise or eat the right foods, and worst of all, she enjoyed the booze! "You could have stayed away from those cocktails and that red wine," her mother reminds her. With parents like that, I'd probably sterilize myself.
The ending has a twist that other viewers could have probably seen coming, although to be honest I didn't. I was busy wondering how Dr. Wise could help pry a baby out of Staci's vagina, and also if Staci is Cher's daughter, maybe (no one comes right out and says she's the most left-wing feminist of them all because she's Jewish, but come on, if you've ever met a gentile named Horowitz, I've got some gefilte fish I'd like you to taste). So far as plot twists go it's not on par with, say, "Safe Haven," but it's still pretty wackadoodles. Still, I won't spoil it in case you decide to enter "The Life Zone" yourself.
The idea of being trapped and held against your will by religious extremists is pretty damn scary, and the idea of losing total bodily autonomy is certainly the thing of nightmares. You might say it is a rather fertile topic! The only nightmares that these women have are of the evils that await them if they abort. Images of ground chuck, swastikas, bugs and people shooting heroin are dancing like sugarplums in their heads. One particularly inspired nightmare shows all of the people in the "documentaries" that were pro-choice chanting "Abort the fetus!" and "Abort the baby!" in different languages, which is I guess what it was like when all those kids were playing Judas Priest records backwards except not as cool.
If you engage in the sort of semantic acrobatics that characters like Natalie do to argue against abortion -- a serious theory she proposes is that just because something is legal doesn't make it moral, like slavery! -- you might even say that being held against your will and forced to carry a fetus to term under bodily threat is a violation on par with physical or sexual assault. You might. If you wanted to. Since we're making giant leaps of logic and all.
The general lighting and tone of the film is a callback to horror franchise films like "Saw" and "Hostel," and although Mr. Lation isn't a creepy puppet or a cadre of shadowy businessmen who peddle voyeuristic violence for fun, "The Life Zone" certainly has enough earmarks of the so-called torture porn genre that a lingering threat lurks just below the surface. The movie really gives us that pay-off, though, because the people you'd assume are the bad guys are just doing the work of the Lord. And it's not like the way crazy people think they're doing it in movies like "Se7en," because even though a rational person would realize that kidnapping a pregnant woman and forcing her to remain pregnant against her will is seven shades of effed up, it's somehow admirable in the eyes of the filmmakers. Like, obviously, this is what you get, little women! You get to hang out with sad old Dr. Wise and Mr. Lation and watch crappy movies forever!
You might wonder why it's important to engage with a movie like "The Life Zone" at all. There are so many movies that are deemed critic-proof, which doesn't mean a damn thing except those movies will make a lot of money and probably spawn sequels like bacteria. Very few people will see "The Life Zone," and it's unlikely that we'll ever see a sequel. Its production values are poor and its arguments are so devoid of nuance that the film might ultimately have a deleterious effect on its cause -- "If my beliefs were worth defending," an anti-choice viewer might think, "Perhaps they wouldn't make for such repugnant drama?"