There’s a tired joke about women in same-sex relationships: “What do lesbians bring to a second date? A U-Haul.” But like most slice-of-life humor, there’s a bit of truth to this one: Lesbians tend to fall hard and move fast. When straight women lament that they “wish they were a lesbian,” it’s often because they’re struggling to find emotional connections with men.
But not all queer women are comfortable with getting so close to their partners, and like other human beings, can experience fear and self-doubt that can keep them from fully committing—even if the U-Haul’s been ordered. This idea is at the center of Ingrid Jungermann’s dark comedy Women Who Kill, which confronts yet another stereotype—the obsessive lesbian killer—and turns it on its head. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
The film, which premiered at Tribeca in 2016 and then hit the festival circuit before landing at the IFC this week for extended screenings, is akin to Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery in its noir aesthetic, witty quips, and use of suspense over gratuitous sex and violence. For decades, the only depictions of lesbian and bisexual women on-screen tended to be sexual predators or murderers or both. The “dangerous gay woman” trope was well-trodden in early films like The Killing of Sister George, up through the suspected Sapphic-secret-killer situations like Basic Instinct and the well-received French horror film High Tension.
In Women Who Kill, writer-director Jungermann stars as Morgan, a woman living in Park Slope with her ex-girlfriend, Jean (Ann Carr), where they record a podcast detailing the acts of female serial killers. Together, they interview select murderesses and debate which one is the best looking, asking listeners to weigh in with their votes.
Despite having dissolved their romance, Morgan and Jean work well together. But when Morgan meets the mysterious Simone (Sheila Vand) at the local grocery store co-op, she begins to put some space between herself and her ex, and rapid life changes affect how she sees herself and the world. Namely, she begins to wonder if Simone could be the spawn of serial killer Josephine “The Clipper” Walker, who was infamous for clipping her victim’s fingernails before she stabbed them in the heart. The theory is instigated by Jean, who discovers that Simon has a collection of fingernail clippings kept in a secret, secure box in her apartment.
Women Who Kill is part thriller, part hilarious hoax. “I’m not in danger, OK? I’m just in love,” Morgan says. “I’d rather be with somebody who scares me to death rather than somebody who bores me to death,” she later reasons. “Mystery keeps relationships alive!”
Morgan agrees Simone might be a little creepy, but she appreciates the mystique. The worst thing a relationship—especially a lesbian relationship—can become is boring. She then comes to Simone’s defense, excusing her possible serial killer tendencies. Though it’s never confirmed whether Simone is actually a murderer, this omission is precisely what makes Women Who Kill different from other films in the genre: It doesn’t reveal its female killer.
Scary lesbians appeared as early as 1931 in the boarding school scenario Madchen in Uniform, or in thinly-veiled films like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). Because of the homophobic Hays Code, which provided censorship guidelines for motion pictures, it wasn’t until the 1980s that films like Personal Best and Desert Hearts included positive portrayals of lesbian characters, but they remained anomalies, while deadly lesbian-laden The Hunger brought in bigger numbers (and biphobic tropes) at the box office.
In the ‘90s, New Queer Cinema offered LGBT-created films with more truthful depictions of the community, but they only garnered cult status, while mainstream films like Wild Things, Bound, and Heavenly Creatures perpetuated that lesbian and bi women were dangerous and deadly, followed by the Sapphic-tingled thrillers of the 2000s: Mulholland Drive, Black Swan, and one of the highest grossing lesbian-themed film of all time, Monster, the biopic about serial killer Aileen Wuornos. And if lesbians weren’t killing other people, they were killing themselves (see: The Children’s Hour, Lost and Delirious, Love & Suicide, High Art), operating out of an obsessive, all-consuming passion viewers were expected to understand and accept.
But in Women Who Kill, the true horror is not that your girlfriend might be killing your bitchy co-op boss or best friend who has made her distaste and distrust known, but that relationships can become boring and commonplace, and the individuals who make up the couple beholden.
“Let’s get fat and boring and argue about nothing!” Simone says to Morgan, shortly before Morgan stabs her. “Let’s finish each other’s sentences, wear each other’s clothes, be vulnerable together.”
In other films about women obsessed with other women—The Roommate, Notes on a Scandal—the central want is for the obsessor to have ownership over her mark, to have her all to herself, killing any detractors. In Women Who Kill, however, Morgan and Simone both say they are in love; their relationship is mutual, not lust-fueled and one-sided like the others. Rather, Morgan and Simone spend all of their time together (in true lesbian fashion) because they don’t like to be away from one another. The only eventual fear for Morgan is serious commitment, and she wonders if it’s easier to believe Simone might have a dark streak than it is to confront why she can’t trust someone enough to settle down. Morgan further self-reflects when admitted serial killer Lila Downs (Annette O’Toole) points out that Morgan’s inability to let anyone in is the trait of a sociopath—she would know.
Directors frequently make it known that the gay woman wields murderous intent, but Jungermann allows it to be left ambiguous. Simone may look like a film noir star with her dark features and stoicism (which lent itself well to Vand’s leading role in the horror film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), but her cool demeanor and even her fingernail collection isn’t enough to decide she’s a serial killer. Simone is a true mystery, and even by the end, viewers are left wondering: Is she a murderer or is Morgan just paranoid?
Women Who Kill proves it’s possible to contribute to the lesbian horror genre without being formulaic, lazy, and stereotypical. Instead of delivering clichés, it asks audiences to decide what kind of traits a true killer possesses—and “lesbian” isn’t automatically one of them. Perhaps the film’s nuance is due to Jungermann herself, a gay woman, and with more women getting opportunities to tell their own stories, we can finally expand on what lesbian lives are truly like and illuminate one glaring truth: It’s much more common for us to have problems with commitment than with serial killer girlfriends.
Women Who Kill is at the IFC Center in New York now through August 10 and will be available on VOD/DVD this fall.