My favorite psycho bitch is Darian Forrester, Alicia Silverstone’s character from 1993 film The Crush. She’s a beautiful, preternaturally mature 14-year-old who falls in love with the adult man Nicholas (floppy-haired Cary Elwes) after he moves into her family’s guesthouse. She takes in his glasses, his “career” as a fashion photographer, and thinks, Yes, I will have him, even though he is roughly 16 years my elder. It’s admirable. She tries to seduce him with the skill of a much older woman, and when he shuts her down, she calls him roughly 30 times in a row and then tries to kill his new girlfriend with bees. Bees! Let it be known that I don’t condone murder, but for her manic determination and refusal to be ignored, Darian is a personal hero. And she was 14! What were you doing at 14? You might have been calling someone 30 times in a row, but I guarantee you were not seducing or murdering at the same level as Darian Forrester, which is why she’s a hall of famer in the psycho bitch category.
And I love a psycho bitch: truly, madly, and deeply. Give me a beautiful, complex women with a slightly unhinged look in her eye and a fierce, but premature, attachment to some cocky, emotionally unavailable man, hand her the tools to seduce, manipulate, destroy said man, and pass me the popcorn. I’m in.
The Crush and my girl Darian belong to a familiar film genre that is beloved by some and misunderstood by most: the “psychotic bitch flick” or “obsessive vengeful ex thriller” or “my family movies,” as I like to call them. Movies like Fatal Attraction, Swimfan, Obsessed, and When the Bough Breaks that tell a gloriously unhinged story of what a woman might do when rejected by the object of her affection (become hell-bent on ruining his life and the lives of those around him).
A new entry into the genre — Unforgettable, which opened last month — puts Katherine Heigl in the role of blonde, stabby ex. She plays the sort of woman who feels she must always wear Spanx, and is resentful because her ex-husband is a piece of chalk who has remarried Rosario Dawson, a woman who never feels like she has to wear Spanx ever. Unfortunately, Unforgettable attempts to put a fresh spin on the genre: The target of Heigl’s crazy, stabby behavior is not the chalklike ex but Rosario Dawson. (She also uses her pent-up rage to make herself and her own daughter miserable.) And with this shift, Unforgettable undercuts the exact thing that makes these movies so pleasurable in the first place — the satisfaction of seeing deranged emotion unleashed upon its rightful target.
The grandmother of all psycho exes emerged in 1987, with the release of Fatal Attraction. Without Glenn Close and her Oscar-nominated turn as bunny boiler Alex Forrest, neither The Crush nor Swimfan nor any of the aforementioned entries into the genre could have existed. They all follow its formula: A man — wealthy, cocky, handsome, and married to a wonderful woman but just slightly dissatisfied — meets a woman. She is usually white and blonde (except for When the Bough Breaks, which had an all-black cast, because representation in film is important even in this genre), as well as beautiful, independent, and successful. She is complex yet chill, unavailable yet desiring. Strong-willed yet pliant. She is often in equestrian pants. In the first act, she’s seductive and coy and sexy and easy. She doesn’t demand anything from him, unlike his wife and kids and boss. That’s why he likes her. They have sex, or some semblance of a romantic interaction, she develops feelings. In the second act, he pulls away, and begins to suspect that she’s batshit crazy. But of course the more he pulls away, the more she reaches and clings and tries to get her way by any means necessary, so by the third act, she’s engaging in beautiful acts of disruption (ruining his career, threatening his partner, boiling pets, trashing personal property, calling a lot, showing up uninvited, etc.), until the end of the film, which generally results in her demise either via death or institutionalization.
Look, I understand the ways that the genre seemingly reduces women to unsavory stereotypes: man-crazy, co-dependent, obsessive. They are movies that encourage the audience to think, Damn, girl, get a hobby, and then, worse, encourage us to empathize with the “dude” who’s on the receiving end of all 30 phone calls or a knife’s point, even though he sort of deserves it. And you have to remember: They all sort of deserve it. In The Crush, Nicholas leads on a teenage girl by letting her suck his fingers and checking her out in a VERY WEIRD WAY. In Fatal Attraction, Michael Douglas spends all weekend banging Glenn Close, only to discard her like illicit takeout-pizza boxes when his wife comes back to town. Swimfan: Jesse Bradford can’t control his dumb teenage boy-jock hormones. (Idris Elba does nothing wrong in Obsessed, and actually Ali Larter’s character may overreact a little bit, but the film ultimately remains canonical because Beyoncé was in it.) These movies are gripping because the psycho’s feelings are deeply real — even if her actions are, well, psycho.
The psycho operates according to the principle that Chris Kraus once described as “marching boldly into self-abasement.” Psycho bitch flicks exalt the same shameless embrace of behavior that’s normally regarded as deeply shaming. And isn’t it thrilling to watch the id unleashed? Like when Erika Christensen feverishly sends like 100 nudes via email (my hero) or screams, “Why don’t you love me?” while sweating profusely and wielding a bat? On some level it’s what we all wish we could do: to live as the crazy bitch does, and refuse to shrug off people who are careless with our emotions. To refuse to adhere to societally approved ideas of “restraint” or “restraining order.” To refuse to care about being an inconvenience and rush headlong into our own desires even if that desire includes manically dialing your number and releasing a bunch of bees into an air vent with clear-eyed rage when you don’t answer. Is it possible that I identify too closely? Maybe! Look out your window! It’s me! I love you!
When Fatal Attraction came out, Time magazine wrote that men would consider it “the scariest horror movie” and women would see it as a cautionary tale. I prefer to think of these pieces of art as a lowbrow I Love Dick, which is about to gain new relevance when the TV adaptation premieres later this month: explorations of the pits of abjection that go so far down, the only thing we can do is hold them up to admire, love, stroke, and embrace until we smother them to death with our unrelenting affection. Just like Darian Forrester would.