No Sleep October: The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)

For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.


A horror story is one that causes me to literally lose sleep. 

Of course, there are a ton of good, old-fashioned supernatural films that have scared the sleep right out of me, like The Uninvited (1944), The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), Lady in White (1988), Fallen (1998) and The Sixth Sense (1999). I’ve also seen a lot of sci-fi films that caused me some sleeplessness at various times in my life, like Frankenstein (1931), Cat People (1942), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Under the Skin (2013) and Annihilation (2018).

In turn, there are a lot of dystopian-future films that feel like horror movies, especially long after they were made, like 1984 (1956), Fahrenheit 451 (1966), the original Planet of the Apes series (1968-73), Soylent Green (1973), Brave New World (1980), Blade Runner (1982), The Stand (1994) and 12 Monkeys (1995). By far, the scariest kind of scary movie for me is one that makes me lose sleep because it could happen in real life (or, worse yet, did happen in real life like any film about Ted Bundy, for example). Most of those films are labeled psychological thrillers, but they’re horror films to me because, once again, they sure made me lose sleep — films like Vertigo (1958), either version of Cape Fear (1962 or 1991), Play Misty For Me (1971), Deliverance (1972), The Shining (1980), Misery (1980), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Se7en (1995), The Bone Collector (1999), One Hour Photo (2002) and Black Swan (2010) make good examples.

The real kicker is when two of these genres combine — as they do, chillingly, in director Volker Schlöndorff’s 1990 cinematic adaptation of Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a story that depicts both a futuristic dystopia and, sadly, something that could happen in real life. And no, I can’t even count how many nights I’ve lost sleep because of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Atwood sold the film rights in 1986, and acclaimed playwright Harold Pinter penned the script, but the story was hard to sell to studios or actresses. No one wanted to produce or star in such a pro-feminist film, and meanwhile, Pinter’s work was infamously and awkwardly rewritten by others (including Atwood herself). Eventually, Natasha Richardson warily accepted the lead role of Kate / Offred in a film that, perhaps because of its piecemeal process, showcases some strange storytelling. I’d venture to say that for those who have neither read the book nor seen the current Hulu TV adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss, this film might leave little impression at all. (Although one thing this version gets right is Ryuichi Sakamoto’s spooky score, which serves as a constant reminder that this is, indeed, a horror movie.)

But to watch The Handmaid’s Tale now is definitely a far scarier experience than it was in 1990. You don’t have to have experienced previous incarnations of the story. You simply have to be living through current events.

It opens with onscreen text, the first line of which is “Once upon a time in the recent future, a country went wrong.” Throughout the film, that line echoed over and over again in my mind. To paraphrase a famous line from a famous movie, this is “the stuff nightmares are made of.” 

It’s set in a future of what used to be the United States of America. Civil war rages between the resistance (known as Mayday) and the Sons of Jacob —  a totalitarian religious fundamentalist group of assholes who have renamed the country the Republic of Gilead. Their power-hungry male leaders, called Commanders, control society in a militarized hierarchical regime rooted in their religious fanaticism, which mixes Old Testament orthodoxy with scripted group chanting and ritualized violence. Women are brutally subjugated in this new social order — color-coded by clothing. Brown-clad “Aunts” (abusively) oversee training of other women, gray-clad “Marthas” (female domestic servants) and red-clad “Handmaids,” who become natal slaves.

Whoa! “Natal slaves”?! Yes — female slaves who are raped by Commanders, impregnated, and forced to give birth. They’re all the rage in the Republic of Gilead, where 99% of the population is sterile (unclear whether that’s just females or all humans). If you don’t already see that The Handmaid’s Tale is a horror story, then, to quote Mrs. Landingham in The West Wing, “Well, God, Jed, I don’t even want to know you.”

Kate (Richardson), her husband, and young daughter are attempting to escape Gilead to Canada when they are stopped by a border guard. Kate’s husband is shot and she’s captured as their daughter hides, then wanders off alone. Kate is sent to a processing facility, where she tests positive as one of the 1% that can conceive a child. Thus, she is classed as a Handmaid. “You’re the lucky ones!” Kate and her fellow fertile women are told by “Aunt” Lydia (Victoria Tennant). “You’re going to serve God and your country.” 

To keep fertile women in line, the new regime names them “fallen women” — so-called for multiple marriages (“adulteresses”), single or unwed parenting, lesbian orientation (“gender traitors”), adherence to non-Christian beliefs (or any beliefs outside of the Sons of Jacob), political dissidence or academic rigor they experienced before the fall of the United States. Handmaids are assigned to homes of the ruling elite, where they endure regularly scheduled, and state-sanctioned, rape (in a ritual called the Ceremony) by the Commanders — meant to impregnate them so that they bear children for their masters. It’s horrific; the red-clad Handmaids held down by blue-clad wives in between their legs during the rape. If a Handmaid does not conceive, she is blamed for the failure and sent to the Colonies for a death sentence at a toxic-dump site.

Please note: The men of Gilead are neither tested nor punished for infertility. Here in the real world, there’s never been an attempt to legislate control over men’s reproductive systems. It’s also important to recognize that it was only in 1973 with the Roe v. Wade decision that women’s rights over their own bodies became protected by law in this country — and that protection has been under attack for 47 years.

In the Republic of Gilead, fertile women are sent to a “training” camp prior to their Handmaid duties, where they undergo intense, abusive shaming and indoctrination. They’re forced to pray to God to “make us all fruitful,” and infractions result in beatings, shaming circles, and lashed soles. Outwardly docile, Kate internally resists indoctrination because she longs for her former life’s freedom and is haunted by nightmares of her dead husband and lost daughter.

Eventually, Kate is sent to the home of Serena (Faye Dunaway) and her husband Fred, referred to as “The Commander” (Robert Duvall). In accordance with Gilead’s regime, Kate is now called Offred (Of-Fred). As Offred, her existence is, in a word, horrific — docile domestic slaves by day and rape victims by night. Serena’s desperation for a baby, and delusion about the likelihood of acquiring one, compounds Offred’s misery. She tells Offred that the Commander is probably infertile because none of their prior Handmaids became pregnant and she forces Offred to agree to fertilization by another man. It’s an incalculably abusive “agreement,” as the punishment for fornication that’s not sanctioned by the state is death by hanging. And yet the Colonies are Offred’s alternative if she doesn’t become pregnant. Serena further seals the deal by promising to find out if Offred’s daughter is alive.

Offred can’t say no to Serena Joy anymore than she can say no to being raped by the Commander. As for the other man, Serena Joy chooses Nick (Aidan Quinn), the Commander’s chauffeur. Offred and Nick have “eyed” each other for a while in apparent sexual attraction. (That Offred feels any real sexual passion despite a slave’s life and repeated rape is a storytelling fantasy, believe me.) Regardless, Offred and Nick become passionate lovers and (although the film does a poor job of showing it) genuinely care for each other; soon enough, Offred is pregnant with Nick’s child.

Meanwhile, the creeptastic rapey Commander has been forcing Offred to meet him for unofficial private encounters (i.e., without Serena Joy). In the film, Duvall portrays the Commander in a disturbing, smarmy kind of “aw, shucks, ma’am” manner that doesn’t adequately represent the despicable reality of this male ruling class. He makes awkward “passes,” gives Offred rare or illegal items like strawberries and forbidden magazines, and allows her access to his private library (reading is, of course, forbidden to all women). One night, the Commander presents her with a feather boa and a sexy cocktail dress for a bizarre “date night.” He sneaks her out, draped in his wife’s blue coat, and they go to a private club. There, we see the true hypocrisy of the Republic of Gilead. The fanatical religious regime isn’t really about serving God. It’s about sex and controlling women. At the club, Commanders mingle with women who, in their punishment, were given a choice between the Colonies or “prostitution” in this unofficial club. (That’s a loose definition, as the women are “paid” not in money but with drugs, alcohol, room and board, and, of course, “sexy” clothes.)

At the club, the Commander allows Offred to have “one drink” and then rapes her in a private room. Now, this rape is not state-sanctioned, but the film gets wishy-washy on that notion. Intercourse between a master and slave is, by definition, rape, and the slave cannot definitively consent. The film drops the ball in this moment because, unlike the Ceremony, we don’t see the act take place and the scene instead fades out. What was the creative team thinking here? Are we supposed to think the classic Hollywood fade-out connotes consent or, god forbid, romance? The entire “date night” scenario is so bizarre; we know Offred knows she can’t refuse the Commander because she’s his sex slave. Smudging the line between romance, consensual sex, domination, and rape — even back in 1990 — remains truly disturbing storytelling.

The film diverges from the book when Offred ultimately kills the Commander, and a team of the Eyes (a secret police far more explicitly rendered in the book and the Hulu series) come to take her away. Miraculously, these armed men are just disguised as The Eyes. They are actually Mayday resistance soldiers, led by Nick, and the film ends with Kate (in normal, non-color-coded clothing) facing an uncertain future — heavily pregnant, alone in a trailer up on mountain where Mayday has a stronghold. There, she hopes to be reunited with Nick and, with Mayday’s help, to someday find her daughter.

I read the book in the late 1980s, saw the film for the first time in the mid-1990s, and watched the Hulu series last year. In every form, this particular horror story has been with me for my entire adult life. It fits squarely into two potential real-nightmare scenarios: 1) Atwood’s novel was based upon worldwide historical realities in other nations, and 2) from a modern perspective, it presents a version of the United States that seems not only a real possibility but also a very “recent future” near one.

Again: “Once upon a time in the recent future, a country went wrong.”

Dystopian stories and their adaptations typically point to a bleak future unless we take heed and change direction. Atwood maintains that the Republic of Gilead extrapolates 1980s U.S. trends that continue to grow today. Her original motivation was the religious right’s conscious plans for what to do to women in the 1980s if and when the religious right gained governmental or societal control — groups like the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family, the Christian Coalition, and the administration of President Ronald Reagan. All of this begat the GOP’s Tea Party faction and the Republican Party’s current far-right extremism, which gained more power after the 2016 election. Atwood’s depiction of their “casually held attitudes about women” takes it to a logical conclusion — total control over women and their reproductive capabilities. 

For the most part, Atwood’s warnings were initially ignored or denigrated. Few book reviewers were convinced of its cautionary horror, and (male) critics generally panned the 1990 film; Entertainment Weekly called it “paranoid poppycock.” At least two female reviewers seemed to get it. Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote, “As visions of a hellish, dehumanizing future go, this one could never be mistaken for a man’s …. With its devilish attention to polite little touches, its abundant bitchiness … The Handmaid’s Tale is a shrewd if preposterous cautionary tale that strikes a wide range of resonant chords.” Meanwhile, The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley praised it as a story of “surrogate motherhood run amok in a society dominated by iron-fisted pulpit thumpers turned fascist militarists,” while also acknowledging that, “Schlöndorff seems as uncomfortable in this feminist nightmare as a man in a lingerie department.” What a great line!

Yet once again: “Once upon a time in the recent future, a country went wrong.” Here’s an excerpt from Jason Bailey’s Flavorwire review (2017) of the 1990 film:

This Handmaid’s Tale never found an audience . . . the early ’90s were also not exactly a robust period in political cinema, and the influence of the Moral Majority – so clearly felt in (Margaret) Atwood’s text – wasn’t as pronounced in the Bush I White House as it had been in Reagan’s.

But, sadly, it sure is now. With (Donald) Trump (who in January prohibited funding of international organizations that provide family planning, and just this week proudly signed a bill allowing states to cut funding to Planned Parenthood) in the White House, these are dangerous times for reproductive autonomy. And with an Evangelical nutjob who only sees women as baby ovens in the VP’s office, a line like “We pledge allegiance to the Bible, the Old Testament shall be our sole and only Constitution” doesn’t sound like dystopian science fiction; it sounds like a Heritage Foundation position paper. (Meanwhile, the propagandistic TV news, in which an anchor insists “We are winning God’s fight,” looks like a clip from Thursday night’s Hannity.) “We will not rest until we’ve purified this country in the name of God,” the Commander insists. It probably sounded like hyperbole back in 1990.

— Jason Bailey (4/17/17)

The Handmaid’s Tale‘s dystopian warnings of extremist and misogynist trends in American society have only grown more dire since the 2016 election of the Donald Trump / Mike Pence administration. This past summer, we saw a real-life version of the Eyes in our streets when heavily armed “secret police,” acting on Presidential orders, brutalized peaceful Black Lives Matters protesters. When asked to condemn white supremacy, that same President has publicly encouraged the male-only white supremacist hate group known as the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” on live television during a Presidential debate. That same President has tweeted that four Congresswomen of color should “go back and help fix the ‘broken and crime infested’ places from which they came”; all three women were born in the United States. Within days of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death in September 2020, that same President nominated hardline conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ginsburg, making, well, any of the three versions of this story more like a real-life-nightmares-can-come-true horror story. 

In the context of another extremist birth-focused and radically religious judge likely being confirmed to the Supreme Court, The Handmaid’s Tale is even scarier to watch. Such a movement is the force behind the enslavement of fertile women in Gilead. Echoes of historical limitations for women in America abound for women in Gilead, who are neither allowed to own property nor handle money along with relinquishing control of their reproductive systems. With Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, American women’s reproductive autonomy is now threatened more than it has been at any other point in the last half-century.

Barrett’s personal religious affiliation makes the Republic of Gilead seem … well, possible. She and her husband belong to People of Praise, a cultish para-church organization that adheres to extremist interpretations of the Bible. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the roles of Handmaids are based upon the Sons of Jacob’s extremist interpretation of the Biblical story of Rachel, a barren wife, and her handmaiden, Bilhah. People of Praise, like Atwood’s fictional Sons of Jacob, is male-dominated. Its members practice traditional biblical-based gender roles, where husbands are the head of the household and the spiritual overlords of their wives. People of Praise is led by an 11-member, all-male board of governors, the chairman of which is the group’s overall coordinator. People of Praise members are guided by same-sex advisers, called a “head” for men and “handmaiden” for women (although handmaidens “guide” only single women and widows). Men and women with these appropriate “skills” are chosen by the all-male coordinators. Heads and handmaidens have input in all personal decisions made by the members under their “guidance.” Only recently did People of Praise change the “handmaiden” title to “woman leader” on its website — and that’s the highest honor a woman can hold in People of Praise. The similarities to the Sons of Jacob are eerie — “heads” sounding much like Commanders and “women leaders” a foot-lashing away from the abusive “Aunts.”

Of course, in the real world, we want to believe that religious or political affiliations and beliefs won’t affect the ability of educated and practiced judges to rule with fairness and in abidance with the law. Here in the real world, we can check that hopeful standard against a judge’s ruling record and public writings. Barrett has only been a judge for a less than three years (appointed by Trump), and her record shows that, with the same hypocrisy of the ruling elite in The Handmaid’s Tale, Barrett only uses her religion selectively — most often when it supports her right-wing conservative political agenda. Barrett’s record proves that she’s unwilling to impose her personal religious-based “pro-life” views to save lives on issues of capital punishment or mistreatment of prisoners, but she’s willing to impose them on women’s bodies regarding abortion rights issues. Like the Republic of Gilead’s ruling class hypocritically stating that sex slavery is religious-based service to God, Barrett’s position is not really about serving God. It is about controlling women and their reproductive capabilities.

Barrett’s nomination was made with one goal in mind — overturning Roe v. Wade. Since that 1973 ruling, right-wing conservatives, especially men, have attacked a woman’s “right to choose” to either have an abortion or carry a pregnancy to term. Anti-choice religious extremists are salivating to deny women rights over their own bodies. Barrett is only 48 years old. If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell succeeds in ramming through her appointment — made with only about a month left before the 2020 election — mind you — she could serve on the Supreme Court into the 2060s.

Atwood maintains that her novel is not a feminist dystopian story but rather “a study of power, and how it operates and how it deforms or shapes the people who are living within that kind of regime.” We’ve seen deformed power play out in America since the 2016 presidential election. The 1990 version of The Handmaid’s Tale is flawed in many ways, but this film, and the even more terrifying TV series, move from a creepy story of possible dystopian futurism to feeling like a prophetic horror story of real-life probability.

And so it goes: “Once upon a time in the recent future, a country went wrong.”


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Alys Caviness-Gober is a disabled Indiana author and artist. She is the founder and President of Community • Education • Arts, (CEArts.org), formerly known as Logan Street Sanctuary, a 501(c)(3) Arts organization based in Noblesville. She is editor and publisher of the annual anthology The Polk Street Review; and a Hamilton County Artists’ Association Juried Artist member in both photography and 2D categories. Alys is a FY2017 Indiana Arts Commission Individual Artist Project Grant Award recipient, for which she created a series of paintings expressing life with hidden disabilities. Alys’ artwork, photographs and poetry have received national and international recognition.


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