For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent 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 folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
It is a peculiar place and time, but we may all occupy it at least briefly. Perhaps one evening we find ourselves In a dimly lit venue. We make our way through the throngs of conversations, trying not to spill our drink on fellow patrons. We crane our necks toward our friends to hear over the din. But then we see them across the room, and the rest of the evening is spent stealing glances and wondering and feeling the pang of connection.
The places and times and people change. It doesn’t have to be some late-night bacchanal. It could just as easily be a quiet poetry reading, a classroom or the supermarket. But we spy someone whose mannerism or aesthetic or laugh draws us to the idea of them. The mind wanders. The heart may flutter. Some of us go forward and try to make the connection real, and here is where the standard romcom, meet-cute, self-help relationship book and dating app commercial may begin. Some of us are content to live momentarily in a fantasy, returning to what’s real and understanding that the idea of a person is different from the person; and we can let the idea stay perfect in our mind’s eye.
And then there are those who don’t let go … and we find ourselves in the horror genre again.
When I first watched Boxing Helena, I was a teenaged boy with access to late-night Cinemax one weekend and thought it was going to be an entirely different movie. But it was so sufficiently weird that it nestled into my brain like a popcorn kernel in your teeth until perhaps a decade-and-a-half later when my partner brought a copy home after remembering my consistent conversations about it, and I watched it again for the first time.
We come to movies at different times, evaluating them always through new lenses. And so it goes here.
My teenaged self had no idea who director Jennifer Lynch was, so the weirdness was freshly weird. I could not place it properly in the surrealistic milieu, extending its Lynchian roots of celebrated surrealist father David into its feminist body-horror realization.
I was joyously unaware. Unaware, as we all are, by mystery thrillers.
That does seem the point on the surface, doesn’t it? What good is there in watching a mystery over and over again when the surprises and twists may as well be marked like the backroads of rural America?
It is because we watch a mystery first for the puzzle. Second to deepen our understanding of it. Third to see its flaws. And fourth to enjoy it in spite of them.
Boxing Helena benefits from its exploration of body horror and the theme of misguided obsession. In addition to “What will happen next? How will he pull this off?” comes “To what lengths will he go? How horrific will it be?” and even “Does he actually realize?”
What dominates the first viewing is the figuring out. I spent so long trying to make sense of seemingly disconnected, overwrought scenes that I would be broadsided in the most lovely ways by something that would be entirely predictable later.
(Unfortunately, Jennifer Lynch did bring home a Golden Raspberry for directing Boxing Helena, and maybe that’s part of the sense-making that needs to take place.)
But on my subsequent watches, I always found something else, even within the nonsensical or awkwardly silly. Because, at base, Boxing Helena attacks the patriarchal idea that love of an idea of a woman is sufficient love.
Nick Cavanaugh (Julian Sands) undoubtedly pines for Helena (Sherilyn Fenn). He’s a successful doctor who has recently inherited an expansive mansion from a neglectful mother. He knows a previous sexual connection with Helena was pleasurable and that he would do anything for her to make her happy. Isn’t that enough?
While a psychoanalytical viewing of the film could lead us through how we pursue partners that remind us of other relationships — or only love the love we had received in the past — I don’t think this is a particularly interesting route for interpretation given the body-horror elements and conversations between characters.
It’s noteworthy that we never learn Helena’s surname. When asked who she is, Nick simply says, “She’s … Helena.” There is no context for how they met, only that they’ve been intimate and the focus is that Nick couldn’t get over her. There is never any discussion about the depth of Helena’s character or personality — only this general sense of longing for connection like our late-night bar scene. The only time Helena’s character is touched upon outside of her sexual being is a sort of elevated turn of Manic Pixie Dream Girl glory. She immediately bathes in a water fountain at a formal party and continually demonstrates a bored, self-focused air. There’s something about her, though. The issue is that that something lives in the heads of all those who obsess over her — from the attraction Nick and other men feel for her to the cutting remarks other women make about her.
After Helena leaves her purse at Nick’s party, he uses the opportunity to meet with her again. The two argue and Helena decides to walk away, unfortunately into the path of a conveniently placed plot device — a hit-and-run driver. She severely injures her legs and is at Nick’s skillful surgical mercy. Instead of taking her to a hospital, the body horror begins: Nick amputates her legs and keeps her in the house.
This, unsurprisingly, does not engender the love Nick wanted from Helena. He keeps her prisoner while trying to convince her he is maddeningly in love with her. When she fights back, he amputates her arms.
Helena’s position as a quadruple amputee lends itself to a montage of scenes where she is framed as a decoration, a trophy to be displayed. Nick seems so happy. Helena seems to come down with Stockholm Syndrome. We seem to be at the film’s central thesis: This love that wants to be given is not love. It is ignorant. It is a prison.
Most telling is a fabulous exchange Nick shares with Helena’s most recent lover, Ray (Bill Paxton). Sure that something nefarious is afoot, Ray breaks into the house to rescue Helena. He sees her condition and screams at Nick, “What have you done? She used to be beautiful!” Nick replies, “She is beautiful!”
What a microcosm of missing points! Helena does not need to be loved for her beauty. It is not important to acknowledge she is still beautiful in spite of injuries. Helena is not only reduced in bodily fashion through amputation, but it reflects the reduction of her personhood in both Ray and Nick’s minds. She is only an aesthetic. She is something to be captured, kept and rescued. She is to be viewed but not understood.
Boxing Helena’s ending suffers from the same syndrome that has plagued movies since The Magnificent Ambersons — that it should be happy. We discover This Was All Just a Dream™. And while I would usually say this is a copout for a movie to take, and that it is a turning away from its thematic explorations, perhaps it is not.
Perhaps it is the main character taking that moment in a bar to fantasize about the idea of a person before returning to what is real and deep. And, for Helena’s sake (and maybe all women’s), thank goodness for that.