The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team Fangrrls comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. Today, we're celebrating the divine divas of Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club.
This is the maligning term often slung at gorgeous women with a ravenous appetite for men. It's meant as a metaphor. But in the Israeli horror-comedy Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club, it's literal. The titular secret society is made up of glamorous women who throw weekly dinner parties where men are guests of honor, invited to enjoy refreshments, a reading from the works of Shmuel Yosef Agnon, then surprise shackling, measuring and slaughter. Their bodies are butchered offscreen, resurfacing as benign but metaphor-rich hot dogs, ready to be sold to unsuspecting revelers at the local carnival. Yum.
This ghoulish reveal may seem like a spoiler. But it's just the setup for the unlikely romance at the heart of this deliciously deranged film. See, the members of Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club are a part of a fierce caste system. You work your way up by bringing handsome young men to their table. Each week, the best specimen earns his date (or hunter) a Woman of the Week trophy. 100 of those and the member is elevated to the elite status of Lordess! With 99 trophies on her shelves, Sophie is so close to this coveted honor that she can almost taste it. But as she's aged, her hunger for conquest and slaughter has faded with her looks. She's not brought in a truly impressive man in five years! And if she keeps this up, she'll be demoted to the lowly sanitation department. So when the dashing Yosef crosses her path, it seems a blessing. But as she tries to seduce him into attending the next meeting, Sophie begins to fall for him—and so is faced with a choice between love and Lordess.
The script by Guilhad Emilio Schenker and Yossi Meiri is alive with macabre humor, allowing us to cackle at a close-up of hot dogs and guffaw at the devilish antics of these deadly women. But beyond the midnight movie premise, Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club has a sharp satirical bent that shows a deep understanding of the unique obstacles women face in life and love. Like the anti-heroines of the American cult classic Death Becomes Her, these Lordesses offer a vicarious vengeance against a patriarchal world that would outcast them for daring to age. In the film's opening, Sophie tries to snare a "date" by hitchhiking. She flashes some roadside thigh gets one man to pull over, but he quickly sneers that Sophie is "too old" and plans to leave her there until the promise is made of sexual favors and younger women at the club's meeting. This drooling creep will soon be dead meat, and no viewer will mourn for the loss of him.
Inspired by a macabre prank performed by a dear friend, Schenker made the women of Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club into the bogey(wo)men that conservatives imagine feminists to be. They are humorless prudes, manipulative and man-hating spinsters, and literal man-eaters. They use man's desire to objectify female bodies to lure them into their web, then spring a trap that turns men's bodies into literal objects. In the kitchen—a place long insisted to be a woman's domain—they reduce men to hot dogs, which, as Schenker himself has confirmed, are a symbol of the male fear of emasculating at the hands of strong women. Basically, these are the women conservative men warn us about! And by pushing these cartoonish demonizations of feminists to this extreme, Schenker has created an outlandish comedy that allows us to relish in an unexpected power fantasy. Just imagine if you could churn any catcaller, any groping bro, and yowling mansplainer into a pink, pathetic hot dog. Delicious.
However, through her romance with Yosef, Sophie begins to realize this intense reaction to patriarchal repression is a trap too. The Lordesses insist, "Love is a four letter word. Two fools. One broken heart." They choose chaste lives, believing love is a tool that imprisons women to male subjugation. Yet even within this all-female group, Sophie's only value is dependent on her ability to attract men. But Yosef is interested in more than her looks. The pair discusses literature, find comfort in spooning, and begin to dream of a world where neither needs to be confined to gender norms to find love or happiness. Together, they can create their own definitions of what it means to be woman and man, wife and husband. But first, there must be a confrontation at Madam Yankelova's castle. And Schenker is sure it's one as whimsical, fantastical, and explosive as his wild setup deserves.
Madam Yankelova's Fine Literature Club made its international debut at Fantastic Fest 2018.