Two Girls, One Fox: Portrayals of Masculinity and Femininity in Prey

  • Film
prey 1977

Two Girls, One Fox:

Portrayals of Masculinity and Femininity in Prey

Andy Roberts revisits Norman J. Warren's 1977 Sci-Fi horror, Prey, to discuss the film's 'contrasting depictions of gender, sexuality and the role of animals' amid an exploration of human nature...

After his early sexploitation pictures, Her Private Hell (1968) and Loving Feeling (1969) established him as a promising young British professional, director Norman J. Warren’s future looked bright, with contracts from American International Pictures and Amicus Productions poised in the wings. Unfortunately, these deals eventually collapsed, causing Warren to seek an alternative course of action: he’d make a film on his own, ultimately a gargantuan blessing in disguise when he decided to venture into the realm of horror with his debut shocker, 1976’s Satan’s Slave. After the higher gore and sex quotient was well-received, likening Warren’s work to that of a ‘new wave’ of British horror films, the young director was eager to get working on another low-budget feature. It arrived fairly swiftly in the form of Prey (1977).

   Based on an idea by producers David Wimbury and Terry Marcel, Prey was pitched to Warren as a story ‘about an alien that comes to Earth in search of a food source and encounters a lesbian couple, and discovers humans are high in protein and easy prey.’ With no script finalised and a quick turnaround for filming and completion, Warren nonetheless accepted the project though retrospectively dubbed it as his most hectic endeavour. 

   On a minuscule budget of roughly £53,000, Prey began filming in May of 1977, with only three weeks for pre-production and all of the cast originating from a single agency. It tells the tale of a lesbian couple, Jessica and Josephine, whose quiet existence in the British countryside is interrupted by the arrival of Anders, an extraterrestrial in human form who has descended to the planet to seek out a food source. Due to a deal with Shepperton Studios, Warren was allowed to film certain scenes on a wooded backlot for the outdoor sequences, while the interiors were shot at a manor house within Littleton Park, with the decor and accessories furnished by the production team on a whim, resulting in some bizarre combinations.

   The low budget of the film certainly engendered some other creative and corner-cutting innovations on the set. The script, quite generously borrowed from D.H. Lawrence’s novel The Fox, wasn’t yet complete when filming started, leading to the actors getting their lines in sections during the daily shoots. To keep costs low, music was composed using electronic synthesisers rather than a grandiose orchestra, the opening ‘alien arrival’ was implied via the use of a light display rather than explicitly showing it, while most of the actors wore their own clothes during the production to further cut costs. Even the shoot itself was limited to a maximum of three takes per scene to ensure that the budget was not overstepped, though a particularly leisurely bout of British sunshine ensured during the shoot helped the production roll along smoothly. prey 1977

   The film wasn’t without its issues, however, most notably with medical intervention required during a few scenes. First, a particularly strange moment occurs when Anders is close to drowning in a pond and is rescued by Jessica and Josephine. The filming of the scene resulted in tetanus injections for the actors since the body of water seemed to have been untouched for decades, leading to a foul belch of dead matter and stagnant filth to rise when the actors jumped in. Even during the slow-motion scene itself, you can see the actors getting befouled water in their mouths and eyes, which accounts for the scene’s uneasy effect. Barry Stokes, who played Anders, also required injections to ease the irritation that the contact lenses he wore caused to his eyeballs.

   When the film finally premiered in November of 1977, the critical response was almost universally consistent: no-one knew how to describe the film. In a wildly flexible string of oxymorons, the film was described as both ‘solemn’ and ‘humorous’, ‘lo-fi and ‘ambitious’, ‘grim’ and ‘eccentric’ and even ‘camp’ and ‘claustrophobic’. Some viewers likened the film’s premise to something from vampire or zombie flick, validated somewhat by some of the film’s alternative titles (the film is known as The Zombie From Elsewhere in French territories). One of the strongest elements within the film is the film’s contrasting depictions of gender, sexuality and the role of animals when exploring human nature.

   To break down how the film tackles this timeless topic, we can look to the script’s original inspiration: The Fox by D.H. Lawrence which was first published in the early 1920s. The narrative details the daily life of Nellie and Jill, two women in their late twenties who live together on Bailey Farm, content with the fact that they are not married and have to work hard to maintain their pastoral lifestyle without the help of other people. Their relationship is hinted to be subconsciously sexual, with the manlier Nellie taking dominance over the more submissive and feminine Jill. The idyllic household soon becomes fraught when a fox appears to ravage the couple’s livestock, causing Nellie to take action to hunt the creature down. She becomes intrigued by the animal, however, which only becomes more noticeable when a male soldier, Henry, arrives, claiming the farm used to be his grandfather’s. As Jill views the stranger with suspicion, Nellie becomes entranced by Henry and his masculinity after he manages to track and slaughter the fox, which leads to the ultimate tragedy when Jill is forced to confess her love for Nellie herself.

   While Prey certainly borrows heavily from this source material, the dynamic that is portrayed as well as the ultimate direction of the story is remarkably different. In place of Nellie and Jill are the characters of Josephine and Jessica, who are explicitly described as being in a romantic and sexual relationship rather than the more subtle implications of the source novella. Henry is also replaced by Kator, otherwise known as Anders, an extraterrestrial who has taken the form of a human male to explore his surroundings for an adequate food source. The fox, however, while featured, has almost become purely metaphorical in terms of the plot. For the most part, this dramatis personae comprises the entirety of the film’s cast, with only a few ancillary characters dotted throughout for various reasons. prey 1977

   Jessica is one of the first characters we see, as she awakens from a nightmare to the sight of strange lights beaming through her bedroom window. She immediately flees to the adjoining bedroom of her lover Josephine to seek comfort and it is almost immediately obvious how this dynamic functions. Played by the petite and doe-like Glory Annen, Jessica is clearly the feminine one of the lesbian pair, with long silky autumnal hair, snowy white complexion and a youthful, svelte figure. She prefers to wear long flowy skirts with elements of lace, floral patterned blouses or dainty cocktail dresses that accentuate her prettiness. Like a typical Disney princess, she has a love for animals and a naive innocence about the world around her; inexperienced enough to wallow in the idyll that she holds with Josephine without much care in the world, but curious enough to be seduced with thoughts of what lies beyond the metaphorical woods around their home. The fact that she is Canadian also grants her automatic inferiority compared to the British-born Josephine. 

   It’s not just her physical appearance that signifies her feminine role; she’s also a rather archaic stereotype of traditional female roles. She’s meek, submissive and significantly unable to assert herself in her relationship with Josephine. She constantly seeks approval and solace from her lover, even sometimes to her detriment. She’s always apologetic, sometimes even when it is clear that Jo is at fault in the situation or for a relatively minor transgression, suggesting that Jessica is constantly fraught with anxiety in her relationship, constantly compromising to keep the peace but always at the cost of her self-confidence. In this way, she is not only subservient to Josephine but also dependent on this as a dynamic. Even her dogs back home in Canada are named Mop and Duster, referencing this connection with traditional female roles of keeping the house clean and tidy. She also seems to believe that she is automatically inferior to any masculine ‘suitor’, both by staying with Jo despite her partner’s jealousy and possessiveness and by seeking help from Anders with incredibly feminised language, suggesting that sexual activity is indicative of ownership: ‘If I belonged to you, would you take me away?’

   Josephine on the other hand is the gendered opposite of Jessica; whilst she is still female, Josephine embodies a lot of masculine traits, both in appearance and in her behaviour. She wears a much shorter hairstyle, eschewing any clothing that appears too feminine, instead opting for more masculine clothes like pants, trousers, sweaters and formal shirts. She tends to do most of the required pastoral work when it comes to taking care of the couple’s chickens and is most eager to grab a rifle and hunt down the supposed fox after their flock’s demise. Even her feminine name of ‘Josephine’ is shortened to the more masculine sounding ‘Jo’ for the majority of the film’s runtime. 

   More importantly, however, she is reminiscent of a very toxically masculine stereotype: she is extremely controlling, manipulative, paranoid and oftentimes abusive to Jessica. She declares that Jessica shouldn’t be drinking Coca Cola or smoking cigarettes, and becomes increasingly more possessive of her, by bluntly stating their relationship to a comparative stranger (Anders) and refusing to allow Jessica to either leave their home or spend significant time with anyone else. prey 1977

   While the sexual scenes in the film were reportedly added to give the film a better chance at broader distribution, they also have an additional connotation of ownership; similarly to Jessica’s old fashioned notion that giving yourself sexually to a partner indicates an acceptance of being ‘owned’ or ‘claimed’, Jo also adheres to this culture in a more subtle sense. It’s notable that at the beginning of the film, Jessica and Jo are sleeping in separate bedrooms but upon the arrival of Anders, Jo immediately becomes combative, stating coldly ‘Jessica and I are lovers’ at dinner, and then initiating aggressive sexual contact with her, as though to reinforce her ownership in the presence of a perceived threat. 

   This eventually develops into a more violent reaction as she loses control over her lover, as it is suggested that Jo has murdered a man who became too close to Jessica previously – the anonymous Simon – whose death is hinted at being covered up. She becomes increasingly restrictive, not allowing Jessica to spend time with anyone else and scoffing at the idea that Jessica can leave. Jo finally reaches a point where she ambivalently decides to kill Anders, before launching a violent attack on Jessica and knocking her unconscious. She ultimately resolves to murder Jessica, like ‘all the others’, suggesting that her toxic masculinity and her desire for complete control always leads to death. It’s rather poetic then that this brand of toxic maleness proves to be her undoing; by uprooting the ground for her lover’s and storming off to kill her, she is in fact digging her own grave.

   This aspect of Jo’s character is rather interesting, even if it does colour our perception of her quite negatively. The fact that she is so destructively masculine is constantly contrasted with the fact she is so openly and prevalently misandrist. Right from the beginning of the film to the very denouement, she shows a blatant disregard, dislike and contempt for males. From throwaway lines like ‘Of all the men, I hate Dave Haggerty the most,’ and ‘No weirder than most men,’ to the rather bizarre and prejudicial ‘Do you take sugar? Most men do.’ 

   This unashamed dislike of men is such that it’s evident when Jo is trying to maintain a sense of alpha masculinity, of being the male figure in control despite her womanhood. Indeed, in the presence of Anders, whom she often considers a threat or an alternative ‘suitor’ to Jessica due to his gender, she goes to extreme lengths to assert her superiority and ‘maleness’ over him. In one of the more notable scenes in the film, Jo has Anders dress in feminine clothing for a celebration, an elegant ensemble of a black dress, heeled shoes and lipstick, to reduce his position as a male and ensure her superiority in Jessica’s eyes. This does not work, however, as Jessica remains fascinated by the stranger, causing Jo to react jealously. prey 1977

   In a very tense moment, Jo and Anders are left alone, and an awkward silence prevails as Jo stares her rival down and advances on him slowly. With both of them dressed in feminine clothing, it’s almost a duel to see who will submit and who will dominate. Jo, of course, tries to gain the upper hand, by aggressively forcing herself onto Anders and trying to kiss him, but he steadfastly resists, only adding to Jo’s frustration. It’s also incredibly interesting that in her moments of failure, Jo’s behaviour and demeanour becomes ever more childish and hysterical, screaming at high volume, thrashing her arms and effectively throwing a hissy fit, behaviour much more expected of a dated female stereotype. In moments of frustration, she reverts to a traditional female role, unable to keep up the masculine ‘charade’ that she continually employs. 

   In fact, the film has this undertone of mania concerning her character, portraying her sometimes as a traditional ‘madwoman’. Not only does she indicate that she may be an asylum escapee, but even some of the decor reflects this; shortly after knocking Jessica out, Jo contemplates her situation with two posters in the background. These posters (Le Journal des ventes and La Maison Moderne) are part of a collection known as Artistic Poster Mania, a potent metaphor for the unravelling mania in the house from Jo’s spiralling madness.

   Anders by comparison is a stalwart symbol of masculinity. He’s tall, handsome and has an aura of mystery around him with a boyish innocence as well. Although he’s an extraterrestrial and therefore biologically genderless, his arrival on Earth is signalled by the murder of a frolicking couple in the countryside, in a sequence rather reminiscent of slasher pictures. He chooses to assume the form of the man, assigning himself the identity Anders Anderson, the name itself etymologically similar to the Greek word andros (meaning ‘manly’), the repetition of which reinforces this idea. 

   Whilst clearly on his mission to find a sufficient food source on Earth, Anders is otherwise indifferent to the situation playing out in the personal lives of Jessica and Jo, though Jo rather opaquely considers him a threatening presence to the girls’ relationship. Instead, Anders becomes fascinated by the world around him; cups of tea, house plants, the girl’s pet bird, the gorgeous countryside, trying all the house’s doors, etc. Almost by proxy, the curious nature of Jessica is drawn to this aspect of Anders’ behaviour, as she finds herself entranced by his strangeness. Initially, Jo is so blinded by her hatred of men that she fails to take his weird behaviour in any serious way, but soon begins to despise his idiosyncrasies, seeing them as dangerous enticements for Jessica to become lulled by. prey 1977

   Due to his animalistic nature, Anders also describes what he sees without prejudice or preconceived notions and likens Jessica to a caged animal, and he even makes animal-like misjudgements, such as falling into the pond whilst hunting. Moments like these bring to the fore that despite his masculinity and his perceived status as an indomitable male force, he is just as vulnerable and naive as the girls. In a reverse portrayal of religious baptism, Anders’ supposed divinity and aggrandised perception are shattered by his near-drowning, forcing the girls to save him from the foul waters. While Jessica is genuinely concerned for his safety, Jo instead chooses to blame Anders’ stupidity on his gender. Whether he likes it or not, Jo considers him a rival for Jessica’s affections, even though Anders never directly sets himself up as one. He is either forced into being a rival by Jo dressing him as a woman, Jessica begging him to have sex with her or even in one of the more subtle moments, his clothing mirroring that of Jo’s attire.

   The biggest indicator of Anders’ masculinity, however, is his link with animals. Being extraterrestrial in origin, his human features hide a much more aggressive, canine-like appearance when his anger or hunger is stirred. Like most predators, Anders hunts and devours prey by stalking then pouncing or chasing, and consuming their flesh. Several sequences are focused on these small hunting exploits, with one excursion leading to an encounter with the police who are violently bitten to death by Anders in self-preservation mode. 

   This connection of masculinity with animals is also conflated by Jo’s irrational hatred of anything animalistic: she refers to their pet Wally as ‘a mangy bird’ and refuses to allow Jessica to bring her dogs into the house as they are ‘dirty’. She keeps chickens, but the fact that they are all female and function only to lay eggs (indicative that reproduction is not occurring) is rather telling, as is the near-instant conclusion that the perpetrator must be an animal, a fox. All of Jo’s epithets against others are animal-related, such as ‘stupid cow’, ‘swine’ and ‘filthy little bitch’, seeing animals as beneath her. 

   Indeed, when explaining her relationship with Jessica to Anders, she states, ‘Ours is a pure love, without the foul animal function of breeding,’ indicating that she associates animals with impurity, copulation with filth, and men with animals. Even the girl’s meat-free diet is an extension of this theme, with Jo musing, ‘We’re vegetarians. To be able to appreciate the real inner beauty of life, we cannot allow ourselves to behave like animals,’ which signifies a true distaste for creatures of all kinds. His reaction to the girls’ vegetable dinner is one of revulsion, causing Jo to brand him an animal and strengthening her disgust. Anders is therefore not only a sexual threat with his masculinity, but his carnivorous appetite is the antithesis of everything she believes in. He’s the perfect symbol of meat-eating maleness, a stereotype that is still reinforced today with the social ritual of a BBQ, where the male of a family can exhibit their masculinity by providing everyone with cooked meat like their tribal hunter ancestors.image5

   Of course, Jo isn’t just revolted by carnivores, she also hates the male association with sex, perhaps as it reminds her of her femininity. Anders’ sexuality is intrinsically linked to his primal hunger for flesh, especially in the scene where Jo and Jessica are having sex. When Anders witnesses this, he becomes excited, but in both a sexual and a gluttonous fashion, conflating the ideas of carnivorous hunger with sexual desire. It’s no accident that the first meal that Anders consumes is a couple in the heat of passion, nor is it serendipity that one of the film’s most memorably violent set-pieces brings these two themes together in a frightening clash. 

   As Jo begins to plan for her lover’s murder, Jessica begs Anders to take her away, submitting to him sexually to gain his trust. While Anders resists the intense sexual desire he feels when Jessica pleasures him, eventually, his primitive animal instincts take over and he becomes aggressive. This isn’t immediately violent, rather he gives in to his primal sexual lust and begins to dominate Jessica sexually by playing rough. Then the hunger takes over, and he sinks his canine teeth into her neck, ravenously eating her throat out. In full animal mode, he begins to feast on his prey, just as Jo walks in on the spectacle. In terms of what the themes have been building to, Anders is now the epitome of masculinity, having subdued his prey both sexually and nutritionally. Jo can do nothing except scream and run away, any previous notions of ‘masculine’ aggression and murderous thoughts instantly purged as she vomits and attempts to escape. The feral Anders does not let her go and snarls as Jo screams, now unable to contain his ‘superior’ masculinity as he brutally kills her…

   Being a product of the ‘70s, these portrayals are based on fairly dated stereotypes, but the effect of these traditional roles are still felt even today. Lesbian and gay couples are still socially expected to fill the heteronormative gender roles that society places on them, usually in the form of ‘Who’s the butch one?’ or ‘Who’s the femme one?’, a rather unsubtle questioning of which sexual position each person adopts. Males are still expected to be sexually dominant, more physically strong and assumed to be the breadwinners of their families, who provide their tribe with meat in their responsibility to ‘bring home the bacon’. 

   Females are often expected to be naturally domesticated, sexually submissive, physically inferior and prone to emotional outbursts. Men who are submissive and feminine or women who are dominant and masculine are still targets of disdain and ridicule for their refusal to conform to heteronormative conditions and socio-political expectations. Even though much time has passed, it’s apparent that society still has a lot to learn, but these intricacies within Prey make it just that little bit more special and interesting than a more standard horror film. Not only is there a rich subtext of a battle between the sexes and the real meaning of sexuality and its relationship with cultural expectations, but the film is punctured often with graphic violence, peppered with oddities and weirdness and driven by some stellar performances that cement this film as one worth seeking out.

   At the time of writing, director Norman J. Warren has regrettably passed away only recently (11th March 2021), but his legacy almost certainly lives on due to his filmography being inexorably entwined with Britain’s censorious past. Prey was caught up in the infamous video nasties scandal of the 1980s, ending up classified as an obscene Section 3 prosecutable title, where it was removed by police forces during raids and subsequently destroyed after confiscation, along with two others from his copybook, Inseminoid and Terror. While contemporaneous dealers and distributors might not have appreciated this treatment at the time, this act almost certainly ensured that future film fans would automatically seek out these films due to their historical infamy.

Rest in peace, Mr Warren.

Andy Roberts

Andy Roberts

Perpetually anxious graphic designer who indulges in Japanese RPGs, survival horror, drawing, horror films, & podcasting. Designed the Horrified logo. Current writing a book.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit
Share on pocket
Share on whatsapp
Share on email

More To Explore

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.