There’s a moment in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window that illustrates an important premise of erotic thrillers. Lisa (Grace Kelly) breaks into an apartment to look for evidence of a murder. When she returns from the mission flushed and out of breath, her lover, L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart), looks at her with desire for the first time in the film. Hitchcock is no stranger to the unconventional ways that people get off—detection, Rear Window tells us, is sexy. Particularly if the crime under investigation is murder.
Women Who Kill understands this premise. Morgan (director Ingrid Jungermann) and Jean (Ann Carr) run a successful podcast called “Women Who Kill”. They profile female serial killers, poll their audience to determine the best-looking convict, and interview jailed murderesses. Morgan and Jean also used to be in a serious relationship, but they remain friends and share a circle of buddies. When Morgan meets vampy babe Simone (Sheila Vand) at her local food co-operative, she apparently falls madly in love. Unfortunately, Morgan’s friends don’t take to Simone. One remarks that she seems to have “secrets”. Jean also begins to suspect that Simone might be the daughter of a recently-deceased serial killer that she interviewed last year. Worse still, Simone may actually be a serial killer herself.
Women Who Kill is best described as a lesbian romantic comedy that draws heavily (and deliberately) upon the tropes of the erotic thriller. The film is set in a hipster colony in Park Slope, and much of the comedy occurs at the expense of the commitment-phobic queer millennials profiled. Jokes about the stringent rules of the food co-op abound. Jean and Morgan bicker about Morgan’s aversion to emotional vulnerability. Friends get real with each other on the inevitable waning of passion in a relationship. In one funny scene, the film pokes fun at lesbian bachelorette parties—Simone alienates Morgan’s buddies by gifting a “realistic” penetrative sex toy to the bride-to-be, a faux pas that earns her the cold shoulder from everyone. Within all this, the possibility that Simone might be a murderer is played as a possible red herring. Perhaps Simone isn’t a murderer; perhaps Morgan’s simply afraid of commitment.
This macabre innovation upon the romantic scenario is the film’s most appealing characteristic, as well as the source of much of its humour. Like Rear Window, Women Who Kill suggests that detection is sexy—Jean and Morgan are brought together in their mutual suspicion of Simone. However, rather than rekindling the old flame, the particulars of investigation cause them to bicker and argue. The film also plays on the rather scary (or sexy) possibility that one’s lover might be a murderer.
Indeed, the film makes many references to erotic potboilers—so many, in fact, that it can only be deliberate. Simone is presented according to the iconic tropes of the vamp: she wears eyeliner, a leather choker and a blunt fringe. In this regard, Sheila Vand makes for an excellent queer vamp (in theme, if not personality – her character is similar to the vampire she plays in Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night). Moreover, Simone mysteriously keeps a locked wooden box in her apartment. The object is another source of the film’s knowingness, referencing the millennia-old symbol of feminine mystery, strife and the unknowability of women’s minds. The box also works as a double-entendre—a metaphor for female anatomy—and serves additional duty as a potential repository for grisly murder tokens. Morgan is fittingly haunted.
The drollness of the millennial comedy sometimes pours cold water over the passion and danger of the film, though. This is no doubt the point—Women Who Kill is a sexy thriller about people too cool to enjoy sexy thrillers. In one scene, when a jailed murderess explains how she becomes aroused by killing, Morgan grows uncomfortable. She can’t dig it, but not because it’s abhorrent. It’s just too weird. This clashing of coolness with hotness is the central dynamic of Women Who Kill. It’s the source of its comedy, and its metaphor for love as a frighteningly uncool emotion.