Psychological horror The Neon Demon (2016) is as terrifying as it is visually stunning.
The film spotlights the insidious nature of the modelling industry, including the predators who disguise themselves as mentors to young talent.
Horror is a political genre, with content seldom lacking political messages, on the surface or otherwise.
(Major spoilers ahead.)
The Neon Demon follows Jesse (Elle Fanning), a newly orphaned teenager from the South who moves to LA to pursue modelling.
She’s forced to age herself up, deal with predatory adults, and meet a fate that she couldn’t have imagined.
Nothing is overwhelmingly revolutionary about a thin white girl becoming confident in herself. (The film is not racially diverse – which is a different conversation.)
However, Jesse’s confidence turns into narcissism that works against her in the end.
She doesn’t deserve what happens to her, but the pressures of modelling change who she is.
Jesse is the object of twisted desire for many of the characters, not just older men but also some of the women.
The desire is inherently sexual from makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) and born of vehement jealousy from fellow models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), all of whom want her body in disturbing ways (and not just disturbing because of her being a minor).
Jesse’s body is violated in her nightmares, ogled by predatory adults, and later physically consumed.
The moment she steps into the modelling world, she doesn’t stand a chance.
Ruby as a villainous, necrophiliac queer character may be a gut punch to some.
Queer representation is often discussed in a way that negates the possibility of queer people being villains.
Less discussion surrounds the difference between a character’s queerness being their villainous aspect and a queer character being an antagonist.
Ruby’s queer identity isn’t displayed as her villainous trait – she’s a villain because she’s a predator and kills young women for their blood.
Recognising these differences while watching The Neon Demon makes for a totally different experience, as does fully taking in that women can be predators.
Nothing is electric about the way Ruby wants to consume Jesse sexually or how it’s framed, especially not when Ruby initiates sex and Jesse rejects her before revealing she’s a virgin.
Between that and Ruby using a female corpse to pleasure herself, there’s no denying the person she is – again, not about her queer identity.
The examination of the modelling industry and how aggressively women compete with each other is at the forefront of the film.
Themes of ageing and lust for remaining youthful are there as well.
But close behind is the reality of how predators are fixated on ownership.
Ruby wants to own Jesse’s body through sex and likely always intends to eat her body.
Consuming her means power and absorbing her youth.
The same goes for Sarah and Gigi taking part in an apparent ritual, followed by each of them bathing in her blood and Ruby later laying in her own home, gushing blood from her genitals.
Yes, it’s a lot.
Eventually, the consumption of Jesse works against one of the women.
Gigi becomes ill at a photoshoot, vomits one of Jesse’s eyeballs, and stabs herself to “get Jesse out of her”.
Even in death, Jesse refuses to be forgotten as a victim of their viciousness.
The Neon Demon is not only stunning in its visuals, score, and performances; it makes viewers unpack all these political messages.