Toxic Men: The Travis Stevens Trilogy
Sometimes the world can seem bleak and tragic with overwhelming circumstances at every turn. We sometimes turn to horror because no matter how gruesome, intense, or heartbreaking the story is, the hero wins most of the time. It’s the same reason why people watch things like professional wrestling where adversity and challenges are overcome by the hero in glorious forms of feats and entertainment. It’s a common trope in storytelling in every genre: we want to believe that good will conquer evil. No matter how dark the night is, the sun should always come up.
What if the hero in the story isn’t good? In spite of their noble appearance, what if they defeat evil at the cost of others? What if their actions are not those of a hero at all? What if what we see is what we don’t like, yet objectively we can relate to? What if what we see is us, and in that way, we realize that we aren’t as infallible as we think, especially as white cis men with a history of abuse, neglect, and hate that we have used to shape the world around us?
The three recent feature films by Travis Stevens have confronted this better than any other genre filmmaker. His third and latest feature, A Wounded Fawn (2022), dives even deeper into concepts that are hard and might easily be rejected as arty and boring, or perhaps this just isn’t exactly what the viewer wants to or is prepared to see. Although I am not saying that every white cisgender man is a cheating crook, a neglectful husband, or a serial killer as portrayed in Stevens’s film, there is ample evidence that such people have existed throughout history. I like films that delve into this, films that provide a reflection that some may not want to see.
When I first saw Stevens’s debut film Girl on the Third Floor (2019), I saw myself in the protagonist/antagonist Don Koch, played by Phil Brooks (also known as CM Punk in professional wrestling). There weren’t many things I had in common with the plot of the movie; I wasn’t married, I didn’t have a kid on the way, and I wasn’t in a recently bought house that I was fixing up for the arrival of my wife of whom paid for the entire house herself. Still, there were little things that sucked me into the character: the way he would talk to his wife on the phone lovingly and then the next second lust after other women. Even though he had engaged in those traits, I never learned that my house was a former brothel where women were exploited repeatedly against their will for men’s pleasure and conquest. I have done this in the past. The way I would brush off my partners at the time in exchange for the promise of something better or maybe something more exciting. Or worse, how I would keep people in my life, even if I didn’t want them there, and use them for emotional or financial gain. There is always a shade of gray to everything, and some of the relationships I’ve been in, especially the one when this came out, weren’t good. After watching Travis Stevens tell a story about ghosts and how men use women in a genre I love, it made me see a side of myself I hadn’t seen before. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I was not pleased with what I saw. It was a harrowing moment, one I think is particularly needed in this genre, but more importantly, one that I needed. Like the best ghost stories, this one is more about the ghosts that haunt us on the inside.
In Travis Stevens’s next film, Jakob’s Wife (2021), Barbara Crampton plays Anne Fedder brilliantly. Anne is a woman married to a preacher, Jakob (Larry Fessenden), living a very controlled life. Let’s face it, religion as preached and taught by most Christians is one of patriarchy and control. There are small but intentional motivations in the relationship between husband and wife that are designed to keep the woman down so that the man can prosper since “Adam came before Eve.” I recently met with a dear and close friend and we both had a conversation with a man who flat-out told her that she was less than because she was a woman. He was raised in this way of thinking because it had been handed down throughout generations. The option of growing out of this mentality was gone. Luckily, in the film, the antiquated pastor has a change of heart. Yes, it was through the premise of his wife becoming a vampire, but there is a moral lesson being taught here. We can change, we can be better, we can reject the paths that were laid before us by other men, and we can look inward toward those traits that are in ourselves and move beyond them. While this is a film about a woman who gets bit by a vampire and breaks free from the shackles of control, only to be controlled by the vampire that bit her before needing to get the help of her husband to defeat that vampire, there is a true connection of love discovered between husband and wife. It’s beautiful to see, and it’s refreshing to see a man change his ways and thoughts.
Stevens’s latest film, A Wounded Fawn, has the most irredeemable male character yet. Bruce (Josh Ruben) is an art collector who also happens to be a serial killer who lures his date, Meredith (Sarah Lind), to a secluded cabin to kill her. What begins as a very standard serial killer film where our protagonist must fight for her life turns into a journey of the senses and one of the most unique films I’ve seen in years. We get to spend so much time watching a madman descend into madness as he’s confronted about his thoughts, actions, and ideas. Bruce acts almost as if he is a combination of the previous two male characters in Stevens’s films, both Roy and Jakob, but gone even further into the deep end. He’s by far the most toxic of the three, but at the core, there is a lesson to be learned from the way Stevens presents his male characters in his films.
This is a trilogy about three toxic men, all of whom are different, but one thing they have in common is how they treat and use women. I think it is important to remember that the heroines in all three films are strong, resilient, and forward-thinking, which is so often the case with a toxic environment where strong women (or others) can scare men into lashing out. Seeing these films in a row, the trilogy is a unique concept that I definitely believe was on the mind of Travis Stevens.
Toxic masculinity has been in horror for years, and I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon. Still, the lens through which I see myself, or perhaps you do too, we can learn and grow together. The traits we see around us and those we grew up with aren’t an excuse to continue that behavior when you recognize them in yourself or others. When you repeat the same mistake over and over again, it’s not a mistake, it’s a choice. We collectively can be better and move forward. We need more filmmakers like Travis Stevens. His continued commitment to this kind of storytelling makes the world a little brighter, even when it spends so much time in darkness. Everyone is flawed, but we can grow, and we can be better. We can listen and we can pay attention. The world will always be a grey, dark, and scary place. We can do our part to acknowledge that and then commit to the betterment of ourselves and those around us. 🩸
Justin Drabek is a contributing writer for Manor Vellum. He also writes for Horror Obsessive and formerly for Killer Horror Critic. He loves cats, and dogs seem to like him…he’s not so sure about them. Follow him on Instagram @ justindrabek.
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