I first heard about Chastity Bites through the Twitter grapevine. As a huge fan of Warehouse 13, when Allison Scagliotti mentioned her lead role, I immediately checked it out. On discovering what the film was about, I couldn’t wait to see it. Chastity Bites is something of a classic teen slasher flick but with a few key differences. While it’s normally the virgin who survives (look to Joss Whedon’s incredible Cabin in the Woods for the ultimate take on that trope), in Chastity Bites it’s the virgins who are most at risk.
The story is based on the real life tale of Countess Elizabeth Bathory of Hungary who was possibly the world’s most prolific serial killer and believed to have murdered up to 650 young girls between 1585 and 1610. Bathory became a figure of legend and soon stories began to spread about her vampiric tendencies, specifically that she bathed in her victim’s blood in order to stay young and live forever. In Chastity Bites, the still young and beautiful Liz Batho arrives at San Griento High School in 2013 as an abstinence educator hired by the PTFA to set up a chapter of her organisation, the Virginity Action Group, and encourages all the young women in the school to join. However, school journalist Leah Ratcliff is immediately suspicious and sets about uncovering the sinister truth behind V.A.G.
The film mixes witty and insightful political commentary with classic B-movie style horror and slightly cheesy comedy. There are none of the modern style horror movie plays here, no elaborate tricks and traps or unnecessarily gross scenarios. What you get is the classic blood-spurting horror of the style so beloved by Monty Python; think Hammer House of Horror and Lesbian Vampire Killers rather than Evil Dead or The Conjuring.
The whole film is aching modern as Leah tries to get freelance work with the Huffington Post and is accused by her best friend of attempting to become “the Julian Assange of San Griento High School”. It also wears its political leanings clearly on its sleeve by painting a conservative Republican America terrified of “the liberal homosexual agenda” in an unfavorable light and praising feminism and strong female leaders from Buffy to Hillary Clinton.
After watching the trailer I was impressed by the film’s obvious commitment to casting women in a range of roles (to point out that the film passes the Bechdel Test is practically an insult) to the point where male characters are clearly a minority. I arranged to speak with the film’s writer and Producer Lotti Pharriss Knowles about the film, its politics, and women in cinema. Please note that this interview contains several words which some readers may find offensive. The decision was made to keep these in place due to their context.
Where did the idea for Chastity Bites first come from?
John (my husband and the director) challenged me to write a horror script in four weeks for a contest deadline—this was way back in ’04 or ’05. I started thinking about horror movies and characters I loved, and I was drawn to ones that had exploited the true historical character of serial killer Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who bathed in the blood of over 600 virgin girls believing that would keep her young and beautiful forever.
As I was trying to think of an updated spin on her legend, it occurred to me that George W. Bush and the other conservatives had provided a perfect premise: If the Blood Countess were still alive, she would surely come to “red state” America to set up abstinence education programs to keep a steady supply of her “botox” flowing. Thus Chastity Bites was born!
Why do you think it took you making the movie yourself for Chastity Bites to finally be developed?
We heard “NO” so many times along the journey. People in the industry would like the writing, but they couldn’t wrap their heads around the combination of horror, comedy, social satire and feminism. Ultimately I’m glad they all said no, because making the movie ourselves meant it could truly be our vision and not watered-down. Making it ourselves on a tight budget was extremely challenging, but also extremely rewarding.
What do you say to those who contend that female-led and female-centric movies are not profitable?
It’s ridiculous, because women make up over half the population, and DUH—they (we) love movies! I’m shocked when industry people are shocked every time a female-centric movie is a hit. As for horror, there’s also plenty of research (and anecdotal evidence) that there are a lot of female fans of the genre. While I hope guys like this movie, too, Chastity Bites is really my love poem to the horror fangirls like myself out there.
Your cast is heavily female-centric, was that a conscious decision or a natural development of the script?
Both. On one hand it makes perfect sense for the plot, but on the other hand I really wanted to subvert a lot of conventions of typical Hollywood movies. Specifically I wanted to counteract the plethora of male-centric films where the few female characters are underdeveloped “accessories.”
In Chastity Bites, the female characters run the gamut of personality types, good and bad. The main female characters—both heroines and villains—drive the plot and their own destinies. And why shouldn’t they? That’s real life!
How did you go about casting for the film?
We had two amazing casting directors, Monika Mikkelsen and Matthew Lessall. They really “got” the script, and with the exception of Allison Scagliotti, they brought every actor who’s in the movie in to audition for us. Some people were exactly what we imagined and hoped for, while other actors came in and wowed us with a new conception of that character. As for Allison (who’s also an Executive Producer on the movie), she became involved a couple years prior to shooting, when I got the script to her after seeing her on SyFy’s Warehouse 13. The minute I saw her I knew she was our Leah, and thankfully she said yes. I feel tremendously blessed by our whole cast—they’re one of the best parts of our movie.
You refer to your “passionate political leanings” on the Chastity Bites website, can you tell us something about those?
Well, I think I clearly wear them on my sleeve in this movie! I’m progressive, maybe even a tad bit radical. I’m a staunch feminist and LGBT rights supporter. But I believe these things amount to being a humanist, and caring deeply about equality and freedom. Those two words take on many meanings in this country, but to me they mean the ability to be one’s true self without fear of judgement, bullying, or rejection by society. It means every person feeling as valid and empowered as anyone else, but not to the detriment of anyone else, and not succumbing to labels like “slut,” “fag,” “dyke,” “freak,” etc. And, ideally, it would mean keeping people’s religious beliefs and paternalistic attitudes out of our legal system and government completely, once and for all.
It seems so basic, and yet we’re still fighting these battles in 2013 with folks trying to control women’s and gay people’s bodies and livelihoods. God help them if we really get together at some point and exercise our collective power.
You’ve also said that your first draft of the script was written nine years ago. Since then abstinence-based sex education classes have become more commonplace in the USA. Did the script evolve along with this trend?
It’s funny, because there were so many times along the way that I thought the script would be outdated. The night Obama got elected in 2008, I thought for sure that our side had won the battle (for now, at least), and that I’d better move on to another project. Boy, was I naive! Luckily a lot of abstinence-only programs have been phased out, but there are still enough left to keep this movie relevant. Good news for Chastity Bites, not so good for the USA.
In the film the abstinence program is a front for something much more macabre; do you consider the real world abstinence-only programs to be as sinister?
No, unless they’re actually a front for killing the virgins and using their blood as a fountain-of-youth serum! And yet, I do believe they’re stupid and dangerous in their own way. Information is never a bad thing, and in fact, studies prove it may actually delay kids having sex. That was certainly true in my case—my parents and schools taught me everything up front, and how to protect myself when I had sex, but I didn’t lose my virginity until relatively late. Other friends did quite early.
The point is, people (teens or otherwise) are ultimately going to make their own decisions in life—why the hell not equip them with the facts, and more importantly, ideas about how to respect themselves and the other person (or people) involved in the process? Another thing that seems ridiculously basic but apparently isn’t for everyone.
You stated that you grew up on horror movies; which were your favorites back then and have any recent ones caught your eye?
This could be a book, so I’ll just mention my two all-time favorites—which Chastity Bites is kind of a mash-up of: Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers, and John Carpenter’s Halloween. But man, I love so many and can watch most of the older ones (60s, 70s, 80s) over and over. Some of the newer ones I’d recommend for their “girl power” value are The Descent, Jennifer’s Body, American Mary, Ginger Snaps, and Teeth (which also references abstinence education). I’m looking forward to the upcoming female-made film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, an Iranian vampire western!
Finally, I really love the female characters of all types and ages in TV’s American Horror Story.
At GeekMom we hope to raise the next generation of girl geeks. If you could say anything to those youngsters, what would it be?
More power to you! Don’t be afraid to be smart and funny, because that gets you a lot farther in life than looks. The right people in your life, whether they be friends or significant others, will love you for what’s on the inside—it’s a cliche, but I swear it’s true. Be strong, but also be compassionate. Don’t sell yourself short or compromise your values. When you make mistakes, learn from them and forgive yourself—that’s the point of life, not being “perfect.” You are the future, and we “elders” believe in you all the way!
GeekMom received a copy of this film for review purposes.