Anyone trying to write smart, feminist horror coverage is operating in the shadow of Alex West.
West is a sociologist, a very good podcast host, and a horror fan, whose work as a critic combines intellectual rigor with sheer fannish joy. She’s been able to dive deep into movies that other critics have written off as merely gory — her first book is on the New French Extremity, and its cover features a still from Trouble Every Day, wherein, I regret to inform you, Vincent Gallo bites a woman’s clit off — and emerge with a deeper understanding of cultures that created them.
West is also about my age, which explains why I lost my mind when I heard about the concept of her newest book, The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula. She was generous enough to answer some questions by e-mail about Carol Clover, The Craft, and why critics write off horror that centers on teen girls.
The idea of a book on the ‘90s teen horror cycle fills me with joy. Can you define that cycle a little, so we’re clear on our terms? Where do you set the start and end points?
The start and end points, for any film cycle in my opinion, lie with production. How is a film made and why is a film made? Once you align on these you can begin to see patterns. For me, to be included in this cycle a film had to be a major studio film with celebrities, have a significant theatrical release and employ callbacks and/or subversions to previous entries in the horror genre. Ideally they would have all three of those things, but in the case of something like Cherry Falls, I made an exception. It never got a major theatrical release (due to the Columbine shootings) but it was so indebted to the films that came before that it felt wrong to not include it. Ultimately, all these films have to work together to form pieces of a larger puzzle so when you step back you can see the bigger picture and examine how each piece ladders up to major ideas and themes. Final Destination was a true end point for me with the cycle as I could see the remnants of Scream in there (teen focused, cultural references, recognizable actors) but I could also see the beginnings of torture porn (elaborate deaths at the cost of narrative).
You wrote the phrase I realize I’ve always been waiting to hear from a critic, which is: “Scream is an important film.” You make an argument for the Scream trilogy as Cinema, capital C. Yet even a lot of horror critics and fans have written it off — I remember Rob Zombie fulminating in Rolling Stone about how Scream had ruined horror.
Scream was a cultural phenomenon in terms of buzz and box office. It brought legitimacy to the genre for a period of time where mainstream media was actively covering the sequels and actors were fighting for parts in them. I don't care how many dude-bros say it ruined horror. Maybe it did for them, but it reignited the slasher film and the teen horror film. It took the elements of slasher films which had become punchlines, called them out and, in many cases, subverted them, while still being quite dark and gory, from Drew Barrymore's steaming guts hanging out of her body to Sidney's boyfriend taunting her that he raped and murdered her mother. Scream ultimately was a film about misogyny and women being forced to fight back against it, which is incredibly uncomfortable for a lot of people because that means acknowledging that misogyny is real and palpable. I think fans, critics and other filmmakers (Robert Zombie) have a strong aversion to it because it explained the codes of the slasher and commented on them, allowing a new generation of fans to access these films, and making it harder for them to be gatekeepers.
My theory is that people hate Scream because it’s for girls. Kathleen Rowe Karlyn says it was the first slasher movie to succeed largely on ticket sales to teenage girls. (It was also the highest-grossing slasher movie ever made.) It was teen girls who made Scream a cultural phenomenon, just like they did for Titanic a few years later. I don’t think it’s at all unclear why: It’s a story about a girl surviving an abusive relationship. People nowadays connect it to GamerGate, with these maladjusted guys who use their fandom as an excuse to hurt women. At the time, as you note, the momentum around Scream died because the two angry white boys killing their classmates reminded people of Columbine. Toxic nerd masculinity has single-handedly kept Scream relevant. You write a lot about the perception that ‘90s teen horror was “corporate” and inauthentic. But to what degree would you entertain the poptimist argument, that these movies were seen as unserious because of who their audience was?
I think that's bang on! One of the first quotes I put in the book is a guy calling the Scream films "a bit misandrist" because it illustrated so clearly that films, particularly genre films, centered around women were threatening to a male audience. While I think we have to be wary of the corporatization of art and entertainment sometimes, it’s not all bad. These films were interested in young women, were willing to discuss female trauma (The Rage: Carrie 2 is another great example of this) and yes, they were made for a large audience, a large audience of young women who hadn't been spoken to before about the realities they were experiencing as young women. The idea of celebrating a film that wrestles with violence and sexual assault is hard for a lot of people because it means they have to acknowledge it as a fact of life that women have to grapple with on a daily basis. It is easier to dismiss them as silly or inauthentic rather than examine where these narratives come from and why they resonate so strongly with audiences. (Also, I like this article by Entertainment Weekly about female ticket buyers for horror, which uses a famous Scream quote in its title.)
You write about how this era really re-defined the Final Girl. In Carol Clover’s original formulation, the Final Girl is not necessarily a feminist trope; she’s just a female character who is portrayed as androgynous so that men can project their own conflicts onto her. This new wave of movies made her more human. Can you go into that transformation a little?
Clover is a bit tricky for me. I have tremendous respect for the foundational work she did but she never seemed to like the genre all that much. Her description and dismissal of the character (who must take on male traits to defeat the killer, but always reverts to dropping her weapon, and is saved by a male authority figure) isn't all that off-base for these characters in the 70s and 80s, even though I adore many of them. Before Scream, the Final Girls were grappling with the sins of a previous generation. In the ‘90s they are far more involved in the initial trauma that sets things into motion, whether it be Sidney's refusal to deal with the reality of her mother, or Natalie's joyriding in Urban Legend. They have pain, trauma and guilt and are often wrestling with symptoms of PTSD. They felt real. They weren't happy-go-lucky kids who discover their parents murdered a pedophile, they are living with trauma before the film begins, whether it’s guilt, the dissolution of a family, or traumatic violence — they are imperfect.
I also wonder what you think about how the female victims in these slasher movies were portrayed. You write about something that I hadn’t seen anyone else notice before, which is Sarah Michelle Gellar’s character in I Know What You Did Last Summer. She’s so sad! She’s playing what should be a standard bitchy-beauty-queen archetype who gets offed, but she’s just an incredibly affecting, lonely, tragic character. Do you think the revisions to the Final Girl trickled down to all the non-final girls, or am I being too optimistic?
I think the 90s did an excellent job of, ahem, fleshing out the supporting characters and Sarah Michelle Gellar as Helen in I Know What You Did Last Summer is a great example. She is a tragic character and in the film she doesn't talk about what she's going through. However, we as an audience get to see her fractured relationship with her family and her tragic death. Ultimately these films try to view their protagonists as flawed but sympathetic with an underlying message that no one should be disposable, nor should you root for their death.
I do not think we can do this without talking about The Craft, which has become a huge generational touchstone. You write about how, at the time, critics hated the ending. I kind of do, too — the girl who most enthusiastically embraces her powers winds up in a mental institution with an STD, and it strikes me as an incredibly Victorian message. But you’re a lot more generous. Why do you think The Craft matters?
I don't disagree about the ending — it is problematic. But I do think The Craft succeeds by depicting the power of female friendship, and by portraying sexual assault and the way society is content to treat its "outcasts." When I think of The Craft, I think of Nancy (Fairuza Balk) floating across the room towards Chris (Skeet Ulrich) yelling "Oh he's sorry, he's sorry, he's sorry... SORRY MY ASS!" before killing him. There are a lot of times, in the news cycles that we're in, that I need that. It was brave in a lot of ways for simply naming and portraying the devastating issues that young women deal with even if the final outcome is pretty far from ideal.
You also write that, of all the movies in this cycle, The Craft is the only one to directly confront racism. Other movies would cast actors of color, but avoid the issue, whereas in The Craft, Rachel True’s plot line is explicitly about embracing witchcraft to defend herself against a racist white girl. How did you navigate the intersectionality, or lack thereof, in this wave of movies?
I grew up loving these films. Revisiting them over the years, I still had a lot of love for them, but the reoccurring blind spots made me sick to my stomach — particularly the trope of what Ashlee Blackwell of Graveyard Shift Sisters refers to as the pod-person, a black character who exists without an external life to the main narrative. Before diving into writing the book I went back and re-read a lot of Blackwell's stuff, and I bought Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present, by Robin R. Means Coleman. I decided that when I talked about the feminist attributes of the films in a general sense, I would call out that it was very much geared towards white hetero-normative feminism. That's also the reason I was adamant about including the first installment of Scary Movie, which calls out so many of the problematic things in this cycle. The Wayans Brothers were having a conversation about race and the dynamics of whitewashing in mainstream films in real time, and I don't think they get enough credit for that.
“Teen horror” seems to have tapered off. Formula-driven slasher movies set in high schools are no longer really a thing. What do you think the lasting legacy of these movies will be?
I think Blumhouse has been picking up the mantle for the teen/collegiate horror film with the likes of Happy Death Day (2017), Unfriended (2014), Seven in Heaven (2018) and Truth or Dare (2018), so I'm hopeful that they continue to push this sub-genre. I think the teen horror film has to tap into our current day fears and apprehensions, because it has to be of the moment to appeal to its core audience and Victorian Ghost Manors aren't going to cut it. The teen horror film has so much potential and the cycle in the 1990s scratched the surface. I think there's a lot more that can come from this formula. One of the most effective films I've seen this year is Assassination Nation, which I wouldn't call mainstream, but it is absolutely a teen film, and it's where I think horror needs to go right now.
The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle is available for purchase on Amazon. You can also stream the full archives of The Faculty of Horror, which West co-hosts with Andrea Subisatti, here; I highly recommend it.
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