FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE...beware yon spoilers!

Jul 12, 2005

Take Out Your Notebooks, Part II

What other benchmarks are there to help distinguish the slasher from other types of movies? Yesterday I touched on the folks donig all the slashin'- the killers. It seems logical to follow that up with a discussion about their tools of the trade- THE WEAPONS.

Take a guess how the genre got its name...go on, take a stab at it (nyuk nyuk). You got it, kids- the weapon of choice in these movies tends to be along the lines of a knife. Anything that can be used to stab or cut is fair game: razors, pitchforks, swords, corkscrews, drills, spears, hedgeclippers, you name it. Sure there's wild departures: in the Sleepaway Camp movies, for example, Angela uses everything from a lawnmower to an outhouse to dispatch the "deserving". Sometimes a killer has his or her "signature" weapon- where would Freddy Krueger be without his razor glove? And you can't separate Leatherface from his beloved, can you? Ah, a weirdo and his chainsaw. Even when something as random as a lawnmower is used, however, there's still somehow an intimacy to the killings. The killer and victim get right up close- chances are you won't see a gun or a stick of dynamite used to get the job done.

Despite the murder throughout the films, though, as Adam Rockoff points out in Going to Pieces (mentioned yesterday), slashers tend to be far less brutal than the average action film. Whereas Sylvester Stallone can gun down, slice up, and gut countless Vietcong baddies (Rambo) to audience cheers, the relative low body count of the average slasher is met with cries of "Depravity!". So what's the difference? Well, it's pretty much the "intimacy" I was talking about. The characters who get killed aren't merely faceless thugs, but rather they're men and women we've gotten to know throughout the movie. Whether we actually like them or not is another story entirely- I mean, who wasn't glad when whiny ol' Franklin got it in Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Sometimes we identify with these characters, sometimes we care about them- and that makes it seem juuuust a little more brutal and a little more shocking when they get the axe.

Out, out, damn Franklin!

Rockoff also notes the perceived phallic nature of stabbing a victim- of entering their body in a brutal and violent fashion without their permission. This metaphor is used to bolster the argument that slasher movies are not only hyperviolent, but also they're inherently sexist and demeaning to women. To paraphrase Freud, however...sometimes a knife is just a knife. The argument is also weakened when one tallies up the number of men dispatched in these movies. Even Michael Myers, who spends his time killing his "sister" over and over again, does away with a fella or a dog every now and then.

One movie that seems to want us to believe that a drill can be much
more than just a drill is Slumber Party Massacre. In this trashy flick written and directed by women (feminist-lesbian writer Rita Mae Brown and Roger Corman editor Amy Jones, respectively), the freshly-escaped-from-the-nuthouse killer uses a 2-odd-foot drill to kill off high school girls (as well as a few unfortunate males). Slumber Party Massacre walks a very strange line, zigzagging between parody, exploitation, and social commentary. The box art/one-sheet is a photo shot from behind the killer, waist-down, with said drill dangling between his legs. As he taunts our Final Girl with his drill in the climactic showdown, he creepily mutters some date-rape speak: "C'mon...you know you want it". She responds by "castrating" an inch or two from his drill's tip. Lest you think it's all an empowering, sly parable about rape, however, the movie also smacks of the stereotypical: there's just about more boob shots in SPM than found in most slashers. Rather than strictly pandering to the male audience, maybe it's all just a big fantasy for Rita Mae Brown herself. Watch the movie and ask yourself, just how many female handymen (handywomen?) can one town have?

9 comments:

Carnacki said...

Ouch.

Great post.

Dorian said...

Carol Clover's book, Men, Women and Chainsaws also has a lot of really good discussion of the role of gender and mysogyny in slasher films, taking the posistion that the films are actually very pro-woman. I think she may have even been one of the first writers on horror to use the phrase "Final Girl" to describe a slasher film heroine.

Case said...

Hey-yo Stace!

Very cool blog!

I plan on writing a paper someday on the movie I feel is the Grandmother pattern of slasher films: Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Think about it.

HP said...

So, you consider TCM to be a slasher? I always lumped it in with The Hills Have Eyes, and by extension Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, and even Night of the Living Dead as a nihilistic, VietNam-syndrome film.

And where does the slasher fit vis-a-vis the Italian giallo or European krimi films? Granted, a lot of gialli are more like murder mysteries with ultraviolence, but what about Bay of Blood or The Last Night Train? Like TCM, most of these movies were made in the early '70s, and the slashers didn't really get started until '79.

Stacie Ponder said...

I'd consider TCM to be more of a..."pre-slasher", I guess. It's certainly not a by-the-numbers slasher, you're right. But it's got certain hallmarks that would follow in the genre proper: the masked killer, the trademark weapon, the final girl, etc. There's quite a few movies that's I'd put into this category- like Peeping Tom (1960), for example. As far as giallo goes, I've actually had very limited experience with them. But I'm a-learnin'! There are people who call Deep Red (1975) the first slasher, but for my money the first would be Black Christmas, from '74. I think it's still one of the best, too.

SikeGirl said...

I think the difference between the deaths of male characters in slashers versus the female characters furthers the misogyny argument. Male victims and animals tend to be dispatched with quickly. Female victims are often stalked, taunted, and terrorized for an extended period of time before they are killed. At least, that is the argument I've heard on the subject.

MovieHeretic said...

SikeGirl how then the final girl, or as l term it last gal standing. Slahers have tended to throw up strong female roles as opposed to normal mainstream horror which tends to view females as hopeless in any given situation.

There has been numerous attempts at an explanation of slasherdom, the most intriquing one l came across was far of growing up. Still thinking that one through.

A number of critics have written off slashers as simply misognist in nature and therefore not worth talking about. Maybe those same critics would like to check into mainstream movie making and apply the same blow torch in that neck of the woods.

Also there's quite a bit written about sex=death. Two cases in point from F13th which would tend to dispute this simplistic arguement 1) Annie in the original doesn't have time to get into the wild thing before becoming victim 1 from memory 2) Last Gal Ginny in Part 2 certain gets into some lovin action but is still around at the ending credits.

Simplistic analysis tends not to be supported by indepth reviewing of the movies.

Hope that helps.

Oops forgot to answer Stacie's point. Black Xmas is indeed viewed as the first slasher, however there is an arguement for an Italian movie which pre-dates it. Sorry have forgotten the title. I'll still go with Black Xmas though, as those whacky Canucks certainly hit the ground running with the movie.

SikeChick said...

MovieHeretic, the final girl is a strong character, but she goes through much physical, mental, and emotional abuse before her ultimate survival. She is tortured beyond belief in a number of instances from finding the mutilated corpses of her friends to fight for her life against some crazed maniac.

In many (not all) horror fims, the males are quickly knifed, bashed, slashed. They are rarely hunted down and taunted in the way their female counterparts are. Their bodies left for their unsuspecting female partners to find. Often the killer is waiting for her to make the inevitable discovery, to hear her scream before he ponces. Sometimes he allows her to run or she manages to escape and the killer has to give chase. These chases can last for a good while as we see a weeping, terrified young woman in fear for her life before she is 'finally' killed.

That is where many see the misogyny in the kills. In addition to the good girl lives/sluts die scenarios that seem to be the formula for many of the films. The males in the film, while often just as horny, aren't judged to have died for being horny. They are killed so that the killer can get to his real victim: the slutty girl.

This is me playing devil's advocate and trying to understand their arguments. I don't see misogyny in every horror film. I probably see much more in so-called mainstream films and television shows (I hate Rescue Me) which are far more popular and far less kind to the 'fairer' sex.

Amanda By Night said...

I agree with sikechick on Hollywood movies being much less kind to women. I'm thinking of one of my favorite movies, Body Double. People are always jaw-dropped when I say how much I love that movie. Talk about drills. But really, it's only a movie and I take all things with a grain of salt. The backlash against slashers was really just a couple of critics either reading too much into it or riding on a bandwagon. People forget that the audience CAN tell the difference between Jason and Viet Nam. Both lose/lose situations, but one is far less real. Geez!

There's an essay out there, and I forget where I read it, but it's about the Regan era and the popularity of slasher movies. Those films stood as a symbolic feeling towards the then-current movement of the country and the Cold War. Kind of like with Godzilla and WWII. I tend to be drawn towards that argument as it's much more intesting and original...

Great post Stacie. Women rule!