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 18, 2005

Recess

I'd been hoping to continue my "What makes a slasher?" series, but I've been so so so mired in comic book deadlines that it's been difficult for me to do much else besides sling ink. I did take time out to watch a movie, though- 1981's Happy Birthday to Me , starring Melissa Sue Anderson and her extremely dry, damaged hair.

Anderson is Ginny, a member of the "Top Ten" students at prep school- they're the rich kids, the popular ones- and they all wear matching stripey scarves and black leather gloves. This serves to unite them in their coolness, because stripey scarves are cool.

The movie wastes no time getting to the goods as Top Tenner Bernadette is offed on her way to hang out with the gang at the pub. While starting her car, she's strangled by a black gloved hand that pops up from the back seat. In a move I've never before seen in one of these flicks, Bernadette plays dead. The killer loosens his grip for a moment and Bernadette runs out of the car. I am so adding that to my repertoire of moves! Now, my repertoire totals 1. Lest we think Bernadette is too smart, however, she doesn't exactly run away when she escapes the car. Instead, she runs about 50 feet away and stands there. The killer comes again...and she runs a bit further away. "Get the fuck outta there" is clearly not in her vocabulary. Then, a figure approaches that Bernadette takes to be a friend- "Oh, it's you- you have to help me!". But alas, out comes a straight razor and it's bye bye Bernie. So...now we know that the killer is a friend- and one of the Top Ten! Those gloves...those gloves! Any one of them could be the killer!

But...which one? At the pub, we meet the rest of the gang: there's Etienne- the exchange student, Rudi- the obnoxious one, the bland girlfriends, and Alfred- the nerdy taxidermy student. How he fits into the clique, I'm not really sure, but his course of study provides ample opportunity for the gang to make side-splitting puns along the lines of "Aw, stuff it, Arnold!" The Top Tenners are forced to leave the pub after they antagonize a bunch of Shriners so much that fisticuffs are threatened. When they all split, we get to see how cool they really are...the drawbridge down the road is going up, and they all jump the gap in their expensive cars. When the car Ginny's in goes over the gap, Ginny totally and completely flips out. We're talking hysterics, screaming, thrashing about...and when the car stops, she flees toward home- and a quick stop at her mother's graveside. Well, it was on the way, after all. While trimming the grass around the headstone, Ginny tells her mother not to worry- "They all like me now, mother...". Hmm. Whatever could she mean?

The next day in school, The Top Ten...well, Nine, now that Bernadette's gone...are all crammed next to each other at a lab table for science class. The professor gives a little electrical jolt to some severed frog legs. This not only causes the muscles in the legs to contract, but it also causes an extreme closeup on Ginny, as the screen turns red and the camera spins- flashback! Something something Virginia-as-guinea-pig something brain surgery something scientific mumbo jumbo something something salamanders have regenerative qualities so we'll use them on your brain tissue to help after the accident something WHAT?! OK, so Ginny's got some past issues that will be coming to light eventually. Pretty soon, everything is triggering a flashback for Ginny, from a scolding by the headmistress to someone telling Alfred that the prosthetic Bernadette head he made (yeah, you read that right) is sick...sick...sick...sick...sick...echo into grisly brain surgery scene!

Meanwhile, someone's still offing the cool kids. The exchange student gets his stripey scarf tossed into a spinning motorcycle wheel- while it's still around his neck. Face grinding yuckiness. Greg, the jock of the bunch, is doing the benchpress when a familiar figure comes in. Greg asks the figure to put more weight on the crossbar. As Greg struggles with the enormously heavy bar, the black gloved hands (gasp!) reach for a 25-pounder and drop it squarely on Greg's...err...Greg Jr. Greg drops the bar onto his neck, killing himself in splatty fashion. Bleargh.

It's not just the the matching outfits that lead us down many a red herring path; there's also the fact that all of these kids are just plain weird. They stare at each other vacantly, slightly menacingly, and say things like "I have a knife..." in a calm, creepy serial killer type voice. They make stuffed heads of each other and steal each other's undergarments. Pfft. Rich kids. The trickery is finally over and the killer is revealed when Ginny once again visits her mother's grave after dark. Uh oh, here comes Alfred sneaking up behind Ginny. As he reaches into his pocket to grab something, Ginny turns around and stabs him in the gut with her trimmers! What the...? Ginny? But Alfred...he was reaching for something...and when he falls dying, his hand slowly opens to reveal what he was reaching for. A single...white...rose. It is such a tragic and tender scene, I'm not lying when I tell you that I cried. OK, yes I am. But Ginny's the killer! Now...to the dance!

That's right- the dance. Ginny's dancing with Steve, the druggy Top Tenner, and she's acting awfully aggressively. She invites him back to her place- her dad's away on business, you see. He'll be back for her birthday on Sunday, but for now they have the house to themselves, and killin' just makes a gal so dang horny! They have a little wine in front of the fire and Ginny goes to fetch the snack: shish-ka-bobs. She starts feeding Steve chunks of meat- how romantic. The next thing you know, she's jammed the skewer right into the back of his mouth! Dead!

With the help of her shrink, Ginny finally pieces together her fractured memories to help the viewer understand what the hell is going on. Years ago, Ginny's mom planned a birthday party for her, to which all the rich kids were invited. No one showed- they all went to another party instead. This sends Ginny's mom into a drunken tizzy and she drags Ginny to the other party, only to be denied entry. It seems Ginny's mom had a bit of a reputation- she was the "Town Pump" as my grandmother would call her. No way would such trash be allowed to mingle with the Top Ten! Well, that tears it- Ginny and her mom get into the car, mom's driving drunk, the
drawbridge is going up...and into the drink goes the car. Ginny manages to escape, but mom doesn't.

Phew! To thank her doctor for helping her recover her memory, Ginny bludgeons him to death. What a freakin' nutter! Dad makes good on his promise to be home for Ginny's birthday and finds blood all over the house. He runs out to the cottage behind the house to find his dead wife's exhumed coffin...and his daughter Ginny throwing a corpse birthday party. Yup, all the rich kids who missed her party years ago are here now! They're dead, but they're there and that's what counts. Ginny thanks her father for coming and then kills him. She walks over to a party guest who's slumped over on the table and lifts the head to reveal...GINNY! Again, I say- what the?! In an attempt to have as many twists endings as possible (this movie is like porn for M. Night Shyamalan, I tell ya), Ginny the killer pulls off her face to reveal that she's really Ann, Ginny's friend and fellow Top Tenner. Where the fuck are Velma and Daphne at this point? Anyway, yes, it turns out that Ginny's slutty mom had slept with Ann's slutty dad, and hence Ginny was brought unto the world, which ruined Ann's family. Ann's been so pissed about it all this time that she murdered all these people to pin the blame on Ginny and ruin her life. Nyah! Well, they struggle, and Ginny stabs Ann dead. As her bad luck would have it, though, a cop walk in as Ginny stands amongst the bodies, holding a knife...zing! No one wins!

Happy Birthday to Me is a fair-to-middling slasher. It certainly made an attempt at originality with all those twists and turns, and it's got some very creative death scenes. I remember the death-by-shish-ka-bob from the pages of Fangoria way back when. It's certainly not scary, however, and there's something about it that's lackluster for all its originality. Overall, I'd give it 5 out of 10 matching stripey scarves.

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?

Jul 11, 2005

Take Out Your Notebooks, Part I

Hey, what's this blog all about, anyway? What separates the "slasher" from any other horror movie? I was asked by a friend to define the genre...a movie about Jeffrey Dahmer would be about a psycho- would that be a slasher? No. In Midwest Obsession, Courtney Thorne-Smith goes after Tracey Gold with a knife, is that a slasher? As much as I love that movie, no, it's not. Yeah, you read that right- Midwest Obsession falls on the "good-bad" side of the "good-bad/bad-bad" line for me, as a majority of Lifetime movies do. How can you not love a movie where Ms. Thorne-Smith not only dresses like a member of Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation while attempting to dispatch Ms. Gold, but also utters classic lines such as "You may recognize me. I'm the Dairy Princess!"?!? Oops, sorry. Off on a tangent there. So...what makes a slasher a slasher?

A good place to start to learn about the genre is Adam Rockoff's excellent book, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986. Rockoff gives an overview of the slasher's heyday, and also provides plot synopses, stills, and background info on most of the films of the period. I'll use his book as a jumping-off point.

While inevitably there will be movies that straddle genres- heck, there's even rare movies that define a new genre- films defined as "slashers" tend to play by a certain set of rules and contain specific elements. Let's start with the most obvious: THE KILLER. As Rockoff puts it, the killer is
usually an ordinary person who has suffered some terrible-and sometimes not so terrible- trauma.
The trauma can be inflicted upon the killer or a family member, it matters not. Conveniently, these events tend to occur on a date easily remembered: see April Fool's Day, My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me, Prom Night, Mother's Day...the list goes on. On the anniversary of this special day, the killer sets out to avenge him/herself or the family member done wrong by killing those responsible (as poor Kenny did to the ones who made him twirl around in Terror Train), symbolic representations of the guilty (Friday the 13th), or relatives of the perpetrators (A Nightmare on Elm Street). So you see, the killer isn't usually just some random psycho- he's a psycho with a vendetta. The biggest exception to this rule is of course Halloween, which strived very hard (and succeeded) in emphasizing that Michael Myers is ephemeral, almost supernatural. There's no explaining him- he's the boogeyman. The events that cause someone to become a killer are often shown in a prologue so we know the killer's motivations. To my mind, vengeance killing is alot less frightening than the "pure evil" of a boogeyman, but that's another essay entirely. Jason Voorhees has taken on some supernatural elements since his beginnings- indestructibility and re-generation, for example- but this stems from the success of his first film and thoughts of "franchise" more than anything else.

But what about gender? Aren't the killers always men who want to cut up pretty young women? Nope- not always. There are plenty of slashers with a female killer, such as Night School, Friday the 13th, Happy Birthday to Me, and Sleepaway Camp 2 & 3. Most often, the killer's gender is kept ambiguous- at times, such as in Friday the 13th, tricks are employed to point to a male killer: Mrs. Voorhees drove a truck, wore boots and flannel. Had she driven that truck to Lilith Fair, we might not have been so surprised when she turned out to be a she. But as it was, even when we finally saw her, we thought she was there to help! Shock, surprise! Sleepaway Camp Part 1 is another story altogether, however, when the she turns out to be a he...ah, good old Angela.

Now that we have a decent idea of just who's stalking in these movies and why, we can dig into other elements that make a slasher a slasher and not a Lifetime Movie. I'll continue on with the lesson in the next post. In the meantime, keep your eyes on your own paper, or else!

Jul 6, 2005

I can't see a damn thing!

Yet another flick on the remake chopping block is John Carpenter's 1980 ghost story, The Fog. Yep, it's slated for an October release and comes complete with the now-essential WB Fresh-Faced All-Star cast (Tom Welling of Smallville, Selma Blair of Hellboy). Now, I know I shouldn't knock it before it's out, and I won't...although I CANNOT HELP but point out that the man at the helm of this movie, director Rupert Wainwright, also brought us Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em: The Movie. I feel that was my duty. Other than that note, however, I will remain cautiously optimistic, even given my love for Carpenter's version. I swear. But...no Tom Atkins or Adrienne Barbeau...OK. That's it, I mean it this time. Would've been cool if they had cast Jamie Lee Curtis in the role her mother played in the original, just as a nod to geeks like me.

I'm actually more excited about Dark Horse Comics putting out a prequel comic, with input from Carpenter himself. Written by Dark Horse's editor-horror guru Scott Allie, it'll show the backstory to the curse over Antonio Bay, and how the fog got to be so durned nasty. With a cover by Hellboy maestro Mike Mignola, I'm all a-twitter. You can read more about the comic here, courtesy of Jen Contino and comicon.com's The Pulse.

While the original The Fog didn't thrill alot of people, I always found it to be an atmospheric, spooky ghost story with a strong EC comics-vibe...which is exactly what John Carpenter and the late Debra Hill intended. It'll be interesting to see how the story is told for today's audience. Will Mr. Wainwright keep with the quiet, dark atmosphere for the chills, or will be it more in line with what qualifies as horror today: jokes, nonchalance, and a heavy metal soundtrack? Moreover, will the audience get the shivers when, at the film's end, Stevie Wayne coos:
I don't know what happened to Antonio Bay tonight. Something came out of the fog and tried to destroy us. In one moment, it vanished. But if this has been anything but a nightmare, and if we don't wake up to find ourselves safe in our beds, it could come again. To the ships at sea who can hear my voice, look across the water, into the darkness. Look for the fog.