Friday, October 3, 2014

an american original

...woe to the viewer of Friday the Thirteenth I who identifies with the male killer only to discover, in the film’s final sequence, that he was not a man at all but a middle-aged woman. (Clover, 1992, p. 44)

Friday the 13th, like Halloween (and Peeping Tom, after some establishing shots) before it, begins with the first-person POV of a killer. It’s a common element in the slasher film that we take on the role of the killer. And, it’s not an accident that slasher films tend to follow the killers from film to film, with the victims being (mostly) interchangeable.

(Awesome sidenote, considering that time I made a parallel between Groundhog Day and slasher films: the old crazy guy who tries to warn Annie away from going to “Camp Blood” is named Ralph, just like one of the guys Phil drinks with.)

The audience for slasher films, myself (and my sisters) included, doesn’t go into the theater (or the living room, with a rented copy) for a sequel to one of these things to find a bunch of characters with serious depth. In the Friday the 13th films, for example, we expect some sort of campers, most of them probably about to make some very poor decisions, and several of which (if not all but one) are going to die. And, as the slasher genre got older, the violence got more graphic and/or more silly. For the former, look to Halloween IV for example—Michael grabbing the guy driving the pickup truck, and digging his fingers into his flesh, when in the original, we can’t even see what damage the knife really does to Annie because of the fogged windows.

(An aside, I rather like that Annie, the girl we were introduced to in town, who gets a ride with, well, us driving, does not end up being the Final Girl. Twenty minutes into the movie, she’s had probably had more screen time than anyone else—though Alice did have the added level of characterization with her artistic ability and the head counselor hitting on her. But, Annie hitched a ride with the wrong POV and she’s about to be dead.)

Hell, speaking of increasingly graphic violence (and to confuse the parenthetical/non-parenthetical structure here), look at this Annie’s death versus Halloween‘s Annie’s death. The earlier Annie gets a little more brutal death, maybe, with the extended strangulation, ending with Michael bringing out the knife. This Annie gets an chase into the woods, then has her throat cut and we get to linger on her as the open wound bleeds. As for silly violence, look to Jason swinging the girl in the sleeping bag into a tree in Part VII or punching that guy’s head off in Part VIII.

Anyway, my point was about how we follow the killers not the victims. Sure, we like it when the Final Girl fights back—though I didn’t see the film in the theater, I still remember the trailer for Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, with that moment where Lar Park Lincoln’s Tina Shepard uses her psychokinesis to slam that hanging lamp into Jason’s face—

This moment:
[attempt to embed video removed]
LINK in case the embedding isn’t working.

—that moment was awesome, something to look forward to. Of course, in the meantime, we the capricious audience would cheer Jason on as he kills a few other people.

(Meanwhile, Marcie got some depth with her telling Jack about her dream with the bloody rain... it’s like this movie doesn’t know what the Final Girl is supposed to be. Of course, at this point in the lifespan of the slasher film, the Final Girl has not become a constant yet.)

It’s a far more serious study than I have time for, but I wonder just what it is that gets us in there, cheering on the murder. I mean, the filmmakers force us into that role, but after one of these movies, we know that, and we go in for seconds, and thirds, and more. We choose to look through the killers’ eyes. We choose to watch all this death. Is the catharsis in vicariously killing or vicariously surviving?

(Just as Alice is about to lose her shirt playing strip monopoly, the weather interrupts. Her skill at monopoly—I mean, Brenda was already down to her underwear—and her apparent virginality (trademark) here mark her apart even though we don’t, at this point in 1980, know what the Final Girl is.)

Briefel’s (2009) argument in regards to horror films involving ghosts, I think, holds true with slasher films as well; we can feel more alive by watching these other people die, knowing that it is fake. The act of death becomes a fictional construct, something we can control with a pause or rewind. We might be a little more afraid of the dark after watching the right amount of slasher films, but ultimately, we know there’s probably nothing lurking in the darkness, nothing holding an axe, nothing holding a chain saw, nothing holding a machete or a butcher’s knife, or wielding knife blades on his (its) fingers. Briefel argues that “the genre of spectral incognizance” (i.e. stories about ghosts who don’t know they’re ghosts) turn death into “an event that can be overlooked” (p. 96). But, I would take it that extra level further; all horror films, presenting us with the death of others for our entertainment—horrified entertainment, maybe, but still entertainment—turns death into something we can “overlook.”

Yesterday, I wrote about how horror films, especially Halloween comfort me because I’ve been watching them since I was very young, but I think horror films, slasher films probably more than many others, all ultimately work to comfort us, because of that effect; our lives are made better because the lives of all of those interchangeable victims are put to a violent end, often with us in the POV, killing them. In the movie Brainscan, there’s a video game that puts you in the role of stalking and killing people, effectively hypnotizing you into the reality of the game. I wonder, how many slasher film fans would revel in playing such a game. We might not admit it, but probably a whole lot of us.

(Speaking of graphic violence, by the way, how about that shot of Mrs. Voorhees’ head being chopped off.

Works Cited

Briefel, A. (2009). What Some Ghosts Don’t Know: Spectral Incognizance and the Horror Film. Narrative 17:1. pp. 95-110.

Clover, C.J. (1992). Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

2 comments:

  1. Very interesting stuff. The fascination of horror is a subject that is deeper than, well, a bottomless pit. I'm really glad you touched on the idea of comfort, because that to me is a huge component of horror films and one which seems paradoxical. It's a long time since a horror film scared me, sometimes they pleasantly spook me, but on the whole horror films have comforted me-- they make me feel cosy and, somehow, snug. Maybe this is childhood associations of watching them. Maybe it is a fondness for their aesthetic properties-- darkness, old houses, the colour black, the moon etc. But sometimes I think it is a strange relief, and release, that you are mentally inhabiting a world where the worst has happened-- or if not the worst, necessarily, than a world where it's OK to be paranoid and fatalistic and you don't have to rein in your darkest fantasies any more. There is something pleasantly regressive in that. As for identfying with the killer in slasher movies...the only slasher movies I really like are Halloween and Scream. I don't think I identify with the killer in either of them, although there does seem to be a certain aspect of the sublime to both ghostface and Michael Myers.

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  2. The funny thing about Ft13th is that the one main character who DOES get fleshed out, let alone an entire arc over the course of several films, is Tommy Jarvis. Which is a subversion of the whole slasher genre notion of the "Final Girl" as the main character.

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