Last night I watched The Final Girls, Todd Strauss-Schulson's 2015 slasher parody about mourning. It's charming, touching, and mostly successful—and a great example of the reasons 2015 specifically and the '10s generally have been such great years for horror fans.
2015 was just a cornucopia of bloody fruit: the lush Gothic fantasy of Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak, David Cronenberg's nihilistic satire/poignant ghost story Maps to the Stars, and Jemaine Clement and Taika Watiti's vampire roommate comedy What We Do in the Shadows. There was Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a swoony, hazy black-and-white Iranian-Californian vampire disco noir romance—that happened. All of these movies were sublime, but even movies that were a bit more standard, like Austria's Goodnight Mommy, often showed vivid visual sensibility and a deep emotional resonance.
If the '80s were the decade of slashers, horror-comedy, and terrifying children's films, the '10s are shaping up to be a decade of sun-drenched heartache, featuring women. Essie Davis in The Babadook and Alex Essoe in Starry Eyes would have been up for the 2014 Oscars, in a world where the Oscars were an award and not a genre marker. Maika Monroe in 2015's It Follows isn't put through her paces the way Davis and Essoe are, but her movie has a lot of the hallmarks of the '10s: golden, glowing sunset hours; plots with fairly blunt, unsubtle relevance to our deepest fears and sorrows; an unironic love for horror predecessors; and a woman in the lead role. It Follows is one of the most memorable depictions of dread I've ever seen on screen. In its own way it, like The Babadook—and The Final Girls—is about facing up to it, accepting all that we must take in life. You can't bear it, but you don't have any choice.
It Follows and The Babadook are the dirges to The Final Girls's campfire song. Girls shares with It Follows inventively eerie music and classic literary references that double as horror-flick references, plus Babadook's focus on grief and motherhood. The movie stars Taissa Farmiga as Max, whose unsuccessful actress mother (Malin Akerman) played an early kill in an '80s cult classic, “Camp Bloodbath.” When Max and her friends are transported into the movie, Max must use the rules of the classic slasher to save her mom's character from the killer—which Max clearly hopes will bring her real, deceased mother back to life.
Girls wrings humor, beauty, and even pathos out of those old Betamax-cassette effects. I could have used more-authentic '80s dialogue—e.g. I am pretty sure “I've so got this” is a locution that postdates the Reagan era, and some of the humor feels self-conscious in a post-'80s way—and at times the Scream-style discussion of the rules of the slasher feels perfunctory. But the heart of the film is Max's relationship with her mother.
This relationship is explored in depth, whereas in a real '80s flick it would be sketched or alluded to. That willingness to depict emotional vulnerability, rather than symbolize and hint, is becoming one of the hallmarks of '10s horror. There is a scene here where Max watches her mother do a semi-striptease to Kim Carnes's “Bette Davis Eyes,” and instead of being perverse or funny it is wrenchingly sad.
I watched The Final Girls on YouTube for four bucks, which is another feature of '10s horror fandom. Streaming video has made indie horror vastly more accessible to fans. The past few years have brought in bumper crops of B+ horror from around the world: fun, unnecessarily thoughtful, poignant, often featuring implicit social commentary, about 90 minutes long and available for streaming. Contracted, Housebound, 13 Sins, Kill List, The Pact—curl up with a bowl of popcorn and any of these flicks and have yourself a scary good time. You can pick from fear of marriage (Honeymoon) or fear of gentrification (Mulberry Street) or fear of art (Mr. Jones); you can stream yourself a reactionary zombie satire (American Zombie) or a heartbreaking portrayal of caring for a parent with Alzheimer's (The Taking of Deborah Logan), and all of these are solid, satisfying horror shows.
At some point I started noticing just how many of the new horror films star women. Some of that is self-selection: I like stories about women and I seek them out. Some of it is a matter of old tropes given new emotional depth: the old, old story of the monster and the girl. I love that contemporary horror gives me so many fully-imagined women—and so varied, from the sullen semi-recovering addict in Housebound to the exhausted, harrowed daughter in Deborah Logan. (The latter movie actually features a triptych of women: the witch/victim crone, the caretaker, and the young investigator.)
But I also wonder if horror is good at telling stories about women because horror, almost by definition, focuses on the vulnerability of its characters. We have “scream queens” but not scream kings. Apparently men just don't suffer as prettily as women: About halfway through a recent horror marathon I realized I'd always be safe in one of these films, since I sleep in pants and a sweater instead of a tank top and bikini-cut underwear. The only “monster and the boy” flick I can think of off the top of my head is Jeepers Creepers. Sometimes we do get to see the vulnerability of the monster himself, as in Frankenstein. And literal boys, actual children, can be vulnerable. But the overall pattern is a pattern of female emotionality, female physical vulnerability and fear and suffering. Female acceptance, grief, hope, sacrificial love.
The old bumper-sticker slogan says, “Feminism is the radical belief that women are people”—to which the reactionary response is, “Feminism is the radical belief that women are men.” So much of mainstream feminism is about women taking on roles previously reserved to men. No longer must women be deferential, submissive, peacemakers, homemakers. No longer must we find meaning in suffering. Now we can exercise power, from the boardroom to the Pentagon.
Girls can play sports, girls can do science. We don't insist to our boys that they can paint and dance and hug one another, and learn to accept suffering.
There are a handful of recent horror films that do focus on men suffering and surrendering. Stonehearst Asylum, from the director of 2001's gorgeous Session 9, is a smart and twisty movie that honors male vulnerability, both physical and emotional. I've been pushing Resolution since I saw it in 2012: A man travels to backwoods California to force his friend to quit drugs, and as one friend becomes saner the other seems to be unraveling. It's an attack on the audience, an interrogation of our need for “closure”; it's funny and gritty and weird.
Maybe action films are where we see men's vulnerability these days: Iron Man, Mad Max. (Marvel's whole shtik since the '60s has been wounded supermen.) But action flicks typically end on a note of triumph or at least gritty perseverance, rather than the humiliated acceptance with which even relatively hopeful horror films often close.
Persephone, name-checked in The Final Girls, is a great archetype for horror. But why not Orpheus—or Jesus?
Eve Tushnet is a lesbian and celibate Catholic freelance writer. She studied philosophy at Yale University, where she was received into the Catholic Church in 1998. She writes from D.C., and has been published in (among others) Commonweal, First Things, The National Catholic Register, National Review, and The Washington Blade. Eve blogs at Patheos.com.