Queens of the big scream
At first glance the slasher film comes across as a feminist’s worst nightmare: teenage boys queue up to watch girls being slashed to pieces by the maddest man in town. But a closer analysis reveals greater complexities. The key text in slasher studies remains Carol Clover’s indispensable Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. In such films, Glover says, the toughest, most resilient female – whom she famously named the “final girl” – is the one who eventually vanquishes the masked nutcase. The movies are structured to nudge even the most unreconstructed male viewer towards acceptance of a female protagonist: a phallic knife is wielded at the last minute; often the character has a unisex name. (If the book sounds a bit dense, watch Craven’s Scream, from 1996, which makes the same arguments through the medium of blood-soaked celluloid.)
Clover’s argument reveals a lingering puritanism in American film. The final girl is usually the brightest woman in the dormitory. But she is also invariably the most conventionally moral of the bunch. Michael Myers, the lumbering villain in Halloween, has no trouble chopping up the boozy fornicators, but hard-working, sober Jamie Lee Curtis is a different matter. He could probably do away with Janice Joplin in an instant, but he would have had a harder time with Doris Day.
Moreover, Clover can’t shift the notion – indeed, she doesn’t try – that the final avenging victim has to be female, because too many male viewers wouldn’t accept unfettered terror from somebody of their own gender. So even the brave, resilient final girl can’t quite escape patriarchal assumptions about the fragility of the fairer sex.
Still, attitudes have shifted a little. A year after Halloween hit cinemas, Sigourney Weaver hammered extraterrestrials in Alien. James Cameron later cast Linda Hamilton as another tough woman in the Terminator films. Both characters were far too stoic to qualify as scream queens.
With Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), Josh Whedon deliberately created a protagonist who failed to match the template of the final girl. Buffy is certainly smart and she is certainly hard to kill. But she is also a cheerleader – usually the first to get butchered – and the horror gods even permit her to have sex.
So is the classic scream queen a thing of the past? Such durable cinematic conventions rarely perish. “I think it’s 50-50,” Danielle Harris says. “You have to have the victims. You still have to have the dumb bimbos with the big boobs that run the wrong direction. There is a balance. But there are also now the heroines that become defined through struggle.”
And is “scream queen” a fair description of those characters? “Hey, if the word ‘queen’ is in the title. I’ll take it.”
The Horrorthon Film Festival is at the Irish Film Institute from Thursday until Monday week