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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Queer Appeal of Slasher Films

As a tike, I was introduced to the world of movies by my father. My earliest recollections of film are of weekend “buddy days” spent with Dad and being enthralled by those over-the-top Irwin Allen disaster flicks of the 70s, like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. Populated by B-list actors (either on their way up or on their way down their career ladder) who struggled to survive disasters natural and otherwise amidst paper-thin melodrama, these earliest cinematic experiences could very easily explain my fondness for camp. Then, at the age of 8, my father took me to see Jaws. It took me four successive attempts to get through the entire movie, each time getting slightly further into the narrative before pleading with my ever-patient father to leave. I had discovered controlled fear – and I was in love. Hooked on horror, I eagerly gobbled up episodes of The Night Stalker, cowered as I watched Kim Darby battle little green demons in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and damn near wet the bed after surviving the third act of Trilogy of Terror.

At the age of ten, my horror journey took a fateful turn as I sat in a darkened theater beside faithful Dad, munching popcorn as stark piano notes heralded the arrival of John Carpenter’s Halloween. That movie-going experience was the cementing force of my devotion to all things horror and was the beginning of my love affair with the slasher film (and Jamie Lee Curtis ~ but more about that in a subsequent entry). Yes, I love slasher films – that often cannibalized sub-genre of horror that critics dismiss, actors renounce from their resumes, and the religious right blames for the collective ills of the world. In articulating my worship of slasher movies and their lure, I’ll refrain from setting out to prove any particular hypothesis through in-depth analysis of the hidden subtext of slasher fare; I’ll leave that to people with far greater analytical minds and far more time on their hands. Slasher films became for me what Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and the cavalcade of other Universal monsters were to my father’s generation. They’ve come to represent that magical time of imagination and discovery somewhere between childhood and adulthood, when grown-up uncertainties could be explored under the protective security of adolescence.

Being a creature of habit, perhaps it is the rote formula of the slasher film that agrees with me. Riddled with more clichés than an old episode of Dynasty, the great slasher films of the 80s generally possess five basic elements. There are the stock characters – usually a stereotypical mix of teenagers that include cardboard cutout jocks, practical jokesters, bimbos, and nerds – who bumble through a formulaic plot that involves the hapless group traveling to an isolated location and being systematically picked off one-by-one by an unseen (or often glimpsed) killer. The 80s slasher films employed highly inventive killings that elevated special make-up effects to an art form – creating bona fide celebrities out of the previously invisible make-up artist. The films all focus on a prolonged final chase scene between the killer and the solitary heroine, a preeminent character in slasher fare that author Carol J. Clover coins the “Final Girl” in her book Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. This heroine is generally painted as more virtuous than the rest of the group. She refrains from all vices (drug use, sexual exploration) and is usually the one who cautions the group not to go to the location they find themselves in and figures out that something wicked this way comes before anyone else. Finally, 80s slasher movies include the false ending element, that moment following the audience’s collective sigh of relief that the on-screen horror is over when one more all-out scare jumps off the theater screen. Fans will remember these cinematic moments of pure jolt as the stuff of scary film memories; cynics will dismiss this once-unexpected moment as the brainchild of studio execs who forecasted sequel dollars.

Arguably, film scholars will point to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho as the first modern slasher film to combine thematic sexuality, (implied) gore, the mentally disturbed killer, and an isolated setting. I would offer that cinema’s first slasher film was actually the 1945 film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which served as a precursor to the modern slasher formula with its tale of ten people on an isolated island being manipulated and killed off one-by-one for the sins of their past by an unseen killer in inventive ways. Indeed, the best and most enduring slashers are the ones with an element of murder mystery at their core – Black Christmas (1974), Friday the 13th (1980), Terror Train (1980), Happy Birthday to Me (1981), Curtains (1983). But it was 1978’s Halloween that served as the catalyst for the slasher movement of the 1980s. Although preceded by the films of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and the popular gialli films that came out of Italy in the early to mid-1970s, Halloween holds the distinction of ushering in the golden age of slasher films. Together with Friday the 13th, Carpenter’s low-budget masterpiece would go on to span countless sequels and inspire myriad knockoffs and serial killer icons.

OK…so what the hell do slasher films have to do with the queer experience? Is there a connection between slasher movies and queer culture? To the naked eye, these films seem to be the antithesis of must-see queer viewing; so what is the queer appeal of films permeated by senseless violence, misogyny, and poor fashion?

Gays identify with the sense of isolation the characters in slasher films face. In a film like Happy Birthday to Me, for example, one can see an allegorical parallel between the mental isolation Melissa Sue Anderson’s heroine faces as she struggles to trust her conflicting memories of a past trauma amidst the carnage of her friends and the mental isolation GLBT individuals face as they grapple with the incongruence of conflicting societal views, religious beliefs, and familial attitudes regarding their homosexuality

Slasher films also serve as an outlet for the societal fears gays face in their everyday lives. For gays who’ve chosen to embrace their sexual orientation, navigating in a world fraught with prejudice, discrimination, and the threat of physical harm from gay bashings, the characters in slasher films provide a conduit through which those fears can be examined on a subconscious level. The characters who hesitantly stumble around the unfamiliar turf of their unseen enemy in the modern slasher yarn represent us as the GLBT members of society who must also circumspectly traverse the dangers of life in a dissimilar heterosexual world.

There is also an interesting metaphorical comparison that can be drawn between the transformation of the slasher film’s “final girl” and the coming out process. In the beginning of the slasher film, the heroine usually presents as weak, timid, uncertain of how to navigate through the situation she finds herself in; for gays, this uncertainty is the same in the coming out process. As the film progresses, the heroine transforms…she toughens and becomes confident in her abilities to overcome the malevolence stalking her. For GLBT people, they, too, transform during the coming out process; they develop a thicker skin…they summon the courage to confront the unseen enemy of homophobia waiting for them around every darkened corner. On a more superficial level, this “final girl” also represents great appeal for the gay male community, coinciding with our long-standing predilection for strong female characters in the arts. For gay men, the “final girl” is our slasher film fag hag.

Finally, there is the idea of sexual repression and its devastating and dangerous effects in both the slasher film and in queer culture. (We’ll save the whole over-bearing mother-thing for an entirely different discussion!) In the world of slasher films, this suppression of natural sexual urges results in the creation of a demented serial killer; in queer culture, we call the denial of sexual orientation a closet case. Just think about how many cinematic victims would have been spared if Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers had acted upon those teenage urges in their sleeping bags at Boy Scout camp…

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