Welcome to Halloween Week 2015! Over the course of the week, you will hear from guest authors, bloggers, and your very own Book Smugglers about all things Halloween–including reviews of horror novels and films, essays on the genre, and any number of spooky topics in between.
Continuing with this year’s Halloween Week, we have guest author Carlie St. George taking a look at Horror Movies and the Final Girl.
So, I love horror movies. I love all kinds of horror movies, and I watch them for all kinds of reasons, not just because I hope they’ll scare me. It can definitely be a problematic genre, though, particularly when it comes to slasher flicks. For one thing, there’s that whole tendency towards punishing sexually active women, which, honestly, I’m not even going to get into today.
There’s also predictability.
In movies, masked killers don’t just happen to anybody. They happen to virtuous final girls who have mysterious family ties to the antagonist. They happen to mean girls and their beer-guzzling boyfriends. They happen to teenagers whose poor life choices ended up with someone dead . . . and now that person is back for revenge!
We all know who’s going to show up in a horror movie. Worse, we generally know who’s going to survive, and this is where I think the genre falls down: not only does it routinely give us characters we don’t care about, we usually know the outcome of the film in the first ten minutes. The mystery, if there is one at all, always centers on the identity of the killer. It never centers on the identity of the survivors.
As both a writer and a horror movie enthusiast, what I’d really love to see is a shift toward ensemble, character-based horror. I know it’s unlikely, and honestly, I really do enjoy a lot of campy, non-character-based films. (The Friday the 13th franchise, for instance, has a special little place in my heart.) But I don’t generally find them particularly frightening, either, and I think one way to make horror movies scarier and even more awesome is to follow these two guidelines:
A. Create a cast of characters who your audience will actually care about.
B. Be prepared to kill off any of them.
Let’s address likable characters first.
This isn’t just about moving past stereotypes and subverting tropes, although really, that’s never a bad idea. (Maybe your dumb cheerleader is secretly a Batman nerd. Maybe your sweet final girl also curses like a sailor. Nobody in life is just one thing or the other.) It’s more about the idea that horror is considerably more engaging (and thus frightening) if you’re actually invested in who lives or dies. That’s not a particularly groundbreaking concept, and yet horror movies are chockfull of unlikable characters, probably because the creators want you to cheer at their bloody demises.
That’s understandable, to an extent, but it also works best when you only have one dude who qualifies as the Worst Person Alive. Because you have to remember: you’re gonna be forced to listen to that jock date rapist open his mouth and say awful things for a solid 45 minutes before he takes an axe to the face. If you can’t stand the greater majority of characters in a scary movie, you’re suffering through a lot of needless unpleasantness for a relatively short, bloody catharsis.
One of the worst examples I can think of when it comes to this? V/H/S. And to be fair, a lot of people really enjoyed this movie. I was not one of them.
There are really only two kinds of characters in V/H/S:
A. People who are too dumb to live.
B. People who appear to be card-carrying members of some kind of secret Skeevy Misogyny Club.
Somehow, the latter group far outnumbers the former, and here’s the thing: this level of total ickiness? It’s not only gross; it actually just gets dull after a while. “Oh, look, there’s another waste of human flesh walking around? Call me when something eats him. I’ve got stuff to do.” Because that’s my problem with so many horror movies: it’s pretty hard to be scared of anything when you’re just bored out of your mind.
Creating likable characters, though—and not just one geeky sidekick but a whole cast of people you’re actively rooting for—that’s way more exciting. I can think of a few horror movies where I actively cared about the fate of more than one person involved, but honestly, not very many. Actually, Don’t Blink–which is, admittedly, more psychological horror–gives more personality to its characters in the first ten minutes than you see from most slasher vics in their entire movies. (I might have despised how Don’t Blink resolved, but credit where credit’s due: it’s a pretty interesting film, up until those last five minutes, anyway.)
So, what do I mean when I say “likable”? Can the characters be flawed? Of course they can be flawed. Think about it: if likable people had to be 100% perfect, you wouldn’t actually have any friends. What I’m talking about are characters with actual personalities, people with preferably more than one character trait, who are funny, who banter, who you want to succeed.
To get a better idea of what I’m going for here, think of an ensemble movie from any other genre. Actually, I’ll just give you one: Ocean’s Eleven. Now, try to imagine the gang from Ocean’s Eleven getting stuck at some creepy motel. Maybe they were road tripping from one casino to the next? Doesn’t matter. What matters is this: they’ve accidentally traveled into a horror movie and are now being murdered one by one.
And . . . I don’t know, am I the only one excited by that? Because just by changing the type and caliber of character, you have automatically raised the stakes. After all, failure doesn’t just mean jail time anymore. Jail time means grisly death, hopefully by chainsaws. And you don’t want a chainsaw death for Danny Ocean, do you, unless you just really hate George Clooney and his stupidly handsome face. You don’t want it for the Malloy Twins and their lightning-quick games of 20 Questions. I know I wouldn’t want it for my beloved Rusty Ryan. Who will eat all the snacks, if someone’s disemboweled Rusty with a machete?
Don’t care about Ocean’s Eleven? No worries. Make Inception a horror movie instead. The Avengers. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Veronica Mars. Teen Wolf. Your favorite Star Trek TV show. Your favorite Wes Anderson movie. Empire Records. Kill Bill. I know that’s not entirely fair because some of these choices have had a lot more time to build character than your average horror movie. But I think the point remains valid: the more you care about the characters, the more terrifying the movie will be. It’s scarier purely because your investment in the return is so much higher.
Which brings us to the second rule: Game of Thrones this bad boy and be prepared to kill anyone.
Who’s the final girl in Ocean’s Eleven? Well, Tess is kind of the default, considering there aren’t actually any other women in that movie, but let’s just ignore her for a moment, shall we? Excluding Tess . . . well, it has to be Danny, right? He’s the protagonist, the leader, the only one in the movie with a love story and something to lose?
Yeah. Kill the hell out of Danny. Tess, too.
The problem with final girls–other than the goodhearted cardboard in which their personalities are so often crafted from–is just how predictable they are. You start watching I Know What You Did Last Summer, and you already know Jennifer Love Hewitt is your heroine. She may or may not actually survive, but you know she’ll be the last girl standing. You will never watch that movie and mistake Sarah Michelle Gellar for being a survivor, just like you’ll never watch Scream and think, “Maybe Tatum will make it to the end instead of Sydney.” It just doesn’t happen.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In the original Alien, it’s not immediately obvious that Ripley is your protagonist. In Pitch Black, Radha Mitchell seems bound to survive; instead, it’s Vin Diesel. (Also, obviously, Jack.) In Feast, they change the identity of the hero/heroine three times before the film ends. Horror doesn’t have to be lazy and predictable in order to be an awesome good time.
So, for the love of God: change up your survivors. Don’t make your final girl the most obvious person in the film; preferably, don’t shape the movie around one person at all. Have fun with it; make it a mystery, one with lots of viable suspects. If we’re talking Ocean’s Eleven, your final girl could be Yen or Livingston Dell. If we’re going the more traditional slasher route, maybe it’s the goth girl or the supposedly slutty best friend.
In movies, masked killers don’t just happen to anybody. In movies, only certain kinds of people can survive, but the genre would be much more entertaining if we actually liked those people pre-mortem. And scary movies would definitely be more terrifying if they could just embrace the truth that, in real life, masked killers could happen to anyone. They could happen to me, and they could happen to you.
Life is like a box of razor-filled chocolates, folks.
Carlie St. George is a Clarion West graduate whose work has been published in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Shock Totem, and Shimmer. Her obsession with noir can be linked to unfulfilled career aspirations as a private detective, and a love of stylish hats. Her obsession with fairy tales can be blamed almost entirely on her sister. Follow Carlie online on her website mygeekblasphemy.com.