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The Horror genre has long been considered a ghetto by the average critic. It’s best films often retconned as Thrillers by the mainstream, it’s characters lamented as shallow archetypes and it’s violence as reprehensible and dangerous. Despite modern moviegoers cyclical embrace of the genre and the current horror vogue at the box office critical thought remains largely unchanged. The rise of gender politics to the world stage may very well change that as it seems to have produced a renewed interest in the critical analysis of Horror by theorists such as Clover, Creed, Wood, and Ettinger.

 

The Final Girl was the first to undergo this resurgence in interest and currently, we are experiencing a reinvigoration of the Witch archetype not only in critical thought but in cinema itself where the Witch has been freed from the patriarchal shackles of history and recast as a Feminist icon. While long overdue in my opinion and a change that will likely see many more essays, blog posts and master theses in the coming years, my interest still lies in that grimiest of ghettos, the Slasher film. It's the unsung Female Slasher, however, and not the Final Girl that interests me.  

 

Carol J. Clover's essay Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film seems to have cemented the idea of the Final Girl as a Feminist archetype in a subgenre traditionally considered by critics as teen fare at best and misogynistic pornography at worst. The problem with this is that Ms. Clover never claimed the Final Girl as Feminist. In fact, she says quite emphatically in Her Body, Himself that "To applaud the Final Girl as a Feminist development is a particularly grotesque expression of wishful thinking." It is actually Clover’s contention that the Final Girl is the "investigating consciousness" of the film and through her experience of abject terror provokes a cross-gender identification among young men, from the Slasher to the Final Girl. A far more complex and accurate reading than viewing these films solely through the more stringent version of psychoanalytical terms found in Laura Mulvey’s theory of the Male Gaze, even as Clover's ideas are at least to some degree drawn from that same theory. In fact, I would propose that Clover’s ideas on cross-gender identification dovetail more with the Lacanian idea of Ettinger’s Matrixial Gaze than with Mulvey's ideas, but we'll come to that later.

 

Mulvey's theory and Clover's interpretations gave us the language with which to read the visual tropes of the Final Girl; the symbology of phallic penetration in the killer's weapon, victim decapitations as castration anxiety, misjudged virility of the killer in the Is he dead or not scenes? and the eventual appropriation of the phallic symbol and penetration of the killer. These interpretations also make it clear that without the Male Gaze the Final Girl could not exist as it is her immunity to the Male Gaze by virtue of her virginal state that defines her. As such Clover recognizes that the Final Girl is not Feminist but a victim construct borne of plot necessity that elicits empathy from viewers. Her genius lies in understanding that in male viewers specifically, who have already enjoyed the killers stalking point-of-view shots of naked women and their subsequent murders, a kind of psychological shell game plays out across traditional gender lines that creates trans-subjectivity. And while many Feminists argue that the Final Girl is not a victim so much as a Survivor, due to her innate resourcefulness, this inducement to trans-subjectivity is her highest function and while a win for Matrixial theory she is certainly not a Feminist ideal. That said, we cannot dismiss her importance to female viewers who identify with her struggle and as such the Final Girl has another role, unfortunately, as an analog to many women's experiences in a male-dominated society.

 

In the same essay, Clover briefly gives lip service to the Female Slasher but claims her as a rarity and due to this rarity sidelines the issue altogether. This claim can be expected of someone outside of the die-hard Horror community, but for those of us forever digging for that lost gem, it is simply not true. She is not so much a rarity as she is underexposed. From Friday the 13th and Happy Birthday to Me to Alice, Sweet Alice and Girls Nite Out she exists in the frames of celluloid spent and misspent over the years almost as much as her male counterpart and yet for some reason we never talk about her or her cinematic heritage. In fact, she may very well be the only archetype in Slasher cinema genuinely Feminist in make-up if not execution. ā€‹Rather than delve into the fetishistic approach to victimhood rooted in ‘50’s era Hollywood melodrama that is emblematic of the Final Girl and the reinforcement of the Biblical paradigm of transgression and punishment on display in the typical Slasher film, I feel it would be better time spent to investigate the roots of the Female Slasher. Of course, we cannot talk about her without talking about the female killer in general, her cinematic evolution in genre history, and the theoretical lenses with which we view her.

 

Now, some may argue that a female killer is not the same as a Female Slasher, that none rival the franchises of masked maniacs that ruled the 80’s, and they’d be right. There is no female equivalent to the Shape, no masked female icon of unrelenting carnage. So, perhaps I should define my terms a bit. A Female Slasher then is a female multiple-murderer with a fondness for sharp objects—phallic or otherwise and excludes vampires, witches, demons, fembots, and assorted succubi. She is also like the Final Girl in that she resists the Male Gaze's voyeurism and need to fetishize. Unlike the Final Girl, however, who must be coded as asexual, repressed, virginal or all of the above to avoid the Male Gaze, the Female Slasher is most often a fully realized Woman, and often the only three-dimensional character in the film. Occasionally, she will be objectified by a Victim's point-of-view, though this is always terminated violently and early. Furthermore, unlike her male counterpart whose motives are either unknown, or psychosexual in nature, the Female Slasher’s motives are typically more human and commonplace: competition, jealousy, revenge, and incestual or sapphic love. While these motives are problematic to be sure, they are also often major plot points that reveal previously unseen dimensions of the film. Her very nature and motive actively shape the narrative around her. Something that cannot be said for the Final Girl who is simply reacting to her environment and situation.

 

If we look back at cinema’s history of depicting the female killer we see the Vamps of old Hollywood, personified by Theda Bara in A Fool There Was, the literal vampire of Gloria Holden’s Countess Marya Zaleska in Dracula's Daughter, as well as the Witches of Haxan as the first archetypal representations in cinema. The Vamps’ sexual allure is represented as nothing short of supernatural and of course in the moniker itself there is the undeniable link to their forbearers in literature; the Vampire, a linguistic signifier that hammers home the idea of female sexuality as evil. Countess Zaleska and later The Bride of Frankenstein and The Wicked Witch of the West are anomalies. For better or worse the Vamp and Witch are the only alternative to Hollywood’s portrayal of women as mothers and wives in the genre films of the period until the Femme Fatales of Film Noir. It is only then that we see a breaking with the quasi-supernatural aspects of the villainous female and really begin making strides in Feminist identity, however shaky. After all, whether it is Mary Astor’s Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon or Rita Hayworth‘s Elsa Bannister in The Lady From Shanghai, the Femme Fatale almost always suffers harsh punishment for her transgressions, setting the world right again for the audiences of the time. Yet for all their trappings these Femme Fatales stand as the best example of Feminist archetypes that genre cinema has to offer for nearly half a century.

 

The 50's and early 60's are filled with melodrama. The so-called Women’s Films from Douglas Sirk to Doris Day that later, with films like Lady in a Cage, will set the stage for the victim drama of the Final Girl are inescapable. There is little in the way of female killers during this era save perhaps Patty McCormack’s Rhoda in The Bad Seed, a great example of pure evil and a useful model for the Female Slasher and Tuesday Weld in Pretty Poison, an early example of the manipulative psychopath we will see later in many erotic thrillers. Tura Satana’s Varla in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is another outlier during the period, though her influence is more felt on the Biker and Outlaw archetypes of the sixties and seventies than the Female Slasher. These anomalies aside, the next time we see a unique depiction of the murderous female is in the insultingly named Old Hag films that started in earnest with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and proceeded from there as a paycheck for every aging actress Hollywood refused to cast elsewhere. With titles such as Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? and What's Wrong with Helen? We see women mostly murdering other women and doing so out of greed, sibling rivalry, and jealousy—hardly liberating motives to the standard 20th-century gender stereotypes, and unfortunately an aspect of the female killer that the Horror film has still not shaken, only complicated.

 

The 70's changed things for better and for worse. We see the rise of Exploitation and Grindhouse cinema with its vengeful women paradigms, a literalization in many cases of Creed’s Femme Castratice with films like Thriller, The Witch Who Came from the Sea, and I Spit on Your Grave. All of which take violence, and sex to unthought of extremes, but we also see the rise in popularity of the Italian Giallo during this era. The rape-revenge films are important in the Female Slasher’s lineage in that they are the first to depict vengeful, brutally violent women, however, it is the crucial element of sexual violation that sets them apart from the Female Slasher and necessitates another essay entirely. It’s in the Giallo though, that we see the Ten Little Indians aspect of Slasher films become a trope and the predominance of the Female Killer come to the fore. While her motivations for murder are typically jealousy and greed and not rape we also see the rise of sexual repression and perversion as a motive as well as more abstract ideas like the influence of cults in The Perfume of the Lady in Black and even art as in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The House with Laughing Windows. Still, almost all of the women in these films are reacting to the actions of the men in their lives and more often than not on explicit sexual display for the director and audiences already entrenched Male Gaze.

 

As we move into the Slasher films of the 80's, we see a ramping up of the body count, as well as the viciousness of the murders, but the old standbys of sibling rivalry, revenge, competition and sexual repression remain chief motives for the Female Slasher as well as a misplaced and incestual sense of motherly love. And while the sexual objectification is missing, ultimately, we still have women reacting to the actions or inactions of the men in their lives even if now they are almost all bereft of sexuality. Something else is going on worth noting, however, and that is the subversion of the visual language typically used to objectify and disempower women in film.

 
While the Male Gaze has long had a visual language for objectifying women, little has been made of the techniques for doing so beyond the voyeurism of naked female bodies. Framing, character position, character movement, and camera movement are all significant techniques. Take for instance the constant staging of women on the left side (in film aesthetics the traditionally weaker side) of the frame, often towered over by men, or shot over their shoulders. Even in Film Noir where the Femme Fatales hold the power they are framed this way whereas the center framed close up is typically reserved for the male lead, MacGuffins or for the fetishized appreciation of feminine sexuality. Of interest to this exploration of the Female Slasher is how this visual language changed for women over time, initially, it appears, in support of the female killer. From being framed on the left in over-the-shoulder and two-shots to being framed in the center of the image, often in close up and often moving toward the camera. Perhaps, simply a necessity of putting emphasis on the shocking reveal of the killer's identity, this change in framing none-the-less happens first on a mainstream level in Old Hag films and then continues in earnest and most frequently with the Female Slasher.
 
Directed predominantly by men, Slasher films gave us an endless supply of naked teenagers objectified before their gruesome deaths, but they also unknowingly gave use the visual language of the Final Girl (elucidated above) and Female Slasher point-of-view shots. While the POV shot does not, of course, constitute the sole expression of the Male Gaze it is the most obvious example of it in the Horror film, especially the Slasher. During this era the POV of the Female Slasher and her murder scenes are often far more creative and baroque in technique than the Male Slasher, employing slow motion, dolly shots, and dramatic zooms where the Male Slasher's POV and murder scenes are highly sexual and shot in the crudest of fashions. This in combination with the aforementioned change in framing may seem minor but represents a significant shift in the psychological imprinting that takes place in Horror films and is a marked improvement over the voyeurism of naked bodies and the victim fetishization of the Final Girl.
 
I have already mentioned motive as a major problem endemic to the Female Slasher, but there exists another challenge to the archetypes Feminist possibilities and that is the fact that her foil is often not a Final Girl at all, but a couple, a group, a community, or even a family member. Of course, the Slasher is the villain of the piece, but by tying the Female Slasher's often overtly petty motive to a punishment issued by the bland group think of societal normalcy there is only further insult to injury, a kind of psychological doubling down on the requisite punishment that has befallen 'Evil Women' from the beginning of cinema.
 

While the term Final Girl will not enter the lexicon until long after Clover’s essay is published in 1987, Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode, Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy Thompson, and Amy Steel’s Ginny Field quickly became fan favorites. And while popular opinion might argue it was the masked men and prosthetic effects that kept audiences coming back time and time again, it would be foolish to think the prospect of another Final Girl didn't factor into that popularity. Interestingly enough, Tobe Hooper, whose The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was considered by Clover to be the beginning of the modern phase of the Slasher film cycle and Marilyn Chamber’s Sally Hardesty the first Final Girl, also gave us the first post-modern Final Girl in Caroline Williams’ Stretch from the self-parodying, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 - a character whose experience of terror brings out a brutality to rival that of the maniacs. A brutality that many subsequent Final Girls would not possess again until the post-Scream era in films like You're Next and that at the very least elevates the Final Girl out of her victimhood in a more palatable way than the standard baptism of suffering.

 

Female Slashers and Final Girls aside the 80's also gave us, Lori Cardille’s Sarah, in Day of the Dead, and Shawnee Smith’s Amanda in The Blob remake. Two female leads that avoid the Mother-Protector, Final Girl, and Damsel in Distress archetypes while also remaining distinctly feminine characters who are not overtly sexualized and not simply male characters cast with female actors—a trend we'll see in many Sci-Fi action films in the coming years. I make this detour into Survivor archetypes simply to illustrate that the Horror genre has more than one positive Female archetype that has gone unappreciated in the shadow of the Final Girl. Unfortunately, this archetype, in the Horror genre at least, seems to have ended rather early with Patricia Tallman’s role as Barbara in the Night of the Living Dead remake in 1990, wherein the meek and nearly catatonic Barbara of the original film is reimagined as a more-than-capable survivor. If there is a cinematic offspring to these archetypes they are, like the brutally violent Final Girl, Stretch, not seen again until the 2000’s and then only sparingly in films such as Neil Marshall’s The Descent, and Don Coscarelli’s Masters of Horror short, Incident On and Off a Mountain Road.

 

Popular culture in the 90's seemed mainly to be expressing its female power through Sci-Fi Action films. A trend that arguably started much earlier with Ripley in Alien—a male character in the original script’s draft, and Sarah Connor in The Terminator—an expectant Mother, then really took hold with films like Aliens, T2, both containing strong Mother-Protector narratives,The Matrix, and continued well into the next century with Resident Evi, Underworld, Aeon Flux, Doomsday and others. The problem with these films as being considered representative of Feminist ideals really begins and ends with the fact that these are either simply male characters played by female actors, or nine times out of ten they are reacting to the men in their lives, overtly sexualized, or playing out the old Mother-Protector fantasy. One of the rare exceptions during this era comes from the Horror genre in Neil Marshall’s already mentioned The Descent. While certainly not a Slasher film, it is one of the first instances of a thoroughly Feminist horror film done right and we would be wise to remember the lessons regarding representation at play in the film.

 

As the 90's unfurled further something strange happened to the Female Slasher, she jumped genres. Leaving Slashers with little more than uncompromisingly wholesome Final Girls like Jennifer in Dr. Giggles and Sydney Prescott in the Scream franchise and Female Slashers rooted in traditional patriarchal roles. Laurie Metcalf’s vengeful mother in Scream 2 comes to mind as does Rebecca Gayheart’s Brenda in the first Urban Legend film whose motive is, disappointingly, simple revenge for the death of her boyfriend. The only outliers of the era seem to be the subversion of the Final Girl virtue in Cherry Falls and what is, in many ways, the perfect Female Slasher in John Waters' Serial Mom and Cindy Sherman's Office Killer. Key amongst both film's success is rooting the motive in common issues facing women that do not center on their sexuality: the domestic expectations of the Suburban Housewife and Mother, and the often ridiculously unfair modern workplace. Outliers aside, iā€‹t is not until the emergence of the softcore Thrillers and Neo-Noirs of the 90's that we begin to see a female killer acting purely on her own desires and with the empty viciousness of her male counterparts in films such as The Last Seduction and Malice. Even though there are early, relatively benign examples popping up in the 80's in films like Body Heat with Kathleen Turner’s Matty and Theresa Russell’s Catharine in Black Widow, as well as a continuation of the Castrating Mother role in films like Misery and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle it wasn’t until the rise of the Erotic Thriller that we saw them become more than manipulative characters, killing by proxy and edge into actual Female Slasher territory. With a few critically panned films such as Basic Instinct and Jade, the Female Slasher was suddenly in vogue with audiences, but taking one step forward and two steps back as a Feminist archetype. Like the Femme Fatales of the 40’s, these were diabolical, clever, independent villains who stopped at nothing to get their way and who, unlike Femme Fatales and Old Hags managed to get away with their crimes. Of course, like the Giallo before, there was a trade-off in the form of exploitative sex scenes. The female killer's liberation from the motive of the scorned lover and petty jealousies in these films is an important touchstone going forward, but the fact that it comes at the price of explicit surrender to the Male Gaze is deeply unfortunate and negates any progress in representation. Regardless, a few years later we found ourselves staring down the fin de siecle and Erotic Thrillers all but disappeared from the cinema landscape. The Horror genre, meanwhile, remained mired in 20th-century representations well into the next century save for a few slightly more progressive takes at the independent level, with another meta twist on the genre and Final Girls in Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, the underseen Chainsaw Sally films, Blood Night: The Legend of Mary Hatchet, Kolobos, and especially Lucky Mckee’s nearly perfect Female Slasher, May.

 

Looking at the trends of the last several decades it’s not hard to see why it would seem that psychoanalytical film theory would be the best place to start with the post-mortem on Female Slashers. It’s true that the horror film, particularly the Slasher and Giallo, tend to operate from a simplistic Freudian psychology—all the better to explain the psychosexual crimes of their villains—and what little critical analysis of the genre exists tends to apply an equally Freudian analysis. Most evident of this tendency are Barbara Creed’s The Monstrous-Feminine and Laura Mulvey’s the Male Gaze found in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Both insightful works for their time and place and of great use, especially when addressing the symbolic in horror, however, their psychoanalytical nature in the postmodern world is problematic.

 

The most interesting element of Mulvey’s theory for me is her statement that the Female Gaze is a kind of non-starter— that the Female can only ever co-opt the Male Gaze by objectifying what she views in an attempt to emulate the Male and as such there cannot be a true Female Gaze. A side-by-side comparison of films where the Slasher is a Male versus those where the Slasher is a Female seems to support this idea where voyeurism and fetishism are concerned, but it also illuminates the stylistic disparity between the two as well as illustrating how incomplete a theory it is. After all, Mulvey’s theory was meant as polemic and is sorely lacking in scope. Besides the already essayed shortcomings when applied to the Horror film, it excludes race and LGBTQIA identifications and points of view, not to mention other cinematic forms outside of the Hollywood narrative. Mulvey would return to the theory much later, after Clover's essays on the subject, and propose either a masochistic or a transexual role for the feminine viewer of such films that is in my opinion still lacking in scope and more than a little close-minded in approach.

 

Partially in response to Mulvey and Clover there is Bracha L. Ettinger’s the Matrixial Gaze—a reinterpretation of a reinterpretation of Freud—that is at its heart about the deconstruction of the self, the transgression of borders and trans-subjectivity; a Gaze I have already mentioned that Clover’s statement about audience identification being fluid across gender lines fully supports and that renders Mulvey’s Male/Female, Masochist/Transexual dichotomy mute. I would argue that it is through the thoroughly modern lens of the Matrixial Gaze that we must not only view these films now but that a real Feminist archetype can be found in the Female Slasher even if she is an imperfect example up until now and at first glance resists cross-gender identification.

 

Films featuring a Female Slasher do not often feature a Final Girl, or if they do they are of the decidedly non-traditional variety and thus the vessel for cross-gender identification is often missing. Thankfully, more recent films have largely done away with the problematic social foil by either giving us no foil at all, making the survivor complicit in the crimes or giving us a Final Boy that maintains Clover's ideas by presenting their inverse. However, even with problematic foils to the Female Slasher, I believe that upon first viewing the mystery of the killer's identity and the expectations of the viewer based on previous films still enables such an identification. In fact, in this situation, the final reveal of the killer's identity may not only engender identification in viewers but greater empathy for the woman's plight than the standard Slasher provokes.

 

The last decade has given us some hope for the future of the Female Slasher as we see more females welcomed into the director’s chair, and more male directors making conscious decisions about how they choose to represent female characters on screen. American Mary's first half portends great things before the story and Mary’s journey turns on rape, rendering a powerful and visceral examination of body modification and identity politics a rape-revenge film. Important in its own right and handled well, like so few of the films in this genre, but none the less a film that belongs to another subgenre deserving, as I have already said, another essay entirely. American Mary remains powerful and seems to hold a strong connection with Millennials and 3rd generation Feminists. The Soska’s ability to make Mary both emotionally and aesthetically iconic should be applauded, but a slasher Mary is not.

 

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is an interesting example of a Horror film that could have been a stellar example of the Female Slasher but is ultimately hamstrung by the fact that while it is structured like a Slasher film, and for the most part avoids the Male Gaze it's murders are mostly committed with guns, the killer is known early on, and the final reveal that the virginal, drug-abstaining Final Girl, Amber Heard’s Mandy Lane has plotted the murders with her best friend ends up rendering her nothing more than a cliched manipulative female whose motive seems tied directly to her repressed sexuality—a problem even the representation of this archetype in Pretty Poison, 40 years prior, did not suffer. The fact that we know absolutely nothing about Mandy Lane by the time the credits roll renders her barely an archetype much less a character. Perhaps, had she been the murderer all along and not relied on a boy to do the dirty work, we would still be talking about the film and her.

 

While we are seeing more and more fully realized female characters in Horror they tend to be of the Vampire variety as in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and Byzantium, Werewolves like the Ginger Snaps films, Demons as in Jennifer's Body, Mothers like The Babadook or the Final Girl riffs in You're Next, Kristy, It Follows, Hush, Cabin in the Woods, and Final Girls. Even the Sci-Fi Fembot archetype has received a Feminist makeover with Ex-Machina. Each one of these films is pushing genre and female representation into the 21st century and yet the iconic Female Slasher remains largely elusive.

 

Finally, as the second decade of the 21st century wraps up, the Female Slasher is still as present and under-acknowledged as ever before and while the frame has been liberated to some degree the iconic Female Slasher remains elusive. The Loved Ones, Blood Widow, The Blackcoat's Daughter, WTF, Lake Bodom, and Tragedy Girls arrived with varying degrees of critical and audience praise and with the exception of Blood Widow, and WTF, they certainly represent the way forward for the Female Slasher in their rendering of characters outside the traditional Male Gaze. Robin Leavey's Lola in The Loved Ones, in particular, may very well be ground zero for the Female Slasher going forward. Acting either on their own desires or from a place of unfathomable darkness devoid of reason or motive— key to making this archetype work—they also appear to be handling motive and foils in a far more enlightened way than their predecessors and still, we are focused on the victim-survivor archetype of the Final Girl and not the victim-aggressor of the Female Slasher. Why?

 

The average person on the street knows Medusa as a monster who turned men to stone with a stare and was ultimately defeated by the quick-thinking hero, Perseus. As far as the classical myth goes Medusa was born a monster and died a monster. End of story. It wasn't until the poets of a later era, Ovid in particular, that Medusa's story; her mortal birth, virginal servitude in Athena's temple, and rape by Poseidon became perhaps the first example of victim blaming in the history of western culture. We should consider that—Athena cursed Medusa because she couldn't punish Poseidon. It's an illustration of a power dynamic still very much dominating human interaction and reinforced by the stories we tell and how we tell them. The Female Slasher and Medusa are one in the same and like Ovid we need to reframe the story. 

 

 

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