Making Fun of Baby Boomers

Making Fun of Baby Boomers: 
How the Modern Horror Comedy Critiques Conventions Established in 80s Slasher Films 

It’s common knowledge among those interested in media literacy, that horror movies’ big villain often represents, to some degree, the fears of our contemporary society. From the fear of one’s own sexual desire, expressed in classics like Nosferatu (1922), to the fear of science and technological advancement in the medical field, portrayed in 28 Days Later (2002). With the venting of these fears, successful horror films create a kind of blueprint to be followed, establishing archetypal characters and plot devices that aid in crafting a suspenseful plot and a tense environment. Some conventions are more common than others and I feel none are more recognized than those established in 80’s slasher films: the use of explicit violence and gore, the dangers of sexual activity/promiscuity, the establishment of the “final girl” archetype, the killer established as an insurmountable force, etc. With the rapid popularization of these movies and the constant regurgitation of their archetypes and conventions, contemporary audiences have grown accustom to the structure of a typical slasher. Through comedy, specifically the horror comedy, contemporary film makers are able to interact with established conventions and engage in a critique of the genre while recreating tropes and subverting expectations. This very idea is exemplified through a variety movies, though I chose to focus specifically on The Final Girls (2015). 

First though, we must look at the eighties’ slasher film and determine what exactly defines the subgenre as well as what its tropes have come to represent. In his text titled, “Slasher Films and Gore in the 1980s,” James Kendrick, paraphrasing another author defines the sub-genre claiming that “at it’s most basic, slasher films tell ‘the story of a blade-wielding killer preying on a group of young people,” (Benshoff 317). This structure can be seen in a variety of early “slice-‘em-up” films including, Black Christmas (1974), Halloween (1978), and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).  Kendrick continues claiming that the slasher is comprised of a “two-part temporal structure, which is composed of a past event (present either at the beginning of the film or in a flashback) that explains the killer’s trauma and subsequent madness, and a present event in which the killer returns to take revenge on the guilty parties or their symbolic substitutes,” (Benshoff 319). This convention in particular is commonplace among most slasher films as it sets up a methodology for the killer and invites sympathy that helps us distance ourselves from their “innocent” victims. Other components of the slasher film include: “non-urban”/ isolated areas i.e.. summer camp/woods, schools, small towns; “penetration of victims’ bodies with sharp metallic instruments”; young attractive, sexually explicit victims, and obviously, “the final girl”.  

The horror comedy was born from the avid horror fans repeated consumption of these same tropes and conventions. As Chris Yogerst opens his article, “Repetition of genre tropes breed familiarity, robbing once-shocking images and plot twists of the impact they originally had. The more popular the trope, the more quickly it loses its power to shock,” (Miller, Van Riper 169). This repeated consumption is what lead to the decline of slashers in the nineties as most slashers opted to adhere to the established conventions rather than subvert them. In opposition the horror-comedy takes audiences expectations of specific horror tropes and subverts them by taking these usually tense moments and injecting them with humor. Yogerst continues “horror-comedies entertained audiences by inviting them to remember- and knowingly laugh about- what they had seen, time and time again, in earlier films,” (Miller, Van Riper 170). Horror comedies derive their humor from having a common knowledge and affinity for the horror genre, so when films such as Scream (1996) or Zombieland (2009) base their actions off a set of rules, one knows those rules are applicable to the horror genre in general not just their respective films.  

The Final Girls like the two movies previously mentioned, approaches its premise with similar applications of needing prior horror knowledge, but while the former only hints of self-awareness within their respective worlds this movie is entirely self-aware. The premise is that a group of modern teens get sucked into an old slasher film, directly parodying the likeness of Jason Vorhees and Friday the 13th (1980) and must adhere to the horror conventions previously established to survive. The characters are sucked into the movie “Camp Bloodbath” and find themselves surrounded by the stereotypical victims, the jock, the slut, the shy girl, etc, realizing that all the characters except for the final girl, virgin Paula, are destined to die. Though they are stuck within the parameters of the setting they are not limited to the continuity of the film they inhabit. The modern groups main focus becomes adhering to the number one rule of surviving a horror film, “don’t have sex,” doing whatever they can in their power to keep the killer “Billy” at bay, including duct taping clothes to the slutty stereotype Tina. 

This movie plays with all kinds of horror conventions, allowing the characters to physically interact with the structure of the film and its narrative. They are literally sucked into the aforementioned flashback, their visages become monotone, the characters literally having to step over a title card to proceed. The characters watch as spectators as the film’s killer is bullied, disfigured, and then subsequently hardened into the resentful madman that stalks the campers. Where other films would have you feel sympathy for his plight this does not as one of the characters, Gertie, is hit with the blood splatter of Billy’s first victims. When original final girl Paula is killed, the modern characters instead of boasting about their sexual activity like the eighties characters, lament at their inability to be the lone survivor, awkwardly arguing amongst each other as they try to convince Max, the only virgin, to take the place of Paula. The characters also engage with the editing format of the film, the climax temporarily forcing our main characters to flee in slow motion, only being released when one of them is touched, bring them back to the canonical world of the film.  

Yogerst comments on another theorist’s argument that film genres go through stages, claiming that “once [a film genre is] demythologized, common genre conventions become impossible for audiences to view (and filmmakers to present) as seriously as they had done before,” (Miller, Van Riper 171). The Final Girls is the embodiment of this theory, none of horror conventions, not even the convention of its namesake is safe from commentary. When the modern characters first encounter the killer, one of them opts to take a selfie with him, showcasing how irreverent modern audiences feel towards the literal slasher. The film engagement with these conventions, allows its characters to voice the critiques contemporary audiences have about old slashers films. One character, Duncan, early on in the film comments about how “The writing is so bad,” referring to the ways the sexually active characters are one dimensional, their only defining quality being “horny”. Another character Chris, as the adoptive son of two men, chastises an original character for his blatant homophobia and misogyny against fellow campers.  

The whole concept of the movie centers around the trope of being the last virginal girl to make it out alive. Kendrick claims that “The Final Girl’s victory over the slasher is central to Clover’s understanding of complex gender dynamics of the slasher film, arguing that the Final Girl is ambiguous in her sexual identity. Although she is physically female, she often has more masculine interests, and during the course of the film she is both explicitly feminized in undergoing the agonizing trials of victimhood, and then masculinized by destroying the killer and saving herself, often impaling him with his own (phallic) weapon,” (Benshoff 321). Even this aspect of the convey is turned on it’s head for the film, as the premise of the story is that there will be more than one final girl. Max in this movie is portrayed as less competent than her companions, her focus mainly on bonding with the character portrayed by her late mother. The other girls are the ones who help persuade Max to do more, helping to prep traps and arm themselves.  

The only aspect that makes the other girls of the group incapable of holding the mantel of final girl is their virginity, an aspect that is only imposed on them by the conventions of the film. The girl initially portrayed as the modern groups “slutty” girl is the first to try to defend herself, aware of her stereotype within the movie and wary for the life. When Max does end up as one of the final girls, it is through the sacrifice of her friends, them killing themselves to help save her. They aren’t dispatched by Billy like the rest of the characters and go out on their own accord. When Max initially goes up against the villain she fails, and again is only given the power to defeat Billy when her mother’s character too chooses to sacrifice herself for Max, truly leaving her as the final girl. This commentary shows that female empowerment and autonomy is no longer associated with a woman’s sexual prowess; that women who are sexually active and no more incapable of taking care of themselves as her virginal counterpart.  

Through the engagement with the genre, The Final Girls and other horror comedies like it offers a modern critique of conventions established in eighties slasher films. While the movie itself is something akin to a love letter, demonstrating that the filmmaker has a loving fondness for said movies, it also establishes that their message and morals have been rendered obsolete by a more progressive and socially aware culture. Though we still often see these tropes and conventions, the modern horror comedy takes these conventions and subvert them offering commentary and critiques, along with entertainment. The general consensus though, is that the eighties slasher is outdated and no longer conventional.  

Works Cited 

Kendrick, James. “Slasher Films and Gore in the 1980s.” A Companion to the Horror Film, by Harry M. Benshoff, Wiley Blackwell, 2014, pp. 310–327.  

The Final Girls. Dir. Todd Strauss-Schulson. Perf. Taissa Farmiga and Malin Åkerman. Stage 6 Films Vertical Entertainment, 2015. Amazon Prime. Web. 3 December 2018.   

 Yogerst, Chris. “Rules for Surviving a Horror Comedy.” The Laughing Dead: The Horror-Comedy Film from Bride of Frankenstein to Zombieland, by Cynthia J. Miller and Bowdoin Van Riper, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, pp. 169–184. 

About the Author

Sierra Beeler is a Senior at UNCC, majoring in Creative Writing and minoring in Film and Women and Gender studies. Forever a daydreamer, Sierra aspires to one day monopolize an entire weeknight with her own slew of TV shows, more popular than anything Shonda Rhimes could make. On the rare occasions when Sierra is not somewhere being obnoxious, you can find her doing one of her many passions: writing, drawing, filming, screeching (also known as singing), etc.
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