The 90s were a big shiny blur for me. I was a coltish 21 in 1991 and then suddenly I was 30, missing out on being a teen during that decade, but still young enough to consume the teen entertainment up for grabs. During that big shiny blur was a new kind of horror, one that was supposed to speak to the younger generation; a generation who would start trends that changed how we thought about ourselves and the way we saw the world. Sound like a lot to glean from a bunch of glossy studio films made to attract a demographic of magpie youth? Well not so, because in Alexandra West’s latest book The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula, she gives meaning to these seemingly shallow films starring the hottest heartthrobs of the time.
When she launched her book, West mentioned how her taste in film was questioned when she professed her undying support of 90s horror, so it’s nice to see her get a chance to set those side-eyes straight. Sure, there’s a superficiality to films like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Idle Hands, and The Crush at first glance since the stars were plucked from hit TV shows and films for marketability, and they may not have addressed issues in an obvious way, but they earmarked a time when things were changing socially and politically. Each chapter deals with films covering subjects like school life, sexuality, and the undead; and with each film she expertly reveals underlying themes, meanings and societal implications through sociological references and, surprisingly, Greek mythology. These themes were so ingrained I could feel the little lightbulb over my head pinging over and over as I read her arguments that made sense of overlooked cinematic moments.
Entertainment is a reflection of our society, and West is very thorough in her recounting the climate of the 90s, describing a shift from the Regan era to George H. W. Bush, Third Wave feminism, the trauma of mass school shootings, and media’s new role in what Hollywood thought teens valued. They were suddenly put under a microscope through these films, exposing real issues like bullying, classism, and sexual politics. Although a lot of the subject matter in teen horrors and thrillers of the 90s seem to rehash the slashers of the 70s and 80s, West points out that these characters are smarter and more self-aware; resilient during traumatic events where they exhibit an evolved toughness not seen in the final girls of the past. In fact, for me, she puts well-known final girl theories detailed in Carol Clover’s classic book Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film into better context, modernizing the final girl for the 90s.
These films aren’t without flaws however, and West makes sure to point out lack of representation and tokenism with characters of color like Jada Pinkett’s Maureen in Scream 2 and Rachel True’s Rochelle in The Craft (with a whole chapter dedicated to the deeper themes in the 1996 teen witch hit). I was pleased to see her write about the backlash against tokenism and “Hollywood’s cultural whitewashing” with the parody film Scary Movie and its sequels. Here, she describes how black comedy powerhouses The Wayans Brothers took horror tropes and turned them on their ear by blatantly pointing out sexual and cultural stereotypes and reclaiming them as their own. She also delves into the history of the sequel machine, mostly fueled by dollar signs when the first films took off (a reflection of the consumerism during that decade), but some were continuations of beloved characters, mythologies and universes. The most well-known example is the Scream franchise and the history of its tongue in cheek but intelligent self-reflective commentary on horror tropes. Who knew a film that took a clever jab at the horror game would historically break the rules of Hollywood itself?
The surge of teen and young adult horrors coming out now like Happy Death Day, Truth or Dare, and Wish Upon can be looked at with a more appreciative and critical eye once you’ve read Alexandra West’s book on The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle. It’s a fantastic follow-up to her book Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity, and even though there’s a lot of information, it’s concise and extremely easy to digest. For those of you who already love 90s teen horror, it’s pure validation, and for those of you who missed out being a teen during the 90s, it will give you nice insight on something that isn’t as frivolous as you may think.
Do yourself a favour and get The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula here to celebrate Women in Horror Month!