Book Review: Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity

Scholars and journalists Alexandra West and Andrea Subissati, hosts of the Faculty of Horror podcast, focus on in-depth analysis of the horror genre with a feminist approach that would sway the staunchest naysayer.  With their knowledge and background, it’s no surprise that West has recently written a book entitled Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity and after getting to meet the author herself, I had to buy a copy. Once I flipped past the first page I was hooked.

Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity came from a lecture West presented in 2014 for The Black Museum, a series put on by Subissati and Toronto-based writer and editor Paul Corupe where seasoned speakers and professionals in the horror genre present on various topics “from film theory to genre studies”.  It was here that her academic but extremely accessible book was born, and West successfully tracks the transition “from art-house films to full-fledged horror films” that came out of France from the early 90’s to the mid 2000’s.

The genre of New French Extremity is something that for a long time only a few could stomach or relate to. It is brutal, bloody and in your face, but West eases the reader in by giving you a solid base of French history and politics, along with the violence it spawned, in order to help you understand the environment these directors were coming from and the genesis of their films. In essence, French society tended to put a shiny veneer over the ills and wrongs of their actions, turning a blind eye to it all. These films attempt to peel back the shiny exterior of a country celebrated for its culture to show the societal warts that got bigger over centuries. While some of the filmmakers may have different approaches to their subject matter, be it murderous country folk, abused women, self-destructive characters or relentless serial killers, West brings them together to map their contributions to pushing societal, sexual and political boundaries, showing how their films soon became cinematic earmarks as well as social commentaries in the history of horror cinema and what is now considered a critical part of the genre.

Most horror critics and writers like myself have seen many of the films West writes about. I saw them because they were a) French and b) horror or taboo; things I love unconditionally, with Martyrs and High Tension sitting in prime positions on my shelves. They were terrifying films yet I was drawn to them. I couldn’t make connections other than they were all French and showed a darker side to the country I romanticized so much; dots on the same page without the lines to connect them. West is able to create threads of similarities with such coherence and logic, that any French extreme enthusiast feels a sense of almost relief as her analysis pinpoints characters, motivations and plotlines to make sense of the chaos you witness on-screen. All the chapters are riveting, but for those of you who search for some meaning from Martyrs as much as I have, West’s dissection and interpretation of the film comes very near to perfection.

Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity will resonate with those who love French Extreme cinema and those who have visited (and fallen in love with) France like myself; becoming lured by the romantic façade of an aloof yet beautiful country, only to scratch the surface revealing the grimy reality underneath.  Steeped in the history and culture of France, West’s book makes these admittedly horrifying films accessible and convey an understanding much like one would study a terrifying beast for meaning. It is truly a must read for any and all horror fans and academics out there looking for a comprehensive guide to the beginnings of French Extreme cinema.

[Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie]

Book Review: The 1990’s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula

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.

Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe and Jennifer Love Hewitt of I Know What You Did Last Summer

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.

Neve Campbell as the ultimate 90s final girl, Sidney.

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 cast of Scary Movie.

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!