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!

 

Escape Room: The Right Kind of Franchise Fodder

From derelict buildings to posh Victorian houses, escape rooms are all the rage, and they have been for several years now. Paying for someone to lock you in a room with a group of people so you can figure out an escape will help build spirit you never thought you had plus you’ll get a chance to flex your problem-solving skills. But what if it’s not all fun and games, and the reality of the timer running out is an actual death? This situation is posed with Escape Room, and it’s a nail-biting ride.

Zooey (Taylor Russell) is a shy, college student who is brilliant and a loner. She’s stuck in her dorm for Thanksgiving while everyone leaves for the break. She receives a mysterious puzzle box which she quickly figures out how to open, only to find an invitation to compete in an escape room adventure for $10,000. Zooey isn’t the only one who gets a box. Jason (Jay Ellis) a go-getting financial whiz, Ben (Logan Miller) a down on his luck grocery clerk, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll) an ex-soldier, Danny (Nik Dodani) the uber-nerd, and Mike (Tyler Labine) a jovial blue-collar fella all figure out the cubed puzzle and end up in an industrial building where the game begins in the waiting room. They soon learn the mysterious makers of the escape room mean business when they’re almost roasted alive in the first challenge. So begins their life or death race to the finish as they work their way room to room, revealing more about each person and the invisible burdens they struggle with.

The players in a bad spot. (Sony Pictures)

The film starts with a bang as Ben tries to figure out how to get out of a library before he’s crushed by a moving wall. It’s a frantic few minutes, putting you on edge immediately and never loses the intensity throughout. Waiting to see what clues characters found and how they related to each of their pasts was fantastic and created a puzzle within a puzzle. And speaking of puzzles, the cast fit in perfectly with great performances. Canadian actor Taylor Russell (seen on numerous shows like Falling Skies and Netflix’s Lost in Space) is riveting as the shy loner Zooey who clears all the puzzle hurdles with ease and is a classic final girl. Other stand out performances came from Ellis (Insecure) and Woll (best known for True Blood), and we got the perfect amount of comedic relief from Labine, the veteran Canadian actor of Tucker and Dale vs Evil fame as well as a huge list of other notable roles. Kudos to director Adam Robitel for casting people of colour in a lead role, like, three, as well as an Asian detective played by Kenneth Fok. See? Not so hard, and the film is doing well at the box office and getting decent reviews with what seems like a teaser ending for a sequel if not a franchise (yes, please!). I also have to mention the production designer Edward Thomas who has worked on Doctor Who, The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood. The sets were just brilliant and writers Bragi F. Shut and Maria Melnik came up with some great brainteasers to keep the audience guessing.

As a side note, my biggest joy received from this movie was the fact that I saw it with two young black girls: my great-niece and her cousin who nodded vigorously when I asked if they were pleased that the main character was a black girl. This is a moment that touched my heart because I know if I was their age, this would speak to me on a subconscious level. A black girl protagonist would have let me know without words that I could excel at math, I could be the smartest one in the room and not to feel ashamed about it. Actions speak louder than words and this time I got to see my sweet tween niece see someone like her winning on the big screen.

If you haven’t seen Escape Room yet, don’t miss out on it, not only because it’s a perfect Saturday night at the movies, but also for some fun, sustained suspense, people of colour in solid roles and a black final girl you can get behind.