A Book Review by Alex Brannan.
In Men, Women, and Chainsaws (1992), Carol J. Clover takes a critical look at horror and exploitation films of the 1970s and 1980s that were written off by most other critics as a trashy B-movie affair. The allusion to Clover’s most famous contribution to horror criticism in the title of Alexandra West’s new book, The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula (McFarland, 2018), is no coincidence. West is looking to pick up where Clover’s book leaves off, examining a trend of teen scream horror movies that began, according to West, the year Men, Women, and Chainsaws was published.
This cycle, which West defines as beginning with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Fran Rubel Kuzui, 1992) and ending with Cherry Falls (Geoffrey Wright, 2000), is characterized by studios commodifying a burgeoning teenage market. West contextualizes the 90s horror cycle against an American historical backdrop that contains cultural touchstones like the Anita Hill testimony, the Clinton sex scandal, Third Wave feminism, the grunge scene, and the Rodney King beating. These touchstones come up only sparingly when West executes her analysis of the films in the cycle. What is most important to her macro-level analysis is a general understanding that the 90s came with a boom in youth culture and a young consumer market.
In West’s first book, Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity (McFarland, 2016), historical context is the lynchpin of her argument. When this context slips away during her film-by-film analysis, the argumentation becomes harder to track. With The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle, when the context slips away there remains an evident passion on West’s part to give these films their time in the academic sunlight. It is not as groundbreaking a work as Clover’s – little in horror criticism ever will be – but it shows an appreciation for genre that is admirable. West takes the same careful approach to the analysis of each film, whether it be a mainstream hit like Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) or a more esoteric piece like Teaching Mrs. Tingle (written and directed by Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson, 1999).
While these analyses are clearly crafted with care, one cannot help but feel that they are missing a key piece of emphasis. Some of the shorter reviews are padded with more synopsis than critical perspective, but even the in-depth takes on franchises like Scream and Jim Gillespie’s 1997 I Know What You Did Last Summer (both receive entire chapters to themselves) don’t culminate in an altogether meaningful resolution. Missing is a synthesis that would explain the reason why studying these films together is an important endeavor. On some occasions, the reviews end with a box office summation; on others West simply moves on to the next film without a final thought. Given that the opening line of the book establishes this cycle of horror as “dismissed by most major publications, film journals, spectators, and critics as a Hollywoodized iteration of the now beloved slasher subgenre” (3), a synthesis feels like a crucial step in rebutting this claim.
This is not to say that, at the film-to-film level, analysis is missing from the book. West takes some compelling avenues in her reviews. She examines how protagonists in films like Scream and Halloween: H20 (Steve Miner, 1998) transcend the one-dimensional depictions of older slasher heroes by being simultaneously heroic and shaken to the core by PTSD. She provides examples of how Disturbing Behavior (David Nutter, 1998) highlights the discrepancies between “the acceptance of male and female sexualities” (106), while also noting what may be the film’s ultimate downfall: consumer research. Her takes on the films blend an analysis of themes with revealing information about studio practices and marketing tactics. Using this, she moves toward a unification of the films as a series of creators playing into current trends. The early 90s films mixed teenage sensibilities and self-awareness with 80s horror tropes. Post-Scream, studios looking for similar financial success grasped at trope-skewering straws. Later sequels in the 2000s took these 90s franchises and tried revitalizing them in a cinematic landscape that had moved on to different trends like J-horror and torture porn.
Even if one were to disagree with some of West’s arguments – I, for example, think Rochelle in The Craft (Andrew Fleming, 1996) is a commentary on tokenism in film rather than merely a token character in and of herself (61) – it is hard to deny that her writing is brisk. When not impeded by the occasional grammar hiccup, dropped definite article, or punctuation error, the book is a quick read. What is missing in the assessment of the films and the studios that produced them is a broader take on the cycle itself. There is talk of how individual films fit into Third Wave feminism or function as part of an intertextual relationship with the audience, but the broader cultural implications of this 90s teen horror cycle are left unclear. Even though West provides passionate analyses of the films, the detractors to the cycle might remain unconvinced.
Alex Brannan is a freelance writer and critic. He publishes criticism at Cinefiles Reviews and can be found on Letterboxd and Twitter @TheAlexBrannan.