The Overwrought Philosophy of the Final Girl
If there was any pair that determined what qualified as legitimate cinematic art and what was unjustifiable schlock in the 1980s, it was Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert. They iconicized their “thumbs up” rating on their syndicated Siskel & Ebert show, a place where they debated the merits of recent films and helped to establish a popular form of film criticism: short, pithy, and yet not afraid of making grand declarations and sweeping statements.
The pair had their own underlying ideological predilections, which could come out in certain reviews, particularly how they wrestled with violence against women. Ebert called A Clockwork Orange a “paranoid right-wing fantasy masquerading As an Orwellian warning,” suggesting that the film sees an inherent violence in humanity that must be preserved if freedom is likewise respected. He declared I Spit on Your Grave, one of the best known incarnations of what became called “rape revenge” or, more crudely, “rapesploitation” films, the worst film ever made (he hated the 2010 remake almost as much). The film, like many of its contemporaries, has a basic plot-line: a women is gang attacked and assaulted, then seeks our revenge against her violators. Ebert read this as an anti-woman fantasy (a not unjustifiable read), though feminist film critics like Andrea Subissati have vehemently disagreed.
In 2010, Ebert’s review of The Lovely Bones went viral and was republished at places like Bitch Magazine. The title of the review was “After the rape and murder, the really cool part starts” and declared, with a relatable amount of venom, the movie suggests that “If you're a 14-year-old girl who has been brutally raped and murdered by a serial killer, you have a lot to look forward to.”
“It isn't emotionally convincing that this girl, having had these experiences and destined apparently to be 14 forever (although cleaned up and with a new wardrobe), would produce this heavenly creature,” writes Ebert. “What's left for us to pity? We should all end up like her, and the sooner the better; preferably not after being raped and murdered.”
There is a kind of “Ebert feminism,” equal parts hubris and shock, sometimes right, often times blind to the opinions of the non-men he often presents himself as speaking for. This was especially trenchant in his 1980 episode of Siskel & Ebert where they took the horror slasher film, incredibly popular at the time, to task. In a two-episode series, they talked about how disturbed they were by what they read as an anti-feminist attack on women (though decided not to have a woman on to discuss it). Ebert said that they were a “disturbing new trend” and “exploiting the plight of women in danger.”
One of the most consistent features of the slasher he discusses is what’s called the “Final Girl.” At the end of a slasher movie, once the killer has made their way through a catalog of victims, one woman remains: she is the lone survivor and kills, or successfully wards off, the murderer. The Final Girl has become one of the most lasting horror archetypes, a figure of debate between those who say it is a celebration of victimhood and those who say the Final Girl is an archetype of women’s empowerment. "The Final Girl is simply the character who survives the events of the film, though usually at some great cost to her mental health or selfhood," describes Alex West in her book The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula, which analyzes how 1990s teen horror films like Scream flipped these tropes on their head by highlighting the "notions of survival in the face of trauma" that were a part of the "national conversation" of the time. West analyzes a period in which the Final Girl was said to evolve: perhaps took more power, undermined the status of the male antagonist, yet whose gender politics was never bluntly clear.
Last year two novels were released that sort of jumped into this final girl mythos, both characterizing the Final Girl as one that has a sort of (problematized yet inspirational) effect on women (both books were written by men). Grady Hendrix has become a popular horror writer who is forever bonded to 1980s exploitation horror by his non-fiction book Paperbacks from Hell, which looked at the paperback horror phenomenon that hit drugstores and supermarkets around the country (he has even created an imprint where he re-issues these 1980s sorta-classics). His book The Final Girl Support Group visits a survivors group of women who are the Final Girl of an attack by serial killers, each facing unbearable trauma and instability. Irony of ironies, they all become the target for another serial killer, and our heroine and narrator is destined to become the Final Girl of the Final Girls.” In My Heart is a Chainsaw, indigenous horror writer Stephen Graham Jones takes a teenage slasher movie fanatic, one similar to the experts from films like Scream who educate their friends on horror film survival rules, and then plops her into a potential murder spree in a sleepy mountain town in Idaho. Both books see the Final Girl as a tentative form of empowerment, a story that teaches how to survive amidst crisis and violence. In the Hendrix book you even meet a pro-killer Final Girl, one who sees the struggle between the killer and the Final Girl as one of metaphysical significance, something that echoes so much of the film criticism out there that wants to heap meaning onto slasher films.
This is a long roundabout to say that I was bringing a lot of baggage into watching the recent slasher film X, which is still in theaters and which revives so many of the now classic tropes that it feels more like a film museum than something distinct and fresh. The movie follows six people who go deep into the Texas countryside to make a porno. They rent a small house on a piece of property from an threatening old man with a shotgun and begin to film, until they are stalked slowly by the man’s disheveled wife. A film like this lives and breathes by surprises, so I’ll avoid spoilers, but what plays out is a revival of the most trenchant elements of the slasher genre and echoes films like the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Most specifically, it makes revives the deep distrust that urbanites have of what they see as backwards country folk, who they assign disturbing perversions as a matter of course.
Director Ti West is in full form here, repeating a well worn trope in an attempt to breathe new life in by drawing out a few key ironies. The Final Girl is herself the center of the sexual exploits, of which the killers are jealous or lustful (or perhaps angry, its unclear). Halloween, which is often assigned with popularizing what came to be known as the slasher sub-genre in 1978, established the rule that if a woman has sex she is then to be killed by the film’s murderer. Halloween’s director John Carpenter has said that he has been accused of unwittingly destroying the “sexual revolution,” adding even more gas to the idea that these films are profound social commentary With this in mind, X centers its iconoclastic interpretation of the genre on inverting this trope and making a woman who is both happy and pragmatic about her sexuality the Final Girl who needs not remain chaste to remain alive. That is, perhaps, why the film itself has a Final Girl at all, who is not as pinned down by convention: she wins not by her virtue, but by her ability to out kill the killer. The heroine of X is shown as celebrating her own libertinism, refusing to apologize (she has a much repeated line to this effect), and when the fates arrive, they intervene in her favor. There is an underlying simplicity to the moral canon of West’s film, and this one in particular: there is nothing immoral about sexual liberty, and denial of sex can, apparently, turn you into an elderly monster.
The movie is reasonably effective, though it hardly earns the marks it has received on sites like Rotten Tomatoes. When it comes to horror press, the reviewers are typically easier on their genre and turn out in force for breakthrough titles, so they end up jamming the review percentages by overwhelming them with the sheer number of positive reviews. The weakness of X is not in its execution, but in its absolute insistence that it has something to say. In its celebration of carnality and its focus on the body, it quickly devolves into presenting elderly people both as physically putrid and as psychologically dangerous. The sexual component of the aging wife, whose lusts drives her into a kind of extractive pathology, is seen particularly perverse in light of what her body looks like: an undo amount of shots focus on her body as the key site of the horror. When she touches, or is touched, this is usually the climactic moment of tension, and the subtext seems to be that age is a curse that turns you from a healthy sexual creature to one possessed by deviant rage.
This is not just a problem of X, but of horror films in general. There is an entire sub-genre that you might be able to simply call “old people are scary.” The best example of this is M. Night Shamalyan’s The Visit, where two teens are sent to stay with grandparents they have never met and whose interactions get progressively more frightening primarily from the fact that the elderly couple acts, well, like old people. The horror is in their physical movements, their memory loss, and even their hygiene and incontinence. The Visit concludes by revealing that the pair were not the kids’ grandparents at all, but escaped mental patients who were masquerading as said elders, essentially flattening all old people into a neutral category of “weird and possible threatening.”
X misses some of the worst offenses of this ill fated genre, but not because West has a deeply laid philosophical perspective. Instead, the sexual morality of the film would have been challenging a couple of decades ago rather than today, and the film’s end, while charming in a nostalgic kind of way, has the pretence that a moral lesson is being presented amidst the violent nihilism. The “body horror” of the old people simply reveals the simplicity of West’s commentary: so little is thought out that while claiming to represent a liberatory perspective, he can’t help but cast shade on a marginalized demographic. This might be seen as tangential to the question of the film’s effectiveness, but it gets to the heart of the arrogance of believing that you are imbueing your work with an erudite amount of social commentary. Instead, he simply made a horror movie, just as offensive or inoffensive as any other.
And this is what brought me back to Ebert. It wasn’t that Roger Ebert was always off the mark, but that amid his moralistic rants about anti-feminist assaults by masked killers with chainsaws he overstepped the bounds of his actual intellectual authority. Film genres are loaded propositions, and yet they can’t be pinned down into one generalizable political analysis. The effort to categorically determine what a genre is, that it is implicitly one point of view or another, misses how genres actually operate. Genre is a narrative structure that the reader (or, in this case, the watcher) understands implicitly and so it allows them to engage with the material through a shared language. I know how a slasher film works, so I know how to understand the film. A genre itself often unpacks a contemporary issue of some kind, but it rarely takes a position by default of its structure. The situation comedy (sitcom), for example, have historically been situated on a generational conflict of some sort. Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver were built ont eh anxiety of the newly created social category of the “teenager.” Three is Company played on the new relationships between men and women and the potential acceptance of queerness. Cheers was about the post-Second Wave responses to feminism, and Seinfeld was iconic for its post-modern nihilism. Those shows had perspectives, but the sitcom itself did not. Instead, by well placing the laugh track it showed people where it was declaring the social boundaries to be, which behavior deserved a laugh, which was assumed normal.
Few would say that slasher films are on the road to ‘progressive of the year’ awards, but the categoricalization of it either as implicitly reactionary or a natural feminist celebration of gender equity is misguided. What the film X seeks to do is return to a feminist re-inerptretation of the slasher genre, taking the heroine as she is, both with her liberated sexuality and her less-than-perfect lifestyle (mainly what is presented as a cocaine addiction). While this may be fine for a Friday night horror flick, it hardly warrants the self-righteousness that Ti West implies.
We have been “re-visiting” pop media for most of the past decade, so much so that there are libraries of competing commentaries for each media property. Ebert has already met his match, both from critics and filmmakers, and so the notion that we need to “fight it out” for the future of the horror film seems precious at best. What X has to offer is a reasonably well executed, marginally novel take on the horror film, and that is all. Terms like “elevated horror” are so trite because horror has always been a vessel for social commentary, but you have to have something compelling to say to make it worthwhile. If West has something new to offer, a social commentary beyond a simple defense of the horror genre and liberal sexual attitudes, it’s invisible in X, but what’s persistently visible is that he thinks he does. The notion that repressed sexuality explodes into violence is not something that will challenge social attitudes, and that’s ok.
What will stand out is the way that West calls back to the home video world of early 1980s films, the strange relationship it had with sex and pornography, and the reliance on women to drive the story. This is done in a way more subtle than filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez do, and hopefully this will end up as West’s legacy: a person who brings craft back to the nostalgic repetition of slasher horror.