THE 1990s TEEN HORROR CYCLE: FINAL GIRLS AND A NEW HOLLYWOOD FORMULA
The poster for Jamie Blanks’ 1998 film Urban Legend, featured on the cover of Alexandra West’s new book, The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula, conveniently captures why so many horror fans have dismissed the genre’s 90s output as uninspired and uninteresting. Virtually identical to posters for other genre movies like The Faculty (1998) and the Scream series (1996-2011), the vacant stares of its attractive, well-groomed stars suggest a clean, cookie-cutter studio commercialism instead of dread.
But West, co-host of the Faculty of Horror podcast (with Rue Morgue’s Andrea Subissati) and author of Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity, begs you to reconsider.
As she looks beneath the seemingly banal surface of the era’s genre films, West makes a compelling case for its quality, depth and relevance. Using each chapter to discuss two or three related movies, she comprehensively traces the development of the era’s style chronologically, beginning with 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and ending with 2011’s Scream 4. Looking at 25 movies in all, West includes not only the era’s defining hits (such as 1996’s Scream and 1997’s I Know What You Did Last Summer) but also some of its half-forgotten, fascinating curios (like 1993’s My Boyfriend’s Back or 1998’s Disturbing Behavior). The chapters themselves are an engaging mix of production history and critical theory, pulling together a wide variety of resources – including interviews, film theory, feminist writings and more – to reveal the people, concepts and themes behind each movie.
One of the most compelling wells that West draws her analysis from is history – in fact, the book’s opening two chapters hardly deal with horror movies at all, instead providing a broader description of America in the 1990s. Avoiding the easy pull of 90s nostalgia, she instead focuses on the more complicated, less savoury aspects of the decade, in particular drawing attention to the era’s increasingly obvious culture of misogyny, exemplified by the public shaming of Anita Hill for revealing the sexual harassment she experienced while working for future American Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and the way domestic abuse was sidelined in the media circus surrounding the O. J. Simpson trial. By focusing on the struggles of women during this era, West introduces her book’s strongest feature – its fresh (and refreshing) feminist focus.
The most revelatory moments in West’s book come as she connects 90s horror to the decade’s feminist concerns – such as her discussions of the importance of female cooperation in 1996’s The Craft, the sense of entitlement which motivates the antagonists of Scream and The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999), or the problems that the male gaze creates in movies about female sexuality, like The Crush (1993) and Wicked (1998).
Ultimately, West reveals that 90s horror, far from being a decade of brainless, derivative studio dreck, provided a much-needed cultural space where the complexities of women’s lives could be revealed and explored – fighting back against a culture where they were often judged solely by their appearance – just as a moviegoer might dismiss Urban Legend for its poster.
If you’re interested in picking up West’s new book, you can buy an eBook version right now from Amazon and Google Play. Also, (if you’re reading from the United States) you can buy a physical copy from Amazon.com or the publisher (800-253-2187).
Happy reading and watching!