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

Written by ZigZag

Published by McFarland

The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle Alexandra West Poster

Written by Alexandra West
2018, 185 pages, Reference
Book released on May 25th, 2018

Review:

Horror films have long been an outlet to play with society’s fears, from the classic Universal monsters of the 1930s to the giant insects that raged throughout the 1950s. The 1970s and ‘80s introduced audiences to the slasher film formula and the concept of the Final Girl. These movies were filled with character archetypes and tropes that followed a series of unwritten rules of behavior that became familiar. By the 1990s, moviegoers were a bit savvier and the beginning of the decade has been dismissed by some as a cinematic wasteland full of vapid, commercialized entertainment cash-grabs. The genre received one hell of a shot in the arm in 1996 with the arrival of Wes Craven’s Scream, a film that reset the vitality of scary movies with critics and fans alike. The box office smash inspired countless imitators and changed the face of horror for years to come. With her new book The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula, author Alexandra West compiles a series of essays that study the decade and how it altered the cinematic landscape into something new.

In her introduction, West provides an overview of what distinguishes the ‘90s teen horror cycle with many astute observations. She shows how these films differ from those that came in the previous decades with both her own insights as well as frequent quotes from fellow authors, including Carol Clover (Men, Women and Chainsaws) and John Kenneth Muir (Horror Films FAQ). This is followed by two short chapters that should have been combined into one. The first takes an overall look back at the 1990s and where it fits into history, while the second studies what exactly makes a teen a teen and how that definition has changed over the decades. The history lesson is appreciated and provides a proper context for the features being studied, but defining the target audience in more than a paragraph or two is overkill.

The film analysis begins with observations on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992) and its appearance during the rise of Third Wave Feminism and the Riot Grrl movement. Buffy spotlights modern feminism mixed with traditional coming-of-age tales presented through the lens of apathetic ‘90s teens. There are some decent points raised about self-confidence and individuality and the importance of taking responsibility for your actions. Oddly, West chose to pair this chapter with a look back at the horror/ comedy My Boyfriend’s Back (1993), which aside from containing elements of the supernatural shares nothing with Buffy. This second film study arrives via a jarring lack of transition from which the chapter never recovers. There are no new insights to bridge the two movies by either tone or content and My Boyfriend’s Back feels shoehorned in here rather than following a more suitable pairing later in the book with her discussion of the film Idle Hands (1999). This awkward shift in subject matter is unfortunately repeated throughout much of the book.

In the next chapter we take a look at teenage psychosis with the pairing of The Crush (1993) and Fear (1996). Both films ride the wave of thrillers that followed the success of Fatal Attraction (1987), employing a mentally unbalanced antagonist, but with a more youthful spin. The Crush introduces a different kind of female lead in a ‘90s thriller, one who shares more in common with the dangerous femme fatale of the film noir genre of the 1940s. Where the previous chapter included no transition at all between titles, the one offered here is weak at best, as it focuses on the notion of teen romance. This is followed by a study of Fear, a film that relegates its female lead to the sidelines as two men fight over her, her father and psychotic suitor. The two pictures are not presented in a compare-and-contrast study that may have addressed similar themes or approaches to the material and as a result feel cobbled together almost arbitrarily.

West recovers nicely with her look at The Craft (1996), in which she studies the allure of witchcraft to high school teenage girls. The chapter offers a well-articulated series of observations on the importance of social circles and the need for acceptance, told with a distinctly feminist flavor. The ladies have all the power here whereas the guys are reduced to buffoons or angry children acting badly. Witchcraft is the ultimate evolution in the Girl Power movement and our hero must balance her newfound social status with the responsibilities given through her natural abilities as a teen witch. There are lessons about the very real consequences of our actions and the need to on occasion stand up to our friends in order to do what is right.

From here, the book really soars with the study of the Scream trilogy (1996 - 2000), complete with analysis from sociologists as well as fellow film scholars. Author West has a lot to say on the topic of these movies and brings both of this book’s central themes together nicely for this discussion. A film that changed the trajectory of the genre, filled with strong female leads, Scream is a smartly written franchise that never talks down to its target audience and keeps things fresh for older viewers too. This chapter covers a lot of ground and is one of the standouts in this collection.

From here, we follow several titles that were released in the wake of Scream’s enormous success. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and its sequel look at the effects of post-traumatic stress on teens and how friendships can be ruined and relationships strained in the name of keeping a secret. Urban Legend (1998) follows with a look at modern myths and folklore in the self-referential era where the kids are familiar with all of the urban legends being used to kill them, but helpless to avoid them. With Halloween: H20 (1998), the slasher genre provided a more mature look at the material, one that follows the long-term side effects of being a Final Girl. Our heroine may barely be hanging on emotionally, but is a fierce opponent when the safety of her child is called into question. As a strong woman, she rises to the challenge of facing her fears to take control of her own fate.

The book concludes with a look to the next decade and the evolution of horror films in the post-referential cycle. Cherry Falls (2000) upends the “virginity equals survival” rule of the traditional slasher, while Final Destination (2000) casts Death itself as the villain. The cycle eventually turned to self-parody with Scary Movie (2000), a film that points to race relations and the relative absence of minorities within the genre. The final analysis arrives with a look at Scream 4 (2011) and how the franchise has evolved over the subsequent years. The author makes some interesting observations in this chapter, but breaks no new ground. In her conclusion, West provides an overview of the 1990s horror offerings and focuses her attention to how they were shaped by societal shifts and the terror came from within the familiar setting rather than an isolated environment.

The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle is a well-written collection of thought-provoking essays that shed new light on how the genre is a reflection of the times and how society itself influences the cinematic output. Alexandra West is well-versed in the material, but the book could use stronger editing. There are minor problems peppered throughout the narrative that easily could have been caught before going to press. Overall the book is enjoyable, if a bit dry, but comes recommended all the same.

Grades:

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About The Author
ZigZag
Author: ZigZag
Staff Writer
ZigZag's favorite genres include horror (foreign and domestic), Asian cinema and pornography (foreign and domestic). His ability to seek out and enjoy shot on video (SOV) horror movies is unmatched. His love of films with a budget under $100,000 is unapologetic.
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