Friday, April 22nd, 2011

‘Scream 4’: The First Mainstream Feminist Horror Film

Scre4m’s task was never easy. Not only was it rebooting the first "self-aware horror franchise" and hauling the institutional weight of a generation, it was also selling its shtick to a new batch of teens so savvy they can plug their tongues directly into iPads to sync their brains. Remember the halcyon innocence of 1996? How tickled we were that a horror movie was listing slasher-flick rules and mocking Richard Gere? Yeah, kids now consider that about as edgy as a Nu Shooz reunion tour.

And sure enough, no one wanted to see it. Opening weekend was dismal, grossing a mere $18.7 million (which ain’t bad for a horror flick, ‘til you consider the projections were for over $40 mill). The youngs are apparently too busy planning Green Beret death missions on Rebecca Black. As for us olds, well, we're famous for not wanting to be reminded that we're old—no one wants to see Sidney Prescott as the hoary 30-something with neck wrinkles and a book deal.

Still, despite the fact that it bombed harder than a convent donkey show, Scre4m is nontheless an important contribution to the Horror Canon. In fact, I’m gonna go ahead and dub it the first mainstream feminist horror film.

From the ultra-meta opening to the semi-ridiculous ending, this is a woman's show. The ladies dominate nearly every scene, bitching, snarking, joking, and [WARNING, HERE COMES A BIG FAT SPOILER] stabbing with rapturous abandon. And, most important of all, they’re not being punished for it. There’s no comeuppance for hitting on another man’s husband or telling the hot jock to fuck off. The notable one-liners, ballsy moves, wisecracks—all are made by girls (with the exception of a “Please don’t kill me, I’m gay!” crack from Erik Knudsen and Anthony Anderson yelling “Fuck Bruce Willis!”)

The male characters are bumbling, depth-free distractions, there to look like fools, or look like fools and then get killed, or just serve as continuous reminders of the ‘90s. (It’s David Arquette looking like a washed-up gambling addict! And look! They even cast a Culkin!) Meanwhile, the chicks get to shout and punch and spout out lists of classic horror films and treat boys like dryer lint and generally act AWESOME. And they don't get killed for doing so (well, ok, some of them get killed—but Jesus, it’s a horror movie).

Even ‘90s weep-queen Neve Campbell adds a bit more gravitas to Sidney’s trademark watery squint. (Funny how Neve looks exactly the same as she did in ‘96… or is it just that I’ve aged at the exact same rate? Don't answer that.)

But the true femme accompli here is Courteney Cox. She slashes her way out of the 40-something female stereotype, and takes over this movie with a flick of her scorn-ready (albeit Botox-ed to the hilt) brow. Let’s face it: Few film archetypes are more brutal than the “older woman in a horror movie”—either you’re the psycho nutcase (Friday the 13th, Carrie, Rosemary’s Baby) or you’re the pathetic victim (nearly every other movie). And no matter what, you’re ALWAYS an obsessive mother.

Cox pulls off a pretty impressive coup, upstaging not only the cute flouncing teens, but also her 15-years-younger self. Her character—now successful, childless (!), and utterly bored with the “middle-aged wife” role—shrugs off all orders to “stay out of it” and leaps back into the murderous fray, husbands, younger blondes and kitchen knives be damned. She takes nothing for granted, and thinks not a second about sneaking into dark corners to catch homicidal fruitcakes (and bitch is 47!!!). While Arquette and Campbell slide into their ‘90s cliché groove, Cox reinvents and one-ups, kicking this meta-fest to life and providing the only sexy thing onscreen, gelatinous lips and all. Gale Weathers is shrewd, aggressive, cunning, but never heartless;despite it all, she still loves that stupefied ass clown Dewey. And she does it all while sporting a better ass than the 20-somethings. And [yet another spoiler coming] she doesn’t even have to die for it!

Oh yeah, and there’s not a hint of sex or drugs. Seriously. Not even a half-finished joint or awkward boob-grab. Apparently teens today have moved on to other pursuits—like creating Internet memes and starring in reality shows.

Melissa Lafsky wants to be scared by your movie.

28 Comments / Post A Comment

Vicky (#7,168)

This is great! I saw the movie last night and loved it, mostly for the reasons you mention w/r/t Courteney Cox.

C_Webb (#855)

This is fantastic; now I want to see it. And while it's nowhere near as funny as you are, you should check out Patricia White's "Female Spectator, Lesbian Specter: The Haunting." No stabbings; mostly ladies getting scared off cliffs, into trees, etc. by ghosties that WANT them.

joeclark (#651)

You understand the nonword ‘til is wrong two ways, do you not?

Kakapo (#2,312)

@joeclark You may need to just let that one go. It's made its way into a few dictionaries now.

I have to disagree about the idea that women don't get killed for "treating boys like dryer lint." [SPOILERS] Kirby – who I think everyone agrees was the most delightful and enjoyable character in the movie, maybe the series – specifically gets stabbed by the Culkin because she toyed with him for so long. He has his whole crybaby rant about "four years of classes together" – pathetic, yes, but that's still his reasoning. I was hoping for the entire movie that her explicit desire to torment him sexually wouldn't lead to her death, even though I knew it would.

Also, there was that "Hot Chick" character whose name I don't even remember, the girl who Kirby and Jill watch getting murdered. Her entire role was to be the hot chick who walks around in lacy underwear, and she gets arguably the most gruesome kill of the movie. I don't think we see anyone else's organs lying around but hers.

Horror Chick (#1,677)

@Feedittomygoldfish@twitter [Ok everything here is spoilers] Very true re: the Olivia Morris hot chick character — but her gory end was orchestrated by her best friend! Presumably making the grisly murder a byproduct of female jealousy. And whether Hayden Panettiere toyed with him or not, the murderous Culkin was under instruction from a girl the whole time. Still, valid points both.

@Horror Chick Hmm. You do make a good point about Culkin being under instruction from a girl the whole time. And it was pretty boss when Jill flipped the script on him at the end.

But I think 'female jealousy' is somewhat anti-feminist – the idea is that women can't co-exist peacefully, let alone happily.

Horror Chick (#1,677)

@Feedittomygoldfish@twitter Haha fair point – though "feminism" never came with a "we all love each other" slogan. Men murder each other over jealousy – why not women?

ruizUSA@twitter (#11,356)

What about the Descent? I'm not saying anyone really remembers the film but I recall reading about it as a feminist horror film at the time.

Horror Chick (#1,677)

@ruizUSA@twitter Congrats! You are the first person to bring up this movie (i figured someone would), which in truth is pretty damn woman-centered, but hardly mainstream – it was a small release, with no known actors (not in the US anyway). And it's really friggin good – if you like being absolutely terrified the whole time.

Craig Brownson (#4,257)

@Horror Chick
Did you see it as feminist though? It actually seemed pretty much the opposite to me– the horrible suffering, the extreme punishment for the betrayal. But just as a horror movie– fucking scary!

@ruizUSA@twitter I agree with Craig – the relationship that the movie focuses on is an extremely toxic one, that has extremely violent repercussions. But it is one of the few horror movies with an all-female cast, and in which all the female characters are distinct, identifiable, and realistic.

Tranpsosed (#709)

Just had this conversation the other day. I was pushing forward "Alien," but I guess that movie sorta elided the gender confrontation thing (beyond the cyborg with the creamy center) in favor of psychological issues (fear of childbirth, etc) that could still come from a male perspective (like a sci-fi version of Sin in Paradise Lost)?

Nicholas Jahr (#5,267)

@Horror Chick. Okay, so now I guess I have to go see this, dammit. But the "first mainstream feminist horror film"? I'll grant, as you say, 'The Descent' didn't qualify as mainstream in these here United States. But I think AnxietyOfLinkfluence could make a stronger case for Alien (Sigourney gets chased around by penises with teeth, fer crissake), and I'm sure there's a few others — like the original Scream. The whole point of that film was that Neve (the brunette, no less) slept with her boyfriend and lived to fight another day, overturning the established conventions of the genre. (As I think about it, I usually give Joss Whedon far more credit for this same play in the first two seasons of Buffy, which is basically about the teenage girl who sleeps with her boyfriend only for him to turn out to be a total jerk.) Still fairly puritanical, I grant, but I'm not clear from your review if the latest take does any better on that count.

@Nicholas Jahr I read it as a Slasher = Horror while Monster = SciFi category issue.

Weird issues here with words being cut off. Basically maybe she's counting only slasher films or considering Alien to be sci-fi.

"Anthony Anderson yelling “Fuck Bruce Willis!”" = I'm sold

Matt Cornell (#8,797)

Carol Clover makes a pretty convincing case that a lot of horror films are feminist, at least in their underlying themes. Scream 4 is a terrible movie, and I have serious doubts reading it as feminist, particularly because of the Culkin/Pantierre scene.

Though it's not exactly mainstream, I think Slumber Party Massacre is the standout among feminist horror films.

Horror Chick (#1,677)

@Matt Cornell Fair point – Clover relies on a very academic analysis — it rests on the assumption that the Final Girl theory remains a powerful thread in horror because it's the only film character that allows men to truly identify with a female. Which is a fair dissection and may well be true — but it doesn't apply to modern feminist theory, nor does it take into account the canon of the past decade (her book was written in '93). Scream 4 may indeed suck, but it's the first example of female characters dominating a slasher flick from start to finish.

Matt Cornell (#8,797)

@Horror Chick Clover's book covers three strains of the genre– slasher films, possession movies and rape revenge. Her analysis of slasher films is not just about male identification with the Final Girl, but about a spectrum of issues surrounding gender, power and spectatorship. I realize the book is nearly two decades old, but I am not familiar with academic feminist film theory, post-Clover. What writers or books do you recommend?

In at least the last decade, Hollywood has simply recycled and remade existing stories and franchises. Sometimes, they'll go meta and do this in a self-referential way (as in the Scream series), but the movies themselves are always reliable in their genre conventions. My sense is that horror movies really haven't changed that much, with the sole exception of the new "torture porn" variant.

Horror Chick (#1,677)

@Matt Cornell Yes, Clover covers a number of different types of movies – but she circles and circles around the same theme. The "spectrum of issues" is very academic and interesting in theory – but not all of it holds up beyond a cultural critique of the 70s and 80s. "post-Clover academic feminist film theory" is a pretty narrow demographic – there are a few books out there, though none won quite the same place as Clover and her Final Girl.

And when we talk "genre conventions," what we're talking about in this particular instance is "gender conventions." Which is the whole purpose of this argument.

HiredGoons (#603)


ALSO: Courtney Cox' face was the element in this film that had been most subject to a sharp blade.

mrphy42@twitter (#11,384)

"Meanwhile, the chicks get to shout and punch and spout out lists of classic horror films and treat boys like dryer lint and generally act AWESOME." Yes, because feminism is about means treating people like shit is ok, as long as it is the girl doing it to the guy. Nice.

I think you need to look up the definition of feminism, Merriam Webster's is

: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes
: organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests

equality is the word here. A movie where women dominate the screen and have stronger personalities would be sexist Merriam Websters definition of sexism is the following:

: prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially : discrimination against women
: behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex

in this case the discrimination is against the boys

russell brandom (#7,699)

Red Eye's pretty straightforwardly feminist. (Underrated!) Wes Craven has a surprisingly good track record on these things.

ssv (#10,786)

Silence of the Lambs, anyone? Starling's narrative is the ultimate Empowered Final Girl, from beginning to end, making room for empathy with the killer only when she deems it necessary.

naughtysneaky (#11,902)

what about Aliens? c'mon now.

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