This podcast Erica and I tackle “Meta Horror” – movies and books that either comment on the genre or generate self-awareness that their characters are not real. We love this genre!
As my vacation continues, I am scouring the archives for more meta-horror, now focusing on more “adult” and “extreme” fare.
This Valentine’s Day, it’s only appropriate that I spend some time reflecting on the latest entry of a series that holds a special place in my heart. None other than the Guinea Pig series, of course. The first entries, The Devil’s Experiment (1985) and Flower of Flesh and Blood (1985) both continue hold a prominent place in the faux-snuff genre, in part for their superb gore effects, but also because they were believed to be genuine snuff films and were suspected to have influenced the crimes of “otaku” killer Miyazaki Tsutomo. Sadly, the subsequent entries in the series degenerated into self-referential silliness and never captured the brutality of the first two…until now.
Stephen Biro’s American Guinea Pig: Bouquet Of Guts And Gore (2014) is, as you may guess, an Americanized quasi-meta redux of the Japanese quasi-meta faux-snuff opus Guinea Pig: Flower of Flesh and Blood (1985). Both films feature the explicit real-time dismemberment and murder of drugged female victims, zero plot, and various pornographic conceits. However, there are a few thematic differences.
While Hideshi Hino’s Flower depicted the systematic disassembly of its victim as an erotic experience for the murderer and possibly for the unfortunate woman herself (due to the influence of a nondescript sedative), American Guinea Pig eschews this aspect in favor of focusing on the act of filmmaking itself. The distinctly American aspect of this film is the fact that the sadistic acts aren’t particularly enjoyable for those committing them; the most important thing is creating a product that makes a profit. This is repeatedly emphasized by the “director’s” monotone instructions to the “actors” (one of whom “doesn’t know his right from his left”) and to the cameramen, who must get the right shot at the right angle at the right time. In a move reminiscent of Circus of the Dead and A Serbian Film, one of the “actors” is a normal person forced to do terrible things against his will. And like those films, American Guinea Pig has no qualms about brutalizing children, even if the violence is largely implied. Additionally, there is quite a bit Satanic imagery and much is made of reserving the greater torture for the Christian victim. Why? Because it will make the film more popular with its target audience.
As for the faux-snuff aspect itself, all of my fellow torture-porn-gore-whores can rejoice. American Guinea Pig features not one but two victims and clocks in at roughly twice the time as Hideshi Hino’s film (perhaps this reflecting the distinctly American philosophy of “more is more”). The special effects themselves equal, if not surpass, those of Flower.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare was the first meta-horror I had ever seen. My young self found the concept mind-warping. Instead of being a sequel or even a remake, the film had the main actors from the original film, along with New Line Cinema executive/producer Bob Shaye, and Wes Craven all portraying themselves. This movie acknowledged that all of the preceding films in the franchise were fiction, but that somehow Freddy Krueger is now real and is terrorizing his creators. An especially mind-bending moment occurred when Heather Langenkamp meets with Craven to discuss his new film script. At the and of the conversation, a close up of his computer screen reveals that their entire conversation was already part of the script.
I still like this core concept very much, even though it turns out that Lucio Fulci had done something very similar years earlier with Cat In The Brain. There are other good things about New Nightmare. Freddy has a new look and is no longer cracking bad jokes with each kill–something that Craven despised about the other sequels.
However, in some respects, this movie hasn’t aged well for me. There are many aspects I view very differently now, and maybe adulthood has poisoned my perceptions. I now find the acting cringe-inducing in some scenes. And to some extent, I find the characters less sympathetic, which is especially weird since most of the people involved played themselves. I wonder if Craven made a deliberate decision to troll his own industry by portraying filmmakers as a bit bitchy, superficial, and flakey. Am I projecting my own experiences on to these characters? Most of the filmmakers I know are decent people, but I’ve met all types at this point. Then again, Craven took those stereotypes to an extreme in Scream 3, in which filmmakers were not only overly bitchy, superficial, and flakey, but rapists and murderers to boot. Many of the non-filmmaker/actor characters in New Nightmare were downright awful and creepy, especially the medical personnel who are ostensibly concerned for the welfare of Langenkamp’s son.
Some aspects of the film are just odd in retrospect because societal attitudes have changed. While rewatching it, I had to remind myself of the stigma horror films carried in the 1990s. As bizarre as it seems now to watch a scene in which a doctor threatens to have child protective services take Langenkamp’s son away because mayyyybe he was exposed to horror films, there was a lot of hand-wringing on the part of so-called “experts” along these lines. As someone who openly liked the horror genre, I felt stigmatized back then too. On one occasion, a virtual stranger scolded me (during a Bible study of all things) that people like me were responsible for the Columbine massacre. Of course, Craven returned to the issue of movies influencing real-life violence in the Scream franchise , but I never hear that issue discussed these days. Thankfully. If there is a moral to this film, it’s the idea that the the act of telling stories can keep real monsters at bay.
Despite my issues with the film, I appreciate the fact that Craven was one of very few directors of that decade who took his subject matter seriously.
Today we wrap up Final Girls Week with my favorite meta-horror film about the subject, Todd Strauss-Schulson’s The Final Girls, starring Taissa Farmiga, Malin Ackerman, and Adam DeVine. I had the pleasure of seeing this movie in early 2015 at the Stanley Film Festival, where it won the audience choice award for best film. The Final Girls surprised the audience because it was so unexpectedly funny and sweet, and actually left many viewers openly weepy.
The film is about Max Cartwright, a young woman who lost her mother, Amanda, in a car accident. Amanda Cartwright was an actress best known for her appearance in a Friday the 13th-style slasher film called Camp Bloodbath. As bad as that film was, it’s a primary way for Max to feel connected to to her late mother. When Max agrees to be the guest of honor at a Camp Bloodbath screening, a strange turn of events causes Max and her school friends to be sucked into the film itself. Max relives her grief when she meets the doomed character played by her mother. Other tear-jerking moments occur when that character realizes she is a fictional character and that she will never accomplish her dreams because she will be “written out.”
Another commendable thing about The Final Girls is that it acknowledges the inherent awfulness of 1980’s slasher films without displaying the typical snarky contempt common of most meta-horror films, which tend to show disgust for both the films they parody and for the fans who watch them. Instead, the filmmakers of The Final Girls just get it. As a good friend of mine observed, some films (especially campy horror films) are so bad that they transcend their badness and become something else entirely. In The Final Girls, fans are portrayed as intelligent cinephiles, and the bad writing and acting in Camp Bloodbath are simply more reasons to love it.
Today, I am covering the Stephen Graham Jones novel, The Last Final Girl, which bears some resemblance to the new Riley Sager novel Final Girls, but is just plain weird.
What both novels have in common is that several “final girls” are thrown together and have to respond to a new series of murders, and perhaps one or more final girl is a murderer or collaborating with the killer.
Beyond that they are very different books. The Last Final Girl is just plain bonkers, and is written in an equally bonkers style. Stephen Graham Jones wrote the entire novel in screenplay format, and this is something that readers will either love or hate. I find it a bit distracting at times, but does help one imagine the story in a cinematic way and almost begs someone to adapt the novel into an actual film.
The story itself is even weirder. The final girls all have names that reference real slasher movies, such as Crystal Blake and Mandy Kane. Jones even invents new genre-savvy verbs, such as the killer “Hoddering” after an intended victim. The fact that the killer is named Billy Jean and wears a Michael Jackson mask is a nice, absurd touch. The plot itself takes place in that strange liminal space between a film and its sequel. What happens to a final girl and her community after the killer is vanquished but before he miraculously recovers and kills again. Hint: one of the final girls nurses him back to health by feeding him burritos.
Slasher film fans will appreciate film references and jokes, but everyone else risks being left in the dark.
We are kicking off Final Girls Week with a review of Final Girls: A Novel by Riley Sager.
Final Girls caught my attention because Stephen King praised the novel as “the first great thriller of 2017” and compared it favorably to Gone Girl. Riley Sager is actually a pseudonym for an author previously published under a different name, Todd Ritter. The name “Riley Sager” seems like a perfect final girl name.
The novel’s protagonist, Quincy Carpenter, is the sole survivor of a massacre in a cabin. She suffers from amnesia regarding the events of that night, and is later mentored by another “final girl,” Lisa Milner, a survivor of a sorority house massacre. When Lisa is found dead with her wrists slit, Quincy is approached by a third final girl named Sam, who goads Quincy into vigilante justice and other problematic behaviors.
I won’t spoil any major plot points on a novel this recent. I will say that some plot twists are fully expected. It’s fairly obvious early on that one or more of the Final Girls is a murderer. That’s also become a typical device in several postmodern or meta slasher films, such as Scream 4, High Tension, and All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. That said, there are several, fully unexpected twists. Sager’s prose is straightforward, and some reviewers have complained about his writing style. However, he’s definitely an engaging storyteller. He uses an interesting narrative device of telling most of the story from Quincey’s point of view, and other sections in a detached third-person style. The audiobook version even uses two different narrators for these passages. In part, this format serves the purpose of filling in gaps in Quincy’s memory. The other reason is…rather surprising.
This is great beach read as summer winds down.
We kick off Meta-Horror Month with Final Girls week, or technically films and novels which deliberately reference Carol Clover’s concept of the Final Girl.
Clover’s 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws is considered a landmark work in film criticism and is largely responsible for rehabilitating the reputation of the horror genre as more than an expression of misogyny. Naturally, horror writers and directors love her for it. S&Man (2006), a faux documentary on faux snuff films, features extensive interviews with Clover regarding the popularity of the subgenre. Another film, the horror-comedy Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006), repeatedly refers to her theories. Slam poet Daphne Gottlieb converted Clover’s theory into poetry in her Final Girl collection.
And yet, there has been a virtual explosion of films and novels in the last two years that use the phrase “final girl” or a close variant in the title. With Clover’s book being 25 years old, why did this take so long?
Perhaps more writers and filmmakers are familiar with Clover’s work now than when it was fresh and timely. Let’s face it, post 9-11 horror, and torture films in particular, blew most of the tropes discussed by Clover out of the water.
Another reason for this resurgence is that the classic 1980’s-style slasher film is dead. The story has been mined from every angle, until is has absolutely nothing new to offer. Sure, people in my age bracket have a certain nostalgia for the slasher film. But these films just aren’t scary anymore. While many people saw Wes Craven’s Scream series as a revitalization of the genre, I saw it as a sign that the genre was in serious trouble. As smart as that series was, it chose to parody and mock the slasher film rather than add something new to it. We are now at a point in time in which Clover’s theories are more interesting than the films themselves. So why play with the remains of a dead genre in an act of cinematic necrophilia when one can make a film about the genre’s analysis instead?
Come back soon for a review of the new Riley Sager novel, Final GIrls. In the meantime, read my review of Clover’s book here.
This month, Todd and I celebrate our birthdays. It is also the birth month of one of our horror heroes, H.P. Lovecraft!
What better way to celebrate our birth month than to make it all about ourselves, and by extension, celebrate meta horror films and novels, and a bit of Lovecraftian horror too!
“Meta” is a term that is thrown around a lot, but many people don’t know the proper definition. Dictionary.com helpfully offers the following definitions: