Like the Republican Party or Bill Clinton, horror films have not traditionally been kind to women. Although horror films need women, oftentimes they're little more than the sum of their body parts: the literal meat and grist upon which the genre is built.
Whether fodder to be cranked through the torture porn mill or sliced and diced by truck-driving psychos, parts for female actors are often horribly underwritten (and underdressed). There's even a theory explaining how horror films treat women: the final girl theory.
First coined by Berkeley professor Carol J. Clover in the 1992 classic book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, it explains how the heroine of horror films—the so-called "final girl"—usually meets certain criteria: She is sexually unavailable and clean living. As characters are killed off one by one, the film moves towards an inevitable confrontation between the girl and the villain. She emerges victorious, rewarded for her moral virtue with her own life.
Given that countless PhD theses and blogs have dedicated themselves to exploring the idea of the final girl, it's unsurprising that someone would make a film about it. Thanks to feminist horror collective The Final Girls, director Todd Strauss-Schulson's 2015 film of the same name is enjoying a limited re-run in the UK, with a special screening next month at London's Somerset House, introduced by the group.
The Final Girls explore the intersection of horror films and feminism through screenings, Q&As, and a self-published zine. Helmed by film buffs Anna Bogutskaya and Olivia Howe, the collective aims to reclaim for women a genre conventionally viewed as male, alongside highlighting emerging female talent within the industry. Ahead of next month's screening of The Final Girls, we caught up with Bogutskaya and Howe to talk about horror films, feminism, and why bad girls don't always need to die.
BROADLY: Hi guys, talk me through how you came to set up The Final Girls?
Olivia Howe: Anna and I have known each other for years and watched a lot of horror films together. We'd always discuss how few people were talking about horror films and feminism. So one Saturday morning at 9 AM I texted Anna and we came up with the name and the first film we were going to screen and we were like, "Let's do this."
The name of your collective references Clovers' famous theory...
Anna Bogutskaya: That was the inspiration, definitely. There are other films that satirize the trope—like The Cabin in the Woods—which plays with the idea that if a girl has sex in a horror film, she'll be the first to die.
Was it important for you to challenge the idea that horror films are conventionally male?
Howe: There's sometimes a stigma associated with women who like horror films. We've found that the [horror film community] can be an uninviting space sometimes.
Bogutskaya: It was really important for us to create a space for women who enjoy the darker side of cinema. Leaving aside all the issues to do with industry, we wanted to make a fun place for people to enjoy the genre of movies they love—especially women. The last film we screened was Office Killer, by Cindy Sherman. There's a really good, dark moment in that film and everyone just burst out laughing and it's a great feeling when you can share that with the audience.
Howe: It's like, "This is sick", and we kind of love that. It's great.
While more progressive horror films play with the idea of the final girl trope, it's always done in a very knowing, self-referential way. Is there a way to have an authentic feminist horror film that isn't self-conscious or ironic?
Howe: There's this 70s film, Black Christmas, which is one of the first slasher films. And in it the final girl is talking about how she wants to have an abortion, which goes completely against the general characteristics of a horror film.
Do you feel like there's something inherent in horror films that makes them more relatable to women? After all, the world's a scary place for women.
Bogutskaya: There are films—like Rosemary's Baby is a perfect example—that are so rooted in the female experience. And it deals with the fear of motherhood and childbirth really intensely, but it's directed by a man, written by a man, based on a novel by a man.
Howe: We've been talking a lot about motherhood as a general theme in horror films. Like in Carrie.
Bogutskaya: Or Brood deals with the idea of the monstrous mother as well, actually. If you look at horror film history for the last 30 years, you can see these themes that are inherently female.
At the more extreme end of the genre, so-called "torture porn" has been criticised for perpetuating misogyny. Is it impossible to enjoy films like Hostel and be a feminist?
Bogutskaya: I wouldn't call anyone anti-feminist for enjoying a type of film. And there are some more complicated torture porn firms, like Inside, which deals with issues like pregnancy and motherhood, real female traumas. But it's not my personal favourite subgenre because it's boring after a while. You're just watching someone being tortured. They're not even real characters, they're figures to be destroyed.
Howe: It's a shame, because in horror you've got so many opportunities to create a cast of diverse and interesting characters. Women can be victims but they can also be the killers, they can be the heroes. Torture porn is less about constructing a character, it's more like 'what's the most disgusting way I can tear someone apart?'
What about the current state of the industry? Is it a good time to be a woman making horror films?
Bogutskaya: Jennifer Kent's The Badabook has one of the most incredible female characters in the last couple of years. A Girl Walks Home Alone Late At Night is an Iranian vampire western by Ana Lily Amirpour that introduced many horror fans to the Iranian arthouse genre.
Howe: We're huge fans of Karyn Kusama's The Invitation. And there's also some really interesting new films coming out with strong female characters, like [female cannibal film] Raw or Under the Shadow, which is all about motherhood. There's so much coming out, and people are becoming more conscious of creating female roles for women in the genre.
The Final Girls present: Reinventing the Final Girl is on August 13 at Somerset House. More details here.