at the cinema

The King of Horror’s Secret Feminism

Drew Barrymore in <em>Scream</em>.
Drew Barrymore in Scream. Photo: ©Dimension Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

In the past several days, tributes to and memories of Wes Craven have poured forth from colleagues, critics, and fans. He was, after all, the man who brought us A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream (all four of them), The Hills Have Eyes, and The Last House on the Left. His films are described as “terrifying,” “soul-scarring,” and “horror masterpieces.” He himself is generally described with words like “kind,” “thoughtful,” “humble,” and “unique.” I’d like to add another one: feminist.

It’s not a word you expect to be applied to a filmmaker best known for his gruesome pantheon of films featuring young women put in the path of maniacs wielding undeniably phallic weapons. But Craven, who died Sunday from brain cancer at age 76, was one of horror filmmaking’s most complex writer-directors, and among his celebrated movies are a handful that offer a distinctly feminist reading of a category whose female participants were generally of the nude-and-screwed variety.

He didn’t start out subverting the misogyny of the genre. Craven’s first horror outing, 1972’s The Last House on the Left, is a film that I have many times wished to go back in time to unsee. An update of Ingmar Bergman’s morality tale The Virgin Spring, Last House spread palpable dread over the Age of Aquarius with the story of a nihilistic hippie murder cult who unwittingly take refuge with the parents of a recent victim, and it fucked me up good. Though the film’s tagline was “Just Keep Telling Yourself … It’s Only a Movie,”  the narrative was a cruel shock of realism meant to showcase any human’s capacity for pointless evil. At the peak of the war in Vietnam, Craven wanted the horror of quotidian killing brought front and center for American audiences — no artful cuts away from blood and entrails and taunting cruelty.

Like thousands of future slashers, exploitation pics, and “video nasties,” Last House initially played out this metaphor on the bodies of teenage girls whom audiences saw raped, tortured, sexually humiliated, and murdered with no small amount of leering focus. The formulaic rape-revenge films by other directors that followed in its wake tried to make a case for turning the gory tables as a pro-woman statement. But as one astute critic noted, that was “like saying that cockfights are pro-rooster because there’s always one left standing.”

For Craven, whose strict Christian upbringing informed his dark, searching vision, a feminist awakening was as simple as a broadening of perspective as he developed his art. He told an interviewer that his daughter inspired him to rethink rote representations of female victims, noting that she chided him after seeing 1982’s campy comic-book adaptation Swamp Thing: “[She] said, ‘Dad, girls don’t always fall down.’ This made me realize I had fallen into the old horror cliché of the girl running from the villain and tripping on a rock or some other debris. I didn’t really care for that, so it got me thinking about taking it in the other direction.”

Film franchises like Elm Street and, later, Scream definitely flipped the script on the slasher genre, disrupting the trope Carol Clover named the “Final Girl.” The phrase describes the last — nearly always female— figure standing in slashers like Halloween and Friday the 13th, the lone survivor who is an audience’s eventual point of identification. She is the one who stares death in the face and then takes up her own phallic weapon. Powerful, yes, but a key characteristic of Final Girls was their moral purity and sexual innocence, necessary to contrast with promiscuous counterparts who were the first to be offed. The Madonna/Whore complex shows up even in B-movie gorefests. But Craven resisted using sexuality as the thing that separated victims and heroines, and slyly sent up the convention with Scream’s Sidney, who loses her virginity despite the warning of a genre-savvy friend who reminds her about the No. 1 rule of horror-movie survival: “Sex equals death.” And yet, in the end, Sidney is a triumphant, sex-having Final Girl.

For Craven, the Final Girl became more than an audience stand-in — she was a way to explore the horror not just of a rampaging killer but of survivors’ consciousness. Elm Street’s Nancy sought to survive Freddy Krueger, sure, but she also wanted to conquer a secret that had festered within her community. “One thing that really distinguishes Craven from other horror directors is the way he took seriously the idea of what being a survivor meant,” notes Tammy Oler, a writer who frequently covers women and horror films.

Oler still marvels at the original Elm Street’s ending: “Nancy turns her back on Freddy and defeats him through sheer force of will. I’ve never seen anything like that, in horror films or otherwise.” (For those who shy away from gore, 2005’s airplane-hijacking thriller Red Eye is an excellent and often overlooked example of Craven’s thoughtful approach to female characters as survivors.) “Terrorized women are so often treated as though they’re hysterical or crazy,” says Hannah Forman, creator of feminist-horror zine Ax Wound and founder of the genre-advocacy initiative Women in Horror Month. “Wes was on our side.”

The soft-spoken Craven’s belief that “horror films don’t create fear; they release it” might explain why his films were so adept at limning the contours of trauma’s aftermath — and why they were often so darkly funny as they scared the piss out of you. (Freddy was a sick bastard, but with his striped sweater, burned face, and snappy one-liners, you couldn’t deny the dude had charisma.) In a time before we all wanted to know what made our favorite antiheroes tick, Craven’s most memorable work suggested that, for the women so often made victims in the horror genre, there could perhaps be a different story line.

The King of Horror’s Secret Feminism