Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Jason and the Final Girl

Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween

Bunche had a post on his feelings about the new Friday the 13th reboot, which sent me scurrying around the nets reading all about the series. (Weird fact about me: I'm often more interested in reading about movies than in taking the time to sit down and watch them.) Thanks to good ol' Wikipedia, I learned about the theory of the "Final Girl", the last survivor of a typical slasher film, usually a female who conforms to a certain set of characteristics. Partly due to derivative scripting, no doubt, but even higher-caliber stuff like Alien and Silence of the Lambs fits the model very closely.

What I found really interesting in the theory is that the audience identification shifts over the course of the movie. The typical (male) audience for a slasher film more or less starts out identifying with the killer in a vicarious way. But by the last reel the audience is usually persuaded to shift focus to the "final girl", and root for her to defeat the killer. It's a feminist theory, and there's supposedly all these gender politics associated with the shift in identification from male killer to female victim (The killer is a male whose masculinity is in crisis, the final girl is a viginal type who becomes "masculinized" through taking up a phallic weapon, yadda yadda yadda). But I think it really demonstrates something fundamental about the three-act dramatic structure. It shows how the third act of a film is a very different animal from the first act.

The first act of the film belongs to the killer, because the killer is the 'gimmick', the hook that gets you into the theater. The gimmick is what usually dominates the first act, no matter what kind of movie it is--serial killer, spaceships, Indian TV game show, what have you. But it's our nature that the gimmick isn't enough to sustain our interest for the run time of a film--even a film with expectations as low as that of a "Friday the 13th" film. Unless you're a hard-core fan of the genre, your interest is going to start to wane by the end of act one. We start to fatigue of the cheap thrills, therefore dramatic complications have to set in that can persuade us to stick around for act two. By the time we're in act three, we've become invested in the character drama, as thin a gruel as that might be.

What this means is that even in a cheap slasher film, we demand some kind of character arc. We demand identification with a character with recognizable vulnerabilities, who experiences fear and uncertainty that we can relate to, and who grows and evolves in order to overcome an apparently insurmountable challenge. As awesome as the crazed killer might be, he's too one-dimensional to carry the audience identification past act one. At least 'til the next sequel.


daveed said...

Great analysis. Another way to look at Act I is that it's simply the dramatic setup: our character wants something and some obstacle that's in the way must be overcome.

I don't follow slasher/horror films at all, but I would venture that their success comes from the simple, primal setup: our hero (or heroine) wants to literally survive the encounter with the antagonist.

To even call, for instance, Jason an "antagonist" isn't exactly accurate. Because Jason doesn't seem to be motivated by anything more than misplaced revenge. He is more an automaton, an irresistable force like the shark in Jaws (the antagonist(s) in that film were the petty bourgeois town elders who didn't want Sheriff Brody to stir people up.)

I think that the trope of a feminine hero in horror films heightens to the dramatic tension, begging the audience to know, how can scrawny little Jamie Lee Curtis ever hope to defeat the Mike Myers juggernaut? That's what makes Halloween a more emotionally impactful film than say, Predator. Put the Predator up against Anne Heche (though I'd probably root for the Predator), and you raise the stakes.

As for character arc, that's what separates the wheat from the chaff. What makes Alien and its sequel far superior stories than the never-ending Friday the 13th rehashes. Ripley needs to survive the encounter, save her teammates, rescue a little girl surrogate for her lost daughter, AND destroy the enemy's ability to reproduce.

Interestingly, the aliens, especially the Queen in the 2nd film, are motivated by very similar objectives. It's just that in the story construct, we're to identify with the human character.

rjk said...

Yet another koko lion tail...many years ago, a friend told me I should check out a new arthouse movie playing at the La Jolla Museum of Modern Art on Friday night. I went. The movie hadn't been released yet, but had just been picked up my one of the majors. There weren't many people there. It was a very scary movie, starring an almost ironically named character actor, Donald Pleasance. There was a girl in it too, and after the show about ten or twelve of us hung around asking her questions about the movie. She was real cute, and her dad was Tony Curtis, and her mom was Janet Leigh. That movie was Halloween.

Brian said...

Nicely drawn - both images. Great talent.

Must be a confident feeling that you can pull out the brushes and know that whatever you feel like painting or sketching... will come out fairly amazing.

I actually typed in the keyword: "Jamie Lee Curtis" into google after I read an article she wrote in Huffington Post regarding the earthquake in Japan.

I saw she was 53 years old, remembered she was nude in a couple of films - great body - decent woman...

Skipping around, here, but I like what you wrote about the beginning of horror films - the gimmick.


Kevie said...

It never quite feels like that to me, like I can just wave my brush and get something great! After all these years of practice it still feels pretty frustrating to tell you the truth! But thanks! Glad you liked the essay, also nice to know that I showed up on a google search. Yeah, JLK back in the day was quite something!