Sitting here in 2018, it’s easy to look at the 1990s as somewhat of a “lost decade” for horror films. Sure, there were a few standout titles that are still generally beloved (Candyman, Scream, Silence of the Lambs) but for the most part, horror fans look back on the 90s as a decade where not much of merit was produced. The Hollywoodization of horror in this decade removed a lot of the grittiness and sexiness of the 70s and 80s. Big name stars didn’t want to get naked, the MPAA cracked down on gore, and early attempts at CGI special effects were often more laughable than terrifying. It wasn’t until Saw, Hostel and the like came along in the 00s that horror really brought back that violent edge that attracts the hardcore fans.
Now, I’m someone who has always loved 90s horror, but I mostly chalked that up to nostalgia. When I was a wee lad, I would sometimes sneak down to the basement to spy on my sister and her friends watching The Lost Boys or one of the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels. But I was only able to see snippets (enough to give a sickly six-year-old nightmares, mind you). It wasn’t until years later that I watched my first horror movie from beginning to end – Scream. Like many others, I was irresistibly drawn to these kinds of stories. Gorgeous people who were close to my age (supposedly), dealing with all the drama of high school, on top of fighting off psychotic killers. Thank to my parents’ investment in premium cable channels, I had ready access to all the big productions of the late 90s. And I eagerly consumed as many of them as I could.
But it wasn’t until I picked up THE 1990s TEEN HORROR CYCLE by the brilliant Alexandra West that I was really able to look back and understand what makes these films worthy of attention. I had always just considered it my guilty pleasure to throw on The Faculty or Halloween H20 and get a dose of glossy mayhem, snappy dialogue, and Josh Hartnett’s dreamy gaze. Now, I understand that these films were developed in the context of massive cultural, economic and social changes that I was too young and naive to be aware of 20 years ago.
West does an impressive job creating context for her readers. She deftly illustrates how historical events and cultural movements of the decade were reflected in the major films of the cycle. Pop culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it reflects the changing attitudes of the audience. Consumers indirectly dictate content, because producers chase those consumers. And far too many society altering events happened in the 90s for pop culture itself to go unchanged.
The Anita Hill Senate hearings lead to Third Wave Feminism and the Riot Grrrl movement. The Rodney King trial and the FBI siege at Waco lead to distrust of law enforcement. The OJ Simpson trial brought a new focus on the 24 hours news cycle and the public’s obsession with sex, death, and fame. And the Columbine massacre brought teenage violence into our homes, as everyone argued over what cultural influences could have lead to such a tragedy.
As West laid all these connections out for me, I was forced to go back and re-watch a lot of these films with fresh eyes and a new perspective. A lot of my old assumptions were rendered obsolete. Where before I would have thought a film was derivative or unoriginal, I now saw the cultural influences it reflected. Now I could see how Fear reflected patriarchal ideas about how young women should fear sex and intimacy, and the battle for paternal control between fathers and boyfriends. I see how Rage: Carrie 2 demonstrated the brutal effects of misogynistic double standards among teenagers (sex means prestige for boys, and shame for girls). And I saw how Sydney Prescott (Neve Campbell) evolved the trope of the Final Girl across the Scream series, as she demonstrated the drive to reclaim her own narrative and be remembered as a survivor, not a victim.
(I even realized, somewhat to my shame, that I still really love My Boyfriend’s Back.)I wish I could keep writing about this book because it has really opened my eyes to a lot of new perspectives on films I already know and love. But I won’t do Alexandra West’s work any more injustice by presenting her ideas in my own half-understood and poorly explained manner. You need to read what the master has to say to get the full effect.
Alexandra West is one of the most brilliant minds working in the field of film studies today. The fact that she devotes her considerable intellect to our little bloody corner of the film world is truly a gift. If you have any love for the 90s or simply want to know why some of us find the decade so appealing, pick up THE 1990s TEEN HORROR CYCLE.
Maybe in her next book, she can explain what makes Josh Hartnett so dreamy.