For many people, Halloween means it’s time to throw on a classic teen slasher like Halloween or Friday the 13th. Today, we often look back on those movies as festivals of gore and cleavage designed to appeal to teen boys. But, as film historian Richard Nowell writes, the most coveted audience for these movies at the time was teenage girls.
Nowell writes that teen slashers emerged in the wake of 1970s horror films aimed at adults. Starting with the success of Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, many moviemakers had centered scary supernatural plots on strong female characters. In contrast to the horror movies of earlier eras, these films generally avoided the trope of cowering, half-dressed women. For example, in 1973, the theatrical trailer for The Exorcist, and the film itself, focused on the working single mother of the possessed girl.
By the late ‘70s, adult horror audiences were on the decline. Overall, market research found, half of U.S. theatergoers were between 12 and 20, with a fairly even gender balance. Many went to the movies with dates, and industry professionals generally believed that teen girls usually chose which movie to see on a date with a boy.
To sell movies to a teen audience, writers and directors took special care with their depictions of teen girls. Debra Hill, cowriter of 1978’s Halloween, later said she wanted young women to be able to “see themselves” in the female leads, who spend significant time talking about schoolwork, dating, and babysitting.
While later commentary has often assumed that the sex in teen slashers was gratuitous and promiscuous, Nowell writes that films like Friday the 13th (1980) actually spent a lot of screen time showing couples’ sexual relationships as emotionally intense and romantic. Following on the heels of non-horror teen films like Grease, studio executives had discovered that young love and platonic teen relationships were strong assets for marketing a movie. Lobby cards for Friday the 13th featured few moments of horror or titillating shots of female leads. Instead, they showed romantic moments, platonic friendships, and even a female character showing a young man how to change a light bulb.
“Taken as a whole, Paramount’s lobby cards marketed Friday the 13th as female-youth-friendly entertainment,” Nowell writes.
The marketing apparently worked. Forty-five percent of the theater audience for Halloween and Friday the 13th was under 17, and, of those young viewers, 55 percent were girls.
Following in the footsteps of those hits, a flood of teen slasher movies showed up in theaters in 1981, including My Bloody Valentine, The Burning, and Friday the 13th Part II. These movies followed the newfound convention of mixing romance with horror, leading New York Times critic Vincent Canby to refer to the genre as “teen-age love-and-meat-cleaver films.” The heroines of these movies were traditionally feminine, tough, and sexually confident.
So, if you’re inclined to throw on something scary this Halloween while also celebrating empowered young women, it turns out there are a lot of options.
This spring, the Brooklyn Academy of Music will present a retrospective dedicated to critically-acclaimed French filmmaker Claire Denis, called “Strange Desire: The Films of Claire Denis.” Claire Denis is a part of a group of contemporary French filmmakers who push the physical body to its limits. The genre is known as corporeal cinema, or cinema of the body and senses.
Film scholar Tim Palmer writes of Denis’s filmography: “Forcible and transgressive, this is a cinema of brutal intimacy.” Palmer includes in this category the work of Denis’s contemporaries, Bruno Dumont and Gaspar Noé. While cinema is often a place of refuge, where viewers go to witness some sort of satisfaction or gratification missing from our own lives, Denis and her contemporaries create films that do just the opposite.
Palmer writes that their filmography
offers incisive social critiques, portraying contemporary society as isolating, unpredictably horrific and threatening, a nightmarish series of encounters in which personal relationships…disintegrate and fail, often violently.
To create this cinema of the body, the filmmakers create drastic visual and auditory experiences, making films that become visceral for the viewers. For example, Palmer writes that Denis’s 2001 film Trouble Every Day features “carnal appetites [that] literally consume others.” In the controversial art house film, gore and lust are taken to the extreme when two former lovers share an interest in cannibalism. Palmer notes the use of parallel editing, or cross-cutting, to depict the slow denouement from psychological decay toward cannibalism. Additionally, Denis, along with her cinematographer, Agnès Godard, chose to shoot the most crucial scenes in the story at night to contrast with the harshness of day.
The way that Denis extends silence to create dramatic tensions, sometimes for up to twenty minutes, causes the audience to become restless. A disturbing soundtrack builds “from auditory claustrophobia rather than structured vocal interactions.” Both audio and visual elements are more enhanced during sexual encounters; Denis’s long takes make the scenes all the more excruciating for the viewer.
As Denis often chooses to stay away from light in the most intense scenes, the darkest scenes are normally when the story’s narrative is illuminated. This experimental, art-house, body-horror kind of film makes for an uneasy viewing experience, but that’s part of the point. Denis’s intent is to always explore the truth, even and especially when it disturbs the audience.