Monday, September 22, 2008

Final Girl

Final Girl or Survivor girl as the concept is referred to in the film "Under the Mask, the Rise of Leslie Vernon" is a staple of horror films especially the slasher sub-genre. She is the one girl who survives the entire film who manages to either defeat the killer, escape or both.

A few notable final girls are as follows

  • Ripley from the Alien series

  • Sara Conner in the first Terminator movie

  • "Wendy" Torrance from the Shining

  • Sidney Prescott from the Scream trilogy

  • Laurie Strode in numerous films in the Halloween series

  • Nancy Thompson from A Nightmare on Elm Street 1 and 3

  • Alice Johnson from A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 & 5

  • Taylor Gentry from Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

    The film from the final entry of this list is actually very informative. The film is written as a mockumentary covering the point of view of a Jason/Freddy/Michael Myers style killer with a Penn and Teller style to it. It discusses the idea of how all the random things that happen in a horror movie are actually well planned traps that have been set long ahead of time with every contingency accounted for. It discusses the idea of what a "Survivor girl" is. The killer is clear that his whole reason for existing is the survivor girl, he wants someone to push him to his limit and work as hard as he can and in turn he can turn her into something amazing.

    The film goes on about sexual imagery of the genre. Specifically it speaks of yonic or vaginal imagery of making daring escapes through tight passages or hiding in the closet which is a stand-in for the womb which is why everyone is safe there "because everyone is innocent in the womb." However there is also discussion of the killer's "phallic center of power" (the area where he keeps his weapons and often hides his bodies).

    The survivor girl makes a metamorphosis when she is ready to take on the masculine characteristics of her enemy, by violating his center of power, shaking off the shock of seeing a dead friend and taking a phallic weapon to confront the villain with. This underscores the fact that much of the killer's reasoning for his crimes are that his masculinity is in crisis.

    But a better example of the transformation comes in the form of Alice Johnson as referred to in the above list. What makes this variety of heroine so special is that she experiences nearly an entire hero cycle within a single story and she's the best example I can think of.

    Alice starts out as a timid girl who's living in her head, daydreaming about "getting the guy" and telling off her alcoholic father and her mirror is so covered with pictures of her friends that there's no place to see herself. Early in the story she's placed in a situation where she's given the power to bring Freddy new victims which she does often and unintentionally seeing as every time she falls asleep and one of her friends is as well they're as good as dead.

    One of the things that makes the Nightmare series so good for showing real growth and transition is that the pace is slightly slower. Silent stalker style slasher films often operate on the principle that no one even knows murders have been happening until they are in fact the final girl. In the nightmare series the premise is that the victim pool is well aware that they are exactly that for a period of days or even weeks, with enough time between kills to mourn and really think about what's going on.

    This is where Alice's strength lies. She takes on a characteristic of each of the victims after they die and takes one souvenir to remember them by. As the story goes on her inner strength just seems to grow until a few key moments.

    The first is at her brother's funeral where she daydreams that he's still alive and joking around with her, at the end of this daydream she simply says to herself "No more daydreams." At this point she starts mentally preparing herself to take Freddy on, in his own world. This culminates in a great scene where she's intent on saving "the guy" who's at Freddy's mercy if she doesn't come to help. She takes the souvenirs and places each of them on her body in some way and after doing this she takes some sleeping pills and utters the classic line "Fuckin' A!"

    After this she dives through the mirror and takes on Freddy defeating him with a nursery rhyme.

    "Now I lay me down to sleep,
    the Master of Dreams my soul to keep,
    in the reflection of my mind's eye,
    evil will see itself...and it shall die!"

    My description isn't doing this scene justice nor the way I remember it from the first time I saw it. But the key thing is that by the end of the film Alice isn't some frail little girl, she is a HEROINE.

    But at this point I'm tempted to ask if Leslie Vernon's idea truly fits these women. At one point he's asked if he loves his survivor girl and he says

    "I love the thought of her, I love what she could become"

    But when I think of that I'm reminded that often all a survivor girl becomes is an eventual victim. Nancy dies when she returns to the Nightmare series and she's not alone. Or then there's Ripley who seems to be living in some endless loop like something out of a Greek myth. Then there's Sydney from the Scream trilogy, who in keeping with the theme of horror movie events in the real world is living in abject terror, working from home under heavy security by the final film. This is also mirrored by Laurie Strode in the Halloween series.

    But on the other end of the spectrum you have Sara Conner, who is brought to the edge of terror by the end of the Terminator and barely escapes with her life/the life of her child, but any other time you see her she is anything but helpless. She isn't constantly living in terror, she is actively planning for a future, no matter how dark it may be. The ironic thing being that you often think Sara Conner could take on the whole world without breaking a sweat.

    To be honest the idea of Sara Conner and Alice Johnson is what inspired me. Sara Conner is an example of what happens after the final girl metamorphosis. And something deep inside of me is waiting to see all of them invade the boys club of superheroes so that I could see what Alice Johnson would have to say to Wonder Woman or Batman about what it REALLY means to be a hero.