Into the Depths

We never seem to tire of 80s slasher films. Maybe you’ve never actually sat through one, but pop culture keeps drawing from that well and coming up with buckets of more blood. It’s like the well will never run dry.

Whether it’s Ti West’s near-perfect 80’s forgery “House of the Devil”, Joshua Grannell’s campy “All About Evil” or the “Scream” franchise, the simple formulas of movies like “Happy Birthday to Me” or “Sleepaway Camp” (personal favorite) are somehow rich texts that give and give. You could probably name a few classics, but really, what’s “fun” about slashers is their discursive, near-interchangeability; like a textured wallpaper of VHS violence. They’re usually: just disturbing enough to be engaging, just low-budget and dated enough to be campy and just formulaic enough to be followed like a tv series with familiar characters. The most significant formula, noted by Carol Clover in her pivotal book “Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film”, is the “final girl” – the victim/hero who survives and perseveres to the film’s climax. With few exceptions, the slasher film is defined by this trope. Despite the marathon of violence, largely by men against women, it is the “final girl” with whom we ultimately sympathize and revere as the hero. At least, that is the feminist spin that Clover puts on the genre. And it’s hard not to agree.

Part of what is so endearing about these movies, is their soundtracks. Due to limited budgets, they’re usually the work of a composer working with early digital synthesizers, approximating big budget symphonic scores. The results are usually really cheesy and make these movies even more dated than they would already feel. Some great exceptions are “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” which sometimes sounds like musique concrète (but “Chainsaw” is from 1974, ahead of the curve on these other slashers), or Goblin’s soundtracks for movies like Dario Argento’s “Susperia” and George Romero’s “Martin” (but Goblin and Argento are Italian and were playing with a whole different set of rules in Italian horror, and Goblin’s soundtrack for Romero’s American vampire film was never used). The great almost-exception is John Carpenter’s soundtrack for “Halloween”. Showing up in 1978 and virtually defining the genre, the film and score feel timeless and evade cheesiness despite their modest budget.

These horror soundtracks have always been a resource for musicians, but lately a handful of artists are drawing from old VHS tapes to create music that might “pass” for the real thing. While artists like Gatekeeper refine the electro/disco aspect of Italian horror soundtracks with Moroder-like ecstasy, others are taking a much more American lo-fi approach. Umberto and Xander Harris (both on Not Not Fun) produce tracks that run between seamless reproductions of 80’s horror soundtracks that never were, to revisionings of those cold, evocative synthetic sounds.

What do you think a Xander Harris video would look like? Well, obviously the four minute video to “Tanned Skin Dress” is like an excerpted scene from a slasher film – a prowler looks in on a woman in her home as she listens to her vinyl copy of Xander Harris’ “Urban Gothic” before he breaks in and attacks her.

Also drawing from those visuals, but less from the music, is Salem’s video for “Skullcrush”. Almost exclusively obfuscated footage of a woman’s body being dragged naked for disposal, its narrative is in reverse, a la “Irreversible” so that it begins with a black-clad man carrying her naked corpse through a forest, but ends with her attack in a public bathroom.

Ultimately, these videos don’t follow the “final girl” script. And why should they? That script has been read and rewritten countless times. However, if there is no survival, if all that is “final” about the girl is her death, then all we have is violence against women. Purely. In these videos, there is nothing to spin. They take only the brutality of the genre and none of the pathos. Only the shock without any narrative. Just the cum shot; none of the foreplay or romance.

In her discussion of women’s roles in slasher films, Clover claims that though they are the victims of violence, they are the protagonists, and so this genre of film that was primarily the domain of adolescent males could motivate boys to identify with girls. Hence, they’re not objects of violence, but subjects who triumph via their own agency.

Rosalind Krauss writes similarly about women in surrealism. She claims (and I am am doing a bastard summary here) that although the countless images surrealist artists created of contorted, disfigured and reconfigured women could be construed as misogynist, they in fact put women at the center of the surrealist dialog. That is, a surrealist photo of a maligned body is a metaphor for existential complexity, or the fractured nature of subjective reality. And the body being female makes her the surrealist subject, not object. Kind of dubious, but worth considering.

Another video that treads in the same horror landscape as “Tanned Skin Dress” and “Skullcrush” is William Joines’ video for “Into the Depths” by The Soft Moon. It’s all female screams, blur and horror, but none of the violence. So the woman is not a victim, but someone experiencing…? Existential terror? Bad acid? Like in a Georges Hugnet collage, the woman’s distorted image is not necessarily a violation of her body, but representation of her complex inner life. It even feels like an old surrealist film in its grainy black and white film stock, as opposed to the slewing, VHS quality video of “Skullcrush” and “Tanned Skin Dress”.

I think the most thrilling part about recontextualization is the refining of elements. Holding up a magnifying glass to one detail of the past to speak about the present. But if the close look is “just” violence against women, then we’re looking at something really bleak.


~ by marckate on April 21, 2011.

One Response to “Into the Depths”

  1. I agree that slasher films of the ’80s do have a strange sort of charm to them. They are simple, cheesy, and sometimes, you can see the “plot” gears turning. But, I’m glad that someone caught on to two things: the notion that slashers are not so much misogynistic, but rather manifestations of all our fears-men and women alike. And, that the music is integral to the shock of a scene. Sometimes, the background sounds are more chilling than the actual kill.

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