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Continuing our interview with Vince Liaguno (begun here), editor of the
slasher-film essay collection BUTCHER KNIVES & BODY COUNTS, begun here…
FANGORIA: One of the critical dogmas of the book is that
slashers can be understood as, as you say, morality tales. When their fates
befall them, they get what they deserve…
LIAGUNO: It’s a joke that these films have always been taken
on by the religious right and more conservative political parties of this
country and others. If you think about it, there’s no more republican movie
than a slasher. It’s basically saying, “Everything democrats and liberals
believe in, you should be punished for.” And yet the people that condemn them
are these religious, conservative republican [types]. It boggles my mind.
FANG: Do you think these films should be aiming to provide
that kind of “rooting” for death, or do you look towards more sympathetic
protagonists as a viewer?
LIAGUNO: I always lean more toward a film where victims are
portrayed as more sympathetic. You always want to care when someone dies. What
makes the slasher audience so unique is that there’s also another side that
cheers, and they want to cheer and root for the killing. It’s very
participatory. It’s not that we want to revel in the violence—we want to
survive the violence. When I was 16 years old, I related to Jamie Lee Curtis’
character [in HALLOWEEN]. She babysat, I babysat. She was gonna go to college,
I was gonna go to college. It was scary going to college—I’m gonna leave my
small town, where my house was familiar to me. Her journey was very
participatory for me. One part of the audience wants to be sympathetic—“Oh my
God, I can’t believe they killed her off, I wanted her to survive.”
Then there’s another, almost cynical side, that’s rooting
for the killer. “Yeah! Get them! They’re assholes!” It’s a big anti-bullying
thing in a way. Who got in those movies? The jock, the cheerleader, popular
people…Those were the ones who really got it. Occasionally the nerd got it, but
it was mainly it was the average guy. The ones who got picked on in high
school, the ones who wore glasses when someone else was wearing contacts, who
was cooler, more attractive, whatever the case may be.
FANG: It’s probably what the conservatives you mention might
tend to deride—that we might root for the killer. Somehow seeing the jock or
the cheerleader get killed makes us perverse…
LIAGUNO: Right, right.
FANG: Yet on the news we see politicians getting put in
crosshairs; someone actually dies, and that so-called standard of morality
LIAGUNO: The irony is so in your face. [The slasher] is
really supporting conservative agendas. Especially in the ‘80s slashers. Who
got it? The ones who were doing drugs, having sex, all the things that people
were saying “Don’t do that!” It should almost be a public service announcement
[laughs], and they’re the ones upset.
FANG: They also noticed that close marriage between sex and
death, rooted as far back as Mario Bava’s films. A lot of contributors to the
book cite BAY OF BLOOD as the jump off point for FRIDAY THE 13TH, which has
been widely established, but aside from their murder sequences, there’s a
difference in logic—one film is using that juxtaposition as its aesthetic,
while the other seems to just say “SEX = DEATH.”
LIAGUNO: Right. Michael Potts, in his essay on DR. GIGGLES,
[touches on] the whole connection between the heart and sex and life.
FANG: Is that aspect to blame why the franchise has been
constantly deemed a “ripoff” of these other films?
LIAGUNO: I don’t think that “sex equals death” mentality
kept up with the culture. That was prevalent at a time in this country when the
AIDS crisis was going on, so that was a cinematic interpretation of reality.
Sex did equal death for millions of people who died of AIDS in this country,
and all over the world. And I think now because AIDS is not a death sentence
anymore, now slashers don’t really use it. We didn’t cover this in the book,
but CHERRY FALLS, they completely inverted the equation. If you had sex, you
were gonna live, and it was the virgins who were gonna die. It threw it on its
head, almost as a way of saying, ‘OK, AIDS is no longer a death sentence. AIDS
is now a manageable disease. I’m not gonna minimize to the point of diabetes,
but in that vein, you can take medication, you go withstand treatments and
survive it. The equation hasn’t played out as well because it hasn’t kept up
with [that] culture. The culture’s gone back to promiscuity [being] OK, because
we don’t die from it anymore.
FANG: And the book looks at sexual identity through more
than just one lens. Does your being a gay man inform your readings of slashers
to any considerable degree?
LIAGUNO: Gays identify with the sense of isolation the
characters in slasher films face. In something like Happy Birthday to Me, one
can see an allegorical parallel between the mental isolation Melissa Sue
Anderson’s heroine faces as she struggles to trust her conflicting memories of
a past trauma amidst the carnage of her friends and the mental isolation LGBT
individuals face as they grapple with the incongruence of conflicting societal
views, religious beliefs, and familial attitudes regarding their homosexuality.
Slashers also serve as an outlet for the societal fears gays
face in their everyday lives. For LGBT men and women who’ve chosen to
embrace their sexual orientation, navigating in a world fraught with prejudice,
discrimination, and the threat of physical harm from gay bashings, the
characters in slasher films provide a conduit through which those fears can be
examined on a subconscious level. The characters who hesitantly stumble around
the unfamiliar turf of their unseen enemy in the modern slasher yarn represent
us as the LGBT members of society who must also circumspectly traverse the
dangers of life in a dissimilar heterosexual world.
There’s also an interesting metaphorical comparison that can
be drawn between the transformation of the Final Girl and the coming out
process. In the beginning of the slasher film, the heroine usually presents as
weak, timid, uncertain of how to navigate through the situation she finds
herself in; for gays, this uncertainty is the same in the coming out process.
As the film progresses, the heroine transforms; she toughens and becomes
confident in her abilities to overcome the malevolence stalking her. LGBT
people, too, transform during the coming out process; they develop a thicker
skin. They summon the courage to confront the unseen enemy of homophobia
waiting for them around every darkened corner. On a more superficial level, the
Final Girl also represents great appeal for the gay male community, coinciding
with our long-standing predilection for strong female characters in the arts.
The Final Girl is our slasher-film fag hag.
Then, the idea of sexual repression and its devastating and
dangerous effects in both the slasher film and in queer culture. We’ll save the
whole overbearing mother-thing for an entirely different discussion! The
suppression of natural sexual urges results in the creation of a demented
serial killer; in queer culture, we call the denial of sexual orientation a
closet case. Just think about how many cinematic victims would have been spared
if Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers had acted upon those teenage urges in their
sleeping bags at Boy Scout camp…
FANG: Something like TEXAS CHAINSAW is probably the most
often cited slasher template which we can look at as “text”; it’s a film that
the holds up underneath all of the critical lenses that are detailed in the
first section of BUTCHER KNIVES & BODY COUNTS. Is it possible to take
formal analysis to a genre that’s so rooted in chaos, disorder, mayhem?
LIAGUNO: I think that’s why the book works. It works because
it hasn’t been done before. There are certainly groundbreaking works that have
chronicled the slasher genre, and put historical context to it, but as far as
analyzing it specifically, no book has done that. The question of “Was there
really that much forethought put into these films?” Or was it just, “How much
boobs can we show, and how much slaughter?” What would be the theoretical
analysis of these films be? [You might say] theoretical analysis? These films
are garbage! But I think that’s why the book works, is because you’re watching
saying “Holy shit! I’m looking at this film in such a different way,” and it
really works. No matter what the end product is, films are made by people, and
people not superficial by nature. There is someone’s baggage and mentality and
intellect going into this film. Eventually, and it may take 30 years, but to
dissect parts of a movie like CURTAINS and HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, you could do
FANG: It’s about time someone did. There is an inherent
contradiction there, though. We’re formally analyzing something chaotic in
nature. It can get tricky trying to make something out of an effect or aspect
of a film that’s maybe inadvertently achieved…
LIAGUNO: With a lot of these films, I don’t think
“intention” was ever there. In many cases it wasn’t, but by the default of
being created by people—with political views, and cultural context, and
intellect and baggage—it’s all in there. Is there more maligned genre than the
slasher [laughs]? I don’t know…
FANG: You could argue.
LIAGUNO: You could argue. But something that’s fashioned by
the hands of people, you’re always going to have that ability to go in there
and dig. [The book] defied my expectations, tenfold. All these essays, you’re
going “Oh my God! Damn, that is right on…” It’s there. It’s logical, it’s
supported, it’s there. You may have to dig a little bit for it, and someone may
not have dug the dirt that buried the time capsule, but you’re gonna find some
shit under there.
TO BE CONTINUED
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