The Gallows, opening in theaters this week, is pretty obviously a found footage horror film. The found footage aesthetic, which some may say is overused and long past its prime, is instantly recognizable even from teaser trailers of this film, with its use of shaky-cam shots amid eerie red-lighting, and the now-standard shot of audience members watching the film in a theater in full-on panic mode (a device most popularized by Paranormal Activity‘s marketing campaign).
The Gallows revolves around a group of students who break into their high school at night to stop a misguided resurrection of the very same play that went horribly awry twenty years prior, when a terrible accident during the production proved fatal to one student. I realize now that The Gallows isn’t just going to be a found footage flick; it’s also going to be a Teen Slasher flick, albeit in a different package than we we have come to expect from the horror genre formula. The Gallows may be a subgenre-mashup, but with its stalker/killer premise and terrorized teenage cast of characters, it is just another entry into an even older tradition: A new example of a tried and true (and arguably tired) horror film. Its status as a Teen Slasher film is more interesting than its classification as a found footage film, because it begs the question as to why Slasher films still exist, in one form or another, and whether or not this particular formula is still relevant in the contemporary horror genre.
In order to examine the Teen Slasher film as it exists in the present, we need to go back to where it started. Teen Slasher films in the 1970s were, in some respects, still seen as low-culture. To a degree, they were still seen as teenage date night fodder, which is the most obvious reason for the focus on teens within the films themselves. Teenagers would flock to these films, while critics were only just started to become aware of the likes of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist as mainstream successes, and even then, much of the acclaim and significance assigned to the horror genre came later. That said, Teen Slasher films changed the horror game too, because they brought horror back to reality. The villains were no longer vampires or werewolves, and gone too was the camp aesthetic of the Vincent Price era of horror; these Teen Slashers were masked killers, seemingly human and yet ethereal, acting violently with little motivation or justification supplied in the narrative to explain their actions to the audience. The endings of these films were bleak and ambiguous, and left wide open for questions on morality, and in many cases subsequent sequels.
The two most classic, iconic examples of the Teen Slasher sub-genre are, of course, Friday the 13th and Halloween. Both give very little backstory on their depicted killers, and both have one other huge thing in common: Promiscuity is punished (or so it seems). Given that many of the era’s up and coming horror directors, such as John Carpenter and Wes Craven, were working within (or were at least influenced by) certain countercultural sensibilities of the Vietnam era, I doubt that this trend was overtly meant to serve as some kind of contraceptive, cautionary tale (if anything, teens behaving badly is a titillating device that has only gotten more explicit in today’s horror fare). Sex sells in the horror genre, especially when paired with shocking violence. If teens are the demographic, showing glamorous versions of them projected on screen being hacked to bits makes sense (after all, horror is very much about subjective identification, as film scholar Carol J. Clover has put forth time and time again in her work on the subject).
If we see ourselves on screen, either as victims, or as killers, or both, through the use of clever point-of-view shots pioneered by these filmmakers of the time, then the film is that much more affecting. Plus, if we didn’t have the promiscuous teens at all, then we would have no juxtaposition for the formula’s final girls to emerge. Final girls, as defined by Clover, are, simply put, virginal characters who, by way of phallic weaponry, are able to fluctuate between gender roles metaphorically, and conquer their attacker. Maybe Teen Slasher films still exist because they’re an easy way of sensationalizing sex through violence and terror, and weaving feminism into the folds of a stereotypically or allegedly masculine genre; and maybe those identifications that enhance the experience of watching such a film are easier if gender fluidity is accordingly represented on screen.
And yet, I don’t think the sub-genre is strictly about sex, teen sex, or feminism, at least not at its core. I think it’s about the fear that anyone around us could be watching us at any moment, especially at our most vulnerable, and a person can act violently without us understanding why, or even scarier yet, there may be no reason for their violence at all. The Halloween remake lost some of the magic of the original when Rob Zombie added backstory to Michael Myers, and with each subsequent franchise sequel, reboot, and offshoot of the original Friday the 13th, we got further and further away from the realism that made the franchise so terrifying in the first place.
Halloween is lauded as a classic because of the camera movements and positions of its characters in relation to one another, and director John Carpenter’s musical score and audio composition is terrifying. Now, though, the point of such genre films merely seems to be for teens to watch beautiful, sexually promiscuous teen characters get killed in a slew of creative ways, while the creativity of the film at large is sacrificed in favor of mediocre, phoned-in sensationalism. But with The Gallows, yet another component is added to the mix for better or for worse: The inclusion of supernatural elements, made most popular within the contemporary horror genre by the Paranormal Activity series of found-footage horror films. While supernatural elements sometimes work within a slasher context, such as in A Nightmare on Elm Street, another genre classic, where instead of a masked man, we have a terrifying killer covered in burn scars, invading teens’ dreams. Comparatively, The Gallows looks like it tries to ground its supernatural, implausible kills in a found-footage aesthetic, so that it at least lends the appearance of being real and believable.
Halloween and Friday the 13th start out being realistic in tone, but as they morphed into their aforementioned franchises, the supernatural element rears its head in that these films’ killers simply do not die, or they die and come back. I think franchise horror represents a fear of death for studios who do not want to put their cash cows and beloved Teen Slasher characters out to pasture, so much so that they keep rehashing them in new ways, and eventually lose sight of what made the originals so legendary and influential in the first place. And as for the characters, and the viewers who identify with them, the immortal Teen Slashers of these franchises represent the opposite fear: Death is not final, and something that should be natural and understandable to us is thus perverted into an unreliable and uneasy thing; death is temporary, and evil lives on forever.
So why does the Teen Slasher sub-genre live on like a killer who always comes back for more, refusing to die? Reboots might invoke a kind of nostalgia for the best of the sub-genre that’s come before, but it’s hard to argue that as it stands now, the Teen Slasher offers anything in the way of innovation or worthiness. I already commend The Gallows for trying to do something different by melding new and old horror sensibilities, but I think the various horror genre contexts stemming from the 1970s, such as artistic experimentation, low budget filmmaking, and general rebellion within and against the industry (all of which I’d encourage anyone to read more about in Jason Zinoman’s book, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror), is lacking today in this particular genre. Independent horror genre filmmakers have largely moved on to the realm of independent film, while big budget horror pictures are still living in the past, but without much spirit. The same fears, however, that have always been at the root of these films does still persevere and scare us on some level, if executed well.
It Follows revolves around teens, and was praised by critics, as was the well-liked meta-commentary on all of the basic tropes of the horror genre throughout the ages, Cabin in the Woods. Teens are inherently vulnerable, whether sexually promiscuous or not, and are always stuck between being children and adults in the horror movie, and they’re still the main demographic audience that these films are marketed toward. Teen Slasher films may continue to morph, by being melded further into current artistic sensibilities and new, specific societal apprehensions, and, likewise, there will always be studios who refuse to give up on Jason, or Freddy, or Michael, simply because they’re familiar to us now and, in a weird way, safe. But the former is the better approach, even if the sub-genre is no longer as easily defined as it has been in the past, a fact that The Gallows seems to understand in its approach to the Teen Slasher, marking the persistence, relevance, and evolution of this particular kind of cinematic storytelling.
Featured Image: Halloween, Compass International Pictures