“You’re really into this movie stuff, aren’t you?”
“Movies are the world, and that’s where I live, yeah.”
This dialogue occurs about three quarters of the way through Stephen Graham Jones’s new book, The Last Final Girl, but perhaps it should be the back-cover copy. That second line is a litmus test: your level of agreement will correspond fairly exactly with your level of enjoyment of the novel. Scratch that, you’ll likely enjoy The Last Final Girl either way, as it is a deliriously sharp and funny take on an oft-maligned subgenre, though the amount you understand will certainly be limited by your filmic diet.
Even though this story of teen girls vs. a murderous madman may seem familiar, the manner in which it is told is not. That one’s full enjoyment demands an intimate knowledge of these films is the league of self-reflexivity Jones is playing in, where you might only catch every fifth reference. None, if you’re my grandmother. He’s fine with that; it’s an inclusive rather than exclusive brand of in-joke. Besides, there are still some characters for you to latch onto even if you can’t name the actor who played Jason in Friday the 13th parts VII-X (Kane Hodder, to say nothing of his trademark head-tilt).
It’s hard to talk about The Last Final Girl without discussing the films with which it is engaging. Regardless of whether you are an aficionado who dates the beginning of the slasher genre with Bob Clark’s Black Christmas in 1974 or draws the line further back to Bava, Argento, and the rest of the Italians, you can’t argue that John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) prompted what’s affectionately known by horror fans and academics as the “slasher-boom.” Friday the 13th and a rash of “holiday” films formalized, and some would say vulgarized, the genre.
Ever since this boom and subsequent bust, the genre, its filmmakers and its fans have been searching for a way to re-contextualize the slasher into something they can enjoy once more. This is the lowbrow-art equivalent of the big bang theory, with Carpenter’s jumpsuit-clad Prometheus creating a decades-long dialectic that’s constantly searching for a spark that will re-ignite the genre.
The slasher genre (already a sub-category of horror) can be carved into three principal subdivisions. First, there’s the quasi-supernatural slasher film with an unkillable antagonist, with whom many of these films ask us to side. Second, there’s the soft-horror of a slasher that’s imbedded in a whodunit murder mystery (see Prom Night). And lastly, there’s the metatextual remixes that began with Wes Craven’s Scream in 1996 and continued, with varied levels of success, up to this year’s Cabin in the Woods.
Why is this history lesson relevant? Because Jones is attempting to reconcile every shade of the slasher, not simply to namecheck but in order to exorcize the genre and explore his own relationship to it. It’s a fascinating, and frequently quite funny, exploration of a media-soaked mind.
The slasher is obsessed with repeating itself, to the point where the genre’s necessary tropes, archetypes, and signifiers have to be considered a form of American kabuki if we are to offer it any serious thought beyond Roger Ebert’s estimation of “immoral and reprehensible” (a phrase taken from his review of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter).
Beyond this adherence to convention, the slasher is obsessed with finality. There is no series that does not have its “final” chapter, a last-hurrah for its masked anti-protagonist that (coincidentally) always occurs after a dip in box-office returns and is almost always left open for a sequel. This is where The Last Final Girl begins: with the end of one slasher story and the commencement of all slasher stories.
The “final girl” is a genre mainstay, the plucky (often virginal) protagonist that lives to fight another day à la Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween (or not, à la the pre-credit sequence in Friday the 13th Part 2). Jones packs his cast with Final Girls and makes them hyper-aware of the deadly game they’re playing. He then chooses a jokey outfit for his slasher, Billie Jean, who hulks around in an off-brand Michael Jackson Halloween costume. Finally he punctuates the genre-norms of daddy issues and high-school drama with fetal pigs substituting for footballs, disastrous homecoming pranks, and the unlikely appearance of heroic horses. These quirks are part and parcel of his subversive take on the genre.
Gently subverting genre expectations can pay big dividends in a slasher. Fake-outs, reversals, and red herrings are key elements, but if you change too much, you risk breaking the construction. Jones knows this and reveres the process. His kitchen-sink approach to this kind of storytelling may not sound revolutionary, but the balancing act is awe-inspiring.
For those who only know Stephen Graham Jones for his more “traditional” novels such as Growing Ip Dead in Texas and his strange but structurally straightforward short fiction, parsing The Last Final Girl’s prose-cum-script format may be difficult. Those familiar with Demon Theory, Jones’s heavily annotated film-trilogy-in-a-novel in hybridized screenplay shorthand, will have an easier time with it.
Film history is still being engaged and dissected, but Final Girl lacks the footnotes that intersperse Demon Theory. With this book, Jones takes an “artful shot list” approach to his language and construction. The characters spout beautiful aphorisms in video-store clerk-dialect, the camera spins around and pushes into the intricately and improbably blocked set-pieces, and in-text arrows cue us into smash cuts and parallel editing.
The problem I’ve always had with the self-referential school of slasher is that its attempts to “deconstruct” are tempered by its inability to go all the way with its critiques. Scream is surely meant for a savvy audience, but it’s still a big-budget, wide-release movie, so its deconstruction is limited in terms of how “inside baseball” the studio will allow it to go. Multiplexers will know Freddy and Jason, but will they be able to catch the comparisons to The Burning, or know that when Jones refers to The New York Ripper as “down and dirty” he really means it? This is not a complaint about audiences; there are just folks who dive into this kind of minutiae and those who don’t. As much as I love the idea behind those movies, they’ve never left me wholly fulfilled because of this inability to commit. That’s why this book is such a joy.
Jones even works in the celebrity-cameo component of what we might call the retro-new-wave slasher, the back-to-basics films of the 2000s directed by Adam Green, Joe Lynch, and Rob Zombie. The difference being that when Robert Englund or Tony Todd (Freddy Krueger and the Candyman, respectively) show up in a film, it’s usually perfunctory — a chance for a paycheck, and the filmmakers’ way of letting us know they’re one of us, they’re allowed to play in this sandbox. Englund and Todd are expected to be there, not in a novel from an NEA recipient.
That’s part of the radical notion at the heart of The Last Final Girl: if Jones sought to make films, he would be one of many. He would churn out a few films that would be cult favorites, fan darlings that alienate wider audiences. That he chooses to write alert and savvy horror fiction makes him the first, last and final of his kind.