There are a variety of essential scholastic books out there about the classic horror films of yesteryear, covering nearly every decade. However, there isn’t much out there when it comes to a decade that many horror fans wish they could forget: the 1990s. Whether it be the regurgitation or reinvention of the tropes of previous decades, the mainstreaming of the genre, or all of the relentless connections to the pop culture of the time, the horror films of the 1990s aren’t particularly loved by those who didn’t grow up with them. But I did grow up with them, and I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into an analytical text featuring all of the (usually mediocre) flicks of my adolescence: The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle: Final Girls and a New Hollywood Formula by Alexandra West, published by McFarland (McFarlandBooks.com). The cover of West’s text features the wonderfully derivative poster art for Urban Legend, which is so generically similar to the more popular one-sheets of the time that it could almost be mistaken for a satirical work of art created for the book. But that was the 90s, right? There was Scream, and then there was everything else that tried to borrow from Scream.
West’s book ventures deep into the films of the 1990s to outline a trend in those movies’ depictions of the final girl in the age of the third-wave feminism movement. She often references Carol J. Clover’s iconic text, Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, drawing similarities and differences between Clover’s analyses of the films of the 1980s and earlier. Clover first named and defined the final girl, and West’s text seeks to determine how the final girl evolved in the films of the 90s. The result is an interesting chronicle of one of the most overlooked decades of horror cinema, which is sometimes held back by a lack of polish necessary for a scholastic text.
The best moments of The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle are when West presents the background circumstances of the production of 90s horror films, big and small. Her research into the making of everything from I Know What You Did Last Summer to Cherry Falls helps illustrate what was going on in the minds of the cast, crew, and producers at the time of production, as well as how they connect to the various social and cultural milestones which were impacting the development and release of each film. Sometimes, these connections are crystal clear (such as Sony’s decision to release Idle Hands in the wake of the Columbine shooting), and other times they require a bit of a stretch to grasp (such as the implication that the kids in I Know What You Did Last Summer were subconsciously concerned about how they might be portrayed by the 24 hour news cycle even though they never mention such a thing in the film itself). West sometimes needs a little more evidence to make her theses more valid, and this is most obvious when she digs into movies which aren’t very deep to begin with. Scream– the crown jewel of 1990s teen horror- is one of the strongest candidates for dissection because it explicitly dives into such topics (“the story at all costs” journalism, the redefining of the rules for a new generation, the eagerness of the victim to control his or her own narrative and destiny) throughout its story. As a result, West’s analysis of Scream makes for the stronger moments of her text, and serves as a foundation for her analyses of the remaining films of the book (in terms of West further proving her ideas, but also due to the fact that the films which came later were often direct copycats of Scream or the product of writer Kevin Williamson aping his own style to appease studio heads hoping for lightning to strike twice). Sidney Prescott is West’s strongest example of the new final girl, the character who survives the duration of multiple sequels despite breaking the rules of the 1980s slasher tropes, although the pattern begins to repeat itself in the form of Halloween H20: 20 Years Later and I Know What You Did Last Summer.
The book reads like a trip down memory lane, and West never condescends or trash-talks the quality of the lesser entries of the decade. It’s clear that she has a keen interest in many of these films, and her analysis made me want to re-watch some of the movies that I overlooked in my youth. While she acknowledges the positive portrayals of some of these films’ female characters, West does not view these films through rose-colored glasses either (she readily points out the moments where certain movies’ conclusions regress into harmful patriarchal constructs, and she is especially critical of the fact that nearly all of the forward-thinking feminist ideals of these films are only afforded to white characters). This kind of analysis and commentary is essential for a book like this to move beyond being a simple fan’s guide to movies, and West is careful to apply such lenses of analysis to each movie as she progresses through her chapters. However, that isn’t to say that the book can’t be improved with another draft. While I love reading about these movies as much as any horror fan who grew up in the 1990s, I found West’s chapter formula to be too dependent on the retelling of plot. Obviously, the reader requires a certain level of knowledge of each film in order to understand West’s analytical insight, but The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle often spends multiple pages retelling every minute detail of a film to make way for a paragraph or two of scholastic analysis. Books on horror films are niche to begin with, and it’s safe to assume that readers who seek out such a text would have some level of familiarity with the movies being discussed. In several of these lengthy passages of plot, I found myself longing for greater depth of substance. The book would be more effective if it cut back on plot and dug deeper with its analysis, moving beyond connections to previously established texts, like Clover’s 1992 book and the works of John Kenneth Muir. West has her own ideas about how these films specifically connect to the trends of the 1990s, and she could spend more time spelling out more concrete connections between the movies and the cultural moments she sites as their inspiration and/or backdrop, such as the O.J. Simpson trial and the Riot Grrrl movement.
In addition to these areas for growth in content, The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle is in need of some editing and revision to improve its clarity and focus. An error or two is common in any text and nothing to get worked up over, but West’s book contains an excessive number of spelling errors, run-on sentences, and unusual statements which hinder the flow of her writing. Some of these errors yield comical results (“Jason Foes to Hell”, Cinderella… “hopes of meeting her true love, which in turn helps her social statues”), while others force the reader to re-read the passage and still not understand its meaning (“While he had never seen urban legends as an opportunity for death and destruction, he needed to wield in order to secure his opportunity.”). Then there’s the nitpicky lack of attention to detail, which would be easy to overlook if the book didn’t constantly put the reader in the position of playing proofreader (Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in The Wall (Part II)” becomes “Another Brick in the Wall, Part II” over the span of seven pages and West states that 1980s horror posters, “often featured elaborate paintings over Photoshopped portraits”… even though the program wasn’t originally released until 1990). I wouldn’t even be mentioning this if there weren’t these kinds of errors every couple of pages, and there are enough of them that they get in the way of enjoying West’s writing. This is meant to be a scholastic and analytical text (one which spends pages critiquing the fact that the protagonist of Teaching Mrs. Tingle falsely claims that American witches were burned at the stake and no one ever corrects her), and it requires a greater level of polish to achieve academic authority.
Despite these issues, The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle should be commended for finding substance in the era of horror which is most defined by vapid stereotypes and market-tested consumerism, and I enjoyed being whisked away to the movies of my youth. West’s interpretation of the genre captured in the book’s title is strictly limited to films starring teens, so some of the movies of the 1990s which would certainly support and enhance her thesis are sometimes barely mentioned (such as The Blair Witch Project and its sequel, because their protagonists are a little too old) or completely overlooked (such as Stir of Echoes- which offers another example of toxic teen male behavior at the expense of a female victim, and Mary Harron’s American Psycho- one of the few horror films shot in the 90s to be written and directed by a woman). West’s decision to avoid such titles seems even more unusual when her later chapters begin to exclusively cover movies made in the 2000s and beyond, rather than sticking to the decade she outlines in the book’s introduction. Had her definition of the genre widened a bit to include the other popular horror films of the 90s that teens were consuming, West’s thesis might have been further demonstrated and explored.
The 1990s Teen Horror Cycle studies a period of filmmaking which is in much need of academic analysis and insight, and Alexandra West does a nice job of collecting many of the memorable and not-so memorable movies of the decade to demonstrate what made them such a distinct sign of their times. While the book can certainly benefit from a second edition which corrects its errors and expands on the films being covered and the depth of their examination, fans of this unique period in horror films will surely find a lot to reminisce over and think about from a new perspective in this text.