When confronted with an unknowing darkness, we fragile mortals use our senses, intellect and emotion to guide us toward the light. We risk the vulnerability of our flesh and the knowledge of our bodies in order to evolve. At any given moment, the experience can be painful, pleasurable, exciting or terrifying. Wait a minute...am I talking about sex or horror here?
The answer is: Yes. Yes I am.
Many would argue that horror and sex are inextricably bound. And I agree. That isn’t to say that all sex is a bloodcurdling terror-train to poundtown, but rather, that sex, like horror, is a way of exploring what is unknown to us.
The cardinal rule of slasher films (at least it used to be) is that if you bone...you die. Final Girls from as far back as the 50s and 60s were expected to be virtuous, chaste and pure. By the 70s, if there was a blonde woman in a horror film who was indulging in any kind of festivities at all, she would most likely end up with her insides on the outsides and sometimes strewn about the ceiling like party lights. (See: Poor Tina from Nightmare on Elm Street)
Virginity became a popular, if over-used, trope in horror to let viewers know who should live and who deserved to die. Near the beginning of countless slasher films, we would be treated to a scene, invariably set in a parked car in a prime make-out spot, that went something like this:
Hormonal Beau-Hunk: You look pretty tonight. I’m going to lick your neck and touch your boobs now.
Brunette Virgin: Come on Tad / Chet / Blake / Morgan! Not now!
Hormonal Beau-Hunk: Come on Cindy / Christie / Kirsty / Morgan, every other guy is getting his dick wet, it’s my turn now. I’m a good boyfriend. Didn’t I call you pretty thirty seconds ago?
Brunette Virgin: Shouldn’t it be special? My parents dumped an ungodly amount of shame on me about my body. The only thing of value I have to give is my hymen.
Hormonal Beau-Hunk: Fine. We’ll wait. I’ll ask again around the middle of the movie, before the heavy body count.
Oftentimes the beau-hunk either ended up skewered on a machete due to his throbbing machismo or white-knighting the helpless virgin, thereby securing his hard-earned vagina prize. Don’t get me wrong, I love these slashers, warts and all. These seemingly sex-negative horror rides can be mined for all kinds of thematic goodness. What do we teach our kids about their bodies? What values do we hold that better suit us for survival? Do blondes really have more fun?
Yet, it’s the scary flicks that present something more unique in regards to sex and sexuality that really flood my basement. Wes Craven’s Scream satirized the rules and tropes we had become so familiar with in slashers. Sydney cashing in her V card served to strengthen her character, not cheapen. She owned her sexuality and did not let a history of male-imposed tropes determine her survivor status. She found herself through exploring her sexuality, not denying it.
Queer teenagers are faced with unique challenges in regards to the ways of their bodies. Between discovering our attractions, expressing our genders, or both, queer youth find themselves navigating self-discovery with far too few resources or friendly guidance. Looking to our peers, while sometimes helpful, rarely leaves us with a positive impression of ourselves. Why am I so different? If those straighties over there are having so many problems figuring it out, what chance do I have? WILL I EVER GET LAID PLEASE SOMEONE TELL ME I’LL GET LAID??? (That last one might just be me...but probably not.)
In 2000, four years after Scream hit theatres, Australian director Geoffrey Wright (who helmed the very violent Romper Stomper) made his American film debut with Cherry Falls. Writer and producer Ken Selden set out to craft a clever and hysterical slasher film that would turn the tables on conventional views of sexuality in horror. This is a film that, for the most part, succeeds as a biting satire and an exciting slasher.
(SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD)
The story takes place in the titular Cherry Falls, Virginia; a small, sleepy town that’s equal parts Mayberry and Twin Peaks. The film opens on a couple very similar to the one featured in my riveting dialogue above. Rod (Jesse Bradford, star of such seminal teen classics as Hackers and Swimfan) is desperately attempting to gain access to the wonderland of fellow classmate Stacy Twelfmann’s body. In a nice twist, both Rod and Stacy are virgins and both are ready to lose their virginity, but Stacy isn’t inclined to experience sex for the first time in a cramped vehicle.
As expected, a noise in the woods prompts the curious teens to explore the surrounding forest and before you can say “Who’s there?” both of them meet their grisly ends at the end of some very badass knives wielded by a woman with long, wild hair obscuring her face. Already this movie is subverting tropes with dead virgins and female killers.
After the tense opener, we are introduced to our plucky protagonist and inevitable brunette final girl, Jody Marken (played by late actress Brittany Murphy). Jody is a bright girl, who loves quoting TS Eliot to her high school English teacher Mr. Marliston (Jay Mohr of SNL and Go). She’s the kind of quirky young lady who has alternative rock posters on her walls, keeps her photos in inflatable picture frames (remember those?) but still sleeps with a teddy bear at night . We meet her father (Michael Biehn the star of Terminator, Aliens, and my teenage sex dreams) who also happens to be the town sheriff. He’s the type of dad who imposes impossibly strict curfews on his daughter and teaches her self-defense because he knows what kind of monsters lurk out there in the night.
Jody is also a virgin. We know this because during a vehicular petting session with her boyfriend Kenny Ascott (Gabriel Mann of TV’s Revenge) she respectfully tells him that she isn’t ready to go all the way. Kenny, in a dashing display of sensitivity and understanding, promptly tells her that it is time for them to “see other people.” By the next day of school, Kenny has already moved on to other options...blonder options (some tropes just never die).
Thankfully, we are spared any angsty hallway locker scenes as Jody, and the school, is rocked with the news that two of their own have been brutally sliced and diced. Jody learns this news from her openly and not coded gay friend Timmy (Keram Malicki-Sánchez, whose roles frequently play with gender and sexuality). Timmy, decked out in full-on alterna-goth 2000s fashion, is the editor for the school newspaper and can’t help but be excited that something exciting is finally happening in his cozy hamlet. He enthusiastically muses to Jody, “Holy hymens Batman...they’re killing virgins!”
A third victim, whose virgin status is confirmed by the coroner (just...ew), is soon discovered. Sheriff Marken decides it is time to hold a good ol’ fashioned PTA meeting and let the parents of Cherry Falls know the truth: someone is killing the virgins and sex may be the answer. It’s nice to view a film that teaches us that comprehensive sex education doesn’t just lower teen pregnancy rates, it keeps you alive!
(MAJOR SPOILERS. If you want to view the movie first, I’ll be here when you get back.)
Unfortunately, Timmy is the next virgin sacrifice. He and Jody were spying on that fraught PTA meeting and when Timmy steps away to make a call on a ridiculously large cell phone, his throat is slit and his body is shoved in a locker. What breaks my heart about Timmy’s death isn’t that we lose a queer character. It is a slasher film after all, and, while I would love to see a homo-hero save the day, losing likable characters is par for the course. What struck me, though, was what was left unsaid. Of course Timmy is a virgin. He’s the only gay in the village. Timmy never had a chance.
Surprisingly, an openly gay character isn’t the queerest aspect of this film. The teens of Cherry Falls decide to take matters into their own hands. If this mass murderer is killing virgins, then the solution, of course, is massive sex party. That’s right, these clever students decide to throw an orgy, or as Jody’s best friend calls it, “a hymen holocaust.” It’s literally do...or die.
These teens find themselves in a very queer situation. They are being persecuted for their sexuality. They find themselves being pressured to be something they’re not.
I find this aspect of the movie simultaneously empowering and heartbreaking. It’s empowering to see the teens who are ready for sex take ownership of their bodies and explore without judgment. Yet it’s heartbreaking that many of these teens are sacrificing an important part of themselves to fit in. Many queers, myself included, feel that pain. This film is full of biting satire, and also poignant commentary on teens and sexuality.
Cherry Falls, however, is far from perfect. It is revealed in the final act of the movie, that the killer is Jody’s English teacher Mr. Marliston. Twenty-five years ago, his mother was raped by four senior boys. One of the seniors is Jody’s father, Sheriff Marken. Mr. Marliston, a child of rape, was beaten and abused by his mother. He exacts his revenge on Cherry Falls while dressing up in the visage of his victimized mother.
The “transvestite killer” is, unfortunately, a common trope found in horror movies. Far too often it erroneously equates transvestism with being transgender. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho most famously used the trope to show the psychological deterioration in Norman Bates. It’s my personal opinion that Psycho is one of the few films to use this concept well. Norman doesn’t kill because he wears women’s clothes. He emulates his mother due to his split personality. Although Psycho popularized the trope, the film actually makes it clear that Norman isn’t transgender, and he isn’t actually a transvestite either.
At the other end of the spectrum we end up with films like Sleepaway Camp, Silence of the Lambs or the more recent House at The End of Street, which use trans characters to horrify the audience with perversion. The reveal of their gender is cruelly used to create shock and disgust. In these films, the characters are portrayed as sick or mentally ill because they are trans. This is a trope with such a complicated history that it warrants its own deep-dive. I hope to explore that, in greater detail, in the future.
There is more than a slight tinge of Psycho in Cherry Falls. However, once the killer is shown to be Mr. Marliston, the film relies on that reveal purely to mine humor from the situation. Instead of focusing on Marliston’s psychological obsession with avenging his mother, they present a killer who, while having a solid motivation for revenge, is wearing a dress to shock the audience. In a film that is so focused on exploring different aspects of sexuality and identity, this careless treatment of the character is disappointing.
Still, Cherry Falls is a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking film. Too many young queers are taught to fear their sexuality. It’s treated like a monster inside our bodies; something to defeat, rather than explore. In horror, sexuality is used as an Achilles heel or a character flaw. When people talk about discovering your sexuality and having sex, it’s usually synonymous with losing your innocence. It’s refreshing to find a horror film where sexuality is a light used to conquer the darkness.
Cherry Falls is available to view on Blu/Ray and DVD
Queerness: 3/6 Kinseys