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The De-Imagining Of Jamie Lee Curtis

From 'Prom Night' to 'Terror Train,' slasher remakes don't get it

By Steve Palopoli

DEVO was right. At least about movies, which lately have been providing irrefutable proof that when men with upside-down flower pots on their heads are right, they're right. Their theory of "devolution" needs no further validation than the state of remakes. "Re-imagining" was the hip buzzword studio execs came up with to make it sound like they were going to bring something original to their recycled movies. As I've said before, I'm not against remakes per se, and there are a select few that have delivered on their promise, but overall the lack of good ideas and the law of diminishing returns have resulted in a flood of films that could more aptly be described as "de-imaginings." For the last several years, the horror genre has bore the brunt of this phenomenon. For a while, producers were distracted by Asian horror, but lately they've been ransacking the low-budget cult classics of the '80s slasher era. This isn't just a few dark-haired ghost girls we're talking about, this is the legend of Jamie Lee Curtis they're messing with now.

Curtis got her break in John Carpenter's Halloween, and followed it up with a handful of other B-grade horror movies before breaking into mainstream stardom. Incredibly, all of the horror flicks in which Curtis starred have now been remade or are in the process of being remade. For my purposes here, I won't need to discuss two of these remakes: 1980's The Fog was a supernatural film about zombie pirates—I'm not sure how it got made in the first place, let alone remade, but it wasn't a slasher. And even though I think Rob Zombie's Halloween was his first out-and-out failure as a filmmaker, no one would argue that he wasn't trying to do something truly different with his version. Besides, Halloween doesn't really fit into the cycle of '80s films.

It did, of course, kick off the mask and sharp-implement obsessions of slasher films, as well as the basic formula. But most '80s slashers were actually modeled after Friday the 13th. While it, too,rode the coattails of Halloween's success, it added an essential ingredient that many people forget about: the slasher films of the early '80s were almost all mysteries. In fact, at their core films like Prom Night, Terror Train, The Burning, My Bloody Valentine and many others were basically traditional Agatha Christie–type whodunits with some gore and nudity thrown in. The killer usually had a mask, but in any case his or her identity was almost never revealed until the end of the film. (As Drew Barrymore failed to remember to lethal result in Scream, Jason was only the killer in the Friday the 13th sequels, and even then occasionally the killer didn't turn out to be him.)

Another essential ingredient of the slasher cycle was that the killer was set off by some traumatic event (usually shown in the beginning of the film) that happened years earlier and that the teenagers who would eventually become stalkees were often responsible for. Somehow this idea that the kids themselves were to blame for someone else's death and tried to cover it up really hit home with audiences at the time. Maybe it's foolish to read too much into this as a sign of the times, but there was definitely a cloud of collective guilt still hanging over American pop culture after the end of the Vietnam War. Also, Watergate had unfolded only a few years before, and American movies had just gone through their most intense cycle of paranoia ever.

The scars were more evident in horror movies than perhaps any other genre. Critics at the time thought these movies were driven by misogyny and an unhealthy new permissive attitude toward violence. But watching them now, the real message of these movies in which the hunted teenagers are almost always part of some conspiracy is more obvious. The collective trauma of Vietnam and Watergate somehow got fused in the formula, and the underlying message is "We should be scared because we screwed up. We're going to get caught. We deserve to get caught."

Next week: Part 2.

CULT LEADER is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback to [email protected].

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