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Pastiche, Parody and Postmodernism in Contemporary Slasher Films

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Scream is a postmodern example of parody and pastiche within the slasher genre.

Contemporary slasher films use elements of pastiche and parody in order to appeal to their target audience, playing on the history of the genre to form references and relations through the media. While these forms seem to have grown in scale as the genre has developed, the nature of pastiche and parody within the arts directly reflects that which is found within the slasher genre.

The concept of parody stems from parodia, a narrative based poem that mimicked the style of the ‘epics’ but focused on creating an absurd or satirical narrative. The term parody has grown to be defined as imitation “turned as to produce a ridiculous effect” by the Oxford English Dictionary. Film has used this method of narrative structure for most of its existence and Scream (1996) is considered one of the most influential examples of parody and pastiche within the slasher genre. Valerie Wee, in the Journal of Popular Film and Television, praised the film due to its “distinctive treatment of the slasher villain and final female survivor”, which “reflect a progressive, revolutionary stance” (2006). The clichés surrounding both the villain and the ‘final girl’ are large parts of the slasher genre, and Scream‘s unconventional and self-referential look at these elements pulls itself away from the pastiche and presents an idea of parody that doesn’t entirely fit within the traditional definition.

Due to the postmodernist society that intakes these forms of media today, the traditional values of parody within art doesn’t cover the ever-evolving form of this term; “parody is not a new phenomenon by any means, but its ubiquity in all the arts of this century has seemed to me to necessitate a reconsideration of both its nature and its function” (Hutcheon, 1985). The modern take on parody within the slasher genre bases itself upon the historical forms of borrowing and satire, however it has also developed to the point where an influential parody of the genre in Scream stands on its own as a cornerstone of slasher films and even incites further parody within films such as Scary Movie (2000). The creation of absurd or ridiculous narrative elements exists within Scream, but with a concise effort to develop a coherent and rounded story without focusing entirely on the possible humorous aspects.

Even the most notable example of parody within the slasher genre used concepts already explored within another film in the genre; Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI (1986). The ridiculousness of slasher films is brought into the film early, and even the concept of the ‘rules’ of the genre, which were only formally set up in the film Scream, were played with through blatant breaches and subsequent deaths. Contemporary parodies of the genre use these elements, especially the idea of the ‘rules’ and the subversion of them, but have branched out into parody through pastiche and a postmodernist awareness. The notion of parody has kept interest in the slasher film, and many modern films use it as a way into the genre; “…parody is often associated with the end of a genre’s natural life cycle, the step right before it arises like a phoenix from its own ashes… We’re now at the fin de siècle of not only a century, but of a millennium, and the parodies are coming fast and furious. The phoenix may mutate, but it doesn’t die” (Gehring, 1999).

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The rules provided by Randy (Jamie Kennedy) in Scream are effectively a guide to surviving a slasher film.

Modern films such as Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) and Kill Me Now (2012), which focus on the comedic and absurd side of slasher parody, play on a postmodern approach to the genre, with constant reference to the awareness of slasher movie clichés and narrative structures. These films, however, display a growth of parody as a genre, with pastiche becoming a large part of the structure, not solely seeking a mockery of elements of slasher films but instead finding a place to appreciate and celebrate the same elements.

Pastiche exists in many forms; through film it articulates as homage, and horror films find many places to situate references to other similar films. The most famous example that spreads out into many different genres is that of the shower scene from Psycho (1960); the combination of the cinematography and the shrill score is used and adapted in many different films. Philip J Skerry notes that it is a “brief scene in a movie that continues to have a remarkably enormous cultural impact. The shower scene in Psycho is probably the most famous scene in film history” (2009). It has been directly parodied in many different forms, however the most notable for this discussion would be the pastiche found within many different slasher films, such as within Friday the 13th. Here, a shadowy figure with a knife creeps up on someone in a vulnerable position, accompanied by a score that increasingly rises in pitch.

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The iconic Ghostface killer from the Scream franchise, dials the phone in a simple but effective parody scene in Scary Movie.

Outside of cinematography, the general image of a slasher villain is the most grounded in pastiche in contemporary film. Whilst there exists notable exceptions (A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); Friday the 13th (1980)) the general image of a slasher villain stems from the shadowy and unseen nature of Norman Bates from Psycho, and of Michael Myers from Halloween (1978), where the visual elements of a very large and well-built male wearing a mask dehumanises the villain to the point of almost comical, unabashed evil. This image of a villain is referenced and created in the majority of slasher films; whilst Friday the 13th featured a female killer it soon developed into one of the most iconic images in the genre, Jason Voorhees with his hockey mask in Friday the 13th Part III (1982). Despite featuring a villain without a mask, Kill Me Now still homages the masked villain in a scene in which the killer wears a gas mask. These elements have been built upon as the genre has grown, from the beginnings of the general pastiche of the Psycho shower scene and the image of the villain, to obvious immortality born from further Friday the 13th films and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

The difference in film parody that has developed over the years and melded with pastiche has given contemporary slasher films a new standard, even for those films that claim to be outside of parody. There is a “distinction between the parody of overt puncturing and the parody of reaffirmation that gets to the heart of the current vitality of the parody form. This is a critical difference, because it separates films and television shows that are clearly spoofs, such as those of Mel Brooks that broadly skewer the idiosyncrasies of their target, from the fuzzier breed of media that adores its object even as it mimics it, such as one sees in Scream” (Gehring, 1999). However, this distinction does not prevent a blending of the two modern forms. Scream is a model example for the adoration of mimicry, whereas Kill Me Now combines the two forms, providing a critical but humorous take on the traditions and clichés found within the genre while simultaneously showing a genuine love for those and other elements despite their faults. The blending of satirical comedy and a genuine take on the genre forms this amalgamation of the forms of parody.

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The Driller Killer approaches a woman trying to escape in Kill Me Now, a scene with great influence from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s (1974) iconic finale.

Within a genre as self-aware as the slasher, “Pastiche, the affectless, non-satiric, and seemingly random appropriation of intertextual material, is the main device of reaffirmative parody” (Gehring, 1999). With contemporary examples of the genre a certain sense of awareness is expected from the characters and the film itself. On one side the characters should be aware of their situation and actions in regards to formulaic conventions, not necessarily changing them to better survive but instead to simply be aware of the clichés of the slasher film. Similarly, the film sets the characters up in situations that play to the clichés found in the genre. Kill Me Now forms a perfect example of the contemporary parody of slasher films in that it presents an obvious situation and motive, whilst also directly referencing these things through dialogue.

Appropriation, pastiche and parody, in their contemporary form, are based on historical forms of borrowing, developing through art cycles and mediums. Within film genres, pastiche and parody develop in their own way and, with the example of the slasher film, the two have seamlessly become one as postmodernism becomes an active part of the narrative structure. The formal growth of parody continues as the art form and the philosophical concept of postmodernism develops, and audiences have come to expect characters within film, as well as the film itself, to understand the history and pastiche of the genre. The traditional aspects of parody and historical forms of borrowing are the foundations on which the contemporary parody has been built, and the slasher film forms a perfect example of the current form.

– Dika, V. (2003). Recycled Culture in Contemporary Art and Film. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

– Gehring, W. (1999). Parody as Film Genre: “Never Give a Saga an Even Break”. Greenwood Publishing Group.

– Hutcheon, L. (1985). A Theory of Parody. New York: Methuen.

– Skerry, P. (2009). Psycho in the Shower. New York: Continuum.

– Wee, V. (2006). “Resurrecting and Updating the Teen Slasher: The Case of Scream” in the Journal of Popular Film and Television, 34(2), pp.50-61.

About Shane Dover

Shane Dover is a Melbourne, Australia based freelance writer contributing to Japanese punk news site Punx Save The Earth, punk publication Dying Scene, and Diabolique Magazine. Not just a fan of punk music, he's spent most of his life obsessed with the horror genre across all media, as well as pop culture in general. He plays music and writes fiction, check out his Twitter for updates on those projects. Follow him on Twitter, and check out his work every Wednesday on Dying Scene.

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