By the year 2000, the slasher-lite revolution ironically kickstarted by Scream was already running out of gas. Knock-off films like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend had already produced inferior sequels. A new cycle of horror, ‘Torture Porn’, was also just around the corner. There were undoubtedly a lot of mediocre films produced to cash-in on Scream’s success. Nevertheless, a few genuinely interesting variations on the slasher subgenre were still kicking around.
Despite never receiving the same attention as other slasher knock-offs, Cherry Falls put a unique spin on familiar tropes. Starring genre favourite Michael Biehn and the late Brittany Murphy, Cherry Falls debuted on television on July 29, 2000. It only saw a limited theatrical run later that October. In this edition of The Vault, I take a closer look at what made Cherry Falls stand out amongst other inferior slashers from that era.
An Average Slasher Film on the Surface
On most counts, Cherry Falls is a pretty run-of-the mill slasher film. There aren’t many effective scares or jumps. Many of those scares will feel fairly predictable to seasoned horror viewers. No one should go into Cherry Falls expecting the innovative gore effects that made the Friday the 13th franchise so successful. Where Cherry Falls stands out from the pack is its unique twist on one of the slasher genre’s most familiar tropes.
Slasher Films as Conservative Fairy Tales
Wes Craven deservedly gets the credit for not only riffing on slasher films with Scream, but also (perhaps unintentionally) re-invigorating the subgenre. Other horror films have since infused their films with Craven’s post-modern, tongue-in-cheek approach including the very under-appreciated, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon.
But several years before the release of Behind the Mask, director Geoffrey Wright offered his own subversion of the traditional slasher. Following the slasher’s ‘Golden Age’, cultural analysts have typically read the subgenre as a conservative fairy tale reinforcing traditional normative values. Rebellious teenagers, who ignore the warnings of adults, drink, use drugs, and have premarital sex, are ‘punished’. But it’s young women who are punished most severely when they transgress against conservative genders norms. Sexually promiscuous women are killed, while the virginal ‘Final Girl’ lives to the end.
Subverting Slasher Film Tropes
Cherry Falls flips that trope with its basic premise – this film’s killer explicitly targets virgins. It’s a clever twist but one that could have easily resulted in a one-note horror film. Yet Cherry Falls subverts the slasher rules in more ways than its killer’s modus operandi. There’s a potentially more interesting theme running beneath the film’s surface. It’s a theme that is particularly relevant in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp. Much of Cherry Falls is about male authority over women’s sexuality. In some cases, it’s a father’s protectiveness over his daughter. Other moments address peers’ slut-shaming.
Yet Cherry Falls subverts the slasher rules in more ways than its killer’s modus operandi.
Arguably years ahead of its time, Cherry Falls challenges many traditional gender norms. Many early scenes revolve around sexual pressure and consent. In the film’s opening two scenes, young women are pressured by boyfriends into going further. A few scenes later another another high school girl confronts a boy for spreading false rumours. The killers’s motivation is to get local teens to defy that traditional authority by losing their virginity. That is, the killer wants to break parental control over their daughters’ sexuality.
Gender and Power in Cherry Falls
Even the killer’s origins are reflective of the traditional conservative authority of ‘golden age’ slashers. All four teens involved in sexually assaulting Laura Lee Sherman were popular high school students, privileged and powerful. Two of those young men grow up to be men in positions of authority and power – a high school principal and town sheriff. For a slasher film, Cherry Falls offers some interesting insight into power and gender dynamics. Later in the film, when Brittany Murphy’s ‘Jodie’ decides to lose her virginity, she becomes the sexual aggressor. The role reversal prompts discomfort with her ex-boyfriend, Kenny, who complains about his ‘feelings’.
Subverting One Trope, Embracing Another
On one hand, Cherry Falls subverts one traditionally conservative trait of the slasher, but it also embraces one of horror’s worst tropes. The horror genre has a long, sad history of exploiting gender identity. From Norman Bates in Psycho to the infamous twist of Sleepaway Camp, horror films have often linked the transgendered with violence. Horror films often construct transgendered identity as pathology. Its roots are in abuse and violence, and the outcome is either a deranged or psychopathic personality.
Jay Mohr’s Leonard Marliston is another example of the horror genre pathologizing transgendered identity and rendering is as ‘deviant other’. It’s a trope that plays on audience misunderstanding and misinformation. You could excuse Cherry Falls given that it was released 18 years ago, but it’s still a lazy incorporation of outdated Freudian psychology.
One of the Better Efforts from the Slasher Renaissance
Cherry Falls is far from a perfect horror film. It’s somewhat lacking in the scares department and the origins for its killer will feel very strained by today’s standards. But the film has that unique low-budget vibe with a good cast and some surprisingly astute commentary running beneath the surface. In fact, Cherry Falls’ gender politics have only become more relevant in recent years.