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 some of the above-mentioned slasher knock-offs, Cherry Falls was one of those fun spins on familiar tropes that got released. Starring genre favourite Michael Biehn and the late Brittany Murphy, Cherry Falls actually made its debut on television via USA Films on July 29, 2000, before getting a limited theatrical run later that October. I first saw Cherry Falls on the Canadian Showcase Network as part of a Halloween marathon. It was one of those films that immediately stood out with its unique spin and distinct atmosphere. In this edition of The Vault, I take a close look at what made Cherry Falls stand out amongst some of the 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, and many of the 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.
Subverting Slasher Film Tropes
Wes Craven deservedly gets the credit for not only riffing on slasher films with Scream, but also (perhaps unintentionally) re-invigorating the slasher 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 interesting subversion of the traditional slasher film trope in Cherry Falls. In the years that have followed the slasher’s ‘Golden Age’, the subgenre has typically been read by cultural analysts as an almost conservative fairy tale reinforcing traditional normative values. Rebellious teenagers, who ignore the warnings of adults and drink, use drugs, and have premarital sex, are ‘punished’ by the film’s killer. 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.
Cherry Falls flips that trope with its basic premise – this film’s killer explicitly targets virgins. It’s a clever twist on the subgenre 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 that is particularly relevant in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp. Much of Cherry Falls is about male authority over women’s sexuality, whether it’s a father’s protectiveness over his daughter or peers’ slut-shaming, and challenging that authority.
Yet Cherry Falls subverts the slasher rules in more ways than its killer’s modus operandi.
There are several instances in Cherry Falls challenging examples of the kind of traditional gender norms reinforced in the slasher genre. 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 expressed motivation is to prompt the town’s teens to defy that traditional authority and lose their virginity, thereby stealing the parents’ attempts to control their daughters and their sexuality.
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 Michael Biehn’s 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 and becomes the sexual aggressor with her ex-boyfriend, Kenny, he becomes uncomfortable and 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. Jay Mohr’s transgendered killer isn’t the first time the horror genre has mined gender identity to shape the origins of its villains. From Norman Bates in Psycho to the infamous twist of Sleepaway Camp, horror films have often linked the transgendered with violence. In these films, transgendered identity is constructed 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.