The term "elevated horror" has been born, popularised, and already discarded with snobbish glee this year, but I have to say I'm a major fan of the phrase. First uttered by Jenna Ortega's character Tara in Scream, it describes the new wave of horror we have seen take over the genre recently. Playing out a homage to Drew Barrymore's scene in the original Scream, Ortega plays with a knife idly and describes her favourite genre as "elevated horror", as in the sorts of horror movies that use or subvert horror tropes to highlight a pressing social issue. Get Out, Midsommar, The Babadook, and The Lighthouse are all examples of his new wave of horror. Spencer, not quite a horror film at all, can only be referred to as one because these movies have bridged a gap between horror and prestige drama. With them has come a reinvention of horror's classic archetypes. In a world of elevated horror, Anya Taylor-Joy is an elevated Final Girl.
The Final Girl is a classic structural ploy in slasher movies. In the likes of Friday the 13th and the many movies it influenced, perhaps most notably Scream, a killer stalks around the movie, killing people one by one, until there is just one character left. Most often, this is a heroine, soaked in blood, tank top torn, who finally delivers a fatal, vengeful blow against the villain. These slasher movies sometimes tapped into cultural fears in their themes, but they were rarely 'about' things in the way Get Out is about racial prejudice or Midsommar about radicalisation. Final Girls (also known as Scream Queens, though they're technically slightly different) were often attractive stars for whom the movie was to serve as a vehicle, and their survival through increasingly brutal circumstances an excuse to undress them.
The reason elevated horror has been rejected as much as it has been welcomed is that it carries an air of sneering superiority, and seems to dismiss all horror from before our modern stylings. Not so. I think the term has important cultural value, but that doesn't diminish the quality and importance of earlier horrors like Suspiria, Eyes Without a Face, or Psycho. Likewise, I love modern horror movies that only wish to be great horror movies, like Pearl, Malignant, and A Quiet Place. Similarly, while Final Girls weren't always stretched to their full potential, calling Taylor-Joy an elevated Final Girl is not supposed to tar all who came before her – Jamie Lee Curtis remains the greatest ever to do it.
But Taylor-Joy's body of work is impressive, and considering her range both as a performer and in the roles she selects, it's curious that she has been a final girl so often. If we have new horror stylings, we need new horror archetypes, and Taylor-Joy is leading the charge. Most recently we see it in The Menu, but it dates back far further.
Taylor-Joy's first feature was an elevated (if incredibly understated) horror in The Witch, where you could argue she fits the trappings of a Final Girl, but it's a bit of a stretch. Split is much more like it, with the film built around Taylor-Joy in particular. It plays the trope pretty straight, but gives Taylor-Joy a lot more room to play with the material than the usual screaming, fleeing Final Girls are afforded. Last Night in Soho offers a clever twist on the whole idea with the convergence of past and present timelines and the merging of Taylor-Joy's Sandie with the persona of Thomasin McKenzie's Eloise, and now The Menu reinvents what it means to be a Final Girl once more.
Being a Final Girl is no longer about being the last character standing when everyone around you has been killed. It's about carrying the energy of what it means to be a survivor who fights back, and to channel the tropes of Scream Queendom to suit the more satirical, thematic, and narratively poignant nature of elevated horror. Taylor-Joy is well versed in what it means to move through the modern horror landscape (and that's without even touching on Thoroughbreds or Marrowbone), and is the perfect star for these times.
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