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Why Cherry Falls and its Final Girl are still relevant nearly 20 years later
In 2000, the combination of Scream-meets-American Pie was the alchemy of a winning teen movie formula; with that in mind, horror-comedy Cherry Falls tried to capitalize on the popularity of the late '90s self-referential and sex-obsessed franchises. Unfortunately, when it comes to carnal matters, the MPAA are typically more squeamish than they are about violence. Australian director Geoffrey Wright had multiple cuts of his movie rejected by censors, which led to its non-theatrical release on the USA Network (you can currently watch it on Starz). While it did have a successful run in European theaters, it has adopted cult status over the years.
The premise itself is an interesting twist on both horror and teen comedies as the killer targets virgins for a change; instead of prom, the centerpiece of the final climax is a "Pop Your Cherry Ball." Starring Brittany Murphy as Jody and Michael Biehn as her father, Sheriff Brent Marken, Cherry Falls takes on the slasher genre with a satirical underbelly — and nearly 20 years later, it still packs a punch. However, the conflict between comedy and horror also results in tonal whiplash, which is likely a result of the many pre-release cuts it underwent. Beneath the surface of some very silly set pieces is a story of assault and law enforcement failings, which is still all too common in 2019.
The film opens on a familiar scene of a teen couple hooking up in a classic "lovers' lane" situation, but it soon turns violent when they are interrupted by a long-haired assailant. Prior to this, the guy has tried to pressure his girlfriend into going further, which is the first hint of the role sex will play in this narrative. After this brutal and bloody introduction, the movie cuts to another car makeout session as Jody tells her boyfriend Kenny (Gabriel Mann) to slow down. Kenny's response to that is to suggest they should maybe start seeing other people, just in case you were wondering where he falls on the terrible horror boyfriend scale. The pressure to get laid in high school is not a new narrative, and in horror someone who is sexually active is normally high on the list of would-be victims, but Cherry Falls takes this expectation and flips it on its head.
Meanwhile, Jody is everything you would expect from the lead in a teen slasher flick; her father is the town sheriff, so she has an innate sense of self-preservation, she's smart, and she's also a virgin. The latter lands her on the "endangered list," but she is also unknowingly connected to the killer — also a common trope. Wide-eyed Murphy makes an excellent Final Girl, screaming and fighting her way out of perilous scenarios. She conveys intelligence and innocence in equal measure, doubling down on attributes associated with this archetype. Indeed, watching this film is a good reminder of Murphy's charm and talent. Her entire look falls into Final Girl style — most of what she wears to school could be worn today without raising an eyebrow.
The killer carves "VIRGIN" into his victim's flesh to make sure the message is conveyed — first on the teens at the makeout point, followed by a girl who doesn't take kindly to her boyfriend lying about how far they have gone sexually. The news quickly leaks, which leads to a party-like atmosphere at the George Washington High School. Sadness over classmate murder is replaced with revelry when they hear who this killer is singling out. Much like the horror-movie-themed party in Scream, these kids act in an irreverent manner, arranging a "Hymen Holocaust" at an old abandoned hunting lodge. Cherry Falls also owes a lot to Heathers and American Pie in the mood prompted by this reveal. However, there are wild shifts in the overall tone of the movie, which cause some level of whiplash, particularly when the killer's true motive is revealed.
After a narrow escape at school (using some ingenious moves in the chemistry lab), Jody's description of her attacker is incredibly familiar to her father and the school principal. The sketch looks like a girl by the name of Lora Lee Sherman (Tammy Ballance), a loner who mysteriously disappeared. Despite a killer on the loose, Jody sets about investigating who this woman is, which takes her to the library. She finds a news story while scrolling through old articles on a microfiche machine (ticking another horror movie box), but doesn't find anything substantial. Her constantly inebriated mother has followed her to the library, and when Jody presses her for information, she relents and shares what happened nearly three decades ago.
In an incident that sounds all too familiar, Lora Lee was raped by four high school seniors but no one was prosecuted. When Jody asks why they weren't charged, her mother explains they were "from good families, stars of the football team. She was just this loner," adding that the defense wouldn't hold up in court, as if that is some sort of excuse. As Jody presses her mom about the identities of the teen boys, she reveals that two have since moved away, while the other two are the school principal ... and her own father. "He didn't participate," her mom claims, adding that he was too drunk to do anything, but also that he didn't come to Lora Lee's defense. Jody is, of course, devastated by this news; it shatters everything she thought she knew about her dad.
The notion of a rapist escaping justice because of his background is one we see play out in the news far too frequently. This is not a problem left behind in the past. The Final Girl is not the only focus of Carol J. Clover's examination of gender in modern horror in her seminal text, Men, Women, and Chainsaws. One chapter examines the role of rape-revenge stories including I Spit on Your Grave and Ms. 45 — most recently referenced in the Halloween episode of Euphoria. Revisiting Cherry Falls now, it's easy to identify how the film is a convergence of Final Girl archetypes with rape-revenge horror. One aspect Clover discusses in her book is how law enforcement often fails the victim of sexual assault; in I Spit on Your Grave, Jennifer (Camille Keaton) doesn't report her gang rape. Instead, she takes it upon herself to get justice. In Cherry Falls, Lora Lee tries to go through the legal system but it fails her because of how the community views these young men — that said, the original victim isn't the one getting her revenge in the end.
It is the citizens of Cherry Falls who were at fault, so it is the citizens of Cherry Falls who must be punished. Jody responds to finding out her father might be a rapist by acting out. First, she goes to Kenny's, but he is freaked out by what he perceives to be her sexual aggression. When he had the power, it was fine, but as she attempts to take control he can't wrap his head around her domineering behavior. She takes this as a rejection, fleeing to the home of her teacher crush, Mr. Leonard Marliston (Jay Mohr). Of course, Leonard isn't who he appears to be, and the trunk he is dragging into his home contains her still-alive father — who might also be Leonard's biological dad.
In a page straight out of Psycho, Leonard has been dressing up as his mother when he goes on his killing spree. And as with Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), his mother was abusive. The product of rape, Lora Lee physically assaulted Leonard from a very young age, channeling her rage toward him. He makes the sheriff tell his daughter what happened that night, revealing his actual involvement and not the edited version. Yes, he was wasted, but he also participated and knew what he was doing. Instead of getting prosecuted, they became "pillars of the community," and Leonard is enacting his revenge on his mother's rapists and the town that ignored this crime and exiled her (and therefore led to his trauma-filled childhood). The reason he is targeting virgins is to rob the rich parents of this town of the only innocence they have left: their "precious virginal children."
In combining elements of rape-revenge and slasher movies, Cherry Falls is a fascinating look at two horror subgenres even if it doesn't always hit the mark. The satirical and meta-horror aspects are entertaining, but it is too slight when it comes to delivering its overall message, swinging wildly from humor to a devastating crime.
Jody vanquishes the killer by pushing him out of a first-floor window, impaling Leonard on a piece of wood before Deputy Sheriff Mina (Amanda Aka) unloads two clips in him — the classic "he isn't quite dead" trick is utilized. Those who committed the original crime on Lora Lee are still not brought to justice, as Jody and her mom lie about the motive. This sexual assault stays buried, as does the biological link between her father and the killer. The town continues to protect its own.
Horror movies are always ripe for a remake, and there is an argument to be made for a Cherry Falls reboot. Not only is the underlying story still incredibly relevant, but there is still a lot more to say about the overlapping archetypes of revenge and slasher movies. If Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer can be transformed into a TV show, then so can Cherry Falls. And this way, the whole story can be told rather than an edited version, particularly as Wright sets up a sequel that never came — Jody sees someone who looks a lot like Lora Lee staring at her from across the street. The final shot is of the falls turning blood red, the town forever stained by the lies it has kept.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.