Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The first "Final Girl"

Film Scholar Carol Clover first coined the term "final girl" while writing in her seminal work Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.  The term has come to define the last woman alive to confront the killer or monster in horror films.  While the term primarily refers to heroines in slasher horror films since the late 1970s, I would make the case that the very first "final girl" appeared at least three decades earlier with the character of female news photographer Billie Mason (Louise Currie) in the 1943 Monogram poverty row horror "The Ape Man," starring Bela Lugosi in the title role.  In the movie, Lugosi plays a mad scientist whose experiments have rendered him into a half-human/half-ape creature.  In an attempt to find a cure and return himself to full human form, he commits a series of murders to obtain freshly drawn human spinal fluid.  His activities arouse the attention of newspaper reporter Jeff Carter (Wallace Ford), and his female photographer sidekick Billie Mason (Ms. Currie).

In the finale of "The Ape Man," Lugosi has kidnapped Billie Mason and taken her to his basement laboratory to draw spinal fluid from her.  When she comes to, and realizes the danger she is in, she looks for a way to escape and grabs a nearby circus bullwhip to fend off Lugosi's murderous advances.  You can see a clip from that finale here.  When Lugosi struggles and fights with Billie Mason to get the bullwhip away from her, she stumbles backwards and accidentally releases the angry captive gorilla who causes Lugosi's death.  (We wouldn't see another horror heroine taking proactive measures to defend herself until Gretchen Wells's feisty coed in Herschell Gordon Lewis's "The Gruesome Twosome" nearly a quarter of a century later!)  By taking a more active role than the average 1940s horror heroine, Louise Currie's Billie Mason represented a small, yet significant, advance forward in depicting female assertiveness and determination in horror films.  In the average horror film up to that point, the heroine usually stands by helplessly awaiting rescue, or faints out of fright, until she comes to later after the danger has passed.  In "The Ape Man," the Billie Mason is allowed to take matters into her own hands in order to ensure her survival in the film.  When she holds off Lugosi's Ape Man monster by cracking the bullwhip, Louise Currie foreshadows Jamie Lee Curtis in "Halloween" and all of her other horror vehicles, Amy Steel in "Friday the 13th, Part 2," Sigourney Weaver's Ripley character in the "Alien" films, and Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox in the "Scream" series, making her their spiritual big sister.  Her feisty quality reflected how WWII-era American women found themselves having to resolve issues on their own while men were away fighting the war overseas. Film audiences, by that point, might have been more willing to accept assertive females in horror films as they were witnessing women around them taking on new roles by assuming factory jobs and serving in the military. 

With her character's masculine first name, sophisticated and witty manner (she and Wallace Ford spar delightfully throughout the movie), photographic talent (which reflected a technical and creative thought-process), and deep speaking voice, the underrated Louise Currie set a refreshing contrast to the milquetoast, frail-voiced starlets who usually top-lined poverty row horrors.  Currie was a Max Reinhardt acting-protege who balanced lead roles in Republic serials and Monogram horror films with bit parts in films for major studios, including a notable one as a reporter in the finale of Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane" (1941).  Currie and Lugosi worked together for the first time in the RKO mystery comedy "You'll Find Out" (1940) and re-teamed at Monogram a year after "The Ape Man" in the horror vehicle "Voodoo Man."  In "Voodoo Man," Currie again depicted an unusual quality for 1940s horror heroines as her character reacts to being kidnapped by Lugosi, John Carradine and George Zucco with an atypically calm directness and intelligence that remains fresh and impressive almost 70 years later.  When her character is freed at the end of "Voodoo Man" from a lifetime of being held captive in a catatonic state, Currie reacts to her rescue with an appealingly flippant attitude.  Nothing, not even Ape or Voodoo men, could faze her for long.  She deserved better out of her career, but distinguished herself by bringing a level of class into films and serials that rarely received it.  At the very least, Louise Currie, as Billie Mason in "The Ape Man," deserves greater recognition for her modest, but important, contribution in helping to advance the depiction of women in the history of horror films.

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