Death Proof: Deconstructing The Slasher Film
From The Quentin Tarantino Archives
"I never do proper genre movies. It's like using the fact that Reservoir Dogs isn't a proper heist film even though it fits in the genre, as a slag against it. And what is so good about slasher films is they are all the same. This is why they are so much fun to write subtextual film criticism about, because all your arguments really work for a vast majority of films. And if you try to monkey about just a little too much with it then now you're not even really making a slasher film." - QT in Sight and Sound (2007)
"I realized I couldn't do a straight slasher film, because with the exception of women-in-prison films, there is no other genre quite as rigid. And if you break that up, you aren't really doing it anymore. It's inorganic, so I realized—let me take the structure of a slasher film and just do what I do. My version is going to be fucked up and disjointed, but it seemingly uses the structure of a slasher film, hopefully against you." - QT in Rolling Stone
These excerpts from past QTs interviews (including one from his famous 1994 Charlie Rose Show appearance) clue us in to how he wanted to approach his own psycho-thriller meets hot rod movie: Death Proof. Not only that, it gives us QT's thoughts on how twisting genre conventions intrigues him as a filmmaker. Although Death Proof divided many critics and viewers (like all Tarantino films) if you are a fan who is really interested in his style of cinema, you feel the need to rewatch his work often and reevaluate them on different levels. Since Tarantino is an expert on cinema and master of audience manipulation, even his sour notes have meaning beneath them. Death Proof was certainly a departure for him. To the chagrin of certain fans he decided to leave the crime films he was best known for behind and try something thematically and aesthetically different.
With Death Proof, Tarantino set out to make what could be described on the surface as a "slasher film", but this wasn't just your traditional subgenre story. First, instead of a supernatural monster (i.e. Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers), Tarantino's killer was a man, more specifically, a Hollywood stuntman. Second, his weapon of choice was not a butcher knife or a machete, it was a reinforced stunt car. Mike's reason for killing seems to stem from something that was done to him by a woman, yet at the same time it is implied that he is sexually gratified by experiencing car crashes. As stated by Quentin Tarantino, Mike is actually performing an act of rape on his female victims through vehicular collision. Note: This sexual connection to automobile accidents is a trait he shares with characters from J.G. Ballard's novel Crash (which was later adapted into a film by David Cronenberg).
In this multi-part article we will be examining what Quentin Tarantino's slasher film really set out to do. We will ask the questions: Was it just a "grindhouse homage"? A personal way to mess with audiences? An experimental film that deconstructed one of QTs favorite subgenres? or...was it all of these things combined?
Foreword: European Gourmet Meets North American Fast Food
As noted by Quentin Tarantino, the classic 1980s slasher film structure is very specific or rigid. 1) There is a mysterious psychotic maniac and they stalk/kill people, usually teens. 2) Many times they are seeking revenge for something that was done to them or someone they loved years earlier. 3) The stories often take place around summer camps and fraternities. 4) The slasher-killer is often a non-sexual male and/or someone who doesnt kill for sexual thrills. 4) The lone female survivor commonly referred to as The Final Girl, is the only one who is potentially as strong as the killer because she has not become sexually active and free like her preoccupied wild friends. Thus helping her to keep her wits so she can go on to destroy the predator when everyone else is killed off. This is the main character trait that the Final Girl shares with the killer.
The American and Canadian slasher films really took what the Italian giallo thrillers did best and streamlined them even more. They usually removed the more intricate story/plot details and created the trademark "slash em' up in a row" style that is prevalent from Halloween to the Friday The 13th films. Other classic titles in this subgenre include: The Burning, My Bloody Valentine, The House on Sorority Row, The Prowler and Happy Birthday To Me.
As well as being inspired by American and Canadian slasher films, Tarantino uses aspects from Italian giallo cinema. These stylish European based murder-mysteries were actually a direct influence on the American slashers and often dealt with black masked/gloved psycho-sexual killers. You'll notice music cues from Dario Argento's The Cat O Nine Tails and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, two classic giallo films in Death Proof. Tarantino's character Stuntman Mike also has giallo killer traits, his methods of secretly collecting the women's personal items (which we don't actually see onscreen) and photographing his prey before the kill for his own sexual gratification come directly from the giallo storylines.
This blending of two similar thriller genres creates the characteristics on which Quentin Tarantino's film is based.
1. STUNTMAN MIKE: THE PSYCHO YOU LIKE
"Stuntman Mike is kinda cool. Hes got a better rap than anyone else in the bar and hes the only man who can deal with these girls" - Quentin Tarantino on one aspect of the character.
Stuntman Mike McKay. From his looks alone, he seems out of touch with the times. His dress style is certainly out of date. He wears the standard 70s/80s stuntman gear: black t-shirt, blue jeans, cowboy boots, tacky turquoise jewelry, topped off by a shiny silver satin racing jacket and a rockabilly pompadour style hairdo. He looks like a redneck refugee from the 1960s or 70s. Mike comes across as someone who has fallen out of a time machine and finds himself surrounded by beeping cell phones and hybrid cars. Although Mike is out of place, we are conditioned to like him, maybe feel bad for him or at least identify with him on certain levels. He really doesnt come off as scary, well, maybe more like ominous. When we watch Stuntman Mike talking at the bar, its not with an evil sneer or ghostly moan, he's a jovial guy who giggles and has a good sense of humor, albeit its a bit strange. He also seems sort of cool in his own way. At first glance, he recalls an older cowboy who wandered in from a rodeo. Mike tries to impress some girls by telling them about some TV shows he worked on a long time ago. He shoots out titles like The Virginian, Vega$ and Gavilan, but the girls sit dumbstruck, they've never heard of them. Mike is an odd old duck to these young hipsters. Someone to giggle at. Still, Mike has an interesting air of mystery about him, and a large facial scar that makes us ponder about what his real backstory is. This is level one of the deconstruction of the slasher film antagonist.
2. THE VIEWER AS ACCOMPLICE
"You want them [the cars] to collide...Now you're a co-conspirator. You're incriminated in the bloodlust. Until that last second, you're coming from the same place Stuntman Mike is coming from". - Quentin Tarantino on the viewer's thought process of anticipating the big car crash
What happens when a staid genre film's structure is messed with? Quentin Tarantino has been experimenting with this aspect of moviemaking since the beginning of his career. In Reservoir Dogs, he made a heist film where we never actually see the heist. In Pulp Fiction, he took classic pulp/noir stories and re-imagined them. In Kill Bill, he made a Grindhouse style revenge film, not about an innocent citizen who is done wrong, but an assassin who "deserves to die" just as much as her attackers do.
In slasher films, stalking and killing is what the main villains do by default. Thats their role on the screen and nothing besides. BUT what if you put the audience in their place? In Death Proof, identifying or even sympathizing with Stuntman Mike as a human being instead of a "monster" is what we are being manipulated to do from the start. The way he is presented to us, as a misunderstood outsider, is every bit as strong as the connection we feel towards Vanessa Ferlito's Arlene, who is really in the same situation herself in the story. This also goes back to the theory about the killer's connection to The Final Girl in slasher films...but more on that later.
When the first big car crash scene happens, Stuntman Mike is on the verge of a sexual orgasm and the audience is set up to be right there with him. The reason is because this sequence is all about adrenaline and thrills. The very thing audiences goto the movies for. When Stuntman Mike aims his reinforced stuntcar at the unsuspecting girls (who are heading for their imminent deaths) we as viewers become his accomplices in the virtual passenger seat simply because it is our nature as viewers to want to see the crash happen. It goes back to the old addage about the person who drives by a car crash and can't not look at the carnage. Stuntman Mike and the audience become one during that time. This specific sequence is subconsciously deepening our bond with the killer we are supposed to despise and/or fear. This is level two of the deconstruction of the slasher film antagonist.
3. DEMISE OF THE FINAL GIRL
Many slasher films feature a singular female character that acts as the audiences' surrogate conscience. They are the one with the "investigative gaze", a sort of sixth sense where they are aware of the killer's presence, because unlike their wild friends they aren't preoccupied with sex and drugs etc. They are commonly not experienced sexually. They're the outsiders in their group. These protagonists are known as The Final Girl. In Death Proof, Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) is set up to be The Final Girl....only shes not virginal. We are led to believe she's a sexually experienced young woman. This is another genre rule Tarantino breaks which flips the script on the viewer.
It is the tradition in slasher films, that The Final Girl and the killer have a certain connection. They are commonly both outsiders and non-sexual beings in the story. Yet in Death Proof, the two slasher film archetypes (represented by Stuntman Mike and Arlene) come together in an erotic situation. This is evident when Stuntman Mike asks Arlene aka Butterfly for a lapdance. Whats most strange here is how we can switch the two characters in our minds with actual slasher film archetypes and it comes out very odd. For example: What if an 80s slasher film Final Girl gave a lapdance to her attacker? This erotic act further makes us identify with Stuntman Mike as a man rather than a psycho killer once again.
Furthermore, when we begin to feel sympathy or awareness for Arlene as the film's Final Girl, through her investigative gaze, the feline-like alarm at seeing Stuntman Mike's car (which is accompanied by Ennio Morricone's "Paranoia Prima" from the giallo The Cat O' Nine Tails), we are actually being set up to think she won't be killed and is invincible. When Arlene is later shockingly killed, (her face ripped off by Stuntman Mike's spinning car tire) The Final Girl theory is ripped apart at the same time. The character the audience has identified and sympathized with is suddenly gone. Could this be because of the fact Arlene didnt refrain from being sexual and free? Could the sexy lapdance she performed on Mike ultimately exclude her from The Final Girl status thus causing her to die like the others? It is most likely Tarantino's way of following then destroying the slasher film genre's basic rules. In essence this manipulates the conditioned audience and plays an interesting, entertaining joke on the genre fanatics.
4. VICTIMS OR VICTIMIZERS?
"The phenomenon of the male audience having to identify with a young female character in an ostensibly male-oriented genre, usually associated with sadistic voyeurism, raises interesting questions about the nature of slasher films and their relationship with feminism. For a film to be successful, although the Final Girl is masculinized, it is necessary for this surviving character to be female, because she must experience abject terror, and many viewers would reject a film that showed abject terror on the part of a male". - An excerpt of The Final Girl theory by Carol J. Clover, author of Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film
In the second half of the film we meet a new group of women. These young beauties are professionals in the film business. They are made up of two stuntwomen (Zoe and Kim), makeup artist Abby and an up and coming starlet named Lee. Abby, Kim and Lee are shooting a film on location in Lebanon, Tennesee. Zoe, has come over from New Zealand to visit Kim. Unlucky for them, this is Stuntman Mike's new residence. When Stuntman Mike comes across Abby, Kim and Lee one day at a local quickie mart his obsessive/compulsive habits slowly reimerge. As we learned from Sheriff Earl McGraw's personal theory (similar to the one delivered by Dr. Fred Richmond in Hitchcock's Psycho) after the first group of girls are killed, Mike is a sexual deviant. The way this sequence is filmed, it again puts us in Mike's shoes (and behind his shades) and has us identify with him. For instance, what normal man has never seen beautiful women on the street or at a store and stared at them awhile? The main difference here is Mike is a psycho-sociopath and he cannot be satisfied with just looking. When Mike sees the coast is clear and the girls aren't paying attention he sneaks up on Abby while she sleeps in Kim's car and touches her feet. This also sets Abby up inadvertently as the next "Final Girl" in the film. When Mike is nearly caught, he quickly makes as if hes looking for his lost car keys, then hops in his muscle car and speeds away. The girls are creeped out by this encounter. What makes this sequence even a bit creepier is when Abby spots Mike cruising by the parking lot a second time. As Mike peels out and roars off down the street, we can see his psycho switch is turned on and he is in stalker mode once again.
Mike begins tracking the girls, spying on them from a distance (including watching them in a diner), taking pictures of them and when he sees his chance to strike, he does. Only Mike hasn't done his homework well enough this time and has made a mistake. These women are all very strong and can handle themselves as well as any man. When Mike chases the girls down and decides to "play" with them by crashing his car into theirs at high speeds on the backroads of Tennesee, it becomes a game of high octane cat and mouse, with Mike getting his sexual jollies by ramming the girls repeatedly with his car. You'll notice he also uses descriptively sexual cat-calls like "Suck on this for awhile!". Meanwhile, Zoe "The Cat" is playing her own game of "Ship's Mast" (riding on the hood of a fast moving car) and this doesn't help matters. This adrenaline charged sequence shows that Mike has met his match with Kim and Zoe. Two professional stuntwomen who can handle themselves just as well as he can. After the thrilling high speed climax is over, both cars come to a grinding stop and we then are led to believe Zoe has been killed after being catapulted from the car's hood (notice this is never actually shown). Mike gleefully thanks the girls for a fun time, but he is suddenly shot by Kim (something both he and viewers don't see coming). This is where Tarantino smashes the film's story arc to bits once again. Doing what he loves to do, messing with genre conventions. The crazy alpha-male killer has now become afraid and runs away with his tail between his legs. We can assume that Mike's sexual gratification from (what he, Kim and Abby perceived as) vehicular homicide has occured. Mike is now physically spent and not sexually potent any longer. His hard charging "death proof" demeanor is gone. Thus leaving him open to an attack.
What further builds confusion in us is the fact Zoe wasn't killed when the car went off the road. If she HAD been killed, this would have given the girls more of a concrete reason for getting payback. The audience is caught up in a moment of fear, then relief when Zoe reveals she's still alive and kicking. So, when the three women decide to go after Mike, and he is being chased and attacked by them, there is a strange disconnect and we actually become caught in a state of emotional conflict. Who are we really supposed to be rooting for? Mike, the poor old bastard whos been shot and is trying to get away or the frenzied young women who are on a rampage of revenge? Is this revenge justified? Are these women really getting payback for the first group of women?
When Zoe, Kim and Abby finally catch up to the now impotent Mike and proceed to destroy his "death proof" car (the phallic symbol) and his physical self, it is where the film reaches its ultimate goal to, as Tarantino says: "fuck with the audience's minds". We are both thrilled to see the women getting back at Stuntman Mike in true 'girl gang' fashion, but also, with our subconscious connection to Stuntman Mike throughout the film (from Tarantino's manipulation of the way the character is perceived by the audience), we tend to see him as someone who never truly comes across as completely evil. This makes the film's climactic brutal spaghetti western gang beating on Mike by the girls a very twisted sequence emotionally. Mike does get his comeuppance and is ultimately killed by (the true Final Girl) Abby's skull crushing kick to the head, but at the same time theres a bizarre feeling left behind with Stuntman Mike's lifeless body. This is level 3 of the deconstruction of the slasher film antagonist.
This "deconstruction" of the slasher film genre's rules is really what Death Proof is about at its core. The way sexuality (masculine and feminine roles) is used in the genre is examined and toyed with on different levels. The genre's classic protagonist and antagonist roles are switched around as well. These themes that are explored in Carol J. Clover's book: Men, Women and Chainsaws is the jumping off point for Tarantino's own film.
When all is said and done, Death Proof is probably Quentin Tarantino's most strangely crafted film so far. Its an interesting hybrid of the 80s slasher film/giallo/girl gang/hot rod movie. Inspired by the Grindhouse double feature idea (a project first suggested by Robert Rodriguez). It let Tarantino indulge in all of his own personal obsessions (most notably women's feet) while monkeying with the structure of one of his favorite horror film subgenres. The result was certainly something only Tarantino could've come up with. Death Proof is an entertaining film overall, although it does have its dull spots. Whether or not you were satisfied by Death Proof as much as his other movies, you have to respect the fact he didn't just create a standard, by the numbers subgenre film, but instead put his own twist on it and made something uniquely his own. And isnt this why we go see Tarantino films in the first place?
Girl Gang Special Feature
Death Proof celebrates the popular female empowerment 'girl gang' exploitation subgenre that became prevalent in the 1960s and 70s. In the film, Quentin Tarantino combined elements of the slasher film "Final Girl" with the Girl Gang member.
Films from this subgenre include: Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, The Mini Skirt Mob, Policewomen, The Doll Squad, Angels' Wild Women, The Female Bunch, Wonder Women, The Hustler Squad, The Rape Squad, Switchblade Sisters, The Black Alley Cats
Written by Pete Roberts for The Quentin Tarantino Archives