The Horror Lexicon #16 Female…Pulchritude

I referred to this cliché as “the breast part of the movie” in my books Horror Films of the 1980s and Horror Films of the 1990s.  

And yes, this element of the horror lexicon is proof-positive that the horror genre is not always high-minded or intellectual.  Sometimes the form appeals to more basic instincts; Sometimes, the first mission of horror is to exploit a fear or desire, and it’s foolish to deny that this is the case.

But absolutely without a doubt, the most common shot in all-of-the 1980s horror cinema involves a young female taking off her blouse and bra for the camera.  It’s almost a rite-of-passage for a prospective “Scream Queen” of that era. 

But why, you ask?

Some critics might inform you that the numerous instances of female nudity in genre films arose because we live in a sexist culture, and because young men – the dominant audience for horror films back in the 1980s — wanted to see it.  Newsflash: men like looking at naked, attractive females.  Women like seeing men too, but in the 1980s, it was mostly men making and green-lighting horror films.

Others might point more directly to the specific conventions of the slasher sub-genre.  And the slasher format is a deeply conservative form of horror concerning the draconian price people pay when they step outside of moral and social traditions.

In particular, “The Vice Precedes Slice-and-Dice” trope requires teens to act badly before being killed by Jason or his ilk, and pre-marital sex is, of course, a big no-no.  The “Breast Part of the Movie” or “Thanks for the Mammaries” convention is part-and-parcel of that dynamic.  The shirts come off, the sinnin’ begins…and then the killer shows up with a machete to put an end to all the fun.  Some may see this as sexist, but generally both participants in the sex-act get killed simultaneously, so I’m not sure that’s the case.

Today, the horror genre – which attracts a wider female audience – has backed off quite a bit from the heyday of this cliché in the 1980s. The genre has admirably focused instead on showcasing “final girls” as intelligent, resourceful, courageous heroes.  Even recent, tawdry fare such as Shark Night (2012) eschewed the Breast Part of the Movie cliché.  The trope was also mocked and satirized – and treated as a tease — in Kevin Williamson’s Scream (1996).

At its most respectable, the trope actually can boast some iota of social value, as it did in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971).  There, in the early 1970s age of “bra burning,” there was a question about the line of responsibility and where was it drawn.  When lines of traditional behavior were breached, how would the “old” guard react to new freedom?

By contrast, one of the most exploitative examples of this convention occurs in Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1986), which during its final, end-credits montage features seventeen views of Sybil Danning ripping open her shirt and revealing her…chest.  Another movie that took the trope to absurd new heights was Jim Wynorski’s vaseline-colored The Haunting of Morella(1990). 

You’ll notice that, aside from this cliché, these  two films don’t really have much going for them in terms of quality.

I don’t know that I need to write anything else about this particular convention in the horror lexicon, and please forgive the illustrations for being PG rated. But I don’t want my blog to be mistaken for an adult site.  I already get linked to far too often on Russian porn sites (don’t ask).  

So…just use your imagination.

Here is a (very) partial list of “the Breast Part of the Movie” appearances in Horror Films

Straw Dogs (1971), Halloween (1978), Phantasm (1979), Altered States (1980), The Children (1980), Dressed to Kill (1980), Home Sweet Home (1980) Humanoids from the Deep (1980), Maniac(1980), Mother’s Day (1980), New Year’s Evil (1980), Night School (1980), Nightmare City (1980), The Silent Scream (1980), Terror Train (1980), American Werewolf in London (1981), Dead and Buried (1981), The Dorm that Dripped Blood (1981), Final Exam (1981), Friday the 13th Part II (1981), Ghost Story (1981), Graduation Day (1981), Halloween II(1981), The Howling (1981), The Boogens (1982), The Burning (1982), Evilspeak (1982), Humongous(1982), Madman (1982), Curtains (1983), The Evil Dead (1983), Mortuary (1983),  Night Warning (1983), Pieces(1983), The Black Room (1984), Crimes of Passion (1984), The Initiation (1984), The Prey (1984), Biohazard(1984), Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985), Fright Night (1985), Though Shalt Not Kill…Except (1985), Lifeforce (1985), From Beyond (1986), Howling II (1986), Psycho 3 (1985), Slaughter High (1986), Vamp (1986), Witchboard (1986), Angel Heart (1986), Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2 (1987), Slumber Party Massacre 2 (1987), Night of the Demons (1988), Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988), Edge of Sanity (1989), 976-Evil(1989), Out of the Dark (1989), Society (1989), Baby Blood (1990), Demonia(1990), The Haunting of Morella (1990), Luther the Geek (1990), Maniac Cop 2 (1990), Highway to Hell (1992), Prom Night IV: Deliver Us from Evil (1992), Jason Goes to Hell(1993), Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1993) Leprechaun 2 (1994), Embrace of the Vampire (1995), Lord of Illusions (1995), Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight (1995), Bad Moon (1996), Cemetery Man (1996), The Ugly (1998), Disturbing Behavior (1998), The House on Haunted Hill (1999), The Ninth Gate (1999), Friday the 13th (2009).

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