Contested Cinema: How Until Dawn Plays With Slasher Conventions

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Contested Cinema: How <i>Until Dawn</i> Plays With Slasher Conventions

This article will contain spoilers for Until Dawn and Friday the 13th.

The slasher film genre exploded after the 1974 success of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hooper’s film was cheap to produce and grossed millions of dollars. The economics behind creating a slasher film, and the genre’s initial shock to audiences experienced with more traditional horror movies, encouraged a glut of rip-offs and sequels (to put in perspective: there were eight sequels to Friday the 13th in thirteen years). The same audiences originally surprised by the genre’s immediate brutality and refusal of discretion gradually grew familiar and disinterested in the slasher due to the wave of derivative knock-offs throughout the ‘80s. The slasher was largely dead in the 1990s until the 1996 release of Wes Craven’s Scream, which directly acknowledged the genre’s conventions, and reignited interest. Scream was a huge success because of its willingness to name and lampoon rules that were both arbitrary and calcified. Supermassive Games’s Until Dawn continues this attempt to revitalize the genre by observing and responding to its trends.

The Scream franchise is famous for not only knowing the rules, but stating them directly to the audience. In Scream 4, it’s said, “you have to have an opening sequence.” Until Dawn understands the opening as opportunity to both create a mystique around its villain and display some irresponsible teenage action that demands eventual retribution. The prologue shows a prank gone wrong at Washington Lodge on Blackwood Mountain leading to the presumed death of the Washington sisters. The player is then introduced to an analyst (played by Peter Stormare!), in the first of many sequences that seem to engage the player as an agent in the metafictional configuration of this game—even directly referring to “the game” about to be played. These sequences continue to engage the player between chapters, questioning the players’ fears and biases.

The same teens from the prologue come back to Blackwood Mountain the next year. The plot accelerates as the teens’ return to Washington Lodge is menaced further by the presence of at least one masked “psycho.” The possible identities of the psycho are hinted at with clues that suggest that, no matter the real culprit, revenge is the motive. The tone and texture of the analyst segments degenerate from suspicious but polite to disturbing and accusative as the player progresses. In an early chapter, the analyst urges the player to have sympathy after determining their least favorite of the main cast. As the violence of the game continues, the analyst castigates the player for their sadism and implies the player is a voyeur invested in the deserved nature of any upcoming suffering. Many slasher movies are implicitly built on this foundation—that the violence the audience enjoys can be justified through a moral arbitration on the character or actions of the victims. This admonishment works better in an interactive format, as the player’s choices determines to some extent the level of violence the player will observe.

Often the transgression at the heart of a slasher film creates a monster of indiscriminate revenge. The villain of Friday the 13th, Mrs. Voorhees, not only seeks revenge on the camp counselors directly responsible for the death of her son, but also other counselors at the camp years later. The inaccuracy of this retribution often leads to the values that created the rules Scream explain, as there must be some justification for the audience enjoying violence towards the more innocent victims. Sexual promiscuity, self-involvement and flippant disrespect often mark characters as deserving of punishment to be doled out by the villain. This moralization only works in films because of an ability to define people with minimal context; by presenting a more sympathetic and complicated context, Until Dawn undermines that voyeuristic moralization. Two horny teens, like Mike and Jessica, have sex not just because of desire, but also to quell each other’s insecurities. Most insults carry the possibility of also choosing kindness. These teenagers are rarely one thought, one action or one attitude.

Until Dawn uses the analyst to make the accusations it does because it is aware of and manipulating its audience’s biases. The characters are introduced as simplistic archetypes, with some commanding immediate disregard from the audience—two examples being Mike and Emily, the former full of swagger and immaturity, the latter materialistic and self-obsessed. Both Mike and Emily are given opportunities to mature if they survive, with Emily taking responsibility for the prank a year prior, and Mike placing himself in danger to try and protect the other teens. While the game allows the characters to grow, it does not place blame on any of the teens for their deaths if they do die before they can mature. The scenarios the teens could possibly die in are designed as either failures of player performance or information. In one sequence, Mike’s girlfriend Jessica is kidnapped before she and Mike can have sex, and while the timing of these events mirrors the traditional slasher beat of violence happening to teens because they chose to have sex, the kidnapper had already trapped them in the cabin. Jessica will survive this kidnapping if the player makes the right choices and succeeds in the next sequence in Mike’s story. Otherwise, Mike trips or takes the wrong route and Jessica is dead by the time he already arrives, and he continues following the kidnapper.

Until Dawn mutates away from its original narrative premise as the “psycho” is explained and unmasked, and the observing Stranger is revealed as a benevolent figure. The “psycho” menacing the teens with Saw-style games is Josh Washington, who seeks to humiliate his former friends in retaliation for their prank against his sister. He does not consider the irrelevant nature of his revenge, as seen by the “psycho’s” sexual and physical threats to Samantha, who tried to stop the prank he demands revenge for. After restraining Josh, the other teens are forced to grapple with a far more extreme threat, explained to them by the Stranger. This curse began years earlier as a punishment for the neglect and damaging of Blackwood Mountain by westward expanse that drove away the Cree living on the mountain. The Washington family matriarch acknowledged the Cree’s attachment to the land, but chose to make a donation instead of relinquishing the land, and thus the Washingtons inherited the curse. Josh’s petty revenge has trapped the eight teens in a battle against these curse-created monsters that carries an inescapable conclusion.

The analyst eventually abandons young Washington to the disastrous situation he has engineered. Through a combination of skill and care, the player can save all eight teens from dying, but the climax is unpreventable. After Josh is kidnapped by his sister, who has turned into a Wendigo monster, Washington Lodge is attacked. Regardless of who survives, a gas pipe in the Lodge is busted by a Wendigo and the estate explodes. If Josh lives to the end, he begins transforming into a monster. Despite any effort the player makes, the Washington family cannot be saved from the consequences of curse.

Until Dawn addresses the audience’s sympathy for the killer by admonishing both the player and the “psycho” at the same time. The player is allowed to contest the moralization of violence within the slasher genre, if they think the characters should not die for their indiscretion. Josh’s game of revenge has no necessary victims—and Until Dawn speaks volumes by undoing the conventional fatalism within that structure. Instead of pretending this violence has to happen, the game calls attention to the coincidences that cause horrific incidents by making the player navigate them. This notion of slasher-style revenge is undermined by Supermassive Games’s willingness to substitute fatalism with coincidence and introduce a more real retribution.


Delilah Sinclair is a shy writer based in the Pacific Northwest. You can follow her @vorpalfemme on Twitter.

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