Friends In Low Places: A Look at Slasher Ensemble Casts

After excitedly watching Scream (2022) on opening night, the concept of slasher ensemble casts kept floating around in my mind. What exactly made the younger new cast in the latest entry in the iconic slasher franchise so effective? (Note: There will be no Scream (2022) spoilers here!) I continued thinking about this and so many of the slasher films that I really love. I realized that, while the final girl is the character that I am always particularly drawn to, the ensemble that is built around her really contributes a lot to my enjoyment of the film. A good slasher film that leaves a lasting impression almost always has a strong ensemble cast at its core.

From the inception of the horror sub-genre, the ensemble cast has been a staple of the slasher film. One need only to look at John Carpenter’s Halloween to see just how effective an ensemble cast can be. While the films always whittle down to the final girl figure arming herself with the killer’s phallic weapon to finally disarm and destroy the killer, along the way she loses many of her friends and loved ones. Laurie Strode’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) friends in Halloween may have booze and sex on the brain, but they still both clearly care about their bookish friend. Lynda (PJ Soles) and Annie (Nancy Kyes) prove that the bond shared between the final girl and her friends is a vital element in a slasher narrative. In order for the protagonist to be able to step up and defeat the killer at the end of the film, they must experience the loss of their friends along the way. If these characters are not engaging, why should we care if they are killed? Furthermore, why would we believe that the protagonist would care? And by engaging, I do not simply mean like-ability. Often times, the bully characters in a slasher film can be even more engaging than the friendly characters (look at Karen Fields as the psychotic Judy with the epic side ponytail in Sleepaway Camp). In constructing the ensemble cast, the filmmakers are forming these emotional connections with the audience that further our relationship with the protagonist. We need to feel her emotions as she watches her friends get slaughtered. That pain is what fuels her and enables her to confront the killer. If the film is full of characters with no personality that exist solely to be killed, why even bother developing a narrative? At that point, simply show one thoughtless death sequence after another.

So what happens when an ensemble cast deflates leaving only one or two pillars to maintain the weight of the film? In rewatching the Scream franchise in the week leading up to the premiere of Scream (2022), I found myself thinking about the Scream 4 (2011) cast. Emma Roberts and Hayden Panettiere as Jill and Kirby, respectively, are the two strong figures in the young cast, with the remaining cast members limping along while Roberts and Panettiere sprint through the narrative. Of the five Scream films, the cast of 4 proves to be the most troublesome for me. Obviously Kirby and her thorough horror film knowledge is a fantastic touchstone in the series, proving that one need not be a “friend-zoned” fan boy like Randy Meeks to watch the horror classics. Meanwhile, Emma Roberts gives a particularly unhinged performance as Jill that is still just as much fun to watch now as it was when I saw the film on opening night with my friends in 2011. It is the other characters in their friend group, particularly Nico Tortorella’s Trevor, that inhabit this rather bland space of the film, where they just do not really interest me much at all. Note: I still really enjoy Scream 4. I just found myself disengaged with them whenever the narrative looped back from Sidney to the young cast. While Jill and Kirby are both fantastic characters, the remainder of the group is made up of hollow characters that are simply trope fillers, Rory Culkin’s Charlie and Erik Knudsen’s Robbie are the awkward film geeks, Marielle Jaffe’s Olivia is literally included in the narrative so that she can be shown wearing her lingerie, and Tortorella’s Trevor is somehow the blandest of all as Jill’s ex-boyfriend. Charlie and Robbie are given a few comedic lines in the script, but even with Charlie’s role as one of the killers, they still feel lifeless in comparison to any of the other film geek characters or previous Ghostface killers. Scream 4 is the odd film in the franchise that also incorporates a mid-level tier of characters that are included solely as more adult victims of the killer, including Alison Brie, Adam Brody, and Anthony Anderson. These characters, particularly Brie’s Rebecca, are somehow more engaging than the majority of the film’s young cast.

This brings us to the latest cast assembled in the Scream franchise. Released eleven years after the previous entry in the series, a lot was riding on the new youths of Woodsboro. Personally, I really loved the new ensemble that we’re presented with. Jenna Ortega is phenomenal in the film as Tara, as is Melissa Barerra as Sam. While Tara and Sam are clearly the main focus of the narrative, Jasmin Savoy-Brown and Mason Gooding as the Meeks-Martin twins, stand out as the most enjoyable of the young cast. Sonia Ammar’s Liv was the only character in the group that did shine like the others, as her character was just not really given the depth and development of her peers, which is not the fault of the actor. With the one exception, the young cast proved a very worthy and welcome addition to support the foundation of the original trio of lead actors as Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, and David Arquette return as their iconic characters. So why do these character work when all but two of the Scream 4 younger characters do not? They’re actually given narrative relevance and proper character development. Without going into actual detail, we really are able to feel for these characters when they are killed and we miss them when they are gone. At least, I did. Scream 3 may be viewed by many as the worst film in the franchise, but at least the new cast members had campy character traits and they are memorable after the film is over. Parker Posey’s Jennifer is the legitimate highlight of the film. Can you remember anything that Olivia does in Scream 4 aside from take her clothes off?

To wrap up, slasher films with effective ensemble casts rise above those that showcase characters simply as quick victims of the killer. Looking at the current rise in slashers, films like Freaky, the Fear Street trilogy, Happy Death Day, and Werewolves Within give us solid ensemble casts that fill their narratives with engaging and entertaining moments. But, at the end of the day, film is a very subjective medium and you can like whatever you like. For me, I prefer slashers that allow their characters to breathe and live within the narrative instead of just including hollow figures that are simply thrown at the killer to give us a brief moment of blood and gore.

What are some of the slasher ensembles that have really stood out to you?


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