Cherry Falls [20 Year Retrospective]: Pop Goes the Tropes
It’s time to dust off your yearbook, remember your old locker code and head on back to George Washington High School. Have a little drink, discuss the good old days, and try your best to avoid talking about the gender-bending serial killer and that insane orgy you all attended. Welcome back class of 2000 for the 20 year reunion of Cherry Falls!
There’s a serial killer lurking in the woods of the sleepy little Virginia town of Cherry Falls who, in defiance of everything we have been told by the horror genre previously, is targeting virgins. The students of the local high school are in fear for their lives and decide to work together and host a ‘Pop Your Cherry Ball’ in order to take themselves off the hit list. Poor Jodie (Brittany Murphy), daughter of Sheriff Brent Marken (Michael Biehn), is one of the potential victims of this serial killer, and after a close call encounter with the black dress clad murderer, begins to investigate the crimes herself.
Cherry Falls begins with a classic cold open. A couple parked up at ‘make out point’ are fondling and canoodling, the guy wants to go further and the girl has reservations. We’ve seen this many times before, the pushy boyfriend and the reluctant girlfriend, but this time they are interrupted before the conversation can go any further. Bright headlights shine through their rear window and the silhouette of a long haired woman emerges from the car behind them. The pair are brutally murdered and the word ‘Virgin’ is carved into their flesh. The message has begun.
This scene cuts straight to familiar territory, as our final girl Jodie and her boyfriend Kenny have a very similar conversation in their car. They’ve been dating for a year and, after Jodie rebuffs his advances to go further, Kenny feels it’s just not working out anymore. Kenny is a douche. Jodie however is everything you could want from a heroine. Played brilliantly by Murphey she is charming and innocent but clearly smart enough to hold her own, something proven in numerous scenes later in the film.
As word gets around the high school about the victim pool for this killer being virginal the students begin to organise a gathering for everyone to remove this tag from themselves. They even design some disturbingly cute posters to invite everyone to the cherry-popping party. It makes sense in the grand scheme and, as Sheriff Marken states himself in some of this films brilliantly unashamed dialogue, “A fuckfest is better than a pile of dead teenagers.”. He’s not wrong and this is the difference with Cherry Falls, it plays on the expectations we already have of slasher films and flips them entirely.
“It’s post-Scream with a hint of Heathers and enough satire to stop it falling into the tropes of other late 90’s early 00’s teen horror…”
This film isn’t just a slasher though, it’s also a rape-revenge film. After being attacked, Jodie composes a police sketch of the murderer which causes her father’s blood to run cold. She overhears him speaking to Principal Sisler about a woman from their past named Lora Lee Sherman and sneaks off to the library to investigate. Unfortunately the town newspaper offers up very little information and she instead turns to her mother, Marge, for the truth. A woman who, much like her namesake Marge Thompson in Nightmare on Elm Street, drinks to deal with a dark secret she holds.
Marge reveals that Lora Lee was a strange loner girl who disappeared after being the victim of gang rape. The four high school seniors responsible included Principal Sisler and Jodie’s own father. The men never had charges brought against them due to their standing, they were “from good families, stars of the football team.” This idea of men being exempt from justice in rape and sexual assault cases hits hard and is still all too relevant in this modern era. It’s 20 years on and the injustice and lack of help from law enforcement for rape cases is still as large an issue in society. The town of Cherry Falls decides that the victim is not the one who deserves a second chance and buries its secrets deep, allowing two of the rapists to take on prestigious and respected roles. No wonder it’s rivers run red, the town itself is guilty of ignorance.
The messages of sexuality are still strong when watching Cherry Falls in a modern context. The value put on virginity in society, especially for women, and the stigma involved with losing it. There’s a lot of talk about how these students want their first time to go, how they imagined it and who it should be with, that mostly comes from the female characters. It’s an interesting moment during the coroner’s report where it is stated that the first female victim is a virgin and the male victim is presumed to be a virgin, however it’s not as easy to prove medically in the male. Women are valued for their purity and men are mocked for it, that’s the usual trope.
Cherry Falls allows a lot of subversions of this. Cindy, one of the more sexually advanced students, leads the women forward in their quest to lose their virginity. She hosts a TED talk on ‘first times’, giving the female students a sexual pep talk and making sure they know what they are facing. The open conversation is quite intriguing, something that is often skipped in the romantic fantasy talks of first times. Even Jodie gets a moment of sexual liberation, taking charge with Kenny in an attempt to lose her virginity, only to be rebuffed by him for being too dominant in this circumstance. The sex pressure in this film is different, it’s not your reputation you may lose, it’s your life.
Yet, the students don’t take it all too seriously, and neither does the scriptwriter who peppers lines like “Holy hymens Batman.” and “She thinks fellatio is a character in Shakespeare.” throughout the script. One student even describes the sex party as a “Hymen holocaust.”. Combine this with dramatic close ups of the words ‘Virginia’ and ‘Erected’ on a monument outside the school and it’s clear to see this film is aiming for satire and dark goofy comedy.
Cherry Falls did not have an easy run, there seemed to be a lot of hurdles put in it’s way that stopped it from being the success that it definitely could have been. This film was definitely done wrong by the MPAA, denying it a theatrical release in the USA and causing multiple scenes to be cut, all of which would have definitely amped up the horror. Then there was the confusion with the high school filming location and a synopsis being leaked to the parents of the students that failed to mention the satire and instead lead to them believing that porn was being shot there. The outrage was another nail in the coffin. It’s fascinating that in the UK and Europe nobody seemed to mind, the theatrical release here only got a 15 rating.
It seems that director Geoffrey Wright and screenwriter Ken Selden had slightly different ideas for the film, Selden leaning into the satire and comedy more and Wright wanting the gore and the blood. It’s a shame that because of the cuts it lacks a little of both. The deaths are cut short with the outcome being seen but not the actual infliction and the comedic script has some great highs but also some confusing lows. There’s a tonal issue, that’s clearly caused by these clashes combined with the ‘powers that be’ raining down rules. It’s a real shame as Cherry Falls had untold potential.
It’s post-Scream with a hint of Heathers and enough satire to stop it falling into the tropes of other late 90’s early 00’s teen horror such as I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend. It’s self aware, playing on the rules set out by its predecessor, Randy may have once told us “…number one: you can never have sex. BIG NO NO!” but in Cherry Falls sex equals safety instead of death. The premise of a woman’s virginity being so important to her innocence, stature and survival is thrown out of the window. The ‘sin’ becomes a saviour.
There’s definitely potential in this premise, a genre blending, trope crushing, satirical take on a slasher, that could be harvested in a reboot. The messages still ring as true as they once did and, with less restrictions in place now, a remake could easily find it’s tone and be both bloodier and braver whilst still keeping the dark humour that made it a late developing cult film. Let the die-hard horror fans who grew up on the slasher resurgence take another stab at this one, it could be fun.