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In 1992, the US film professor Carol J Clover published Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton University Press). In it, she introduced the concept of the “final girl”, a female protagonist who survives the bloodbath to take on the slasher in the closing scenes. If the final girl is heroic, she is also a problematic figure, kept alive by the film-maker because of her sobriety or chastity while other women who have more fun get the axe. The sequel makes the final girl’s victory pyrrhic anyway.
Midway through Screen Violence, Chvrches’ intense fourth album, a song called Final Girl puts the well-worn horror trope to a more personal use. Lauren Mayberry – mouthpiece of the Glaswegian synth-pop trio – doesn’t want to “end up in a bodybag”. In 2019, Chvrches co-authored a huge tune, Here With Me, with Marshmello. The EDM DJ then went on to work with Chris Brown, the rapper convicted of violently assaulting Rihanna.
Chvrches tweeted their dismay. Trolls descended with rape and death threats. Chvrches beefed up their security and ploughed on, pondering the entertainment industry’s spinning moral compass, and their own mortality. (Covid obviously helped with that too.)
As the song Final Girl quietly considers fame’s curious ins and outs, Mayberry wonders whether she should be “screaming”. Elsewhere, she’s having “nightmares”, immune to the comfort of “lullabies”. “They’re reading my rites,” she sings on a song called Violent Delights.
At heart, Chvrches are a Glaswegian indie band, one who have parlayed their keen grasp of synth euphorics into the international pop big leagues. They have faced down trolls before. Although Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty now routinely slug it out with factory-made, female-vocalist-featuring EDM-pop franchises – especially since their mainstream-facing Love Is Dead LP of 2018 – their formative years in the underground have always supplied this trio with a sharp and occasionally dark edge. It is an edge no more, but the defining feature of this pugilistic album.
A big, icy romp recorded by the three members in isolation until they could be reunited for the vocals and finishing touches, Screen Violence doubles down on film tropes, cosies up to horror auteur John Carpenter for remixes. It features Chvrches’ very best Cure homage, How Not to Drown, as a duet for the Cure’s main man, Robert Smith, now back in demand as a validating guest vocalist (cf Gorillaz’s Strange Timez) as delays plague the Cure’s 14th album and their bassist departs.
Of course, “screen violence” isn’t limited to 80s video nasties. It embraces the reality-distortion of the screens in our hands, as well as the pleasure of escapism: schlocky horror can still be an enjoyable displacement activity.
Inner horrors – self-doubt, regret, disillusionment – are all present and correct here too
Inner horrors – self-doubt, regret, disillusionment – are all present and correct here too, as Mayberry reflects on her own past behaviour on the album’s bookends, Asking for a Friend and Better If You Don’t. Even as Chvrches deal with the wider world, this is a highly personal album for the singer-songwriter. “Wish I’d reached out to my mother more,” she sings on Lullabies. Through it all, she comes out swinging – just like that final girl. Mayberry has even playfully bleached her hair blond in tribute to all those low-budget, high-brass movie heroines.
Then there’s another living nightmare: being gaslit by society, as well as your intimate partner. Chvrches have a song that absolutely nails that too: the massive, arena-seeking sledgehammer He Said She Said, a two-hander in which a “he” plays mind games with Mayberry’s “she”. It echoes the edicts of the wider culture. Be thin, but not too thin. Drink, but “don’t be a mess”. “It’s all in your head,” he sneers. “I feel like I’m losing my mind,” counters Mayberry, not unreasonably. If Chvrches’ sound can be bombastic, this is heft in the service of a massive theme.
Why do final girls survive? Because they are “good” girls, morally upstanding people-pleasers whose own pleasure takes a backseat to being nice and pretty. In film, those girls stay alive. Real life is much more complex.
Here, the song Good Girls decries the double standards women are forced to live under – and the endless parade of male artists whose misdeeds keep on being exposed. “Killing your idols is a chore, and it’s such a fucking bore, ’cause I don’t need them any more,” sings Mayberry. She’s done with being a good girl too. “I won’t apologise,” she declares unequivocally.