Craven is one of the founding fathers of modern horror. He helped define the slasher genre with A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984), and pulled aside the curtain to deconstruct the very same genre with Scream (1996). So perhaps that’s why his foray into thrillers, Red Eye (2005), is often overlooked – and that’s a shame, because it’s a film made for horror aficionados.
In horror, especially slasher flicks, survival is the only sort of victory available to our protagonists. And it usually becomes a dubious victory, since the villain inevitably returns. Michael Myers disappears off the lawn, Jason emerges from Crystal Lake, and yes – Freddy continues to haunt the subconscious of the teens on Elm Street. So no matter how resourceful or intelligent or pure-hearted our Final Girl is, the most she can hope for is to escape with her life (and never have to get embroiled in the eventual sequels to contend with the villain again).
With Red Eye, Craven was able to give his Final Girl a true victory over her attacker, so perhaps that’s why this film could never be horror. And, in fact, it plays with genre conventions throughout, twisting itself from a rom-com (complete with an airport meet cute) into a psychological thriller. From there, you’d be forgiven for thinking it had removed its final mask and revealed its nature… until you get to that climax.
Take a moment to think about the casting choice here, given that this film was released one year after McAdam’s star-making one-two punch of The Notebook and Mean Girls in 2004. In Mean Girls she was the bitchy and popular Regina – essentially the titular character if not the actual protagonist. And had it been a horror movie, she obviously would have been one of the first to die (horribly, and possibly mid coitus). In The Notebook she played Allie, the love interest and only actor who could possibly look better than Ryan Gosling while soaking wet and sucking face. But Red Eye was the first film to position her as the protagonist, and she more than earned the spot. Sure, she’s lovely to look at, but she exudes the sharp wit and steely nerves the character demanded. This was a character who needed to seem like a convincing victim – and then convincingly transform into something more.
Lisa is taking a red eye back to Miami from a funeral, and fielding calls from her hotel about a politician due to check in the next morning. Due to weather delays, she has some time to kill in the airport – and here enters Cillian Murphy as a flirtatious fellow waiting for the same flight. If he seems to good to be true, he is. Pale blue dead fish eyes aside, his character is named Jackson Rippner for fuck's sake! As Anton Chekhov famously observed: “If you name your antagonist after a famous 19th serial killer in the first act, make sure he wields a big freakin’ knife in the climax.” Or something like that – you get the point.
Why doesn’t Lisa just shout “TERRORIST” and stop the entire plot right there? Oh, that’s because Jackson also has a man stationed outside her father’s house, ready to kill her dad. So the entire second act of the film takes place in mid-air, Lisa trying to outwit her captor without causing her father any harm. There are a few attempts to get a message to her fellow passengers, but Jackson thwarts them all. As the plane prepares its descent into Miami, Lisa finally does makes the call to change the room… but she also has a plan.
Out of nowhere, Lisa tells Jackson about her scar. See, she’s been a victim once before, and though the term rape is never used, it’s clear that's what happened to her in a parking lot in broad daylight while a knife was held to her throat.
“Ever since I’ve been trying to convince myself of one thing over and over…”
“That it was beyond your control?” Jackson asks.
“No… that it would never happen again.” And then Lisa stabs him in the neck with a fucking pen, steals his cell phone, and races off the plane while people are reaching for their luggage.
That Lisa does save the politician is almost an afterthought. She calls the hotel as she races in a stolen car to her father’s house, and tells the front desk to evacuate. The missile is fired but the politician is saved. It adds a nice fiery explosion to the climax, but the events at the hotel were never the point – which is why the real action takes place, as it has in so many horror movies, in her childhood home.
This time, as Lisa races upstairs to evade her attacker, who didn't die on the plane and has followed her home, it isn’t the fatal horror movie trope of a girl so scared she isn’t thinking clearly. It’s the action of a woman who knows her house like the back of her hand. It’s calculated - this is her turf, and she is in control. Jackson arrives and, as his name implies, does carry a knife. But Lisa stays one step ahead, even as Jackson gets more and more cartoonishly injured (seriously, he should have just given up when the pen was in his windpipe).
Just when you think he’s hiding behind the shower curtain, she checks the shower curtain. Every horror mistake you’d expect is neatly sidestepped. In the end, she beats Jackson with her old field hockey stick and even shoots him. If there is any odd note in this climax, it’s that the final shot comes from her father – but we can forgive him that, because he also had unfinished business to take care of: protecting his daughter as he wasn’t able to before. Regardless, this was a definitive victory for Lisa, who outwitted a professional killer to save a politician, her father, and herself. And though Jackson isn’t dead at the end, he isn’t going anywhere - the police have arrived, and this is one killer who is unlikely to come back.
If Craven's Scream movies were a response to the genre he helped lay the groundwork for, then I’d posit Red Eye is a response to Scream: instead of just pointing out how horror functions with a wink at the camera, let’s take the literacy moviegoers now have and give them a new twist on the tale. Let’s show them what happens when the victim truly fights back. Let’s show them what happens when the Final Girl is in control.
Tori Preston served a 10 year sentence in the film and television industry, doing time at New Line Cinema, BBC Worldwide, and HBO amongst others. She has recently gotten her parole, and is now living a quiet rustic life while trying to give this whole writing thing a shot. Tweet her at @torionic, but be forewarned that she's got her notifications turned off.