Michael, Jason and Freddy
In October of 1978, John Carpenter released Halloween, a smash hit that rewrote the rulebook and set new parameters for the slasher formula. Fans loved its iconic psychopath Michael Myers and the soft-core sex, and critics sang its praises for being horrific and innovative. Halloween cemented both the sex-and-death and the final girl conventions (Michael Myers began as a creepy little boy who knifes his older sister after catching her in bed with her boyfriend). Once out of the mental hospital, he knifes promiscuous girls, but is defeated by nerdy Jamie Lee Curtis who is too bookish to have a date. John Carpenter is very skilled at creating terror without spilling buckets of blood. Halloween spurred a trail of follow-ups and launched slashers into the profitable and frantic 80s. Seven sequels and three decades later, it's legacy has unfortunately been dumbed-down by the legions of lesser films it inspired.
Through sheer force of numbers and the occasional blockbuster, slashers became one of the most profitable and prolific genres in Hollywood during the 80's. The first Friday the 13th (dir Sean S. Cunningham) was churned out in 1980, drawing audiences in with an attractive cast and a smattering of nudity, and brought the mute, hockey-masked knife-wielder Jason Voorhees to the world of merchandise. At this moment, Friday the 13th is on its astonishing eleventh sequel.
Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) introduced the burn-victim face of Freddy Krueger, a spectral child murderer who stalks the children of the small-town lynch mob who burned him alive. It's cruel fun to watch Freddy devise new ways to torment his young prey as they slowly lose their minds from sleep deprivation. Like Halloween, Nightmare is a well-crafted classic that suffers recurring bouts of second-rate sequels, eight of them at last count, one of which included a showdown with Freddy's daughter (in Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare - which was false advertising).
The 80's blood and boobs date movie experience was rounded out by smaller slashers that still grace the shelves of any respectable video store. This includes Prom Night (1980) by Paul Lynch features Leslie Nielsen in a dramatic(!) role and Jamie Lee Curtis; and George Mihalka's My Bloody Valentine (1981), a pleasingly gory little film about a Valentine's Day party-turned-massacre in a mineshaft. It was patched together to cash in on the body-count craze but features some charmingly goopy scenes of human hearts in boxes. April Fools Day (Dir. Fred Walton,1986) rounded out the catalog of holiday-themed slashers and featured a few decent gags later copied in Scream.
Women in a male domain
Female directors and writers are especially rare in the slasher world. The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) was directed by Amy Holden Jones and written by Rita Mae Brown, author of the formidable lesbian coming-of-age novel Rubyfruit Jungle. Aside from a killer wielding a Freudian drill at a bunch of slumber party girls and the symbolic breaking of said drill, Slumber Party Massacre comes off as the usual horny-teen fare. Sleepaway Camp (1983), directed by Robert Hiltzik, is set apart in that the victims are male, and the killer turns out to be one of the shy, reserved female campers who is really... (highlight next space to see the spoiler)... a boy in drag.
John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) is another snuff-film takeoff on a real serial killer, in this case Henry Lee Lucas. Henry is the frumpy drifter next door who takes out his frustrations on random victims with the aid of violent ex-con Otis. The two videotape the murders for their own enjoyment, and, to say the least, the whole thing is very unsettling.
Candyman (1992), a Clive Barker story made into a film by Bernard Rose, combined racial tensions and urban legend in the setting of Chicago's notorious Cabrini Green projects. (This in itself is a nice break from the something-afoul-in-a-small-suburban-town that is de rigueur.) "Candyman" is the vengeful hook-handed specter of an African American sharecropper murdered for kissing a white woman and he appears if you say his name five times into a mirror. Rose, like Carpenter, shows skill at creating terror without relying too much on gore.
The occasional Candyman aside, slashers started to peter out by the early 90's. The burden of bad sequels and dearth of new ideas nearly sank the genre to the bottom of Crystal Lake. But in the space between 1995's lamentable The Curse Of Michael Myers and 1998's tremendously successful Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later, something clever and unexpected had happened to the genre: Irony.
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