by Liz Cole
No one ever showered the same after Psycho
The granddaddy of the Slasher flick is arguably Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). And that isn't meant to neglect the influence of its contemporary, fake snuff films, but those were decidedly not mainstream enough to take credit for launching a genre that split the modern horror movement in two. Psycho's infamous shower scene whetted audiences' appetite for blood and screams (both usually that of young females), and inspired a cinematic killing spree that gave us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Scream, and the bottomless Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises.
Slashers have remained a fairly steady box-office draw for over thirty years. Even the bad ones still make perfect date movies, with their built-in jolts and gasps, and guaranteed coitus interruptus. Then there are the real-life serial-killer "superstars" like Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy and BTK to feed our society's fascination with omnipotent nightstalkers.
So if you somehow made it through high school without seeing any of the Friday the 13th, Nightmare or Halloween flicks, or you just want to bone up on the best of the 60's slashers, the grimy and realistic 70's flicks, or the 80's boobs and body-count date films, here are some things you should know:
1. Over-the-top gore, brainless teens and the low-budget aesthetic are an integral part of the show, and among its guilty pleasures. Indeed, economy has contributed to the longevity of the genre (as in the case of the actress who played Jason Voorhees' (Friday the 13th) mother got the part because she could provide her own transportation to the set).
2. The plots of slashers seem designed to appeal to adolescent life-myths and archetypes. Besides an attractive cast and nudity, they draw connections between sex and drug use, and death. Another convention along these lines is the "final girl" - always a teenage girl who goes through hell and defeats the bad guy and emerges stronger.
3. Time. Slasher plot conventions also include the point-of-view of the killer and the significant date or setting. Psycho opens with "Phoenix, Arizona … Friday, December the Eleventh … Two Forty-Three PM" - a ludicrously specific caption to lend some credibility to the events that follow. And let's not neglect the on-screen deaths of the killers. As their deaths are never final, they have an inhuman propensity for generating sequels.
Italian horror fans had it good in the late 60's, with the films of Dario Argento (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, The Cat 'O Nine Tails), Mario Bava (Black Sunday, The Girl Who Knew Too Much / The Evil Eye, and Blood and Black Lace) and Lucio Fulci (Lizard in a Women's Skin and the hilarious Don't Torture a Duckling), but American slasher films didn't get going until the 70s, with the work of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper.
The Hills Have Eyes
It's impossible to talk about slashers without mentioning Wes Craven. A horror institution unto himself, his filmography includes many of the genre's defining films, such as Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, and to a lesser extent Shocker, plus seminal 70s horror including The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). These films, along with Tobe Hooper's absolutely perverted directorial debut The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), established the grim, spare and symbolic aesthetic of 70's slashers. When The Last House on the Left was released in Germany, the distributor attempted to pass it off as a real snuff film. It seems to be universally despised - it's about a gang of rapists and murderers that unknowingly take shelter in the house of the parents of one of their victims (and, bizarrely, is inspired by Ingmar Bergman's Virgin Spring!) It's known by a host of other titles including "Grim Company," "Night of Vengeance" and "Sex Crime of the Century." Craven repeated The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's formula in 1977 with The Hills Have Eyes, another grimy, atmospheric tale about a vacationing family that drives through an Air Testing range, ventures from the main road, ends up stranded in the desert, and falls prey to a malevolent clan of inbred cannibals with names like "Pluto" and "Mars."
Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an unsentimental tale full of chainsaws, meathooks, and hammers, and spiked with the social baggage of a disillusioned America in the post-Vietnam era. One of the young leads is inexplicably in a wheelchair and his peers bear the burden of dragging him around. The backwoods cult family that gleefully dispatches them is reminiscent of the murdering Mansons, and the rapidly imploding image of America as the "control group." Chainsaw is often as audaciously funny as it is distressing; while Leatherface is beating his first victim to death with a sledgehammer, the man's screams are substituted with hog squeals.
I Spit on Your Grave (1978, dir. Meir Zarchi) was pulled from a Chicago theater, banned in several countries, and predictably became a cult classic. Thank Siskel and Ebert for that, as they devoted an entire episode of their television show to crusading against I Spit on Your Grave. The plot is simple: A woman is raped and she takes revenge on her attackers. The rape scenes are remarkably graphic and play out in long agonizing takes with no soundtrack. Apart from this and the white-hot controversy, the film is fairly dull, with the dialogue and writing strictly porn-quality, and very little art getting in the way of the story.
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