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.
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.
The Slasher Renaissance
Scream (1996) did about as well at the box office as any slasher movie ever did ($100 million and counting), but director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson (executive producer of TV's Dawson's Creek) also created something new and different. Scream was the same old story of small-town suburban high-school kids being systematically killed by a mysterious knife-wielder, except these kids had watched all the other films about small-town high-school kids being systematically killed by a mysterious knife-wielder, and they saw themselves at the end of the knife. Mainstream moviegoers loved the state-of-the-art bloody effects and pretty girls in distress, and were congratulated for being clever connoisseurs of arch trash, instead of guilt-tripped for watching straightforward sexist trash. Audiences repaid the compliment at the box-office. A rapidly released sequel, Scream 2, also made more than $100 million, which then spawned a third.
After Scream, Williamson adapted Lois Duncan's novel I Know What You Did Last Summer for the screen. It did well and was followed with the sloppy, yet profitable sequel I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. Halloween H20 tempted back Jamie Lee Curtis, but would have been dismissed as just another Michael Myers film were it not for the jump-start provided by Scream. It followed that film's clever pandering by dropping a handful of self-referential gags: one victim's hockey mask provides a note in the margin about Friday The 13th, Scream 2 is glimpsed on television, Janet Leigh makes a cameo saying "We've all had bad things happen to us," as well as a riff from Bernard Herrmann's Psycho theme.
A few more films filled in the rush. Robert Rodriguez's The Faculty (1998) is a pastiche of small town teens battling killer aliens with some Breakfast Club commentary about high school social hierarchy thrown in. Gus Van Sant's academic, shot-by-shot Psycho remake (1998) lacked the mystique and artistic vision of the original, and it performed calamitously at the box office (while, it should be noted, Richard Franklin made a respectable Psycho II, in 1983, with more jumps and less cheese than one would expect from a sequel to a great film). Chainsaw director Tobe Hooper returned to slashers with The Toolbox Murders in 2003 (a remake of the 1978 original). It's basically Jason with a toolkit, but with satisfyingly gritty and grimy Chainsaw atmosphere.
"I'm trying to make an intelligent film about murder, whilst actually doing the murders." - The Last Horror Movie
British director Julian Richard's oft-brilliant The Last Horror Movie (2003) is a direct homage to Man Bites Dog and Lance Weiler's The Last Broadcast (by way of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom). This is one meant to be watched at home, a gloating video diary that's designed like it's been recorded over the horror movie you've just rented. The subject is Max Parry, a psychotic and annoying protagonist who gleefully murders people on camera with the help of his shy assistant.
Is Freddy dead?
Where the genre heads next is not clear. Audiences can certainly have too many bad movies. Ever-relaxing censorship laws mean more blood, exploding eardrums and impalements, but the modern gore-hound's taste is better served, alas, by real gore found on Ogrish and Rotten.com. And Scream's self-referential style doesn't always work, as evidenced by the letdown of Freddy vs. Jason (2003). This clash of the titans had the weird effect of dumbing down Elm Street's Freddy Krueger and high-browing Friday The 13th's Jason Voorhees. Even the genre's life-sustaining frugality is getting lost in the fray. Scream 3 (2000) cost more than Scream 2, and so on.
Still, as long as there are creative people out there and a proven track record of box office, there's still a chance for the occasional intriguing breakthrough or revival.
Liz Cole is the director and co-founder of Evil Twin Booking Agency, a worker-owned collective that helps to bring socially conscious independent films such as The Weather Underground, The Fourth World War, The Corporation and Unprecedented, performers like The Yes Men and the Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping, and the like, to both small towns and large cities. Take a peek at www.eviltwinbooking.org. She is a programmer of the Lost Film Fest, an event focusing on pranks against corporations and government institutions. She lives in Philadelphia, enjoys billboard liberation and flashing Unitarian church windows on Sunday mornings.