From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The slasher film (sometimes referred to as bodycount films and dead teenager movies) is a sub-genre of horror film typically involving a psychopathic killer (often wearing a mask) who stalks and graphically murders a series of victims in a random, unprovoked fashion, usually teenagers or young adults within a single day, who are away from mainstream civilization or far away from help and often involved in sex and illegal-drug use. These films typically begin with the murder of a young woman and typically end with a lone female survivor who manages to subdue the killer, only to discover that the problem has not been completely solved. Although Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho provided early inspiration, the first authentic slasher film was Black Christmas, though the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th helped popularize and revolutionize the genre in the 1980s.
In a slasher film, the killer almost always uses unconventional weapons, such as blades, chainsaws, cleavers, and blunt objects; rarely, if ever, does the killer use guns. There is often a backstory that explains how the killer developed his (the killer is usually, though not always, male) violent mental state, and why he focuses primarily on a particular type of victim or a particular location. Often, the killer is able to withstand most or all of his victims' attempts to defend themselves, sometimes because of either explicit or implied supernatural abilities. Thus, even after being shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, electrocuted, burned, or drowned, he is able to continue stalking his victims. Typically, in sequels the killer returns from the dead and is defined more as an undead, inhuman "pure evil" rather than as a psychopathic killer. There are some movies among all of the categories however which show the killer to be pitiable, or at the very least understood, and not just feared. Notable among these movies is Silent Night, Deadly Night; others such as Slaughter High, The Funhouse, Castle Freak, Creep, Hatchet, Offerings and Midnight Ride can be described this way.
Agatha Christie's famous mystery novel (and subsequently play) And Then There Were None, set in an isolated location with a psychopathic killer grisly murdering the hapless victims, can be seen as an early precursor to the genre. Christie's play adaptation even expands the concept, with the revised stage ending featuring the female protagonist having a showdown with the killer in the classic "final girl" fashion.
Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) is sometimes described as the mother of all slasher films. Although there are only two murders in the story, the idea of a disguised and insane killer came to prominence with this film. However, unlike other slasher films inspired by it, the characters in the film are well developed and revolve around a far more complex storyline. Indeed, the murderer's insanity is also clearly explained, in comparison to other slasher film villains. In Psycho, the killer is arguably psychotic, rather than clearly psychopathic: he has obvious and bizarre delusions, such as the belief that his dead mother is still alive.Psycho was so influential that many critics see it as a turning point in cinema history. It marked the transition from the Gothic horror of vampires, were-wolves and monsters to modern issues and fears. The famous "shower murder" with its screeching violin soundtrack is perhaps the most famous scene in horror-film history. However, although it directly inspired the subsequent slasher genre, Psycho is more accurately categorized as a psychological horror/thriller.
Early examples of the slasher genre include Francis Ford Coppola's Dementia 13 & Herschell Gordon Lewis' Blood Feast (1963), Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971) (the latter known by over a dozen titles, including Bay of Blood and Carnage), Tobe Hooper's 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974).
The three films most often charged with igniting the slasher film "craze" of the 1980s are John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th (1980) and Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), all of which spawned numerous sequels and countless imitators that endlessly recycled their predecessors' character archetypes and plot. Halloween, though not the first film of its kind, was the first to introduce the concept of the slasher as an indestructible evil force and is often considered the film responsible for the rise of the slasher trend, popularizing many of what would become key elements in the genre. Nevertheless, the film Black Christmas (1974), released four years earlier, influenced all that followed, including Halloween. Directed by Bob Clark, the film practically invented modern slasher convention. Many elements from the film, such as point-of-view shots from the killer's perspective and threatening phone calls made from inside the victim's house, would be reused by later filmmakers for decades to come.
Following a trend set by Black Christmas, Halloween, and Friday the 13th, many films of the era focused on holidays or specific dates, such as My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me, April Fool's Day, Prom Night, Mother's Day, and Silent Night, Deadly Night (followed by such others as Bloody Birthday, Hell Night, Terror Train, Visiting Hours, Mortuary, and Night Warning). During the height of the genre's popularity, despite a strict formula developing within the genre, audience interest was maintained by developing new, increasingly "novel" ways for victims to be killed, as well as increasingly graphic and realistic special effects (Some of the most effective were The Prowler and Maniac). Some series, such as Nightmare on Elm Street and later Child's Play, added supernatural twists to the slasher formula, as well as comedic elements as the respective series progressed. Earlier films, such as Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, were also revived and given a series of increasingly gory sequels in attempts to compete with other franchises. The genre arguably peaked in 1983, a year in which, according to the book Crystal Lake Memories, nearly 60% of all box-office takings that year were for slasher movies.
Long-running franchises in the genre tended to focus more and more on the returning villain than on surviving victims, effectively transforming characters once viewed as frightening monsters into anti-heroes who would be cheered on by audiences. Nevertheless, by the end of the 1980s audiences were tiring of "unstoppable" masked killers and predictable plots. The profitability of the slasher genre began to dwindle, and controversy over the subject matter would eventually persuade some studios to stop producing and distributing slasher films. Sequels to the most popular slasher series, as well as new series such as Leprechaun, would continue to be released in theaters or direct-to-video throughout the early to mid-1990s. However, few gained the success of the genre's earlier productions, and even entries in popular series, such as the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, became less frequent.
The slasher genre resurfaced into the mainstream in the mid 1990s, after being successfully deconstructed in Wes Craven's Scream (1996). The film was both a critical and commercial success, which attracted a new generation to the genre. Two sequels followed, and the series was even parodied in Keenen Ivory Wayans' Scary Movie (2000), which began its own series, parodying the entire horror-film genre.
Scream kicked off a new slasher cycle that still followed the basic conventions of the 1980s films, but managed to draw in a more demographically varied audience with improved production values, reduced levels of on-screen gore, increased self-referential humor, more character development, and better-known actors and actresses (often from popular television shows). This style continued for the duration of the 1990s with competing series such as I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend.
In 1998, the Halloween series was revived, playing off the success of the Scream franchise. The new film, Halloween: H20, was conceived as a direct sequel to 1981's Halloween II, and would lead to one further sequel, Halloween: Resurrection. Shortly after, other "classic" slasher faces would also be revived: A nearly scene-for-scene remake of Psycho was released a few months later, in December of 1998. Chucky of the Child's Play series also returned to the screen, first in Bride of Chucky and later with Seed of Chucky. In 2003, two of the largest slasher series, Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, were combined by New Line Cinema in the film Freddy vs. Jason.
Another revival attempt came in 2003 when a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released. It was financially successful, and a prequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, was released in 2006. The success of TCM would soon lead to a slew of other slasher remakes, including The Hills Have Eyes and its sequel, Black Christmas, The Hitcher, the "reimagining" of John Carpenter's Halloween, and the upcoming Friday the 13th remake.
While figures from the "golden age" of the slasher genre continue to be revived, new franchises have also appeared. Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects introduced audiences to the murderous Firefly family, both films taking obvious inspiration from earlier works such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In 2004, the first film in the Saw series was released into theaters, featuring much of the gore and sadism considered a staple of the 1980s slasher genre, but with a twist: the victims are now tricked into killing or harming themselves or others...in order to survive; however, Saw, Turistas, Captivity, See No Evil, Wolf Creek, Dead Silence and the new Hostel film series is also considered part of a more modern movement in horror loosely referred to as "horror porn", "torture porn", or "gornography". As a whole, the genre has begun to return to a bloodier, more-shocking formula over Scream's trendier aspects. The slasher films Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and Hatchet aimed to return to the basic originality of the golden age in style and cinematography. The latter has been described as an old-school throwback to the 80's classics.
Critic Roger Ebert has taken to referring to slasher films as "Dead Teenager Movies", and Carol J. Clover tackled the genre at some length in her book Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, which defines the Final Girl archetype. The history of the slasher was also explored by Mikita Brottman in her book Offensive Films: Toward an Anthropology of Cinema Vomitif. Like most horror films, slashers have typically been ignored (if not derided) by the majority of serious mainstream critics. Suspense maestro J.T.Heslop famously voiced his hatred of the sub-genre, describing it as "trashy, formulaic and, in the case of its central antagonist, prone to idiotic pop-psychology (i.e., 'Mommy didn't love me enough')".
Notable Slasher Films
Most of the following are followed by numerous sequels.
- Psycho (1960) - Though not technically a slasher film per se, Psycho helped create the archetype of the disguised, mentally deranged killer who preys on innocent (if sexually indiscreet) young women, and would directly influence many later films. As the slasher craze took off in the 1980s, Psycho was resurrected in the form of three bloodier, less subtle sequels. The film was also remade in 1998.
- Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971) - A Giallo by Mario Bava, this atmospheric film truly borrows from (or aids giving birth to) the slasher genre. Halloween, Friday the 13th, Friday the 13th Part II, and others that followed stole an amount of kills for the formula. A gory whodunit, with sleaze and shock that makes it stand out proud among the large horror section.
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) - The film most often credited with establishing the "staples" of the slasher genre, including young people poking around in places where they don't belong (and harm consequently befalling them), the lone female survivor (or Final Girl), the lumbering masked killer who never speaks, etc. The film was followed by three sequels, a remake, and a prequel to said remake. Over twenty years later Wrong Turn was released. This film was influenced by such films as the above and others like Just Before Dawn & The Prey. Wrong Turn was followed by a sequel, which went straight to DVD.
- Black Christmas (1974) - One of the first films to combine the elements of a murder mystery with the slasher genre. Notable for use of long tracking shots from the point of view of the film's killer, an element that would later be cemented by Halloween as a staple of the genre. Later remade by Dimension Films.
- Halloween (1978) - Popularized the "classic" slasher formula and, together with Friday the 13th, helped kick the slasher film craze of the '80s into high gear. Also established the tropes of the innocent, virtuous "Final Girl" (as opposed to her more free-spirited, promiscuous friends), the long tracking shot representing the point of view of the villain (often accompanied by ominous breathing), and the unstoppable, seemingly immortal masked killer. Halloween was followed by seven sequels, and a remake. Certain slasher movies afterwards (such as Offerings & Sorority House Massacre) closely emulated this motion picture.
- Friday the 13th (1980) - The first in one of the longest and best known slasher series. Notable for the increased level of gore when compared to earlier genre entries, and increasingly elaborate or unique death scenes. Followed by ten sequels. It has also been emulated by video nasties Madman and The Burning. The latter was one of the more controversial slashers that introduced the movie industry to Holly Hunter, Jason Alexander and Fisher Stevens while provoking considerable outrage from censors in the antagonist's weapon of choice (distinguished for a notorious scene where five victims are killed at once while on a boat) combined with a difference in ideology since two of the more questionable characters not only survive, but also execute the killer.
- The Funhouse (1981) - Paying homage to his previous work along with psycho and Halloween Tobe Hooper portrayed the killer as a less human more monstrous character but this movie is also noted for being one of the first slashers that displayed a general feeling of sympathy towards Gunther Straker (the deformed killer in question) and made the audience take pity on him (Dean Koontz wrote a novelization based on the screenplay that gave a backstory behind the events of this film).
- My Bloody Valentine (1981) - One of the slashers most heavily butchered by the MPAA, this has nevertheless achieved minor cult status. My Bloody Valentine is one of the best executed slasher films of the golden age. It has comparatively little gore, but still creates good suspense and shock moments. Paramount Pictures has still yet to release a uncut version of the film.
- Sleepaway Camp (1983) - A classic slasher film with one of the creepiest atmospheres in the entire genre. Its characters, drama, and various methods of murder gave it a cult following on VHS. The film is best remembered for its disturbing climax, which has been hailed as one of the scariest movie scenes ever. It was followed by two campy sequels, an unfinished sequel, and another sequel is expected in the future.
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) - First in the series that gave slashers a supernatural twist. Unlike some of its darkly lit, shadowy predecessors, Nightmare on Elm Street films used make-up, special effects and post-production techniques to create startlingly realistic horror images. Followed by seven sequels, and a television spinoff
- Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) - Most notable for the amount of controversy surrounding it during its release: the film was condemned by critics such as Siskel and Ebert, and was protested by various parents and religious groups for its depiction of Santa Claus as a murderer (but it should be noted in that it differed from other slashers as this focussed on the killer in question, showing in some detail how he became a psychotic slasher). Followed by four sequels.
- Deliria (film) (1987) - Known for combining Giallo with elements of Halloween's "classic" slasher formula! It also delivered some rather clever symbolism (notably the killer's choice in mask). Whilst depicting, it's protaganist: Irving Wallace; The Night Owl as having a classical thespian past, displaying in his behavior and movements as being warped, but also (in a way almost) flamboyant artistic flair, who played deafening pieces of opera music in between his murder-spree only to later on proceed to position his slain victims in artistic & theatrical poses (later as did the character, Francis Dolarhyde: Irving even situates himself amongst their now (almost) lifelike corpses, as if struggling to be part of this group).
- Child's Play (1988) - Another notable series in the genre to combine traditional slasher elements with both humor and a supernatural twist. Followed by four sequels.
- Scream (1996) - This horror/dark comedy film added a satirical and tongue-in-cheek approach to the standard formula (teens being brutally killed off). The film contained many references and nods to previous films in the slasher genre. Scream began the 1990s slasher revival, and it was followed by two sequels. However, despite its many jabs both at previous slasher movies and itself for following film clichés, the series in fact broke the traditional mold by focusing on the surviving victims rather than a returning killer. A similar movie, Cherry Falls, changed the ideologies further by having a killer targeting specifically virginal teenagers (and having a more compelling back-story that portrayed the killer in a more sympathetic light).
- I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) - The most successful of the post-Scream cash-ins. The screenplay was written by Kevin Williamson, who also wrote Scream. Followed by two sequels.
- Freddy vs. Jason (2003) - Combined the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, as the main killers from the two series' clash after crossing into each others' killing territory. The eleventh film in the Friday the 13th series, and the eighth in the Nightmare on Elm Street saga.
- Final girl
- Bloody Disgusting
- Thriller film
- Horror film
- Splatter film
- German underground horror