The Longevity of the Slasher Sub-Genre
Horror as a genre is continually going through an evolutionary process that often reflects the fears which face contemporary society or the escapism it desires. Perhaps no other subsection of the genre reflects this more than slasher films. Slashers have reached soaring heights within the horror canon and plunged to cringe-worthy depths which have at times almost driven the genre from the theaters altogether.
Innovative writers and filmmakers are always looking to re-invent the slasher and over the last four decades, the path they’ve taken has been both fascinating and informative for the horror fan. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is often credited as launching the slasher but it wasn’t until Halloween (1978) that the genre took off spawning a golden age of late 70s through mid-80s horror films. Halloween repeatedly asks the audience – is the boogeyman real?
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Set in everyday small-town Haddonfield, IL, Halloween cautioned America that random violence can reach you anywhere. The thrilling third act of John Carpenter’s classic is a relentless showdown between Laurie Strode, who isn’t yet a final girl, and Michael Myers, the personification of mysterious evil. When Dr. Loomis saves Laurie and shoots Michael, Laurie asks, “Was it the boogieman?” To which Loomis replies, “As a matter of fact, it was.” It’s telling that these are the only lines of dialog Loomis and Laurie exchange in the movie.
The film ends with Michael disappearing from the ground where he fell leaving the audience aware that this monstrous presence is still out there. Perhaps even more chilling is Loomis’ reaction, he isn’t surprised, he knows how unstoppable Myers is and that the fight against evil is never over. Michael Myers would inspire two other major slasher franchises in the 80s, Friday the 13th featuring Jason Vorhees and Nightmare on Elm Street with Freddy Krueger.
There were dozens of slasher films released during this golden age some again featuring Halloween star Jamie Lee Curtis like Prom Night (1980), others successful films like When a Stranger Calls (1979) Sleepaway Camp (1983) and My Bloody Valentine (1981). Why did Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street achieve franchise level success and separate themselves from an extremely competitive field? First-time contemporary viewers of the early Friday the 13th films might be wondering exactly that. Both the original Friday the 13th (1980) and Friday the 13th Part II (1981) are glaringly low budget films to the modern eye. They can be difficult to watch and are almost primitive.
However, the franchise reaches a peak of unabashed brilliance in Friday the 13th Part III (1982), Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) and Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1986). It is during these glory days of the franchise that most of the genre tropes are established; the deranged lower-class harbinger, topless girls, the hockey mask, increasingly elaborate and violent kills, and of course the final girl. Jason kills with a wanton glee where body count and method of death are the main attractions. Like visitors to an amusement park, we the audience are voyeurs, the eyes behind the mask, as we cheer Jason on while he picks off the cast one by one. The final girl’s ultimate victory over Jason is our cathartic release. Her triumph purges our psychological guilt over siding with the antagonist for the first two acts of the films.
Jason isn’t so much terrifying as a pre-Grand Theft Auto avatar for the audience spreading death and destruction for entertainment. A glut of below-average slasher films like The House on Sorority Row (1983) and Splatter University (1984) left the movie-going audience fatigued and the genre began dying out as profits shrunk and studios scaled back on producing slashers.
If Halloween terrified us, and Friday the 13th made us a willing accomplice, then A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) ultimately straddled both of those worlds and in the process rejuvenated the slasher. Like Michael in Halloween, Freddy is terrifying in the original Nightmare on Elm Street. He is virtually unkillable because he doesn’t exist in our material world. Anyone who has driven along the highway while tired and dozed off briefly then jerked awake knows what a freakish destabilizing feeling that can be. The body doesn’t react well to a lack of sleep and Freddy preys upon that primal fear attacking us where we are most vulnerable.
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Freddy would become a cultural phenomenon and was the one horror franchise that remained successful in the 80s. It was able to overcome a mediocre (and worse, boring) sequel in Freddy’s Revenge (1985) by delivering one of the best films in the franchise, Dream Warriors (1987). Dream Warriors was pure 80s glam with elaborate death sequences, a scooby gang of protagonists, clever quips by Freddy and the titular metal theme song supplied by Dokken. We were no longer scared by Freddy but we weren’t rooting for him either and in that Dream Warriors blended together Halloween and Friday the 13th into an amazing horror amalgamation.
Unfortunately for the slasher, Dream Warriors would be the high water mark and the genre would suffer a slow unwatchable decline through the rest of the 80s and well into the 90s. Although there were a few significant highpoints such as Child’s Play (1988) and Candyman (1992) both of which would spawn sequels which didn’t fare well, the slasher quality fell so low that the genre for all intents and purposes was dead.
Part of the problem facing slasher films was that instead of shocking us as Michael Myers had once done they’d become derivative to the point of almost being comical. A current popular commercial for Geico Insurance riffs on how stupid characters act in slasher films by having a group of good looking twenty-somethings hide behind a rack of chainsaws rather than get into a running car and drive away. The killer shakes his head at their stupidity and reaction mimics how audiences felt about the slasher genre in the mid-90s. That is until Scream (1996) came along and changed everything.
Scream was the first post-modern slasher where the characters were not only aware of horror films, they knew the rules and how to survive them. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Scream saved both the slasher and in a way horror by completely rebooting the genre and spawning a wave of imitators that continue to this day. Scream’s ability to do this illustrates that a fresh take on a horror always has a market among moviegoers. Much has been written about Scream and it is beyond the scope of this article to fully analyze how brilliant and influential the movie has become. It is one of the top ten horror films of all time and still holds up exceptionally well today.
Outside of a few James Bond films, Scream has one of the best prologues to a movie from how it starts out playful to the sharp turn into something darker the movie draws the viewer into its world. The way the music changes when Casey is dying on the phone while her parents are listening really makes her death brutal. In the late 90s, Generation X watched Scream in large groups endlessly in college which contributed to the horror revolution Scream would spawn. The way we watch and consume movies is different today and it’s uncertain whether or not the movie would have the same collective dasein if it were streamed in isolation on thousands of separate devices. Scream has numerous callbacks to previous horror and slasher films.
Both Halloween and Scream use the Blue Oyster Cult song, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and Wes Craven gives the audience a huge hint on who is going to be the killer by having the song featured in their first appearance in the movie. Despite its post-modern packaging Scream isn’t above perpetuating some long-standing horror tropes. Scream subtly continues a trope in slasher movies where the police are completely incompetent in Woodsboro. Does anyone believe Deputy Dewey Boy and his cohorts could solve the murders?
One of the best scenes in Scream is the conversation between Stu and Randy in the video store. They have a meta-conversation about who the suspects are and in the process, they narrate like the chorus from a Greek tragedy for the audience. Today, this scene is doubly effective because it inadvertently brings back nostalgia for the whole process of going to Blockbuster; the conversations you’d have about movies while walking among the shelves looking at video cover art is a lost experience. The slasher movie unfolds best when it’s a tight 90 minutes.
Birdbrain’s “Youth of America” kicks off the third act in Scream which is a rather long 48 minutes. Scream actually clocks in at 110 minutes which is rather heavy for a slasher movie, however, it never drags and sends the viewer on a thrill ride to the finish. During this final act, Randy drops the phrase “scream queen” and his explanation of the rules to a slasher movie are like Penn and Teller describing how a magic trick works while performing it before your eyes. In both cases, it is deft, clever showmanship. One of the many things Scream gets right is that it respects every character.
No one is killed in a cruel, spiteful manner all have a personality, you like the cast and are invested in them. In the finale, Billy quotes Psycho’s Norman Bates during the reveal when he says, “We all go a little mad sometimes.” The culminating Stu/Billy/Sydney scene is something we had never seen before or since. Utterly original while still dropping post-modern observations like, “why did Hannibal ever start eating people?” Anything as successful as Scream was going to be copied and imitated and this drove slasher and horror through the late 90s and into the early 2000s.
Movies like I Know What You Did You Last Summer (1997), Urban Legend (1998), and Wrong Turn (2003) would feature beautiful young men and women who were all self-aware about horror films as they were picked off by a killer in glossy fashion. The slasher now looked like an episode of Melrose Place where everyone had perfect hair, golden tans, and appropriately witty dialog. All these movies would produce sequels of varying quality.
Even the icons like Jason and Michael would return, albeit unsuccessfully, in Jason X (2002) Halloween H20 (1998) and Halloween: Resurrection (2002). Neither Jason nor Michael was fresh or brought anything new to the genre, they felt stale like relics from a lost age. They were like video games from childhood which you may feel brief nostalgia for but quickly realize Call of Duty is far better than Space Invaders. The new millennium saw another reboot of the slasher genre as creative directors took divergent paths in reinventing horror.
Final Destination (2000) spun the slasher movie into an elaborate mousetrap as “death’s design” stalked characters and killed them in an increasingly fantastical and entertaining fashion. The highway crash in Final Destination 2 (2003) and the roller coaster disaster in Final Destination 3 (2006) are spectacular set pieces that draw the viewer into the danger then reverse engineer the movie. Final Destination 3, in particular, is a gem as it assumes the audience knows what is going to happen and dives right in reveling in gleeful delight with complex kill pieces such as death by tanning bed and County fair.
Saw (2004) would take the genre into the splatter film era and Eli Roth would release Hostel (2005) giving birth to the offshoot torture porn phase. Although both Saw and Hostel have their merits, a deluge of sequels and low budget imitators throwing buckets of gore and gratuitous, cruel violence at the audience turned many people off. Scream’s genuine affection for its characters had been replaced by wanton cruelty and the audience no longer felt good about themselves watching these horrific acts unfold on film. The pinnacle or perhaps more appropriately low point of this subgenre may be Tusk (2014) and the Human Centipede (2009) whose only purpose seems to be testing how far a viewer’s stomach will hold up to the degeneracy on the screen. It comes as little surprise that mainstream horror audiences turned away from films like these.
During this era, one of the most polarizing horror directors of the last two decades, Rob Zombie, former White Zombie frontman turned slasher auteur would make a series of original movies and Halloween remakes. Zombie came onto the scene with House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and its sequel The Devil’s Rejects (2005) before being tabbed to reinvent the Halloween franchise with Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009).
Displaying a combination of Texas Chainsaw Massacre homage with unabashed horror fandom, Zombie’s debut was a surprising hit and showed flashes of real talent. Beginning in House of 1000 Corpses and continuing through all his films, Zombie would demonstrate a keen eye for casting actors with weathered faces which ooze character and realism. His self described obsession with hillbilly horror became a trademark that shows up in virtually all of his movies. Another characteristic which the Zombie films share is that they are often set in an ambiguous time era where the characters don’t have access to cell phones or other modern innovations.
The Devil’s Rejects, which could be described as a road trip slasher, is considered either a masterpiece of the genre or gruesome glorification of violence and mayhem depending upon who you ask. Regardless of where the viewer stands on this, it is impossible to deny the poetic flourish in the movie’s ending where Zombie allows the entire song “Freebird” to play during the climax of the film. Rob Zombie would prove himself equally skilled in remaking the Halloween franchise as he was in creating original material. His two Halloween movies were the best installments of the franchise in over a decade as he took the Michael Myers story and gave it his unique ultra-violent, white trash chic spin.
Myers is given an extensive backstory in Halloween and Tyler Mane’s adult Michael is terrifying; his size and brute strength make the slasher physically unstoppable. While he had to follow the Michael Myers story fairly close to the original in 2007, Zombie was given a greater range in his 2009 sequel. He used that freedom to great effect digging deep into the PTSD that surviving victims from slasher crimes certainly would suffer. Rarely have we seen this topic tackled and young actors Scott Taylor-Compton and Danielle Harris were exceedingly effective as traumatized Laurie Strode and Annie Brackett.
This unique exploration into PTSD was used again in the most recent Halloween (2018). Zombie also brought elements of both surrealism and magical realism into the movie proving that you can combine both arthouse concepts and graphic violence into an effective slasher. The Halloween remakes of the mid-2000s were only the start of a new wave that sought to cash in on horror fan’s interest in slashers. From 2003-2010 the slasher genre was dominated by a reimagining of old movies and franchises.
These included The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) House of Wax (2005) Black Christmas (2006) and The Hills Have Eyes (2006) before peaking in 2009 which saw a deluge of remakes like Friday the 13th, The Last House on the Left and The Stepfather. Not unsurprisingly, the combination of all these remakes combined with the general trend Hollywood was mired in with remaking virtually everything popular from the 70s-90s once again led to viewer fatigue. Once again coming on the tail end of the wave, A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) was one of the last from this group and was met with lukewarm reviews.
Generally speaking, these were all high production affairs which cast popular young actors in expensive sets with top-shelf special effects. Friday the 13th was probably the best of the group as it was able to capture almost everything fans liked about the series. Jason was appropriately unstoppable and menacing, the characters were given time to develop, the lead was Jared Padalecki well known from Supernatural and the movie wasn’t even afraid to have topless women, once a hallmark of the franchise but increasingly rare in the modern slasher.
Unfortunately, the Friday the 13th franchise wasn’t able to capitalize on this movie because the rights to the story and Jason became tangled up in court. It seems the true adversary of the notorious masked slasher isn’t the final girl but legal briefs and depositions. Despite the crutch remakes provided for most of the major slasher franchises the genre is continually being innovated and told in new ways. Recently we have seen the retro-slasher in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) a Sci-Fi slasher in Sunshine (2007) and a meta post-modern slasher in Final Girls (2015).
Fertile ground exists in period eras previously touched on by horror films like From Hell (2001) in the Victorian Era or the Old West in Bone Tomahawk (2015). The slasher, like many forms of entertainment, has moved off the big screen to series streaming on devices. Direct slasher shows such as Scream, Slashers, and Scream Queens are all love letters to the genre. The extremely popular American Horror Story has always had slasher elements to it and in 2019 went full-on slasher with 1984 and Camp Redwood. Even astute viewers of the HBO series Westworld can pick out slasher elements to the story, particularly in the second season.
One new franchise which really stands out is Happy Death Day (2017) where director Christopher Landon pondered, what if I took Groundhog’s Day and made it into a slasher? Then instead of rehashing the material for a sequel he gave us Back to the Future as a slasher in Happy Death Day 2U (2019) in the process creating the first multiple dimension time-traveling slasher. The slasher genre has historically been at the same time both painfully derivative and brilliantly original. It is continually reinvented, copied, and reinvented again.
While trends in movies come and go, you can be certain that twenty, thirty, or fifty years from now adventurous filmmakers will be reinventing the slasher genre with groundbreaking new twists, and those will be copied until they become tropes then someone new will come along and the cycle will continue. Let’s face it, like the antagonists in these films you can’t kill the slasher – and that’s just how the audiences like it.