Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger walk into a bar…
The slasher genre and its iconic anti-heroes almost became a bad joke towards the end of its golden era, with poorly constructed sequels and unnecessary, outlandish concepts intended to create a film all about the inventive ways a masked madman could pick off innocent young teenagers rather than plot or characterisation. But from the foundations of the genre to the height in its heyday, the slasher film became more than just a death-by-numbers picture. Though some would cash in on the concept with cheap thrills and spills, the iconic originals have longevity because of the creativity and the subtext beneath their seemingly simple concepts.
There’s much debate over which film kick-started the slasher genre. Historically, there are three contenders: Peeping Tom (1960), Psycho (1960) and Black Christmas (1974). Despite the critical success of Psycho, the slasher genre didn’t grow solely from this film. The first slasher film to be an overnight box office success on a small budget was an amalgamation of these three: Halloween (1978). It blended elements from the three films whilst simultaneously establishing its own conventions, and this combination led to the birth of the slasher genre. The principles of the films were set: a masked, seemingly unstoppable killer; a set of young, innocent and helpless teens; a lack of adult supervision; a recognisable time of year; inventive ways in which the teenagers die and most importantly, the final girl. Despite being the first successful slasher film to turn over a tasty profit, Halloween is important to both the slasher genre and the horror genre as whole. It is a masterpiece in suspense and suggestion that in my opinion can rival the best of Hitchcock. With an instantly familiar but haunting score, wide suspenseful shots and hardly a drop of blood in sight, John Carpenter created a masterful slasher film that acts as both template and peer to all the films and their villains that preceded it.
The history of this genre can be surmised briefly when we talk about time. At best it spanned twenty years, but its heyday was rooted firmly in that most magical of decades – the 1980s. Inspired by the box office success of Halloween, producer and director Sean S. Cunningham capitalised on the foundations of the slasher film with his 1980 hit Friday the 13th. It was the first film of its kind to receive distribution from a major studio in Paramount Pictures and despite it being a critical failure, the sales did the talking and what they told the studio was that this type of film was cheap to make and profitable to release. Cue an onslaught of sequels, copycats and some genuine entrants that together covered the 80’s in the blood of unsuspecting teens and made the faceless faces of its anti-heroes instantly recognisable. Friday the 13th in hindsight is quite a unique film with its twist ending and the fact that it established a franchise on a character that was referenced heavily but only very briefly seen. The creators of Friday the 13th set out to cash in on the success of Halloween and their goal from the start was to provide the audience with something that Halloween had not: blood, and lots of it. The deaths were inventive and eccentric, establishing the trend that many a slasher film to come would replicate and elevate. Despite its shortcomings with the very basics of film (characterisation, narrative etc) it can’t be denied that historically Friday the 13th is a landmark film for the genre and is responsible for the assault of films to follow.
Like any genre, the slasher film has a certain ‘code’ by which the films loosely go by. The characteristics are simple: a bunch of unaccompanied, horny, beer-drinking, pot-smoking teenagers in a remote or isolated location are stalked by a weapon-wielding masked madman with a psychopathic intention to kill in the most elaborate ways possible. Like all film, particular horror, this sub-genre is open to interpretation and is a blank canvass when it comes to subtext and social commentary. Yet the requirement of a small budget versus the large profit to be made meant that the majority of the slasher films released in the 1980s engaged with the audience’s bloodlust and support for the anti-hero rather than delving into the real fears that these films can touch upon. Flicks like Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, April Fool’s Day, Sleepaway Camp, The Burning, Madman, The House On Sorority Row, Silent Night, Bloody Night and many others operated under this mantra and though some have unique and shocking endings (in both senses of the word – April Fool’s Day and Sleepaway Camp I’m looking at you here), the bulk of these films with their catchy titles and inventive death-pieces angled towards the trends of audiences across the world for maximum return. It’s basic attitudes of if you have sex, drink, smoke or do drugs – you’re gonna get killed & the survival of the final girl have been discussed and lamented on by critics for decades now, but at the root of it the subtext goes much deeper. You might be wondering what subtext a kill-by-numbers film could have, but as with any horror sub-genre or horror itself, the conscious storyline provides escapist entertainment whilst simultaneously engaging the subconscious with a familiar and very real situation. Horror trends reflect the social fears of their time and are the most appropriate because they allow the audience to face fear head on. Whether they know they are facing a real fear or just a generated fear, the audience is still actively confronting terror by wanting to be scared. From the 1950’s B-Movie pictures of alien invasion and deformed creatures that mirrored the fears of nuclear annihilation, to the body horrors and splatter films that echoed society’s trepidations of AIDs and HIV, horror film has always been more than just escapist frights. The 1956 release of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a perfect example of marrying horror with societal fears: the body snatchers in question are a direct mirror of post-war America’s fear of communism. In the last decade, the meteoric rise of the ‘torture porn’ sub-genre (for want of a much better phrase) reflected the changing face of our civilised Western society as we faced graphic and horrific images of human torture as a result of the wars being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the images taken of acts of terrorism committed on our doorstep. What the slasher film echoed in its time was a combination of all these primary fears.
The 1980’s was a turbulent time and horror film had its pick of subtext to choose from. Tensions between the U.S. and Russia were at an all-time high with mutually assured destruction at the brink of possibility; wars were being fought in the Middle East; AIDS was prominently destroying lives; the famine in Africa was highlighted to millions in the Western world as a very real threat and a problem that needed solving; and the financial system collapsed dropping most of the Western world into a recession effecting many livelihoods. All of these social fears were very real and were faced on a daily basis as the news and print published their reports. These fears are faceless threats: to an extent they are not a single individual or a visual association. They are famine, pestilence, Governments, institutions. They are not distinguishable because they hide behind these faceless titles. The slasher film created a character that was faceless; a character that hid behind a mask that did not enable you to distinguish the individual or be able to literally face them; a character that was almost unstoppable, resurfacing time and again to quash any chance of peace or happiness.
But what else about the slasher genre actually makes them scary? After all these are horror films; they’re meant to induce paranoia, tension, fear. The death scenes might make you squeamish (or in some instances cheer) and the concept of being stalked by a masked killer might be invigorating, but when watching these films what makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck? What makes you reach for the pillow or peak between your fingers? What makes your pulse race and your mouth desiccate? Film is subjective, so you might not evoke these particular emotions but at the core, what makes a slasher film scary? It’s the fact that the killer is real; the killer is a human being. It’s important at this juncture to familiarise ourselves with the films that popularised the genre, the originals before the sequels: Halloween, Friday the 13th, Black Christmas, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and more recently Scream. These films, as well as the scores of other slashers that were released in the wake of the ‘slasher boom’, featured a very real, very familiar antagonist. With Chucky, Freddy Krueger and to an extent Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers aside (at least with the latter two’s sequels) the slasher featured a villain that was very much the antithesis of your archetypal horror antagonist. A human antagonist constructs an innate fear for the viewer: something real and believable is a lot scarier than any villain from our worst nightmares or the far reaches of outer space. With the media making celebrities out of serial killers and popularising their atrocities, the idea and the possibility of a human being committing such heinous crimes is a harsh reality to our society. This is what makes a slasher film scary: because you realise how very real the killer is. Despite being faceless, what lies beneath is what we’ve been exposed to countless times with press coverage of the world’s most notorious serial killers.
A prime example of the pillow-grabbing fear that this association can create is in a sequence from the godfather of the slasher genre, Halloween (like all great slasher storylines, this post comes full circle). In the scene, Laurie Strode (Jaime-Lee Curtis) has just been attacked by Michael at the Wallace house, heading over there to investigate a strange noise she heard when talking to her friend Lynda on the phone. Laurie makes it out of the house and runs back to the Doyle house where she has been babysitting. The door is locked (on her instruction) and she is desperately trying to get back inside. The shot we see is from Laurie’s POV as she looks back over at the Wallace house, seeing Michael start to approach. Now, a number of elements conspire together to create this terrifying scene. Firstly the framing of the shot from Laurie’s POV: the frame doesn’t falter, maintaining Laurie’s distance from Michael but showing his encroaching figure growing as he gets closer. The pace that Michael approaches Laurie is haunting: he doesn’t run and he doesn’t make haste; his psychotic confidence is startling, his speed but his determination never faltering. The terrified screams of Laurie, desperate to seek solace from the approaching madman pierce the still night, her fear as real as the pillow you’re hiding behind. And then there’s John Carpenter’s haunting, simple score: just a few low notes in their succession that partner the tension played out on screen. As you watch Michael approach with Laurie helpless and alone, the fear is elevated not just by the possibility of her being caught but by the fact that, when she faces him, she is facing a very real, very familiar threat: a human being, capable of committing such atrocities.
The slasher genre developed itself throughout its prime, throwing into the mix elements of the supernatural in order to freshen up and stimulate the genre: A Nightmare On Elm Street created one of horrors most memorable characters in Freddy Krueger. Though predominately a master of the dream universe, stalking his teenage victims in their sleep, his characters’ foundations were very real – a kidnapper and a murderer who’s attire and iconic bladed glove were used well before he crossed over to the land of nod. The same goes with Chucky in Child’s Play: a thief and a murderer that meets his end in a toy store only to be reincarnated into a popular children’s toy. With a new but somewhat unconventional body he continues his murderous intentions but at the character’s core, he was a very real human being. The famous faces of the genre became popular through their familiarity but with their sequels growing tired by the year, a combination of poor storytelling, boredom and a change in audience trends saw the eventual demise of the slasher genre into the 90’s. Horror film moved on and so the audience with it. The final body count was totalled with the iconic anti-heroes being added to the final tally.
But the genre never really went away. With time came nostalgia and the ability to sift through the slew of films produced during the slasher heyday which enabled fans and historians to appreciate the importance of this sub-genre in the history of horror cinema. Resurgence in the genre was paved by the postmodern exploration of slasher conventions in Scream. The genre came full circle with this film as it openly referenced and compared the developments of a series of killings in the town of Woodbury to the core staples of the slasher genre, even going so far as to have a group of teenagers, isolated in a house without adult supervision, watching Halloween as a character discusses the do’s and don’ts of surviving this type of film. Despite falling foul of its postmodern reflection by producing unworthy and unnecessary sequels, Scream was a clever and nostalgic look back on an important genre that forms a piece of cinema history that is continually referenced, lauded and criticised to this day. The slasher film: you either love them or you hate them, but either way you can’t deny their power and influence over the horror genre still to this day.
Originally posted on Generic Movie & TV