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 (sometimes wearing a mask) who stalks and graphically murders a series of adolescent victims in a typically random, unprovoked fashion, killing many within a single day.
In his article, A Historical Approach to the Slasher Film (2014) Sotiris Petridis examined the evolution of the slasher film through time and he divided the lifetime of the subgenre into three historical periods: the classical period, the postmodern period, and the neoslashers. The classical period starts in 1974 and lasts until the end of the 1980s, the postmodern period takes place in the 1990s, and neoslashers started to evolve in the beginning of the new millennium and the production of those filmic texts last to our days.
The victims are usually photogenic teenagers or young adults who are away from mainstream civilization or far away from help and often involved in sexual activities, illegal-drug use, or both. 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 resolved. Although Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho provided early inspiration, some argue the first authentic slasher film was Black Christmas, though the pacing is far off from a typical slasher film. There are many who would fairly argue the 1965 version of Ten Little Indians should be considered as well. Though the success of Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 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; use of guns by the killer is practically unheard of. There is often a backstory that explains how the killer developed his (killers are typically labelled as male) violent mental state as well as why he focuses primarily on a particular type of victim or 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 not only alive, but 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 film, 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. Black Christmas (1974), released four years earlier, had introduced many of the elements that were used in the higher-profile Halloween and many subsequent films. Directed by Bob Clark, the film featured point-of-view shots from the killer's perspective and threatening phone calls made from inside the victim's house, which 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, New Year's Evil, 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 the 'Friday the 13th" series is best known for), as well as increasingly graphic and realistic special effects (Some of the most effective were The Burning, The Prowler, and Maniac). Some series, such as A 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 the established Halloween,Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, sagas 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, Urban Legend, Final Destination, Valentine and Cherry Falls
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 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 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 (A notion similarly used in WΔZ); However, FeardotCom, Turistas, Captivity, See No Evil, Wolf Creek, Dead Silence, Untraceable, Pathology 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. Adam Rockwood also published a book titled Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, detailing the genre's history and themes (the book was later adapted into a documentary film of the same name). Often, slasher films 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 (e.g., '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.
- 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 Don't Go in the Woods.
- Happy Birthday to Me (1980) - Another example of an extremely well-executed slasher film, this Canadian-lensed slasher is known for starring Little House on the Prairie's Melissa Sue Anderson and 80's scream queens Lesleh Donaldson and Lenore Zann. The DVD release has caused some controversy because Columbia TriStar released the DVD without the original theatrical music score. A slightly longer, uncut version of the film exists in scarce quantity on VHS PAL formatting.
- Prom Night (1980) - A famous slasher film considered a mixed bag by most, there is generally much divisiveness over this slasher earning its classic status within the subgenre. This Canadian-lensed slasher starring famous Scream Queen Jamie Lee Curtis was the first film to tread the grounds of being too cliche, even though it tread the grounds of its immediate predecessors far better than most. The movie provides a good amount of character development and some adequate chase and death sequences, but expectations were high at its release and most critics felt it failed to deliver the goods in the end. A loose remake starring Brittany Snow was released in 2008 and received serious backlash by horror fans from its lack of character development, nudity and gore.
- Terror Train (1980) - And yet another example of an extremely well-executed slasher film, this Canadian-lensed slasher is known for starring Jamie Lee Curtis and still looks crisp and well-produced even by today's standards. Set on New Year's Eve and aboard a moving train in the northern snow, the film does a good job developing a sense of claustrophobia and suspense (who's sympathetic antagonist constantly changes his costumes in between his murders to avoid detection). A loose remake entitled Train and starring Thora Birch is released in 2008.
- Maniac (1980) - An unorthodox look behind the killer's insanity, It follows the killer Frank Zito (Played by Joe Spinell who has acted in films in the Godfather and the Rocky franchise.) who graphically murders his female victims and scalps them, to return to his home where he nails the scalps on female shopping mannequins as he mutters streams of manic dialogue. The film was originally thought to be just an exploitation film, but has earned a cult following among fans of the genre and as garnered acclaim. Also worth noting is the special make-up effects by genre veteran Tom Savini who was responsible for a quite unique kill scene where the killer uses a gun to kill a victim (Who was played by Savini.) The film is also notable for doing away with the typical formula of most slashers, while the film focuses on the killer while development of most other characters are not explored.
- Hell Night (1981) - Starring veteran scream queen Linda Blair of The Excorcist fame, this tame entry into the subgenre has less gore and barely-partial nudity, instead relying heavily on character and suspense instead. With some enjoyable dialogue and a highly likable, sympathetic cast of characters, the film is best known as a fun popcorn slasher flick with a decent, if not slightly formulaic by today's standards, twist near the climax of the film.
- The Burning (1981) - Largely written off as a shameless Friday the 13th rip upon initial release, this inspired 1981 effort has since developed its own cult following in the ensuing years. Particularly notable for two reasons: its decidedly grim and mean-spirited tone, distinctly lacking the tongue-in-cheek sense of fun that pervaded many of its brethren; and its gore and make-up effects by Tom Savini. The single largest contributor to the film's fame is a particular sequence, often dubbed simply "The raft sequence" or "raft massacre", which demonstrates the two aforementioned qualities in equally strong measures. Also noteworthy as one of the very few 80's slashers that discards the familiar trope of the morally pure "final girl" in favor of a morally suspect "final guy" (who violently executes the more pitiful killer).
- The Prowler (1981) - Much like The Burning, this 1981 slasher is notable for having both a decidedly mean-spirited tone as well as the make-up effects talents of Tom Savini. The camera lingers on bloodshed for an uncharacteristically prolonged amount of time during several of the film's gruesome death sequences (due to a somewhat moderate bodycount), seemingly reveling in the carnage whilst encouraging the viewer to do the same. As with William Lustig's Maniac (1980), a strong current of misogyny is present. Tom Savini has been reported as saying that this film showcases some of his best work as an artist.
- 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 an uncut version of the film. A loose remake entitled My Bloody Valentine 3-D and starring Jensen Ackles and Jaime King is released in 2009.
- The House on Sorority Row (1983) - Considered one of the classier films in the subgenre, this film relies heavily on story, suspense, and the character developments of the ensemble cast rather than nudity or gore (although both of the latter are present). Questionable as to whether it could ever live up to the cult status of its sorority house predecessor Black Christmas, HOSR manages to take an effectively different approach while remaining true to the slasher subgenre formula. A remake by Summit Entertainment is released in 2009.
- Sleepaway Camp (1983) - Its characters, drama, and various methods of murder gave it a cult following on VHS. The film is best remembered for its disturbing climax. It was followed by two 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. Billy Bob Thornton remade the movie starring Jackie Earle Haley as Freddy Krueger and Rooney Mara as Nancy Holbrook.
- 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 (noted also for focusing primarily on this antagonist). Followed by four sequels.
- Slumber Party Massacre (1984) - Also notable for creating controversy, this time with women's right groups. Ironically, however, the film was written, producer and directed by feminist filmmakers. Featuring a driller-wielding lunatic drilling holes into scantily-clad teenaged girls (the cover art blatantly boasts said drill hanging phallically between the killer's legs as he towers over girls in undies), the film's social commentary is a blatant message to frighten girls from having premarital sex. Should be mentioned that the killer doesn't wear a mask, as do killers in most films of this ilk. Spawned two in-name sequels.
- April Fool's Day (1986) - One of the only slashers that follows the set up of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. A particularly well known slasher film, that perhaps most known for its ending in which a girl has her throat cut and her friend comes behind her and show that it is not real. A remake is released in 2008.
- Deliria (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 antagonist: 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 & dramatic 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) - Revived slasher films in the 1990s, most notable for the parody of its own genre. It is the most financially successful slasher film ever made, and spawned three sequels.
- 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 other's killing territory. The eleventh film in the Friday the 13th series, and the eighth in the Nightmare on Elm Street saga.
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