Saturday, 12 November 2016

Slasher Movies - An Introduction

Of all the film genres the “Slasher Movie” is often viewed (especially by mainstream critics) as one of the most disposable sub-genres of Horror, their critics viewing them often as nothing but fuel for the next would be serial killer while despising the genre’s focus and general embracement of gratuitous death scenes often served with a side dish equally gratuitous nudity. However those able to look past the often disposable nature of these films with their often shoestring budgets and ropey plotting but then this is after all the genre which gave us the strong female heroine or as is better known here “The Final Girl”.

While many would view Slasher movies as being a product of the late 70’s and 80’s horror scene following the release of John Carpenter’s now legendary “Halloween” which inturn gave us the now iconic masked madman Michael Myers whose serial killer club would soon be joined by the likes of Jason from “Friday the 13th” and the killer doll Chucky from “Child’s Play” aswell as a mixed bag of one shot creations being churned out to cash in on the success of Carpenter’s film but the blood soaked roots of the genre can really be traced back further still to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” which with Norman Bates who when broken down into his basic character components can be easily compared to one of his more modern counterparts as sex and his own sexual frustrations seemingly provide the trigger for his own murders, while he also dons a disguise to carry out his murder and his is devoted love for his mother really any different than Jason and his own love for his mother’s severed head?

Go further back still into the history of horror still and you will only continue to find examples of the genre such as Maurice Tourneur’s “The Lunatics” from 1912, itself a silent film adaptation of the Grand Guignol play which in the United States lead to the public outcry over films of this nature which paved the way for the introduction of the Hays code in 1930. In the lead up to the release of “Psycho” further examples of the genres tropes such as jump scares, the black gloved killer so synonymous with the Italian Giallo films and shots from the Killer’s POV can be found in films such as the 1953 version of “House of Wax”, “The Bad Seed” and “Cover Girl Killer”. Alongside the release of Hitchcock’s “Psycho” 1960 also saw the release of Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” which shot from the killer’s POV making the audience questioning their role in the violence unfolding on the screen, while later providing the inspiration for the likes of “Man Bites Dog” and “Maniac” (2012).

In the wake of these two films the slasher genre would slowly begin to take form as later films all added elements to the mixing pot starting with William Castle’s “Psycho” cash in “Homicidal” which in typical Castle fashion he sold with the gimmick of a “Fright break” which allowed movie goers to get a refund if they were too scared to stay for the climax though it would come at the cost of being made to stand in “Cowards Corner” until everyone had left before being given their refund. The intrest in serial killers though would roll on with the likes of Dementia 13, Berserk and Night Must Fall which also drew inspiration from the violent Itallian thrillers of the giallo genre. The craze soon also being picked up by the legendary Hammer Studios who contributed their own twist on the burgeoning genre with the likes of Hysteria, Nightmare and Maniac.

With the Giallo films proving such a massive draw for the European market, both Britian and the United States especially began to look at ways they could also cash in with their own versions, throwing out the old well worn plot devices as they made way for the crazed maniac which required only the most basic of motives to justify their bloody rampages with Robert Fuest’s low budget shocker “And Soon The Darkness” (1970) bringing the horror out of the darkness and into the daylight though it would be a year later that the template for the slasher movie in particular the babysitter in peril was established with “Fright” which saw Susan George’s babysitter being terrorised by the child’s father who in true campfire tradition has just escaped from a mental institution.

This new breed of thriller shared the love of sex and violence that was so synonymous with the Giallo movies while removing the police procedural element as these films soon entered into competition with each other to provide bigger and better shocks and kills. One of the key figures of these early films was the English director Pete Walker who advertised his film “Frightmare” with its own negative reviews to sell more tickets as his film making philosophy revolved making headlines with the controversy of his films which he saw translating into larger box office revenues. Meanwhile in the states controversy also followed their own productions though perhaps with a dash more hysteria to them as “Blood and Lace” was dubbed the “sickest PG-rated movie ever made! By the “Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film” while Marc B. Ray’s “Scream Bloody Murder” proudly advertised its label of “Gore-nography”.

By 1974 despite the release of both the notorious “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Black Christmas” these early slasher movies had overall become too familiar with their themes and ideas to audiences and attendance numbers began to severely dip until 1978 and the release of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” ushering in with it a period cited by many as being the Golden Age of Slasher films which was only further fuelled by the huge success of Sean S. Cunningham’s “Friday the 13th” which in their wake saw a slew of imitators and general rip-off’s being produced so that by 1984 over 100 slasher films had been released. The appeal of these films for the studio being that they where cheap to make and only needed an semi attractive cast to play fodder for your movie’s slasher especially as these films started to become more about the kill and its build up than the actual plot. Surprisingly it was a model which worked leading film makers to exploit the formula further and further as they churned out films featuring higher body counts, more nudity and most key ever more inventive ways in which to kill off their disposable cast members.

As we enter the 80’s in an attempt to freshen up the genre we saw the first of the Supernatural slashers as Ulli Lommel who’d previously directed the acclaimed “The Tenderness of Wolves” unleashed “The Boogeyman” which four years after its release like so many slasher films from this era found itself on the Non-prosecuted list of the Video Nasties act until it was finally released missing 44 seconds in 1992 before finally being re-released uncut in 2000. Now these slashers wern’t just crazed lunatics but potentially of another realm altogether paving the way for the first film in Wes Craven’s now legendary “Nightmare On Elm Street” franchise and also arguably meaning that despite dying in “Friday the 13th Part 4” Jason could still come back as a Zombie from parts 6 onwards.

The Bubble would finally burst in 1984 as the slashers moved to VHS as the audiences showed little interest in watching these movies in the theatre, meaning that films would often be given brief theatrical runs if at all. VHS provided these films with their audience still as they where hunted out by those still eager to get their gore soaked kicks, while some film makers such as David A. Prior even shot their films on tape with Prior’s “Sledgehammer” being the first of these questionable experiements, the poor quality of the film stock often matching the quality of the film being produced.

The final nail in coffin of this golden era of slashers would come via “Silent Night, Deadly Night” which see the mentally unstable Billy suffering a mental break and going on a bloody rampage dressed in a Santa suit. The film was heavily protested by many who saw its iconic poster of an axe welding Santa going down a chimney and assumed it was a movie about a killer Santa and led to the film being pulled out of cinemas a week into its release. A year earlier though the genre had suffered its most devastating attack as moral panic lead by campaigning politicians, and religious groups while the tabloids where only more than happy to add further fuel to the fire by posting scandalous headlines as they called to “Ban this sick filth”. In total 39 films would be banned under the Obscene Publications Act which meant that many of these films wouldn’t be released until after 2001 while many would have to wait until much later to finally be released uncut while a few select titles such as “Forest of Fear” and “Gestapo’s Last Orgy” still remain banned in the UK.

By the late 80’s the slasher movie had all but become an international affair as Italian and Mexican studios attempted to replicate the films which the films which had been so popular in the first half of the 80’s many replicating themes or ideas such as the Mexican “Hell’s Trap” which felt like a throw back to “The Prowler” or the Swedish “Blood Tracks” which played like “The Hills Have Eyes”. The established franchises meanwhile began to collapse under their creaking foundations with “Jason Takes Manhattan” the 8th film in the series proving such a flop that the rights to the series where sold to New Line Cinema, whose saw its own long running franchise “A Nightmare On Elm Street” failing to make half with it’s fifth film than the previous two films had made, while the genre’s grandfather Michael Myers came out worst still with the dire “Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers”. All three franchises would attempt a final stab at reviving their franchises only to all fail thanks to lack of intrest from the audiences who’d once hankered to see the next instalment.

While the end of the 80’s might have seemed to have also marked the end of the genre it was instead merely dormant as Bernard Rose unleashed “Candyman” in 1992 based on the short story by Clive Barker and more keyly gave the world its first black slasher icon. While it may have gone on to spawn two lesser sequels it wouldn’t be until the release of “Scream” in 1996. Prior to directing “Scream” Wes Craven had played around with the idea of a Meta horror with his unintentional reboot of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise with “New Nightmare”. Scream though arrived feeling like a much needed breath of fresh air for the genre as it not only introduced the now iconic Ghostface killer but also self acknowledged with a knowing wink the tropes of the genres with its horror movie loving killers. While the sequel managed to recapture some of the magic of the original, it was clear the series was running on fumes by “Scream 3” especially when Jamie Kennedy’s Randy (posthumously) is laying out the rules for a part 3 which you have to wonder if there are actually any rules for a horror film past its first sequel other than perhaps find a way to set the film in Space or Hawaii. Unsurprisingly “Scream” would prove to be the film which launched numerous imitators such as Urban Legend, I Know What You Did Last Summer and Valentine many of these films landing with mixed results as none seemed to be able to recreate whatever it was that made Scream seem so fiercely original despite its origins coming from the pen of self-confessed Slasher obsessive Kevin Williamson who much like his creation also failed to reach the same heights again.

At the same time that the studios where rushing to put out their own slasher creations, this sudden revived intrest in the genre also saw the studios wanting to roll the dice once more on their established franchises as Michael Myers came back for “Halloween H20: 20 Years Later” in a sequel which ignored everything after the first film in a half baked attempt to reboot the series which even brought Jamie Lee Curtis back to reprise her role as Laurie Strode now stuggling to deal with the events of that eventful night. Michael of course would not be the only boogyman to return as Chucky also made a return with a new bride in tow in “Bride of Chucky” which following “Child’s Play 3” being cited as the influence for the murder of Jamie Bulger it had not only seen the film being unofficially banned but also served to kill the series despite continuing to maintain a cult following who were unsurprisingly over joyed to see the return of their favourite killer doll. Most exciting of these comebacks of course was Jason as “Friday the 13th” rolled out a staggering 10th entry which saw Jason finally being sent to space and shortly afterwards facing off against Freddy Kruger in “Freddy Vs. Jason” giving the fans finally the grudge match they’d long hampered for, even if the version they got was slightly hampered by Kane Hodder (the fans Jason) not being brought back to play Jason.

The most surprising entry of this period though is the “Final Destination” in which Death himself is the killer and while it might shun the usual rules of what qualifies someone to be a victim, it soon established an easy to replicate template in which a group survive a horrible accident (plane crash, motorway pile up, Roller coaster crash etc) only to find themselves being stalked by death who seems to have a fixation with killing in only the most elaborate ways possible, often delightfully teasing out the kill for maximum effect, let alone posing the question of how you beat the slasher when its death itself?

By the 2002 interest in slasher films had faded once again and with studios not wanting to take a risk it would seem on original horror films especially as a loose remake of Tobe Hooper’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” turned into the surprise hit of the year as it grossed over $100 million while opening the floodgates to a host of remakes which would follow in its wake as House of Wax, My Bloody Valentine and Black Christmas all got the remake treatment but for decent one we got like Alexandre Aja’s brutal “The Hills have Eyes” we usually got another three duff ones such as Gus Van Sant’s baffling shot for shot remake of “Psycho” while as the key titles titles began to dry up the more grotesque and shocking titles such as “Last House On The Left” and “I Spit On Your Grave” also getting the remake treatment they really didn’t need.

While it might seem that the genre ends in a slurry pit of half baked remakes, there are still directors out there attempting to capture the magic of the slasher’s golden age as can be seen with the likes of Adam Green’s “Hatchet” trilogy while the shame being removed off the DTV market meant that it has become a new home for numerous indie and low budget slashers, while ensuring that the “Wrong Turn” series has managed to somehow churn out five sequels. So while the films might not once receive the kind of grand release they might have seen in the golden age, they are still there for those willing to venture into the darker recesses of their streaming services.

Starting Point – Five Slasher Movie Essentials

For this selection I’ve opted to avoid the obvious and well known additions to the genre such as Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th and Scream and instead opted to highlight five lesser known but still equally essentially additions to the genre worth hunting down.

The Burning – One of the few slasher movies to be banned as video nasty it wouldn’t get released until 1992 and even then it wasn’t until 2001 it was finally released uncut. This film also not only marked the first movie to be produced by the Weinstein’s but also one of the most graphic and brutal kill scenes which has yet to be beaten by any other film in the genre as our burned and mentally unhinged killer Cropsy gets very creative with his weapon of choice….a pair of garden shears.

Slumber Party Massacre - Despite the setup of a slumber party being invaded by a power drill welding murderer, the film has the distinction of being the only feminist slasher movie, despite the film being originally written by Rita Mae Brown as a parody of the slasher genre though thanks to the script being reworked into a serious film, it ends up creating a wonderfully unique experience which would go on to spawn two further sequels

Terror Train – featuring another killer seeking revenge for having a prank played on his years earlier, here the killer is revealed almost straight away as the tormented nerd Kenny boards the train where a fraternity are throwing a costume party. The perfect setup of course for Kenny to don a number of ever more random costumes to commit his murder, making it less about who the killer is but what costume he’s going to wear next.

Stage Fright – A slasher is usually best known by the outfit they don to commit their killing, be it a hockey mask or just a plain old sack which only makes the killers costume here possibly one of the most random as he dons a giant owl head to do his killing which makes this film no doubt standout more from the numerous slashers off this era, but the giant own head really adds something to watching the killer weld a chainsaw or stick someone with a pick-ax.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon – Embracing the same mockumentary style of “Man Bites Dog” as a documentary film crew follow an aspiring slasher / serial killer as he prepares for his next big night of murder and mayhem. Interesting for being set in a world where the likes of Freddy and Jason actually exist, the film takes great fun poking fun at the genre tropes with a wonderfully dark sense of humour which makes it so easy to see why this has become such a cult favourite.

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