The slasher film is truly the bastard son of the horror genre.
Much berated, vilified, and demonized, the slasher has been accused of many things: misogyny, sadomasochism, conservatism, and worst of all repetition.
Popularly characterized by a number of generic conventions, the slasher has perhaps come to be defined not by the films that make up its original cycle, but those that came years later. Following the success of SCREAM, a whole new generation of slasher films emerged, this time smugly postmodern and eager to outline, discuss, and flippantly break the conventions of the original films. Such fare as I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, CHERRY FALLS, URBAN LEGEND, and FINAL DESTINATION made great play of this, before complacency set in like cinematic damp rot.
But for those who have taken time to become acquainted with the slasher will know that there is more to the subgenre than Generation Dawson would have us believe. It may be an unpopular truth, but the slasher is as diverse and individualistic as the horror genre itself. It is also the most significant horror movement of the last 30 years, giving birth to other subgenres as it evolved: the aforementioned postmodern cycle and, of course, the current torture porn trend.
Though HALLOWEEN is often cited as the scary-godmother of the slasher, the subgenre’s origins may be more difficult to trace. Whilst some hail PSYCHO or THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE as the catalyst, the overlooked BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) could also be considered the first true slasher, four years before John Carpenter unleashed Michael Myers on cinemagoers. It bears all of the markings of the classic setup: located in a sorority house on a specific date (a marketing gimmick that would be utilized many times), BLACK CHRISTMAS also makes great use of the POV shot, and, of course, kills a selection of saucy young ladies (including a pre-SUPERMAN Margot Kidder) before allowing one sole survivor to fight another day (or does she?).
BLACK CHRISTMAS, directed by PORKY’S-helmer Bob Clark has moments of genuine unpleasantness. The most disturbing aspect of all – and one that separates it from many other slashers – is that the killer is never revealed, and his motive remains a mystery. Its most unsettling moment comes a the film the closes, with our ‘final girl’ safely tucked up in bed, the mysterious psycho waits in the attic, cackling away with only a shrink-wrapped corpse for company.
If the basic plotting of BLACK CHRISTMAS laid the foundations for some of the slasher’s most recognisable conventions, then HALLOWEEN (1978) added another crucial element. It was here that a difference could be identified between victims and survivors; it was the sexually active teenagers that Michael Myers killed, whilst the virginal Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) survived. The issue of sex became even more prominent with Sean S. Cunningham’s HALLOWEEN knock-off FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980).
By now, everyone knows the story: Camp Crystal Lake counselors ignore the screams of disfigured Jason as he drowns. They’re too busy indulging in pleasures of the flesh and smoking grass. Years later Jason’s vengeful mother lets loose on a new generation of camp counselors, killing them in increasingly inventive ways.
Though Michael Myer’s victims were indeed ‘at it’, there’s nothing to suggest (on the surface at least) that this is his primary reason for killing them. Pamela Voorhees, on the other hand, makes no bones about it: it’s straight up revenge on the sexually active.
There’s little doubt that this became something of a recurring theme in the slasher genre – many teens that indulged in sexual relations found themselves on the receiving end of a whole manner of weapons and cutting tools, as did those who liked a puff of weed (although a great number of sexually inactive and drug-free teens were also for the chop). However, contrary to popular belief, this does not mean that the survivor will always be a virgin despite what the postmodern slashers would have you believe. Even in FRIDAY THE 13TH, in which the sexual issue is as central as ever, the final girl Alice is in a relationship with another counselor. Sure, we may not see her topless or in the thralls of passion, but she’s no stranger to boys. In fact, the notion of the virginal final girl is something of a misconception, and following FRIDAY THE 13TH there are numerous examples of variations within surviving characters.
Consider THE BURNING (1981), in which a severely burned caretaker heads to a summer camp to off a group of counselors (sound familiar?). Here an entire group survives, some virgins and some not. And then there’s SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983) in which one of the surviving girls turns out to also be the killer. And to have a penis. Also, there’s THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1982), which sees a trio of girls survive, two of whom are far from virginal (one is even accused of dishing out hand jobs in the 5th Grade).
This is not the only area of variation within the original slasher cycle. The killer too takes on different guises: sometimes they are masked (FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3D), sometimes they are not (MANIAC); sometimes they are psychologically scarred (TERROR TRAIN), and sometimes physically scarred (THE BURNING); sometimes they avenge past crimes (PROM NIGHT), sometimes they like to celebrate special occasions (SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT), and sometimes they like to kill just because they like it (FINAL EXAM).
By the time A NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST arrived in 1984, the slasher had evolved. The original cycle was essentially finished by this point, and the killers of the ‘post slashers’ (as film commentator Peter Hutchings calls them) had acquired a supernatural edge. Not only did Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers become indestructible killers as the sequels continued, but Freddy Kruger had arrived on the scene, invading the dreams of his young victims. Also, by this point the final girl was noticeably more aggressive; whilst many of the original climatic battles had been fought out of necessity as the girls were forced to defend themselves, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) lured Freddy from the dream-world purposefully, having set up a variety of booby-traps to use against him. One of Freddy’s later adversaries even engages him in some martial-arts action.
The next major evolution in the slasher came with the release of SCREAM in 1996 (but let us not forget the overlooked WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE – postmodern before it was cool). At this point the new slasher films were bent on exposing and breaking down of the conventions laid out by their predecessors. As this fresh cycle continued – admittedly an exciting period for horror at first – the slasher became just as stale as it had in the late 1980s. By the time the uninspired VALENTINE appeared in 2001 the subgenre was ready to move aside for the emerging torture porn films.
But the slasher is not dead, and it continues to stab at the eyes through a series of poorly-conceived remakes (with most of the significant originals being given the makeover treatment). But a new breed of slasher will eventually arrive in some form or another, adding new layers of variance of what is a deceptively diverse collection of films.
For those eager to indulge in some of the original slasher mayhem, look no further than Cigarette Burns’ Lacerated Lovers double bill at The Prince Charles Cinema, Leicester Square this Wednesday 26th October.
Cigarette Burns, London’s favourite advocator of forgotten and obscure cinema, has chosen two of the most memorable slashers from the original cycle, MY BLOODY VALENTINE and ROSEMARY’S KILLER (aka THE PROWLER).
ROSEMARY’S KILLER tells the story of Avalon Bay, where the first Graduation Ball for 35 years is about to be staged. Naturally, the event takes a turn for worse when a scorned World War II vet returns to the town for some murderous fun.
MY BLOODY VALENTINE is set in a small town where 20 years before a gas explosion killed a team of miners. On Valentine’s Day, no less. As the town prepares for another Valentine’s celebration, the accident’s only survivor returns to wreak pickaxe-shaped chaos.
Business as usual then
Cigarette Burns’ Lacerated Lovers double bill takes place Wednesday 26th October.
Tickets cost £12 for both films, or £6.50 each
Visit Cigarette Burns Cinema here
Visit The Prince Charles Cinema here