||This article's Criticism or Controversy section may compromise the article's neutral point of view of the subject. (September 2012)|
A slasher film is a subgenre of horror film, and at times thriller, typically involving a mysterious, generally psychopathic killer stalking and killing a sequence of victims usually in a graphically violent manner, often with a cutting tool such as a knife, a machete, an axe, or a chainsaw. Although the term "slasher" may be used as a generic term for any horror movie involving graphic acts of murder, the slasher as a genre has its own set of characteristics which set it apart from related genres like the splatter film.
- 1 Development
- 2 Early slashers
- 3 The slasher film in its prime
- 4 Decline and direct-to-video
- 5 Defining the subgenre
- 6 Controversy and critical analysis
- 7 Revival
- 8 See also
- 9 References
Origins and influences
Possibly the earliest slasher-type film is Thirteen Women (1932), which tells the story of an old college sorority whose former members are set against one another by a vengeful peer, seeking penance for the prejudice they bestowed on her because of her mixed race heritage.
The Leopard Man (1943), produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur, is one of the first American films to portray a psychotic serial killer whose identity remains a mystery until the very end. Another film influential to the subgenre is Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960). The film's plot centers around a man who kills women while using a portable movie camera to record their dying expressions. The film was immensely controversial when first released; critics called it misogynistic (as would critics condemn the slasher films during its golden age). Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), released three months after Peeping Tom, is often seen as an important forerunner to the genre. Even though the villain's body count is only two, the film's "whodunit" plot structure, knife-wielding and mentally disturbed killer, twist ending and 'stalking' camera technique proved influential on films to come. Another early pioneer of the subgenre is director Francis Ford Coppola's controversial 1963 film Dementia 13, which was rushed into production following Psycho's success at the box office.
The "splatter film"
Herschell Gordon Lewis, the self-proclaimed "godfather of gore", created the splatter film in 1963 with the release of Blood Feast. Blood Feast differed from its genre contemporaries in that it featured a character stalking and mutilating a series of beautiful women as well as featuring a previously unseen level of blood and gore. Lewis went on to use this successful "gore movie" formula in later movies such as Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964), Color Me Blood Red (1965), The Gruesome Twosome (1967), and The Wizard of Gore (1970).
It wasn't until 1971 when Hammer Film Productions released Hands of the Ripper that we get to see a combination of sorts of Gothic horror and slasher film surrounding the lore or Jack the Ripper starring Eric Porter as Dr. John Pritchard and leading lady Angharad Rees as the daughter of the Ripper.
The Italian "giallo"
A significant influence on the slasher subgenre was the Italian giallo film genre. These films typically featured mysterious killers, driving soundtracks and unusually explicit violence. Mario Bava is considered the progenitor of the genre, and his 1963 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much is considered the first giallo film. Bava continued with this style throughout his career, crafting numerous films such as Blood and Black Lace and the hugely influential Twitch of the Death Nerve. Bava proved highly influential on Italian horror cinema and ushered in a new wave of Italian directors, including most notably Dario Argento, as well as prompting the release of numerous giallo films in the early 1970s.
Writing in 2000, Tim Lucas wrote that Bava is "the acknowledged smoking gun behind the 'body count' movie phenomenon of the 1980s, which continues to dominate the horror genre two decades later with such films as Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer and their respective sequels." Friday the 13th Part 2, the sequel to the popular slasher film Friday the 13th, contains virtually shot-for-shot remakes of scenes from Twitch of the Death Nerve.
The "exploitation film"
The 1970s were arguably the Golden Age for exploitation films, films which tended to be low budget affairs specializing in suggestive or explicit sex, sensational violence, drug use, nudity, freaks, gore, the bizarre, destruction, rebellion and/or mayhem. While such films have existed since the earliest days of moviemaking, they were popularized in the 1960s with the general relaxing of cinematic taboos in the United States and Europe. Additionally, low budget filmmakers used sensational elements to attract audiences away from television. Slasher films are often considered exploitation films because of their use of often low budgets, nudity, gore and shock techniques. Arguably the most controversial of all exploitation films was Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left (1972). The film was produced by Sean S. Cunningham, who later went on to direct the popular Friday the 13th (1980).
Particularly important to the development of the slasher subgenre was Tobe Hooper's 1974 film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which featured a mysterious masked killer known as Leatherface, building on the slasher villain formula.
Black Christmas (1974) is widely considered the first proper slasher film. Directed by Bob Clark (later the director of A Christmas Story), Black Christmas was one of the earliest films to present some of the characteristics that the slasher subgenre would come to be known for: a mysterious stalker, a set of adolescent or young adult victims, a secluded location with little or no adult supervision, point-of-view camera shots representing the "killer's perspective", a jolting score and graphic depictions of violence and murder. Other films considered early slashers include Silent Night, Bloody Night (1974), Savage Weekend (1976), and Alice, Sweet Alice (1976).
It was not until the huge box office success of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) and Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th (1980), both of which spawned numerous sequels and remakes and countless imitators, that the slasher genre began to gain widespread popularity.
Halloween, though not the first film of its kind, was the first with a masked killing machine, and also the first film to introduce the concept of the killer being a seemingly indestructible evil force. Through its success, Halloween is often considered the film responsible for the proliferation of the slasher trend, popularizing many of what later became key elements in the genre. A long succession of slasher films were produced, though Halloween actually has far less graphic violence than the later films that defined the slasher genre. Friday the 13th was the first slasher film with an abundance of graphic violence to achieve mainstream popularity, and was also the first to couple this type of murderer character with the sequential murder countdown.
The slasher film in its prime
Following a trend set by Black Christmas, Silent Night, Bloody Night, Alice Sweet Alice, Halloween, and Friday the 13th (as well as To All a Goodnight, a slasher film with a Christmas setting released in January 1980 and preceding Friday the 13th by four months), many films of the era used special days or holidays as a motif. Titles released the same year as Friday the 13th were New Year's Evil, Delusion (also known as The House Where Death Lives), Prom Night and Christmas Evil, and 1981 saw the release of My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me, and Graduation Day. Humongous (1982) opened with a Labor Day weekend setting. Toward the end of the cycle, a twist on the genre was seen in April Fool's Day (1986). Blood Rage (1987) used a Thanksgiving weekend setting.
A few films picked up Friday the 13th's "youth camp in the woods" setting, like The Burning (1981), Madman (1982), Sleepaway Camp (1983) and Cheerleader Camp (1988). Other films highlighted high school or college settings: Terror Train (1980), Hell Night, Final Exam, Night School, the serio-comic Student Bodies (all 1981), The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1982), The House on Sorority Row (1983) and The Initiation, Splatter University and Girls Nite Out (all 1984). The "hospital" setting was used at least four times in the 1980s with Visiting Hours, Alone in the Dark, Hospital Massacre and Halloween II.
Other lesser-known films during the genre's heyday include He Knows You're Alone (1980), Just Before Dawn, Bloody Moon and Nightmare (all 1981), Blood Song (1982) and Mortuary (1983). Later entries include The Mutilator (1985), Mountaintop Motel Massacre (1986), Stage Fright (1987) and Intruder (1989). Obscure entries are Night Warning (1982) and Curtains and Death Screams (both 1983).
Despite a strict formula developing within the genre, audience interest was maintained by developing new, increasingly "novel" ways for victims to be killed, as well as increasingly graphic and realistic special effects. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Child's Play (1988) added supernatural twists to the slasher formula, as well as comedic elements as the series progressed.
Earlier films, such as Psycho (1960) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), were revived and given a series of increasingly gory sequels in attempts to compete with other series. The genre arguably peaked in 1983, a year in which, according to the book Crystal Lake Memories, nearly 60% of all box-office takings were for slasher movies. Even feminists took a satirical stab at the subgenre with The Slumber Party Massacre (1982).
The slasher villain as anti-hero
The larger part of slasher villains are portrayed as mentally deranged and/or physically deformed individuals who were traumatized, in many instances at an early age. Long-running series in the genre tended to focus more and more on the returning villain than on surviving victims, effectively transforming characters once viewed as sick psychopaths into sympathetic antiheroes for some. Notables include: Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Ghostface, Chucky, Pinhead, The Fisherman and Leatherface some of whom have become among the more recognizable 20th century American popular culture horror symbols.
Decline and direct-to-video
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 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.
Influence outside the United States
Notable non-US slashers are Cut from Australia, Cold Prey from Norway, Gutterballs from Canada, Anatomy from Germany, Dead in 3 Days (In 3 Tagen bist du tot) and its sequel from Austria and the French titles Haute Tension and Them.
Defining the subgenre
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The definition of a slasher film varies depending on who you ask, but in general, it contains several specific traits that feed into the genre's formula.
Slasher films can be split into two distinct sub-types: one type in which the killer's identity is known from the outset and he is shown overtly (albeit sometimes in a mask), and one in which the killer's identity is not known and which employ a whodunnit angle, often with a twist at the end.
There is substantial critical debate as to how to define the slasher subgenre and what films are and are not slashers. For instance, Vera Dika rather strictly defines the subgenre in her book Games of Terror, only including films made between 1978 and 1984 whereas Carol Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws has a looser definition, including films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its sequels. In Peter Hutchings book The Horror Film, he considers the films following the success of Halloween critically different than films prior (such as Chain Saw Massacre).
Vera Dika attempts to define the subgenre by its often formulaic plot structure. She theorizes that slasher films loosely adhere to the following formula:
- The young community is guilty of a wrongful action.
- The killer sees an injury, fault or death.
- The killer experiences a loss.
- The killer kills the guilty members of the young community
- An event commemorates the past action.
- The killer's destructive force is reactivated.
- The killer reidentifies the guilty parties.
- A member of the old community tries to warn the young community (optional).
- The young community takes no heed.
- The killer stalks members of the young community.
- A member of some type of force like a detective etc., attempts to hunt down the killer.
- The killer kills members of the young community.
- The hero/heroine sees the extent of the murders.
- The hero/heroine sees the killer.
- The hero/heroine does battle with the killer.
- The hero/heroine kills or subdues the killer.
- The hero/heroine survives.
- But the hero/heroine is not free.
She further goes on to attempt to define the subgenre's appeal to its audience as being threefold:
- Catharsis—Through a release of fears about bodily injury or from political or social tensions of the day.
- Recreation—An intense, thrill seeking, physical experience akin to a roller coaster ride.
- Displacement—Audiences sexual desires are displaced onto the characters in the film.
Controversy and critical analysis
The slasher genre is known for its extreme graphic violence and adult content which has frequently come under fire from censorship advocates, particularly from Christian and Family Friendly groups. Christian campaigner Mary Whitehouse had once led a crusade against so-called "video nasties". There are many slasher movies that have been censored. Scream is just one example of a slasher movie that has been censored. It was on the verge of getting an NC-17 rating. They cut out a guy's guts falling out, a second of blood, a guy's throat bleeding out, more stabs by the killers at the end, and a pool of blood by Sidney's dad.
Films such as Scream were warmly received because of their self-aware, parodic take on the subgenre. Roger Ebert coined the derogatory nickname "Dead Teenager Movies", although he did write a highly favorable review of the original Halloween. This was not the first time he had attacked the genre or coined a term for it: originally during the 1980s, he and Gene Siskel used the term "women in danger" films, exclaiming that the genre was degrading to women as it would show them at the mercy of a strong brutish man.
Three often-cited content analyses were performed by Cowan and O'Brien (1990), Weaver (1991) and Molitor and Sapolsky (1993). These analyses sought to verify or refute assumptions made about the subgenre.
Sotiris Petridis (2014) 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.
In the 1990s, the horror genre was almost dead. Audiences and critics were getting very tired of the same, typical teen slasher films. The slasher genre resurfaced into the mainstream in the mid 1990s, after being deconstructed in Wes Craven's Scream (1996), which was a quasi-satire of Halloween which had a similar effect on the movie industry. The film was both a critical and commercial success, and attracted a new generation to the genre. A self-aware satire of the slasher genre, whereby the characters did not make all the usual "mistakes" (i.e. saying "I'll be right back"), critics lauded Scream for its clever storyline and three-dimensional characters, with more of a focus on suspense than gore. The script carried its own learned analysis of slasher films, and was directed by Wes Craven, who directed A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Followed by three successful sequels, all starring Neve Campbell as main character Sidney Prescott, an attractive, intelligent and resourceful young woman whose characterization both mocks and typifies the "final girl" stereotype.
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 trend continued for the duration of the 1990s with films such as I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, Valentine, The Faculty, Final Destination, Cherry Falls and Jason X among others.
In 1998, the Halloween series was revived, playing off the success of the Scream series as well. The new film, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, was conceived as a direct sequel to 1981's Halloween II, and would lead to one further sequel, Halloween: Resurrection, before the 2007 reboot of the series altogether.
Scream's influence on the genre is still evident today, and examples of recent slasher films are Hatchet and its sequel, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, The Pumpkin Karver, Hellbent, Slash, Holla, MTV's My Super Psycho Sweet 16, Blood Night: The Legend of Mary Hatchet, Grizzly Park, April Fool's Day, The Legend of Bloody Jack, Trick 'r Treat, Killer Movie, All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, the Wrong Turn series and many more.
The Scream series was relaunched in 2011 with Scream 4, featuring a killer recreating the Woodsboro murders, therefore attempting to remake the original film. The film itself is not a reboot, though, featuring the surviving characters and acting as a sequel, but instead satirizes the ideas and conventions of remakes of horror films and reboots of film series.
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