||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, 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) and Savage Weekend (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, 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 1982 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 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 were for slasher movies. Even feminists took a satirical stab at the subgenre with 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 franchises 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.
Other common characteristics include:
- The hero—The hero is the protagonist. The main character is usually a female (sometimes male in other slasher films) and the quietest, most nervous one. Whenever one of their friends goes missing (i. e. killed), they are the first to notice it. The main character is usually not using any illegal material, they don't have sex (at least, rarely) and do not exhibit rebellious behavior, unlike their friends. The hero is usually aware of the killer, while their friends are too busy having fun. In the middle of the movie, when maybe three or four friends are killed, the hero and the other survivors fight the killer. Their last two or three remaining friends are usually killed near the end of the film, while the hero triumphs against the killer and is saved by the police/help/adults. Not all slasher films let the main character win. In the movie Bereavement, the protagonist Allison is killed violently by an 11-year-old child named Martin, who stabs her in the stomach repeatedly. Also, in I'll Always Know What You Did Last Summer, the protagonist Amber is killed by Ben Willis at the end of the film when she gets out of the car to look around just as Ben appears behind her and slashes her with his hook, killing her.
- The killer—With notable exceptions, the killer in the slasher film is usually male. His identity is often, but not always, unknown and/or concealed either by a mask or by creative lighting and camera work. He is often mute and seemingly unstoppable, able to withstand stabbings, falls and shootings by his victims. He is usually very strong and sometimes very big, making it almost impossible to kill him. His background sometimes includes a childhood trauma that explains his choice of victim, weapon and location (the killer can be made out to be pitiable or misunderstood). Slasher villains tend to prefer handheld weapons such as knives, axes, machetes and/or chainsaws as opposed to firearms. Throughout most of the franchises, the killer is constant. Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Chucky are notable examples of this type. Rarely the killer is a woman; a notable example is 2011's Scream 4 where Sidney's cousin was the primary killer Jill Roberts. Another example is the original Friday the 13th, wherein Jason's mother, Mrs. Voorhees, was the original killer, as well as Tiffany, becoming Chucky's partner in crime, in the later Child's Play installments.
- The victims—The victims tend to be young, attractive, high school or college-aged adolescents. Much has been made about the choice of victims. Some theorists claim that they [young people] are punished for indulging in vices such as pre-marital sex or illegal drugs. Other theorists claim that is simply a matter of the activities making the victims unaware of their surroundings, making them easy prey for the killer. The violence often takes place during or after sexual activity. According to Barry Sapolski, it has been argued that through a process of classical conditioning slasher films have a desensitizing effect. Exposure to scenes of explicit violence juxtaposed with sexual images is believed to blunt males' emotional reactions to film violence and lead males to be less disturbed by scenes of extreme violence and degradation directed at women.
- The first victim—Often a minority. In later films, the minority victim is actually turned into a Sisyphean figure who is aware of his tragic fate, expecting to die early in the movie.
- The location—Many slasher films are set in isolated locations such as on islands, deep in forests, small towns, abandoned buildings and farms. The killer may have a connection to their chosen location, such as from a tragic event or just live/frequently visit the area. The locations are generally low in population, sometimes with very few to no inhabitants and are far away from civilization, which can present a problem for the police and other emergency services to arrive quickly if requested by the victims. Mobile phone reception may be too weak to make a phone call, and the killer can isolate his victims further by cutting the phone or electrical lines, disabling communication devices (short wave radio) and destroying their means of escape such as their vehicles, which makes escape near impossible. This can allow the killer to freely kill his victims without the need to worry about interference from the outside world.
- Final girl—Slasher films frequently have only a single survivor. She is frequently a female peer of the victims but is cinematically developed in comparison to his or her cohorts. She usually does not indulge in the illicit activities of her friends.
- The adults—Many slasher films have adults that are unaware that the youths are being attacked by a killer. Usually after the final girl calls the police or parents, either the phone is dead or they never make it in time. In some slasher films, the adults are sometimes attacked/killed by the killer themselves and the group of friends have no help at all. In many slasher films, the parents are usually away for some vacation or work or something that involves leaving the teenagers by themselves. When somebody calls the police, they frequently thinks it's a prank until they see the killer for themselves.
- The violence—One thing that separates slashers from thrillers and murder mysteries is the level of violence. Slashers generally de-emphasize plot and character development in favor of violence and terror. Plots are constructed around giving the audience the experience of watching the killer's murders. The deaths are often violent and graphic, with originality being valued in the later films to hold audience interest.
- The police— The police generally fall under one of three categories in horror, and especially slasher films. They are either extremely slow-witted, and get killed after laughing off a threat, or are extremely competent (one example being Deputy Dewey Riley in the Scream series) and either get killed, or turn up at the end of the movie when most characters are dead to arrest the perpetrator. As series such as Friday the 13th added more and more sequels, with the recurring killer who had been killed in the previous film coming back to life to kill again, police reaction was often to laugh it off - their explanation being that the main characters were still traumatised from the killings they had witnessed in the last film.
- The obligatory sequel set-up- In the final shots of the film, we find out that the terror isn't over yet as the wheels go into motion for the follow up for what the viewer just watched. This sequence in slasher films may have started with John Carpenter's "Halloween", as viewers mistook the end scene, in which we follow Michael Myers back to the Myer's home through the camera's eye, as an indication of a promised sequel, even though John Carpenter never intended that sequence to suggest an upcoming sequel from the get go. A majority of films have the sequel set-up but few have actually capitalized on the payout. Notable Slasher films that have actually followed on their promise include "Friday the 13th", "A Nightmare On Elm Street", and "Silent Night, Deadly Night".
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".
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.
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 franchise 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 franchise 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 franchises.
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