Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Chill List #3: Thoughts On Slashers...

As a child of the late 1970s and early 1980s I witnessed the birth and golden age of the so-called "slasher film." I'm not as expert on the genre as those who are true horror-hounds, so I'm going to stick with what I know.

The genre's aunt and uncle were the "giallo" movies that were coming out of Italy by directors like Mario Bava and Dario Argento.  "Giallo" literally means "yellow" which was the color Italian publishers put on the spines of their crime-thriller novels.  The giallo movies were essentially "whodunnits" but with more sexuality, and the violence and blood cranked up to 11, as amateur sleuths tried to solve mysteries while black gloved killers ran amok.

The cult-popularity of those films opened the door to American filmmakers to stories that featured higher body counts and more gruesome methods of mayhem. However, for the most part the major studios weren't really interested in making these kinds of films. It fell upon independent producers to break the blood soaked ice, but they had limitations.

Specifically one big limitation, that was money.

They didn't have very much of it.

That means to make this sort of horror thriller work the script needed to have certain qualities:

1. Limited Locations.  This sort of film doesn't have the budget to be a James Bond style travelogue visiting major cities all over the world. The fewer places you have to film at the better.

2. Compressed Time. Costumes cost money. So it's better to have the whole story occur in a very narrow time frame so the characters aren't constantly changing from one outfit to another. If it all happens in one day, that's perfect.

3. Tight Schedule. The film needs to be shot, edited, and released very quickly if the producers have a chance of making their money back. That means very little in the way of special effects, elaborate stunts, and large scale set pieces.

4. Predominantly Unknown Cast. Stars cost money, nowadays way more money than they're worth. To make a low budget horror film you can only at best afford one or two "name" actors whose roles that can be shot in a minimum of time and per day fees. Every other part has to be cast with relative unknowns, so making the characters young is a plus in every direction.

This formula was congealed by an Bob Clark, an American director working in Toronto, Canada, with his film Black Christmas about a sorority house besieged by a killer and obscene phone caller named Billy.

It turned out that the formula to save money made the films more compelling. The compressed time frame created suspense and pacing,  the limited locations created a sense of claustrophobic dread, and the mostly unknown cast made it look like anyone could get whacked. Also having a young cast appealed to a young audience.

Now the original Black Christmas only made a tiny blip with the general public, but the seeds have been sown. Other producers, with the modest ambition of making a quick buck tried it out.

One of those producers was Irwin Yablans who recruited filmmakers John Carpenter and Debra Hill to put together a horror movie inspired by urban legends of babysitters and escaped maniacs creeping around the house. They also had to be able to shoot it for about $320,000 from producer/financier Mustapha Akkad. Other than that, they were given complete creative freedom.
The little film Carpenter and Hill came up with was Halloween. The story used the formula formed in Black Christmas to great effect. It drips paranoia, claustrophobia, and uncertainty in every frame.

Then came the ending (SPOILER) where Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) confronts escaped homicidal maniac Michael Myers before he can kill Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and empties his thirty-eight revolver into him. After assuring Laurie that it was over, he looks out the window to see that Michael's skedaddled. (END SPOILER)

That ending was a major shocker to movie audiences used to films being wrapped up neatly and helped make the film a phenomenon when it was released, raking in over $70 million at the box office. 

That success opened the floodgates.

Soon everyone with a camera and a recipe for fake blood was making their own slasher films.

The most successful of these Halloween imitators was Friday The 13th (1980). The first film had more of a whodunnit vibe with the identity of the killer remaining a mystery until the ending.

The film was profitable and spawned a quick sequel that dropped the whodunnit mystery angle and introduced the killer and hockey safety gear enthusiast Jason Voorheez who became the star of the series.

The makers of Halloween thought they had pushed their luck with having Michael Myers survive getting shot, so they attempted to wrap up his story and spree in Halloween 2 by having him and Dr. Loomis get incinerated in an exploding hospital.

There was an attempt to change the nature of the Halloween franchise by having independent storylines set during Halloween. However that attempt, Halloween 3: Season of the Witch tanked critically and commercially, so the producers, sans Carpenter and Hill, went back to the antics of Michael Myers.

The producers of the Friday the 13th series also tried to break from the formula of the first 3 films by having Michael Myers die in the fourth installment and then be replaced by a new masked maniac.  However, like Halloween, the producers dropped that idea, and just returned Jason back from the dead, again, and again and again.

These new beginnings for old killers marked the beginning of the end of the genre as a vital proving ground for new talent with clever ideas for shocks. Instead it became a search for excuses to keep bringing back the killers, no matter how far fetched, and make them completely unstoppable, while ratcheting up the blood spillage and body counts.

While the films still made money, it became a parade of up-scaling the gross and diminishing grosses. The indestructability of the killers in these movies leached out all suspense since the audience knew there was no way to stop him, and the plots became repetitive and predictable.

They even sent Jason into outer space. 


The Halloween series became a narrative mess with sequels delving into a mish-mash of supernatural nonsense to keep Michael coming back.

This dive into self-parody meant the genre was ripe for parody. The Scream series cast an ironic eye on the genre and the "rules" that it operated by. The first films were very successful, and over time the big studios saw this and said "me too."

They started buying up franchises like Halloween and Friday the 13th and tried to revive them. The H20 movie and its sequel tried to create a new storyline that ignored all the other sequels after Halloween 2, but that fizzled out by the second film. Then came remakes of My Bloody Valentine, Black Christmas, Friday The 13th (technically a remake of Part 2), and the first Halloween movie.

Most fizzled, some made some money, and they even made a sequel to the Halloween remake,  but even that fizzled out as a creative disappointment.

Why were the remakes considered disappointments?

Not just because they were remakes.

A lot of the time they attempted to explain the killers.

The originals had the simplicity of the urban legends that inspired him. There was no explanation for why Michael Myers went batshit at age 6. He was just evil and out to do evil.  Pamela Voorheez wanted revenge for the death of her mentally handicapped son which was caused by horny negligent counselors by killing all horny counselors. Jason took up the killing in the second movie, because that's what his Mama would have wanted him to do.

It was simple. 

Filmmakers of the remakes were trying to create more depth and complexity in the characters of the killers by trying to explain why they are what they are, while at the same time ratcheting up the bloody bits.

However, explanations, especially of masked maniacs, ruin the uncertainty. In the original Michael Myers just pops up in the middle of classical American suburbia for no obvious reason. That tells the viewer that it could happen anywhere to anyone, even the audience!

You see what I mean.

Anyway, I generally stick to the original classics, before they were infected by sequelitis.


  1. I am fan of bad and cheesy movies however most slasher movies leave me cold. I hate torture porn and find that genre to have fewer redeeming qualities than actual porn. The two kind of hang together in my mind so I watch very little slasher stuff.

    Furious, you have the analysis nailed. The first Halloween deserved to make money. It was the right move to try moving the Halloween lable to seasonal horror but it didn't take. Do you think current torture-porn is decended from the older stuff from the seventies or is it related to the modern slasher genre?

    What about Disney getting Starwars? Will they milk it as-is or try to put their own stamp on it? Where will they put their money and efforts, animation, live action, tv, movies, games etc? Actually, I'll go see a torture porn movie if they feature jar jar binks as the victim.

    Rainforest Giant

  2. this isn't strictly about this post (which was a great post, by the way). Furious, can you discuss your thoughts on a new Star Wars trilogy that is said to be on the way, since Disney just bought Lucasfilms?
    - existoid

  3. Already on the whole Disney Lucasfilm deal.

  4. I really hate it being called "torture-porn". this term is used just to castigate a genre and stigmatize its viewers. Yeah there are bad movies in which people suffer pain. So?

    In fact, while not everyone's cup of tea, most "torture porn" movies actually have pretty complex plotlines. The Saw movies are a case in point.

    there are also good films involving pain. Is "Fires on the Plains" torture porn?"Andre Rublev"? "Phenomena"? How about "At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul"? All include grim scenes of torture.


  5. I got so pissed at the torture porn thing I forgot to comment on the slashers. One aspect of slashers that you only peripherally touched on was the fact that they were very fan-driven. Lots of outsiders got involved, whose only claim to working on a movie was their special-effects skills they'd gained by reading Fangoria.

    Almost all slashers were indies. They didn't care about censorship, since most of them had at best a limited theatrical release, and were made to be sold in video stores. So most were Unrated, because their creators really wanted to have the movies be bloodthirsty.

    Most people know about Halloween and Friday the 13th. D has gone the extra step of learning about Black Christmas. Of course there were tons of obscure ones, like Toolbox Massacre, Last Horror Show, The Burning, Maniac, etc. Most are at best mindless forgettable entertainment. Much like most TV.

    They are no doubt descended from Giallos, but have some pretty significant differences. For one thing, in the average slasher, you WANT to see the victims get killed. But in a well-done giallo, you are rooting for the victims. Slashers are also much more predictable, even formal, in their approach, as mocked by the Scream series (and some others).

    I regard slashers as a guilty pleasure. If a friend wants to see a scary movie, I would never put on a slasher, but I often resort to a giallo.

    In the defense of the slashers, they do seem to have managed to spawn some worthy descendents. Freddy Krueger is no longer exactly a slasher movie, and some of his opus were kind of cool. And really, what is the difference between a body count monster movie, like Alien, and a slasher, except for the more risible threat of the former?