Some film genres just exist. Others were birthed over a long gestation period, pulling organs and vital parts from other pre-existing genres until they lurched forward like the cinematic equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster. No genre had a more complex incubation than the slasher movie. Like one of the superstars of the slice and dice picture, the slasher film truly is ‘the bastard son of a thousand maniacs’. Depending on how far one cares to dig, the genre’s origins can be traced all the way back to the horror plays of the Grand Guignol theatre in late 19th century Paris. But for more solid foundations Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is the clearest inception point. From there German and Italian filmmakers of the late sixties introduced their ‘krimi’ and ‘giallo’ films which often depicted glove wearing assassins stalking well-to-do socialites via barely decipherable plots. While the splatter/exploitation films of the early seventies upped the gore they offered little more story sense. Then 1974 arrived and with it the next two key ingredients in the slasher soufflé. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) introduced the idea of the iconic masked killer and Black Christmas (1974) presented the isolated setting full of virginal female victims. The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) had a stab at combining these facets but didn’t quite know what sort of movie it wanted to be. Then it arrived; Halloween (1978). The rules were set, the recipe perfected, and the slice and dice movie was born. A number of horror films in subsequent years dabbled with the genre, but to be a true slasher picture certain tropes had to be included. The setting had to be true Americana, a high school, a summer camp, a house party, the victims had to be recognisable bordering on stereotype, and the mystery villain had to be masked, charismatic and revealed in the last reel. It was a simple and cheap formula, deceptively so; many moviemakers assumed it was easy to make a good slasher film but soon found out that it wasn’t as easy as ticking off a checklist of clichés. Here are ten films that sliced, diced, slashed and stabbed their way to movie nirvana.
- HALLOWEEN (1978)
There’s some debate amongst horror fans as to whether Halloween was really the first proper slasher film, or whether the title should be bestowed upon Bob Clarke and his Black Christmas (1974). While Clarke’s film certainly provided inspiration it was missing one vital element of the slasher formula, an iconic killer. Black Christmas’s Billy remains a squealing voice on the telephone, never seen except for a brief glimpse of one eye; he isn’t fit to wash Michael Myers’ overalls. Whether writer/director/composter John Carpenter and his then girlfriend Debra Hill set out to make the quintessential slasher film remains doubtful; in their words they just wanted to make the scariest film possible and their script took shape around all of the best scary set pieces they could concoct. What then happened was a perfect storm of filmmaking elements combining to create one of the greatest horror movies of all time. Casting was perfect, soundtrack was unforgettable, cinematography and lighting took full advantage of the widescreen format to compose some of the most beautiful looking scenes of any film, horror or otherwise. And then there was Myers, a villain so wrapped in mythos it seemed like he’d already existed for years prior, instantly iconic in his minimalistic costume and relaxed but relentless movement. It all combined to create a package so flawless even highbrow critics such as Rogers and Ebert, usually so sniffy about horror films, were impressed. Carpenter achieved $70million off of a paltry £325,000 budget as light-bulbs and dollar signs pinged above a thousand Hollywood heads.
Tasty Morsel – Both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee turned down the role of Dr. Loomis due to the low pay. Carpenter’s third choice was Donald Pleasence who was paid $20,000 for just five days work.
- FRIDAY THE 13th (1980)
By the start of 1979 it became apparent to studio execs just what a money spinner Halloween was. Businessmen were eager to cash in but it would take months for a filmmaker to come up with a finished product. The only studios to immediately cash-in on Carpenter’s success were those lucky enough to have a similar thriller already in production at the time Halloween was wowing audiences, Tourist Trap (1979) and When A Stranger Calls (1979), both solid films in their own right. Eager to get ahead of the crowd, director Sean S Cunningham had another inspired title for a horror film, Friday the 13th. With nothing more than the name of his film, and the infamy gained from his previous horror film success (a collaboration with Wes Craven on The Last House On The Left (1972), Cunningham took out a full page ad in industry publications proclaiming Friday the 13th to be the scariest movie of all time. Interest was piqued, but now Cunningham needed to deliver. The director turned to his industry friend Victor Miller who quickly came up with a script that was to compliment Halloween in finalising the remaining fundamentals of the slasher genre. The final ingredients were red herrings, scantily clad cast members, stunningly realised gore effects, and the slightest sprinkle of fun and black humour “We ain’t gonna stand for no weirdness out here”. All of these facets were presented with another winning combination of film elements, an instantly recognisable soundtrack, a game cast, beautiful cinematography, and a Camp Crystal Lake / Voorhees family legend that was far too intriguing to leave alone. The result was another phenomenal box office take, $60million on $500,000 budget. A sequel was discussed within days of Friday the 13th arriving in cinemas. The fate of horror cinema was sealed for at least the next three years; the slasher film was a goldmine, and filmmakers were lining up with their pick-axes, eager for their share of the loot.
Tasty Morsel – Writer Victor Miller had original named Pamela’s son Josh, but fearing the name was too ‘soft’ he changed it to Jason after a child who had bullied him at school.
- MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981)
Slashers arrived thick and fast after Friday the 13th, but even at this early juncture in the genre it was clear that a good number of them wouldn’t be worth the viewers time. The likes of Don’t Go In The Woods … Alone! (1981) and Final Exam (1981) showed that simply lumping together the components of a slasher film wasn’t enough; talent, conscientiousness, and the desire to make a quality product were also needed. One of the first post Friday slashers to get horror fans excited was My Bloody Valentine (1981) the directorial debut of George Mihalka. Embracing the best slasher tropes but placing his own stamp on the story, screenwriter John Beaird shifted the action to the less obvious locale of a northern USA mining town. He also upped the age of the protagonists; out went the giggly high schoolers, in came the mid-twenty-somethings complete with their own life baggage. The antagonist was Harry Warden, a miner who was left trapped in the towns labyrinthine mines complex when the mine supervisors abandoned their post to attend the town’s annual dance. Twenty after the original tragedy the dance is revived, but at the same time the killings start again. Mihalka’s film had atmosphere in spades, a likeable cast, and villain as creepy as any in the sub-genre thanks to the trademark miners get-up. Its standout though were the remarkable kill scenes which remained censored until 2009 when Lionsgate acquired the rights to the film and finally released it in all of it uncut gory glory.
Tasty Morsel – In a tribute to Friday the 13th the date at the start of the film is Thursday 12th February, with the climatic town dance occurring on Saturday the 14th February.
- THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW (1983)
For a debut director Mark Rosman certainly set a high water mark, one that he never matched during the rest of his career. The House On Sorority Row (1983), with its lurid poster art, looked to be just the next entry in a genre that had quickly become exploitative. But while the film certainly featured the trappings of the slasher film, bare-chested young ladies and blood splattered death scenes, it remembered to add an important ingredient that so many of its contemporaries forgot, a compelling storyline. Co-writing with Bobby Fine, Rosman came up with a captivating hook; a group of college girls play a prank on their overly strict sorority house mistress, but when the prank goes awry and the mistress dies the girls have to hide the body before their big end of semester party. With the crime seemingly gotten away with, the girls try to enjoy the evening, until they start to go missing one by one. In a short running time Rosman somehow manages to flesh out the large group of sorority house girls, giving them each personalities and likeable traits, even the bitch of the group Vicki (Eileen Davidson). The large sorority house party, complete with house band, drunken extras and naff paper decorations, is an excellent setting for a slasher film, and Rosman takes full advantage with the intermittent kills a break from the party hubbub. The films climax moves the film in to thrilling new dimensions as Rosman pays full tribute to genre legend Dario Argento, leaning heavily on the director's bold lighting style and penchant for children's toys and the creepy ambience they provide, as heroine Kathryn (Katey Rose on fine form) drifts in to an hallucinatory state. A remake, Sorority Row (2009), followed which started promisingly but couldn't match the fantastic finale that Rosman delivered years prior.
Tasty Morsel – The film was retitled House of Evil for its British release.
- A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
Just when it seemed that the slasher cycle had come to an end one of horror cinema’s most notorious villains emerged from the mind of filmmaker Wes Craven to breath new life in to the slice and dice craze. If Craven had gotten his wish though Freddy Krueger’s introduction to the world would have happened a lot sooner; his script for what would become A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) had been shopped around Hollywood for a few years with no takers. Having been inspired by a newspaper article about a village in Asia where young men were dying in their sleep, Craven concocted a unique take on the slasher convention, a razor fingered former child killer who stalks his victims in their sleep, their deadly wounds manifesting in the real world. Even those with no interest in horror knew who Freddy was thanks to the media smorgasbord that followed his film sequels; Freddy and actor Robert Englund became as synonymous with the eighties as Michael Jackson and Hulk Hogan. But before Englund became the rapping, wisecracking, merchandise peddling clown he was by the late eighties, his initial outing had him as a scarred mystery man of few words who let his finger blades do the talking. The dream world he inhabited was equally terrifying, a queasy, logic defying hell where the ground beneath you would turn to quick sand and you could never outrun the man looking to slice you to pieces. And slice you he would, as demonstrated by the still horrific slaying of Tina in the film’s first fifteen minutes. It was a brilliant concept, full of promise for intriguing and scare inducing sequels. Sadly, the follow-up film was the poor A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985). Subsequent instalments only got worse until Craven finally returned his series to glory with the underrated Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994).
Tasty Morsel – Roy Scheider was in line to play Lieutenant Thompson but had to step away from the role as he was still involved in shooting 2010 (1984); John Saxon eventually filled the Lieutenant's shoes.
- CANDYMAN (1992)
The late eighties to mid-nineties were a barren time for the slasher film. Audiences had grown weary of serial killer antics and box office returns gradually diminished. With no guarantee of a return on their investment mainstream studios were no longer willing to fund slice and dice projects. A slasher film could still be cheaply made but only small outfits dabbled with the genre and the result was uninspiring direct-to-video offerings like Pumpkinhead (1988), Puppet Master (1990), Demonic Toys (1992), Leprechaun (1993), and Return of the Boogeyman (1994). Somehow amongst these turgid offerings arrived Candyman (1992), not just one of the best slasher films but one of the finest horror movies of all time. Stemming from Clive Barker’s ever fertile Books of Blood series of short stories first published in 1984, the source material was The Forbidden. It told of a university student investigating the urban myths around graffiti on a Liverpool housing estate. Filmmaker Bernard Rose took the bones of the story and relocated it to a housing project in Chicago, casting Virginia Madsen as Helen, the graduate researching urban legends and Tony Todd as the fabled serial killer she discovers. A combination of top class acting from the leads, startling set design, and a haunting soundtrack from Phillip Glass elevate Rose’s film well above standard slasher fare. Candyman has an almost Shakespearean level of tragedy; as the plot progresses you realise its less about the titular hook wielder and more about Helen’s increased suffering and the complete unravelling of her life. Ambiguity hovers as you question whether there is even a Candyman or whether its Helen doing the killing all along. Twenty six years on Candyman still stands as, arguably, the high point of the slasher genre.
Tasty Morsel – Eddie Murphy was the strange first choice for the title role. A lack of budget meant Murphy's wage demand's couldn't be met and the role thankfully went to the classically trained stage actor Todd.
- SCREAM (1996)
Around 1995 a small wave of cinematic nostalgia began to bubble up. Both filmmakers and viewers were misty-eyed for the early eighties and the result was the unlikely return of two of the decades cinematic sub-genres. American Pie (1999) would go on to revive the high-school sex-comedy of Porkys (1981) and Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), but before that a hot-property script by struggling actor/screenwriter Kevin Williamson would lead to a surprise return for the slasher picture. Originally titled Scary Movie, Williamson’s script featured a group of horror movie savvy teens tangling with a masked serial killer. An intriguing prospect, the Weinstein brothers won the bidding war on the script and wisely placed it in the hands of horror film legend Wes Craven. His knowledge of the genre, combined with Williamson’s script resulted in the ultimate homage to the slasher genre. There are so many tributes and nods to slice and dice history Scream (1996) holds up to multiple watches incredibly well. Amongst all the clever script work Craven remembered that the movie also had to be a great fright film. For its scares alone Scream can be heralded, but combined with those fantastic tributes it makes for one of the best horror films of all time, played out by one of the finest slasher casts since Halloween, a collection of young Hollywood talent all on the verge of breaking through. Three sequels and a television series of varying quality followed and the slasher movie made a return.
Tasty Morsel – Drew Barrymore was originally cast in the role of Sidney, but insisted that she take the opening role of Casey so that her death would leave the audience thinking anything could happen.
- URBAN LEGEND (1998)
Much like the post Halloween dash for cash, in the wake of Scream’s $170million profit off of a $15million budget, studios snapped up almost any slasher script that came their way. But rather than a flood of quality horror films, it revealed that Scream was more of a glorious one-off, the likes of Wishmaster (1997), Psycho (1998), and Halloween H20 (1998) and numerous others barely passable as horror film experiences. One of the few slashers to match Scream for quality was Urban Legend (1998). The second film from Australian director Jamie Blanks and the debut script from Silvio Horta, Urban Legend had an enticing premise, a murderer utilising all of the check-the-children / killer-in-the-backseat modern cautionary tales as modus operandi for their kills. It made for a number of tense but fun set pieces. And that was the extra ingredient Urban Legend had that the other Scream-wannabes missed, the sense of fun that spiced many of the successful post Halloween slashers. An accomplished cast featuring Alicia Witt, Jared Leto, Tara Reid, Joshua Jackson, and Rebecca Gayheart gave the script their all, allowing the humour to slip by perfectly without damaging those points of the plot designed to be serious or scare inducing. The latter makes for an intriguing whodunit and a cast of characters worth caring about, an essential but often overlooked ingredient of the slasher movie. The climax delivers on the build-up thanks to the actor in the final villain role fully embracing the madness and melodrama of a knife happy nutjob. An equally cheeky sequel was released two years later Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000), followed by a less impressive direct-to-video part three Urban Legends: Bloody Mary (2005).
Tasty Morsel – In a nod to the Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) the surname of the killer is listed in the final credits as Bates.
- BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON (2006)
The post Scream slasher revival was relatively short lived and it didn’t take long for the genre to become stale again. The next horror trend was remakes and reboots, but rather than usher in a third era of slasher delights classics of yesteryear were lazily redone, the likes of Black Christmas (2006), Halloween (2007), Prom Night (2008), Sorority Row (2009) and My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009) disappointing many slasher aficionados . After this fad there was seemingly little left for the genre to say. Forays in to slice and dice became few and far between, and filmmakers who dabbled in the sub-genre had to become even more creative in order to capture fans’ attention. One of the most inventive offerings was Scott Glosserman's Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006). Taking inspiration from the found-footage sub-genre, we follow journalist Taylor (Angela Goethals) as she films her own documentary on serial killer in the making Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel). The obvious moral question of a filmmaker following a man plotting serious crimes is never addressed, but in the face of increasingly dubious reality television it’s a question that continues to fade in relevance. As Glosserman presents it, you soon accept that Taylor is following Leslie as an observer only and that’s how it is. Seeing the slasher film from the killers point of view makes for an incredibly intriguing watch with numerous moments of black humour, ‘Plants and turtles. I only keep pets I can eat’. Even when the climax dramatically switches perspective to a straight forward stalk and slash film its maintains its quality and doesn’t disappoint with its finale, hinting at a sequel that fans are still eagerly awaiting.
Tasty Morsel – The film is littered with tributes to other horror films, including a lament configuration box from Hellraiser (1987) and the Red Rabbit pub from Halloween
- THE FINAL GIRLS (2015)
Further creative slasher thinking followed Leslie Vernon nine years later when Mark Fortin and Joshua Miller got their inventive script The Final Girls (2015) on to the big screen. Joshua, being the son of Jason Miller, Father Karras in The Exorcist (1973), had grown up having to watch his father die on screen numerous times. Taking this odd phenomena as a launchpad his script revolves around Amanda (Malin Akerman) and her daughter Max (Taissa Farmiga); Amanda stared in a Camp Bloodbath in her younger days, a Friday the 13th-esque series of exploitation horror films, something her daughter Max struggles to come to terms with as Amanda is now struggling for acting work and the pair are on hard times. Following Amanda’s death in a car crash, Max is invited to a showing of her mother’s most famous film. But a after a fire in the theatre Max finds herself transported in to the film itself, somehow now alongside mother in her big role as Camp Bloodbath’s Nancy. It’s a clever conceit, but what elevates Tood Strauss-Schulson film is the cast of characters caught up in the mayhem. What many slasher films forget is that the heroes and heroines need to be likeable; so many slashers feature teens so annoying or horrible you don’t care if they live or die. The Final Girls has heart to spare though thanks to the wonderful chemistry between Akerman and Farmiga. It’s their film, so much so you can look past the lacklustre design of the films villain Billy and the lack of gore, something an affectionate Friday the 13th tribute really should have featured. It’s a genuinely emotional story that features a wonderful pay off. When combined with the fantastic humour throughout as Max and her friends try to figure out how to survive being trapped in an eighties slasher film, ‘Why do we need a chainsaw for a slumber party?’ it a mystery as to why the film didn’t fare better at the box office or why a sequel has yet to arrive.
Tasty Morsel - Miller originally wanted to use the Madonna’s Like A Prayer for the song that links Max and Amanda. After writing a letter to Madonna the singer replied to say the filmmakers could use any song in her back catalogue, but not Like A Prayer as she doesn’t license it for any outside use. Miller eventually used Kim Carnes' Bette Davis Eyes.