To The Kill
I have a confession to make: I like slasher movies.
This won’t sound shocking coming from someone who is obviously a fan of horror films. But until a few years ago, I avoided slashers. I’ll go into a more detailed description of what I consider to be the definition of a “slasher” film in future entries, but basically I’m talking about movies where people are relentlessly stalked and systematically murdered by a (usually silent) killer.
I tended to agree with critics who snobbishly wrote this sub-genre off as being the lowest common denominator of horror. I scoffed at a friend who suggested I add more of a “body count” to a horror film treatment I was working on. Until recently, I had never seen a Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street film all the way through. For years, the only slasher I would take seriously was Halloween (1978), since it was “critically acclaimed.”
Part of my disdain for these films was due to the franchise element. I’ve always despised a lack of originality in movie making. It seemed that most slasher movies were either sequels, remakes or ripoffs of other slasher films. I also took issue with the mindless violence and gore. To me, an effective horror film could convey terror at the threat of violence without resorting to graphic, repetitive depictions of violence. And then there was the lack of character development. Most characters in slasher films exist as victims first, characters second. In many cases, they don’t even get to utter a single line of dialogue before being dispatched by a brutal and often unseen killer. Combine this lack of interest in human development with visual depictions of human lives being (literally) destroyed, and you can see why the slasher movement was deemed offensive or even threatening to many in the early 1980s.
But eventually I had to admit that my own prejudices toward slashers were somewhat hypocritical. For example, I have been an outspoken fan of exploitation films for many years. And there is nothing more formulaic and gratuitous than women in prison and rape/revenge films, to name two popular strains of sexploitation. And two of my favorite horror films, Alien (1979) and The Thing (1982), are essentially body count movies, with graphic violence to boot.
Also, there was another more personal reason why I avoided slashers: they scared the crap out of me. Whereas horror films about aliens and ghosts could be seen as pure fantasy, to me serial killers have always been real. As a kid growing up in a rural area, I was keenly aware how easy it would be for a deranged person to stalk and kill me and my entire family. Is it twisted for a kid to think that way? Probably. But like many people of my generation, I was exposed to violence via television and VHS rentals at a very young age. While I did develop a healthy love of horror films, I was not desensitized to violence. I was keenly aware that humans often did terrible things to one another. Films to me were an escape from reality in many ways, so the last thing I wanted to watch was something horrible that could possibly happen.
I was five or six when the first Friday the 13th came out. My sister was 11 years older, and therefore was being “forced” to go see horror movies with her friends. Despite her distaste for these movies, she graciously filled me in on the details. I heard about the famous “chestburster” scene in Alien from her, as well as the shock ending of F13 with Jason coming out of the water. My interest was piqued, although I decided then and there that I would be smart enough to avoid experiencing such traumatic visions firsthand.
But as the 80s wore on, slasher films became increasingly popular. Although I agree that the “classic” slasher period lasted from 1978 to 1984, that’s not taking into account the wave that followed with the debut of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). With Freddy Krueger, slasher villains took on a new edge. Supernatural elements had been hinted at before with Michael Myers (Halloween) and Jason Vorhees (Friday the 13th), but now they were explicit. I claimed to be uninterested in anything that was popular with the other kids (which was mostly true – I was a die hard nonconformist by age ten, an exercise in futility that only resulted in annoying my classmates), but in reality I was scared shitless of the Elm Street movies. Looking back, the concept of a killer who attacks the victim while they are sleeping, in their dreams, is brilliant. But I already had nightmares, and the last thing I needed was to think there was a chance I could be killed during one.
So I avoided the Elm Street series, and continued to avoid the F13 films, which were undergoing the “rebirth” of Jason Vorhees as a supernatural zombie type. But I watched from the sidelines as usual, grilling my friends on the gory details and imagining scenes in my mind that were probably worse than anything in the actual films.
As I got older, my love of horror films grew. But I still turned up my nose at those nasty slasher films. The problem was, no interesting horror films were being made anymore by the time the 1990s rolled around. I pretty much focused my attention on music for that decade, occasionally watching old favorites like Evil Dead (1981) and Re-Animator (1985), but not really discovering anything new.
When the magic of DVD technology arrived, it was time to re-assess the horror genre. At this point plenty of small distribution companies had sprung up, run by fans dedicated to restoring their favorite films with uncut prints and proper aspect ratios. The internet had also exploded with, among other things, a lot of excellent blogs written by horror fans. There had always been plenty of print publications that dealt with horror, but the online world seemed to break through some of the age and sex barriers that often led to a limited perspective.
I became friends with Amanda By Night, who wrote for both a print zine and later a website that I edited, and who has since gone on to international fame and fortune. I had assumed that horror fandom was only for sweaty, lonely dudes, but she showed me that women like horror too – and often understand it better than men. I was initially baffled by her love for violent Italian zombie films, cannibal flicks, made for TV movies, and most importantly – slashers. But her writing pointed out what was fun about these movies. It had not occurred to me that what I considered to be universally mean-spirited films could actually possess a sense of humor, and even (in some cases) a sympathetic view of the victims.
So I gradually started to watch some of the films I’d been avoiding, starting with the Italians. Splatter king Dario Argento led to goremeister Luci Fulci, and eventually the man who started it all, Mario Bava.
My horror watching kicked into high gear when I began dating a woman named Cecy (SPOILER: we’re engaged now) who shared my interest in the genre. We eventually moved in together, and after awhile she wisely talked me into buying a high definition TV, which enabled us to see, in many cases, what the filmmakers had originally intended the film-going audiences to experience.
Cecy was initially more into slashers than the atmospheric supernatural horror I preferred, so we dove in and began checking out some of the films that I’d missed. Black Christmas(1974) and The Burning (1981) were the ones that tipped the scales for me. I figured they would be good based on reviews Amanda had written for the zine, but was not prepared for how much fun they were. It was clear how much influence Black Christmas had on Halloween. But after watching The Burning, I knew I needed to pay my respects to Camp Crystal Lake.
A few weeks ago, Cecy bought me a Blu-Ray player for my birthday. The first discs we rented were Friday the 13th (1980) and My Bloody Valentine (1981). We liked MBV the best, and could breathe a sigh of relief, since we’re both huge fans of the band of the same name. After all the build up, F13 seemed pretty tame – although I’m sure the worst of this series is yet to come. Still, the end scene with the boat was as beautiful and scary as I had pictured in my mind back when my sister described it to me.
Now that things have come full circle in a way, I figure it’s time for me to continue my slasher movie education. So in the next coming months (or until I get distracted by another genre), I plan to watch every 80s slasher ever made. I’ve already seen a handful not mentioned in this entry, so I will mostly be focusing on those nasty franchises. But first, I’m going outside to investigate the strange noise I just heard…
Up Next: I will attempt to dismantle the difference between the slasher film and the serial killer film.
Further Reading: These blogs are well written, insightful, and often hilarious. They each contributed to my current slasher obsession.
Arbogast On Film
The Terror Trap
and last but not least,