Diary of a Madman

It’s getting really difficult to think up song titles for these blog entries about slasher films. I may have to bust out some metal references pretty soon.

In my first post about slashers I mentioned how I considered there to be a distinction between slashers and serial killer movies. Obviously, all slashers are serial killer films in a sense. But in the archetypal slasher film, the killer is a mostly silent, faceless entity or “cipher” on which the audience can project its fears and emotions. Even though they typically have a name and a back story, we don’t usually see enough of them to know what they’re up to until they have closed in on their next victim.

This is a tradition going back to the Italian “giallo” films of the 70s. These films tended to be structured similar to a traditional murder mystery, where we don’t learn the killer’s true identity until the end of the film. Therefore, usually all we see of the killer is the hands and feet, or maybe a mask. (Dario Argento is famous for lending his own hands as stand-ins for the killers in his films, opening up a whole Freudian can of worms.)

So in films like Halloween (78) and Friday the 13th Part 2 (81), even though we know who the killer is, he is still fairly shrouded in mystery. Not true with films like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (86), Maniac (80), and more obscure entries such as Don’t Go In the House (80), Don’t Answer the Phone (80), and Don’t Watch This Movie (OK, I made the last one up). In these films, we are uncomfortably close to the killer. We see them as real people who live in apartments or houses and eat dinner. Maybe they even have a day job. They may stalk their prey, but they are much more than mere faceless stalkers. These films generally require a strong performance from the actor playing the killer, and when the right person gets the job, it can lead to some unsettling moments. In many ways, Anthony Perkins‘ role in Psycho (60) can be seen as a precursor to these films.

Another good example of this is Visiting Hours (82), a Canadian film that goes beyond the slasher cliches with Michael Ironside‘s intense portrayal of a vicious right wing psychopath who channels his hatred of women into a mission to destroy an outspoken feminist. By 1982, critics were already claiming that slasher films were inherently misogynistic, and this film seems to confront that notion head on. It’s still a trashy exploitation film, but you can’t accuse it of being mindless.

I still need to review The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (74) to see where it fits in to my rigid (and most likely pointless) slasher categorization. I’m thinking that this film, along with other 70s grindhouse terrors like Last House on the Left (72), Deranged (74), The Hills Have Eyes (77), and Eaten Alive (77) inhabit their own territory. These are incredibly violent films about murders that take place in predominately rural areas, so they have that in common with the slashers. But they also show us more of the killers than the ole stalk ‘n’ slash, so they have a connection to films like Henry.

Occasionally, a horror film from this time period fails to fit neatly into one of these categories, and that’s where it gets interesting. Tourist Trap (79) is another fun movie that borrows heavily from the 70s rural psycho tradition. There is little mystery to Chuck Connors‘ psychopath. We know what he looks like, how he talks, and more or less what he’s up to from the beginning. But that doesn’t prevent us from wanting to watch Tanya Roberts (and her Daisy Dukes) try to scramble away from his clutches for an hour and a half. Tourist Trap is part slasher, part serial killer expose, and part lurid grindhouse entertainment.

NEXT: More 80s madness dissected!

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3 Responses to “Diary of a Madman”

  1. Mmmm, I love Tourist Trap, it’s like a psychadelic slasher film. Plus, it has a supernatural element. Yeah, it’s definitely unique and hard to put into one pat genre.

    Hey, have you seen Don’t Go in the House? I only saw it for the first time maybe two years ago, and I adored it. However, I adore Maniac too, so take that as you will!

    Great post, btw!

  2. roarvis Says:

    Thanks Amanda!

    I saw Don’t Go in the House on VHS many years ago. Thought it was great, but it’s probably time to revisit. I’ve never seen Maniac… *gasp!*

  3. Oh no! Go see Maniac now! It’s still amazing and terrifying, all these years later…

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