The slasher film. Not as new as the torture flick (at least the popular ones), but possibly even more reviled. Indeed, aside from their fans, most people can’t find anything worthwhile about slasher flicks, while even respectable film critics often try to link movies like Hostel to the American Condition in this fearsome, post-9/11 world of ours.
Well, as you might guess after my ranting about torture porn, I disagree. I feel that there actually is a striking amount to appreciate about the slasher flick… or, at least, the well-done one.
Carol Clover, in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, says that slasher flicks are actually a way for adolescents to explore gender roles (among other things). Personally, I think that might be going just a smidge far. However, I will go so far as to say that the slasher flick is a twisted sort of adolescent wish fulfillment.
No, the teens aren’t wishing to be the killer. They’re not identifying with the killer. At least not most of the time. Rather, they’re using the slasher flick as a sort of quiet, bloody metaphor for what they themselves are going through, and what they wish they could see happen.
Think about it. What’s the basic slasher template? A bunch of horny teens head off to smoke, drink, and screw. Big nasty guy takes out all the most obnoxious examples of these teen stereotypes. Then, the ‘good girl’ takes out the big bad guy, before making her escape… until the sequel.
Not much for a teen fantasy, huh? Well… not really. Having been a teen recently, lemme give you my view of it. Who do you think most teens identify with, really? The killer? The horny teens? Nah. They identify with the heroine… the Final Girl. That’s who they do identify with… but they want to identify with the rest of the teens. The teens who pick on them, and pressure them to do things they really aren’t so sure about. The teens who’re having fun. The teens who’re getting laid. The teens who’re getting… eww. Okay, maybe not the teens who’re getting disemboweled by a hedge trimmer. Hmm… okay, maybe it’s not so bad to be the mousy girl who’s a little afraid of guys after all. Maybe it’s not so bad to not be the life of the party… better the wallflower than the first corpse, right?
Where does the killer play into this?
Do I really have to say it? Look around most slasher flicks, and what don’t you see? Parents. Cops. Authority figures, at least who have any positive effect. Why? Because the killer is the voice of the authority figure. The killer is the one who punishes the “bad boys and girls,” the people who go out and screw around and do all those things we really kinda wish we could do. And really… sorry to tell you, folks, but anybody over 30? That’s probably how you’re being viewed by a lot of teenagers. Too old to understand them, and if they step out of line you come down on them like a revved up chainsaw, leaving their bisected bodies behind to crawl helplessly back to their friends.
Therefore, the slasher flick becomes a story of the awkwardness and fears that teens endure. It validates their decisions to behave, when they do, warns them against straying from the path, and tells them that, yeah, even if adults can be a drag, eventually you can overcome them, if you use your head, think things through, and don’t give up. Maybe not the message we want to be sending all the time, but not a bad one for some teens to hear.
Now, of course, this isn’t the only interpretation of slasher flicks. Frankly, 90% of them, if not more, were made for one reason only – to put butts in seats. This explains most of the ugly things that people complain about – the protracted stalkings, the tendency to treat women as sex objects… ugly as it is, boobs and blood sell tickets. Why put a more complex misogynist reading on a simple fact – it’s most economical to put them on screen right at the same time, or at least close together.
The other basic models of slasher flick, to my way of thinking, can be broken down into three different slices. Avenger killers, Monsters, and… spoofs. Taking our first model as the Authority killer, let’s look at some of the biggest examples of all four.
The 800 pound gorilla in the world of the Authority Killer has got to be Jason. Perhaps sadly, Friday the 13th is the longest running series of slasher flicks, with the possible exception of Halloween, and probably the most important for being the first true slasher flick to turn into a series. The first two movies are the best, in most respects, and I’ve heard mixed reviews of both Jason Goes to Hell and Jason X – though the only positive review I’ve heard of Jason X came from somebody who admits to never seeing the rest (that, however, was a rave review). As for the (currently) final movie in the series, Freddy vs. Jason… that’ll wait. 😉
I haven’t watched too many other movies in this vein – most that I’ve watched fit into one of the others, possibly because I don’t really follow the genre that closely. Because of that, I can’t cite other examples for certain, but I believe that My Bloody Valentine fits the bill, here featured in a double-billing along with April Fool’s Day, another excellent example. From what I’ve heard (and I’ve seen April Fool’s Day), I’d actually say that both of those are better films than Friday the 13th, so bear that in mind when you’re looking for examples.
Moving along to the Avenger killers, here we have the one sub-genre of slasher flick where you really are supposed to identify with the killer, even if uncomfortably. The difference here is that something bad happened to the killer… something that drove them to kill, and that makes their actions understandable to some extent. The key here is that they’re not acting out against random people – but against the actual evildoers. That’s what separates Jason from true Avengers. To my mind, the best example of an Avenger killer is Sleepaway Camp – the first one, at any rate. I won’t spoil the ending for you, because it’s one of the few slasher flick endings that will be burned into your brain, but suffice it to say that everybody who gets killed has gone out of his or her way to fall foul of our little monster… who has more than a few secrets and Serious Issues of his own. The entire series can be ordered in the Sleepaway Camp Survival Kit (Movies 1-3), but the series went down-hill after the first one (an irritating trend through all horror films).
Further examples of the sub-genre include the I Know What You Did Last Summer series, which managed to start stupid, get stupider, and finally have a brief flash of originality hidden in a remake of the original that fell flat on its face.
Finally, we get to the Monster killers. This is the type that I’ve watched the most of, honestly. Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, numerous take-offs of both… the key here is that the killer isn’t an authority figure gone awry. He isn’t avenging some wrong. No… the Monsters are killing for one reason, and one reason only. They enjoy it. Anybody is a potential victim here. Halloween was perhaps the first example of the Monster Slasher. Michael Meyers was the quintessential bogeyman – silent, murderous, and as explained by an undertaker, “every small town has its story like this one.” Sadly, the sequels promptly squandered the potential the original. Ironically, a series of cheap “young adult” novels that came out do a better job of capturing the potential of the series than the movies do – the series should have always been Michael Meyers as the Angel of Death, transformed to the supernatural zeitgeist of the Bogeyman after Dr. Loomis emptied a revolver into him. Instead… blech.
Similarly, Nightmare on Elm Street is a series that started with a lot of potential, and ended up blowing it utterly. However, they did have blips – the third movie (Dream Warriors) and the last one (New Nightmare) both were pretty good. Not coincidentally, they involved Wes Craven, who dreamed up Freddy in the first place (sorry).
Another good example of a Monster killer is Phantasm – if nothing else, he’s got an evocative, unusual means of slaughtering his victims.
Now that we’ve brought up both Freddy and Jason, it’s about time we mention my favorite slasher flick ever – Freddy vs. Jason. Why is it my favorite? Because the creators actually put five minutes of thought into making it more than ‘just another slasher flick.’ It’s reasonably well thought out, and makes Freddy scary in a way that over half of his own movies completely and utterly fail to.
It also features the Kaiju-ification of Jason Voorhees – while he starts out a rampaging killer, by the end of the movie he’s the hero (sort of). In a strange way, it draws parallels to Gamera. And I can never help but giggle when I think of somebody saying the line “Jason Voorhees is friend to all children!” Even if, after Part 6, you could make the argument….
Now, spoofs. There are more than enough of them out there, but probably the biggest example is… sadly… Scream. Followed by Scary Movie, which was an actual spoof, rather than one that used ‘spoof’ as a defense of a horrible, horrible movie. I know a lot of people loved Scream. Me? I hated it. I still hate it. The entire thing is a horrible mishmash of ripped-off tropes from movies, sloppy murders, and bad writing, whose only originality came out of ripping off an Italian movie they thought nobody would remember. Its only contribution to the genre is that it excused its sloppiness by claiming to have been a spoof. It deserves only enough attention to watch, realize that I’m right, and then quietly forget.
Are there any good spoofs out there? Yes. Watch it, and adore. You won’t regret it, at least not if you’re even basically conversant with horror movies and the 80’s.
Now, when I brought up Torture Horror, I went and exposed a few historical delights. What does the Slasher Genre have to offer, historically? Quite a bit, actually.
Hitchcock’s Psycho is often considered the first slasher flick – I don’t know that I agree, but it certainly had its influence later on, and could easily be called a proto-Monster Killer slasher flick. Black Christmas was an early Canadian example of the genre, which ends in a way that you really aren’t expecting through 90% of the movie.
But the real start of the slasher flick is further abroad – not in Canada, but in Italy. The Italian Giallos, mastered by Mario Bava. With movies like Bay of Blood (included in that boxed set) and Blood & Black Lace, he set up the formula for all slasher flicks to come – if you show the audience some boobs and some blood, you’ll get ’em in the seat.
Anybody who’d like to show me an earlier example than that? You’re welcome to – I’ll probably even try and get my hands on a copy, assuming it doesn’t involve re-inventing the kinetoscope. 😉