THE SLASHER FILM: AN INTRODUCTION

The Horror Film Project

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©2019, by M. Keith Booker

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THE SLASHER FILM: A CRITICAL HISTORY[1]

The slasher subgenre has long been one of the most successful—and most reviled—of all subgenres. Films of this type have often been criticized for their excessive violence (especially against women), and that criticism has often been warranted. However, with the six films I discuss in detail after this chapter as my principal exhibits, I would like to argue that slasher films often address important issues and sometimes address them in productive and progressive ways. It is true that slasher films often feature gratuitous violence (sometimes highlighted by spectacular displays of spurting blood and hacked-off body parts) and that this violence is disproportionately visited upon women (often after they have just engaged in nonmarital sex or displays of nudity). But the best slasher films minimize these phenomena while including much else of value. And some recent slasher films are downright feminist in their orientation, suggesting the ability of the subgenre to transcend its lowest forms.

Carol Clover’s influential study of gender in the horror film—Men, Women, and Chainsaws, first published in 1992—has set many of the terms for our subsequent understanding of the horror genre. Her readings of the slasher genre have been particularly influential. For example, her conclusion about the audiences for slasher films remains largely unchallenged: “the majority audience, perhaps even more than the audience for horror in general, was largely young and largely male,” she notes, concluding, in fact, that such films have generally been specifically addressed to young males as the implied audience (23). One of Clover’s most important observations about the slasher film is that “the appointed ancestor of the slasher film is Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960)” (23). She even provides a catalog of the film’s qualities that serves simultaneously as a description of the slasher genre as a whole:

“the killer is the psychotic product of a sick family, but still recognizably human; the victim is a beautiful, sexually active woman; the location is not-home, at a Terrible Place; the weapon is something other than a gun; the attack is registered from the victim’s point of view and comes with shocking suddenness. None of these features is original, but the unprecedented success of Hitchcock’s particular formulation, above all the sexualization of both motive and action, prompted a flood of imitations and variations” (23–24).

This catalog is a useful one that does a great deal to explain the consensus view of Psycho as the founding work of the slasher subgenre. That film is discussed in detail in its own section of The Horror Film Project.

Noting the tendency of the slasher subgenre to focus on the killing of female victims, Clover identifies what has become one of the most widely used concepts in discussions of the slasher subgenre—the “Final Girl,”[2] or the girl who isn’t killed:

“The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified” (35).

The Final Girl tends to be an intense focal point of audience identification throughout a slasher film because she is the character who survives the longest and who essentially plays the part of an audience member as she observes her friends being killed.

Clover notes that the Final Girl first emerges in her full form in the figure of Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). It is, however, probably Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) of Halloween (1978) who remains the most famous of all Final Girls and who solidified the centrality of that role to the subgenre. It was not without reason that Prom Night (1980), one of the first of the films that attempted to draft on the success of Halloween, not only featured a Final Girl character, but even cast Curtis in that role.The first Friday the 13th film also debuted in 1980 and also featured a Final Girl. Since those films, Final Girls have become such a staple of the subgenre that any film without one stands out for that very reason. At the same time, slasher films are often compared and judged on the basis of the effectiveness of their Final Girl as a character.

The real measure of any slasher film, though, is its slasher figure; the greatest of the slasher films tend to have slashers that are unique, compelling, frightening, and yet somehow intriguing. It is not without reason that the greatest of the slashers—Norman Bates, Leatherface, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger—ended up being the focal points of entire media franchises. Of the important slasher films discussed at length in their own sections of The Horror Film Project, several were the founding texts of such franchises precisely because of the compelling nature of their slashers. It isn’t that easy to create a compelling slasher, so, when one is created, he tends to be recycled over and over. On the other hand, one of the most recent films discussed at length in this project—You’re Next (2011)—does not have particularly compelling slashers, though its multiple masked slashers are visually interesting. Instead, this film takes its strength from the Final Girl, who is dramatically stronger and more capable than most of the Final Girls who had come before her. Extending this motif still farther, the most recent slasher film discussed at length in this project—the French film Revenge (2017)—combines the slasher figure and Final Girl into one, so that most of the damage (and all of the killing) in the film is done by a young woman who starts out as a victim, then emerges as a deadly avenger, suggesting a dramatic advance in the sexual politics of the subgenre.

Slasher Films: The Early Years[3]

Partly because the Production Code was still in place, Psycho did not trigger an immediate explosion in similar films. More and more violent films did begin to appear, however, including some that were specifically made in an attempt to mimic the effect of Psycho. Low-budget master Roger Corman, for example, just happened to have a few resources left over from a film he had recently shot in Europe, so he handed them over to an aspiring young director by the name of Francis Coppola with instructions to try to make a film like Psycho. Coppola quickly whipped up a script and then shot Dementia 13 (1963) in Ireland. Here the demented son of an old Irish family hacks up a series of folks with an axe before being shot down by the family doctor (who thus foreshadows Dr. Loomis of the first two Halloween films). A spooky Irish castle helps add a Gothic touch to a film that is largely a mess but that definitely shows occasional touches of the directorial talent that would eventually produce the Godfather films and Apocalypse Now.

The drive-in classic Blood and Lace (1971) also moved in the direction of the slasher film, especially in its opening presentation of a bloody claw-hammer murder, shot from the point of view of the killer. The film features some genuine professional actors, including one-time Hollywood starlet Gloria Grahame, but it is very crudely produced, from the ludicrously melodramatic soundtrack, to the amateurish special effects, to the truly bad cinematography. The convoluted plot never even attempts to make sense, and the script ultimately makes even Grahame look bad, though she stands head-and-shoulders above her supporting cast. Blood and Lace has become something of a cult classic over the years, but this is one of those films whose fans probably enjoy it mostly because it is so unbelievably bad.

It wouldn’t be long, however, until a truly groundbreaking slasher film would appear. Clover puts special emphasis on the importance of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) in the evolution of the slasher subgenre, and its importance in that sense is undeniable. However, I would argue that Hooper’s film actually exercised an even stronger influence on the evolution of what one might call the “hillbilly horror” subgenre. I, in fact, discuss the film at length as an example of that subgenre elsewhere in The Horror Film Project. For now, I might just note the tremendous influence of this story about a vanload of young hippie types who venture deep into the heart of Texas to visit the grave of the granddaddy of two of them, amid reports of extensive graverobbing in the area. The graverobbing, plus discussions of the horrors that occur in slaughterhouses (plus a weird, gruesome hitchhiker) all help to set up an atmosphere of foreboding, so that we’re not really surprised that bad things occur when they move even further into the countryside to visit the old homestead of Grandpa Hardesty. Not, of course, that there was ever any doubt. To top matters off, the young people run out of gas, then one by one wander into a nearby house in search of help, only to be whacked in the heads with sledgehammers by a hulking figure in a leatherface mask, just like they whack cows in the slaughterhouse. (Indeed, though we get few details until the first sequel, there are hints that the humans are being killed so they can be used for meat.) It’s all pretty much as gruesome as it sounds, but effectively so, and this film inspired an entire franchise as well as exercising significant influence on both the slasher and the hillbilly horror subgenres.

The other important slasher film of 1974 was Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), which was more indicative of the direction that would subsequently be taken by the slasher subgenre, though it was not nearly as influential as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre overall. Black Christmas revolves around a series of incidents in which a crazed killer stalks a sorority house, cranking up the level of terror by delivering periodic obscene phone calls that turn out to be coming from inside the house. Originally released in the U.S. as Silent Night, Evil Night, many aspects of this film seem like clichés today, but they weren’t yet clichés in 1974. This film, in fact, was one of the ones that helped to establish many of the terms of the slasher film, several years before Halloween. Black Christmas was not really a hit, but it is stylish and well made, with an excellent cast that features Olivia Hussey as an early “Final Girl,” who survives the killings. She even seemingly kills the stalker, though this turns out to be a case of mistaken identity, which becomes clear when the calls continue even after his death. Much of the film, though, focuses on a character named “Barb” (Margot Kidder), though she ends up being stabbed to death by the killer. This one is a little slow (and lacking in blood and violence) by today’s standards, but it does have some suspenseful moments and does a good job of creating an atmosphere of menace. On the other hand, it doesn’t really do as much with the Christmas setting as one might expect from the director who would go on to make A Christmas Story (1983), one of the world’s greatest Christmas movies.

Black Christmas, incidentally, was remade in 2006, becoming one the first of a spate of remakes of the slasher classics during that period. Here, we get a lot more detail about why slasher Billy Lenz (Robert Mann)—now joined by his wacked-out sister Agnes (Dean Friss)—might want to murder the sisters of the Delta Alpha Kappa sorority house. Clearly less groundbreaking than the original, one could argue that the remake is actually better made. Both scarier and bloodier, it also makes more sense. Plus, the sorority girls (an all-star group of promising young actresses that includes such rising stars as Mary Elizabeth Winstead) are better realized and seem more like real people than in the original. And Katie Cassidy is effective as the Final Girl who manages to survive, here by zapping Agnes to death with a defibrillator to the head and then finishing off Billy by tossing him over a rail down onto a Christmas tree, where he is impaled on the spear on top. Talk about your Christmas cheer!

Anyway, back in the 1970s, just as Psycho might have taken some inspiration from the story of real-world serial killer Ed Gein, Charles B. Pierce’s colorfully-titled The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976) was also inspired by real-world events. In this case, the inspiration came from a series of (still-unsolved) murders that occurred in or near Texarkana (on the Texas/Arkansas border), from February to May of 1946. These murders, attributed to a masked murderer who came to be known as The Phantom Killer, drew considerable press coverage, as well as the attention of M. T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, a famed Texas Ranger. An extremely low-budget film with a number of serious flaws (including a jarring attempt to insert a number of comic elements into the bloody story), this tale of a powerful masked assailant whose preferred victims are couples parked in secluded locations bears a number of characteristics that would come to be associated with the slasher genre. And the killer’s stabbing attack on one victim (played by Dawn Wells of Gilligan’s Island fame) via a trombone is especially inventive and memorable, if bordering on the ludicrous. The trombone trick, incidentally, is repeated in a 2014 film of the same title that is a virtual remake of the original, with the added gimmick that the characters in the second film are aware of the first film and its impact on Texarkana. Those investigating the killings in this film even visit another character who is supposedly the son of Charles B. Pierce, seeking background information. The slasher (one of two, actually) in this film also breaks new ground in the attacks-on-amorous couples arena by attacking and killing an interracial gay couple.[4]

In another 1976 film—Alfred Sole’s often-shocking Alice, Sweet Alice—a fictional stalker walks the streets of 1961 Paterson, New Jersey. This one, however, was not inspired by real killings but by the British horror film Don’t Look Now (1973), discussed in detail in the Horror Film Project as an example of psychological horror. Hitchcock’s Psycho is an important influence as well, as is signaled by a number of musical echoes. In Sole’s film, a number of bloody killings are performed by a slasher who, through most of the film, appears (with the aid of the misleading title, imposed by the studio over Sole’s objections) to be a young girl named Alice (Paula E. Sheppard). Much of the action takes place in settings dominated by Catholic iconography, so it perhaps comes as no surprise that the real killer turns out to be the elderly Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton), a Catholic fanatic who views herself as a sort of avenging angel punishing the sinful for their wickedness. Controversial for what was seen as its anti-Catholic content, this film is also known as the first screen appearance by Brooke Shields, as the slasher’s first victim. Mrs. Tredoni’s slasher costume, comprising a yellow raincoat and a truly creepy-looking mask, is also notable and memorable.

Slasher films were thus starting to appear well before Halloween, but it was the success of Halloween in 1978 that opened the floodgates for the subgenre. For example, My Bloody Valentine (1981) extended the holiday themes of Black Christmas and Halloween to still another holiday. Here, the denizens of the mining town of Valentine Bluffs are terrorized on the lovers’ holiday, supposedly by the traumatized survivor of a mining accident twenty years earlier, also on Valentine’s Day. In fact, Valentine’s Day terror seems to be an annual event in the town, to the point where the town’s young people are ordered to stay home that day and not attend any holiday celebrations. Of course, they disobey and go out anyway, and even head into the local mine for some drunken reveling, which is not a good move at all. Anyway, it turns out that the culprit is actually the son of one that earlier survivor’s original victims, himself traumatized by witnessing his father’s murder. There’s some promise here, if only in the fact that the film focuses on working-class characters, which is relatively rare in American film. But it doesn’t really emphasize that angle. My Bloody Valentine has something of a cult following, but that is probably more for the censorship it experienced (considerable cuts were required to get an R, rather than an X rating) than for the film itself.

My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009) is a remake with the added gimmickry of 3D. It essentially preserves the premise of the original My Bloody Valentine, though a great number of the details are changed. It’s also, almost as an homage to the censorship problems of the original, incredibly gory. However, it does add a few wrinkles that potentially make the plot more interesting, including the fact that Tom Hanniger (Jensen Ackles), the son of the owner of the mine in the film, causes the accident, subsequently goes insane (presumably with guilt, though possibly with trauma from being nearly killed himself), and then returns to town as a crazed serial killer, wreaking mayhem with a miner’s pickaxe. Through most of the film, though, he’s fairly sympathetic, and we learn only late that he’s the killer. Meanwhile, he’s also determined to sell the mine, putting most of the miners out of work, which opens the possibility of some interesting material that never quite develops. Jaime King is pretty good as Tom’s ex-girlfriend, now the wife of the sheriff and the object of Tom’s murderous attentions, which she, luckily, survives. Indeed, all in all, this one might actually be slightly better than the original, but the over-the-top gore-for-the-sake-of-gore is a bit much. In any case, the 3D effects were praised by many critics and probably accounted for the fact that the film was fairly successful at the box office, grossing just over $100 million worldwide.

In addition to My Bloody Valentine, other early slasher films also attempted to provide clear explanations for why their slashers have become slashers, thus resembling Psycho more than Halloween. Among these, Don’t Go in the House (1979) seems linked to Psycho in a particularly direct way—though there is a possible direct link to Halloween implied in the film’s ending. Here, Donny Kohler (Dan Grimaldi) is a man who has lived all his life alone with his mother in their rambling house, since his father left when Donny was five. Once his father left, Donny found himself at the mercy of his abusive (and mentally ill) mother, who periodically burned him on the gas stove to try to drive the “evil” out of him. Once his mother dies, Donny spirals into all-out insanity. Driven by voices in his head, he keeps his mother’s mummified corpse in the house (à la Norman Bates), then lures a series of young women back to the house and burns them to death with a flamethrower to try to remove the evil from them. Then he dresses their charred corpses in his mother’s clothes and arranges them in chairs around the parlor. Finally, Donny loses complete touch with reality and ends up burning down the house with himself in it.

Don’t Go in the House then ends with an interesting coda in which a mother is shown abusing her young son, who is named Michael. After a beating, Michael begins to hear the same voices that had driven Donny to murder and looks ominously at the camera. We are left to interpret this last scene as we will, but it is at least possible to see it as a suggestion that some supernatural force had driven Donny, rather than simple mental illness; this same force might now be possessing Michael. We can also imagine, if we choose, that this boy is none other than Michael Myers.

One of the most striking slasher films of the early 1980s was Maniac (1980), directed by William Lustig, whose prior experience had been primarily in porn. Indeed, some critics viewed Maniac itself as essentially pornographic, its excessively graphic depiction of bloody, sexually-inspired violence being a bit too much even for a genre that is inherently excessive. Maniac does give us an unusually detailed look inside the mind of its central character, serial killer Frank Zito (Joe Spinell), a victim of childhood abuse at the hands of his now-deceased mother who subsequently kills a series of attractive young women. The film, however, is far from sympathizing with Zito, even if he is depicted as emotionally crippled and pathetic. In fact, there is a certain creepiness to the depiction of Zito that makes the film seriously disturbing. In particular, the truly insane Zito tends to scalp his victims and then nail their scalps onto the heads of mannequins in an attempt, in his confused mind, to somehow resurrect his dead mother.

Maniac, like so many other horror films, was remade in the twenty-first century, in this case by French director Franck Khalfoun in 2012. In terms of basic plot, the remake is quite similar to the original, though it shifts the action from New York to Los Angeles. The aesthetics of the later film are quite different, primarily because it is shot almost entirely from the perspective of Zito (now played by Elijah Wood), extending a common slasher trope and making the film even creepier by putting viewers in Zito’s position throughout the film, something that is quite uncomfortable because he is such an unappealing character. This effect is increased by the fact that Wood is a well-known actor who typically plays sympathetic characters, which makes his role as Zito even more unsettling[5]. In addition, the overall look of the film, as shot by cinematographer Maxime Alexandre, is somewhat unreal (one reviewer compared it with a video game), further suggesting that Zito simply sees reality differently than do other people. This one also works in extended references to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), suggesting that this film, however shocking, is part of a long and venerable tradition. Still, if anything, the violent scenes of murder and scalping are even more vividly graphic than in the original, so that, as a whole, the remake is both aesthetically superior to the original and more unpleasant to watch.

In Prom Night (1980), with Halloween’sJamie Lee Curtis again playing the role of the final girl, a slasher wreaks havoc at a high school prom, but he is only avenging the death of his twin sister (who was also the sister of Curtis’s character) at the hands of several of the high schoolers back when they were all in grade school. In The House on Sorority Row (1983), meanwhile, the deranged son of a problematic mother kills a series of young women in a sorority house, thus following somewhat in the footsteps of Norman Bates. In this case, though, the son is the result of a fertility experiment gone wrong, so has been mentally impaired since birth. Still, he doesn’t begin his killing spree until after the girls kill his mother, while the depiction of the girls as amoral and empty-headed makes this one appear more than just a bit misogynistic.

Prom Night and The House on Sorority Row revolve around settings in a high school and a college, respectively, and by this time campuses of various kinds were becoming one of the standard settings for slasher films, as in Final Exam (1981), which also attempted (not very successfully) to spice up the campus motif with a bit of college humor. The Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises led the way in making peaceful American suburbs another standard setting, while the Friday the 13th franchise, supplemented by films such as The Burning (1981) and Madman (1982), added summer camps to the list of standard slasher settings. Some films, though, did try for innovative settings, as in the case of Terror Train (1980), whose killings literally occur on a moving train; this film, in fact, was literally envisioned by its makers as “Halloween on a train.” It also ups the ante on the motif of the costumed slasher, having its slasher don a whole series of different Halloween costumes stolen from his various victims.

Bloody Birthday (1981) came up with a new twist by making its slashers a group of 10-year-old children (Curtis, Debbie, and Steven), all born at the same moment a total eclipse of the sun was reached, making them devoid of all human feeling. This movie often turns bizarre as the three kids go about their murderous rounds. In one sequence, for example, Debbie cuts a hole in the back wall of her big sister’s closet so she can charge money to boys to peep at her sister. When the sister discovers and looks through the hole, the little girl shoots an arrow through it right into her sister’s eye, killing her instantly. Eventually, the two boys conspire to have Debbie take the fall for their murders, but she turns the table and puts all of the blame on them instead. She goes into witness protection—and continues her murderous ways. This movie is just plain wrong—and far more fun than it has any right to be.

As a measure of the popularity of the slasher subgenre in the early 1980s, one might consider Ken Wiederhorn’s Eyes of a Stranger (1981), which was originally conceived as a more conventional thriller but then converted midstream into a slasher to try to ride the tide of interest in slasher films at the time. The result is something like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but with Tom Savini’s gore effects added in to make the film more slasher-like. Most critics weren’t impressed with the combination, though Robin Wood sees it as a largely commendable “critique of the dominant project” of the slasher subgenre (175).

Eyes of a Stranger failed to find an audience despite the addition of the then-popular gore. Indeed, by 1982, the original flurry of slashers had glutted the market and the whole phenomenon was beginning to run out of steam. In 1984, for example, Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) returns to the holiday theme of Black Christmas, a decade earlier. Meanwhile, it spends nearly half the film explaining how young Billy Chapman was traumatized in childhood when a murderer dressed as Santa Claus killed his parents in front of his eyes. He is then further traumatized by growing up in an orphanage run by an evil mother superior, leading him to go on a bloody killing spree on Christmas Eve—while also dressed as Santa. Though notorious and controversial (and also clumsily made), this film actually triggered two sequels and a remake.

Also in 1984, however, two innovative slashers breathed new life into the slasher film. One of these, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, became the founding text of an important franchise that took the slasher subgenre in imaginative new supernatural directions. It is discussed in detail below. The other important 1984 slasher film was James Cameron’s The Terminator, which added a new dimension to the subgenre by moving in the direction of more conventional science fiction—as opposed to the Alien films, which (beginning in 1979) were also science fictional slashers but drew heavily on the conventional monster film as well. Both Alien and The Terminator are discussed in detail in the The Horror Film Project as examples of Science Fiction Horror.

The slasher film almost immediately went into another decline after 1984, however, with the late 1980s continuing to be dominated by the three major franchises, all of which were declining in quality. Meanwhile, the science fictional energies of The Terminator soon produced things like Chopping Mall (1986), which sounds like a run-of-the-mill slasher film set in a mall, but its original title, Killbots, is actually more descriptive. Basically, four couples stow away after hours in a shopping mall for a little hanky panky in the furniture store. Unfortunately, for them, the mall is guarded by a group of new security robots, who turn out to be significantly overzealous in guarding the mall. They kill off six of the intruders (sometimes in spectacular fashion), but are ultimately finished off themselves, leaving one couple standing. It’s a little like a bad remake of Dawn of the Dead, with robots instead of zombies. It has its moments, though, and can be quite funny in places. And there are highlights in the appearance of familiar faces such as scream queen Barbara Crampton as one of the young women, though she isn’t, for some reason, the Final Girl. Also look for horror-film legend Dick Miller as a mall janitor.

From this point, the slasher film essentially spiraled into silliness and exhaustion, though there were still occasional highlights, even if they were also silly. In Tom Holland’s Child’s Play (1988), a vicious serial killer is shot down by police, but manages to make his way into a toy store and use voodoo to transfer his spirit into a child’s talking doll before he dies. Then, after a little boy gets the doll as a birthday present, the killer, now calling himself “Chucky,” resumes his murderous ways, relentlessly pursuing his victims even after he is shot, burned to a crisp, and almost completely dismantled, until he is finally destroyed, seemingly once and for all, by a shot through the heart. It seems like a ridiculous premise, and it could easily have been played for campy comedy. Indeed, there are scenes that are a bit much, but mostly the director and actors play it straight, producing what is really a surprisingly effective slasher film, with the diminutive Chucky coming off as an unusually malicious slasher. Like Invaders from Mars (1953), it gets a certain amount of mileage from the idea of a child who is threatened by monsters but can’t get the adults around him to believe it. Like Magic (1978), it builds on the basic uncanny creepiness of anthropomorphic dolls to make Chucky pretty scary, even though his occasional foul language can be a bit funny. Yet, doll though he may be, Chucky by the last sequence of the film, comes off as a sort of miniature Terminator who gets destroyed and dismantled, but keeps on ticking. Child’s Play was effective enough to become a cult hit and to spawn six sequels, including such inspired titles as Bride of Chucky (1998) and Seed of Chucky (2004).

Child’s Play was updated and rebooted in 2019 with a new film of the same title, directed by Lars Klevberg. Now, however, the “Chucky” doll has been revamped (and renamed “Buddi”) to reflect the growing technological trend toward networked digital personal assistants. In particular, the Buddi doll, acting as a sort of high-powered Alexa, can network with other products of the giant Kaslan Corporation (depicted as heartless, but no more evil than most corporations) to provide easy central control of a variety of household products and appliances. The artificially intelligent doll also has learning capabilities that allow it to serve as an effective companion to its owner. Unfortunately, one of these dolls is sabotaged by a disgruntled factory worker in Vietnam (where the dolls are made), leading (of course) to disastrous results, which are especially predictable once the doll adopts the name “Chucky” (and once it shows an interest in watching slasher films on TV).

One version of the Buddi doll in the 2019 Child’s Play comes dressed as a leprechaun. Meanwhile, somewhat in the same spirit as Child’s Play (but a bit more in the so-bad-it’s-good vein), the film Leprechaun (1993) features a young Jennifer Aniston (in her first starring film role) as a spoiled rich L.A. girl who has been sent to spend the summer with her father, who has just bought a dilapidated farmhouse in North Dakota. She’s disgusted, and just wants to leave, until she meets a handsome young painter her father has hired to help restore the house, then decides maybe she will stay. So we’re all set for a relatively conventional romantic comedy—except that the house has a murderous leprechaun (played by Warwick Davis) trapped in the basement. He gets free, then goes on a violent rampage, trying to recover the gold coins that were stolen from him ten years earlier. And he’s a fierce little bugger, too. He’s just a little guy, and his magic powers are weak, but he’s very persistent and virtually indestructible. At one point, for example, Aniston’s character pokes out one of his eyes, so he just plucks out one of the eyes of a policeman he has just killed, then pops it into his own empty socket, gleefully declaring, “An eye for an eye!” That pretty much sums up the darkly comic tone of this entire film. The leprechaun is basically a malicious trickster figure, willing to do anything to get his gold back, but also determined to have as much fun and work as much mischief as possible in doing so. But he also clearly qualifies as a slasher and very much fits in that tradition, if in a self-parodic way. Like Chucky, he also became the centerpiece of a film franchise, which now includes a total of eight films, the latest released in 2018. Of these, one (Leprechaun: Origins in 2014) was a reboot.

The Psycho Franchise

Despite numerous attempts at innovation and despite the rapid proliferation of slasher films in the early 1980s, the decade would come to be dominated by the three major franchises, with Psycho continuing to have a life of its own as well. Indeed, among the slasher films inspired or influenced by Psycho was a whole series of its own sequel films, in addition to the excellent television series Bates Motel (2013–2017).[6] However, the first Psycho sequel, simply entitled Psycho II, did not appear until 1983 and was no doubt spurred partly by the huge success of films such as Halloween and Friday the 13th. Directed by Richard Franklin, Psycho II lacks some of the style and atmosphere of the original, but it does still have Anthony Perkins, and he’s still terrific as Norman Bates. Indeed, Pyscho is a hard act to follow, but Psycho II is actually quite good, even if it never escapes the shadow of its illustrious predecessor.

In Psycho II, Norman is released from the insane asylum after 22 years, returning to his old home and resuming ownership of the Bates Motel, where his first act is to fire the current manager, Warren Toomey (Dennis Franz), who is even sleazier than the sleazy sex nest that the motel has become. Meanwhile, Vera Miles also returns as Lila (now Loomis, after her marriage to Sam), now determined to get Norman back behind bars. So she and her daughter, Mary (Meg Tilly), set about trying to gaslight him, employing strategies such as sending him messages from his mother. Mary, incidentally, sometimes goes by the name of “Mary Samuels,” thus essentially duplicating the pseudonym used by Marion Crane when she checked into the Bates Motel in Psycho.Much mayhem ensues, leading to a final scene in which old Emma Spool (Claudia Bryar), owner of the diner where Norman has been working, shows up at his house and claims that she is his real mother (sister of the woman he thought was his mother) and that she committed a recent string of murders in an attempt to save him. He responds by braining her with a shovel, then sets her body up in the house and basically prepares to reboot back to the beginning of the original Psycho, now with a new dead mother that he can stand in for at key moments (aided, of course, by his taxidermy skills, which should help him preserve the body).

The ending of Psycho II seems custom-designed to allow for still another sequel, so perhaps it was no surprise that the second sequel came relatively quickly, with Psycho III in 1986. This one still stars Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, but features the added attraction of having Perkins as the director as well, though he had no previous directorial experience. He only directed one film after this one, the undistinguished hillbilly horror film Lucky Stiff (1988), which perhaps suggests limitations in his talents as a director. And Psycho III is pretty much a mess, though it does include some memorable moments, as when the film begins with a nun falling to her death from the top of a bell tower, making you think you accidentally started watching Vertigo II instead of Psycho III. Or when Norman finally gets a girlfriend (an ex-novice nun who’s about as crazy as he is), only to accidentally knock her down the stairs to be literally impaled on Cupid’s arrow. Or when he encounters an itinerant would-be rock star (played by Jeff Fahey), who’s also about as crazy as Norman, and who keeps complaining about possible damage to his beloved guitar while Norman beats him to death with it. Watching all this, one is tempted to imagine that Perkins was trying to wreak revenge on the Psycho franchise for dominating his life and career, getting subtle pleasures from dismantling the franchise. As he says after murdering the stuffed corpse of his mother, his aunt, his mother, his aunt, and being taken away by police, “At last I’m free!” Didn’t work though.

There was still another sequel, Psycho IV (1990), though it was made for Showtime TV after Psycho III bombed miserably in theaters. Perkins again returns as a (now-aging) Norman Bates, who seems to have cleaned up his act. He’s even married (to a psychiatrist, conveniently enough), and his wife is pregnant. Unfortunately, a radio talk show gets him all stirred up and he starts thinking about the past, which leads to a series of flashbacks about his younger years and how he became crazy in the first place. These memories nearly drive Norman back to his old, murderous ways, but he manages to stop short, with the help of his wife—and even to set fire to the old Bates house, presumably cleansing himself of the past once and for all. Unfortunately, the film ends with a hint that his mother’s evil spirit still lurks in the partly destroyed house, thus clearing the way for still another sequel, though one would not be forthcoming, partly because Perkins died of AIDS-related causes in 1992.

The Halloween Franchise

One of the reasons why the modern slasher cycle can be said to begin with Halloween is that it was the first slasher film to trigger an entire franchise, its first sequel predating the first Psycho sequel by two years. Halloween is discussed in detail below. Its sequels began in 1981 with Halloween II, a direct followup that literally picks up exactly where the same film left off, on the evening of October 31, 1978. Michael Myers arises from being shot down at the end of the other film and resumes a murderous spree, proving time and again to be virtually indestructible. Laurie Strode (again played by Jamie Lee Curtis) is still his main target, and we learn in the course of the film that she is, improbably, his sister, adopted by the Strodes after the death of the Myers parents in 1963. (She also proves to be a crack shot, at one point putting pistol bullets through each of the eyeholes of Michael’s white mask, blowing out both his eyes, blinding him but still not stopping him.) In general, though, she actually plays a less central role in this one, as Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) assumes the central role in his efforts to track down and stop Myers, efforts that apparently prove successful as he blows himself and Myers up in a fiery explosion at the end of the film.[7] We see a bit more of Myers in Halloween II, but still learn little about his motivation, other than that he really doesn’t like his sisters. Virtually unstoppable and indestructible, he shambles about in his trademark white mask (reportedly a modified, commercially-available William Shatner mask) bearing a variety of sharp objects with which to kill anyone he runs across. Bloodier and more violent than the first Halloween, Halloween II is also less interesting. Indeed, the franchise would never again reach the heights of its inaugural entry.

Halloween II was co-written and co-produced by John Carpenter, but directed by Rick Rosenthal. With Halloween III: Season of the Witch,the franchise attempted (unsuccessfully) to morph into a horror anthology series. Here Carpenter and Debra Hill return as producers, but Carpenter neither wrote nor directed the film. He would, in fact, never return as writer or director of a Halloween film. Beginning with Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), he ended his direct participation in the franchise altogether.

Subsequent sequels in the series have not been highly regarded, and attempts to add new wrinkles—such as the evil cult that contributes to the elucidation of Michael Myers’ supernatural aspects in Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)—have been largely unsuccessful. One notable sequelwas Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998), released twenty years after the original and conceived as a direct sequel to Halloween II, ignoring he events of Halloween 4 and Halloween 5, which are then retconned out of existence. Here, Laurie Strode (still played by Jamie Lee Curtis) has faked her own death, moved to California, and assumed a new identity as Keri Tate, the headmistress at Hillcrest Academy High School, a private boarding school. Predictably, Michael Myers (still identified as the brother of Laurie/Keri) tracks her down anyway, wreaking havoc, before (apparently) being decapitated with an axe by his long-lost sister.

Beyond a great deal of very bloody action, Halloween H20, perhaps buoyed by the success of Scream (1996) and Scream 2 (1997), includes some clever self-referential moments of its own. As if to acknowledge the influence of the Scream films, in one scene of Halloween H20,two girls watch Scream 2 (1997) on TV, updating the horror movie film references of the first Halloween. The cleverest such moment, though, embedded at almost the exact midpoint of Halloween H20, is a scene in which Laurie talks with Norma Watson, a teacher at her school. Norma happens to be played by Jamie Lee Curtis’s mother, Janet Leigh, now deriving the first name of her character from the slasher who killed her character in her most famous role.[8] To make the Psycho connection even more direct, the Psycho opening theme music plays as Norma walks away after the conversation. Meanwhile, we see that she is getting into a vintage Ford Fairlane similar (though not quite identical) to the Ford Custom 300 that Marion Crane drove to the Bates Motel. The license plate number, California NFB 418[9], on Norma’s car is the same as the one on Marion’s in Psycho. The shadow cast by Psycho over the slasher genre is a long one—but we can see here how much that shadow has been boosted by the Halloween franchise, partly thanks to the Leigh-Curtis connection.

Michael would reappear, alive and deadly, in Halloween: Resurrection (2002), but that film marked the end of the series until Rob Zombie rebooted the whole thing in 2007. Nearly half of Zombie’s Halloween is set when Michael Myers is ten and details the various forms of abuse that helped to turn him into a crazed killer. During this part he is a rather sympathetic figure—and to an extent remains so even after his first murder spree lands him in an insane asylum, where he is subjected to still more (and probably worse) abuse, despite the efforts of psychiatrist Samuel Loomis (now played by Malcolm MacDowell) to help him. Once he breaks out of the asylum, Michael is pretty much a deranged killing machine again, except that, with Zombie at the helm, the violence is even grosser and more graphic. Zombie followed with a sequel, Halloween II, in 2009.  

The latest entry in the Halloween franchise,David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018), adds some genuinely new elements, while serving as a clarification of elements that were already there, especially in the first film. Most importantly, it demonstrated that the basic premise of the franchise could still produce fresh and effective films, without moving in the direction of postmodern campiness and self-consciousness. Green’s strategy is to make his film a direct sequel to the first film—set forty years later than the original—and to ignore all the Halloween films that came in between, retconning them out of existence and stipulating instead that Michael Myers had been captured just after the end of the first film and had been incarcerated ever since. Soon after the beginning of this latest Halloween film, though, Michael escapes, then heads straight for Haddonfield and starts to wreak havoc. In the film’s most important original addition, however, Laurie Strode (still played by Jamie Lee Curtis, but no longer Michael’s sister) is ready for him this time. Following in the footsteps of the Terminator II Sarah Connor, Laurie has spent the intervening forty years preparing for a final showdown with Myers. She has made her house into a fortress and has trained both herself and her daughter (now an adult with a teenage daughter of her own) in martial arts and the use of weapons. And the training comes in handy: they have to burn down the house with him in it to do it, but all three generations of Strode women escape from Myers, leaving him trapped in the burning house where he will presumably die. Myers being Myers, though, there is no assurance that he won’t soon be back for more.

The most important way in which the 2018 Halloween reinforces the themes of the 1978 version is by making it more clear that Myers serves largely as an allegorical figure of the way in which violence, tragedy, and death can occur to us at any time, seemingly in a random fashion. That Myers seems to have a special animus toward the Strodes does not diminish this allegorical function: we are all aware that, however random violence and tragedy might be, more bad things seem to happen to some individuals (and to some families) than to others. This aspect of the film receives a final, poignant reinforcement as the end credits begin to roll and we see that the 2018 Halloween is dedicated to the memory of Moustapha Akkad (1930–2005), the Sam Peckinpah protegé who had served as an uncredited executive producer on the original Halloween. Akkad subsequently served as an executive producer (credited as such on the last five) on the next seven Halloween films. But Akkad had a significant career in the film business even apart from the Halloween franchise. He was, for example, the director of The Message (1976) and Lion of the Desert (1980), which attempted to bridge the gap between Islamic/Middle Eastern cultures and Western cultures.

It seems perfectly appropriate, then, that this film would be dedicated to Akkad, even more so when we realize that the 2018 Halloween was produced by Malek Akkad, Moustapha’s son. Malek also provides a certain continuity in the Halloween franchise, by the way, having served as an associate producer on the last three Halloween films executive produced by his father, then as a producer on the two Halloween films directed by Rob Zombie (the first of which was also dedicated to Malek’s father). But what makes the dedication to Moustapha Akkad even more appropriate in the 2018 film is that he was killed (along with his daughter) in a 2005 terrorist bombing in a hotel lobby in Amman, Jordan, in an attack that was not aimed specifically at Akkad, making him the victim of precisely the kind of random violence that is represented by Michael Myers throughout the Halloween franchise, but especially clearly in the 2018 Halloween. Further, he and his daughter (arriving from different points of origin) were meeting up in Amman preparatory to attending a wedding in Aqaba a few days later; they both simply happened to arrive in the lobby just as the bomb was being detonated. Meanwhile, another target of the Amman bombings was a nearby hotel where a large Jordanian wedding (unrelated to the one that was taking place in Aqaba) was being held. Akkad’s death thus illustrated the fact that tragedy can strike not only suddenly, but even during what are expected to be the happiest of occasions.

The Friday the 13th Franchise

Probably the most important of the slasher films to appear in the immediate wake of Halloween was Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), partly because it triggered an entire franchise of its own and partly because it introduced (though only at the very end of the film) one of the most striking slasher figures of all time. This one was early enough that it helped to establish a number of conventions of the genre (like the teens being warned by a seemingly crazy old coot before they head off to a remote locale to be murdered), but it’s quite openly derivative, especially of Psycho. Friday the 13th is discussed in detail below, along with Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) and Friday the 13th Part III, which together detail the evolution of Jason Vorhees into the prototypical slasher figure that we all know today.

Among the many in the long line of Friday the 13th films, the fourth in the series, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) is particularly notable, partly because it at least adds a few new wrinkles, primarily by taking us away from secluded rural settings and toward a more suburban one (though it is still near Crystal Lake). The Final Chapter also introduces some self-referential flourishes that foreshadow the much more successful use of such devices in later slasher films, beginning especially with Scream (1996). In particular, in this film Jason is “killed” by young Tommy Jarvis (played by Corey Feldman, who thus anticipates his later monster-killer role in 1987’s The Lost Boys). And the reason Tommy is able to succeed is that he is an amateur makeup and special effects technician who distracts and confuses Jason by making himself up to look like he concludes Jason must have looked as a child.

The title of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter was not a trick: the film shows many signs of having been designed to be the final entry in the franchise. It was, however, a surprise success and thus was followed by Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985) less than a year later. This film, though, seems to accept the finality of Jason’s death in The Final Chapter, so that its slasher figure is not Jason, but someone else who disguises himself in Jason’s hockey mask. Jason himself would return, however, for seven more films (so far), though he is not a factor in the television series (1987–1990), which bears the Friday the 13th label, just for marketing purposes.

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) is notable, partly for ratcheting up the level of comedy in the sequence of films, as when a gravedigger looks straight into the camera and says (in a comment that could be taken to refer to the audience of the film), “Some folks have a strange idea of entertainment.” The funniest moment, however, might occur in a James Bond pastiche in the opening titles—with Jason as Bond[10]. But the film is perhaps most important in the franchise because of the way it resurrects Jason by having his rotten, maggot-eaten body resurrected by a lightning strike, which jump starts him and returns him to his murderous ways. If there was any doubt at all, it now finally becomes clear that he is some sort of supernatural entity. The lightning strike, of course, evokes the Frankenstein monster, whom Jason actually resembles in a number of ways. (At one point, some of the characters even go to a general store called “Karloff’s” as if to emphasize where they got all their material.) Such moments make this film entertaining enough that it (like The Final Chapter)momentarily reverses the slow decline that marks most of the sequence of films in the franchise, though that decline would resume with Part VII.

On the evidence of the title alone, it would appear that the ninth film in the original Friday the 13th cycle, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993), was intended (again) to end the cycle once and for all. Here, Jason’s supernatural aspects take center stage, while a cameo appearance by Freddy Krueger at the end of the film sets up the crossover Freddy vs. Jason (2003), a film that finally ended the original cycles of both the Friday the 13th and the Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, before both would subsequently be rebooted. In between, though, the Friday the 13th franchise proved almost as durable as Jason himself by coming up with a tenth film in the form of Jason X (2001), taking Jason Voorhees into the realm of science fiction and producing a postmodern generic mashup in which we get to see Jason operating in outer space (and in the 25th century).

After Freddy vs. Jason, the Friday the 13th franchise lay in its grave for several years, until the remake craze brought it back to like with Friday the 13th (2009), which is not so much a remake of the original as a reboot of the franchise that incorporates elements of the first four films, but is set later in time. Jason is now a bit more nimble and definitely smarter, which actually makes him creepier, even as the film attempts to provide a vaguely sympathetic explanation for his murderous ways in the trauma he experienced at seeing his mother beheaded decades earlier. Co-produced by Michael Bay, this is, technically, a slicker bit of filmmaking than those first films, taking advantage of technological advances such as fancier lighting (which makes it possible for most of the film to take place in near-total darkness). It also features Jared Padalecki as the rare male character to have ever tangled with Jason and apparently survived. His character, Clay Miller, spends the film trying to rescue his sister Whitney (Amanda Righetti), who disappeared six weeks earlier when Jason wiped out her camping group even before the opening title, though he has kept her prisoner rather than killing her (a major new direction for him) because she vaguely resembles his beloved lost mother. Anyway, still another camping group gets wiped out in the course of the film, but Clay and Whitney manage to kill Jason (thus apparently becoming both a Final Boy and a Final Girl). Then (seemingly not having studied the earlier movies all that carefully) they dump him in Crystal Lake—from which he (of course) quickly emerges. He grabs Whitney as the film ends, echoing the shocker ending of the first film in the franchise. Not a big success, this reboot seems, for now, to have killed off the franchise, which has been dormant for a decade as of this writing.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

By the time of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the slasher genre was already running out of steam and seemingly degenerating into pointless repetitions. But Craven’s Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) was a refreshingly new sort of slasher whose diabolical ways and supernatural shenanigans added whole new dimensions to the hulking physical specimens that were Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. This film is dominated by Freddy’s personality (something Michael and Jason essentially lack), but it also has a few things to say about Reagan-era America[11]. In particular, the whole seemingly placid Elm Street setting suggests that mid-1980s suburban America is a far more sinister place than it might appear on the surface, with all sorts of dangers and perversions lurking just beneath the surface, somewhat in the mode of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which would appear just a couple of years later.

The original A Nightmare on Elm Street is discussed in detail below. Its first sequel, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), appeared just a year later, without Craven’s involvement. Producer Robert Shaye had wanted to end the first film as the kids board a school bus, only later to discover that it was being driven by Freddy. Craven nixed that idea, but Shaye must have really liked it, because Elm Street 2 both begins and ends that way. Meanwhile, this film, anticipating the flurry of gay slasher films that occurred early in the twenty-first century, takes the franchise in a very new direction by installing a whole new gay subtext, though director Jack Sholder has said in interviews that he was unaware of this subtext at the time the film was being made. This film dispenses with Heather Langenkamp’s Final Girl Nancy Thompson and replaces her with obviously gay character Jesse Walsh (played by gay actor Mark Patton, who has been dubbed the first male scream queen in American film)[12]. It works perfectly well, given that Freddy is essentially omnisexual, though Freddy is barely in this one directly, given that he possesses Walsh and makes him do most of his dirty work. Fans of the franchise have never really embraced this film, but its gay subtext has made it a cult favorite in the gay community. Otherwise, this entry has been widely criticized for deviating from the basic premises of the franchise, as when Freddy enters reality and chases a group of teens around a pool in broad daylight.

Craven returns as a co-writer for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), which also returns the franchise more to its intended mythology—though it does somewhat questionably have Freddy’s skeleton come to life in the real world and kill Nancy’s father. This film also brings back Langenkamp as Nancy—now a psychology grad student specializing in dream studies and in the kinds of trauma that Freddy Krueger habitually deals out. It also features an extremely interesting supporting cast, including Laurence Fishburne in a relatively small role and Body Double’s Craig Wasson as Dr. Neil Gordon, who helps Nancy lead a group of traumatized patients into battle against Freddy. It also introduces Patricia Arquette, in her first film role, as Freddy’s central teenage target, Kristen Parker. Dream Warriors also adds some details about Freddy’s origins, establishing that he was apparently the child of a nun impregnated when she was held prisoner and raped hundreds of times by a group of insane asylum inmates. The motif of a group banding together to battle Freddy (aided by Kristen’s special psychic powers, which can intentionally pull them all into the same dream) is interesting, and Arquette is actually more effective than Langenkamp as a protagonist, but again the real protagonist is Freddy. Here, he morphs into a wider array of manifestations than he had earlier, as he beginnings to exercise his supernatural powers to a greater extent. He even defeats a Harry Potter–like boy wizard, a decade before the first Harry Potter novel, meanwhile also killing Nancy. In any case, Freddy is entirely evil and you can’t really root for him, but he proves here that he’s always the most interesting guy in the room.

By the time of Wes Craven’s highly self-conscious New Nightmare (1994) and Scream (1996), the original slasher-movie franchise cycle had very much run out of steam. Craven, however, was able to rejuvenate the subgenre and to make it even more postmodern—by producing films that were essentially hip postmodern pastiches of earlier slasher films. New Nightmare was the seventh film in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, though it was only the second to be directed by Craven. As the title suggests, however, this film is a distinct departure that moves the franchise in a new, more self-consciously postmodern direction. It also includes the most engaging performance by star Heather Langenkamp, an actress known almost exclusively for her performances in this franchise as Nancy Thompson, the main target of supernatural slasher Freddy Krueger. Here, though, fiction and reality completely merge in a postmodern stew as Langenkamp plays herself, now threatened once again as Krueger decides to emerge from the world of film into the world of reality, beginning with deadly attacks on special effects artists from his own films, including Langenkamp’s husband, whom Freddy kills early on. He then haunts her young son, making him talk creepily, though he doesn’t say “redrum.” Meanwhile, Freddy generally makes a major nuisance of himself, all in conjunction with the work that Craven is doing on the script for a new Elm Street film. Craven plays himself in the film, while Robert Englund plays both himself and Krueger. New Nightmare sometimes descends into silliness and often doesn’t really make sense, but it isstill easily the cleverest film in the Elm Street franchise. It also acknowledges Freddy Krueger’s cultural importance. As Langenkamp tells a doctor who is concerned that Heather’s son seems familiar with her films, “Every kid knows who Freddy is. He’s like Santa Claus or King Kong.” Eventually, fiction eventually gets completely entangled with reality, and Heather herself can’t tell if she’s Heather or Nancy, John Saxon can’t tell if he’s Saxon or Donald Thompson, and Englund and Freddy get completely mixed up.

By 2010, Nightmare on Elm Street joined the wave of early-twenty-first-century reboots with Samuel Bayer’s film of the same name. Of all slasher franchises, Nightmare—given its reliance on dream imagery—is surely the one that would seem most able to profit from the availability of new computer-generated effects, and this film certainly makes liberal use of those. It also quotes several shots from the original almost directly, including the shock ending as Freddy returns from seeming defeat to take Nancy’s mother. It also provides backstory that reveals the original Freddy to have been a child molester, rather than a child killer, thus returning to Craven’s original vision. In the film, Freddy has returned to attack those same kids, now teenagers. It’s a good-looking film, but rather unimaginative, and Jackie Earle Haley’s Freddy, while pretty creepy, definitely lacks the personality of Englund’s version. It’s also a bit annoying that the teenagers of Springwood in this film seem to have even more trouble staying awake than did their predecessors. As of this writing, the 2010 version remains the last of the Nightmare films, not having generated enough interest to justify a sequel.

Contemporary Slashers

By the end of the 1980s, the slasher filmed seemed to have virtually run out of creative energy. Even something like Scott Spiegel’s ultra-bloody INTRUDER (1989), which has slightly higher production values than your average blood-and-gore slasher movie, seemed rather unimaginative—though it does feature some particularly gruesome and colorful ways of killing folks and includes appearances as actors by both Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell (the latter merely a brief cameo) of Evil Dead fame. (Speigel co-scripted Evil Dead 2, so there’s a familial connection.) Intruder also has a vaguely interesting twist ending in which the two surviving would-be victims are arrested for the killings. The real killer, meanwhile, is motivated by the demise of his beloved business, so there is some potential critique of capitalism here, but the film itself doesn’t seem much interested in that.

Some interesting new territory did continue to be explored in slasher films, however, For example, Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992), produced by Clive Barker and based on a Barker short story, was one of the most lauded horror films of the early 1990s. Here, Virginia Madsen plays Helen Lyle, a graduate student writing her thesis on urban legends. Her research takes her into Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing development in search of information about the Candyman myth, which centers on the ghost of the son of a former slave who had been mutilated and horribly killed for impregnating a white woman. The myth is a bit silly in itself, though it is built from elements of a number of actual urban legends, as well as other horror films (Candyman has a hook for a hand, he can be magically conjured via a mirror, he steals a baby, etc.). Somewhat predictably, Candyman (Tony Todd) turns out to be real and to threaten Lyle in horrible ways, leading her eventually to be killed and to become a sort of Candywoman herself. It’s all very stylishly done, though, and the film has appeared on numerous “scariest” lists. What’s also important is the allegorical dimension of the film, which suggests the ways in which the slave past continues to haunt present-day American society—and the way in which one of the scariest things we can still imagine is a young, blonde, white woman being stalked by a big black man, whether he has a hook for a hand and bees in his ribs or not.

Race is also important, in a less overt way, in black director Ernest Dickerson’s Demon Knight (1995), an entry in the Tales from the Crypt film franchise, inspired by the 1950s comic book of that title. Here, supernatural hijinks and gross-out visuals (plus a hilarious campy performance by Billy Zane as the lead villain), cannot disguise the fact that Demon Knight is essentially a slasher film, whose slashers just happen to be a gang of supernatural demons led by Zane’s Satanic Collector. It’s all rather lightweight and humorous horror fare, though it did break new ground by featuring a Final Girl, Jeryline (Jada Pinkett), who is black. Jeryline also inherits the title of the Chosen One who is designated to prevent future Collectors from reconstituting the gang of demons and potentially destroying the universe, thus making her a direct predecessor to the mythology that would eventually be built around Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Such films—and especially New Nightmare—helped to reverse the slasher film’s drift toward the moribund, but it was with the huge success of Scream that the slasher film was truly re-energized by taking a more self-referential, postmodern turn. I discuss the postmodern turn in the slasher film in detail in the chapter of The Horror Film Project on the Postmodern Horror Film, including a detailed discussion of Scream itself. For now, I would simply acknowledge this phenomenon, while also noting that postmodernism in the slasher film really dates all the way back to Psycho and was particularly prominent in the pastiches of Hitchcock produced by Brian De Palma in the 1970s and 1980s.

Otherwise, slasher films have been so widely produced (and often in such a formulaic way) that coming up with something fresh in the genre has been become a genuine challenge to contemporary filmmakers. The Scream franchise itselfwent downhill fairly quickly, while many of the most prominent slasher films in the early part of the twenty-first century have simply been reboots of all three of the great slasher franchises of the 1980s (as well as remakes of individual slasher films, such as Maniac or The Town that Dreaded Sundown). While such attempts have sometimes yielded interesting films, the results have typically been less than stellar. There have, however, been a number of notable slasher film that have genuinely added to the subgenre. Many of these films have not taken an overtly self-referential turn, though their intense awareness of the generic tradition in which they participate still gives them a definite postmodern quality.

American Psycho (2000) is definitely slasher movie of sorts—and one with clear postmodern inclinations, though it attempts to be critical of the moral environment of postmodernism and late capitalism. American Psycho, like the controversial Bert Easton Ellis novel on which it is based, is one of American culture’s most compelling depictions of the psychic consequences of living in the world of late capitalism. The novel is, ultimately, more powerful and horrifying than the film, though the film is a lot funnier, largely due to the tour de force performance of Christian Bale, who accomplishes the near impossible task of making the most despicable character you ever saw entertaining to watch. In this one he plays young Wall Street investment banker Patrick Bateman, or he seems to be Patrick Bateman, though people are constantly mistaking him for someone else, partly because he and his fellow bankers, pompous and pretentious assholes all, lack any real depth of character and are pretty much interchangeable. Bateman and his colleagues live their lives in an endless and crazed orgy of consumption, frantically competing with one another to see who can have the better haircuts, clothes, business cards, restaurant reservations, and women, none of which, of course, bring them any satisfaction, because they always need to keep upping the ante to keep up with the competition. Bateman is a connoisseur of the consumable, fancying himself, for example, an expert on popular music, on which his mansplaining critical discourses are a comic highlight of the film. For one thing, his commentaries (like almost all of his conversation) consist almost entirely of clichés—as opposed, say, to Hannibal Lecter, who actually has some real insights into various things. (Of course, it doesn’t matter what Bateman says, because almost everyone he knows listens only to themselves and ignores everyone else.) Bateman also has execrable taste in music. His personal favorites are Genesis and Huey Lewis and the News, and his favorite song of all is “Sussudio.” Bateman lives in a luxurious apartment (with a really good refrigerator), but there’s always someone with a better one. He has a beautiful fiancée (played by Reese Witherspoon), who’s just as fatuous as he is, but she (as he tells her at one point) is “not very important” to him, so he is having an affair with the fiancée of one of his colleagues. But women, like everything else, are just commodities to him, so he also frequently consorts with prostitutes. It’s all fuel for his narcissism: when having sex with them, he concentrates far more on his own (impressive) body than on theirs. And he really has to return a lot of videotapes, or at least that’s his go-to alibi. Basically, no matter what he does or has, he always needs more, which (apparently) drives him over the edge into a series of brutal murders, though at least some (if not all) of these may simply occur only in his own imagination. He himself is so insane, his identity so fragmented, that he really can’t tell fantasy from reality, and this attitude infects the entire film. For example, he seems fascinated with serial killers, but seems to make no distinction between real (Ed Gein, Ted Bundy) and fictional (Leatherface, Hannibal Lecter) serial killers. Set in the Reagan era (of course), this film sums up the excesses of that time better and more graphically than did, say, Wall Street (1987). Given that those excesses have become even more excessive in our own time, this is a film that remains even more relevant than when it was first released. And Patrick Bateman is an even more telling dramatization of the psychic fragmentation associated with late capitalist consumerism and competitiveness than is, say, television serial killer Dexter Morgan in Dexter (2006–2013).

2000 also saw the release of Final Destination, a supernatural thriller that announces its self-conscious participation in the horror genre by naming many of its characters after famous figures in horror films, including F. W. Murnau, Tod Browning, Val Lewton, and Alfred Hitchcock. But Final Destination, in its essence, is a slasher film. Here, though, a group of teenagers are stalked by death itself, which thus eliminates slasher figures such as Michael Myers, cutting out the middle man and reminding us directly of that fundamental horror: we all must die. Final Destination was successful enough to found an entire franchise, which has now extended to five films, as well as novels and comic books.

Christopher Smith’s Severance (2006) is an unusual film that fits vaguely within the slasher subgenre—while also fitting within the recent cycle of horror films that have been set in post-communist Eastern Europe, treating that area of the world as an uncivilized bastion of savage horrors. This film, however, also contains considerable humor, while aiming most of its critique at a busload of Westerners who come into a remote region on Hungary for a “team-building” getaway to further their effectiveness as employees of an international arms dealer. Then they are attacked by a gang of crazed killers whose agenda is never made clear, leaving only two of them (plus two local “escorts” picked up along the way) as survivors. Described by some critics as a hybrid of horror and The Office, Severance contains a great deal of graphic, bloody violence but also has some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, as when the CEO of the arms dealer tries to blow away the attackers with a rocket launcher, only to have the rocket veer off and home in on a passing airliner, blowing it out of the sky. Definitely worth a watch.

Smith also directed an interesting and unusual slasher film in Triangle (2009), a mind-teaser that swirls together a number of different elements, including a genuinely creep setting aboard an abandoned ocean liner, presumably somewhere in the vicinity of the Bermuda Triangle. Here, a group of friends are sailing for fun when a storm capsizes their yacht, leading them to take refuge on the ocean liner, which appears from nowhere. Then they all appear to be attacked by a slasher, who then turns out actually to be Jess, one of the group (played by Melissa George). Then the whole thing starts to repeat in a time loop, introducing a series of repetitions based on the myth of Sisyphus. There are, in fact, a number of mythic references, as well as a great deal of confusion, though there are hints that Jess is dead the whole time and is reliving all this endlessly as her post-death punishment, perhaps for mistreating her autistic son.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane was made in 2006 (and displayed then at the Toronto Film Festival) but not released in theaters in the U.S. until 2013, due to problems with a bankrupt distributor. On the surface, it is a reasonably conventional slasher in which a group of high school students head out to a remote ranch for a fun weekend, then get attacked by a psychotic killer. The title character (played by a still teenaged Amber Heard) is also the Final Girl, but a plot twist late in the film makes her a very unusual one. Not always the best-looking film, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane contains some fairly effective explorations of teen angst and a great deal of 1980s-style throwback violence, though the whole thing seems a bit undercooked.

Bryan Bertino’s home-invasion drama The Strangers (2008), partly inspired by the real-world slashers of the Manson family, introduces the wrinkle of having three masked slashers instead of one, two of whom are female. It produces some genuine horror as a couple (in the midst of a crisis in their relationship) are threatened by these slashers inside a remote home. The victims are a bit older than the typical slasher victims, and this film does seem aimed at a slightly older audience than most slashers, but otherwise this film is fairly typical slasher fare, though better made than most slasher films. The Strangers was interesting enough that it already joined the remake frenzy by 2018 with the release of Johannes Roberts’s The Strangers: Prey at Night, which in fact improves upon the original in a number of ways, especially in the music and cinematography. This one keeps the same slashers as the first but shifts the setting to a remote trailer park and adds a dimension by having two generations of a family as victims of the slasher attacks. In this version, meanwhile, the two female slashers are dispatched relatively easily, though the male slasher who seems to have Jason Voorhees/Michael Myers-like superhuman toughness and tenacity. This film resembles the typical slasher film in that its killers seemingly strike at random, with no identifiable motivation. However, it differs from most slasher films in that the body count is relatively low (two victims in a prologue, two in the main film, plus the two female slashers), while all of the victims of the slashers are older adults, the two teen characters both surviving. But what really sets this film apart from most films in the subgenre has to do not so much with the plot as with the musical soundtrack and the cinematography. The soundtrack consists mostly of well-known, peppy pop songs, played by the slashers on the radio of their battered pickup truck as they hunt down their victims. The eerie mismatch between this music and what we see on the screen produces a sort of cognitive dissonance that makes the events that unfold seem even more bizarre and inexplicable. The setting of the film is fairly conventional (a tourist trailer park, abandoned for the season), but the way the setting is shot is much more interesting than it might have been. Indeed, the visual quality of this film goes well beyond that of most slasher films. It’s oddly beautiful, in fact, with a number of striking shots, though sometimes in a disturbing way and sometimes in way that again produces cognitive dissonance, as in a striking scene shot at a swimming pool, where the brightly-lit, fun, kitschy setting contrasts dramatically with the events that are unfolding there.

Bertino’s film, incidentally, is a virtual remake of the 2006 French-Romanian film Them, directed by David Moreau and Xavier Palud. Here, a French couple are living in a sprawling (but crumbling) country villa when it is attacked by mysterious, shadowy invaders. Strange, inhuman sounds make the invaders seem even more mysterious, and throughout most of Them, the film is able to maintain a great deal of uncertainty about just who, or what, these invaders might be. Them is tremendously successful at sustaining suspense and is, for my money, one of the scariest films of the twenty-first century. That the invaders are finally revealed in the end to be a group of roaming Romanian boys possibly makes it even scarier. There is also a twist in the end that makes it clear that the title of the film refers to the French couple (who are, after all, invaders in the homeland of the boys). This twist causes us to re-evaluate a number of aspects of the film and opens to door to a number of interpretations of the social implications of the film as a commentary on both French and Romanian societies, which makes it far richer than either version of The Strangers in that sense.[13]

Additional new energy was breathed into the slasher film withJoseph Kahn’s Detention (2011), which is something like the Scream sequence, only more so. It’s all about the way the characters view reality via a series of assumptions and expectations derived from watching films, to the point that the distinction between fiction and reality is hopelessly blurred, if there is one at all. Basically, the teens of the town of Grizzly Lake are being stalked by a serial killer, to which they respond with strategies that are completely mediated by their own viewing of slasher films. And then they have to travel back in time to save the world. It’s a long story, and it doesn’t make much sense, but that doesn’t really matter, because the plot is just one long opportunity for self-reflexive cleverness. It’s called, as they say in the film itself, post-irony.

One of the most innovative horror films of the early twenty-first century is Adam Wingard’s You’re Next (2011), despite the fact that it seemingly remains in familiar territory in so many ways. Discussed in detail below, this film features a number of striking motifs, the most important of which is its especially effective Final Girl, played by Australian actress Sharni Vinson. Wingard’s The Guest (2014), meanwhile, adds a number of elements to the usual slasher film mix, including a sinister military experiment that accidentally produces a truly unusual slasher in the form of an ex-soldier (played by Dan Stevens) who becomes an almost indestructible killing machine. This film also features an extremely feminine Final Girl (played by Maika Monroe, who also starred in It Follows the same year) and a Final Boy (her younger brother Luke, played by Brendan Meyer), who is not very masculine. Meanwhile, the climax of this film occurs in an almost absurdist sequence set in an elaborate maze constructed for Luke’s high school’s Halloween dance. This sequence leaves the slasher lying dead beneath a headstone that reads “RIP.” He doesn’t take the advice, though but instead recovers, plants some burned bodies he hopes will be mistaken for his own, and escapes disguised as a firefighter. Monroe spots him and gasps, “What the fuck?” which pretty much sums up the whole second half of this movie.

Blumhouse Productions, one of the new powerhouses in horror film production, turned its hand to the slasher film in 2016 with Mike Flanagan’s Hush (2016), in which an oddly timid and somewhat inept slasher attacks the remote home of a woman writer who also happens to be a deaf mute. This film to some extent thus joins the tradition of horror films such as Wait Until Dark (1968) and See No Evil (1971), in which women with disabilities are threatened by killers. However, while the women in those earlier films (played by Audrey Hepburn and Mia Farrow, respectively) were also physically frail and slight, the Final Girl of Hush (played by Kate Siegel, the wife of director Flanagan, with whom she co-wrote the film) is an updated version who is much better able to defend herself physically, ultimately proving more than a match for her slasher.

 In 2017, Blumhouse made the serio-comic Happy Death Day, which essentially takes the central conceit of the classic comedy Groundhog Day (1993) and turns it into a slasher film. Indeed, one character remarks to the film’s Final Girl at the end of the film that what she has just been through was very reminiscent of Groundhog Day—though he is then perplexed to learn that she is unfamiliar with this film. Basically, college student Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) keeps getting murdered by a slasher, only to wake up alive again back at the beginning of the day in which she was killed. The main plot of the movie thus involves her attempts to identify and thwart her killer, so that she can break out of the vicious cycle of death and rebirth. This film was successful enough to get a (more thoroughly comedy) sequel in 2019, thus ironically enacting its own theme of repetitions.

If Happy Death Day is vaguely comic, other recent slasher films have been all-out ridiculous. One thinks here of something like Jordan Downey’s Thankskilling (2009), in which an evil killer turkey runs amok on every turkey’s least favorite holiday. The deranged trash-talking killer turkey that has been given supernatural powers by a Native American necromancer in response to the insults heaped upon him and his people by the Pilgrims, and the dirty bird puts his new powers to great use. The film actually does have some clever moments of engagement with the slasher film tradition, and the sequence in which the turkey (successfully) disguises itself as one girl’s father by cutting off the guy’s face and wearing it as a mask is sure to become a holiday classic film moment, right up there with the scene in which Ralphie finally gets a Red Rider BB gun and then nearly really does shoot his eye out.

Just as ridiculous is the 2016 film The Greasy Strangler. Though something of a slasher poof, the film really has no interest in the conventions of the slasher genre, and instead merely tries to produce as much gross-out weirdness as possible in an hour and a half. The film includes lots of murders and a great deal of sex and nudity (of really unattractive bodies), but also includes a huge amount of grease, as its central serial killer always coats himself in disgusting grease before going out on his killing missions. Eventually, the film descends into total absurdity, as the greasy strangler and his son (who has also become a greasy strangler) observe themselves being executed by firing squad, then go off together to continue their careers as greasy stranglers. Cue Maika Monroe at the end of The Guest.

In a much more serious mode, Ted Geoghegan’s Mohawk (2017), turns the bloody history of the near-extermination of Native Americans by European settlers into the stuff of a slasher film, scoring a number of important historical and political points along the way. Set during the War of 1812, the film deals with the brutal assault on Mohawk Indians by American soldiers during that war, ultimately leading a young Mohawk woman, Okwaho (“Oak,” played by Kaniehtiio Horn) to take on the unusual role of a sympathetic slasher figure, somewhat in the mode of rape-revenge heroines. Seemingly fueled by vaguely supernatural energies, Okwaho ultimately wipes out a group of American soldiers who have attempted to kill her and her family. This is a very effective film, despite its low budget. And, as Simon Abrams has noted, it has much of the same political intensity as the early low-budget horror films of Wes Craven. Bloody and horrific, Mohawk is a much needed reminder of the grim events that have often driven American history. It’s also a very unusual horror film that is well worth the watch.

Some recent slasher films have gone the retro route: rather than trying to expand the subgenre in new directions, they have looped back to the Golden Age of the 1980s, sometimes trying to beat that decade at its own game. Perhaps the classic case here is Damien Leone’s Terrifier (2016), which is little more than a sequence of gruesome and bloody killings, with no apparent allegorical (or other) subtext. The slasher here is Art the Clown (David Howard Thornton), who undertakes a series of horrific and bloody killings that are reminiscent of those in ’80s slasher films but with decidedly better special effects and higher production values. Art, among other things, has a sense of humor (if a monstrous one), and he is certainly inventive—as when he hangs one unfortunate young woman upside down and then saws her in half lengthwise, starting at the genitals. If that famous scene in which Freddy Kruger’s claws approach Nancy Thompson’s crotch in the bathtub was horrifying, this one is much more so—though it also teeters on the brink of ridiculousness and self-parody, making the purported misogyny of the slasher film all too explicit. This film has a twist ending of sorts, but cleverness is not its forte: it’s more of an in-your-face, bash-on-the-head assault.

A completely different kind of sensibility inhabits Lars von Trier’s pan-European production[14] The House That Jack Built (2018), one of the most perplexing films of recent years. Critics have seen it as everything from self-indulgent garbage to sublime high art, but one thing for certain is that it invites debate and commentary. It stars Matt Dillon as a crazed serial killer, but also teases us with the possibility of reading Dillon as a sort of stand-in for von Trier himself, his psychopathic tendencies serving as extreme versions of tendencies (misogyny, fascination with violence, etc.) of which von Trier has sometimes been accused. In any case, Dillon’s character (the “Jack” of the title) is certainly extreme enough that this film can be considered horror, rather than merely a crime story, though it is sometimes unclear whether it is a slasher film or a critical parody of a slasher film. Jack clearly views his killings as a form of art, but it isn’t clear whether this means something or whether he’s just nuts. In any case, the film features grotesque and horrifying violence (especially against women, but also against men—not to mention children and small animals), yet it often veers into (very black) comedy at unexpected moments. Then it swerves into surrealism as it ends with Jack being killed and taken for a tour of his new home in hell by one “Verge” (Bruno Ganz), thus drawing upon Dante in a way that might be profound, might be pretentious, and might be just plain silly. It’s very difficult to come to any final conclusions about anything in this film.

 Speaking of European films, no discussion of recent slasher films would be complete without a mention of the slashers that have been central to the recent bloody turn in French horror cinema known as the “New French Extremity”[15] movement, most of which make Friday the 13th look prim and quaint. These films feature extremely bloody violence presented in an absolutely serious mode, free of the gross-out campiness that has so often accompanied such imagery in American films. One of the first such films to get international attention was Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension (“High Tension,” 2003, aka Switchblade Romance), which extended the audience appeal of the earlier films in the New French Extremity movement by adding in important elements derived from American slasher films (though this film had to be edited extensively for U.S. distribution in order to avoid an NC-17 rating). With effects by Gianetto de Rossi (who had worked extensively with Italian horror directors such as Lucio Fulci), Haute Tension certainly earned its ranking by Time magazine as one of the ten most ridiculously violent films ever.) It also has a clever plot twist in which the apparent Final Girl turns out actually to be the slasher, suffering from a split personality. The film suffers from significant plot holes and from a potentially homophobic subtext (though Stacie Ponder has argued that the ending of the film is “undeniably pro-gay”), but it certainly pushes the envelope in terms of the representation of brutal violence in slasher films.

Perhaps the most cringeworthy (and notorious) of the New French Extremity slasher films is Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s Inside (2007), which combines stomach-turning violence with artful filmmaking to produce an impressively original slasher film, even if it pretty unpleasant to watch. It’s a taut, frightening thriller, well made and well acted. In it a woman (played by Alysson Paradis), nine months pregnant, is threatened by an insane woman (Béatrice Dalle) who wants to remove the baby by whatever means necessary and keep it for her own, her own fetus having been destroyed in a car crash with the first woman a few months earlier. This basic premise leads to a bloody series of violent murders in which the maniac finally achieves her goal and removes the (apparently alive) infant (performing a C-section with a pair of scissors). As the film ends, she rocks the baby gently, though frankly it’s almost impossible to believe that the infant hasn’t been pretty seriously hurt by all that has gone before. Along the way, we see enough spurting blood, gouged-out eyes, and general graphic mayhem to have supplied a dozen American slasher films. And it all takes place on Christmas Eve night, no less, in this sense bringing the slasher film back to its roots in Black Christmas.

Perhaps the bloodiest of all New French Extremity films is Xavier Gens’s Frontière(s) (2007, “Frontier(s)”), in which Texas Chain Saw Massacre meets Hostel in a gruesome orgy of torture, death, cannibalism, and general mayhem. It’s also a film with an important political subtext that grows out of real recent developments in French politics. By making a group of French-Algerian criminals the victims of a crazed family of degenerate Nazis, it clearly warns the French public that they should probably be far less concerned about the threat of Muslim contamination and far more concerned with the lingering threat of neo-Nazism. Meanwhile, the central character, Yasmine (Karina Testa), emerges from the bloodbath as a particularly interesting (and formidable) Final Girl. It’s again an unpleasant film to watch—but perhaps not as unpleasant as the specter of neo-Nazism that, at the time, had begun haunting French politics. As West puts it,

Frontier(s) offers a critique of France’s present, as well as its past, by subverting established tropes of other horror films and functioning on a seemingly absurd presence, a neo–Nazi family residing in the French countryside. Gens, however, gleans this absurdity from his country’s own history as a means of questioning what France’s role was during the Second World War, and what, if any, residuals still remain. (134)

Finally, Coralie Fargeat’s recent Revenge (2017), discussed in detail elsewhere in this project, has both an interesting slasher and an interesting Final Girl. The most interesting aspect of the film, however, is that it combines the slasher subgenre with the more obscure rape-revenge subgenre to produce what is essentially an anti-slasher film whose central character is both the Final Girl and the slasher. In any case, the films of the New French Extremity movement—along with such innovative films You’re Next and The Guest—suggest that the slasher subgenre, like so many slashers themselves, still has quite a bit of life in it, despite having been seemingly killed off multiple times.

The 2017 British slasher film Prevenge (2017), written by, directed by, and starring Alice Lowe also shows the ability to take the slasher film in new directions. While there are a number of outright slasher comedies, this one is a genuine slasher film that nevertheless approaches its material with tongue in cheek. A sort of flipside of Inside,it features a pregnant woman (played by Lowe) as its slasher. In particular, the woman believes that her fetus is directing her to commit a series of killings, which she accordingly does. Then the baby is born …

Torture Porn

In 2018, prominent horror director Eli Roth produced and hosted the documentary series Eli Roth’s History of Horror for the AMC cable network. In the series, Roth’s narration is interspersed with clips from individual films and with commentaries provided from a variety of actors, directors, producers, and film scholars, often in conversation with Roth. A significant portion of the second of two episodes devoted to slasher films is devoted to “torture porn” films such as James Wan’s Saw (2004) and Roth’s own Hostel (2005). As one might expect, Roth is much less dismissive of these films than many critics have been, seeing them (among other things) as a legitimate way of dealing with anxieties resulting from the 9/11 bombings a few years earlier. The film also, Roth suggests, indicates the fundamental ignorance of Americans of the world outside their own country, an ignorance that contributed to making events such as the 9/11 bombings possible.

What is perhaps less predictable is that Roth considers films such as Saw and Hostel basically to be variants on the slasher film—though this categorization would actually seem to hold more for Saw (with its central “Jigsaw” figure) than for Hostel (in which a criminal ring engages in an enterprise in which they offer up victims whom their customers pay to be able to kill in any way they see fit. Sometimes, these customers torture their victims to death (thus the “torture porn” designation), though a surprisingly small amount of screen time in Hostel is taken up with actual torture—most of the time is spent on showing its ignorant, insensitive young American protagonists partying their way through Europe, and then on action sequences in which one of the Americans manages to escape to freedom.

Saw is actually much more deserving of the “torture porn” label. It was also much more successful, spawning a franchise that has now stretched to eight feature films, compared with only three Hostel films. The Saw franchise has been, in fact, one of the biggest phenomena in American horror in twenty-first century. The first film sets the tone for it all, a tone that is actually no more gruesome than in respected American films of the 1990s such as The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Seven (1995)[16]. In Saw, two men (played by Cary Elwes and the film’s co-writer, Leigh Whannell) wake up chained to pipes in a filthy bathroom and have no idea how they got there. Most of the film has to do with solving that mystery—and with their attempts to get free. It’s very much a puzzle film, echoing the name of its central serial killer, Jigsaw, who is identified late in the film in one of its many surprises. Indeed, this film is actually quite clever, perhaps too clever by half, trying a bit too hard to install twists and turns. It has a surprisingly well-known cast for a low-budget independent film, including Danny Glover as a police detective who becomes obsessed with tracking down Jigsaw and Monica Potter as the wife of Elwes’ character. It also features a pre-Lost Michael Emerson in a key role. The acting is nothing to write home about, though, possibly because the film was shot in a mad rush on minimal budget. Saw and Hostel deal with some fundamental truths about Americans and American culture. As a result, they should certainly not be dismissed as nothing more than venal exercises in essentially pornographic exploitation of the basest desires of horror film audiences. At the same time, while such films involve some of the same physical destruction of human bodies as do most slasher films, they do not fit entirely comfortably within the slasher subgenre.

Roth’s own Knock Knock (2015) stretches the boundaries of the torture porn subgenre by including less torture and more porn than is usually the case. An unusual home invasion film, it stars Keanu Reeves as Evan Webber, an architect and devoted family man who is working home alone for the weekend while his wife and kids are at the beach. Then two sexy young women (played by Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas) arrive at his door during a driving rainstorm, claiming to be lost and without a working phone. Webber lets them in so they can use his computer to get directions, but they end up seducing him, despite his initial reluctance. They all have sex together, then sleep through the night. The next morning, the women begin wrecking his house and tormenting him with their antics, which extend to literal torture; Webber ends up buried in the back yard up to his neck, expecting to be killed. Instead, they simply leave him for his wife to find and reveal that they have undertaken this same project with a whole series of supposedly devoted family men, all of whom succumbed to their attempts at seduction. So they are something like slashers, except that they just seduce and then torture men, without killing them, in order to teach them a lesson about fidelity. At times bordering on comedy, the film also borders on delivering a feminist message, as its two main female characters emerge as something like women warriors, seeking vengeance on unfaithful men. It doesn’t quite work, but it’s an interesting try.

Knock Knock, of course, builds on a tradition of captivity narratives that pre-dates and leads into the torture porn phenomenon. One of the earliest and best-known of these narratives is the Stephen King adaptation Misery (1990), in which Kathy Bates gives a brilliant, Oscar-winning performance as Annie Wilkes, a dedicated fan of famed mystery writer Paul Sheldon (James Caan), who is badly injured in an auto accident in the Colorado mountains, then awakes to find himself in Annie’s care. That care, of course, goes a bit too far, and Annie is willing to go to any extreme to try to keep Sheldon in her life, in what has become an iconic film.

In David Slade’s Hard Candy (2005), Patrick Wilson plays Jeff Kohlver, a seemingly nice-guy photographer who just happens to have a penchant for stalking underage girls on the internet. However, he meets his match when he picks up fourteen-year-old Hayley Stark (Ellen Page) and takes her back to his studio/home. The sweet, innocent-looking Stark turns out to be a vigilante type who really hates pedophiles, which Kohlver comes to realize in some of the most horrific ways possible. Much of the tension in this one comes from the question of just how far Hayley will go and just how deranged she might be, but there is also an ongoing question of just how much of a creep Kohlver really is. It doesn’t all come together but well worth a watch.

Torture porn, meanwhile, is not an entirely Western phenomenon. Indeed, the Japanese cult horror film Audition (1999) in some ways anticipates the entire subgenre. Here, a middle-aged widower, Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), decides he is ready to remarry. So he uses his show-biz connections to lure 30 young actresses into auditioning for a new “film,” then picks one of them, 24-year-old Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina) as his next bride. She’s pretty and almost angelic, but seems a little odd, possibly damaged. Then it turns out that she’s really odd and really damaged, apparently from being abused and tortured during her childhood. So she has become a crazed psycho who hates all men and devotes herself to torturing and killing them in horrible ways. Aoyama courts her, then of course becomes her next victim. She drugs him to make him helpless, then pin cushions him with acupuncture needles, but in a way designed to stimulate, rather than relieve pain. Then she starts to cut off his feet so he can never escape from her. Luckily, Aoyama’s son interrupts when the father still has one foot left. Then it all turns out to be a dream. Then it all turns out not to be a dream. Asami goes after the son as well, but he manages to kick her down a flight of stairs, injuring her horribly. The mangled Asami and Aoyama lie and look at one another as the son calls for the police and an ambulance. This one develops slowly, as a sense of doom gradually builds about the relationship between Asami and Aoyama, until all hell really breaks loose near the end. And I do mean hell. Not for those with weak stomachs—and, frankly, a lot more scarily graphic than Saw.

It should also be noted that there is a strong tradition of Asian horror films that sometimes push the revenge thriller into the realm of torture porn. The most famous of these is the “Vengeance Trilogy,,” directed by Park Chan-wook, one of rising stars of global film. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)

One of the most notable of these is Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil (2010), which features Choi Min-sik as Jang Kyung-chul, a psychotic serial killer who rapes, tortures, and murders a series of young women, until he finally chooses a victim who is the financé of formidable secret agent Kim Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), who then initiates a campaign of terror and torture against Jang. Jang turns out to be a more worthy opponent than Kim had expected, though, leading to a series of tense situations, though Kim ultimately triumphs. The victory, however, is a hollow one. Gruesome, bloody, and graphic, I Saw the Devil is indicative of the visceral turn taken by Korean horror in recent years.

Home Invasion Narratives

Knock Knock might best be characterized as a home invasion narrative, a category that overlaps extensively with the slasher film. Numerous recent films that are often characterized as slasher films might equally well be considered to be home invasion films, including a number mentioned above. You’re Next, The Strangers, Inside, Them, and Hush,for example, all involve home invasions of one sort or another, even as they display many of the characteristics of the slasher film as well. There are also important home invasion films that are a bit more difficult to lump into the category of the slasher film. Two of the best of these are the Austrian director Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (made in German in 1997, then remade shot-for-shot in English in 2007) and Fede Álvarez’s Don’t Breathe (2016). Both of these films, in fact, challenge the usual terms of the home invasion subgenre, even while still belonging to that genre.

In the case of Don’t Breathe, this challenge is relatively straightforward in that the usual terms of the home invasion subgenre are essentially reversed: a group of young people break into the house of a blind man, only then themselves to becoming the hunted prey of their would-be victim. The blind man (played by Stephen Lang) is a veteran who lost his sight in action in Iraq, but is skilled with weapons and at hand-to-hand combat. He thus proves far more formidable than the three young invaders could ever have imagined. These invaders, meanwhile, are treated with relative sympathy: they steal (typically from the rich) in order to try to escape their dismal lives of poverty in a ruined Detroit, a city which is itself a major element of the film—as it is in horror films such as Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and It Follows (2014). Meanwhile, the invaders are made even more sympathetic by the fact that the blind man is hiding a sinister agenda, though this agenda itself, however misguided (and patriarchal), also has a story behind it, making the ethical terms of this film highly complex.

Still, while playing with the conventions of the home invasion narrative, Don’t Breathe does not mount the kind of assault on the subgenre that one finds in Funny Games, where Haneke seems intent on mounting a remorseless critique of precisely the kinds of films that this one at first appears to be. The plot is simple: an upper-middle-class family (a husband, a wife, and their young son) repairs to their posh summer home for some time in the country, only to be accosted by two young men who invade their home, sadistically torment them, then kill them all, one by one, beginning with the son. That simple plot summary, however, does very little to capture the true nature of this film, which seems designed as a provocation that denounces both the film industry for producing such films and film audiences for enjoying them.

Haneke achieves this effect by giving us a film that is, for the most part, a superb example of the home invasion narrative, very effectively building an atmosphere of terror and threat, while at the same time teasing audiences with slivers of hope that the family (or at least one or two of them) might ultimately escape and survive. Haneke then demolishes this hope with a series of brutal murders perpetrated by his genuinely chilling villains, who seem to take great pleasure in what they are doing, but in an emotionally subdued way. Thus, Funny Games relies for its mesmerizing impact on very much the same resources as the genre it seems intended to critique. It then castigates its own audience for being mesmerized. Little wonder, then, that this film has been Haneke’s most controversial and most polarizing, with critics seeing it as everything from a worthless piece of exploitative trash to a brilliant cinematic tour-de-force that effectively critiques both films that really are exploitative trash and the tendencies within modern society that would make such films attractive to so many people.

Haneke undermines the functioning of Funny Games as such an exploitation film by inserting several bits of self-reflexive commentary into the film. The two invaders, for example, call each other by a variety of names of famous paired characters from Western cultural history. At times, they refer to themselves as “Peter” and “Paul,” evoking two of the founding figures of Christianity and suggesting that the sadistic tendencies of the invaders might be in part derived from the tradition of Christianity, with its glorification of the torture and suffering of Christ. At other times, they refer to themselves as “Tom” and “Jerry,” recalling the cat-and-mouse antagonists at the center of a classic (but ultra-violent) cartoon series produced by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera for MGM from 1940 to 1958. And the invaders bring their references up to date (especially in the 1997 version) by calling themselves “Beavis” and “Butt-Head,” evoking the central figures in a controversial cartoon series produced by Mike Judge for the MTV cable network from 1993 to 1997, a series that was widely criticized as a bad influence on its typically young viewers.

Together, these references suggest that the two killers of Funny Games might have become the cold-hearted psychopaths that they are through a lifetime of exposure to influences ranging from fundamental elements of the Christian religion, to children’s cartoons, to the teen-oriented programming of MTV, all tending to focus on images of violence and pain. At the same time, these references to other examples of sadistic violence in Western culture can be taken as metafictional acknowledgements of the fictionality of Funny Games itself, which in fact includes a number of subtle defamiliarizing touches that seem designed to create a sort of Brechtian estrangement effect, distancing audiences from emotional engagement with the action that is being depicted and asking them instead to engage the film on an intellectual level.[17] For example, both invaders where white gloves throughout the film (even before it is obvious that they have sinister intentions), creating an oddly discordant effect, while some elements of the plot (such as their strategy of beginning their invasion by asking to borrow eggs, which they repeatedly drop and break) enhance this effect even further.

In addition, there are more overtly Brechtian moments when the lead killer—Paul/Jerry/Butt-Head (played by Arno Frisch in the German original and by Michael Pitt in the American remake[18]) breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. Fairly early in the captivity of the family, Paul tries to get the family to accept his bet about whether they will still be alive at 9 am the next morning. When they refuse to play along, he turns to the camera and asks, “I mean, what do you think? Do you think they stand a chance? You’re on their side, aren’t you? Who are you betting on, hm?” Later in the film, still finding the couple uncooperative in playing his mind games, Paul turns to the camera and asks the audience, “Do you think it’s enough? You want a real ending, right? With plausible plot development? Don’t you?” Meanwhile, in what is perhaps the film’s most overt disruption of conventional narrative, there is one moment when the wife seizes a shotgun and shoots “Peter,” clearly killing him. Distraught, Paul searches frantically for a remote control. When he finds it, he quickly pushes rewind, which causes the whole scene to rewind to a few seconds before the seizing of the shotgun. Paul then presses “play,” this time prepared to prevent the wife from grabbing the shotgun and killing Peter. It’s all, we are reminded, just a movie. On the other hand, still later, as the two killers sail with the bound and gagged wife across the lake on the family’s sailboat, just before and after they nonchalantly dump her in the lake, Peter attempts to describe to Paul a film he has seen that interrogates the boundary between fiction and reality. Paul interrupts, asking, “Isn’t fiction real? You can see it in the movie, right? Well, then it’s just as real as reality.”

That Haneke remade the original film almost exactly in an English-language version with established, recognizable actors in most roles suggests that he himself felt strongly enough about the film’s message to want to get it to a larger audience. Unfortunately, this goal was not really reached. Even with Tim Roth and Naomi Watts as the terrorized couple, this film grossed less than $8 million in worldwide box-office receipts (only a little over $1 million of which came in the U.S.) Both versions did receive a reasonably positive critical response (though they also received heated critical denunciations), but the lack of box office success suggests that Funny Games is too much of an art film to appeal to audiences who might normally enjoy slasher/torture porn/home invasion films and too much of a bloody horror film to appeal to audiences who might normally enjoy art films.


WORKS CITED

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Booker, M. Keith. The Post-Utopian Imagination: American Culture in the Long 1950s. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002.

Brill, Lesley. The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock’s Films. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1988.

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Updated Edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Conrich, Ian. “Seducing the Subject: Freddy Krueger, Popular Culture, and the Nightmare on Elm Street Films.” Trash Aesthetics: Popular Culture and Its Audience. Eds. Deborah Cartmell, I. Q. Hunter, Heidi Kaye, and Imelda Whelehan. London: Pluto Press, 1997. 118–131.

Corber, Robert J. In the Name of National Security: Hitchcock, Homophobia, and the Political Construction of Gender in Postwar America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.

Dolinh, Aline. “Finding Feminist Catharsis in the Rape-Revenge Film.” Film School Rejects (n.d.). https://filmschoolrejects.com/finding-feminist-catharsis-in-the-rape-revenge-film/. Accessed February 19, 2019.

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Peitz, Louis. “The Nightmare Behind the Gayest Horror Film Ever Made.” Buzzfeed (February 21, 2016). https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/louispeitzman/the-nightmare-behind-the-gayest-horror-film-ever-made. Accessed February 7, 2019.

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NOTES


[1] Especially from Scream (1996) onward, slasher films have been front and center in the development of a postmodern strain of horror film. Postmodern slasher films are discussed at length in the segment of The Horror Film Project on Postmodern Horror Film.

[2] Clover first elaborated the idea of the Final Girl in an article published in 1987.

[3] For a much more detailed (and very useful) study of the very early years of the slasher film (through about 1981), see Nowell.

[4] Ten years earlier, however, there had been a flurry of gay-oriented slasher films, including Make a Wish (2002), Dead Guys (2003), Hellbent (2004), and the French Haute Tension (“High Tension,” 2003).

[5] It should be pointed out, though, that Wood also played a depraved killer in the 2005 film Sin City, so that his casting in Maniac was not entirely unprecedented.

[6] In addition to being the founding work of the entire slasher subgenre, Psycho can also be considered the progenitor of an entire family of creepy remote motel films, including such recent examples as James Mangold’s excellent thriller Identity (2003) and Nimród Antal’s Vacancy (2007). Even Drew Goddard’s recent neo-noir thriller Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) can be considered a member of this family, though its relatively happy ending sets it apart from most of its kin. The 1980 horror comedy Motel Hell indicates the often excessive nature of such films, though they do draw upon genuine fears of travelers off the beaten path.

[7] Indeed, this explosion was able to knock Myers out of Halloween III (which is not a slasher film at all), but he would return for Halloween IV and subsequent films, by popular demand, as it were.

[8] This is not, of course, an entirely new horror-film trick. Curtis and Leigh also appeared together in John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980).

[9] “NFB” = “Norman F. Bates,” perhaps supplying us with Norman’s middle initial. In number-letter code, 418 would translate to “DAH,” or “Director Alfred Hitchcock.”

[10] The same idea would be used two years later in the marketing for A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, which featured Freddy Krueger as a spoof of Bond on its promotional posters.

[11] For more on the attractions Freddy seems to have for audiences, see Conrich, who notes (among other things) the popularity of Freddy merchandise among children.

[12] On the career of this film as a gay cult classic (and on the problems it caused for Patton’s own career), see Peitz.

[13] See Alexandra West for an excellent reading of these implications (136–140).

[14] The film is officially a co-production from Denmark, France, Germany, and Sweden.

[15] For a study of this movement, see West.

[16] Silence of the Lambs is discussed in detail elsewhere in The Horror Film Project. Seven (often stylized as “Se7en”) is certainly horrific but is constructed as a police procedural, rather than a horror film. Thus, none of the killings by its serial killer are actually shown in the film, which presents only the aftermaths of these killings. The only killing actually shown in the film is, in fact, that of the serial killer.

[17] The great German dramatist Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956) is known as the creator of “epic theater,” a form of drama in which odd and unrealistic intrusions distance the audience from his plays, creating the so-called estrangement effect (Verfremsdungeffekt in the original German) in which audiences are challenged to decode what they are experiencing through a process of intellectual analysis.

[18] While the two films are very similar in most respects, the German film does have an additional resource in terms of this estrangement effect, in that the chief invader is played by Austrian actor Frisch speaks German with an Austrian accent that is (at least to speakers of German) clearly different from the accents of the other actors, all German.