Though digging up historical pop culture landmarks 30-some-odd years in the grave can, at times, be challenging if not in some critics eyes arbitrary, without a doubt one of the standout sensations of the 80s worth mentioning is the slasher film. In fact, if you were to ask any number of pop culture enthusiasts to name their top five defining trends of the decade, the slasher film would likely be noted on more than a handful of occasions. According to Peter Bracke’s Friday the 13th chronicle Crystal Lake Memories, in 1983 slasher films were responsible for 60% of all box-office earnings. For reasons argued up and down the annals of film academia, kids just loved going out in the 80s to watch their peers get chopped, stabbed, sliced, and generally mutilated by unstoppable psychotic killers.
For anyone new to the sub-genre, that last sentence pretty much sums up the slasher film. A more aggressive offspring of the classic monster movie, the slasher film almost always portrays a small group of people, usually comprised of teenagers, being targeted and viciously murdered by an overpowering, nearly invincible stalker. With a few notable exceptions (see below), these films typically eschewed plot and character depth in favor of graphic violence and inventive death scenes. In most films, the killer is (seemingly) destroyed in the end by a lone survivor of the group, usually a young woman.
Due to the horror genre’s popularity in the 80s, the list of films in the slasher catalog is dense and littered with obscurities and cheap knockoffs. But there are few better ways to spend Halloween than settled on the couch and sharing with that special someone… you’re favorite unstoppable serial killer! Presented in this seasonal Retrobacktive entry are all the basics you need to know – or re-known – about the slasher film.
See what I did there? Re-know is like Retrobac… ah, whatever; let’s get on with it.
Black Christmas – The first thing you need to know is that the slasher film sub-genre didn’t begin in the 80s; it began in 1974 with Black Christmas, a Canadian film directed by Bob Clark. Clark, most famous for the sophomoric Porky’s and lighthearted A Christmas Story, helped develop a screenplay by writer A. Roy Moore into what is widely considered the first true slasher film. The movie depicts a sorority house whose inhabitants are individually killed off by a killer whose identity is never revealed. Many of the techniques that would become staples within the genre were first executed by Clark here, including most famously camera shots from the perspective of the killer. Though the film was not a success upon its initial release, it has gained a cult following as the recognized progenitor of the genre.
Final Girl – The Final Girl, or Survivor Girl, is a routine characteristic of the slasher film in which the killer is finally confronted by the last survivor within his/her intended group of victims. The survivor is almost always a woman, and usually one that has shown virtuous or masculine traits throughout the movie, and is thus able to destroy the killer. The term was first used by Carol Clover in her book Men, Women & Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. It has since gone on to be embraced openly by several of the genre’s most important filmmakers.
Freddy Krueger – The primary antagonist from Wes Craven‘s A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Krueger is readily identifiable by his clawed glove with four razors jutting from the fingertips, as well as his brown fedora and red-striped sweater. Unlike many of his slasher villain contemporaries, whose menace only hinted at the supernatural, Krueger’s abilities completely defy human convention and allow him to carry out previously inconceivable methods of violence. The character was most famously portrayed by Robert Englund.
Friday the 13th – Arguably the biggest franchise to develop out of the slasher film phenomenon. The Friday the 13th series is most widely known for introducing the character Jason Voorhees. Known universally as simply ‘Jason,’ the hockey-masked killer didn’t actually begin terrorizing Crystal Lake until Friday the 13th Part 2. While well know to genre aficionados, it wasn’t until Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) that laymen audiences learned the killer from the original Friday the 13th was Pamela Voorhees, Jason’s mother. Jason’s signature hockey mask was another later development within the series, first being used in Friday the 13th Part 3-D and in all subsequent films – which currently span nine sequels, a spinoff, and a 2009 reboot.
Halloween – Although Black Christmas is considered the original slasher film, Halloween is far and away the genre’s most lauded and seminal entry. Fulfilling the trope that would follow in virtually every slasher film made in the 80s, Halloween in recognized for not only perfecting many of the slasher staples established in Black Christmas – including eerie first-person camera perspectives from the villain’s point of view – but also creating the genre’s most indelible component: the masked killer. What makes Halloween unique and outstanding (aside from Michael Myers’ white William Shatner mask) is John Carpenter’s deft direction. Halloween contains very little gore, and the violence pales in comparison to the numerous sequels that would follow. Instead Carpenter relies on tone and immaculate pacing to create suspense. It works; as a horror film, this movie is virtually flawless. Extra points for the creepy soundtrack, composed by none other than John Carpenter.
Hellraiser – While not a traditional slasher film in the strictest sense, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser deserves mention given its legacy in the horror film canon, and for introducing Pinhead, one of the genre’s most popular villains. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser leans heavily towards the supernatural, but the gruesome visuals and deplorable characters align the film with other slasher classics. As a precursor to ‘torture porn,’ Hellraiser could be seen as the original, and the best.
Jason Voorhees – Jason Voorhees is the main antagonist (or antihero, depending on how you view the films) in the Friday the 13th series. Though his mother is revealed as the killer in the original movie, Jason takes the helm throughout the remainder of the sequels. As the son of Pamela Voorhees, Jason was a mongoloid who supposedly drowned in Crystal Lake, his cries for help unheard by camp counselors preoccupied with sex. Despite his mother’s attempts to avenge her dead child, Jason is shown to be alive in Friday the 13th Part 2, and launches an endless campaign of violence upon anyway who dares to reside near Crystal Lake. Jason’s acquisition of a goalie’s mask in Friday the 13th Part 3-D would elevate his pop culture status as arguably the most recognizable serial killer in film history.
John Carpenter – An Academy-award winning American filmmaker notable for producing, writing, editing, scoring, and directing several watershed films within the horror genre, John Carpenter is most well-known for creating the classic horror film Halloween. Carpenter released a string of horror films in the 80s and is consider by many to be the most influential horror filmmaker of the decade. Other notable movies in his catalog include The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Prince of Darkness, and They Live!.
Leatherface – As the chainsaw-wielding, skin-wearing, transvestite butcher from Tobe Hopper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface arguably defined the image of the homicidal stalker that would become prevalent in 80s slasher films. A silent, brutish figure devoid of personality, actor Gunnar Hansen studied the behavior of children with mental disabilities to develop the character’s creepy mannerisms.
Michael Myers – Michael Myers (aka ‘The Shape’) is the primary villain from the Halloween film series. A mysterious and relentless opponent, Myers is portrayed as the epitome of pure evil after he murders his sister as a young boy and escapes a mental institution 15 years later to stalk and murder a number of babysitters on Halloween night. The famous white mask Myers’ wears was actually a Captain Kirk Star Trek mask painted white by production designer Tommy Lee Wallace. The mask that launched a hundred horror flicks cost the film crew only $1.98. Ironic considering John Carpenter’s horror masterpiece is the closest thing the slasher film has to high art.
Nightmare on Elm Street – Director Wes Craven followed the burgeoning success he’d grown with low-budget cult films such as The Hills Have Eyes and Swamp Thing with 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. The film introduces audiences to Freddy Krueger, whose wit and supernatural abilities set him apart from the traditional, silent slasher film villains of the day. Like Halloween and Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street spawned a number of sequels, spinoffs, and a recent remake. Most, however, lacked the artistic input of Craven, but the original is a highly innovative entry into the slasher film canon thanks to its incorporation of reality-bending concepts.
Phantasm – A little-known American horror film from 1979, Phantasm earns a place in this overview as it contains many of the traditional elements found in slasher films of the era, primarily a young teenage protagonist engaged in battle with a larger, brooding antagonist. In the case of Phantasm, the antagonist is large enough to be colloquially dubbed “The Tall Man.” As The Tall Man, Angus Scrimm plays a mortician who controls a brood of dwarf zombies that fulfill his murderous desires. Though not as popular as contemporary films such as Halloween or Alien, Phantasm gained a strong cult following, and three sequels were eventually released.
Pinhead – As the leader of the Cenobites, a order of extra-dimensional sadomasochistic beings from the Hellraiser series, Pinhead distinguishes himself from several contemporary horror film antagonists by demonstrating erudite mannerisms as opposed to belligerent aggression. He is, nonetheless, an imposing figure identifiable by an encompassing grid of pins impaled into his skull. Hellraiser director Clive Barker hired actor Doug Bradley to play the role; when Bradley asked Barker how he ought to interpret the character, Barker instructed Bradley to consider him a cross between an administrator and a surgeon. Bradley’s chilling clinical portrayal is spot on.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre – Released the same year as Black Christmas, Texas Chainsaw Massacre predates the rise of the slasher film. A groundbreaking work of horror, Tobe Hooper created a visually disturbing movie about a group of young travelers terrorized by a psychotic family of cannibals in rural Texas with a shoestring budget and cast of unknown actors. The grainy, broken camerawork and anonymity of the actors, however, gives the film a stark, documentary feel, which adds to the suspense and terror. Followed by two sequels, a remake, prequel, and one “almost-sequel” that references the earlier films but is essentially a shot-for-shot remake, the original TCM is relatively light on gore, but still stands as one of the most controversial movies in horror film.
Wes Craven – As a director, writer, and producer, Wes Craven has created several of the most indelible films in horror. His 1984 film A Nightmare on Elm Street launched one of the most popular slasher series of the 80s. Craven followed this success in 1996 with another horror mega-franchise, Scream, which unabashedly parodies several staples of the slasher film. Other notable films directed by Craven include Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Serpent and the Rainbow.
Notable Mentions – Since this blog serves only as an introduction to the slasher film sub-genre, it would be impossible to cover every milestone within its sphere. Below are a list of films and directors who have bore some influence within the genre, or are simply worth further investigation. They might not all be slasher films, per se, but they deliver the same startles and chills as those mentioned above.
Alien, An American Werewolf in London, The Burning, Child’s Play, David Cronenberg, Sean S. Cunningham, House, The Howling, John Landis, Maniac Cop, My Bloody Valentine, Predator, The Prowler, Silent Night Deadly Night, Sleepaway Camp, Terror Train.
And not what you’ve all been waiting for… my favorite Jason kill scene!
Of all the Friday the 13th death scenes, this one is unbeatable. There’s so much wrong with it! For those who haven’t seen the movie, the character Julius is an amateur boxer, yet here he’s completely winded after about a minute! How do you go 15 rounds in the ring with somebody actually fighting back, but can’t handle 60 seconds of what is essentially shadow boxing? And why would you try to punch someone already wearing hardened facial protection?! If there’s a least effective way to battle Jason, this is it. That’s what makes this death scene so rewarding; Julius tells Jason to take his best shot. He does. And it is awesome. It’s so over the top, but you can’t help feel like this idiot deserved it.