Chapter 2 of The Necrocasticon aired last night, and if you missed it, you missed out. Check out the show here http://www.projectiradio.com/shows/necrocasticon/
On the horror side this week, the guys talked slasher films, so I’m taking this opportunity to take a leisurely stroll through the dark woods of memory lane, and revisit the evolution of the slasher film genre through the years.
There is an old question. Does life imitate art, or does art imitate life? In the instance of the slasher film, the answer clearly is that art imitates life. Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, Psycho(1960), is considered to be the first major slasher film. The one that started it all! Norman Bates was a disturbed owner/operator of an out of the way motel. Norman Bates was loosely based on real life mama’s boy, Ed Gein.
Gein was so close to his mother, that once she died, he dug her body up and lived with her corpse, much like Norman Bates did in Psycho. Like Norman, Gein tried to become his mother. Norman’s transformation was a mental one, but Gein’s was a physical one. Ed Gein would kill women, and dig women’s bodies up and used their flesh to make a suit, so he could transform into his mother. Psycho was a huge success and it’s shower scene is considered one of the greatest cinematic scenes of all time. Despite the success of Psycho, it took 14 years for another major slasher film to hit the movie theaters.
If Psycho examined the psychology of Ed Gein, it was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre(1974) that depicted his sheer brutality. Like Norman Bates, Leatherface was based on Gein. Leatherface wore a faces stitched together from his families victims, as did Ed Gein. The furniture in the home of Leatherface was made of human body parts, such as bone and skulls, the same was true for Ed Gein’s home.
The slasher genre began as two vastly different films based on the same person. One was a psychological study, the other chose to depict the grisly brutality of the subject. These two films would set the stage for what was to come. Slasher films can further be divided into two sub-sub-genres. The “who done it” slasher (Psycho), and the “monster” slasher (Texas Chainsaw Massacre). In a “who done it” slasher film, the identity of the killer is unknown. Typically the killers are human, and when the identity of the killer is revealed at the end, it is a surprise. Examples of “Who done it” slasher films are Psycho, Friday the 13th, April Fool’s Day, Scream. In a “monster” slasher film, the identity of the killer is known pretty much from the beginning. The appeal of the film is the brutality of the monster/killer. The killer is usually supernatural. Examples of the “monster” slasher film are Halloween, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Candyman, Child’s Play, Friday the 13th sequels.
From here, the slasher film exploded into the ’80s, each film and fell in one of the two categories mentioned above.
In 1978, John Carpenter arrived with his masterpiece, Halloween. Halloween was a “monster’ slasher, and introduced horror icon, Michael Myers. Michael is the physical representation of pure evil. The Boogeyman. This is the film that really solidified the formula for the slasher film. A group of people, usually teenagers, are introduced to the audience. The main character is typically a female, and she is ‘pure’. She’s still a virgin, doesn’t smoke, or drink. She will be the ‘final girl’. She is the film’s Laurie Strode. A killer stalks these characters, and kills them one by one, until the ‘final girl’ is left. Only the ‘final girl’ can overcome the killer because she is the only one that is really good, and good always defeats evil. Of course, in Halloween, Laurie had help from Dr. Sam Loomis. Slasher movies for decades, and still now would follow the outline that Halloween set forth.
In 1980, a movie came along that perfected the formula that Halloween created. Following in the footsteps of Psycho, the original Friday the 13th was a “who done it” slasher. Camp counselors attempt to reopen a summer camp, that has been closed for many years due to a few tragedies. One by one, the counselors a picked off in various ways by an unknown killer. The at the end, it is revealed that the distraught mother of a boy that drown at the same summer camp, Pamela, is behind the killings. She would do anything to keep the camp where her boy died from being re-opened.
The many Friday the 13th sequels, however, are more of the ‘monster’ variety slasher films. Pamela’s son, Jason, is now hell bent on revenge, and killing anyone who enters his domain.
After Friday the 13th, many copy cats flooded the movie theaters and movie rental shops. Many tried to top Jason and Michael, but they all failed. It was evident that you can’t do the “masked killer” routine better than Jason or Michael, and that forced film makers to get more creative with their slashers.
Enter Wes Craven.
In 1984, teacher turned filmmaker flipped the slasher genre on it’s head with one of the most creative ideas of all time, A Nightmare On Elm Street. Craven chose to go the “monster” slasher route, and gave us Freddy Krueger. A sadistic psychopath with the power to kill his victims in their dreams. Armed with a self made razor glove, and the limits of his own tormented imagination, Freddy made it difficult for an entire generation to sleep.
Filmmakers took inspiration from A Nightmare On Elm Street. They knew that if they wanted to compete, they had to get creative.
So, one killer was a doll. Child’s Play (1988) introduced Chucky. Chucky was a Good Guy Doll, based on the real life doll, My Buddy. The doll was possessed by killer, Charles Lee Ray.
One killer was a vengeful spirit, similar to Freddy. Candyman (1992) leaned heavily on the Bloody Mary urban legend, but created something more terrifying. Candyman also deviated from the typical slasher staple of killing a group of teens. Most of Candyman’s targets were adults.
Finally, in 1996, a film came along that, once again put the killer behind a mask.
Wes Craven returns, this time taking a shot at the ‘who done it’ side of the slasher films. Scream took the formula that Halloween established, and dumped it on it’s head. Not only did the ‘final girl’ have sex and survive, but there was two killers! Scream was the beginning of the parody era.
Once again, there was a flurry of copy cats. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Urban Legends (1998), and more. These copy cats were endured until 2006, when another very inventive film came along.
Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon (2006) took the parody concept that Scream teased, and ran with it. Shot mostly as a documentary, we follow a film team as they record Leslie Vernon, a serial killer, explain the secrets to being a serial killer. It’s brutal, disturbing, and hysterical all at the same time.
Since Behind the Mask, there really hasn’t been a strong slasher film. The horror community is ripe for a new creative slasher icon.
Thanks for joining me on this journey through slasher film history. I know I’ve left a lot of great slasher films out, but there is only so much time.
From The Lord of the Pitts, see ya next time!
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