Due to a variety of reasons stemming from trending, blatant cash-ins, and all-too-frequent voids of creativity, the horror genre is particularly prone to repetition. Yet individuals such as myself (and quite likely you) crave the fruits of the horror tree all the same. What others would call clichés, we call conventions. A cliché is something that has become trite with overuse; something we are tired of seeing. A convention is a customary practice, a rule. To us, horror films are like episodes of a favorite TV show. We tune in week after week specifically to bask in these familiar tropes, traditions, and archetypes. Here in Horror 101 we shall turn an academic eye on this vast world of horror movie conventions.
So come journey with me into the haunted recesses of one of cinema’s oldest genres. Don’t be chickenshit. No one has disappeared in here for years. Plus, I found this dusty old Ouija board we can get drunk and play with…
(Lesson 7 of 9)
Our medieval horror movie is now just one step away from being truly whole. We have a Hero (the knight), a Love Interest (the maiden), a Guy Who Knows Things (the wizard), the comic relief (the jester), and a host of blood-filled villagers to make up our greater Victim Pool. Now we just need something to kill all those villagers, and hopefully that obnoxious prank-pulling jester too. We need our dragon. We need a Villain.
I suspect this might disappoint some of you, but I do not plan to run the gamut on movie monsters in Horror 101. While there is certainly much to say about vampires, zombies, werewolves, and the like, discussing them individually does not quite jibe with our regular lesson plan (ie, applying terminology to archetypes that heretofore had none).
I like to think that Horror 101 has considered the breadth of horror history, but it has admittedly strongly skewed toward the modern era of the genre (the 1970’s onward). And although this period has seen an appearance by seemingly every kind of Villain imaginable – from Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988), to C.H.U.D. (1984), to Frankenfish (2004), to Slugs (1988), to Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977) – there was one brand of Villain that arose from the rabble to truly dominate the period: the Slasher.
While a vampire is traditionally defined by a distinct mythos (feeds on blood; nocturnal; wooden stake to the heart, holy water, and sunlight = bad news), “Slasher” has become more of an umbrella term, a catchall to snag any Villain that is at least ostensibly human and kills people with weaponry. Like “alternative” music, the Slasher subgenre is an incredibly ambiguous classification. And unlike other monsters, the Slasher is often defined more by the type of films it appears in than by its own characteristics. Certain films get labeled “Slasher films” because of their level of gore and presence of human Villains, but does that mean that they actually feature a Slasher? You wouldn’t say Cat People (1942, 1982) is a werewolf movie just because it involves a human transforming into an animal. If that were the criteria, The Fly (1986) would be one of the greatest werewolf films of all time. We don’t lump zombies and vampires together even though they’re both undead. I think the living deserve a similar respect. We are going to be setting a narrower classification for the Slasher here, bringing its taxonomic rank down from an Order to a Species.
When talking of the Slasher subgenre, Alfred Hitchock’s Pscyho (1960) is generally cited as the birth of the Slasher film, thus making Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) the first Slasher. But Peeping Tom, which embodies even more future Slasher tropes, was released several months prior to Psycho. And take Thirteen Women, about the ex-sisters of a sorority who begin to die off one by one – under the sinister machinations of Myrna Loy, who the sorority cruelly snubbed years earlier because of her mixed race – until only Irene Dunne is left standing. Guess when that film came out? 1932. Throw some boobs and a few buckets of red-dyed karo syrup in there and Thirteen Women would have been right at home in 1980. (I now await the Platinum Dunes remake.) Psycho’s massive success may have made it the most immediately influential proto-Slasher film, but Thirteen Women shows that even back during the heyday of the Universal Monsters, the early ancestors of the Slasher were sneaking around like tiny mammals in the age of dinosaurs.
On paper most Slasher films read like murder-mysteries or thrillers. After all, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (originally published in 1939 in the UK under the title Ten Little Niggers) – about a group of people gathered in a remote locale who are mysteriously bumped off one-by-one in a situation where one of our core characters must be the killer – is clearly the template for one of the more conventional Slasher film structures. So what makes Slasher films horror movies? And what separates a Slasher horror movie from a serial killer thriller?
An absorbed focus on gore is the easy answer, but that is a bit like saying that tool making is what separates humans from animals – not particularly correct. Films like Seven (1995) and Silence of the Lambs (1991) straddle the boarder between the horror and thriller genres, but I think it makes more sense to just ignore such films; trying to form a definition that precludes anomalies never works. Trickier yet, though, even when we’re undisputedly in the horror genre – what separates a mask-wearing murderer like the Phantom of the Opera from a mask-wearing Slasher like Michael Myers? Slasher films tend to emphasize the baser material in their productions, but that’s just because most Slasher films are part of the Splatter subgenre, the graphic subgenre – that revels in mutilation, blood, and other body goo – that rose up in the 1960’s under the tutelage of goremeisters like Herschell Gordon Lewis. While we can all agree that there are few things more useless than a PG-13 Slasher film, fundamentally gore is not required to make a Slasher film.
Just like any monster, the Slasher is delineated by distinctive attributes and even a certain degree of traditional mythos.
There are three basic types of Slashers:
• The Common Slasher
• The Tragic Slasher
• The Super Slasher
The Common Slasher (CS)
Aside from a killer shark or other deadly animal, the Common Slasher is the most basic kind of horror Villain. He/she is a mere mortal, with no fantastical powers* or weaknesses, just a motive or inspiration and the will to carry it out to its bloody conclusion.
As has already been intimated, the evolutionary family tree for the CS goes back a ways, but I think it is safe to say that the first true CS made its grand debut in Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974). Then John Carpenter eventually took the ball and scored the game-winning touchdown with Halloween (1978), ushering in the Slasher Golden Age (1980-1984), where this salacious new subgenre was beat into the ground with merciless dedication by independent filmmakers and film studios alike.
The CS is not bound by the same sort of mythos as a werewolf or vampire. The CS “mythos” is probably more accurately described as a formula, and while not every Slasher needs to hit all points in the formula, any purebred Slasher will.
Unlike their serial killer cousins over in the thriller genre, who generally claim victims here and there over a long period of time (allowing the Hero plenty of room for investigation), most CS are “spree” or “rampage” killers, meaning that their multiple victims are all taken in a short period of time, but not all at the same time – that is “mass murder.” The bulk of CS films take place on a single day or weekend, and usually have a Secluded Victim Pool of Mismatched Friends or Coworkers. This means our Primary Location is of some importance.
The Primary Location can be anything, from a suburban home (Slumber Party Massacre, 1982), to a sorority house (The House on Sorority Row, 1983), to a shopping mall (The Initiation, 1984), to a Canadian mineshaft (My Bloody Valentine, 1981). All films technically have a primary location, but few cling to them like classic Slasher films. Obviously this was for budgetary reasons, but necessity ended up shaping the conventions of the subgenre. There is a claustrophobic element to most CS films. Even if our kids are in a suburb, their actions often feel trapped within a single locale. This makes it all the easier for our CS to pick the Victims off in short order, while completely doing away with the need for much detective work on the part of the Hero; often the killing is happening so quickly and quietly that most of the Victims are dead before the Hero even notices. An addendum to the Primary Location is the Big Event, the reason our central characters have gathered together or the relevant occasion our CS has been waiting for to strike – be it a weekend getaway among old friends (April Fool’s Day, 1986), a holiday (To All a Good Night, 1980), a birthday (Happy Birthday To Me, 1981), or a high school graduation (Graduation Day, 1981). Sometimes the combo of Primary Location and the Big Event can prove truly logic-stretching, like the dubious scenario from Terror Train (1980), concerning a fraternity throwing a graduation/costume party on a moving train. Terror Train also helps put the early-80’s Slasher glut into perspective, considering that it is the second Common Slasher film Jamie Lee Curtis starred in that year, along with Prom Night. Needless to say, with the intense output of CS films, horror filmmakers were soon straining their minds for novel Big Events and Primary Locations to center their films around.
Secrecy is the next important attribute for a CS. Following in the Agatha Christie model, the identity of the CS is usually a mystery. That means it is important that we cannot see the CS’s face. There are two ways around this dilemma: 1) never put the CS’s face on screen, either through clever framing or by shooting scenes from the CS’s POV, or 2) give the CS a mask or some other manner of face-obscuring covering. Interestingly, it was Halloween, a film in which we know the identity of the CS the entire time, that popularized the Slasher Mask. And it was heavily imitated for good reason. Masks can be iconic. Facelessness cannot. Masks are also a great way for a human Villain to rise to monster-like status. You can’t exactly put a faceless torso shot on the cover of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Just look at the poster versatility that the Friday the 13 franchise had after they finally gave Jason a mask…
There was not much leeway with their original gimmick.
Of course, the popularity of Masked CS meant that along with Big Events and Primary Locations filmmakers were also straining their brains to figure out new Slasher Masks. He’s a welder! He’s an umpire! He’s a furry! Terror Train took the clever yet misguided approach of having the CS switch masks with each new costumed Victim he took. The downside of this was that the Villain never walked away with a singular iconic look.
As long as we’re already talking about accessories, we should not overlook the Signature Weapon. Since Slashers are not deadly in their own right, they must use weapons. And just as a well-selected Slasher Mask can give our CS an iconic look, a well-selected Signature Weapon can give them an iconic attack too. Jason loves to mix things up and get creative with random objects at hand, but at the end of the day he has his signature machete. Russ Thorn (Michael Villella) had his drill in Slumber Party Massacre. Ben Willis (Muse Watson) had his hook in I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). The Signature Weapon is not mandatory for a CS, but it is much harder to become truly iconic without one; sometimes the most memorable feature of a CS is their Signature Weapon, like the rock’n’roll killer (Atanas Ilitch) from Slumber Party Massacre II, who had an absurd combination electric guitar/drill. If they don’t have a Signature Weapon, a CS must improvise: a meat thermometer here, a lawnmower there, some piano wire this time, a falling box of broken glass next time. The only thing a CS can’t use is a gun. There is no fun in a gun. Projectiles in general are questionable, unless it is a spear gun.
Those are the superficial aspects of the CS. What about the person beneath the mask? Generally speaking, the CS is fueled by vengeance stemming from a past event, if not against specific individuals connected with said event (like Thirteen Women), than against individuals who are tangentially or symbolically connected (like Friday the 13th, 1980). Often the film will open with a prologue showing us this inciting incident, then jump forward in time. CS films will often try and make it unknown what the significance of the prologue is, but it is usually pretty obvious – oh, the football team played a horrible prank on their nerdy waterboy and he was accidentally hospitalized junior year? I wonder if that will become relevant again now that everyone has returned to school for senior year and the waterboy supposedly transferred? This obviousness is only harmful if we are supposed to be kept guessing regarding the identity of the CS, which renders the Scooby-Doo style de-masking at the end extremely anti-climactic.
While CS films do contain a high degree of randomness with Victims, the motivation from this inciting incident is fairly crucial (even if it is purely backstory we’re told through exposition). Hostel (2005) is not a Slasher film for a variety of reasons, but one of those reasons is that nothing is driving the Villains’ killing other than a desire to kill for its own sake. Like in Hostel, Mrs. Voorhees’s (Betsy Palmer) Victims in Friday the 13th were random youths who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The difference is that Mrs. Voorhees’s saw a relevant connection to these Victims and the camp counselors responsible for her son’s death, so while the new Victims could have been anyone, they were tangentially paying for the crimes of others. A Slasher’s motive does not need to be particularly sound, but there needs to be some method to their madness. A serial killer may target specifically women, but a CS would target a particular house full of women (even if the house was selected at random).
Hostel fits into a subgenre I would crudely call Stumbled On films. While these films often contain human Villains, they have more in common with a film about a killer bear. A killer bear movie generally works like so: campers, ignoring the warnings of a ranger, sneak into a part of the forest they aren’t supposed to be in, and then have to fight for their lives against a hungry bear. Similarly, the Villain(s) of Stumbled On films generally live out in the middle of nowhere, murdering those unfortunate enough to pass by and get caught, like a Venus flytrap. These films – such as The Hills Have Eyes (1977, 2006), Just Before Dawn (1981), Humongous (1982), or Wrong Turn (2003) – are generally about hillbillies or deformed weirdos who attack interlopers for food or simply to territorially keep they away from their home. This was an issue I had with the Friday the 13th remake (2009). I think a proper reboot of the franchise needed to concern the potential reopening of Camp Crystal Lake. Removing that altered the nature of the film, and thus the nature of Jason by turning him into a Stumbled On Villain. Platinum Dunes was looking at Jason from the perspective of an established franchise character – who, yes, eventually was just chillin’ out in the woods stabbing whoever he saw – but they ignored how that made the character seem to anyone for whom the remake was their first real experience with ol’ hockey mask.
So what of a film like A Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)? Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) wears a mask and has a Signature Weapon. Slasher or Stumbled On? Not a Slasher, I say. For one thing, while Slashers don’t necessarily need to work alone (Scream, 1996), they do need to be a unified front. Leatherface is part of a Clan. Clans (the Villains generally found in Stumbled On films) have a common goal, but are made up of autonomous members who may have their own sub-goals or motivations or reservations. More importantly though, we have no idea why Leatherface kills. There is no past inciting incident. The Villain family kills strangers for meat, and as far as we are told/shown, no other reason.
Then there is Saw (2004). Is Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) a Slasher? While it’s not technically a Slasher Mask, the robotic clown puppet serves the same purpose of hiding the Villain’s identity and creating an iconic visage. Jigsaw doesn’t have a Signature Weapon, but he does have a signature killing scheme, which is sort of the same thing. He also has a vengeance motive and a reason for choosing the Victims that he does. But structurally the film is way off formula. I think the fact that Jigsaw never kills his Victims hands-on is problematic as well. Truth be told, though, Saw (ignoring the sequels) falls into a hazy gray area, much like Seven. I would say Saw is not a true Slasher film, but would accept a good argument in its favor as well.
* Despite having no supernatural powers, many CS movies skirt this
reality by making the CS abnormally strong and impervious to injury. The
CS is often able to lift other characters off the ground when need be,
or maybe push another character’s face through a mirror or window, or
chop someone’s head off with one stroke of an ax, or hide the corpses of
full grown men with amazing speed. Sometimes this can be truly
egregious – Tyler Mane’s Michael Myers (Halloween, 2007) seemed about as strong as Tyler Man’s Sabertooth (X-Men,
2000) – but generally it is only problematic if the CS is de-masked at
the end of the film and revealed to be a petite female – I’m looking at
you Urban Legends (1998).
The Keeper. Released 1984. The film begins in the 70’s, when a class of elementary school kids are taking a field trip to the local arboretum on Arbor Day. Artie is a nerd who desperately wants to be accepted by a group of cooler kids, because of his obvious crush on Kristy, a cute nice girl. Sensing a great moment for a prank, Kristy’s friends convince her to tell Artie that she will be his girlfriend if Artie puts a smoke bomb into the bee keeper suit of the arboretum’s slow-witted caretaker, Dale (Larry Drake). Artie does so, and the ensuing chaos of Dale frantically pulling off his suit finds Dale covered in angry stinging bees. Dale ends up dying, Artie gets sent to juvey, Kristy is devastated, Dale’s dad (John Carradine) comes out crying and swearing the kids will pay.
Cut to the present (of 1984). High school. Kristy, now played by Sarah Jessica Parker, is still cute and nice. After being closed to the public for years, the arboretum is being re-opened – stirring up memories for Kristy and her friends. John Carradine, of course, thinks it should stay closed. Kristy talks her friends – including, among others, her slutty friend (Darcy DeMoss), her football captain boyfriend (Thomas F Wilson), and an annoying Jokester (Gary Kroeger) – into signing up to help plant some new trees before the arboretum reopens. Once at the arboretum everyone splits up to plant trees and soon a Common Slasher clad in a bee keeper outfit, the Keeper, begins stalking and murdering the kids, all while Carradine will periodically pop in and out of scenes to ominously watch our kids. Of course, once Kristy and her boyfriend realize what is going on they know it must be Carradine, until they confront Carradine and the Keeper jumps in and kills the old man. The big twist (that no one could see coming!) is that the Keeper turns out to be a grown up Artie (Brian Backer) getting revenge for that inciting incident that ruined his life.
The Tragic Slasher (TS)
A Tragic Slasher is what we get when we invert a Common Slasher movie, shifting the CS from antagonist to protagonist. Now we have a Slasher Hero, and like a gangster flick, things will not end well for our anti-hero.
Our TS doesn’t start out a bad guy/girl. Mixed up and likely not right for their world, yes, but not a bad person. They’re generally overly obsessed with something in particular, like movies (Fade to Black, 1980) or Christmas (You Better Watch Out, 1980, or Silent Night, Deadly Night, 1984) and/or obsessed with a particular person – maybe a crush on a particular girl or boy (May, 2002) – or possibly they just have horrible female issues all-together (Don’t Go in the House, 1980). This thing they’re overly obsessed with will serve as the motive for how they conduct their killings when they inevitably snap somewhere during Act II and become a Slasher (what would have served as an inciting incident prologue in a Common Slasher film is now part of the main body of the film). What causes them to snap can be anything, though often involves a tragic misunderstanding or accident involving the person they have a secret crush on. The TS reacts poorly to said accident, possibly murdering someone immediately, then continuing with more murders, and like Frankenstein’s Monster, they are ultimately chased down by the villagers and destroyed.
Fade to Black‘s ending apes the ending of the James Cagney gangster classic White Heat (1949), our TS, Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher), up on a rooftop surrounded by cops (you know, the “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” scene from White Heat). But where White Heat’s scene felt like justice for a bad man, Fade to Black feels more like King Kong (1933). You generally feel sympathy for the TS, hence the sense of tragedy. Though this is not always the case. By the end of Maniac (1980) or Driller Killer (1979) even the most twisted of viewers have got to feel like the TS really has it coming. Because the Slasher is our Hero, TS movies often take place over a longer period of time than CS films. This allows for more tension as we wait for the TS’s inevitable downfall.
If The Keeper were a Tragic Slasher movie, Dale (Larry Drake) would be our main character. This time around he’d have the crush on Kristy. He’s not super pervy about it, but it is a little creepy because she is in high school. But he’s a softie. He loves trees and all the plants and flowers in the arboretum, and he gets very angry when people don’t treat them right (this allows us to see that he’s got a lurking temper). Then Kristy’s friends will convince her to play some kind of mild prank on Dale – pretending she likes him – that ends up going too far and Dale is horribly embarrassed. He then snaps, and moments later when he spots someone plucking flowers from a bush, he kills them with his hedge clippers (his Signature Weapon). Then things just spiral from there, until he is taken down in the end.
The Super Slasher (SS)
While all these Slashers were out there slaying comely coeds in the early 1980’s, they were also slaying the box office (hurray puns!). That meant only one thing: sequel time! When your Villain is the Mummy, making sequels isn’t too tricky. Didn’t they kill the Mummy at the end of the film? How is he back now? Well, he’s a fucking magical creature, how was he alive in the first place? Monsters can come back to life. But if we’re dealing with a regular human being, how can we get away with having him/her return in a sequel if we saw him die in the first film? Halloween cleverly solved this problem by having Michael Meyers improbably survive the first film, but they sure as shit killed him in Halloween II (1981). What then?
Slasher movies aren’t supposed to be high brow. We can always say, “Well, he didn’t really die.” That’s lame, but okay, sure, whatever. You can only get away with that once though. If we want Larry Drake back for The Keeper 3 we need a better explanation. Sometimes the filmmakers will opt for changing Slashers on us, the common link being the outfit the Slasher wears, or maybe a similar killing motif. They’ll try to connect the new Slasher to the old one in someway – it’s the previous Slasher’s brother, taking revenge! But this rarely works to a satisfactory degree (that’s what ruined that Scream trilogy). If you don’t sequel the Villain, you need to sequel the Hero, and horror movies aren’t really about the Hero. The only quality horror franchises that kept the same Hero throughout the series, also kept the same Villain (the Phantasm or Evil Dead franchises, for example.) They could have made Aliens without Sigourney Weaver, but can you imagine if it had simply been the further alienless adventures of Ripley in space?
Horror movies are about the monster(s). And Slashers are the monsters of their subgenre. If you truly want the franchise to work, you need to keep the Slasher around or audiences will be pissed (Halloween III learned this the hard way). The 80’s gave us a lot of odd things: mullets, legwarmers, New Coke, and probably the most important discovery for horror sequels since the “Son of” “Bride of” revelation back in the day… The Super Slasher.
The SS behaves just like a Common Slasher, except for the fact that he’s not a regular man – he’s a horrible monster. Though not your typical monster. Vampires bite necks, zombies eat brains, but a Super Slasher, despite being a ghastly undead creature with preternatural powers, still enjoys the tactile pleasure of stabbing the shit out of people.
Jason Voorhees and Michael Meyers are the two best examples of Super Slashers. They both started out as regular chaps. Then they died. Then they came back. And back. And back. With no explanation. Until eventually their franchises became self-conscious and tried to retcon an origin story. Frankly it didn’t matter. We were happy to have them back. In fact, when Jason Goes to Hell (1993) decided to “explain” how Jason’s nine-lives were possible, it felt both unnecessary and unsatisfying. Even the I Know What You Did Last Summer franchise has now turned the Fisherman into an unkillable ghoul. If the sequels keep coming, at some point it is inevitable.
Freddy Krueger is an unusual case. I might accept the argument that he is a Super Slasher, but I don’t think he technically belongs in the category. The fact that Freddy is generally lumped in with the Slashers is a perfect illustration of the ambiguity surrounding the subgenre. Freddy fits some of the Slasher conventions – vengeance for a past incident, Signature Weapon, stalking teens – but A Nightmare on Elm St (1984) begins with Freddy already a monster. We eventually learn that he had been human, but the Mummy and Dracula were once mortal men too. That doesn’t really mean anything.
If The Keeper was a huge hit, they would surely make a sequel in which Dale returns the following Arbor Day, taking advantage of the fact that his death was sort of ambiguous at the end of the first film. Then, for some stupid reason, they’d throw him into a wood chipper at the end of the The Keeper II: Dale Stabs Again, ensuring that there is no way he could conceivably survive. So in The Keeper III: Forest For the Trees, a bunch of drunk college kids would accidentally resurrected Dale while performing a seance over his grave. By The Keeper IV: Where the Dead Fern Grows, Dale just sort of pops up when someone does something environmentally unfriendly in the forest, with no real explanation, like a murderous Lorax – until The Keeper VIII: Bad Seed, when they decide to explain Dale’s resurrections by uncovering the fact that his parents were Pagans who worshiped trees and made a pact with evil forest spirits or some bullshit.
Oh no! That’s it for today class! See
you next time when we discuss The Horde.
The Solo Hero
The Guy Who Knows Things
The Victim Pool