Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a group of horny, unconcerned teenagers gather some place away from the prying eyes of concerned adults, usually under the guise of celebrating some holiday, with the intent of engaging in illicit extracurricular activities, only to be picked off one at a time by a mysterious masked murderer who’s ultimately served their own comeuppance at the hands of a predictably pure but unexpectedly resilient final girl.
Why didn’t you stop me? I know you know this story. We all do, thanks to the cavalcade of slasher media we’re still inundated with in 2019. The same formula has sustained the slasher sub-genre of horror for decades. We’re so familiar with the tropes, in fact, that it’s difficult to image a time when audiences didn’t know what to expect from someone with a knife on screen. And yet, like everything else, it was a process getting there. This post will attempt to encapsulate the evolution of the slasher movie sub-genre by decade, examining the landmark films that helped shape the the genre we know today.
If you were to any film historian what the first slasher film is, chances are you’ll get a number of different answers. Ask those same historians when the first slashers were and you’re likely to get a more conclusive response. 1960 brought us the grandparents of the genre, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Peeping Tom first hit screens on April 7, 1960 in the United Kingdom. It follows a documentary filmmaker (played by Carl Boehm) who records the reactions of women as he murders them. For the death scenes, director Michael Powell utilized a shocking new technique in which the camera doubled as the killer’s point-of-view. Although the violence depicted in Peeping Tom is tame by today’s standards, the method disturbed audiences by forcing them into the middle of the gruesome slayings. The final product was so off-putting that it effectively ended Powell’s career behind the camera. However, his “Killer Cam” would go on to become a staple of the slasher genre.
While it would be another two years until Peeping Tom reached American cinemas, the states still got to scream thanks to acclaimed filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Psycho stormed theaters on June 16 that same year and introduced the world to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his loving mother. Psycho continued to push the envelope with regards to brutality in film. For the first time ever, overt violence was drawing mainstream crowds into American cineplexes.
As more and more moviegoers turned out for these prototype slashers, something happened. Horror on the whole began experiencing a seismic shift towards the mundane and the familiar. Fear still had a face, audiences just stopped looking for it among the stars and Gothic hilltops of Eastern Europe, as they had in years past. Newer, more dangerous threats were emerging and the faces they wore were our own. Now anybody could be a killer, even a loner with a camera or the mild-mannered manager of an out-of-the-way motel; and they could strike anywhere at any time, even in the shower.
As the decade progressed, crazed killers started carving out their place in cinemas around the world. This coincided with the emergence of the Giallo, a unique breed of slasher film pioneered by Italian filmmakers like Mario Bava and his protege Dario Argento (often referred to as “the Italian Hitchcock”).
These Giallo, or “yellow” in Italian, combined the hacking and the slashing of films like Psycho with mystery/thriller elements and emphasized the sexuality as well as upping the ante on the violence, all while providing a distinctive visual flare that one might– under the briefest of exposure, I’m sure– mistaken for art and not just cinematic crassness.
In 1964, Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, in which a mysterious killer picks off the models of a beauty pageant, was one of the first Giallo films to conceal the identity of the killer behind a mask, thematically foreshadowing the slashers we’re familiar with today.
By the early 1970’s slashers had warmed their way into the hearts of moviegoers around the world; and while Americans were no exception, no American filmmaker had yet laid the genre under the unique scrutiny of the proverbial American microscope. That is until October 1, 1974 when writer/director Tobe Hooper first revved up The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which detailed the grizzly crimes of a family of cannibalistic psychopaths and the chainsaw-wielding Leatherface.
Though loosely inspired by the crimes of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein in the late 1950’s, the film is a work of fiction, despite the implication on the part of the opening text and voiceover that the events depicted in took place in the real world. The sensationalism of Hooper’s “as a matter of fact” presentation didn’t just drum up added fascination in Texas Chain Saw, it was a response on the director’s part to the lies being told at the time by the U.S. government, including the Watergate scandal, the oil embargo crisis and notably the Vietnam War.
As deeply rooted as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is in the societal issues of its era, the film’s gritty realism and unconventional structure kept it at a distance from the typical slasher formula; however, it wouldn’t be long until moviegoers got their first taste of the formula we all know so well over four decades later. On December 20, 1974, Canadian filmmaker Bob Clark (Porky’s, A Christmas Story) introduced the world to Black Christmas, the first real prototype of the modern slasher.
We open with a POV shot of the killer as he circles a sorority house in the cold snow, peering in at the Christmas Eve festivities. Though their identity alludes us, we are experiencing his perspective. The menacing score and heavy breathing cue us into the fact that this stranger isn’t looking to get jolly with the party-goers. Thanks to holiday break, the college campus is virtually desolate, largely leaving our heroines to fend for themselves.
In addition to being the first film to collect these tropes, Black Christmas also introduced a number of its own cliches that went on to further distinguish the genre. Among them: the final girl’s sassy best friend (played here by Margot Kidder), the cop who’s meant to monitor the house but only winds up padding the kill count, and we can’t forget “The call is coming from inside the house!”
The story goes that Bob Clark had planned a sequel for in which the killer, apprehended by police at the end of Black Christmas, escapes a year later and returns to the same sorority house on Halloween to claim more innocent lives. A mere four years later, however, that holiday would become synonymous with a new brand of horror.
On October 25, 1978 a young filmmaker named John Carpenter, along with his co-writer and producer Debra Hill, unleashed Halloween and with it Michael Myers, a masked maniac who escapes from a mental institute to terrorize the residents of a sleepy Midwestern town on October 31st.
The influence of previous juggernauts of the genre permeates every shot of Carpenter’s film. Like Black Christmas, it centers around a group of young students as they’re stalked and preyed upon by a mysterious menace. Not coincidentally, Halloween also begins with a POV shot of the killer as he circles a home and spies on its occupants. Similar to the first of the Giallo a decade earlier, Myers dawned a mask.
Stylistically and structurally, Carpenter borrowed from Hitchcock, applying his “Bomb Theory” by establishing Michael Myers, or “The Shape” as he’s referred to in the credits, as a threat early on and building the tension all the way through to the final showdown between Michael and final girl Laurie Strode (played by Scream Queen Jamie Lee Curtis in her feature debut).
Unlike previous films in the genre, however, Halloween mythologizes its antagonist by incorporating a Captain Ahab to Myers’s Moby Dick. Throughout the film, Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Sam Loomis (an intentional nod to the psychiatrist in Psycho) is chasing after Michael, hoping to stop him before he can kill again. During his crusade, Loomis repeatedly refers to his former patient as “pure evil” and recalls his inhuman behavior over the years. When the two finally come face to face, Loomis shoots Michael six times, causing him to fall from a second story balcony. After Loomis runs to confirm the kill, Michael has already fled. The unstoppable killer became a calling card of the slasher genre.
Off a shoestring budget just over $300,000, Halloween grossed $70 million worldwide during its initially theatrical run. It was enough to make it the most successful independent film ever made, a record which wasn’t broken until The Blair Witch Project in 1999.
By melding what had come before with their own imagination and tastes, Carpenter and Hill created a formula so scary and so successful that it influenced every slasher film after it, including “The Most Terrifying Movie Ever Made!”
To Be Continued…
The next segment will explore the impact of Halloween on the the slasher films of the 1980’s and how the genre evolved for more contemporary times.