The History of the Slasher Film: Part 1 (which you should definitely check out here) left off by discussing John Carpenter’s terrifying 1978 touchstone Halloween, both the influences behind it and its own impact on the slasher sub-genre. In Part 2 we will explore the slasher craze of the 1980’s, the genre’s rebirth in the 90’s and how it evolved into what it is today.
You can’t study the history of slasher films, much less their rise to prominence in the 80’s, without first touching upon one film in particular and that film is Friday the 13th. In today’s world, Friday the 13th a well recognized brand all its own, encompassing twelve films (if you count Freddy vs. Jason), comic books, video games, a three-season spin-off on TV, and, of course, plenty of merchandising. However, like most things, you can trace F13 back to a more humble beginning.
Friday the 13th producer and director Sean Cunningham openly credits the massive success of Halloween for ultimately inspiring what would become the quintessential slasher series of the decade. Cunningham rolled with the idea of setting a teen slasher flick on the recognizable and marketable date of Friday the 13th. Without nothing but a title to work with, Cunningham took an ad out in Variety that proclaimed Friday the 13th “THE MOST TERRIFYING FILM EVER MADE!” Though there was no film at the time, the ad worked and Cunningham was able to secure funds to move forward with pre-production.
The end result was a guerrilla-style slasher that took inspiration from the Italian Giallo’s of the 1960’s and 70’s, unapologetically indulging in gory special effects while leaning into the mystery of the killer’s identity. Because of the Whodunnit nature of the film, most of the kills are committed from the perpetrator’s point-of-view.
Friday the 13th released May 9 of 1980 and went on to gross over $39.7 million worldwide off the back of a minuscule $700,000 production cost. It was this low investment, high reward model that not only led to a barrage of Friday the 13th sequels but opened the floodgates to a decade of imitators. Suddenly every holiday or school event was fair game for crazed killers with a penchant for slicing and dicing promiscuous youths. Such offerings of the 80’s included:
By 1984 unsuspecting teens were being served up at cineplexes across America on a weekly basis. Though slashers were still a pop culture phenomenon, the formula was starting to grow stale. If the genre was going to remain relevant, then it required new blood, so to speak.
Enter The Hills Have Eyes and The Last House On the Left Director Wes Craven with an idea for an original kind of killer, one who stalked the young inhabitants of a sleepy Ohio suburb in their dreams and took their lives while they slept. His name was Freddy Krueger and the movie was A Nightmare On Elm Street.
Freddy’s MO wasn’t the only thing that made him stand out from Michael, Jason and his other peers. Instead of a large kitchen knife or machete, the so-called Springwood Slasher made use of a single glove that had blades for fingers. Freddy also boasted an actual personality where many of his contemporaries were silent stalkers hiding behind masks. He enjoyed cracking jokes as he tortured his victims and even expressed his frustration when things didn’t go his way.
Then there were the surreal dream sequences, which featured innovative deaths and raised the bar for creative kills moving forward. Consequentially, these kills required a higher caliber of special effects which ate into the cost-effective appeal of the slasher genre up to this point.
A Nightmare On Elm Street hit theaters November 9, 1984 and ended up grossing over $25.5 million worldwide before going on to become one of the most recognizable horror franchises of all time. Thanks to Craven’s masterful filmmaking and unique vision, there was renewed interest in the slasher genre, particularly those boasting supernatural influences and a larger commitment production-wise from the studios.
By the late 80’s the confluence of a increasingly stale formula, over-saturation in the marketplace and ballooning costs brought about the end of the golden age of the slasher film. However, like so many of its iconic villains, the genre would rise from its grave with a vengeance.
As we’ve learned up to this point, the slasher movie didn’t just materialize at the box office one day. It was a slow evolution, spanning countless films across many decades. That said, it only took one film in the 90’s to make it all cool all over again.
Created by screenwriter Kevin Williamson under the speculative title Scary Movie, Scream flipped the genre on its head by marrying the thrills of a slasher with smart, self-referential humor without completely crossing over into parody. This was a hip new breed of horror, one that laughed along with its audience at the tired tropes of the genre instead of being laughed at.
The Scream script stirred up some buzz and after a heated bidding war between studios wound up over at Dimension Films where it fortuitously found its director in– get this– Wes Craven. That’s right, the guy who helped stave off (or ultimately doomed, depending who you ask) slasher extinction a decade prior was now prepping his second genre-saving outing. However, it wasn’t a sure thing at the time.
Earlier in the decade Craven had explored similar meta-textual themes with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which hypothesized a world in which the A Nightmare On Elm Street Films were only thing keeping a real life demonic entity that insisted on taking the shape of Freddy Kreuger from invading the real world. It was a convoluted concept that ultimately lacked the fun of earlier slashers. Fortunately, Craven nailed the mark with Scream and inadvertently kicked the door open for a new wave of imitators, including I Know What You Did Last Summer (actually written by Kevin Williamson before he wrote Scream) and Urban Legends.
Like Scream, these copycats films featured self-referential gags and soap opera-esque melodrama. These trends were so hot, in fact, that they impacted longstanding series. Echos of Scream are apparent in such films as 1998’s Halloween H20 with characters who are themselves fans of slasher films and were keyed into the fact that they are now living in one. That same year the Chucky franchise took its first turn towards silliness with Bride of Chucky, which heavily relied on its audience’s keen awareness of not only the slasher genre but pop culture on the whole.
Eventually, all trends fizzle out and it didn’t take long for slasher films to fall out of favor with moviegoers of the 1990’s. In Part III, the final installment in this The History of the Slasher Movie series, we will explore the genre as it transitions into the new millennium and how it got to where it is now. Stay tuned!