Saturday, November 17, 2007

Essential Slashers

The slasher sub-genre of horror got an unfair shake due to the good-film-to-bad-one ratio. The formula gimmick of a human-on-human body count using blunt instruments, favorite of all the knife, is not exactly new. It was Carpetner's Halloween that blew the roof financially on the formula, and the knock-offs were as plentiful as cheap, easily made "action" movies full of squibs and guys rolling down hills. The bare essence of a slasher is a story about a series of killings, by a serial killer. Wes Craven's Scream made an easy joke at the sub-genre's expensive, conflating all of horror with slasherdom...a joke mainly for people who would never see a horror film ordinarily. This kicked off a wave of horror in the 1990s that was marked by cheap seat-jumpers rather than scares, and a focus on hip young casts above all other considerations.

"I mean, I loved Scream. But why do you think it was the first big horror movie in years? Because at the end, everyone knows it's a big joke. They're removed from the monsters by a layer of satire."
- Lloyd Kaufman, Everything I Need To Know About Filmmaking I Learned From The Toxic Avenger

The curious thing about slashers is that for all their incompetence, they take the idea of a "scare scene" pretty seriously. Even the progressively campy Friday the 13th films, a series I loathe for having longevity in inverse proportion to the competence of the filmmaking, makes consistent efforts during the "scary" scenes to create a sense of dread.

It's time to critically consider, without identity-politics diatribes on gender, without distanced irony and derision, some good slashers - and admit that though one needs to comb through a LOT of crap to get there, there are diamonds in the rough.

Here is a proposed canon of the very best:

1. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

Hitchcock takes a bold leap in the murder mystery/thriller genre and creates the first true slasher star, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. The son/mother oedipal bonds would be cribbed through many slasher storylines like 1980's Maniac and Friday The 13th.

Hitchcock was so offensively ahead of his time with this material that his career basically goes downhill in the print criticisim of his career - doing outright creature-feature horror like The Birds and decent but critically neglected works like Frenzy, which didn't quite poke at the gore-barrier the way Psycho's murder scenes and body count did.

When Janet Leigh dies prematurely for a leading lady, does she not inhabit the role of so much future "teen meat," as Joe Bob Briggs calls it?

2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)

"Still the king"

- Joe Bob Briggs

3. Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)

Dig James Mason on the voice-over.

Featuring future Elm Street cast member and b-movie star John Saxon, and direction from the future director of A Christmas Story, as if in penance - Bob Clark. Pre-dates Halloween in spectacular use of first-person and quasi-first person direction. Inspires a Christmas themed sub-sub genre of it's own in slasherdom.

4. Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

A classic that needs little further documentation or analysis, merely eternal reverence even outside the John Carpenter canon.

5. Maniac (William Lustig, 1980)

In many ways the quintessential urban slasher, Joe Spinell gives a positively Andren Scott-like performance as sickening maniac prowling real circa 1979/80 crime infested New York City locations. The subway platform chase scene is absolutely gripping, and the atmosphere is relentlessly creepy. Makeup by Tom Savini.

6. The Funhouse (Tobe Hooper, 1981)

Tobe Hooper's particular style as an auteur isn't discussed much. Among his talents is an eye for garish color cinematography, unfortunately hard to appreciate through many washed-out prints of Texas Chainsaw. Those bad acip trip colors can also found in all his work, and The Funhouse is long overdue for critical reconsideration as a slasher story told as effectively as Texas Chainsaw. The calliope-filled musical score, played just as broadly, is eerily haunting. The titular funhouse is a deliberately cheap, shoddy and bawdy one. It plays on the sort of fears any shitty carnival creates when you're a child. Also in defiance of slasher cliche, there are no knife deaths! It also has a HUGE amount of creepy buildup like Texas Chainsaw did. Makeup by Rick Baker.

7. A Nightmare On Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)

Freddy's wisecracks signaled the beginning of serial killer chatter and self-awareness to the modern era of slashers, even The Toxic Avenger (released near the same date) began life in pre-production as a parody of slasher movies in the cheap and well attuned to the times aerobics club settings, with a monster mutated man to kill them one by one. To justify "the monster hero" as he's called, rather than "Toxie" or even "The Toxic Avenger" by anyone but the post-production voice-over narrator at the beginning and end. And of course, to justify the "hero" part of killing bad guys with the tagline "the first super hero from New Jersey," (emphasis mine) a superheroic title chosen in postproduction and the in-production onscreen nickname "the monster hero"Rather than innocent teenagers. they're bullies by day, thrill-killers by night as Lloyd Kaufman directs cold blooded child murder on film.

Speaking of thrill killing -

8. Henry: Portrait Of Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986)

Tagline sez it all - He's not Freddy. He's not Jason. He's REAL. John McNaughton invented the "serial killer" genre overnight with this one, arguably a subgenre of the slasher genre. At it's heights, we've seen Man Bites Dog and Silence Of The Lambs. At it's lows, we've seen - or rather, haven't - Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon. They all took a page from this bad boy. There's an unforgettable scene where Henry videotapes one of his murders that has been elaborated upon endlessly in other films. Truly epochal.

9. The Stepfather (Joseph Ruben, 1987)

This is the kind of thriller that Hitchcock created with Shadow Of A Doubt, then was mandated a body count by the Slasher influence. That is to say, had this not been made in the 80s, we wouldn't have had Stepfather 2: Make Room For Daddy and Stepfather 3: Father's Day in short succession.

And the modern era?

The good stuff these days includes Eli Roth's Cabin Fever and Takeshi Miike's Audition. And since you ask, I liked Hostel in spite of everything and haven't seen Hostel II but the critical (not controversy discussion) reviews have been split. It's not new stuff, either. Takeshi Miike has been able to use ultra violence in ways that do not compromise the sincerity of his materials, and making his critical reception mostly positive is that he has directed wonderful family comedies as well as the ultra violence.

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