Slasher Films: Where It All Began

Slasher Films and I

I had seen films that influenced me in the theater as a pre-teen, and I’ve even written about one of those experience before (seeing Vanish Point), but in 1978 I was 17 and a perfect storm blew into my life. I finally had my driver’s license and a car, I lived in the suburbs and hung out with a group of bored, like-minded teenage boys, and the Golden Age of the Slasher Film was about to begin. (Should I even be calling them “films” as opposed to “movies”? Heck, I’m going with films.)

slasher films
Michael Meyers and John Carpenter on the set of Halloween.

In the fall of 1978, John Carpenter unleashed Michael Myers on the world and the gruesome genre went mainstream, big shiny knife in hand. Halloween’s contribution to horror films in general, and slasher films in particular, can’t be overstated. It contained elements that would soon become a cliché: Psychotic maniac wielding a sharp implement, a group of dumb horny teenagers destined for slaughter, an isolated location, a sole survivor, a sequel-friendly ending.

I don’t remember seeing Halloween in the theaters, or Friday the 13th 1, 2, and, 3, or My Bloody Valentine or Happy Birthday to Me. But plop down my dollars to see them I did, along with many other long forgotten films. It may seem strange that this documentary-making, classical guitar-playing, Yasujiro Ozu-loving man discovered his passion for cinema via these films; all I can say is, “We were all young once.”

Nightmare on Reldyes Avenue

That I don’t remember these films is not always a testament to their quality, but more to their nature. Slasher films went straight for the jugular and you were done for in no time.  They tried to make the killings creative and each tried to outdo the last; this constant one-upmanship led to nothing sticking. One can’t compare a slasher film death to the greatest death scene ever (IMHO), Mifune’s slow, drawn out death by a thousand arrows in Throne of Blood. Or Henry Fonda’s death scene in Once Upon a Time in the West, or Pee Wee Herman’s death scene in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the movie). Slasher film set pieces are like fast-fading nightmares, and that’s kind of the point. An unrelenting bogeyman chases us, and no matter how fast or far we run, he is not far behind. We wake up in a cold sweat. Or in the case of my slasher film going youth, the lights came up, we left the theater, and we walked to the Golden Eagle diner where the film was “discussed.” True, the conversations were not on the level of a cineaste’s (“When he plunged the spear through the couple that were doing it! That was f-in’ cool!”), but still, we engaged with the films and discussed images.

The Changeling

In the coming years, as my life and friends changed, this engagement spilled over into other films—1981, I saw Cronebergs’s Scanners and Truffaut’s The Women Next Door, Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans and Reisz’s French Lieutenant’s Woman. The point is, my theater going horizons were expanding, but the root of it, and still very present, was the slasher film.

Will this root show itself in A Life’s Work. Hmmm, not likely. Still, in a lot of ways those films were my first inspiration, the first step on the road to being who I am, documentary-making, classical guitar-playing, Yasujiro Ozu-loving man.

The Contest IS OVER.  THANKS FOR PLAYING!

All of this, really, is just an excuse for a giveaway. I have one copy of The Slasher Movie Book (it was sent to me a few years ago to review) and it can be yours.* All you have to do is go to the A Life’s Work Facebook page or my personal page and like the post about this article (it’s probably what brought you here),  or leave a comment below. Sometime next week I’ll print out the name of everyone who liked that post and blindfold myself and stick a pushpin in the printout. If it hits your name (or comes closest to your name), I’ll contact you for your mailing address and send you the book. Easy-peasy, right? Costs you nothing and you receive a weird book that is a surefire conversation piece!

* I know I have a few international readers of the blog, and I’m going to sheepishly ask that you not play, because this is a big fat book and shipping it out of the U.S. will cost me more than I’d like to spend. I beg your forgiveness.

The Book Is Better

Here’s a review I wrote about the book.

slasher films
The Slasher Movie Book

J. A. Kerswell is here to remind us of the films we’d rather forget. A first flip through The Slasher Movie Book brought back some of the more imaginative scenes. Oh, yes, now I remember that scene in Happy Birthday to Me, where the teenage boy’s scarf gets caught in the wheel of an overturned motorcycle and the spokes shear his face off. Oh, and death by sish kebab! And of course, Friday the 13th in 3D, where Jason Voorhees shot a spearfishing gun at the audience and with his bare hands crushed a man’s skull with such force that his eye flew out of its socket and landed in our laps. It’s all coming back to me now.

The images in The Slasher Movie Book are pulp-iliciously gorgeous and kudos to Paul Wright who designed the book; he makes great use of a multitude of creepy stills, garish posters, and lurid video sleeves (many from Mexico and Japan). This book may not be printed on glossy paper, but don’t let that fool you, this is a coffee table book for those who like their coffee table books sensational, politically incorrect, and gory.

The impulse with such a book is to look at some images and read the captions, maybe look up a favorite movie in the index, and then put it back on the coffee table. But I’d recommend reading the text and from the beginning. Kerswell does an exceptional job of tracing the slasher film’s forbearers: Grand Guignol theatre, silent films such as The Cat and the Canary, Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, Psycho, Italian giallo, and on an on, detailing the elements the slasher film cannibalized from each. Researching this book must have been fun.

slasher films
Happy Birthday to Me!

1978-1984, The Golden Age of the Slasher (no ironic quotations marks here), gets the most ink, and rightfully so. However, here the book is more a series synopses without much criticism or insight. But to his credit he manages to keep the plot summaries somewhat fresh, a formidable task considering the sameness of the stories and that there are only so many synonyms for “kill.” Kerswell also lists the box office figures for most of the films, and I find this odd and disturbing. I suppose he’s trying to chart the rise and fall of the genre’s popularity, but a more effective way of doing this might be to create a simple graph: number of films produced each year, combined grosses of the films year to year. I find reading how much each film grossed kind of gross.

The Slasher Movie Book is extensive, but by Kerswell’s own admission, not complete. (No mention of the proto-slasher classic I Spit on Your Grave! How is that possible?) Still it’s a fine compendium and contains its share of obscuros, such as Blood Beat, a strange little number from Wisconsin that features “a seven-foot-tall samurai conjured up by female masturbation” and from Sweden, the “deliciously demented” Blood Tracks, wherein “a poodle-permed rock band and its groupies [are] attacked by mutants during a photoshoot in the mountains.” They’d both be in my Netflix queue, that is if Netflix carried them.

It’s a good and entertaining survey of the genre, but I think the definitive version remains to be written. The pulpy feel and look of the book fit the genre, but it would have been nice if the book contained some interviews with the filmmakers and not merely quotes lifted from other sources. I would have enjoyed an egg-head thought piece as well (I’m available for the second edition!), perhaps placing the birth and popularity of the films in a socio-historic context. But for now, The Slasher Movie Book will have to do on your coffee table, you know, the one made of VHS cassettes and bones.

The Slasher Movie Book, by J. A. Kerswell, published by Chicago Review Press.

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