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.


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.

What Makes Me Happy? Positive Interaction 2

This post, originally titled Street Theatre: Subway Hope: The Other Side of the Tracks was first published on Extra Criticum, December 28, 2008.

The other afternoon I left Tekserve, the Apple specialist, with two 1TB hard drives and a rack to contain all these metal boxes full of zeros and ones piling up around my work area. I walked through the dusk and snow flurries and descended the steps into the subway station, just making the uptown 1 train. The train was crowded but not packed and I manage to find a seat. Across from me sat a woman with a Tekserve bag and a new laptop in a box. She was probably close to 60 and dressed like an elder stateswoman hipster: hat with ear flaps, puffy navy North Face jacket, maroon corduroy bell bottoms. She looked at my bags and laughed. “Your wallet’s a little lighter too, huh? What did you get?”

I told her and she asked why I need all that storage. I told her for video, that I’m a filmmaker. “I’ve done some filmmaking. I haven’t made the leap to Final Cut though. I’m old school. Avid. What’s are you making, a documentary or a narrative?”

I told her I was making a documentary, but have made narrative films.

“What’s the documentary about?” she asked.

I was a little hesitant to discuss this in a subway car full of people, but I’ve lately been in “why not” mode so I told her. “Wow,” she said and then she gazed above my head, as if–but not–looking at the ads that run up there. She said “wow” again. I liked her response. A double “wow” is very encouraging.

We talked about Errol Morris, about the distribution upheaval, about Youtube. We talked a little bit about money and when I said, “There are easier ways to make money than filmmaking,” she smiled knowingly. We talked about the number of submissions Sundance receives each year. “Yeah, and they’re weird. They didn’t take my film, and it went on to win an Academy Award…” she said.

I asked her what was the name of her film?

“You’re about the right age, you might have heard of it. Marjoe?”

“The film about Marjoe Gortner?” I said.


I had heard of it. But I told her I hadn’t seen it. I gave her a couple of “wows” because I’ve always been fascinated by Marjoe Gortner, evangelist as a child, con artist/whistle blower and b-actor as an adult. Later that night, at home, I realized I must have seen it, because I doubt I would have known about Marjoe Gortner otherwise.

We conversed through five stops and the next was mine. I told her this and she said, “Mine, too.” We exited and emerged from the station. We said good bye and shook hands as best we could given all of our hands were holding shopping bags. I told her my name and she told me hers, which immediately left me because my brain can’t retain names. She walked north and I walked west.

We didn’t exchange cards or numbers or e-mail addresses or websites. There was no hook up energy. Just two people having a civilized conversation on a train about something they were passionate about. I couldn’t imagine this playing out in L.A. First, we’d have been in separate cars on the freeway in traffic, and that makes conversation difficult. Second, if we had met, say at a party, there’d have been exchanges of contact information and promises of lunch and, eventually, the initial meeting would have led to phone calls and e-mails unreturned. And that’s how I would have remembered the event, as another bullshit encounter, one that had a glimmer of promise but was destined to get sucked into the blackhole of social interactions that exists there. As it is, I have a wonderful memory of a very human, honest exchange between two people.

Sarah, if you’re reading this, it was nice chatting with you.

My Op-Ed on the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater

One of the great things about a blog is it can be a testing ground for new ideas or work. My indignation over the razing of the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater inspired me to put together the video of the amphitheater and write a post about it, The Unquantifiablity of a Place, Part 1. Participating in the Save Our Soleri (SOS) page on Facebook further motivated me to expand the post into an op-ed, which Planetizen, a web site dedicated to all things urban planning, ran yesterday.

Click here to read the piece. Watch the video by clicking “Paolo Soleri Amphitheater,” there on the left in that VodPod thingy. below.


Thanks to Tim Halbur for running it and including the video.



Brooklyn, Take Pride!

This is your Champion Carolina holly tree, Brooklyn. Is it not a thing of beauty?
This is your Champion Carolina holly tree, Brooklyn. Is it not a thing of beauty?

Brooklyn, your very fine botanical garden, so revered for its cherry blossoms in springtime, is also home to two champion trees.

Brooklyn, perhaps you read this blog and saw this term, “champion tree” and scratched your giant head and wondered, What exactly is a champion tree?

It is simply the largest tree of its species.  (There are state champions and national champions.) And what’s the formula for calculating a tree’s size? It’s simpler than the Drake equation, I can assure you.

Height in feet + trunk circumference in inches + ¼ average crown spread in feet.

You can read more about your champion Carolina holly and Kansas hawthorn trees by going to this New York Times article.

“What the Hey Were You Doing in Chicago?” Part 4

Forgetting things, apparently. Such as a release from the person I went there to see. I hustled to get releases from everyone else, from the people in Captain’s Hard Time Restaurant, from the employees and shoppers at Hyde Park Records, and from the people Robert Darden interviewed. But I did not get one from Robert himself. I kept telling myself, “I’ll get it tomorrow.” And of course tomorrow came and I was back in NYC and without a signed release.

People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music by Robert Darden
People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music by Robert Darden

I also forgot to get Robert to sign a copy of his book, People Get Ready, which I brought with me from home.

Fortunately, the United States Post Office is still in business. I mailed them to him and he mailed them back.

His inscription:

To David Licata:

A craftsman w/ the soul of a poet! Thanks for making the BGMRP part of your vision.

Robert Darden

Psalm 66:1

I don’t know my Psalms, so I looked it up.

“Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth”

I can get behind that.