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.

Win a CD Comp Full of Killer Gospel Music Guitar Tracks

We have a winner! Congratulations to M.E. Hope.
The contest is officially over.

Here’s a clip Robert Darden of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. He mentions some recording artists.


The first person to leave a comment on the blog correctly identifying the artist mentioned in the clip who also appears in the ad below will receive a CD compilation of guitar-driven, old-school, totally rockin’ gospel songs hand-picked  by me.  This is music that will make you jump out of your seat, raise your arms in the air like you just don’t care, and feel uplifted. Take it from an atheist, this music does a person good no matter what your belief or non-belief system.

Want a hint? The artist is mentioned in the first one minute and ten seconds.

Ready, go! Good luck.
peacock records

Name My Bike and Win an Origami Crane!

Here at Ucross they provide bikes for the residents. Early on I adopted a bike I dubbed Black Beauty. But the Black Beauty had a broken seat, so I traded it in for another bike, Black Beauty II. But BBII’s seat wasn’t situated properly. So the other day I decided to go for this one.


Like Goldilocks, I found the bike that is JUST RIGHT! But this bike needs a name and I want your help.  The person who provides the best name (chosen by me) will win an origami crane made with my own two little hands.

Leave your entries here or on the A Life’s Work Facebook page.

UPDATE: We have a winner! Thanks to Indrani for suggesting FIRE RIDER! Truly inspired naming!



Giveaway Gone!

Congratulations to Jess Roth, who won the latest giveaway — Every Night the Trees Disappear: Werner Herzog and the Making of “Heart of Glass” by Alan Greenberg. (You can read my review of the book on the Filmmaker Magazine blog.)

If you really wanted this book, fret not, they’ll be other giveaways, and maybe you’ll win one of those. All you have to do is subscribe to the blog like Jess did. Enter your email in the field to the left. You’ll then receive an email asking you to confirm your subscription. Easy peasy!

And I’ll never spam you or give out your email address. Promise.

(You, too, can write using the galaxies!)

And the Free Awesome Book Goes to…

John Yearley!

John is a subscriber to the blog and his name and those of the other subscribers were printed on a piece of paper, tossed in a hat, and drawn from said hat by my assistant. John will receive a copy of The Film That Changed My Life by Robert K. Elder.

Congratulations from A Life’s Work, John. I’ll be contacting you for your mailing address.

I’ll be giving away more free stuff in the future to subscribers, so don’t delay, subscribe today!

The Contest for “The Blueprint” by Gospel Artist Kirk Franklin is over!

We have a winner! Congrats to Steph, who correctly answered with Mahalia Jackson and Frank Lloyd Wright. I hope you enjoy the book, Steph.

Thanks to the fine folks at Gotham Books, I‘m offering offered a paperback copy of The Blueprint: A Plan for Living Above Life’s Storms, an unapologetically Christian self-help book written by seven-time Grammy award winning Gospel artist Kirk Franklin. In it Franklin reveals his most intimate life struggles and offers his blueprint for propelling toward a fulfilling spiritual life in the face of adversity.

Win this book!

The Blueprint is a part-memoir, part-instructional guide that chronicles Franklin’s own adversities with drugs, teenage parenthood and poverty which, with the guidance of God, resulted in the life lessons that ultimately brought him success. Franklin offers his guide, his blueprint, to help individuals achieve success in their own lives. The Blueprint is the essential guide to creating a better you, one day at a time.

The winner answered these two questions correctly:

As a young boy, Robert Darden (founder of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project) was captivated by one gospel singer’s voice, playing her record over and over. Who was that singer? (Hint: she’s on every page of this blog.)

Since Kirk Franklin uses blueprints as an extended metaphor, the second question has to do with Arcosanti architect Paolo Soleri. Soleri came to the U.S. to apprentice with what famous American architect?

Good luck.

The fine print:

The first person who correctly answer both questions and leaves the answers as a comment on the blog wins.

Free shipping in the continental U.S.

The decision of the judge (me, David Licata) is final.

Mr. Pete’s Tree – The Contest Winner!

Laura Bittman Ward submitted this e-mail written by her father. Laura explains:

My dad sends out an email every Thursday to a group of his old high school friends who he reconnected with at their 50th reunion a few years back.

My uncle Peter died last summer, he was only in his early 50s. He’d worked at a school in New Milford, and about two months ago they dedicated a tree to him, so this was the Thursday email my dad sent out about it.

Like my dad said, really, how many of us will ever have a TREE planted in our memory after we’re gone???

Thanks to Laura and her father for sharing this.

Mr. Pete’s Tree

On May 23, the students and teachers of The Gibb Elementary School of New Milford, NJ planted a tree in memory of my brother Pete. Today, July 8, is the anniversary of Pete’s passing, and I keep hearing his voice and seeing his sweet smile.

Life was not easy for Pete. Considering all he endured, Pete could have been a grumpy, cantankerous and sour guy All through his life he was hampered by bad legs, and his limitations affected his self-confidence…but not his sense of humor. Even when times were toughest, Pete found much to be happy about. His joy for life centered on his wife Eileen, his son Ryan, his family, his lifelong friends Billy and Joey, his pets and the many friends he made during his years in River Edge. In his final years, Pete also found peace and happiness in his role as the head custodian at the Gibb School, and as a member of the close-knit Gibb School family.

Pete was always good at making people laugh. If it wasn’t with a sly one-liner it was with the greeting cards that he found throughout the year and delivered for your birthday. Every July 7th, I knew I could count on receiving a thoroughly disrespectful yet hilarious card that Pete had discovered way back in January or February. He never failed to insult me with a card that made me laugh out loud.

Pete was a hard worker. When he began his job at the Gibb School, he quickly proved his ability to deliver more than anyone at the school expected. Always the first to arrive every day. Always available to handle any unpleasant chore. And always doing his job with a grin and a kind word or funny line. Within a year of his arrival at Gibb School, the kids had come to refer to him respectfully as “Mr. Pete.” The teachers followed suit and by the end of that first year, Peter had a large and growing fan club.

When Pete was first diagnosed with renal cancer and had to take a leave from his job for treatment, all the children and adults in the school rooted for his recovery and return. He came back to work after two months of radiation therapy. Then, for the next two years, although he was undergoing treatment with a drug called Sutent which often left him extremely tired and weakened, Pete almost never missed a day at work. On snowy days he was at the school before daybreak with his crew, working as hard as any crewmember to clear the walks and parking lot. Many days he had to fight through pain, exhaustion, and discomfort. But he never lost his smile or kind manner.

Two years before he finally had to stop working, Peter struck up a friendship with the new school principal. When the principal arrived to work on his first day at the job, he was in the school at 7:15 A.M.  Peter had been there for more than an hour and when he saw the new principal, he walked up to him and with that winning grin, welcomed the newcomer aboard. “Hi! You must be the new guy,” Pete said. From that moment on Pete and the principal were partners, working together to help, each in his own way, to make the Gibb School a great school.

I was late for the beginning of the tree planting ceremony. A massive traffic jam on Route 4 caused Rosary and I to arrive 15 minutes late. Thankfully, all the other members of our family arrived on time. As we scurried along to the school, we were greeted by the sight of 300 students, teachers, and parents who were gathered around the front of the school to honor “Mr. Pete.” Two of the fifth grade children, a girl and a boy, who had known Peter since their kindergarten days read speeches about the man they confirmed was always, “kind, funny, and peaceful.”  The boy spoke of a day when he noticed that Peter seemed to be very weak and was struggling to sweep the cafeteria floor. Sensing Peter’s dilemma, the boy grabbed a broom and pitched in to help Mr. Pete finish the job. Pete, it seems, was too choked up by the boy’s kindness to do anything but offer his sweet smile as a thank you.

The young and vibrant fifth grade teacher who helped plan the ceremony spoke of her first year on the job when Mr. Pete befriended her.  At the end of her first season, the teacher nervously awaited to hear from the principal, hoping with all her might that she had been hired for the next year. When the principal gave her the good news in his office, she danced down the hallway. Pete was coming the other way and seeing her brilliant smile exclaimed, “You got rehired, you’re coming back. That’s great.”

The ceremony on that bright spring day ended with each student from the three fifth grade classes bringing gifts of thanks to Mr. Pete. Each student in the three classes had painted a small rock in memory of Peter. The rocks were placed in a colorful circle around the base of the tree. My favorite is a rock with a portrait of Pete. In the portrait, Pete’s huge and beautiful blue eyes are all you see. You can see Pete’s soul in those kind eyes.

In years to come, Pete’s tree will grow. The messages on the rocks will slowly fade. And new generations of students will pass through the Gibb School. Some will see Pete’s tree and memorial and ask about him. One day, the teachers who knew Peter will also be gone. Perhaps from time to time, students who knew and cared about Pete will return –as we all do — to revisit “the old school.” Pete’s tree and memorial will be waiting for them, a loving reminder of a loving man.

Peter Bittmann was the best Bittmann of us all. I hope to visit his tree every year, happy to reaffirm that my baby brother, who left us too soon, touched many lives and was loved by all he touched. As the penultimate song of the Beatles iconic album “Abbey Road ” tells us, “And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

What the Heck Am I Doing in This Photo?

That’s me behind the camera at Arcosanti, shooting … the windshield of the rental car?

Yes, I’m shooting the transformation of sunray, the win-free-art-created-by-me prize in this summer’s contest. You have until tomorrow night to enter the contest. Click here for the details.

Photo by Andy Bowley.

It’s Not Just about Trees

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.  The next best time is now.

Chinese Proverb

Tree in spring
Tree in spring

I’ve received some good essays for the contest (all to my e-mail account, are you really that shy?), but I’m greedy and I want more.  Contest ends this Saturday (8/14). Here are the rules.

What’s with All the Posts about Trees?

The pine tree seems to listen, the fir tree to wait: and both without impatience — they give no thought to the little people beneath them devoured by their impatience and their curiosity. Friedrich Nietzsche

This quote seems especially fitting since next week I will be in Inyo National Forest (CA) shooting Bristlecone Pine trees for A Life’s Work. The oldest of these trees is 4,600 years old. That’s literally pre-history. I’m very excited about this upcoming trip, and I’m doing this as much for me as for the film, even though at times, you may have noticed, those two are inseparable.

That’s why I’m posting lots of tree stuff.

I hope to put a little footage of these trees up shortly after I return, but until then, why not watch cinematographer Andy Bowley’s beloved, charismatic pine cone in “Test for A Life’s Work.” Enjoy.


And yes, the win free original art by me contest is still going on.