In the Beginning There was Hitchcock
In my 120 Years of Horror post, a clear path was mapped from the advent of film making to the current milieu dominating the horror genre; the slasher was a late bloomer within this genre. By the 1950s film making was fast moving away from the familiar tropes and formulae of literary horror adaptations. Audiences were accustomed to the “classics”. And though not bad, in and of themselves, they were tired, predictable, with well-known plots and characters.
Though he had been making films from the mid-1920s, Hitchcock is best known in popular culture for his later films. These films shifted the social focus from the supernatural (monsters, werewolves, vampires, demons, etc.) to a place far too close to home for comfort. Films like: Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), the Trouble with Harry (1955), Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960), Marnie (1964), Frenzy (1972) and Family Plot (1976) weren’t reliant on something that goes bump in the night to scare audiences. These were stories about what your neighbour, work colleague, family member, husband or a complete stranger could do to you or anyone you loved.
Social awareness was now focused on society itself, not external bodies that we could stand fast against, in unity. We were our own worst nightmare.
The Swift Shift
Having changed the face of social consciousness, horror films took a turn in the ‘70s that would forever change the face of the slasher film as well. In 1974 Tobe Hooper wrote (together with Kim Henkel) and directed one of the most iconic films of the decade – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Chainsaw changed the audience’s view. Literally. Pre-Chainsaw audiences were forcibly focused on the victim and identified with their terror and need to escape by running from the killer(s). That focus was shifted to the chase and the pursuit of the victim. Instead of feeling like they were running from the killer, the audience was now part of their demise.
In addition to this revolutionary aspect of slasher film making, Chainsaw’s primary victims were children. Though teenagers, this was the first time that under aged characters were the victims of brutal attacks and gruesome deaths, and Chainsaw is often considered the first teen slasher film. This format and the character tropes portrayed in this film would be the mould used for decades and scores of films to come. Notable mentions in the ‘70s include: 7 Murders for Scotland Yard (1971), the Last House on the Left (1972), Halloween (1978) and Alice, Sweet Alice (1978).
Two trends that seemed to gain a foot hold in the ‘70s was that of serial killers and cannibals. These were not mutually exclusive as several films have serial killing and cannibalistic consumption. You will be able to see this in some of the films that I have already mentioned. A few more include: The Zodiac Killer (1971), Poor Pretty Eddie (1975), Hills Have Eyes (1977) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980).
A fundamental addition to the genre was that of the “final girl”. Among the character stereotypes to develop from the slasher film, the “final girl” is by far the most consistent. She became the staple in slasher film making from the ‘70s to now.
The Supernatural Returns
Now a well-established sub-genre, the slasher entered the ‘80s with confidence. We saw film makers going back to plots that were more popular in the early 20th century. Several cult classics and iconic killers came from the supernatural slashers of this decade. The decade started off with Evil Dead (1981) which portrayed a group of teens venturing into the woods for a weekend away. Through their ignorance these teens unwittingly release a demon which torments, possesses and kills them off one by one.
The first Friday the 13th film, in 1980, though not supernatural in nature, gave rise to seven unnatural sequels where Jason Voorhees terrifies and eviscerates several groups of young adults in various locations (not only at Camp Crystal Lake). Jason’s eerie inability to be killed in those sequels and dislike of pre-marital sex, recreational drug use and underage drinking made him the ideal vehicle for curbing teen rebellion. This ideology would become the cornerstone of teen slasher films to come. Much like Michael Myers’ creepy white mask, Jason’s hockey mask has been immortalised.
A rather beloved franchise of mine was spawned in the mid-80s and with it the song that still haunts my dreams as an adult. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) was the gruesome tale of Nancy and her friends and a serial killer haunting them in their dreams. Child’s Play meant that I was frightened of the doll under the bed, and suddenly sleeping wasn’t safe either! Freddy’s black and red stripped jersey, hat and claws are as easily recognisable today as they were in the ‘80s.
Moving ever so slightly away from teenage victims, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) and its sequels were aimed at a marginally older audience. These would have been the young exec types. Versed in the art of BDSM, Pinhead and the Cenobites are possibly the most iconic Doms in horror history. The films have zombies, trans-dimensional travel and various forms of mutilation.
Honourable mentions for this decade go to: The Shining (1980), Prom Night (1980), the House on Sorority Row (1983), Children of the Corn (1984), Trick or Treat (1986), Aenigma (1987) and Pumpkinhead (1988). This is, obviously, not an exhaustive list and excludes a number of fantastic b-horror films. These films were creative in their special effects, especially for the time and technology available, and gruesome in their content. Often there was a lesson to be learnt, not only for the deaths of the characters or their behaviours but also from the history of the villain.
A New Set of Mythologies
The next two decades would see the complete saturation of the slasher market. The teen slasher became so popular that some would now consider it a genre in its own right. Scream (1996), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Urban Legend (1998), Final Destination (2000), Wrong Turn (2003), Saw (2004), Hostel (2005) and Hatchet (2006) were such popular titles that most of them didn’t just have a sequel, they ended up with an entire franchise. Each of them used stereotypical slasher formats and characterisations and were exceedingly gruesome and violent. More importantly, if you look closely, you will notice that the genre has come full circle. These films generally revolved around a serial killer (often with a big knife or some such), a bunch a teens with cocky attitudes and no respect, and have a seemingly supernatural element (even if only just initially). These movies have adopted elements from each of the preceding eras.
Moreover, these films are what I have come to refer to as the “mythologies of the modern era”. Not unlike mythologies of bygone civilisations, these films have a purpose, other than money making. They teach a new generation acceptable behaviours through fear. And because there are new generations needing schooling, this genre will never die.