Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Slasher Film.

I review a lot of slasher films on this site. The genre is right up there with the spaghetti western in my book. I recently released my top 10 list (well, it's more of a class) and I'm always updating my BIG Chronological List of Slashers. I use a lot of made up verbiage and personal systems for ranking and categorizing slasher films. This post started out as a quick explanation of those things and evolved in to much more.

You can find a whole lot of information regarding slasher films over at this Wikipedia page. I don't buy into some of the information presented there. There are many films wherein groups of people are murdered one by one. This in and of itself, does not a slasher make. The page also reads like some sort of one-upsmanship game by slasher fans, adding comments and information about their favorite, obscure slasher film.

I have read Vera Dika's book, Carol Clover's book, Adam Rockoff's book, and  Richard Nowell's amazingly researched book, each with paragraph long titles. If you are interested in the history, finances, and cultural anthropology of the slasher genre read these books. My feeling is that they are interesting in as much as an artist's statement is at an art gallery: knowing what the production companies intentions were, how the distributor marketed films, where the markets were, where the culture was. I waver between keen interest and wanting to puke.

If you like your artwork with no explanation; to make up your own mind without context. Just go watch the films. This post is meant to provide a pinch of context, some history, a smidge of my ranking system, and a somewhat blurry definition of the genre. If it is not enough, go dive into the books listed above and learn about gross revenues and propitious cultural morays.

Like always, I encourage you to make your own lists, your own definitions, to create your own universe.  When you die, this universe ends for you. Go out and be the god you are. Go watch the slasher films you want to watch. And if I can help you decide which ones, I would be greatly honored. 
Blood Feast

A very short history

I am not a stickler about the scores of pre-slasher, thriller films. Yes, Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians contributed, the Grand Guignol in France contributed. We know about Thirteen Women and Without Warning. I believe the genre began to take shape with Michael Powell's Peeping Tom and Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, both released in 1960. In both films, the audience does not latch onto police detectives in search of a killer. The serial killer is the main character and the psychology of that character is explored in detail.

In 1963 Herschell Gordon Lewis and Dave Friedman released Blood Feast. The psychology of the killer was irrelevant and just about everything else took a back seat to the bloodshed and violence. This was the first gore film and contributed greatly to the visceral attention to the act of murder which helped define the slasher genre.

Blood and Black Lace, directed by Mario Bava was released in 1964. It was an early entry into the Italian giallo cycle of films and had a lot of features which later became staples of the slasher film.The single killer in a black coat, gloves, and a spooky mask. Killing without firearms, faceless and unstoppable. Bava also directed Twitch of the Death Nerve, released in 1971, which also influenced the slasher genre in much the same way as Blood and Black Lace.

While it seems like a long stretch to horror fans, film history buffs know that 1969's Easy Rider crashed through the roof and opened up independently produced films, targeted at youth audiences, to the major film distributors. These distributors scrambled to find hit films in dark corners they had never dared look before. Art films, foreign films, experimental films, even exploitation films were snatched up and taken out of the underground and into the mainstream cinema.

In 1974 all the elements came together when Bob Clark's, Black Christmas was released. This Canadian produced (as in, the Canadian government helped produce it) film is the first proper slasher film. Black Christmas failed at the box office, a spark failing to ignite.

"Did John Carpenter rip-off Black Christmas? No, he did not. The story, very briefly was that John was an admirer of Black Christmas and subsequently I was hired to direct his first screenplay, set in the mountains of Tennessee. It didn't end up happening. I had to move on. It was Warner Brothers. And John had asked me, very quickly, did I intend to do a sequel to Black Christmas? He admired it a great deal. I said, 'No, this is going to be my last horror film.' And he said, 'But if you did, what would it be?' And I simply said, 'It would be the next year. The killer would have been caught and he's escaped. He's come back to the town. No one knows he's back in Bedford, this small, North Eastern town. And I'm going to call it Halloween.'"
- Bob Clark (HERE at :47. Bob Clark goes on to make it clear that John Carpenter did NOT rip-off Black Christmas.)

In 1978, John Carpenter's Halloween was independently released and slowly started a fire. Its popularity created the slasher genre.
The Burning
The Prowler

Ezra Pound said that there are Innovators, Masters, and Imitators.

Films like Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were clear innovators of the genre. Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the first fifteen minutes of When a Stranger Calls are the clear Masters, with many other slasher films up for debate regarding their Master status.

The bulk of the genre is Imitators. Being an imitator is not a negative mark. Imitators are what make a genre.

There are also a handful of self-described labels to identify and categorize slasher films:
Urban Slasher
Rural Slasher
Fantasy Slasher
Teen Slasher 

I use these labels frequently. For the most part I tend to dismiss fantasy slashers. I mostly cannot stand them. I mostly try to ignore them. I mostly want them burned.
Friday the 13th part 2
Hospital Massacre
Edge of the Axe

I have a sort of Tier system set up in my skull as well. It is not as defined as I'd like but I use this system to delineate budget, production value, and distributor strength. Friday the 13th, Halloween, their sequels, My Bloody Valentine, these are Tier 1 films.

The Burning, Prom Night, Hospital Massacre, would fall under Tier 2.

Tier 3 films were usually made with great love by small crews of buddies or by fly-by-night production companies looking for a quick buck. Many released straight to video. Intruder, Don't Go in the Woods, and The Nail Gun Massacre are all examples of Tier 3 slashers.

What is a slasher?

Any time you try to squeeze a cycle of films together into a genre, you find that as they stretch the genre and flex their creativity, they puncture your sack and destroy your definitions. I will lay out some very general guidelines that I use. If you are a little shit about it, you can find films on my big list that will break these rules.

1. A killer kills. This is the primary reason this film exists. All other plot points are MacGuffins.
2. The killer is a person.
3. The killer does not use a firearm.
4. The killer cannot be reasoned with. 
5. The story does not follow the police. It follows the killer or the victims.
6. A final victim kills the killer or at least, escapes. There is a survivor.

(The screen grabs are from my Fantasti-frames site.)
Going to Pieces is a decent documentary based off of Adam Rokoff's book. However, their glossing over of Black Christmas (a quick close-up of the poster) is unforgivable.

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