So, for our last day of Halloween Week, we decided to save the most popular horror invocation–The Slasher.
When you ask someone about a Halloween horror movie, chances are high that you’ll get a Jason Voorhees, Mike Myers, or Freddy Krueger mention in there. And why not? The slasher is an integral part of the genre–though, as I hope we’ve made a case for over the week, it’s not the only form.
Here’s a list of my favorite slasher films, from Mario Bava to Alexandre Aja!
Twitch of the Death Nerve
A Mario Bava film, which translates directly to intensely high body counts, crazy camera angles and lighting, and an all around fun time. Countess Federica owns a nice piece of property but is wheelchair-ridden. At the onset of the film she is strangled by her husband, who is then killed by someone else. In a struggle for her inheritance, thirteen other characters are killed one by one. This remains Bava’s most controversial film, for its brutality, it’s convoluted plot, and excessive gore. And…it’s one of the first real slasher-splatter films.
Black Christmas (1974)
Often cited as the first true Slasher film, Black Christmas is a treat. A sorority house is terrorized over Christmas break–someone keeps calling their phone, and moaning, breathing heavily into the mouthpiece. The mystery phone moaner, sneaks into the house by way of the attic, and stealithy strangles one of the girls. One by one, the killer picks off each of the girls, also continuing to call the house. Black Christmas also marks the first traced-call-coming-from-upstairs movie/urban legend. Make sure to watch the original and not the recent (complete crap) remake.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Leatherface has become a household name due to the recent remake (listed further down on this list), but before Explosions!American Flags!Michael Bay, there was this cult classic–which surprisingly isn’t as gory as you’d expect. There’s actually little to no onscreen blood–the horror is generated by the wonderful directing skills of Tobe Hooper, from the sound of the chainsaw, the implied violence, and the mounting tension. A classic horror film–truly one of the best independent horror films ever made. Certainly one of the most iconic. Which brings me to…
The Golden Age:
As with the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween was an independent film, made on a small budget by a clever director that relied more on simmering terror over copious amounts of gore (like Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween is actually not gory or bloody). In many ways, Michael Myers in his white mask is the father, the harbinger, of the modern slasher film genre, for better or for worse. The film opens with one of my favorite ever horror sequences–the camera is in the first person, from behind a mask looking through the eyeholes, as an unknown character goes into a girl’s room. We see that she knows the masked figure; it is her brother, named Michael. And then, Michael stabs sister Laurie to death with a carving knife, and walks downstairs and outside. Two parents are coming up the front stairs–at this point, one parent unmasks the killer, and the camera angle shifts. We see that Michael is a boy of only six years old…
And that’s just the opening sequence. This movie is still one of my ultimate favorites, and probably my favorite straight slasher film–it is a defining horror movie in every way, from the brilliant directing, Jamie Lee Curtis’ acting, the CLASSIC score, and good god is it just scary. Closet wire hanger scene, anyone?! The franchise would continue, growing from this huge success (although only Halloween II and III are associated with Carpenter–and III is not even about Mike Myers, it’s about killer masks, and one of my favorites!).
Friday the 13th
Ki-ki-ki-ki-ki….ma-ma-ma-ma-ma…. (<---That was my lame impression of the Jason music). Jason Voorhees. Camp Crystal Lake. Need I say more? Jason stormed on the scene in 1980 as an unabashed attempt to cash in on the Mike Meyers market--which it did. The first movie is actually significantly different from the later films, in that the killer isn't Jason (Jason had died at Camp Crystal Lake in the '50s, drowned as a consequence of two camp counselors having sex in the woods as opposed to watching the kids). Twenty-years later, the camp is reopening, and someone is picking off the counselors one by one. The franchise, cashing in on the huge success of the first movie, shifts to Jason's murderous rampages--and no longer confined only to camp Crystal Lake. (He goes to Manhattan, Hell, and outer space. Yup. And somehow...it's still fun, if ridiculous) Plus, a cool crossover with the next guy on this list...
A Nightmare on Elm Street
One, two Freddy’s coming for you
Three, four better lock your door
Five, six grab a crucifix
Seven, eight better stay up late
Nine, ten never sleep again…
Freddy Krueger is certainly an icon, and one of the most recognizable figures for horror–or cinema, for that matter (even moreso than Jason and Mike Myers!). Again, cashing in on Halloween‘s success, A Nightmare on Elm Street examines the urban legend that if you die in your sleep, you die in real life–only the death is attributed to a blade fingered, burn scarred maniac, who hunts teens in their dreams. My personal favorites are the first and third films (the third, Dream Warriors probably being my ultimate favorite of the franchise). Bloody, surreal, and at least initially terrifying, A Nightmare on Elm Street remains THE iconic ’80s slasher.
Freddy vs. Jason
So, this should probably be filed under “guilty pleasures”, but whatever. What happens when you get two old great slasher icons together in one film? They get pissed off and try to kill each other! Personally, I was rooting for Freddy. Yeah, this movie is pure ridiculousness, but it’s AWESOME ridiculousness. (And yes, I’m one of those people that goes to the theater to watch AVP)
One of the first horror movies I can remember watching at the ripe age of…oh, probably 6 or 7. Chucky is a Good Guy doll, the hottest toy to hit shelves that year, and Karen Barclay is determined to get one for her son Andy’s birthday. The doll she buys off the street, however, has been possessed by the late spirit of Lakeshore Strangler, Charles Lee Ray (by means of a voodoo ritual he performed shortly before his real body was killed by the police). This movie by all accounts shouldn’t be scary, but somehow, it is! Also, upon watching it as an adult, it’s clear that though scary, Chucky is at times hilarious (even before going the Bride of Chucky route)–i.e. in the elevator scene when Chucky is heading back up to the Barclay apartment, an elderly couple remarks “That’s a hideous doll!”. As the elevator rolls away when the couple gets off, you hear Chucky go “Fuck you lady…”. Aaaaa! I love it!
Prom Night/April Fool’s Day/Sleepaway Camp
So I had to throw in at least a few of the slashers spawned by Mike, Jason and Freddy. The ’80s truly were the golden age–there are many, many more films of this ilk, but here are my favorites of the rest. Prom Night, starring Jamie Lee Curtis, follows a group of teenagers that guard a terrible secret from when they were children, and on prom night, one by one they are murdered by a masked killer. April Fool’s Day, a horror comedy inspired by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, follows a group of friends as they go on spring break to one friend, Muffy’s, mansion on an island. Muffy has prepared each room with different gag gifts and pranks, and has a very elaborate party set up for all of them…
Sleepaway Camp…well, there are no words. At first, it appears to be a Friday the 13th ripoff, as camp teens are murdered one by one. But believe me when I say, the twist ending is effing insane.
The Slasher Revival:
Wes Craven, creator of Freddy Krueger, brings back the slasher in 1996 with his horror-comedy Scream. Sidney Prescott is a damaged young thing, struggling on the anniversary of her mother’s raped and murder. Someone, clad in black, wearing a scream mask, is killing Sidney’s friends and trying to murder her as well. Scream is a delight, not just because of the tongue-in-cheek approach it takes to slasher films and the self-mocking it employs, but also because, underneath all the inside jokes and slasher cliches and references, it’s actually a damn good, scary movie!
I Know What You Did Last Summer
Following on the heels of Scream‘s success, I Know What You Did Last Summer jumped in to cash on the revived genre. Loosely, loosely based on the young adult novel by Lois Duncan, IKWYDLS (I’m not typing out that title again) sensationalizes and amps up the blood and body count. A group of high school friends–a jock, a beauty queen, a studious brunette and the boy from the wrong side of the dock but with a golden heart–are celebrating their last summer together before going their separate ways. They get drunk, get into rich jock boy’s car, and end up hitting a boy on the dark road. Terrified, they toss the body and make a pact to never speak of what happened–but, a year later, someone leaves them that ominous note that they know, and comes after each of them wearing a slicker, a fisherman’s hat, and wielding a gutting hook. This movie spawned two sequels, each more ridiculously titled than the previous: I STILL Know What You Did Last Summer, and I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre/Halloween
Two of the granddaddy iconic independent films discussed above were recently re-made with huge budgets, hi-tech special effects, and story updates. While I have to say neither remake even comes close to the originals, both are enjoyable films. Michael Bay (who has been going on a classic horror film remake-athon, with the rights to Friday the 13th, Rosemary’s Baby, and A Nightmare on Elm Street–I shudder in fear, really I do) came out with his take on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003. Starring Jessica Biel, this revival of Leatherface includes a whole lot more gore, relying on blood, torture and shock scares. While I don’t think it’s anywhere near its source material, it’s a fun film to watch, popcorn in hand–and about the same nutritional value as said bowl of popcorn.
Halloween was released in 2007, reimagined by Rob Zombie. It’s effectively a prequel–showing Michael’s growing disturbed nature, his reliance on masks, his sociopathic behavior–leading up to the murder of his older sister, which happens at the halfway mark of the movie (as opposed to the opening of the original). It also includes a lot of blood, gritty camera work and settings, and gore. I really like Rob Zombie. I love his original movies. But I think Halloween was just ok–it almost had TOO much gore, too much of the same with Michael lumbering around and killing people left and right. By around 2/3 through the movie I found myself just wanting Laurie to shut up and die already (does that make me a bad person?). It was so much of the same shock that I felt desensitized to it…but still, the first 1/2 of the movie is so strong, and it’s still a good film. Just, not as good as what I’ve come to expect from Mr. Zombie. Speaking of which…
The New Gems:
House of 1000 Corpses & The Devil’s Rejects
Rob Zombie made his directorial debut in 2003 with House of 1000 Corpses. Four college kids are driving across the country and decide they want to learn more about the villainous Dr. Satan, trying to find the site where he was hanged. Instead, they find the Firefly family–deranged, deadly murderers. The film is by the book in terms of conventions, but with a whole lot of blood, and some cartoonish characters. House I felt was good but not anything to write home about, but still a pretty strong debut from Mr. Zombie. I totally jumped onboard the bandwagon, however, with The Devil’s Rejects in 2005. A sequel to House, Rejects opens with a police raid on the Firefly’s farm. Only two members escape with their lives, Baby Firefly (played ridiculously well by Sheri Moon Zombie) and Otis. They hook up with Baby’s father, Captain Spalding, to try and bust out Baby’s mother from jail. There’s a lot of weirdness along the way as the Firefly’s seek aid and shelter, they discover that Mama has been killed, and ultimately it all culminates in a powerful, brilliant ending. What I love so much about this film is that it is told from the perspective of the Firefly family–we learn about them as people, and deranged killers that they are, you actually sympathize with them. It’s all very dirty and grainy in what is becoming Rob Zombie’s trademark style, and reminiscent of those true Grindhouse films of the ’60s and ’70s.
Largely unnoticed, Hatchet is pretty freaking great. The tagline: “It’s not a remake, it’s not a sequel, and it’s not based on a Japanese one.” HAH! They had me at hello. A group of tourists heads out to a haunted Louisiana Bayou, and they learn the story of Victor Crowley:
Once there was a boy named Victor Crowley. He was born hideously deformed, and sadly, folks weren’t too kind to him. So he spent most of his life hidden in his Daddy’s house out in the bayou. One Halloween night, the local children came throwing firecrackers at the house to tease and scare him. And the old Crowley house caught fire.
When Victor’s Daddy arrived home, the house was in flames. He went to the barn, grabbed himself a hatchet, and started chopping down the front door. But what he didn’t know was that Victor was pressed up against the other side, trying to get out. He hit him square in the face with that hatchet…
…and poor Victor Crowley died.
The old man went into mourning and became a recluse after that. Never to leave the house. Never spoke to anyone. He finally passed away about ten years later.
And that’s when the stories started.
They say people tend to disappear in that swamp. And if you get close enough to the old Crowley house at night, you can still hear Victor Crowley. Still roaming in the woods. Still crying for his Daddy.
Guess what happens to the tourists?
Hatchet features an all-star cast (from Robert “Freddy Krueger” Englund to Tony “Candyman” Todd), a morbidly funny storyline, and in a recent genre mired in soulless sequels or ripoff remakes, it is delightfully original.
High Tension & The Hills Have Eyes
My favorite new horror director has to be Alexandre Aja. Both of these movies are awesome, in my opinion. In High Tension, college friends Marie and Alex go to stay at Alex’s family’s rural home. That night, Marie lies awake and witnesses a man entering the home and brutally (and I mean BRUTALLY) murder the entire family, and abduct Alex. Marie, desperate to help her friend, follows the murderer’s truck, and tries to find help for her friend, only to witness more murder and bloodshed–with a twist at the end which perhaps isn’t very original, but still effective.
The Hills Have Eyes is Aja’s remake of the 1977 film by Wes Craven. Given that I loved High Tension (for reasons I’ll explain shortly), I went to the theaters to see this remake–and holy crap, I was not disappointed! A family drives westward to California for vacation, but gets trickedinto taking the wrong road, and are systematically picked off by a family of mutant cannibals.
What gets me about both movies is the directing–Aja has an incredible, unflinching way of making a movie. Both films are incredibly graphic (I highly recommend watching them as they were intended–get the unrated versions)–but unlike say the Saw movies or the Hostel films (Hostel 1 is decent, but still lacking that…I dunno…OOMF), Aja imbues a sense of true dread in every frame. In the aptly titled High Tension, I could actually feel my heart rate skyrocketing–and it was in French, on my tv at home, with all the lights on. In The Hills Have Eyes, this is more pronounced with a bigger budget and better actors (the scene with the burning outside, distracting most of the family while two sisters inside are being attacked is incredibly effective). I don’t think I can say enough good things about Aja’s style. He is the only reason I would dain to watch Mirrors (which looks stupid) in theaters (although due to the boyfriend, who does not share my enthusiasm for horror, I will have to wait for the dvd release).
PHEW. So there you have it, my list of influential and favorite slasher movies. Have any favorites I’ve forgotten? Make a case for or against the list? Post away!
**Note–I know I promised another list of international horror films, but I’ve run out of time! That’s ok–we’ll save it for next year.**