The Problem with the Modern Slasher
As distribution continuously evolves, a world of choices await horror fans in theaters, on demand and online. It seems that today nearly every niche is served, and so much so that a modern update of the Italian Cannibal film is currently anticipating wide release this fall. But as hauntings, home invasions, hopping vampires, killer kids and prosumer cameras hit screens large and small, there’s something missing.
It’s a beloved, oft-referenced subgenre and likely the one most closely associated with horror. Its moniker is a stand-in for the genre at large, known widely enough to be name-checked consistently by the milquetoast non genre-loving hordes as exactly the type of horror picture they don’t like. Which is to say, not everyone knows what a Mondo Cannibal film is, but they sure as hell understand the word, “Slasher.”
But does the slasher have a place in this current climate? Not really.
Out now, BLOOD WIDOW (pictured above) is one of the rare slashers in today’s glut of streaming genre, and one that fails to rally the need or desire for more. Jeremiah Buckhalt’s low budget feature debut, is an unfortunate one, calling to attention the myriad reasons why the subgenre is effectively past both of its primes (’78-’84, Post-SCREAM). The most egregious flaw being the increasingly popular and impossible marketing promise of horror’s next “iconic” killer.
However grating this claim is (and despite the Blood Widow’s neat look), it’s the comparably the least offensive issue with modern slasher filmmaking. The real headache stems from the slasher essentially being the least creatively ambitious of subgenres. Rare is the medium and its audience that prides itself on sticking to a formula (I say this as someone who loves both traditional, formulaic slashers and hardcore).Which is why the best entries either established or deviated from it. The rest were predicated on imitating others’ successes—which isn’t to say many didn’t have pleasures or lurid, transcendent moments of their own. Sad then, that many contemporary efforts at slasherdom aren’t interested in playing, unless it’s by the rules.
Instead, they aim to stick with what we know, in perhaps a not entirely ignoble attempt to capture the late night, adolescent thrills of yesterday. Contemporary slashers don’t come with a pair of nostalgia glasses though. New works can’t capture that time capsule humor that less-than-stellar but beloved golden age cult favorites have gained over the years.
Whatever could be gained in years to come from a similar time capsule effect (and it would be slight) doesn’t seem to concern many current slasher filmmakers. A film like BLOOD WIDOW is far too content to center its story on boring beheadings and bland young adults that barely engage with pop or niche culture. They are suburban lame-o’s and burnout archetypes worn so thin, they barely register. At least this year’s ALMOST HUMAN took the route of more adventurous slashers by incorporating the supernatural and rubberized extraterrestrial body horror in the process.
Similarly, Stacy Davidson’s SWEATSHOP feels like the only contemporary slasher that actually has the gall to be what others set out to: a warped, overdriven splatter vision of what thrilled its filmmakers as adolescents. SWEATSHOP, whose overall quality is up for debate, takes its cues from the punks of 80s horror and sets an ensemble of self-serving, repulsive ravers under a bevy of hot neon lights. The film also invests in stunning practical FX, used to decimate the cast with more than just the same-old hack-and-slash. Films like these are few and far between though. The same goes for their global counterparts, as arguably the two best contemporary international slashers have come from the same series (COLD PREY).
Is every subgenre crowded with imitators , presided over by beacons and gems? Sure. It’s the chip on the slasher’s shoulder that makes it an example. Long targeted as a deviant genre, fans inherently bear the slasher’s shitty attitude as a point of pride. The unspoken ideal is that to love the slasher is to stand up for horror, something made explicit when HATCHET II came under fire from the MPAA. In the name of the genre, many rallied to support the film and its right to be nasty as we wanna be, polarized reception of the film’s quality notwithstanding. And maybe that’s it. For too long, quality and unimaginative biting has been overlooked, considering the subgenre had already doubled back on itself early on.
In 1985, FRIDAY THE 13TH V: A NEW BEGINNING—a film notorious for its Jason Voorhees imposter—hit just after the golden age of slashers ended and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET heralded something new. However unconsciously, A NEW BEGINNING engages with rip-offs and audiences identifying with the killer versus its victims. A man takes on the mantle and mask of Jason and uses it as a vessel to dole out his wrath and rage. But the film also plays the reference game. Tommy Jarvis—the monster FX-loving avatar for weird horror kids everywhere—looks out at Jason from his halfway home window, unmistakably recycling the image of Michael Myers outside of Laurie’s. What’s more, the fake Jason’s motive plays like a gender-swapped variation on the original FRIDAY THE 13TH, as a grief-stricken father is out for vengeance for the murder of his son.
Cheap imitation is a shallow thrill. Too often, the slasher is regarded as easy filmmaking, evidenced by poor staging and shoddy recreations of slasher staples. Good genre filmmaking isn’t easy. To simply homage formulas, tropes and clichés just leads to more; a bland knock-off of a dull nod to [insert iconic kill here].