Much like the eponymous masked killers, you maniacs keep coming back for more. So, pick up your knife (or any other sharp object), and let's cut straight to the point of the slasher. This is a lurid, trashy, and sleazy world. But, it is also (morbidly) the closest horror movies get to Pop Art; an exploited blood-soaked canvas; replicated, regurgitated, and remade; Michael, Freddy, and Jason iconography printed over and over again. Their masks are now horrific diptychs more akin to Manson than Monroe; a "What if Warhol chose the theme 'Maniacs and Murder'" over his Death and Disaster series of '63. Hurrah! The first disposable horror show…
Alice, Sweet Alice (film) US (1976). Alfred Sole's grimy little '70s horror is closer in tone to Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left and Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre than any of the more glossy slashers it was overshadowed by. The film takes a stab at the Catholic church, delivering a whiff of the demonic evil child (or adolescent) that seemed so inherent in horror during the time; especially the spirit of '76 with Carrie, The Omen, and Who Can Kill a Child? All the while, something else bubbles under its mucky surface as the mystery slowly unfolds around the shocking murders, echoes of Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now replacing a red-coated twist with a fearful yellow. Keep an eye out for a nod to the Alice mask in Rob Savage's Zoom call horror Host.
Black Christmas (film) Canada (1974). Often compared to John Carpenter's Halloween — predating by four years — and The House on Sorority Row, this slice of Canuxploitation was produced and directed by Bob Clark. Starring a post-Juliet Olivia Hussey and pre-Lois Lane Margot Kidder, it may not be as iconic or spawned countless sequels, but Black Christmas more than stands on its own as a taut and genuinely effective horror. With early hints of Wes Craven's The People Under the Stairs, there is a great deal more going on, primarily working as a psychological thriller, its Canadian roots lending a colder, more lurid tone. In terms of a Christmas horror movie, it is one of the best and still more than holds up, making it a perfect slasher double bill with the more goofy Silent Night, Deadly Night.
Child's Play (film) US (1988). By the time Chucky first appeared on the big screen, there had already been many horrific dolls over the years. Classics include the unsettling ventriloquism of Hugo in Dead of Night's segment "The Ventriloquist's Dummy" and Anthony Hopkins wrestling with the madness of Fats in Richard Attenborough's Magic. Then there's Dario Argento's sinister toy (see below) from Deep Red, Stuart Gordon's bloodthirsty Dolls, and the possessed clown of Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist. But, as far as personality goes, Chucky wins; Brad Dourif's performance as the crazed Charles Lee Ray turned "Good Guy" doll, having remained sadistically entertaining for almost 35 years. This is mainly down to creator Don Mancini never reinventing the character, having him observe the changing times around him instead; saying the things no one else would ever dare say. You can't kill, let alone cancel the Chuck because he always comes back.
Deep Red (film) Italy: Profono rosso (1975). In terms of what we would consider proto-slashers, there is no doubting the impact of Mario Bava's Giallo movies The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Blood and Black Lace, and A Bay of Blood, (aka Twitch of the Death Nerve). Although preceded by these lush and lurid works, Dario Argento's own stamp on the horror genre is unmistakable, especially via his inspired '70s output. Martha Manganiello is the psychotic killer (hidden) at the heart of Deep Red. Aside from her kills, there are several other creepy elements; most notably a mechanical toy that has come to be known as the "mad puppet," which both Chucky (noted above) and Jigsaw's Billy the Puppet seem to share some DNA. Argento would go on to influence the slasher further with Suspiria, building an unbearable insidious and supernatural atmosphere as (mostly) female victims fall prey to a series of brutal stabbings and beheadings.
Eden Lake (film) UK (2008). Writer/director James Watkins — who would follow up with his superb 2012 adaptation of The Woman in Black — delivers this gritty little British backwoods slasher. What follows is a relentless and terrifying experience; the story a simple (and relatable) one as a couple's weekend away spirals out of control when the local youth begin to ruin their peaceful spot. Early performances from Kelly Reilly (Yellowstone), Michael Fassbender (Prometheus), and Jack O'Connell (Money Monster) prove to be career-launching; O'Connell, in particular, at the height of his Skins success. Here he is again in delinquent mode, delivering a raw and unflinching performance as he slashes, gashes, and (quite literally) sets the screen alight.
The Final Girls (film) US (2015). Among the numerous neo-slashers, a number of fun throwaway examples have optioned for more shameless self-parody, from 2017's groundhog-inspired Happy Death Day to 2020's reconfigured Freaky Friday. While genre bashing and transposing as many familiar elements as possible, director Todd Strauss-Schulson — along with writers M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller — mixes the Friday the 13th franchise with a Last Action Hero gimmick. Where Arnie's '93 flick took pot-shots at the action movies he helped define, this outlandish meta-slasher approach can be attributed to not only the original franchise and killers that started it all but also, ironically, a shout back to a master of horror who started all this self-referential nonsense in the first place…
Ghost Face (character) US (1996). With each decade, Wes Craven reinvented the horror genre. In the '70s, his original exploitation piece, The Last House on the Left, became notorious for its unflinching depictions of sex and violence. Although there are some slasher elements to this earlier infamous movie, it wasn't until a certain Freddy Krueger entered the scene in 1984 that Craven embraced the subgenre (see "N" for A Nightmare on Elm Street). Further testing meta-boundaries a decade later, Wes Craven's New Nightmare would see Krueger eventually terrorize the original actors and the director himself. This self-awareness was taken further under the guise of the first incarnation of Ghost Face; Craven's opener of Scream in 1996 — a nod to When a Stranger Calls — wasting no time in laying out the rules as the Munch-inspired (and genre-savvy) killer despatches his victims who may or may not be aware of the "rules of horror". Craven's last screams' n' nightmares reconfigured and rebooted horror during the '70s, '80s, and '90s until he fully exposed the conventions of the genre, ushering out 20th-century horror.
Halloween (film) US (1978). Over the years, slashers have often been criticized for being formulaic and derivative. Few can argue with that — this is hardly Eisenstein or Brunel's "slice" of cinema — but nothing should detract from the brilliance of John Carpenter and Debra Hill's definitive slasher and masterclass in filmmaking; the opening reveal alone one of the best uses of a POV shot. Not only one of the most profitable independent films of all time, but it also set many of the tropes and conventions in stone. Any serious horror fan is aware: a masked killer suffering a severe trauma is spurred by an anniversary (or commemorative date) as he proceeds to stalk and dismember randy teenagers… until no one is left but the (virginal) "final girl." As well as horror stalwart Donald Pleasence, the casting also introduces us to the natural inheritor of the subgenre, Jamie Lee Curtis — daughter of one of the first slasher victims, Janet Leigh — who has been plagued ever since by the Haddonfield boogeyman Michael Myers, otherwise known as "The Shape". Obviously, "H" is also for "Holidays." While Carpenter crossed off October 31st on the horror movie calendar, other cursed entries would include Friday the 13th, Prom Night, New Year's Evil, My Bloody Valentine, and April Fool's Day, to name a few. Here's some trivia for you: Nick Castle, who has played The Shape both in Carpenter's original and recent legacy sequels, also directed 1984's The Last Starfighter!
I Know What You Did Last Summer (film) US (1997). After his success writing Scream, Kevin Williamson followed up with a loose adaptation of Lois Duncan's 1973 novel of the same name. Aside from its obvious slasher remodeling — of which Duncan was appalled — the film also feeds off "The Hook", an urban legend that has circulated since the late '50s. As far as this postmodern period of '90s horror is concerned, IKWYDLS is still a solid entry into the canon, owed mainly to Williamson's irreverent attitude to the genre. Although not on the meta-levels of his Craven collaboration, it is one of an influx of teen-centric horror to usher out the 20th century that includes "U" for Urban Legend , Bride of Chucky, Robert Rodriguez + Williamson on The Faculty, Idle Hands, Cherry Falls, and Final Destination. Williamson returns this Halloween as producer for pandemic slasher Sick, based on his original story.
Jason Vorhees (character) US (1980). This subgenre wasn't born overnight. Early tracings of the slasher can be found in vintage psychological thrillers, such as George Archainbaud's pre-Code Thirteen Women, and Robert Siodmak's masterpiece The Spiral Staircase. By the time the '60s arrived, the proto-slashers of Michael Powell, Alfred Hitchcock, Mario Bava, and splatterfests of Herschel Gordon Lewis were paving a bloody path for the golden years of Carpenter, Camp Crystal, and their cult followings. Consciously lifting the Halloween formula, The Last House on the Left producer Sean S. Cunningham managed to put together a 500,000-dollar budget for the first Friday the 13th, becoming one of the most successful horror franchises of all time, having grossed half a billion over the years since. Although Jason Voorhees wasn't the original killer — instead the wholesome and homegrown Betsy Palmer in the role of the murderous mother Pamela Voorhees — his evolution throughout the series has seen him rise from Crystal Lake countless times, finally picking up the iconic hockey mask in Part III before traveling to Manhattan, hell, outer space and back. As would be expected from a successful horror franchise, imitations of its own followed with The Burning, and Sleepaway Camp, to name a few. But let's not forget "J" for Jaws 2. A blockbuster sequel, but a slasher (shark) nonetheless, as a silent, relentless killer picks off unfortunate teens on another wet and wild vacation.
Killer's Delight (film) US (1978). Released several weeks after Dennis Donnelly's The Toolbox Murders and six months before John Carpenter's Halloween, this often overlooked (and overshadowed) little horror thriller is one of the first to be based on the Ted Bundy killings. Although the "TV acting" is noticeable, the film's focus on the killer's mental illness and police procedural approach prevents it from becoming anything resembling The Driller Killer or Maniac exploitation pieces that soon followed. Not short of the scares, it includes a shocking and most effective sequence of a naked woman's corpse thrown through the air and tumbling down an embankment while framed by the Golden Gate Bridge. Alas, this was Jeremy Hoenack's only stint in the director's chair, working primarily as a sound designer and sound editor over the years, most notably Airplane!, My Bloody Valentine and The Beastmaster.
Lake Nowhere (film) US (2014). Directors Christopher Phelps and Maxim Van Scoy deliver a short pseudo-slasher that is an inventive dip into retro VHS territory, similar in approach to Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's faux Grindhouse movies Death Proof and Planet Terror from 2007. As well as a fake trailer and previews (even a beer commercial), Phelps and Van Scoy, in true bootleg fashion, add imperfections such as poor tracking and other glitches that hint at what the film has been recorded over. Of course, the thinly veiled story wouldn't be complete without a group of hapless teens arriving at a cabin by a lake where they partake in the usual recreational and carnal activities… all the while stalked by a hulking masked maniac. Steeped as much in Italian exploitation as it is the first low-budget Crystal Lake entries of the early '80s, it makes for a fun 51 minutes. Read the archived FANGORIA review via The Gingold Files.
My Bloody Valentine (film) Canada (1981). Quentin Tarantino's all-time favorite slasher is another cult classic of its day. The plot revolves around teenagers (surprise, surprise) who incur the vengeful wrath of maniacal miner Harry Warden who was trapped, driven insane, and resorted to cannibalism when his supervisors left their workers down below to attend a Valentine's Day dance. Conceived, produced, and released within a year, the authenticity of the mining environment is down to director George Mihalka shooting in real mines, often up to 900 feet underground. It is also said that Thomas R. Burman's makeup effects were so convincing that Mihalka threw up at first sight of them.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (film) US (1984). Wes Craven reconfigured the masked killer that had become synonymous with the subgenre, presenting a villain who invaded youthful minds, tearing them apart from the inside out. Freddy Krueger's mask is a burnt reminder of his monstrous nature, and although mainly in shadow during his first appearance, as the series continued, he would soon become a more manic and cartoonish fiend. None of this detracts from Robert Englund's original performance, which remains genuinely unsettling as he lurks in the shadows and the thin veil of reality between dreams and the waking world. If you're lucky, he'll just cut you before you wake… until the next time you fall asleep, revealing himself from behind the walls before a bloody explosion of all that remains of his victims. Although skirted throughout the series, his backstory is one of the most terrifying aspects of Elm Street lore that shapes him into a true modern-day boogeyman.
Offerings (film) US (1989). Our killer this time is Johnny Radley, who disposes of the bullies responsible for leaving him badly brain damaged and severely disfigured as a youngster. In his deranged state, he offers their body parts as presents to his childhood sweetheart, the only person who showed him any kindness all those years ago. A late addition to the subgenre, this independent horror "offers" very little in terms of originality, lifting many elements from the original Halloween. Escaped asylum patient. Check. Homecoming massacre. Check. Carpenter music. Check.
Peeping Tom (film) UK (1960). Michael Powell's controversial film Peeping Tom from 1960 is often considered the first slasher. Truly ahead of its time, it is both a stunning exploration of voyeurism through the lens of a killer and the power of film itself. Released four months before Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in the UK, it unfortunately failed to find much of an audience as having a serial killer as the lead was obviously disturbing new ground. When released two years later in the US, it was also deemed objectionable by the Catholic Legion of Decency and fell into further obscurity as an underground film. In steps, Martin Scorsese presented Peeping Tom at the New York Film Festival while working with Michael Powell's wife on Raging Bull (1980) — editor and longtime Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker — at the NYFF in October 1979. With all of this in mind, it is no surprise that Hitchcock's more crowd-pleasing masterpiece has often been lauded as not only the first slasher but also the first modern horror movie, changing the direction of cinema forever. The fragmented mindset — see Francis Ford Coppola's directorial debut Dementia 13 — and mother fixations of these early '60s iterations would continue to raise their (ugly) heads, from the Friday the 13th franchise to the bonkers Spanish exploitation film Pieces. You can read more about Psycho under "P" in the upcoming ENCYCLOBLEEDIA of Universal Horror.
Quiet Nights of Blood and Pain (film) US (2009). Written and directed by Andrew Copp, who tragically took his own life in 2013, this is another throwback that echoes those similar sentiments of war and collective anxiety hidden under the surface of gritty '70s celluloid. Much like the post-Vietnam trauma, it deals with extreme and weighty subject matter in its depictions of PTSD as two Iraq veterans, returning from the conflict, fail to adjust and continue to enact their bloody violence on society. As a low-budget indie effort, the horrors on display tap directly into post-9/11 imagery and intensify the shocking reality of the dismantled and broken parts of humanity.
Random Acts of Violence (film) Canada, US (2019). As the voice of Hiccup in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, Jay Baruchel is about as far away from Toothless as you are likely to find him as he writes, directs, and stars in this intense, low-budget, gorehound venture. Based on an Image Comics one-shot from 2010, the story revolves around a struggling comic book creator Todd (Jesse Williams), suffering from writer's block. But this is the least of his problems. While on a road trip with his wife, assistant, and best friend (Baruchel), he soon discovers that a mysterious killer has begun re-enacting murders from the pages of his Slasherman series. Some would say the central argument of whether violent movies cause violent acts is exhausted as we are steered dangerously close to self-parody, feeding off the very imagery — mutilated female victims — it brings into question. Whether or not it loses sight of the answer is debatable, but it certainly succeeds in providing enough blood-splattered subtext amongst its gnarly effects for us to think long and hard enough about.
StageFright (film) Italy: Deliria (1987). Michele Soavi first came to the attention of Dario Argento while still an actor and assistant director, eventually working on several of his productions. Aside from some contrivances, his debut feature is a surprisingly subversive slasher for its time. Playing with the idea of what is real and what isn't, the premise is a simple one, as a group of stage actors rehearse an odd mix of slasher come musical dance numbers at an out-of-town theatre with their abusive taskmaster of a director, Peter (David Brandon). Meanwhile, a real killer, Irving Wallace (Clain Parker), has escaped, eventually finding himself amongst the production dressed as the fictional Night Owl killer from the play. Soavi's prior experience working with both Argento and Lamberto Bava is of huge benefit considering its low budget, often associated with Italian horror, while the glossy Giallo aesthetic — courtesy of cinematographer Renato Tafuri — also further elevates the film.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (film) US (1974). Released post-Watergate and during the final years of the Vietnam War conflict, Tobe Hooper's raw and infamous exploration of the darkest annals of American history — Ed Gein and the remnants of an untamed frontier — remains one of the most powerful horror movies ever committed to celluloid. Of course, in hindsight, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre showcases elements of a slasher— the group of wandering teens, final girl trope, and silent masked (serial) killer, but first and foremost, it is an equally grueling cannibal movie that chews on every unbearable moment. When it comes to the gore, we may see less than we think, but there has never been any doubt about the film's ongoing power and legacy.
Urban Legend (film) Canada, US (1998). Of course, another Scream clone reintroduces many of the stories popularised by folklorists since the late '60s, including the "Hatchet Man" legend and killer in the back seat. Aside from the prankster and other staple campus kids, student journalist Paul Gardner (Jared Leto) investigates the murders, shining a light on the infamous stories. Australian director Jamie Blanks, who would go on to direct Valentine, delivers a proficient take on the legends full of the usual smart-ass characters one would expect from this wave of '90s horror. However, when it comes to the best of slashers inventing their own "urban legends," it is Bernard Rose's Candyman — based on Clive Barker's short story "The Forbidden" — that manages to deliver one of the most grizzly and provocative entries to date. In the '21 reboot — from Nia DaCosta, Jordan Peele, and Win Rosenfeld — the character's roots are torn up once more and laid bare, this time naturally working as a subversive neo-slasher that not only retells the tragedy of Daniel Robitaille, but also an entire people. It is everything an Urban Legend reboot could be; transposing modern urban culture back to something more ancient we left behind… or destroyed in the first place.
Victor Crowley (character) US (2006). Writer/director Adam Green's Hatchet franchise stars Jason Voorhees actor Kane Hodder as the psychopathic revenant inhabiting a nearby swamp town. Cursed from birth and resurrected throughout each of the films, Crowley is not only monstrously deformed but has acquired supernatural strength while racking up an insanely high body count. As far as big dumb fun goes, this isn't the ingenuity of Green's ski lift horror Frozen, nor is it as inventive as Scott Glosserman's killer mockumentary Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon released the same year… and they never try to be, instead, bordering on Tucker & Dale level comedy. With their notable slasher cameos from Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger), A. Mihailoff (Leatherface), Tony Todd (Candyman), and Felissa Rose (Angela Baker, Sleepaway Camp), to name a few, the Hatchet films are the ultimate slasher love letters.
"Women in Danger" (TV episode) US: Sneak Previews (1975-1996). At the time of its release in 1978, critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel praised John Carpenter's Halloween for its artistry — and rightfully so — Ebert reflecting in this special episode from 1980 that, "It doesn't hate women but loves film." However, in their analysis of the other "sleaze-bucket" movies, they don't get off so lightly while exploring the trend of the so-called "Women in Danger" films that would become most prominent during 1978-1984, the golden years of the slasher. They both make valid (and concerned) points while also providing a clear breakdown of what has come to define this strand of horror. Siskel was convinced that "It has something to do with the growth of the women's movement in America in the last decade. I think these films are some sort of primordial response by some very sick people […] men saying, 'Get back in your place women'. These women in the films are typically portrayed as independent, as sexual, enjoying life, and the killer, typically, not all the time, but most often, is a man who is sexually frustrated with these new aggressive women and so he strikes back at them." In light of abuse towards women in the industry, comparing and contrasting these views against how such roles have evolved in a post-#MeToo era is interesting. This brings us to…
X (film) Canada, US (2022). Ti West's hot and sweaty throwback to exploitation movies of the '70s is as much a nod to the sleazy porn as it is the trailblazing no-nonsense horror movies of the period. Turning the familiar antagonist on its head, this is a Baby Jane-Saw Massacre cum Boogie Night hagsploitation neo-slasher that feeds its unsuspecting audience to the alligator. While completely conscious of its source material, West's film still feels surprisingly fresh as Mia Goth's beguiling duality is left somewhat… unhinged. With secret prequel Pearl — co-written by Goth — recently released, next up is the sequel MaXXXine to cap off the X trilogy.
You're Next (film) UK, US (2011). Home invasion movies have often crossed over with the slasher. Once again, Fred Walton's When a Stranger Calls is referred to as a prime example, which, in turn, shows traces of Anatole Litvak's 1948 film noir Sorry, Wrong Number that rather cleverly revolves around a series of phone conversations. From Michael Haneke's original German Funny Games and his '07 US remake to French home invasion Them, and The Strangers, this intrusive experience is always a tense one. In this bloodier version of Home Alone, Adam Wingard delivers the kick-ass Erin, who, while accompanying her boyfriend to his parent's wedding anniversary at their vacation home, ends up turning the tables on their masked assailants.
The Zero Boys (film) US (1986). When looking at the career of Greek filmmaker, Nico Mastorakis, one can only think of parallels to Narciso Ibáñez Serrador — Spanish director of Who Can Kill a Child? — with his polarising game show vs. exploitation background. After Mastorakis' prominent career in both radio and television ended (politics' n' shit) he became best known for writing and directing the notorious Island of Death, also released in 1976. Producing, writing, and directing his first film stateside, he ditches the routine stalk-and-slash formula in favor of a "most dangerous game" model, lampooning the likes of Deliverance, Southern Comfort, and First Blood. Here, paintball and survival game champions "The Zero Boys" head off for a jaunt into the wilderness and soon discover that "the blood is no longer paint," finding themselves hunted by a band of crazed backwoods killers in a real survival (horror) game. By 1987 slashers had been relegated to straight-to-video, but The Zero Boys' high energy and (for its time) fresh spin — full of the excessive macho shtick you would expect at the end of the '80s — makes it a worthy addition to the subgenre.