The Evolution of the Slasher Film

LeatherfaceIn 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-worn 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 were the prevalence of serial killers or cannibals (or both).. 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 Final Girl

Most slasher films rely on the Final Girl stereotype/trope for film progression. The Final Girl is usually the sole survivor of the slasher film. She will to come face-to-face with the killer at the end of the movie, and fight him to survive. She is essentially the all American girl who’ll be having nightmares for a while. 

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 supernatural sequels in which Jason Voorhees terrifies and eviscerates several groups of young adults in various locations (not only at Camp Crystal Lake). Jason’s eerie invulnerability in those sequels and, and his disdain for pre-marital sex, recreational drug use and underage drinking made him the ideal antithesis of 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 a dream-stalking serial killer. Child’s Play made me frightened of the doll under the bed – and sleep! 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. Versed in the art of BDSM, Pinhead and the Cenobites are possibly the most iconic Doms in horror history. Zombies, trans-dimensional travel and various forms of mutilation all feed into this bizarre series of films.

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. Occasionally, there was even a lesson to be a subtextual lesson to be learnt. 

A New Set of Mythologies

The next two decades would see the complete saturation of the slasher market. The teen slasher was now popular enough to be considered 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 spawn sequels, they spawned franchises. Each of them depended on clichéd slasher conventions and characterisations – which usually included excessive violence. 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 of poorly behaved and disrespectful teens, and contained 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.

Margeaux (a.k.a. TropicalMary) finds her time taken up by movie watching, game playing, book reviewing and cat herding. There’s nothing she can’t do in a pencil skirt and a killer pair of heels, especially when the reward is a glass, or 5, of a crisp chenin blanc. Failing that, a onesie and a burger will make her happy.

23 thoughts on “The Evolution of the Slasher Film

  1. There’s also Black Christmas, another under appreciated flick from 1974.
    And Freddy’s jersey is green and red, not black as you mentioned hehe

  2. Pingback: 5 Must Read Horror Articles 13 July 2015 » This Is Horror

  3. Fascinating post, Margeaux. You’ve brought to light many facets of the genre that may not be so clear in its more mundane manifestations. I’m a big advocate of “Halloween”–which proves that when done right, such films can transcend the category. Nice writeup.

    • Every year, my best friend and I watch Halloween together. It’s a tradition. What I appreciate most about that film is that at almost 40 years old, I’m still seeing and learning new things from it. I was made a tiny budget but was so provocative, with superb tension.

      M

      • A fine tradition, Margeaux. And you’ve pointed to the mark of a good movie–that you can always discover something about it, no matter how many times you watch it. John Carpenter’s definitely one of the most underrated directors out there; even his lesser films, such as “Dark Star,” are worth watching.

        • I’ve never seen “Dark Star”… I’ll get right on that 🙂

          Many people see slashers as mindless and unimaginative. There are definitely slashers that fit that bill but there are others which make you think and stay with you long after the credit roll. Carptenter does that for me…

        • Have to agree about ‘Dark Star’, Simon, and let’s not forget the original ‘Assault On Precinct 13’ (1976) , still powerful after almost 40 years. Regards, Pete.

  4. Hi there, great article I really enjoyed it! I also love horror films and Slashers as well and You are so right about Texas Chainsaw Massacre (also a major favourite of mine)! There was so much going on in that film — and an incredible commentary on everything from Post-Vietnam America to changing gender identification! I would like to leave a link to a post I wrote about TCM awhile back that I think you may be interested in based on this article: http://imstillakid.com/2014/01/01/skin-masks-and-chainsaws-an-essay-analysis-of-the-texas-chainsaw-massacre/
    The 70’s were very much the push into the next evolution of horror that Hitchcock started in 1960. Great study with your list of films, but how could you forget Black Christmas (1974)? Definitely an early slasher in its execution (sorry, bad pun). Thanks for a fun read!

    • I really enjoyed your essay analysis 🙂 Chainsaw truly is a fascinating film when considering the social dynamics of the era. The same thing happened with Psycho. One may not be a fan of these films but it cannot be denied that they were industry shakers.

      Thank you for reading 🙂
      M

  5. I think you’re right about Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Margeaux. It’s one of the more influential movies of the past fifty years. I even think you can call it a great movie, owing to the fact that movies are so wide-ranging and flexible in their appeal. I once hosted a screening of it at the AFI Silver and the thing I remember most was that there were about 100 men in the audience, and one solitary woman. Which leads me wonder how many women enjoy slasher films. It does seem to be one of the most gender-specific genres. I think one of the evolutions post 2000 has been the emergence of better female-driven slashers such as May, American Mary and Ginger Snaps.

    • Absolutely! I found Carol Clover’s “Men, women and chainsaws” to be a fascinating read when considering the gender disparities in, not only, slashers but horror plots and audiences generally. Looking closer to home, I think I have one female friend who truly enjoys slashers. When we have movie nights, I’m usually the only woman there.

      I’m not going to lie, I love watching a slasher were the women are badass 😉 American Mary is right up there with Final Girl (starring Abigail Breslin)!

      Thanks for reading, Jon 🙂

      • was “men wome and chainsaws” the book that postulated that the audience for slasher films was largely pre-adolescent boys who identified, not with the killer, but with the victims, until at the end he took up the phallic knife and became a man by killing the monster? also, it is interesting that so many of the final girls have masculine, or at least,androgenous, names. i disagree with your almost religious placing of texas chainsaw as the seminal slasher movie, as many of the conventions of the genre were established with peeping tom and psycho (didnt you identify more with norman than marion, especially when the car got stuck in the mud?) and were firmly in place in the early 60’s films of mario bava and herschell gordon lewis.

        • There really isn’t an “almost religious placing of texas chainsaw as the seminal slasher movie” in Margeaux’s assessment of that film; such hyperbole suggests a zealous devotion to the movie that isn’t in this piece. At any rate, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is a pretty damn important addition to the genre, and I’d agree with Margeaux’s measured take on it. “Peeping Tom” and “Psycho” aren’t strong comparisons; in the latter picture, there’s pretty much only one long sequence where we’re forced to share Norman’s perspective during his post-murder cleanup process–mostly, we follow the activities of Marion and her sister, which sandwich Norman’s fastidiousness. And I’d fit Bava more in the general horror genre, myself, while Gordon Lewis, though instrumental in developing the splatter film, never did anything as slick or well-directed–or, frankly, effective–as “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

        • It’s so difficult to choose which films to focus on in a write up like this and, inevitably, there will be films that others may not agree make the cut or feel that others should have been included. This is what makes film such a personal thing.

          I appreciate “Peeping Tom” and “Psycho” assistants to the slasher sub-genre but personally, do not consider them slasher films thus their exclusion here. I agree with Gerry’s assessment of Bava and Lewis as these are my views as well. This is no different to your assertion that: “hellraiser is not a slasher”.

          This was not a academic article. Though thoroughly researched and years of film appreciation, this is more of an opinion piece regarding how I see the evolution of the genre.

          Thank you for reading and happy watching!
          M

          • I think there are a number of slasher elements in “Hellraiser,” Margeaux, that support your assertion, such as the focus on the teenage protagonist and the bloody demises of victims. My feeling is that your argument is perfectly valid and even welcome in this article–“Hellraiser,” though I don’t particularly like it as a film, is something of a mixture of genres and offers a complex texture not often found in the space. Meanwhile, “Peeping Tom” and “Psycho” are really departures from the slasher norm, as you indicate. I always found the latter flick to be especially peculiar, given the fact that its star is dispatched halfway through the movie! And I don’t think “Peeping Tom” had the influence that “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” did; the frissons of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” are more akin to those of “Night of the Living Dead,” which helped reinvent its genre in much the same way.

            • I see we’re on the same page 🙂 I like a little Hitchcock as much as the next girl but the films were missing something for me. I think they contributed immensely to their time, though!

              My previous comment was largely for Bill’s sake and in response to an earlier comment he made. Hellraiser is always a problem. I don’t think that Barker considers them slashers but I feel that there are enough similarities and nuances that lend it to being referred to an a slasher, whether or not that was the writer or director’s intention…

  6. I like the evolutionary approach you take, although I can’t say the same for most of the films mentioned. Perhaps it is an ‘age thing,’ (I am certain it is) but college kids being chased by indestructible killers never did anything for me at all. Much the same with Hitchcock, who I have always thought was overrated. (Rear Window and Strangers On A Train excepted) I know that knocking Alfred is not popular, but I have done it here before, and accept my minority position.
    I was surprised to see the ‘Hellraiser’ films included, as I do not put them in the same category at all. I find them fascinating, a kind of ‘intelligent’ horror, and they bring the books’ characters to the screen admirably.
    I agree with your conclusion, that this type of film will endure, and adapt to new audiences.
    Thanks for another interesting article, Margeaux.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Film, like all art forms, is fluid. I felt that the evolution aspect was key in understanding the slasher and remembering that not all slashers are teenagers being slaughtered. Teen slashers dominate the market now but there are so many non-teen slasher films out there. Even though Hellraiser is a literary adaptation, I think it is a great example of the non-teen slasher. Very much the thinking man’s horror!

      Rear Window is one of my favourite Hitchcock films 🙂 I know many people who think that Hitchcock was overrated. I admire him for his innovation and they way he paved the way for future filmmakers.

      Thanks for the comment and encouraging words,
      M

      • i agree with pete that hellraiser is not a slasher. it is a pure horror film, following none of the conventions of the slasher films. there is not even a slasher character, or a series of arbitrary victims. it is more in the mode of “eyes without a face” crossed with a monster movie.

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