Saturday, July 6, 2013

CinemaBeach: Slasher 101

Here is my first Killer Waves post!

I'm very excited!

Read it!

Love me!

Hello everyone!
My name is Brennan Klein, and I have been appointed as the new curator for this blog and, let me tell you, I could not be more excited. Horror movies are my bread and butter. I see a new horror film about once a week and rewatch old ones even more frequently. It all started when I was a little high school student and decided to watch Scream for the first time. I loved it, but there was a wealth of references to 80′s slasher films I hadn’t seen. To catch up, I watchedHalloweenA Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th, as well as all of their sequels (which frequently numbered into the double digits). I was hooked. Then I dove deep into the forgotten realms of 80′s horror and never looked back.
Although slasher films are the apple of my eye, I love all horror so this blog won’t just be psycho killers brandishing edged weapons. I’ve got so much gut-munching, chest-bursting, demon-exorcising joy to share with you guys, and I couldn’t be happier.
My plans so far include a couple recurring features like The Slash Register, a feature dedicated to my beloved slasher films of yesteryear and Cinema du Mort, which will focus exclusively on foreign releases. Also in progress are Where Are They Now? features, Best/Worst Lists, Director/Actor Showcases, Genre Studies, and much much more. I’m also very willing to tackle any requests. There is no film so bad that I won’t watch it, and I would welcome any audience suggestions for reviews or feature pieces.
I’m in the middle of watching five movies this weekend, so I’ll have a lot of articles coming down the pike, including my first Slash Register, dusting off a couple of old cult movies from the late 80′s.
To get everybody up to speed, I’ve included a brief(ish) history of the slasher film as well as a glossary of terms that I will be using throughout my articles.
Slasher Movie 101
We begin our journey in the late 1800′s in Paris. (Seriously). 1897 saw the opening of a theater the likes of which France had never seen before and never would again. The Grand Guignol specialized in naturalistic horror shows with notoriously bloody climaxes, attempting to display showers of gore in as realistic a manner as possible. Naturally (due to the secret fascination with blood and human misfortune that all people harbor¹), the shows were a huge hit with Parisian audiences, but declined in popularity following the atrocities of the Second World War. A battle weary public had seen their fill of gore and the Grand Guignol closed its doors in 1962.
But, like the unstoppable killers that would come about two decades in the future, the genre wouldn’t take death for an answer. The spirit of gory horror made its way across Europe and landed in the cinemas of Italy just one year later in 1963. The Italian giallo movement, began (by most accounts) with Mario Bava. The giallo films (named after the Italian word for “yellow” – the color of the covers of Italian thriller novels – the closest American analogue is pulp fiction crime stories) were gruesome murder mysteries that generally followed a black gloved killer dispatching a slew of beauties in eerily beautiful ways, often eschewing narrative continuity for phantasmagorical atmosphere.
Bava’s film Sei donne per l’assassino (Blood and Black Lace) is an influential early example, depicting the murders of fashion models in Rome. Not to be outdone, other filmmakers followed suit releasing similar films with equally unwieldy and intriguing titles like Angelo Dorigo’s Assassino senza volto (The Killer Without a Face), Lucio Fulci’sNon si sevizia un paperino (Don’t Torture a Duckling), Bava’s own Reazione a catena (Twitch of the Death Nerve), and reached a peak with Dario Argento’s genre-bending supernatural masterpiece Suspiria.
Strangely, the massive Italian craze didn’t cross the pond to the Americas in any real way for quite some time. Perhaps one reason for this was that studios were already preoccupied with copying Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 megablockbusterPsycho. Although very chaste by today’s standards, Hitchcock’s masterpiece shocked audiences and sent competitors clambering for more.
After about five years or so, the genre settled down and went mostly dormant until a pair of two releases in 1974, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in America and Bob Clark’s² Black Christmas in Canada. Both films could now be considered proto-slashers. Although they don’t quite adhere to the now established formula (And how could they? It wouldn’t be invented for another half a decade), both films featured a young cast being murdered one by one by a psycho. Most importantly, the only survivor is a girl who in the third act fights valiantly for her life and just barely escapes.
The nascent genre again hibernated until John Carpenter’s low budget horror picture Halloween in 1978, a film which for years was the most profitable film in history. The first prominent American film to be heavily influenced by the gialli, the central figure of Michael Myers is a faceless killer, the embodiment of pure evil with nary a trace of humanity. In fact, in the film he is only credited as The Shape.
This film, among numerous other influences, unintentionally cemented in one of the central tenets of slasher mythology. If you have sex, you will die. However, despite being a box office smash, one of the few masterpieces of the genre, and featuring the impeccable Jamie Lee Curtis in her first role, this was a very personal film and as such did not specifically ignite the slasher craze.
That film would be 1980′s Friday the 13th, a grubby little shocker directed by ex-soft core porn producer Sean S. Cunningham. It didn’t have much in the way of plot, characterization, dialogue, or even lighting, but what it did have was an unforgettable series of gore effects cooked up by make-up effects maestro Tom Savini, who had previously worked on George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. It was nothing more than a cheap rip-off of Halloween (despite my deep love for the franchise, this is undoubtedly so), but audiences went bananas and within a year, slasher films were running headlong into their Golden Age.
From 1981 to 1984, slasher movies were produced at unprecedented rates, all trying to grab their slice of the pie from what turned out to be an enormous audience pool of genre goodwill. 1980 saw Jamie Lee Curtis helm two more Canadian features, Prom Night and Terror Train. 1981 had seen enough slasher films already that an early parody of the genre, Student Bodies, was released. Also that year came the first sequel to a major hit in Friday the 13th Part 2. The success of that film ignited more major franchises starting with Halloween II coming later that same year. Gore pictures accompanied every holiday from the already mentioned Black Christmas and Halloween to New Year’s EvilGraduation DayMy Bloody ValentineHappy Birthday to Me, and even April Fool’s Day.
Jason was already killing in earnest, and Michael was on his way to building up a franchise when 1984 saw an increase in denouncements of the genre’s immorality as well as the rise of the “Video Nasties”³ censorship movement in Britain. Paramount called a truce, releasing Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and declaring Jason officially kaput. The genre was pretty much bankrupt for ideas anyway at that point in the decade and had begun floundering to diminishing returns.
That would all turn around later that same year when horror maven Wes Craven introduced dream demon Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street, the most baroquely European slasher film the market had seen in years and a massive success (In fact, the releasing company New Line Entertainment became known as “The House That Freddy Built”). The still warm bodies of the slashers had suddenly been resurrected, only this time many films incorporated paranormal elements. Freddy had opened up a new frontier on which the slashers could coast for another four years or so. This Supernatural Era saw Jason rise from the dead (Paramount quickly reneged on that pesky “final” business), Michael befall a druid curse, and Freddy rapidly transform from a dark murderer to a clownish prankster in a series of increasingly inane sequels (bar A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, one of the best slasher followups of the decade).
BY 1988 however, the MPAA had all but neutered the genre and 1989 saw the release of some of the most putrid pictures of all time, including Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael MyersA Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, and the infamous Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.
Michael wasn’t dead yet, and marched right on into Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (It’s always a bad sign when they stop numbering these things) but New Line knew a lost cause when they saw one and immediately scrapped their hero with Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. Jason belly flopped so hard that Paramount sold the franchise off and he wouldn’t be heard from until years later with another quickly shot off franchise ender, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. The name Friday the 13th had such little cachet by that point that the producers had to bank on Jason’s popularity alone to sell it. Thus the slasher genre entered the bleakest period yet with all three major franchises forgoing numbers and hope.
The first franchise revival (the world “final” began to lose all meaning for genre buffs) came in the form of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, a magnificent meta sequel in which Freddy comes into the real world to attack the filmmakers who created him, which barely made a blip on the radar. Undeterred, Wes Craven tried again and found success in 1996′s Scream, written by Kevin Williamson, a hit meta slasher satire that brought the genre back in full force, fraught with self aware in-jokes and meta commentary, forgoing gore for winking chuckles and starlets in bras.
In 1997, the Postmodern Age saw Kevin Williamson’s I Know What You Did Last Summer brought to life. 1998 brought back Michael Myers and Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later, the fan consensus best sequel of that franchise (with Kevin Williamson in the producer’s seat). It was truly the age of Kevin Williamson as that same year’s Scream 2 was an even bigger success than its precursor and the genre merrily rolled along once more until 2000.
Then the 2000′s. The 2000′s were a rough time for everyone’s favorite psycho killers. Jason X bounced in and out of theaters in 2001 as a largely unsuccessful appetizer for Freddy vs. Jason in 2003. Admittedly, this film made boatloads of money and was the highest grossing film in both franchises, but a single success in an entire decade is nothing to bring out the ticker tape for. The New Millenium horror environment was more focused on Japanese remakes, found footage, and the second coming of zombies to pay attention to the grubby little cash-in films about people stabbing each other with sharp things. The closest the decade got to the horror of the mid-80′s was the high concept, low class Final Destination franchise.
After a decade or so on the backburner, people started to feel nostalgic for the simplicity of the olden days and thus the Great Remake Bonanza began, seeing franchises revived left and right with Rob Zombie’s Halloween, Wes Craven’s Scream 4, as well as reimaginings of Friday the 13thNightmare on Elm StreetThe Texas Chainsaw MassacreBlack ChristmasProm Night and even My Bloody Valentine. Although some were box office successes, critics and audiences alike remained unimpressed.
The modern slasher has thankfully moved on from remake culture, opting to take Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s ball of self-referential postmodern meta pastiche pictures and run with it. These pictures are some of the most fun and bloody films yet and films like Adam Green’s Hatchet franchise (starring Kane Hodder, who played Jason 4 times over two decades), The Cabin in the WoodsBehind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, and You’re Next (slated for release this August) are once again being made by directors not for the cash, but for the love of the genre and that is a wonderful place for the genre to be.
Note: This is but a surface level look at a genre teeming with surprises around every corner. I mostly focused on the Holy Trinity (Freddy, Jason, and Michael), because they were decent indicators of the trends taking place at the time. There are many more great (and many many more terrible) movies than I have mentioned here, and the goal of theSlash Register is to take a look at those.
¹ This is nothing to worry about. It is an ineradicable aspect of human nature that we are fascinated by scenes of carnage. This is why people slow down to catch glimpses of an accident on the side of the freeway. It is neither morally wrong nor right, merely a universal truth. I’ll probably release an article later elaborating on the philosophies on the moralities of horror.
² Yes, that Bob Clark. Famed director of A Christmas Story. This provides me an endless source of amusement.
³ More on that later
Slasher Glossary
Final Girl: The one girl who inevitably survives the film. There is always a Final Girl. If a man survives, it is invariably because a girl is also still alive.
Expendable Meat: Characters that are given nothing more than a name and a basic character trait (ie. prankster, jock, mechanic) and are only there to be killed.
Meet the Meat: A scene in the first act where the expendable characters are lined up and introduced through heavy-handed dialogue.
Final Girl Sequence: A scene in the third act (or sometimes the entire third act) in which the Final Girl and the killer duke it out in a big showdown.
Tableau of Horrors: A scene in which the Final Girl discovers the artfully arranged bodies of her friends as she is running from the killer. They drop down from doorways and pop out of closets, seemingly of their own bidding.
Jump Scare: A cheap scare tactic where something unexpected is shown to make the audience shriek. It’s scary in the moment, but doesn’t make for lasting impressions except for in very special cases.
Spring-Loaded Cat: An especially egregious jump scare in which a cat jumps at the protagonist from offscreen.
Body Count Padding: Characters introduced in the middle of the film for the sole purpose of seeing them die.
Thanks to everybody who stuck with me through this inordinately long article, I promise everything else will make a lot more sense from here on out. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
Word Count: 2573

No comments:

Post a Comment