Thursday, March 15, 2012

Knowing the Psycho Genres: SLASHER FILMS - Part 1

Holiday Slashers
Donned “holiday slashers” by fans, this sub-genre was created as a marketing ploy to make it easier to promote the films. While Bob Clark’s BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) stands as the forerunner to the holiday slasher movement, it was the monster success of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978) that really kick-started the sub-genre. Halloween was the 7th highest grossing movie of 1978, and every studio wanted to recreate that film’s huge profit. By setting a film on a specific holiday, it made it easier to decide a release date for the film to coincide with that holiday, thus expecting huge box office opening weekend (as horror films tend to have steep box office declines following the opening weekend). The marketing made it easy for films like MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981) and its 2009 remake to attract an audience, with taglines proclaiming, “This Valentine’s Day, There’s More Than One Way To Lose Your Heart.” Even though Halloween and its franchise continued to be big, the sub-genre lost steam by the mid-80s, as movies like SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984) and APRIL FOOL'S DAY (1986) were considered box office failures. The genre would make sporadic resurges throughout the 1990’s and 2000s, but none with quite as much impact as those in the Golden Age of Slasher Films.

Home Invasion Slashers
The “home invasion” fear has been a real threat in American culture, stemming from real crimes committed on American soil while others stem back to World War II or the Cold War where there was a threat of foreign invasion. The film MAN IN THE ATTIC (1955) is probably the earliest cinematic representation of a nuclear family that falls under danger from a stranger living in their attic, although the sub-genre really got its footing in the 1970s when movies like FRIGHT (1971) and WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979) portrayed young women – usually babysitters – being harassed in increasingly threatening ways by an unknown assailant inside the house. Many themes of a home invasion can be found in other types of slashers, such as holiday slashers like Black Christmas or Halloween. The sub-genre became pretty non-existent well into the 1980s and throughout the 1990s, but after September 11th, 2001, the fear of “home invasion” was once again a daily reminder for American citizens, and movies like FUNNY GAMES (2007) and THE STRANGERS (2008) became popular films in American cinema.
SOMEONE'S WATCHING ME! (1978), GROTESQUE (1988), WHEN A STRANGER CALLS BACK (1993), WHEN A KILLER CALLS (2006), and WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (2006) are all good examples of home invasion slashers.

Escaped Maniac Slashers
After the mega-success of John Carpenter’s Halloween – which told the simple story of Michael Myers, an escaped mental patient terrorizing a small mid-western town – independent filmmakers suddenly saw an easy opportunity to make a quick buck off a slasher film. Many, many movies featured the theme of an escaped lunatic stalking the streets, but most movies tried to infuse some kind of gimmick into the plot to attract an audience – such as a motive of revenge or a holiday as the backdrop to the story. Still, several slasher films chose not to use a gimmick, but rather take the real fear of maniacs roaming the streets as the entire plot. Probably the most famous of these movies is Amy Holden Jones’ satirical feminist film THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1982) and its sequels, which feature an escaped mental patient killing high school students in increasingly creative and violent ways. Like other films in the sub-genre, The Slumber Party Massacre ignored the motive of the killer, making a straightforward story with subtext: “It could happen to your town.” There were many escaped maniac slashers throughout the 1980s, but the sub-genre became pretty much obsolete by the 1990s.
MADHOUSE (1981), NIGHTMARE (1981), ALONE IN THE DARK (1982), BLOOD SONG (1982), THE LAST NIGHT (1983), A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER (1983), SILENT MADNESS (1984), THE MUTILATOR (1985), CLOWNHOUSE (1989) and HALLOWEEN (2007) are all good examples of escaped maniac slashers.

Stalker Slashers
The stalker slasher sub-genre is a type of film involving a character that becomes obsessed with another character in the story, resulting in bloodshed and murder when the obsession spirals out of control. The origins of the genre can be traced back to stalker-themed psychological thrillers of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the most notable being WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) and Clint Eastwood’s PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971), however the themes of stalkers entered the slasher genre after the monstrous success of Halloween (which involved Michael Myers obsessively stalking babysitters), as well as the success of the Italian giallo films in the 70’s that commonly were structured around themes of obsession. The 1980 murder of John Lennon and the case involving John Hinckley, Jr. stalking actress Jodi Foster also increased the era’s fascination with stalkers, as they presented a real threat. The most notable stalker slasher is THE FAN (1981), starring Michael Biehn and Lauren Bacall. While these movies have obtained a cult following today, they quickly faded out in favor of psychological stalker thrillers such as FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) and BASIC INSTINCT (1992). Films like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instict were not slasher films, and the psychological stalker film is still popular today with movies like SWIM FAN (2002) and OBSESSED (2009).
HE KNOWS YOU'RE ALONE (1980), THE LAST HORROR FILM (1982), and NIGHT WARNING (1983) are all good examples of the stalker-themed slashers.

Evil Children Slashers
The main draw to the “evil child” slasher sub-genre is pedophobia – the fear of children. Many evil and creepy children have graced the screen over the years, from THE RING (2002) and THE GRUDGE (2004) to THE CHANGELING (1980) and THE OMEN (1976). But not all sinister kids need to be supernatural in cinema; some can be quite human. The sub-genre’s most famous and earliest release is THE BAD SEED (1956), the story of a mother who suspects that her young daughter may be a cold-hearted killer. The film earned four Oscar-nominations and was extremely popular upon its release, but the genre would not get a real kick-start until 20 years later with the release of ALICE, SWEET ALICE (1976). The evil children slasher films quickly died out in the early 1980s, after media attention on cases of child kidnappings and abuse – including the murder of Adam Walsh in 1981 – made the genre seem unsatisfactory to the mass public.
PEOPLETOYS (1974), CATHY'S CURSE (1976), BLOODY BIRTHDAY (1981), and the CHILDREN OF THE CORN franchise (1984-2011) are all examples of evil child slashers.

Spectacle Slashers
During the Golden Age of Slasher Films (1978-1984), most slasher films were low-budget, independent productions with little in terms of special. It was the release of Wes Craven’s acclaimed A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) that changed the slasher genre, thus ending the Golden Age of Slasher films by starting a trend of making horror movies bigger with more special effects-driven plots, creating an overall spectacle for the viewer. Elm Street’s plot told the story of a spectral serial killer hunting teens in their dreams, thus allowing the filmmakers to create “dream worlds” and increasing the creativity. While A Nightmare on Elm Street was not the first slasher film to use cinematic special effects, it was the most popular, and suddenly moviegoers were drawn to the thrill of seeing these bigger budgeted movies rather than smaller, independent releases. Most low-budget slasher movies found release on the direct-to-video market, making way for studios to release grander, special effects laden slasher movies in theaters. The sub-genre’s popularity grew through the late 1980s and 1990s, with the A Nightmare on Elm Street sequels as well as the CHILD'S PLAY films and the CANDYMAN series. Even slasher series that started as low-budget films like FRIDAY THE 13TH became spectacle slashers to widen their audience and stay relevent. While not quite as overwhelmingly popular today as they were in the 80’s and 90’s, these films still draw an audience. 
EVILSPEAK (1981), CHOPPING MALL (1986), FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI: JASON LIVES (1986), FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD (1988), JASON GOES TO HELL (1993), the LEPRECHAUN series (1993-2003), JASON X (2002), FREDDY VS. JASON (2003), and MY SOUL TO TAKE (2010) are all examples of spectacle slashers.

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