Cutting to the heart of an American classic, the slasher film

Posted: May 25, 2013 in Film, Slasher
Tags: , , , ,
Photo by Kim Gottleib. Jamie Lee Curtis is directed by John Carpenter on the set of Halloween (1978) while Tommy Lee Wallace listens behind the door.

Photo by Kim Gottleib. Jamie Lee Curtis is directed by John Carpenter on the set of Halloween (1978) while Tommy Lee Wallace listens behind the door.

Slasher films would be a contender for the bottom slot if I were to rank the horror genres in order of my preference. However, they make sense as a starting point to this blog for a couple of reasons: I live in Bowling Green, Kentucky and I saw the best horror film I’ve seen in some time last night and it thoroughly embraced the classic slasher formula.

Admittedly, in my early years I adored what few entries into the genre I was exposed to on television, particularly Psycho (1960 dir. Alfred Hitchcock), Peeping Tom (1960, dir. Michael Powell) and Dementia 13 (1963, dir. Francis Ford Coppola). Dementia 13 doesn’t seem to be remembered by younger generations. Perhaps now that ghost stories are coming into vogue again people will start to appreciate the atmospheric spookiness that it achieved. Despite centering on an axe wielding lunatic it shared as many attributes with a ghost story as it did a slasher.

I had the pleasure of seeing Halloween (1978 dir. John Carpenter) in theaters when it was first released and babysitting would never be the same. I did have some trouble accepting the end and declared I didn’t like it because of the implausibility of it. Most movies then, at least the ones I could get away with seeing, wrapped their ending in nice neat packages. In fact, until nearly the 70’s the Hays Code actually required it to insure that crime didn’t pay. These days though, particularly with foreign made films, if you don’t get over that you are missing much of the best stuff out there. So, I did long ago.

Halloween became all the more interesting to me when I moved to Bowling Green to attend WKU. It’s the town referenced in the music credits (Bowling Green Philharmonic Orchestra, a.k.a. John Carpenter with a keyboard) for what some have claimed to be the most recognizable piece of music in the world.

John Carpenter’s father was head of the music department at WKU for years. My first apartment was on Chestnut Street, where police searched for Michael Meyers after he unleashed his rampage, and Smiths Grove, the location of the fictional sanitarium from which he escaped is just down the road. Not far in the other direction is Russellville, where the real Laurie Strode, Carpenter’s childhood crush, grew up. It took some time, but our city now embraces its connections to the master of horror it influenced and the films in which he acknowledges it.

Tourism set up a self guided tour that includes both locations in his life and those mentioned in the films and from time to time Carpenter has appeared at events for various local organizations.

His early partner in crime, Tommy Wallace is from the area. The two formed their first band, Tomorrow’s Children, here and the more popular later group, The Kaleidoscope, for which they projected Chaplin and Keaton films onto the bass drum. They still get together as Coup de Ville for shows among friends. To the public the group is mostly known for the bizarre video playing the theme song from Big Trouble In Little China.

Wallace’s role in several of Carpenters early movies was very significant, not least of which was being the guy that found the mask for Halloween (in his capacity as Production Designer). As most slasher fans know it was a cheap, plastic Captain Kirk mask bought in a quick run to the store that was painted over in white.  Simple, as was most of the beauty of Halloween, that’s why it remains one of the most profitable indie films of all time.

Wallace is also known as the director of Stephen King’s It with the iconic evil clown. He’s done several others, but I particularly enjoyed one of the more obscure ones, 12 Days of Terror, for which he wrote the teleplay. It claims to tell the true events that Jaws is based on. It’s a made for television, period piece (1916) that really keeps you on the edge of your seat and rooting for the characters throughout.

According to Wallace, their original plan had been to create a series of movies, entirely unrelated save taking place on Halloween. But they chose to bring back all their main characters for Halloween II (1981), condemning their third effort Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) to be rejected by fans when they realized Michael would not be making an appearance that All Hallows Eve. More a modernization of the mad scientist genre, Season of the Witch is not a slasher, rather the story, written and directed by Wallace, centers on a man’s race to stop a mask manufacturer who plans to blow up all his masks via a signal in his final television commercial, when the thousands of children he’s hypnotized during his media campaign, gather in front of their TVs, wearing their masks to watch a big reveal Halloween night. The 3rd installment of Halloween would forever waffle between “all time worst sequel” lists and “most under appreciated” lists.

Both Carpenter and Wallace graciously have done in depth interviews for the Amplifier. You can find a detailed history of Carpenter’s work by Mark Griffin here, and an extensive interview of Wallace by me, reprinted in its entirety here.

Halloween is undeniably one of the most influential movies ever made and was accordingly preserved in the National Film Registry in 2006. It launched such a steady slew of derivative work that it created in the minds of some non-fans the prejudice that horror and slasher are synonymous. I ran into one of those once and it turned out Alfred Hitchcock was his favorite director. Imagine that, praising the man who brought us leaps closer to modern horror with Psycho, The Birds and Frenzy, and the guy doesn’t think he likes horror!

Not all the post-Halloween slashers lacked originality. Noteably, Wes Craven’s contribution of Freddie Kruger, who stalked the teens of Elm Street in their sleep. It took the vunerability from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 dir. Don Siegel) where the protagonists struggled to stay awake (to avoid being replaced by will-less clones) to a whole new level.

Unfortunately, the volume of slasher films that made little more effort than following the outline put forth in Halloween, resulted in some of the worst horror films ever made. And some of those even had sequels! The trend continues today.

The central role sex plays in most slashers has also put it under attack. In addition to frequent nudity, slashers have been accused of having subtext condemning the more indulgent characters and leaving only the timid virgin to survive. Laurie Strode is the quintessential Final Girl. Defenders, point out that as an archetype, the Final Girl is an empowered female and therefore slashers elevated the role of the gender substantially, not just for horror, but film in general. Some feminist schools of thought are resistant to accepting that premise though, because inevitably Laurie cries on Dr. Loomis’ shoulder at the end and later entries follow with similar reunions with the Final Girl finding comfort from her boyfriend or father in the final scene.

Personally, I don’t fault Laurie for leaning on someone’s shoulder after protecting two kids all night from Michael Meyers in hand to hand combat. Though feminism has contributed immensely to pop culture, it is not without it’s pitfalls, frequently demonizing depictions of HUMAN frailty by heroines. I heard an interview once where Carpenter addressed his accusers. He basically claimed that it was no way his intention that the victims be considered immoral. He in fact, considered them to be normal kids, who in the process of experiencing life, ran into the killer.

At heart, the slasher’s theme is the story of David and Goliath, the Biblical tale of a young man who defeats a rampaging giant with just a sling shot. It’s a tried and true narrative that transcends generation and culture, so when it’s put to film well it’s destined to get us cheering as good triumphs over evil in the end. John Carpenter would make valuable contributions to several other genres, but for the slasher, he was THE game changer.

So, I’ll begin this journey through horror, spurred by pondering on how I could possibly arrive at a “greatest of all time” list, with a nod to Bowling Green’s hometown heroes and take a look at a few of what I consider to be the best slasher films I’ve seen. All the films I’ve mentioned here rate at least 3/5 stars in my book, most higher. I’d love to hear your feelings about them or recommendations for other slashers in the comments.

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