A cut above: comedy propels the best in modern slashers

Posted: July 1, 2013 in Film, List, Slasher

The golden age of slashers in the late 70’s and early 80’s quickly gave way to a parade of sequels and copycats which failed to enhance the genre. The trend unfortunately continues to date with few exceptions.  The issue seems to be the inability of filmmakers influenced by Directors like John Carpenter and Wes Craven to recognize, or at least accomplish, any of the elements that made films like Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street work, beyond the spectacular kills.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always give props to great gore effects and death sequences.  And granted, they are particularly important for slashers and do seem to be enough to make a quick profit.  admittedly, Paris Hilton getting brained in House of Wax (2005)and the 3D effect of the decapitated girl’s head sliding down the shovel in the remake of My Bloody Valentine (2003) were enough for me to sit through those films.

But, to remember a film fondly and recommend it, it takes a bit more.  For the 21st century slasher, that most often seems to be more attention to character development and a healthy speckling of laughs. I’ve always regarded the memorial kill scenes in slasher films and splatter films more generally to be a form a visual slapstick.  As with slashers, slapsticks are pretty low on my list of favorite comedy sub genres.  But, who can resist Charlie Chaplin or even Dick van Dyke?

So, here’s a shortlist of slasher films made after 2000 that I enjoyed:

Honorable Mention: Satan’s Little Helper (2004).

Satan’s Little Helper

The story of a young boy who unwittingly aids a serial killer on Halloween night was an interesting setup that delivered a few chuckles, but overall didn’t maintain momentum and the cast just never seemed to mesh, making it feel forced throughout.  In the end it was a film that I wanted to like more than I actually did.  Jeff Lieberman was a bit more on the mark, with his entry into the animals run amok sub genre with Squirm.  He both wrote and directed both films.

3.  Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)

Tucker and Dale vs Evil Tucker and Dale vs Evil flips the slasher in the woods context.  Two amicable country boys take a fishing trip to a cabin in the woods and a mistaken by young college students as serial killers. 

In this comedy of errors the college students repeatedly fall prey to their own paranoia as they attack the laid back vacationers, who in turn think their new vacation property is overrun by members of a suicide cult.

Director and co-writer Eli Craig (son of Sally Field) delivers a witty script with well executed site gags for his first full scale movie.  He manages to make believable the most unlikely series of scenarios including self imposed death by wood chipper.

In addition, Tyler Labine (Dale), Alan Tudyk (Tucker) and Katrina Bowden as Allision, the girl from the group who befriends them after they save her achieve good chemistry.  Particularly Dale and Tucker, who play off each other like they really were childhood friends, displaying both moments of rivalry and those of cherishing each other.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil is a thoroughly enjoyable, fun movie throughout and places 3rd on this list only for its lack of scares.

2. Severance (2006)

Severance is a refreshing entry that fully embraces the slasher formula, offering both laughs and scares.  Throughout it feels like it was created by someone who grew up with a genuine love of the classic slashers, giving them an update by creating a grown up version.

The would be victims in director and co-writer Christopher Smith (Creeps) film are the sales staff for an arms company, gathering in a remote cabin for a team building retreat.  While the age and context of the characters nearly eliminates the gratuitous nudity and sex scenes often associated with slashers, in their place he substitutes additional character development and humor.

All of the characters are likeable and flawed, inviting comparisons to The Office.  A common source of the gags is in interrupting what seems to be a typical death scenario with a more reasoned reaction by the more experienced characters.  No women stumbling for no apparent reason and laying on the ground until the killer catches up here.  It manages to elicit surprise followed by laughter a couple of times early on which contribute to suspense in later scenes.

Smith also leaves no loose ends, bringing the story back around on a couple of occasions to tie up something long since forgotten about.  Severance is play by play by the book in sticking to the slasher formula yet delivers a refreshing film that reminds us what made the genre so popular.

1.  Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

One of the best films of any horror genre in the 2000’s, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon delivers equally well on both the comedy and the horror front.

Leslie Vernon plans on being the next famous serial killer and he invites a young film crew to document his rise to infamy.  The filmmaker’s struggle with their consciences as Vernon, played by Nathan Baesel explains the process of developing a back story and choosing victims to set the stage for a rampage that will put him on par with Michael, Jason and Freddy who he asserts are all actual people.

Baesel does a remarkable job at creating the quirky antihero and the film is speckled with memorable characters played by prominent figures in horror including Robert England (Nightmare on Elm Street), Scott Wilson (In Cold Blood, The Walking Dead) and Zelda Rubinstein (Poltergeist).  All the aforementioned, save Rubinstein who has since passed away, are said to be returning along with the writer/director for a sequel this year dubbed B4TM (Before The Mask).

Wilson is particularly engaging as Vernon’s mentor, an old school killer that teaches him tricks like spending increasing amounts of time buried in a coffin so he will be able to come back after the victims think they’ve killed him and let their guard down.

One by one Vernon lays out the elements of slasher icon and describes how they are created with ingenuity and preparation.  The film is full of witty dialogue and clever humor that anyone who appreciates the classics will thoroughly enjoy, though it would be lost on the uninitiated.

I highly recommend Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon as a solid entry on lists for best horror, comedy, mockumentary or first person footage films of any sub genre.  But in order to appreciate it fully the original Halloween, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street are all prerequisites.

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