Archive for the ‘Slasher’ Category

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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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.