Slashers: Before Then, Then, and Now

This week’s theme is slashers, so you’ll read a tributes to our favorite villains and learn what makes a good slasher movie. As the first writer of the week, I decided to take the long view. What are the slasher’s origins? What typified the slasher’s heyday? How have filmmakers varied on the slasher theme since its inception? Let’s take a look at slashers from before then to then to now.

Before Then: The Slasher’s Origins

Slasher plots originated in the mystery genre as films where people were killed one by one until the killer was found.

  • The Terror (1928): Guests at an inn are killed off until the killer’s identity is revealed.
  • And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie (1939): Guests are killed off one by one on an island.
  • The Scarlet Claw (1944): Sherlock Holmes investigates a string of murders in a Canadian village.

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The victims of these early films were often women.

  • Thirteen Women (1932): A group of sorority sisters get fortunes of doom from a swami, and then they are killed off one by one.
  • The Leopard Man (1943): Women are killed off by what people believe is an escaped leopard, but it’s really a leopard-inspired serial killer!
  • The Spiral Staircase (1946): A serial killer murders women with disabilities in a small New England town.

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The 1960’s attempted to psychoanalyze serial killers to find a reason why they killed. This may have been a response to the earlier violence against women. Films like Psycho and Peeping Tom (where a murderer photographs the women he kills as they die) had scenes from the killer’s point-of-view and emphasized voyeurism. Norman Bates’ violence toward women is explained in light of his relationship with his mother. While films like Psycho attempted to empathize with murderers, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s (1974) Leatherface was unapologetic, out for blood and pain. This movie helped create the exploitation and splatter film sub-genres. Their usual commentary is that evil exists without explanation.

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Then: The Slasher’s Pinnacle

Everyone knows these slashers. Most feature a female protagonist trying to survive against a killer wielding a blade that fells lesser characters. While some have viewed these films as continuing misogyny, many of the female protagonists defeat the killers and their phallic weaponry, suggesting an ultimately feminist message.

Pinnacle

  • Halloween (1978): Laurie actually subverts the feminist ideal of the time by not being promiscuous, but then is the ultimate feminist by surviving the killer.
  • Friday the 13th (1980): Alice plays strip monopoly AND survives the killer, who is a woman. This challenges the idea that a woman must be chaste to be smart, as well as the idea that only men can murder people.
  • Prom Night (1980): Jamie Lee Curtis has more agency playing Kim than she did playing Laurie. As Kim, she defends her boyfriend, attacks the killer, and ultimately defends the killer against the murderers on whom the killer was enacting his revenge.
  • The Fog (1980): Jamie Lee Curtis plays Elizabeth, who hitchhikes by herself to a haunted town. In this film, women and men work together to survive, offering a picture of gender reconciliation.
  • The Shining (1980): Wendy evolves from being Jack’s supportive wife (in spite of his moody, aggressive behavior) to standing up for Danny and herself. She accuses Jack of abuse and eventually attacks him. She faces the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel to save her son.
  • My Bloody Valentine (1981): Sarah must choose between her old love, who left, and her new love, who stayed, in Valentine Bluffs. Sarah keeps her act together when Patty loses it in the mine. We see another example of women and men working together in this film. As Kim did in Prom Night, Sarah serves as a moral compass for the film, acknowledging that everyone, even killers, deserve empathy.
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): Besides the last scene, Nancy uses a variety of tactics to attack Freddy. She goes on the offensive, which makes her super cool. While her personality is more in the vein of Laurie’s from Halloween, this film got the final word in the slasher’s golden era for its successful merger of supernatural and realistic horror.

Now: Variations on the Slasher

Many slasher films (and slasher remakes) have been produced since the late 90’s, but I’m only mentioning the ones (that I know of) that have moved the genre forward.

  • Candyman (1992): In addition to featuring the first iconic slasher villain of color, Candyman has been praised for giving a psychological edge to slashers, evolving from Psycho and A Nightmare on Elm Street to a middle ground that is realistic yet psychologically terrifying.
  • Scream (1996): This film refreshed the genre through its postmodern commentary on the genre and its shocking (well, it was the first time I saw it) twist ending.
  • All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) and You’re Next (2011) both do fabulous work by challenging the female protagonist tropes even further. I can’t say more than that because I want you to watch them!

Variations

Which slasher films did I miss? Which ones are your favorites?

Jennifer

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