For a genre so incredibly restrictive and pre-defined, the slasher is one of the most enigmatic and fascinating phenomena of the last 50 years in cinema. Through feministic critiques and reclaimings, mainstream mockeries, Reagan-era fear campaigns and Twitter reclamations, the slasher has weathered the storm of controversy and emerged as a recognizable premise that can even be endorsed when introduced in a popular culture saturated with intellectual property and so-called “elevated horror” (as was the case with this year’s X).
In some ways, it’s that restrictive structure that allures me about the genre: Jaws was a product of limitations in creating a functioning or effective shark, or Orson Welles’ MacBeth was successful because of his insistence on shooting in a poverty row studio. Rules and structure can allow for an even clearer illustration of politics and themes, with the slight diversions and flourishes forming worlds of difference that are plainly obvious. The slasher is both cast aside and incredibly studied, taking a place in horror and film history that isn’t really comparable to anything else.
So what is a slasher? Well, it usually entails some five to ten teens put in an isolated and innocent location. This can be a sorority house, like Black Christmas or the aptly named Sorority House Massacre, or a summer camp, as in The Burning or the first few Friday the 13th films. Then there’s a killer (almost always a man) who has oftentimes just been released or escaped from a mental institution or hospital. The killer is sometimes tied to the teens through location or history and can wield a fun weapon, or just a standard knife (it hardly matters). Slowly, over the course of 70 to 100 minutes, tension builds, and one by one teen bodies begin to turn up until they’re all made aware that they’re trapped in a location with a madman, leaving them to feebly fight for themselves. In the end, rarely more than one person remains, with the so-called “final girl” often being the most likable and (more importantly) most virginal of the bunch. It’s a simple, and extremely specific formula that lends itself towards quick, cheap and easy shoots that can flood theaters even when confronted with prudish Reaganite parent protests and big Hollywood mockeries.
The premise of sex and death that emerges from the slasher can be most obviously derived from Psycho and its iconic shower sequence. The film is fascinating in that it opens with the introduction of the Janet Leigh character in the throes of passion with her boyfriend Sam Loomis — the first of two cardinal sins she commits in the opening frames. The second emerges when she proceeds to steal forty grand from her employer in order to run away to join Loomis out in California. It seems to be an introduction to a typical Hitchockian crime drama, and while we know the twist (that Leigh will soon fall victim to a motel manager’s aquatic escapades), audiences at the time would hardly have been expecting such a potent and deliberate twisting of a director’s traditional oeuvre. It’s somewhat ironic that the twist of the century, famous for recontextualizing an entire sub-genre, then became the inspiration for one of the most predictable film genres.
Yet none of this is so simple. The slasher is more than just its structure, and the opportunities it has provided have given its directors (oftentimes non-mainstream directors) the chance to explore their own interests with a budget — albeit in a restricted way. Roger Corman produced slashers for incredibly cheap, and handed the baton to filmmakers, including female directors who often didn’t see many opportunities elsewhere. The Slumber Party Massacre is both a slasher and something of a commentary on the slasher, with Amy Holden Jones hijacking the male-gaze quality of the genre to produce a classic with a feminist reclamation. Carol Frank’s Sorority House Massacre is interesting in a different sense, infusing the genre with a freshness through dreamlike psychic sequences that clash genres fascinatingly, albeit imperfectly. Even outside of the direct trappings of the slasher, Chopping Mall features some of those very elements (teens, deaths and a closed-off location) while transplanting the emotionless human murderer for literally emotionless robots.
More recently, the slasher has fallen out of favor, or become entirely absorbed by franchisement (making an already restrictive genre tighter and tighter) or by mockeries and commentaries on the genre itself. Scream was among the first literal slashers to address its own rules and ultimately formed a franchise around the meta-commentary premise that makes its original so fun. Most recently, Scream (2022) threw the commentary back by introducing a twisted shower sequence in honor of the genre’s patron scene, a parody that’s only exhilarating in its thorough uncreativity.
Films like Ready or Not or Us also adopt elements that feel tinged with a slasher feel, though they end up more in line with slasher-adjacent fare like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Funhouse (replacing killers with freaky families). X is certainly the most recent and truest slasher, and its success was so hailed that it was immediately optioned into a franchise with a second film already released and a third entering production soon. There’s clearly a hunger for the intelligent unintelligence of the slasher, even if it won’t become popular in its over prudish blowback as did the originals. Sex and death have a perpetual allure, and no matter the exact rules, one can only hope that the next slasher cycle (whenever it may emerge) will be as rife for commentary as any of the last.
This is the second article in a series “Canons of Horror” about different Horror genres.
Max Fattal is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected].