Jason Voorhees, Michael Meyers, Leatherface, Freddy Kreuger — four iconic serial killers of the horror genre. However, apart from their legendary status, there is something else that all five of these characters share: they were all created in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s hard to believe that we haven’t seen a new major player in the slasher genre pop up in several decades. In fact, even the credibility of these five major players has decreased dramatically over the years if their lackluster straight-to-DVD sequels are any indication. So, what caused the decline in slasher movies? Is it possible for them to make a comeback?
The Rise Of The Slasher Film
At the mention of slasher films, most people instantly think of John Carpenter’s Halloween as the progenitor of the genre, but that isn’t necessarily true. While Halloween was certainly iconic and launched the “golden age” of slasher films that gave us Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it wasn’t the first of its kind.
The twisted tale of Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho actually predated Halloween and established one of the most popular horror tropes of all time: the “final girl” trope. Psycho’s Lila Crane wasn’t the only “final girl” prior to Halloween either. After Lila came Jess in the 1974 slasher, Black Christmas, and then Sally soon after in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The “final girl” quickly became a staple of the slasher film. Each of these women was the last one left living in their respective films and generally they were all virgins. Their purity saved them, as it’s common knowledge that another cliché of slashers was for the villain to murder the couple that had sex onscreen.
In addition to several tropes or “rules,” slasher films were known for copious amounts of blood spatter, grisly death scenes, gratuitous female nudity and unsettling musical scores. They quickly established a predictable, but fun, pattern. In fact, the pattern became so firmly etched that later films such as Scream (1996), made their entire premise about ridiculing and satirizing their predecessors’ predictability. Scream helped reinvent the slasher film by shaking up the typical model they followed and served as a stepping-stone to more modern takes on the slasher film. This lead to the surge of R-rated teen screams in the early 2000s, such as Final Destination (2000), House of Wax (2005), Jennifer’s Body (2009) and Sorority Row (2009).
Unfortunately, the glory days of high-profile horror projects such as these didn’t last. Many sequels of the classic horrors began bypassing theaters to instant DVD releases, and this was in addition to poor box office returns by the few that did manage to make it to theaters. Just like all film trends, it seemed like the slasher film was on its way out of style due to the repetitive storylines that lead to their steady decline in popularity.
The Swift Fall
Slasher films, while entertaining, popularized many tropes that don’t mesh well with the progressive audiences of today’s cinema. Filmgoers are seeking out more diverse and inventive horror films like last year’s hit, Get Out, over the rehashed and rebooted ’80s flicks that haven’t evolved to please today’s horror fans. Not to mention, retelling Jason and Freddy’s story without updates or changing the formula just makes them come off as stale and overdone.
In a 2014 interview with Deadline, John Carpenter shared some ideas as to why the latest Halloween sequels were box office bombs:
“But Michael Myers was an absence of character. And yet all the sequels are trying to explain that. That’s silliness — it just misses the whole point of the first movie, to me. He’s part person, part supernatural force. The sequels rooted around in motivation. I thought that was a mistake.”
When slasher films first rose to popularity, it was because they were something audiences hadn’t seen before and were shocking. The gore and excessive sex was titillating to audiences who weren’t used to seeing it on screen. In 2017, audiences are more desensitized and therefore harder to horrify and disturb (though it hasn’t stopped people from trying — looking at you Human Centipede) which is why many modern day filmmakers have branched out into more unconventional and experimental filmmaking with movies like It Follows, The Babadook, The Witch and It Comes at Night. But just because these quieter, more chilling indies are dominating the current horror scene doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a good old-fashioned slasher flick. It just means they can’t keep adapting and remaking the same movies and expect them to have the same impact — they have to adapt to the current cinematic climate.
Film could also take some pointers from horror television series. Many of the current popular fictional serial killers have come from the small screen.
American Horror Story has given audiences the Rubber Man and Bloody Face. Chiller’s (and now Netflix’s) Slasher series did a great job of modernizing the “small town terrorized by a killer” trope with the introduction of the Executioner. MTV’s Scream has serialized the tales of Ghostface, and Bates Motel was a critically praised prequel series that sought to explore the twisted dynamic of the Bates family. This proves that there is still an audience for these stories, but they have to be packaged in new and exciting ways.
The Future Ahead
Last year gave us Happy Death Day, a slasher film that generated great critical and audience buzz, not to mention a sizzling box office return and a sequel has been ordered. Happy Death Day is about a sorority girl who is murdered on her birthday over and over again – as her day restarts every time she dies a lá Groundhog Day, until she can figure out who the murderer is.
The featured killer sports a rather demented looking baby mask and a black hoodie that could rival Pretty Little Liars’ “A.” The film’s twisty premises utilizes conventional horror tropes but takes them to the extreme to give the audience a gleeful campy romp. It is the exact kind of refreshing take on the genre that we need to revamp the modern day slasher flick. Given Happy Death Day’s success, hopefully it will usher in a fresh wave of horrors that aren’t afraid to dismantle familiar stories and find unique and contemporary ways of telling them.
Happy Death Day wasn’t the only slasher to be released last year. The Texas Chainsaw franchise saw a new entry at the beginning of October with the limited release of Leatherface, a prequel to the series. Leatherface was an interesting direction for the series as the set-up was about a group of murderous teens escaping an asylum but the audience was left in the dark as to which teenager would actually become the chainsaw-wielding killer up until the film’s final twist ending. Even though I wasn’t overly impressed with Leatherface, these are exactly the kind of risks that slasher films should be taking to rejuvenate the genre.
Freddy Kreuger’s day in the limelight may have passed, but that doesn’t mean we have to completely forgo our ’80s horror idols. However, a revamp is a necessity. Perhaps it’s time for us to get a female slasher on screen. Why not? It is 2017 after all. Looking ahead, in just a few short months we will finally see the long-awaited “real” sequel to the original Halloween. The iconic scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis, will be returning as Laurie Strodes. This film will also mark John Carpenter’s return to the franchise.
Fans of slasher films should hold on to hope because it seems like the time might finally be ripe for a slasher film reconnaissance.
What do you think? Do you think slasher films are moving in the right direction?