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What killed the slasher genre?

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We examine why – and when – Freddy, Jason and Leather Face lost their impact.

I could swear that all I’ve seen advertised at cinemas recently (aside from reboots) are those supernatural horror films; shaky cameras, aliens, ghosts and the like. They’re the perfect solution to a problem that has plagued horror films for a long time – repetition – and no sub-genre has suffered from this issue for as long as the slasher film. Which might explain why the slasher film seems to have disappeared from the big screen altogether.

Scream made a laughing stock of the slasher film

The slasher might have its roots in the 1930s, but its boom came in the 1980s, following the huge success of Black Christmas in ’74 and Halloween in ’78. Films featuring masked psychopaths on sequential killing sprees began to flood theatre screens, quickly making pop culture icons of their killers. The victims were usually attractive (and sexually active) teens, almost always enjoying something quintessentially American, like a summer camp or a national holiday.

It’s not hard to see why Friday The 13th, A Nightmare On Elm Street and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have had a mind-numbing number of sequels and reboots between them. The originals are classics, as scary as they are iconic. But toward the end of the decade, things had become predictable, stale and formulaic for the genre as a whole. As the 90s rolled in, Scream had easily made a laughing stock of the slasher film, with its parodic jokes and ludicrously familiar setup.

scream mask

However, you can’t pin the decline of the slasher on one parody. Scream even arguably led to a minor revival of the slasher in the mid-90s. The popularity of the Scream franchise and the films it brought back into pop culture inspired studios to reboot the most successful films of the early 80s in as many forms as possible, some more gruesome than others. Unfortunately though, the studios were interested in the now iconic killers, as opposed to the films that had made them so notorious.

Slasher films became more gruesome than psychological; a killer without a motive is uninteresting

There were a baffling eight Friday The 13th films in the 80s alone. By 1993, the franchise began to adopt Jason (the franchise’s killer) into the new titles Jason Goes To Hell, Jason X and Freddy vs. Jason, before going back to Friday The 13th for the obligatory 2009 reboot. Yet while the focus of a slasher film is always on the killer, with every film, the franchise drifted farther from the point; the films started to focus on Jason as a monster instead of as a character. Once this had become the case, slasher films started to become more gruesome and gory, but much less psychological; the issue with this being that a killer without a motive is not only uninteresting, but increasingly indistinguishable.

But Scream didn’t just remind audiences of the classic films before it – thankfully, it reminded many of what made the slasher film so interesting originally. Scream, like the films it parodied, focussed on ‘normal’ America. It gave us a normal town and some normal teenagers that did normal things – they went to parties, watched films, met up with their friends. The slasher resonated with Western audiences because, amongst all this normality, it introduced utter horror. The killers were no longer mad scientists or supernatural beings, but instead plain-clothes killers who possessed a haunting lack of humanity.

texas chainsaw massacre

This idea that the killers are the kids we went to school with isn’t just fabricated for the purposes of the sub-genre, it’s a matter of fact. But with every sequel, reboot and new take on the slasher, this point slips further out of focus. Of the many recent attempts to breathe new life into the once glorious Chainsaw Massacre franchise, few have managed to maintain the aesthetic simplicity of the original. Over the years, the chainsaw-wielding Leather Face has been transformed from a man-child in a white shirt into a leather clad behemoth.

With so many identical sequels and reboots, it’s only a matter of time until people lose interest

The Wrong Turn franchise, which gained some momentum in the 2000s, also seems to reflect this lost focus in the form of its killers: a group of inbred, disfigured, cannibalistic ‘mountain-men’. The emphasis throughout the franchise is placed on the savagery of their attacks and their animalistic behaviour, aspects that are worlds away from the cold, precise killings of Friday The 13th’s Mrs Voorhees or Maniac’s Frank Zito.

There have been some recent successes for the slasher. The most recent addition to the Child’s Play franchise, Curse Of Chucky, turned out to be a surprisingly fresh and certainly enjoyable film. Maniac, which got a remake in March, was a brilliantly twisted but by no means trashy example of a good, modern slasher. The key to both of these films was the balance of gore and narrative; they weren’t – as Roger Ebert once put it – “dead teenager movies”. Sadly, Mr Ebert had a point, though, and ultimately it’s the simplicity of that statement that best describes the death of the slasher sub-genre. Because when a studio churns out so many identical sequels, reboots and spin-offs, it’s only a matter of time until people lose interest. And who could blame them?

 

Featured image: Compass International Pictures

Inset images: Dimension Films; Bryanston Pictures

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