80s action movies, slasher films, and their parallels

What's the narrative difference between a film like Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Friday The 13th? Not that much, as it happens...

Sylvester Stallone Rambo 5

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Think about your typical slasher movie — an unknown killer stalking a group of people in a familiar location. The killer attacks his victims in a variety of ways with a variety of exotic weapons. Now think of your typical Stallone or Schwarzenegger movie of the same period — a well-armed one-man army stalks a group of villains through an obstacle-laden location and dispatches them in a variety of ways with a variety of weapons.

The only difference between John Rambo’s ambush of the Vietnamese army in Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and Jason Vorhees’s rampage through the holiday party at the end of the previous year’s Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter is that Rambo’s foes are armed. Both movies basically follow the same narrative, except in one the audience cheers because they are the hero, and the other they cheer because he’s the villain.

Take the plot of Commando. An ex-special forces soldier is forced back into action after his daughter is kidnapped by a ruthless ex-dictator and his minions. There is not much complexity to this story — John Matrix has until the following day to kill the bad guys and save his daughter. He kills the bad guys, rescues his daughter and flies off. Nice and simple, job done.

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Now flip the premise. Imagine you are some lowly soldier working for the villain, a former president who was illegally toppled in a black ops mission, and now you have been chased out of your home and away from your family. You would be pretty pissed, right?

On the bright side, you get stay on a tropical island. Sure, the boss is a little grim, and that new Australian guy with the chain mail vest takes a little getting used to, but it is better than hiding out in the jungle. Everything considered, life is pretty good. And just when you’re beginning to settle in, a sociopath in camp storms out of the jungle and begins to shoot, burn, hack and impale all your friends to death. Not only that, he has the temerity to make some lame pun at each demise.

Context

The Slasher movie emerged out of the giallo thrillers from Italy in the ’60s and ’70s, combined the body count plot of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None, and producers recognising the economic benefits of releasing low budget horror films. When a movie like 1980’s Friday The 13th can outperform a high profile, big budget genre entry like that year’s The Shining, the benefits to a studio executive become clear.

The ’80s action movie was a natural evolution from the cop and vigilante movies of the ’70s, particularly Dirty Harry and its sequels (Magnum Force and The Enforcer, with their focus on firepower and big body counts are particularly emblematic of where the genre would go in the following decade).

With war movies out of vogue as the go-to action genre thanks to Vietnam, the firepower shifted from ensembles of stars (like The Dirty Dozen) into the hands of individuals who rebel against the decay of society and the horde of enemies evoked by the renewed Cold War paranoia of the ’80s (‘You made enemies all over the world John… they’re going to get you’ warns Ah-nuld’s old CO at the beginning of Commando).

Though they have their antecedents in the vigilante and horror films of the previous decade, the action hero and the slasher are tentpoles of 80s popular culture. Jason Vorhees and Freddy Kreuger are as synonymous with the era as the one-man armies played by Stallone and Schwarzenegger. However, beyond the shared cultural context, the eighties action hero and slasher villain share a series of key characteristics: both figures are indestructible, share a propensity for ultra violence and derive their power from sexual repression.

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Indestructibility

The most obvious characteristic the action hero shares with the slasher is his indestructibility. Going back to Rambo II and Friday 4, the gulf between Jason’s invincibility and the vulnerability of his victims is equivalent to the gulf between Rambo’s weaponry and skills vis a vis those of his opponents. Even though they have numbers and guns, Rambo has the advantage because he has been transformed into a killing machine by his former commander, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), and boasts an arsenal that increases his advantage over his enemies.

Beyond this, Rambo’s indestructibility is reinforced by his ability to sustain bodily injuries that his enemies cannot. Each Rambo movie includes a scene in which Rambo has to perform self-surgery on a gory wound (this convention reaches a laughable extreme in Rambo III when Rambo uses gunpowder to cauterize a massive hole in his torso). Michael Meyers and Jason Vorhees go through similar levels of punishment, with their ‘deaths’ at the end of individual movies serving the same function as the torture done to Rambo’s body — just as watching heroes bleed makes them seem more human, we all want to watch the bad guy get taken out in the most extreme manner possible.

Ultra-violence

Both sub-genres are marked by cartoonish levels of violence.The shed sequence in Commando is basically equivalent to a Friday the 13th movie – Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix uses various everyday garden implements to wipe out an army. Freddy’s one-liners during/following his kills perform the same function as in a Schwarzenegger movie – they punctuate the violence and leaven the mood by bringing the audience in ‘on the joke’. Jason and Rambo ‘tool up’ with more exotic weapons as the story progresses. Mainly, this is a form of spectacle — each set piece must escalate in order to maintain and increase viewer interest.

Morality

Both the action hero and the slasher are have an extremely puritanical form of morality, in terms of their aversion to drugs, junk food and sexuality. In contrast to Dirty Harry and James Bond, the heroes of previous decades, who have a healthy (or satyric) sexuality, hard body heroes like Johns Rambo and Matrix show little interest in the opposite sex. There is even a scene in Commando where Matrix and a bad guy have an extended brawl in a motel room where a couple are having sex. Both figures are based on an extremely puritanical form of morality. Sex is either minimised or completely absent – all of their energies are based around killing (note the heroes in these movies are usually more concerned with training than sex e.g. Chuck Norris in Missing In Action, among others).

Abstinence in an action hero is seen as an example of discipline – this is often in contrast to rampant (and implied) deviance of the antagonist (think Bennett’s repressed homoeroticism in Commando or the sexualised glee of the Night Slasher in Stallone’s Cobra).

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In slasher movies, sex is also portrayed in negative terms — most obviously, it acts as a handicap for the victims. Generally, while the characters are distracted this way, they die. It is also a trigger for the slasher’s killing — Michael Myers first kill is his sister after she has sex with her boyfriend; Jason Vorhees drowns (apparently) because the camp counsellors are having sex; and Freddy Kreuger’s past pre-immolation carries its own perverse implications.

Case study: The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984)

In The Terminator, two genre strands become intertwined, resulting in the perfect synthesis — the ’80s action hero as villain. In its successful merging of the horror and action genres, The Terminator highlights just how much overlap exists between the action and horror tropes of the eighties. This is not a coincidence. The DVD special features include several concept drawings by writer-director James Cameron — one of whom shows a bisected Terminator crawling along the ground after an unseen victim with a massive butcher knife (Michael Myers’ signature weapon) in its fist.

Like the central figures of ‘hard-body’ and slasher films, the Terminator is literally indestructible and is possessed of a literal hard body. The Terminator also pushes the hard body genre’s masochistic fascination with the abuse of the hero’s body to its most logical extreme. Indeed, the manner in which Cameron focuses on the destruction of Schwarzenegger’s body in a fashion that recalls the Rambo movies — a similarity highlighted in the scene where, in a parody of Rambo, he repairs himself. When Schwarzenegger’s flesh burns away at the climax, he literally becomes a hard body.

The clearest parallel between The Terminator and the slasher genre is the gore. In the first major scene of violence, he rips a man’s heart out of his chest – an act very similar to the kinds of acts perpetrated by Michael Meyers and Jason Vorhees.

Much has already been written on the puritanical morality (intended or otherwise) of slasher movies, but I would argue that a similar strain of morality exists in the ‘hard-body’ action films of the 80s- The Terminator is the only film that recognises this parallel and brings it to the fore. Both figures are based on an extremely puritanical form of morality: Sarah Connor is a virginal young woman, while her room mate Roxy is more open in her sexuality. In a scene taken straight out of a slasher, Roxy has sex with her boyfriend and is then killed. The Terminator’s mission, to prevent the conception of John Connor, takes the Slasher’s obsession with sex to its most logical extreme.

In conclusion

There are already pieces which consider The Terminator as a horror film, but no-one seems to have noted the similarities between the ‘one man army’ action movies and slasher flicks it falls between. Hopefully this piece will get some debates going and not feel like an extended exercise in trolling.