This article contains spoilers
Alfred Hitchcock almost blew it. For most of Psycho’s runtime, the master of suspense lived up to his name, turning Robert Bloch’s pulpy novel into a thrilling mystery with shocking twists. But then, after the revelation of Norman Bates emulating his mother, now a rotting corpse, the movie stops for a psychiatrist to lecture the audience on Freudian theory. Were it not for the chilling closing voiceover by Virginia Gregg as Norma Bates, and Anthony Perkins’ proto-Kubrickian stare at the camera, Psycho may have gone out with a whisper.
As ill-advised as the lecture scene surely is, it did help establish a key element of the slasher genre that followed. Slashers aren’t just about serial killers who pick off victims one by one. They also need to have deeply weird storylines, dealing not only with the killer’s personal hang ups, but also unlikely plot mechanics to explain how a teen girl, for example, can kill a man three times her weight.
For some, these plot lines point to lazy writers, rushing through the story until we get to the next kill scene. But others recognize the bizarre storylines of slasher movies as an extension of the kills, a further chance to indulge in the unrealistic excesses of the genre. Nearly every slasher has a nonsense storyline, but few do it as gleefully as the ten selected here.
Motel Hell (1980)
It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent Fritters. So warns the tagline of Motel Hell from director Kevin Connor, which stars 1940s and 50s Western star Rory Calhoun as the affable, but murderous Farmer Vincent. When not minding his farm, Farmer Vincent spends most of his time running the Motel Hello with his sister Ida (Nina Parsons), welcoming visitors such as stranded motorcyclists Bo (Everett Creach) and Terry (Nina Axelrod). But Farmer Vincent’s real claim to fame is his fritters, the smoked meats loved by everyone.
As you might guess, the critters who make those fritters are people, unfortunate visitors to the Motel Hell. Connor and screenwriters Robert and Steven-Charles Jaffe overstuff the story with tropes borrowed from Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which would feel obvious if not employed in such delightfully random ways. But the real pleasure of the movie comes from watching Farmer Vincent harvest his fritter meat: feeding visitors hallucinogenic drugs, burying them up to their necks in his garden, and then pulling their heads off with a tractor. To understand the effect of these harvesting scenes, know that Motel Hell climaxes with Farmer Vincent wearing a pig head and wielding a chainsaw, but it’s the moments in the field that stick in one’s memory.
No, we’re not talking about the (very good!) sci-fi drama on Apple TV+. Years before Adam Scott split between innies and outies, director Christopher Smith (Triangle) showed the darker side of corporate culture. With a story that feels somewhat inspired by the paintball scene in Friday the 13th Part VI, Severance follows sales manager Steven (Danny Dyer) and his co-workers at arms manufacturer Palisade Defense on a team-building retreat. But when they arrive at their lodge in the Hungarian mountains, the team must face the consequences of the products they sell, as nerve-gassed Russian men begin slaughtering the team.
That description makes Severance sound like a proto-elevated horror movie, grafting a message onto a straightforward slasher. But Smith and co-writer James Moran spike the film with goofy gags, making it more of a satire than a straight horror film. In one of the movie’s most infamous bits, a runner about the human head’s ability to live after decapitation pays off with a POV shot from a newly-loosed noggin, ending with the character’s knowing wink to the camera.
Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil (2010)
“College kids! We’ve got your girl!” In nearly any other horror movie, this declaration from redneck Tucker (Alan Tudyk) would be a terrifying threat. But in Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil, it’s just a statement from a concerned neighbor. Tucker and his best friend Dale (Tyler Labine) just want to spend their weekend living out their dreams by renovating their newly purchased (and nearly-condemned) vacation home. But when a group of aggressive college kids go camping nearby, they frequently misunderstand the intentions of the reasonably prickly Tucker and infallibly sweet Dale.
Directed by Eli Craig, who co-wrote the screenplay with Morgan Jurgenson, Tucker and Dale gets maximum humor from the desperate lengths the titular duo go to avoid conflict with the college kids. Bad things certainly happen to the vacation homeowners, but worse are the Looney Tunes-style mishaps that make the two look like inbred killers. Case in point: when two of the kids try to attack the duo while they clean up their lot, one manages to impale himself on a broken stick, spraying blood all over the hapless Dale, while the other trips into Tucker’s wood chipper. Instead of making fun of slasher plots, Tucker and Dale’s loving inversion reminds us why we keep tuning in for such satisfying trash.
No country more closely followed Psycho’s lead than Italy, which spent the 1960s and 70s cultivating the giallo genre and bringing the lurid tone of 1920s pulp novels to the big screen. Movies such as Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage or Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace usually followed a whodunnit structure, but devoted time to a hidden killer, shown only through POV shots and a distinctive element such as black gloves. These movies became infamous across the globe, less for their detective elements and more for their ghastly murders and graphic violence, presented in striking red and yellow gels.
Although firmly within the heyday of gialli, Sergio Martino’s Torso looks forward to the American slasher, with its killer who strangles victims before mutilating them, leaving behind only — you guessed it! — their torsos. The movie’s striking imagery and overheated psychosexual tones certainly belong to the genre of its day. But the absurdity of Torso’s kills, complete with the reveal of the killer’s traumatic motivating incident, set the stage for the American movies that followed, from Black Christmas all the way to Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey.
Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
So here’s the basic slasher plot: something horrible happens to someone in their youth. A decade or so later, those involved in that terrible event reconvene at some event and are picked off in horrific fashion. Simple, right? Well, not for director J. Lee Thompson and credited screenwriters Timothy Bond, Peter Jobin, and John Saxton. For their movie Happy Birthday to Me, they cobbled together an incredibly unlikely story about Ginny (Little House on the Prairie’s Melissa Sue Anderson) trying to survive the murders of popular kids at her fancy school, dubbed the “Top Ten,” taking the psychodrama of the genre to unbelievable extremes.
I won’t give away here the climax of the film, which takes place at a macabre birthday party staged for Ginny, in part because I don’t know that words can do it justice. It’s a truly ridiculous scene, made all the more delightful for how little sense it makes, stacking reveal on top of increasingly inexplicable reveal. But even before then, the story makes equally unexpected leaps of logic, resulting in some of the most inexplicable kills and motivations in the genre. The killer of Happy Birthday to Me (referred to only as “It’s you!” by every victim) somehow has the strength of ten men and Nightcrawler-style teleportation skills, but it all pays off with perfectly shocking kills, even if the infamous kabab death teased by the movie’s VHS cover isn’t quite as cool in action.
Bloody Birthday (1981)
The other birthday-themed horror movie of 1981 veers much, much younger. The basic pleasure of Bloody Birthday is the transgression of seeing children kill. From The Bad Seed and Children of the Corn to Sinister and The Children, there’s something uniquely chilling about watching moppets mow down victims. Bloody Birthday director Ed Hunt (who co-wrote the screenplay with Barry Pearson) knows not to mess with the formula too much, letting the three stars do the heavy lifting.
Killer kids Curtis Taylor, Debbie Brody, and Steven Seton (Billy Jayne, Elizabeth Hoy, and Andy Freeman) were all born on the same day, during a solar eclipse. And apparently, that makes them evil, stripping away all sense of restraint and allowing the trio to gleefully slaughter anyone they please, including teachers and family members. With the exception of a great arrow-in-the-eye bit, none of the kills are that significant. But the young actors playing the trio feel like real, normal kids, never letting the audience get used to seeing them kill adults.
In many ways, slashers are the result of Americans (mis?)interpreting gialli, so it’s only fair that some of the quirkiest entries in the genre come from other cultures re-interpreting slashers. That’s certainly the case for the Spanish entry Mil gritos tiene la noche, or Pieces as it’s called in less evocative English. Featuring 80s B-movie power couple Christopher George and Susan Dey George, Pieces takes the standard slasher formula and twists it into one of the strangest stories ever committed to cinema. As usual, the killer is motivated by childhood trauma, this one involving a nudie puzzle constructed by a young boy. When the boy’s appalled mother finds the boy and demands he destroy the offending puzzle, he instead grabs an ax and murders her. As an adult, the boy strives to recreate that feeling by killing and dismembering women, in the hopes of reassembling them into his lost puzzle-lady.
That premise alone would be enough to land Pieces on this list, but somehow director Juan Piquer Simón (who also made the singularly off-beat Slugs) manages to tell the story in the weirdest possible way. The event that causes the killer to return to his lady-mangling ways? A skateboarder who gets decapitated when she smashes into a mirror. The movie’s red herring? A glowering groundskeeper played by 80s big guy Paul Smith (Bluto from Popeye and the Beast Rabban from Dune). The Georges try to bring some normal humanity to the movie with Christopher’s gritty detective and Susan’s tennis instructor, but the presence of regular people only makes the rest of the movie all the more outlandish.
The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
On the cover of most releases of The Witch Who Came From the Sea, you’ll see a muscular witch in a sheer gown, striding over wave-battered rocks while holding a bloody scythe in one hand and the head of her victim in the other. Those who watch the movie for that moment will be very disappointed, finding not the cover’s domineering conqueror, but rather timid bartender Molly (Millie Perkins), who dotes on her two nephews while defending her abusive father against her sister. Carnage only exists for Molly within the confines of her mind, where she fantasizes about grotesque scenes, such as the slaughter of beach bodybuilders. That is, until Molly decides to make her dreams into reality.
Slasher fans will find much of Molly’s story familiar, including the terrible childhood that drives her to her murderous ways. But The Witch Who Came From the Sea flips the script by making Molly the one who objectifies men before killing them, resulting in oddball scenes that feel both absurd and frightening. In one early example, Molly watches a football player in a tv commercial and then fantasizes about having sex with him before murdering him. So while we never do get the bloody beheading promised by the cover, The Witch Who Came From the Sea delivers something more frightening and indefinable.
Slumber Party Massacre II (1987)
When Carol J. Clover coined the term “final girl” in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws, she highlighted the uncomfortable sexual politics of the slasher film. On the one hand, the character who stayed alive throughout the movie and defeated the killer tended to be a woman. On the other, she tended to be a virginal woman, whose aversion to sex and drugs allowed her to evade the killer. When paired with the fact that the heavy nudity of slasher movies allowed men to both gawk at women and then cheer at their punishment, it’s clear that slashers can carry some deep misogyny.
At first glance, the Slumber Party Massacre movies seem to follow this trend, with their nightie-clad girls writhing in fear of a sinister male killer. But under the direction of women such as Deborah Brock, writer and director of Slumber Party Massacre II, the subversion of slasher tropes makes a satisfying feminist point. On a story level, the movie follows an established slasher plot, with the first movie’s final girl Courtney (Crystal Bernard) and her friends running from the Driller Killer. But between Atanas Ilitch’s outrageous performance as the rockabilly killer and the movie’s shocking ending, Slumber Party Massacre II’s strange tone makes a larger point about the threat men pose to women and the outrageous lengths to which they must go while evading that threat.
For the most recent entry on this list, we’re back to Gialli, with James Wan’s gonzo homage Malignant. Simply explaining the plot of Malignant doesn’t do it justice. Yes, it is crazy that the story involves a woman named Madison (Annabelle Wallis) who sees psychedelic images of murder scenes. And yes, it is crazy that the movie opens with doctors ranting about “cutting out the cancer” as the electronics around them flicker. But none of that prepares viewers for the reveal that Madison has an evil conjoined twin called Gabriel in the back of her head.
In lesser hands, Malignant would be played with a knowing wink, inviting viewers to laugh at the genre’s tendency to embrace nonsense plots. But Wan and screenwriter Akela Cooper (M3GAN) play it straight, fully reveling in the storytelling opportunities the plot provides. This approach leads to one of the most gloriously kooky set-pieces in modern movies, in which Gabriel takes over Madison’s body to slaughter fellow inmates in a jail cell, made all the more amazing for the way contortionist Marina Mazepa plays Gabriel as a man propelling his sister’s backward body. More than a throwback, Malignant reminds viewers why we love weird slasher stories.