The Great American Slasher Movie: How Did This Happen?

A look at our love of slasher movies, from Psycho, Halloween, Friday the 13th through Texas Chainsaw 3D: what does it mean? Why do we keep going?

Hollywood has been doing bloody good business, lately. The newest product off the studios’ horror assembly line oozing into multiplexes is the most successful and comfortable of horror subgenres: the slasher. Last weekend audiences made Texas Chainsaw 3D, the seventh chainsaw flick and sixth attempt to “go back to the original,” the Number 1 movie in America. Earning over $21 million in three days, Texas Chainsaw 3D even exceeded studio expectations. Yet, with all this blood spilling, the mutilation of co-eds has become incredibly ho-hum for audiences. Reviewers even harsher than me (read our review HERE) demolished the movie for having the worst failing of any horror flick: it wasn’t scary. Texas Chainsaw 3D is fairly harmless on its own, but it does suffer from the broader problems of a genre that has become as comfortably reassuring for viewers as a rerun of Friends. How did this happen?

 

Werewolves, vampires and zombies have haunted the cinematic American zeitgeist for over 85 years. However, the most culturally long-lasting and influential terror has always been deftly human. Norman Bates, dressed in his dead mother’s clothes, taking a butcher knife to the heroine in Psycho was an act of visual rape on the shocked cinemagoers of 1960. The audience felt as helpless and naked as Janet Leigh when the murderer ripped open the shower curtain and slashed her into a submissive puddle of blood. Psycho is infamous for the way in which director Alfred Hitchcock pulled the rug out from under the audience, but it also must be remembered as the film in which Hitchcock brought the scariest thing imaginable to a movie theater near you. Hitchcock made the monster human in Psycho. And then he gave him a knife.

 

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Going to the movies as a form of regulated escapism is as comforting to our society as $5 foot longs and paid vacations. But what Hitchcock unleashed on pop culture is the concept of an outsider, a freak, who is not one of us and wouldn’t know what to do with that $5 sandwich, waiting to ruin our escape. Culturally speaking, we are not as frightened of the supernatural as we are of each other. You can scoff at the impossible as merely that, but the idea of a crazy person coming after you?   He sits beyond the boundaries of normal society ready for his victims to venture from the safety and structural security of their creature comforts. At least that’s what the slasher was at its original inception.

 

In 1974, Tobe Hooper added wrinkles and texture to the idea of a freakish human “other” prepared, quite literally, to gobble up the unsuspecting. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, four protagonists, not unlike Leigh in Psycho, took the road less traveled and moved away from the confines of civilization. Only in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, they were naïve teenagers oblivious to the horrors lurking in the older shadows of the world. They stumble upon a monstrous human living away from community who will use the titular power tool to turn them into dinner for his family. Leatherface and his cannibalistic brood are in many ways a modernization of the witch in Hansel and Gretel, except they use hammers and blades instead of spells and magic. Indeed, they may have been too human, as Hooper gave Leatherface a disability. The killer is mentally handicapped and also enjoys quirks of lifestyle, including cross-dressing. Leatherface’s simplicity makes him too real to be the boogeyman. No, the slasher formula was not complete until John Carpenter made the movie that conquered an entire genre.

 

Halloween (1978) articulated that indefinable fear of a threat within our own community. It was not an inbred mamma’s boy living in the boonies, but one of society’s own. At its most basic, the premise of Halloween centers on a little boy who murdered his sister. There is no reason and no motive. He is simply and inarguably pure evil. The boy grows up in a mental institution where he never speaks a word. One day, he quietly escapes and returns to his hometown to stalk and randomly murder three babysitters. For Carpenter, evil is unexplainable. It’s out there, in our neighborhoods and in our homes. And it will never stop. The masked, mute killer, noted in the credits as “The Shape,” is not a character. He is an idea. A malicious id unleashed upon the world. The originally envisioned “Shape” in Halloween derives pleasure in life solely from silently stalking young women so that he can recreate his sister’s murder. He is so incomprehensible that he becomes inhuman. At Halloween’s end, Michael has taken a half dozen gunshots and a tumble off a second story house, but still vanishes into the night. He can do this because he is meant to be evil personified and because he was the first to do the impossible. Halloween’s Michael combined the chilling fear of a human monster with the coded abilities of the supernatural. The complete formula for a slasher killer was born.

 

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However, a funny thing happened shortly after Halloween’s release. Filmmakers discovered audiences reveled in facing their own ids onscreen. They embraced the violence and wanted to exploit their dark desires in a way that Hollywood and popular culture never had before. In Halloween, the protagonists are clearly Laurie Strode (the young Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends. They are all well developed and believably human women. Yeah, they have sex, but it wasn’t some puritanical sin. They were empowered ladies living large in the 1970s! The audience was supposed to sympathize with them over the wolf that walks among us. But for teenage boys, the genre’s future and permanent target audience, they were the boring part. They were those girls who never gave them the time of day at school, but would make out with the popular guys. In the many knock-offs and sequels to Halloween, the victims became the antagonists for the unrelenting other. They created the conflict by being obstacles he must bypass to achieve his ultimate goal…which is to kill more promiscuous teenagers (preferably naked girls too). In this way, the genre for decades has been inviting male audiences to cheer on and enjoy the slaughter.

Today, most of these movies are not graded on how scary or intense they are, but rather upon the level of humor or enjoyment one finds in the creativity of the murders. 1980s slasher icon Jason Vorhees exemplifies this as the sole personality of his franchise, Friday the 13th. There’s no pesky Laurie Strode family gene to follow. For Jason, the most cherished of masked serial killers in pop culture, the victims are interchangeable teens who wander into his film to be dispatched to the sound of audience laughter. They especially glow with approval when Jason plunges his machete into what’s become the genre’s most typical stereotype, namely those slutty girls.

 

I would never say that all slasher films or their makers are sexist. But when your movie revolves around the tall male penetrating the young, attractive sex kitten with a phallic machete, people are going to talk. Many involve the killer as a voyeur of the female victims. He watches them have sex and objectifies them for the audience before he serves them up his natural justice, thereby purifying the viewer of his lust. The fetishism with which the movies show a knife going through a girl is only matched by the genre’s inexplicable need for the lone “survivor girl” to be a virgin. In the post-Scream world the latter is less important, but the former is still a crucial element. In Halloween, the murder of Laurie’s friends and her desperation evoke a sincere and sympathetic protagonist. Without saying Scream, how many more slasher heroines can you say the same for? 

To Texas Chainsaw 3D’s credit, I do not recall any nudity (or much else about the movie). In fact, it even subverts the formula by having (SPOILER ALERT) the survivor girl go crazy and help Leatherface kill their family’s old enemies. It is an inept horror film, yet I wonder if part of the hate is because while both girls show plenty of skin, it is never quite enough for the audience and the formula, as decreed by Friday the 13th, is blasphemously broken at the end. (END SPOILER)

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Audience members attend these movies no longer to be scared or to question their society, but to revel in the carnage of its gory destruction. They are comforted by films pushing cultural stereotypes like the virginal princess and token Black guy. They already know it by heart. Like a cow bred by McDonalds, characters are there to be cut down for cinematic comfort food. They are defined by race, gender or sexuality and people cheer on this butchering reinforcement of prejudgments. When slaughter becomes the movie’s gratification, it can never be scary. It is no longer meant to be.  It’s usually just a tiring, bloody mess.

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