Back in their 1980s heyday, slasher movies were frequently criticized as excessively violent and formulaic. It’s never been a respectable genre, but there was a time when it was popular. In recent years, slasher movies have largely been beaten out by competition like monster movies, found footage, and paranormal horror. All this criticism isn’t entirely undeserved. Frankly, the vast majority of slasher movies are not only terrible films, but terrible horror films.
Among the most notable elements of the slasher genre is its use of stock characters. These films usually revolve around a group of high schoolers or college students, each of whom is a lazy stereotype. There’s the obnoxious jock, the awkward nerd, the selfish dumb blonde, and so on. Most slasher movies delight in making their characters as simplistic and unsympathetic as possible, so the audience hardly cares when they die. They’re disposable cardboard cut-outs to be creatively slaughtered and forgotten about. Little to no time is spent on character development, as most characters are killed after very little screen time.
As slasher franchises continue, they become increasingly oriented around the killer. Horror fans may be able to name a few of the killer’s victims, but everyone knows Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. As the sequels and bodies pile up, we learn more about the killer, often regarding their backstory or motivation. They become the central character of the franchise, while their victims remain shallow as ever. We’re not supposed to feel the terror of the everyday people, but rather revel in the killer’s bloody deeds.
This results in poor storytelling and ineffective horror. The plots of slasher movies are primarily about people trying to survive a killer on the loose, but the characters are written specifically so that we don’t care about their survival. While memorable stories make the audience care about the characters and the outcome of the plot, slasher movies deliberately inspire indifference. Some people might say that horror movies don’t need to tell good stories, as long as they’re scary. I would argue you can’t make a movie genuinely scary if it isn’t a well-told story. Sure, you can focus on jump scares, but that doesn’t inspire real fear, just momentary surprise. In order to really scare us, horror movies have to give us characters that we can feel empathy for, and then subject them to frightening scenarios. If we’re rooting for them to die, we simply can’t feel fear.
As you’ve probably noticed by now, everything I’ve said has been in reference to “most” slasher movies. There are some slasher movies, particularly the earlier ones, that are a different story. While the genre drew influence from earlier films, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho,’ it’s foundations were laid in 1974 with two films: ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and ‘Black Christmas’ (from the director of ‘A Christmas Story,’ oddly enough). Both films attempt to make the audience uncomfortable with images of victimization, rather than identifying with the killer. Though these films feature horrific murders, the actual on-screen violence is surprisingly restrained (Tobe Hooper, director of ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ actually hoped the film would be rated PG, although it received an R rating). It should also be noted, both films have fantastic, memorable endings. Although controversial upon release, both films have since received critical approval and enduring popularity.
The film that really created the slasher phenomenon was legendary director John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ from 1978. Unlike most slasher films, ‘Halloween’ actually has well-defined characters like the protagonist Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), the killer’s psychiatrist. Carpenter depicted only as much violence as necessary, getting most of the scares by creating tension. ‘Halloween’ set the standard for the invincible, soulless masked killer that would come to dominate the genre. It created a template almost every subsequent slasher movie has borrowed, but what was innovative at the time has become cliche through repetition.
By the mid-80s, the slasher genre was dominated by lackluster sequels and rip-offs, and some of the earliest direct-to-video films. The one bright spot was director Wes Craven’s ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street.’ While adhering to the basic elements of the genre, it managed to distinguish itself from its predecessors with an original concept: an inescapable killer that attacks his victims in their dreams, rather than the real world. The result was surreal, creepy, and actually kind of fun. Wes Craven continued to redefine the slasher genre in the ‘90s, with the sequel ‘New Nightmare’ (which I’ve written about before) and ‘Scream.’Admittedly, good (or even decent) slasher movies are few and far between. Rather than condemning an entire genre, however, I think it’s best to see where it usually goes wrong, and to praise the films that manage to avoid those pitfalls.