At the request of a fella I met here at RetroJunk, I decided to write an article on the history of the horror genre from the '70s-'90s. As a kid, I had an obsession with horror movies and by the time I moved out of my parent's home, I'd blown through all of the films in the horror sections of three local video stores. As I tinkered with the idea for an article, I quickly realized that I couldn't not make mention of the films that paved the way, and if I were to do one article, it'd wind up being a thousand pages. I figure the best way to do this is as a series of articles, with different sub-genres, so we'll begin with what's arguably the most popular of the aforementioned era: the slashers. This is for you Grant, my grim friend!

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Tales of the creep...


The slasher genre can be directly connected back to a real-life Wisconsin man who was born in 1906 named Ed Gein. In 1957, the man with the lop-sided smile was discovered to have killed a handful of locals, he robbed graves, cannibalized corpses and partook in other unheard-of depravities. His home was filled with bizarre, perverse ornaments made from human body parts -- skulls as bedposts and soup-bowls, lampshades and furniture upholstery made with human skin... and he also wore human skin. He had a necklace made of human lips, and infamous mammary and face masks that he'd wear as he danced about under the moonlight. When I was in 4th or 5th grade, I did a book report on a biography of Gein... my classmates didn't know what to think!

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A struggling author named Robert Bloch lived in neighboring Michigan and learned that Gein had a mother-complex. He used this as inspiration for a character in his latest novel, a character who, unbeknownst to Bloch, would go on to become a household name: Norman Bates. The novel, Psycho, became a best-seller and came to the attention of legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, who bought the rights to produce the novel as a film, which was released in 1960. PSYCHO is the story of young Norman Bates, a jittery motel owner who was driven mad by his mother -- whom he killed, then attempted to revive by "becoming his mother." Unfortunately, mom was rather puritanical, so every lady that Norman came into contact with was a "whore" in her eyes, and they had to be killed.


Although there had been murderers since the early days of celluloid, what set this film apart from the rest was that the killer was not only utterly mad, but portrayed in a sympathetic way by Anthony Perkins (who was horribly typecast as a result of this), and the murder was innovative filmed and utterly horrific to audiences of the day. The other notable thing about PSYCHO is the Bernard Hermann score, which would go on to be imitated and blatantly ripped off infinitely. The ad campaign made the film a huge hit -- no one was allowed into the theatre after the film had begun (or they'd find out that Janet Leigh, who was seemingly the main character in the story, was murdered a quarter of the way into the movie). The movie was initially lambasted by critics (who quickly changed their tune), but became a smash hit with the public. In the '80s & '90s, the film spawned several sequels and the bastardized TV movie BATES MOTEL -- and it was ultimately remade in 1998.

PSYCHO led the way for more killer films in the '60s, including (but certainly not limited to) HUSH,HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, MANIAC, SATAN'S BED, STRAIT JACKET, and the sadly under-known THE SADIST. While most of these didn't fit the traditional mold of the slasher genre, there's no denying that they wouldn't have been made if not for the success of PSYCHO. But they did go on to establish something that would later be utilized in slashers, namely giving a new career to aging former stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (Piper Laurie, Betsy Palmer, Yvonne DeCarlo and Karen Black, amongst others, would follow suit in the next few decades). An undercurrent of exploitation splatterfests started to develop at this time too, with Herschell Gordon Lewis's BLOOD FEAST leading the pack, and paving the way for more no-name b-movies than I could ever list.

It was during this period that the "Golden Age of Hollywood" was over, the major studios were crumbling, and independent film was taking over the screens. By the late '60s the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) began enforcing their arbitrary ratings codes as a result of the blood, gore, nudity and depravity that was taking over cinema screens. By 1970, Walt Disney was dead, the Manson family was in the headlines for the horrific murder of Sharon Tate (which would later be exploited in the movie-of-the-week HELTER SKELTER), flower-power was fading and shock-rocker Alice Cooper had already begun to "drive a stake through the heart of the love generation."

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The faceless musician.

One of the first popular films of the '70s that could go under the header "slasher" starred Vincent Price, who'd become associated with horror films since taking roles in '50s classics HOUSE OF WAX and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. As concert organist THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, Price gleefully offed his enemies, the doctors who he blamed for killing his wife, Victoria. Phibes seemingly returned from the dead to bring down the "plague of the pharoes" upon these doctors, and audiences gasped in delight to see such depraved atrocities as a nurse being eaten alive by locusts, a sleeping man being beheaded, and a man being impaled by a unicorn's horn(!?). The film garnered a huge audience, and spawned a sequel a year later.

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They don't make poster art like this anymore

In DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN, Phibes sets off to the Egyptian Pyramids to bring his lovely wife, whom he had preserved, back from the dead. More delightfully gory murders ensue. A third film was planned to bring the trilogy storyline home, but it never made it to the screen. Though riddled with effects that are laughable today, along with some stilted dialogue and a storyline that's incoherent on many levels, the DR. PHIBES films are now considered classics, and without them, we might not have seen some of the other depravities that would soon follow.

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Stay outta this salon!

Price followed Phibes with another film that's near and dear to my heart, merely because its visuals completely wigged me out when I was a kid. As Edward Lionheart in 1973 film THEATRE OF BLOOD, Price not only chewed the scenery but devoured it whole. Shakespearian stage actor Lionheart is "deprived" of the Critics Circle Award, so he seemingly commits suicide in front of the critics who wronged him. Several years later, he returns and begins re-writing the murders from Shakespearian plays... Poodle pies, hair curlers of death and other sick visions dance across the screen. Price later cited this as his favorite film, and it's easily my favorite from his long roster of films.

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And now what you've been waiting for... 1974 was a pivotal year for the slasher genre. There were two major turning points, and the face of horror was about to be changed forever. 1974 was the year that an unknown Maine teacher/writer named Stephen King came to fame when his first novel, Carrie, made it to bookstores and became an instant classic. King nearly didn't finish his manuscript, but serendipity intervened and his wife fished it from the trash and demanded that he see it through to an ending. The rest, as they say, is history. We'll come back to King shortly.

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Though it didn't gain notoriety until 76/77, a young Texan filmmaker named Tobe Hooper unleashed THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE on the world in 1974... and the slasher genre would never be the same. A nightmarish vision, derived more directly from the legend of Ed Gein than PSYCHO had been, CHAIN SAW documents the misadventures of a group of teens who wind up in a backwoods town where they're slaughtered. The villains are a family, headed by man wielding a chainsaw and wearing a human skin mask, who kill passers-by and serve them up for lunch to paying customers. Although the story takes far too long to get going, there's no denying that it was this movie that redefined the genre with its sick and twisted sensibilities. And also worth noting, it never really happened, as John Larroquette's narration and the ad campaign claim.

Another Ed Gein inspired film also hit the screens in 1974. Written and directed by Alan Ormsby (who'd previously brought us the cult zombie flick CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS), DERANGED, CONFESSIONS OF A NECROPHILE is the first film based on Gein that attempted to be true to his story. Although this one never gained the infamy of TEXAS CHAIN SAW, it's equally (if not more) disturbing, and one recommended to gore hounds. Of course, the American DVD release (double-packaged with MOTEL HELL) is missing a scene or two and the Gein documentary that appeared on VHS prints.

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Hey lady, why won't you pet me?

1975 brought us another classic that also shaped the slasher genre, though the film rarely gets its due. Directed by Bob Clark (who went on to become famous for his PORKY'S films and the over-exposed A CHRISTMAS STORY), BLACK CHRISTMAS pre-dated several of the classics that are often credited for re-defining the genre. Also known as SILENT NIGHT, EVIL NIGHT and STRANGER IN THE HOUSE, BLACK CHRISTMAS documents the events that take place over three days around Christmas in a girl's sorority house when a madman, who's been making obscene phone calls, breaks in and begins killing off the ladies. Before she became Lois Lane, then went crazy and started crashing dinner parties, Margot Kidder stole the show as a foul-mouthed sorority cynic, and Marian Waldman (DERANGED) chewed the scenery as the lush housemother. Of course, both characters get their comeuppance! This is also the first horror film to star John Saxon (not counting a guest shot on "Night Gallery"), who went on to make many more horror appearances, including roles in three of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films.

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Who ever said that little old ladies have to be nice?