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!
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!
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Who ever said that little old ladies have to be nice?[/align]
What makes BLACK CHRISTMAS so crucial to the genre is that it established things that would quickly go on to be imitated by thousands of films. For starters, there was the use of the camera as the killer's point of view (often HALLOWEEN is credited as the first film to use this method, and it went on to be used endlessly in the FRIDAY THE 13th films). Obviously, it uses a holiday to its advantage, as did a slew of flicks to follow (from HALLOWEEN to MOTHER'S DAY to MY BLOODY VALENTINE). Though humour had been used as a way to off-set shocks since the days of silent film, this film also re-defined it in a way that would be capitalized on when SCREAM hit screens in '96. The use of the killer on the telephone went on to be used quite a bit (WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, HE KNOWS YOU'RE ALONE, DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE, etc.). And then (**SPOILER**), there's the fact that we never learn the motivation of the killer -- which makes the film a little scarier... and again, this was blatantly copied in films that followed (HALLOWEEN, FINAL EXAM, etc). The latest film to undergo a remake, a new version of BLACK CHRISTMAS has already been filmed and will hit screens later this year.
Do you know how long it took me to get ready tonight?1976 brought us Brian DePalma's Hitchcockian homage, CARRIE. CARRIE is the story of an unpopular girl who, as a prank, gets voted queen of the prom, only to be doused in pig's blood. Unfortunately, her peers don't know that she has telekinetic abilities, which she uses to 86 the bulk of her classmates and her insane zealot mother. This film doesn't really fit as a conventional "slasher," but then there's little that's conventional about it. It did, however, have a direct impact, since this was among the first horror films geared towards teens, and it paved the way for a slew of revenge flicks ranging from TERROR TRAIN to SLAUGHTER HIGH to MIRROR MIRROR to the recent indie INEXCHANGE. It was also one of the first to prominently feature a ton of female nudity, which would quickly become a standard for horror films to follow. Lurking under the surface of all religious zealots are giddy killers!Although he was incorrectly credited as "Steven," this is the first film to hit the screen based on a Stephen King story... and it's arguably one of the best. The film's not completely true to the novel (but then a film never can be), but King was impressed by the movie and once said that he liked the ending so much that he wished he had thought of it. The ending is now somewhat cliche (a hand reaching out from the grave) and owes more than a little bit of credit to DELIVERANCE, but it absolutely terrified unexpected audiences who saw it in '76. What makes this most notable in the genre is that it was the first horror film to be nominated for the prestigious Academy Awards -- which was completely unheard of. Both Sissy Spacek (Carrie White) and Piper Laurie (Margaret White) were nominated for Best Actress and Supporting Actress, respectively, but they lost out to Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight, stars of the multi-award-winning NETWORK. If she doesn't get off the phone soon...1978 brought us John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN. Although PSYCHO is looked upon as the granddaddy of slasher flicks, this one's considered its more modern counterpart. 15 years after juvenile Michael Myers was locked away for the brutal, senseless murder of his older sister, he escapes from the asylum and stalks an oblivious group of teenage girls. Much like Hitchcock had done before, John Carpenter made use of "what you don't see is scarier than what you do," so his little slasher relied more upon scares than gore -- people seem to forget that there's very little blood or graphic violence in the film. Carpenter showed a rough cut of the film to studio execs (who wanted nothing to do with the picture) who told him the film wasn't at all scary. At that point, there was no music. Once he composed the score and added it to the visuals, the pieces fell into place. I told you girls to get off the phone!It took some time for HALLOWEEN to find its audience (though not years as had been the case with TEXAS CHAIN SAW). But word of mouth quickly spread, and people were pouring in to the theatres to see this little horror film that boasted no major stars. The big studios, who'd paid little attention to the slashers, suddenly did an about-face. If this cheaply-made independent film could turn such a profit, they figured that they could too. Suddenly the market was filled with imitators... including several that exploited HALLOWEEN star Jamie Lee Curtis (whose mother, Janet Leigh, was the legendary victim in PSYCHO), including PROM NIGHT and the clever, yet lackluster, TERROR TRAIN. My gun's bigger than yours!1978 also brought another memorable classic... though many who've seen it would like to forget it! DAY OF THE WOMAN (a.k.a. THE RAPE AND REVENGE OF JENNIFER HILL) was the story of a woman who was brutally raped by a gang of backwoods thugs. She retaliated by seeking them out, one-by-one, and.... Yeah. One word: castration. Although rape was nothing new on film (it was a crucial element to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT), the unpleasant rape scene stretches out for a record amount of time (20-some continuous minutes, I believe). Just like CHAINSAW before it, it took several years before the film would become infamous -- and not under this title. When the film made its way to video in 1981, it was re-titled I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. It was at this point that it was targeted by Roger Ebert, who proclaims it to be the worst film ever made (this from the guy who wrote BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS!?). Is that fear I smell... or ice cream?In 1979, audiences were first introduced to flying, killer sentinel spheres, dwarf zombies and Jebediah Morningside, "The Tall Man." PHANTASM followed the exploits of teen Michael and his 20-something brother Jody, orphans who discover a terrifying secret about their parents corpses -- they've been stolen by alien undertaker The Tall Man and his minions. Your panties are delicious!I nearly didn't list this one, but didn't want to get lynched. PHANTASM crosses a gazillion horror/sci-fi sub-genres, including the slasher genre, which kicks off the film. Don Coscarelli (writer, director, co-producer, cinematographer) readily admits that the film was made specifically to scare audiences -- there's a record amount of scares going on in this one. Filmed over nearly a year in 1977, the movie finally made it to screens by '79, and it spawned a handful of sequels. It also succeeded in putting struggling AVCO Embassy Pictures, the film's distributor, on the map; and launched the career of b-movie favorite Reggie Bannister, as well as director Coscarelli (BEAST MASTER, BUBBA HO-TEP). Kill her, mommy, kill her!1980 brought one of the most beloved HALLOWEEN imitators -- FRIDAY THE 13TH. A group of camp counselors are stalked and slashed days before the opening of summer camp. Camp movies were starting to gain popularity (they'd remain popular throughout the 80s), and this little film had the edge -- it had special effects by Tom Savini (DAWN OF THE DEAD). Savini had been honing his gory effects in films for a few years, and was quickly gaining a rep for having the goriest, most-realistic effects around. FRIDAY THE 13TH was an instant hit and opened the floodgates for more slashers than I could ever begin to list. A sequel was delivered the following year, but since they'd beheaded the villainous Mrs. Voorhees in the first film, that didn't give them a lot of avenues to pursue.... Head of the family.FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 found Jason Voorhees coming back from the dead, seeking vengeance on camp counselors, since they were responsible for not only his death, but the murder of his beloved mother. This first sequel was basically a rehash of the first film up until the end, but it's come to be loved best out of the series by many fans. All ugly people should sport pillowcases!It's also noteworthy that it wasn't until FRIDAY THE 13th PART 3 that Jason got his patented hockey mask. Again, this was a solid hit and was followed by countless sequels and imitators. What's with these bitches and telephones?!1981 also brought the first sequel to HALLOWEEN. John Carpenter later admitted that he "hoed out" for money, and the only thing that got him through writing the script were intoxicants. It sort of shows. HALLOWEEN II picks up precisely where the first left off, with Jamie Lee Curtis (and others) reprising the original role. The problem, however, is that she spends the majority of the film unconscious as Michael slashes his way through the town and, eventually, the hospital to get to her. Dammit! Now we have to re-paint!Most notable is that Michael was finally given some motivation. The NBC network bought the rights to air the first HALLOWEEN and asked for additional footage to fill out the 96 minutes and to substitute for the footage that they cut out for TV. Carpenter reluctantly agreed to shoot some new footage, and he utilized the cast and crew of HALLOWEEN II (which he didn't direct, by the way) to film these scenes. In one of the new scenes, Dr. Loomis arrives in Michael's bedroom where he had scrawled the word "SISTER" across the wall. As a result of the inclusion of this scene, we learn that his would-be victim Laurie Strode was unknowingly Laurie Meyers. Two decades later, this "filler" (as John Carpenter calls it) footage was integrated back into prints of the film, and released on disc as "The Extended Edition" by Anchor Bay to acclaim from fans. Unfortunately, these DVDs are now out of print and sell at obscene prices. What the hell is that?!1981 also marked the original release of BASKET CASE. The film brought the slashers to a whole other level -- it introduced homicidal monsters to the mainstream. Loner Duane Bradley arrives in New York City carrying a mysterious wicker basket, and checks into the Hotel Broslin, which is filled with eccentrically daffy characters. It's soon revealed that the basket is home to mutant Belial, who's about to go on a killing spree. I won't spoil Belial's backstory for anyone who wants to see it. Rude awakening!Writer/director Frank Henenlotter grew up on sleazy, grade-z (s)exploitation splatterfests that once dominated the screens in Manhattan, and he set out to make his mark on the genre. Little did he know that his laughably low-budget film, which mixed broad humour with outrageous gore, would go on to become a cult favorite. Horror critic Joe Bob Briggs obtained a copy of the film and catapulted it into the spotlight, but it was on video that it gained a captive audience... Need a lift?From the early days of home video well into the '90s, a store-bought tape would set you back $60 to $120. In 1984, Media Home Entertainment picked up BASKET CASE for release, and Henenlotter demanded (against advice) that the film was included in their more-reasonably-priced $19.95 collection -- which, realistically, was still steep for the era, but a little more accessible. This decision payed off. BASKET CASE became a top-seller on video, and paved the way for two higher budget sequels, as well as Henenlotter's FRANKENHOOKER and the underexposed BRAIN DAMAGE. Campers are a pain in the neck!1983 saw the introduction of another cult classic, SLEEPAWAY CAMP. The film centers on shy Angela Baker, whose family dies, leaving her in the care of her crazy Aunt Martha. Martha sends Angela and her cousin, Ricky, to summer camp, where people succumb to bizarre deaths after messing with the girl. The twist ending is one of the greatest twist endings ever committed to film (though it was lost on audiences who saw SLEEPAWAY CAMP II: UNHAPPY CAMPERS before viewing the original). The silent scream!Although many dismiss this as a FRIDAY THE 13th rip-off, it was more clever than it's often given credit for. SLEEPAWAY lifted elements from THE BAD SEED (young killer, adult cover-up) and PSYCHO, and managed to introduce characters with some depth. The twist ending was itself ripped off in a high-profile, Oscar winning film in 1992 (which I won't name for fear of spoiling the film for anyone, but it won best original screenplay at the 1993 ceremony). One last trip to the john...Allegedly, writer/director Robert Hiltzik's mother died in a tragic accident, and he used the insurance claim to pursue his dream of filmmaking (the film opens with a dedication "To Mom"). The film got a very modest theatrical release, but in NYC, something strange happened... word of mouth spread, and it suddenly became the number one film, which was pretty unheard of for a low-budget slasher (excluding HALLOWEEN and TEXAS CHAINSAW). It's also notable that the original ad-campaign spoofed PSYCHO's campaign by proclaiming, "Due to the shocking nature of this film, no one will be admitted during final 10 minutes!" Straight-to-video sequels followed a few years later without the involvement of Hiltzik or the original film's cast, though many have returned for RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP (a film that ignores the sequels), which is alleged to be coming out sometime soon. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the craziest of them all?1983 also marked the return of Norman Bates. In PSYCHO II, Norman is released from the asylum where he's spent the last 22 years, much to the protest of Lila Loomis, whose sister was one of his final victims. Shortly after arriving back at home, Norman begins receiving strange phone "calls from a woman claiming to be his real mother, and not the dead Mrs. Bates," and murders again ensue. The question is, has Norman gone crazy again, or is someone else committing the murders? Sequels are generally inferior entities, but this one is well above average, only hampered by a few gory shots that are rather laughable today (though they scared the hell out of me way back when). This is the one that's responsible for my obsession with the whole horror genre, thanks to a viewing with my family in 1984. Dennis Franz, you must die for showing your ass on NYPD Blue!Allegedly, star Anthony Perkins and his co-star, Meg Tilly (THE BIG CHILL, sister of scream queen Jennifer Tilly), did not get along. While this doesn't come across in the film and they were amiable in the press, it's rumoured that Tilly had a diva complex which didn't bode well with Perkins. Psycho author Robert Bloch claimed in one of his final interviews that the ball got rolling for a sequel when it became public that he was writing a follow-up to his novel. In any event, Hitchcock was dead by this time, and the scripts ignored Bloch's sequel and set off on its own path. Written by Tom Holland (FRIGHT NIGHT, CHILD'S PLAY) and directed by Richard Franklin (CLOAK AND DAGGER), the film paved the way for two more sequels before the abrupt death of Perkins. Whatever you do, don't fall asleep!Thanks to the success of the never-ending series of slashers, New Line Cinema took a chance on optioning a little film in 1984 that was the brainchild of director Wes Craven, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. A group of teens come to the realization that they're all dreaming of the same "boogey man," a scarred character named Fred who sports a hat and a glove made of "finger knives." When Nancy Thompson's friends begin dying in their sleep, she makes a horrifying discovery -- the boogey man was a real person who was murdered by the parents of the teens, and now he's seeking revenge by killing off their children in their dreams. Oh, what a feeling, when you're dying on the ceiling!The story seemed wildly original, but often myth is rooted in fact. After hearing stories about Laotion refugees who were afflicted with nightmares so terrifying that they refused to sleep (they later died when they drifted to slumber), Craven began developing his story. Craven named his villain Freddy Krueger after a childhood bully (he'd previously used a shorter version of the name, "Krug," for the villain in LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT aka KRUG & COMPANY). The script was completed in 1981 but it was three years before the film was made. It was worth the wait. ELM STREET was successful out of the gate, providing a little financial security for the floundering New Line Cinema, so a sequel was rushed into production... sans Craven, who went on to direct the movies-of-the-week INVITATION TO HELL and CHILLER and the feature DEADLY FRIEND. The two faces of Robert Englund... !A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET succeeded in doing something that hadn't been done in over a decade: it created a new iconic horror actor. Although he continued to take roles in non-horror roles for a while ("V," etc.), Robert Englund became synonimous with horror films, just as Vincent Price, Bela Legosi, Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee before him. Writer/director Wes Craven, who'd also made a niche in horror films, also became typecast as a result of this film. Kiss me or die!A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE was released into theatres in 1985 and was also a hit. It was only afterward that fans began to pan the film. Set five years after the events of the first film, Jesse moves into Nancy Thompson's house with his family and begins having nightmares about Krueger. Seems Freddy wants to use the boy to break out into the real world. Fred's makeup was better, he was equally menacing, and the body count was higher. Fans, however, continue to endlessly theorize about FREDDY'S REVENGE, and have labeled it "the gay Elm Street." I can't imagine why they call this the gay Elm Street....There are very few slasher films that center on male protagonists, which is likely part of the logic for the gay label. A few scenes that show male backsides have been labeled "homoerotic" (as well as a brief scene in an S&M bar) and Jesse's refusal to let Freddy take over his body is likened to a boy repressing his sexual urges. Yes, the film IS gayer than the rest, but 1985 audiences didn't notice it that much -- they still made it a hit for New Line. It's ironic that the film is considered by many fans to be next to the worst of the series, but it's continually discussed more than most of the sequels. My goodness, it's windy inside today!Another oddball slasher was released in '85 that crosses a zillion sub-genres. Released under the title CREEPERS in the USA (and PHENOMENA in most of the rest of the world), the film tells the story of teen Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connolly, LABYRINTH, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM), who is sent to a European boarding school where a killer is on the loose. Yes, that setup sounds familiar, but admirers of the film know that there's little about the film that's typical. Jennifer is able to communicate with insects telepathically, and she joins forces with a wheelchair-bound scientist (Donald Pleasance, HALLOWEEN) to try to catch the killer. There's a razorblade-wielding chimpanzee, mutants, bugs galore, and lots of gore and depravity in this bizarre free-for-all. Did Jason Voorhees have a brother?Made by acclaimed Italian goremeister Dario Argento (who'd previous seen some success in the states with the lushly photographed, fantastically scored, but ultimately addle brained, SUSPIRIA), CREEPERS found its way to shelves in every little video store across America. For those of us who saw it way back when, it was memorable for the utter absurdity, but it lacked coherence. And for good reason. Is there ketchup on my face?Some idiotic editor decided to excise more than 30 minutes of footage out of CREEPERS. Although this is often done in the USA/UK to remove excessive gore, that wasn't the case with this one. One death scene was altogether cut, and a few snippets of gore were trimmed -- but the majority of the cuts to the film were made to the story itself, leaving it confusing, and riddled with unintentionally laughable dialog. In the mid-90s, Anchor Bay restored 28 minutes to the film (6 minutes were trimmed at the request of Argento), and released the movie with its original title and (radically different) artwork. Although SUSPIRIA is hailed as Argento's masterpiece, there's many of us who feel that PHENOMENA is the superior film. At the very least, it's the one that brought him a little more mainstream notoriety in the US. Escaping through a tunnel and she's still on the phone!?There's one last important thing about PHENOMENA/CREEPERS, which is the music. Rock music had made its way back into horror films as early as HALLOWEEN (Blue Öyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper" underscored a scene), and original songs had made their way into the first ELM STREET and SLEEPAWAY CAMP films, but Argento had been known to have the band Goblin score his films (SUSPIRIA, TENEBRE, etc). While Goblin is still very present during the film -- though some of their score was unused -- Motorhead, Iron Maiden and others were prominently featured, their music underscoring several scenes. As a result, the dam was about to burst... Jason Cooper?1986 saw the introduction of FRIDAY THE 13th PART VI: JASON LIVES. Here's where the music/horror mix really started to pay off. The original shock rocker, Alice Cooper, who'd fallen off the charts 8 years earlier when he delved into a bizarre mix of punk and synth-pop albums, made his comeback with the songs "He's Back: The Man Behind the Mask" and "Teenage Frankenstein," which were featured in the 6th Friday film, (another track, "Hard Rock Summer," was also in the film, though it was not issued on disc for more than a decade). A music video was shot for "He's Back" with an original storyline that featured Jason himself and clips from JASON LIVES. The success of this did not go unnoticed by other filmmakers, and before long, the bulk of slasher films were being jammed with rock songs, tie-in music videos, and LP soundtracks that featured the songs, rather than simply the orchestral scores, from the films. Oddly, the original version of "He's Back" (later released in Cooper's boxed set) had a harder rock sound than the version that was used in the film -- it's alleged that the people behind JASON LIVES thought the song was too hard, so he created a lighter pop version (and he used the original music for another song on his CONSTRICTOR album called "Trick Bag"). Chazz is holding a surprise...Another noteworthy film from the makers of FRIDAY was unleashed in '86. In APRIL FOOL'S DAY, a group of college kids spend April Fool's weekend at the remote family home of Muffy St. John. The fun and games quickly diminish when they're sliced-and-diced, seemingly by Muffy's twin sister, Buffy. Bobbing for bodies!The film was a moderate hit, but the ending irked many fans of the genre. In recent years, thanks to magazine articles, the novelization and widely circulated photos of scenes that don't appear in the film (available on the back of video packaging), there's been speculation that the ending, as it appears now, was a false-ending setup. It's alleged that there's another ending where a completely different killer is revealed, but it was cut from the film. Whether or not this is true is unclear, due in large part to the fact that Paramount is notorious for being lacking in DVD extras (APRIL FOOL'S doesn't even feature a trailer), but fans of the film -- which has developed a devout cult audience -- are dying to know the truth about this legendary lost ending. It's the man of your dreams!In 1987, the slasher films really came into their own, thanks to home video, the introduction of a new set of characters, and the return of Freddy Krueger. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS featured the return of Nancy Thompson, who went to work in an asylum where teens were having problems coping with their nightmares. It's revealed that everyone has some sort of special dream power, and they unite to use these powers to overturn Freddy. The special effects were amped, the story was ingenious, and Freddy began quipping wisecracks on a regular basis. Eat me!The original script was co-penned by Wes Craven, who established many of the characters and plot points, but the script wasn't as fantastic as it's reputed to be, so others were brought in to polish it and flesh out the characters. Although the first two ELM STREET films were very successful, they were still looked upon as slashers, which didn't equal a mainstream box-office bonanza. DREAM WARRIORS changed that. It got a wide theatrical release, garnered stellar box-office receipts, and got kind words from critics, who had not been so nice to the previous two films. This one put New Line Cinema (which has come to be known as "the studio that Freddy built") over the top, and more sequels were rushed, along with the anthology TV series "Freddy's Nightmares," which Krueger hosted and occasionally appeared in. Freddy sings!What's unique here is the merchandising. While there wasn't much released for DREAM WARRIORS itself (a few variations of a soundtrack, including a 12" single of Dokken's title tune), it was obvious that Freddy clicked with kids, becoming a beloved anti-hero, and merchandising was soon being flooded onto the market. There were books, magazines, toys, dolls, videogames, a CD that Freddy lent his vocal talents to, and even bubblegum packets sporting his ugly mug. The old Universal movie monsters had seen a similar success when they became retro in the '60s, but none of the other slashers clicked so well with young children or have seen the vast amount of merchandise -- which is ironic since Krueger was a child murder! They're creepy and they're kookie, mysterious and ookie...In 1987, the Cenobites were also unleashed upon the world in Clive Barker's HELLRAISER, which was based on his novella The Hellbound Heart. Filmed under the working title SADOMASOCHISTS FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, HELLRAISER tells the story of the Cotton family. Uncle Frank discovers the secret to a Rubik's Cube-like puzzle box, which summons the Cenobites, headed by an unnamed monster who fans quickly (and appropriately) dubbed "Pinhead." The cenobites take him to their lair, but now-fleshless Frank escapes, and finds aid in the arms of his sister-in-law, Julia. Julia agrees to kill people to regenerate Frank's missing flesh, but plans go awry when her step-daughter discovers whats going on and summons the Cenobites.
HELLRAISER is sort of an oddity in that it was written and directed by the man who wrote the original story, Clive Barker (who would quickly gain legendary status). Although some complain that some of the effects are bad, there's good reason for this -- they ran out of money. All in all, the film did extremely well, both in cinemas and on home video, and it paved the way for a neverending series of sequels.
It's only a toy, Andy!In 1988, the face of horror underwent some plastic surgery. In the sleeper hit CHILD'S PLAY, serial killer Charles Lee Ray transfers his soul into a "My Buddy"-type Good Guy Doll, which is snatched up by a struggling single mother as a birthday present for her son, Andy. But when the Chucky dolls comes to life, no one believes mother or son, and the supposed good guy begins to terrorize them. My buddy and me!Doll killers were nothing new. A variation had been seen in the 1936 Tod Browning film THE DEVIL-DOLL (though these were merely shrunken humans), in vintage episodes of "The Twilight Zone" ("The Dummy" and "Living Doll") and "Night Gallery" ("The Doll"), in MAGIC and MAKING CONTACT, and it had been exploited in the previous year's indie DOLLS. While the filmmakers were hardly treading new ground, director Tom Holland chose to keep animatronic Chucky shrouded in darkness through most of the film to create a tense atmosphere. Following in the wake of animatronic hits like GREMLINS and TROLL, the effects were getting better, but were still not perfected, so this was a great move that made wisecracking Chucky a little more menacing. That's not how you wear a jockstrap!1988 also saw the introduction of the first of two straight-to-video sequels (which were literally filmed back-to-back) for SLEEPAWAY CAMP, which instantly developed a huge cult audience. In SLEEPAWAY CAMP II: UNHAPPY CAMPERS, Angela had taken a job at a summer camp as a counselor, but she doesn't like the bulk of the snotty campers, so she has to "send them home." In Angela's mind, sending them home equals unashamedly and gruesomely killing them. Yes, I've now revealed the killer from part 1, but that's hardly the twist ending. Angela, the driller killer!Felicity Rose was asked to reprise her role of Angela, but she was in college and unable to, so the part went to Pamela Springsteen, a young actress who'd had supporting roles in several brat pack films -- though she's become best known as being the sister of "The Boss," Bruce Springsteen. Cast as the "last girl" was Renée Estevez (HEATHERS, sister of Emelio and Charlie Sheen). This sibling casting was part of a bigger inside joke. Nothing like some good, clean camp bondage!UNHAPPY CAMPERS had the standard big hair, bitchy characters, bare breasts and grinding music that all of the other slashers had, but it brought something else to the table. CHAIN SAW and ELM STREET had brought humour to the slashers in a big way, but UNHAPPY CAMPERS cranked it up ten notches. The film is absolutely giddy with self-referential jokes, including the first appearance of Jason and Freddy together in one film (in the guise of two campers who donned their attire and set out to scare Angela). Additionally, all of the campers were named after members of the brat pack. There's Molly (Ringwald), Ally (Sheedy), Rob (Lowe), Demi (Moore), Judd (Nelson), Emelio (Estevez), etc., etc. The mix of comedy and horror is deliberate and blatant, and a precursor to the success of SCREAM. It's sad that this one never got the theatrical release that it deserved. Freddy Vs. Jason?!What makes SCII truly unique is its fanbase. This is the only series I can think of where the fans are split right down the middle. Fans of the original aren't too keen on the sequels, fans of the sequels aren't too keen on the original... there are very few who like all of the films. It's even somewhat absurd online -- there's two different officially-sanctioned, fan-run sites on the net -- one for the original and one for the sequels. Very strange.
Throughout the rest of the 80s and early 90s, there was an onslaught of forgettable titles, sequels galore, and standard straight-to-video fare. It was also during this time that Hollywood began making their own brand of slashers, with FATAL ATTRACTION, BASIC INSTINCT, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and BODY OF EVIDENCE gaining large box-office takings. Yes, they had big budgets and big-name stars, but under the surface, they were still merely slashers. Other notable films from this era include MANHUNTER, I MADMAN, THE STEPFATHER, 976-EVIL, SHOCKER, PUMPKINHEAD, MIRROR MIRROR, DEMONIC TOYS, PUPPET MASTER, LEPRECHAUN and CANDYMAN. However, audiences were seemingly tired of the exhausted genre, and the films languished as Freddy, Jason, Michael and Chucky each found an end to their series. But in 1996, the cycle began anew.
Isn't it too soon for this to be retro?!In 1995, a script penned by a complete unknown named Kevin Williamson circulated Hollywood, and did something highly unusual -- it ignited a bidding war amongst the major studios for the rights to produce a slasher! Eventually Wes Craven, who spent a handful of years trying to shake his horror roots, agreed to direct, and a lot of fresh, relatively unknown faces were cast (with the exceptions of Drew Barrymore, Henry Winkler and Linda Blair), and SCARY MOVIE was rushed into production. Partway into production, however, the title was changed to SCREAM. It opened in 1996. No charming parties... but bitches on phones again!SCREAM centered on young Sidney Prescott, whose mother had been murdered prior to the start of the film. As Sidney soon discovers, she fingered the wrong man for Mama's murder, and the killer's still on the loose -- now taunting the teen. As friends and acquaintances come to an untimely demise, Sid tries to discover the true identity of the Woodsboro Killer. Just don't rape me, guys!What made SCREAM both a critical and financial success was, as I mentioned with SLEEPAWAY CAMP II, the use of comedic self-reference. The bulk of the films mentioned in this article were named by name over the course of the SCREAM trilogy (HALLOWEEN is even featured, and set as an example for "the rules" of scary movies). Once the film had been established as a hit, the door was open for a billion slashers, mainly filled with faces from TV, which were now highly profitable and completely mainstream. What the hell did we hit?!The next big slasher to hit came in 1998, and was also penned by Williamson, based on a script by Lois Duncan Clarke. I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER followed the misadventures of a group of teens who accidentally reduce a hitchhiker to roadkill, so they attempt to cover up their crime. When they receive notes the following year (see title of the film), they try to figure out if they're being blackmailed by an onlooker or if said roadkill actually wasn't. Well, hello, dolly....1998 also saw the successful (albeit brief) revival of another beloved slasher series. In BRIDE OF CHUCKY, the little doll from the CHILD'S PLAY films got a new lease on life -- and a lovely new wife. When Chucky's former girlfriend brings him back from beyond, her plan backfires and she finds herself being immortalized in plastic. More glib jokes and self-reference abounded, along with some very graphic and realistic gore. Don't look at me, I'm hideous!It was the same year that Jamie Lee Curtis attempted to put an end to her legacy in the HALLOWEEN films once and for all. She solicited the idea that for the 20th anniversary of the film, Michael Myers should finally find his long-lost sister, and she'd again defeat him -- for good. Although many were on-board with the idea, director John Carpenter couldn't be persuaded to take on the project. Kevin Williamson, who also claims to owe his success to HALLOWEEN, polished the script and added some humor; Jamie Leigh's mother, Janet Leigh, appeared as her daughter's secretary (and gave a nod to her PSYCHO legacy), and H20 hit the screens, to much acclaim. Seemed that Michael was dead for good... until they laughably resurrected him in the next sequel. Slashers have a new face.... and what an ugly face it is!As had been the case a few years earlier, the slasher films again wore out their welcome. Many slasher fans now claim that Williamson single-handedly killed the genre (funny, these same people paid full ticket-price to see his films), but early into the new century, the cycle began again. Unfortunately, with the exceptions of JEEPERS CREEPERS and SAW, most modern-day flicks are remakes and/or rehashes of Japanese imports. Undoubtedly, these inferior remakes will soon die off, and a new set of slashers will emerge to start the trend all over again.
Wow, I had no intention of making this article so epic -- it just sort of happened. Undoubtedly I've overlooked several films and will soon find myself being reprimanded, but if this is well received, there's many more sub-genres that can be covered (werewolves, vampires, zombies, clowns, dolls, monsters, etc)....