An Orgy of Gore 23 Years in the Making
For the longest time, people tended to put movies like Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream in the genres of horror and thriller and suspense. And why not? The family Leatherface stunned thousands when it was released. Freddy Krueger’s razors on metal sent chills up anybody’s spine. And when Michael Myers stared at Jamie Lee Curtis from across the front lawn, all audiences were on the edges of their seats. However, when one examines films in the horror, thriller, and suspense genres, there are distinct differences that set the slasher apart from them. Slasher films have very strict rules. Slasher films have a recognizable foe that can return countless times. Slasher films can somehow keep going and going and going until it seems like they shouldn’t be going any longer.
So what is a slasher film? There is a percentage that would most assuredly answer: “Stupid.” However, despite their sometimes ludicrous plots, ridiculous enemies, rigid rulebooks, and subpar acting, slashers have, well, slashed their way into the hearts of many and have established themselves as a genre that can stand the test of time. So, tonight, I invite you to accompany me through the history of the slasher, examining the Seven Deadly Stalkers and the one that fell by the wayside, never catching on probably due to the fact that its title was far too long. We’ll look at the plot, the audience reaction, and just how far people decided to take it.
I. Just What the Hell is a Slasher?
Komodo vs. Cobra.
Wait Until Dark.
Those five movies are all from separate genres, and only one of them is a slasher. Did you guess it? You probably did. The only slasher of the five is Hellraiser. So—just why is Hellraiser the only slasher? All five of those movies have very distinct enemies. All five of those movies are scary in their own ways. All five of those movies have some level of blood and violence. Shouldn’t they all fall under the category of “Horror?” In a way, they could. “Horror,” however, is a very, very broad term. It does, in fact, have many subgenres.
Planet Terror is a zombie flick. The title is self-explanatory. It features zombies running amuck and eating brains and tearing apart the locals. It has a group of heroes that blaze through the snarling undead, learning how to exist in a world populated by “sickos,” as the movie calls them. Other movies in this particular genre are Dawn of the Dead, Redneck Zombies, and Black Sheep. Zombie movies are one of the biggest subgenres of Horror, and have very devoted fans. Their main characteristics:
- Obscene levels of gore
- Gross-out factor
- An individual or couple or small group that prevails and fights their way through the undead
- Very often includes black comedy
George Romero’s zombie films are widely recognized as the best zombie flicks with an important message, the most acclaimed being 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, most memorable for its chilling portrayal of a newly zombified child slowly killing and eating her own parents. However, for the most part, zombie flicks in today’s culture often mock themselves and are ridiculous and over the top with their gore.
Komodo vs. Cobra is what is known as a “bad movie,” but, for the sake of formality, we’ll call it a creature feature. And with a title like Komodo vs. Cobra, one doesn’t really need much of an explanation. It’s a giant komodo dragon and a giant cobra fighting. Some people get in the way, and they eventually manage to get at least two of their party off of the island this story takes place. Very few creature features have managed to get past the whole “bad movie” label that is usually associated with them. Their main characteristics are:
- Bad acting and foreigners
- Angry/giant/mutated animals, humans (rarely), or insects (pythons, lizards, spiders, grasshoppers, rabbits)
- A group of people that gradually gets reduced to only one or two by the end
- The straight-to-video label
- Hideous F/X
- An atrocious plot
As I said—creature features are often very, very bad. Arguably, there were only four creature features that ever achieved “good” quality: The Birds, Jaws (first one only), Arachnophobia, and Jurassic Park, and its status as a creature feature is dubious. The former three, however, have a very distinct difference from most creature features—their animals aren’t mutated. They are simply a little bigger and a little meaner.
Audition is a psychological horror movie. It is the story of a recently made widower, mourning the loss of his wife. His friends encourage him to date, so he holds a false audition for a new movie, when in reality it is an audition to be his new girlfriend. The last girl on the list is the one he wants—it just so happens that she is a raging psychopath. The movie is raw, exceedingly violent, and full of unflinching shots of torture, disfigurement, and the eating of vomit. And yet, through all the blood and gore, there is a disturbing message that is usually missed, because people aren’t really concentrating on the weakness of man and the darkness of the human heart—they’re concentrating on the fact that she’s sawing his foot off with piano wire. Characteristics of the psychological horror movie include:
- Often a single enemy that delights in torture and murder
- Gruesome images of torture and death
- Blood is sometimes not necessary—sometimes, the director will simply give you sounds and screaming
- An underlying message of man’s inhumanity to man or just what human beings are capable of doing to one another under stress or strain that comes through in the end and is represented by the disturbed killer
- The hero/heroine does not always win
Psychological horror films are visceral and their main intention is to cause a gut reaction. They want the audience to recoil in horror and feel the same pain the recipient of the villain’s torture is going through. Eli Roth is particularly effective in this venue with his Hostel films, and even briefly in his short fake trailer Thanksgiving, which caused a great many women to flinch in empathy as a cheerleader does the splits on a trampoline right onto a butcher knife.
Wait Until Dark is a suspense film. The slow-starting film spins an eerie and all-too-real tale of a newly blind woman being slowly surrounded and stalked by heroin dealers. Eventually, she discovers she is trapped, she has no allies left—and her enemies are coming for her. Suspense is just what it says—they cause terror, suspense, and fear. Common characteristics include:
- Realistic villains that can range from unpleasant to nearly evil
- The protagonists are also realistic—no super abilities, no nerves of steel
- The plot can range from intricate to almost impossibly twisted
- The real villain sometimes hides behind a fake one—red herrings are very common
- Repeated viewings don’t matter—they can scare you again and again and again
Suspense films, to me, are the best of the horror genre. When a person wants to be scared, it’s films like Wait Until Dark, Signs, and Rear Window that make the blood pump and make me want to sleep with the light on. Those films make people forget the old adage “Trust they neighbor.” They make you lock your door in the afternoon.
Hellraiser. As said before, it’s a slasher. It was based on a book by Clive Barker, a sick, twisted tale of the Cenobites, a sadomasochistic race of demons that can be summoned by solving a golden puzzle box. Once summoned, they take the puzzle-solver down to hell for an eternity of agonizing pain and torture. And what makes it a slasher?
- A marketable villain—Pinhead, the lead Cenobite, is a recognizable figure
- More than three sequels—to date, Pinhead has appeared in nine films, with a tenth coming in 2008
- There is a lead heroine, and most importantly, she is a virgin
- Pinhead has an ever-growing body count, always adding to it with inventive and creative (if a tad unrealistic) murder methods
- The series degenerated quickly into little more than slaughter festivals, their plots becoming ridiculous, stupid, and simply excuses to bring Pinhead back so he could kill a few more teens
- It followed The Rules
Yes, THE RULES. The rules of all slasher films, mocked these days by films like Scary Movie. Aside from a few minor ones (when in danger, run up a staircase, etc.), the main rules are:
- You can’t kill the killer—slashers live for sequels.
- Virgins = alive. Sluts = dead. This is not limited to sex, either. You take off your clothes for any reason other than to change, you will die—and limit your changing, too.
- Law enforcement is utterly useless.
- People often behave like lemmings, going one by one into the dark room or the ugly house or the forbidden woods.
- NEVER MOCK THE LEGEND. That automatically revokes your virgin protection.
- Sidekicks always die—it makes the battle between the protagonist and the slasher personal.
- You can’t have a male protagonist. It’s always a lead female, whether she be the last one standing or running away into the sunset with her boyfriend.
- They always know where you are—and where you will be, so they can precede you there.
- They always wear masks, whether it be a genuine mask or a disfigured visage.
- Tragic pasts don’t necessarily make the slashers sympathetic—and yet, they always have one, usually developed later in the series by filmmakers who want to try and legitimize what is simply a blood bath.
Those are THE RULES. And here is the simplest slasher formula I could come up with:
Heroine + unkillable villain + weapon of choice + hapless teens = GORE
Now, it wasn’t always like this. Believe it or not, the slasher formula evolved, just like any other. The quintessential, perfect, abide-by-the-rules slasher didn’t actually show up until 1996, and the slasher genre started in 1974! So, what happened in those 22 years to create the perfect slasher? Seven franchises—that’s what happened, starting with the least bloody—and most realistic, in my humble opinion—of them all.
II. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
“You should come have dinner with us! My family’s always been into meat!”
In 1974, Tobe Hooper presented his quickly-filmed, inexpensive-yet-still-over-budget gem of a film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It was the story of a group of teens’ ill-fated drive out to a graveyard to check and see if Sally’s grandfather’s grave was one of many that had been desecrated by an unknown vandal. It opened up with the chilling narration that what the audience was about to see was “one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history,” and touted as based on true events. The low quality of filming provided extra realism, as it looked like a grainy film documentary rather than a movie. Because of low budget, Hooper could not afford to have hideously mutilated bodies and buckets of blood gushing from every corner. As such, the audience never really saw what happened to most of the people—but they heard, and they got plenty of implication. Example: you never see the meat hook slide into Pam’s back when Leatherface slams her down onto it for later slaughtering. But you see her screaming and clinging desperately to the shiny metal.
What had originally thought to be a career killer turned into an overnight hit. Audiences everywhere flocked to see it, absolutely incapable of preventing themselves from going to see what critics had called “horrifying” and “obscene.” Americans couldn’t help but want to see the film that had been banned in several countries, wanted to know just what Tobe Hooper had unleashed into an unsuspecting public. It was like nothing they had ever seen—a raw, unflinching film about a psychotic, inbred, cannibalistic family, in particular the large son known only as Leatherface and how he spun his chainsaw around when he chased his prey.
There were three main villains in TCSM, the most notable being, of course, Leatherface. Named for the stitched-together mask of human skin he wore, Leatherface carried a large sledgehammer and a gas-powered chainsaw, and he used both to slaughter and slice human beings. He didn’t speak—he squealed, whined, moaned, and shrieked, and his true face was never seen. Not to be ignored, however, was his brother, known only as the Hitchhiker. Played by the talented and perhaps slightly deranged Edwin Neal, the Hitchhiker did speak, as well as offer up the first sampling of terror for our intrepid teens. He carried a razor and invited them to come eat with his family—they’ve always been into meat, after all, and make the finest chili and barbeque in town. Only in the end do you realize what they make it out of, because that’s when you meet the father, the twisted, sick individual who holds everything together. Perhaps the most chilling incident involving the father is the obscene way he coos to Sally, the heroine, that it will be all right even as he pokes her maliciously with the broken end of a broom handle.
TCSM was not a blockbuster, but it was a huge success. It jumpstarted the career of Edwin Neal, despite the miserable conditions of filming and the fact that he later stated he would kill Tobe Hooper if he ever saw him again. And, most importantly for relevance to this little blurb, it started the slasher genre. Leatherface was the forerunner of Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and even Chucky. Arguably, TCSM started two subgenres of Horror—the slasher and the psychological horror.
TCSM did not obey all the rules of a slasher film, mostly because they didn’t exist. No one got naked in TCSM, and the only one who believed the legend and feared the worst was actually one of the victims to die. However, it introduced one unshakable trait: the villain. The marketable psychopath named Leatherface. When TCSM comes up, the first thing a person thinks of is the huge and lumbering figure of Leatherface, swinging his chainsaw about as he jibbers through the hole in his flesh mask. The Hitchhiker and the family’s patriarch aren’t often mentioned, because they either died, dropped away, or changed through the years—Leatherface was the only unchanging symbol of the TCSM franchise, because he wore a mask. The mask became a key component of a marketable slasher, because what happens when you want to make sequels and the original psycho doesn’t want to come and do another movie? Now it didn’t matter—just find a guy of the same height and width, and you’re ready to go! Leatherface was something that could be continued—he had a mask, he had a huge, terrifying figure, and, most importantly, he had a chainsaw. He had a weapon of choice, which he used to slice through whatever and whomever got in his way.
TCSM is, to me, the only truly terrifying slasher film, from start to finish. Its plot is not nearly as contrived as the next ones, and Leatherface was simply a huge, deranged killer. He had no super abilities, he has no grudge, and he has no connection to the rest of the people he kills. His motive is simple—kill people. Not “kill the sinners,” “kill the bad people,” or “kill the people who wronged me.” Simply kill. Also, the heroine—the last girl standing—may have introduced the rule of only the female may prevail in the slasher, but she was almost too real for comfort. When she finally escapes, all she can do is scream and laugh hysterically, covered in blood—she does not walk away from the scene with her head held high, unfettered by such ridiculousness as human emotion and terror. She is genuinely hysterical.
TCSM did have sequels, prequels, and remakes—specifically, three sequels, one remake, and one prequel that followed the remake’s canon. However, they adhered rigidly to the rules, because by the time they started appearing, the slasher formula was becoming set in stone. That is what sets the original TCSM apart from all other slashers, even members of its own franchise—it did not abide by the rules, it did not have a precedent. It was not a slice-‘em-up bloodfest—it touted itself as a real story, as something that could happen to anyone. And people believed that—after the movie came out, highway crime dropped 13% because nobody wanted to pick up hitchhikers anymore.
It would take Halloween and Friday the 13th to introduce the super heroine, and the “have sex and die” rule. But, until 1978, TCSM reigned supreme as the first and foremost of all slashers, and set a precedent that would be followed up by a man in a William Shatner mask.
“Death has come to your little town, sheriff.”
Four years after TCSM had been released, John Carpenter threw his offering onto the screens. It was called Halloween, and it featured the story of when Michael Myers came home from the mental hospital. Why was he there in the first place? Because, when he was five years old, he stabbed his older sister to death with a large kitchen knife.
Halloween was a blockbuster. Thousands flocked to see it, and its theme song became probably the most terrifying of all slasher themes. Simple, repetitive, yet highly effective, the reedy piano theme written by John Carpenter has been used by Halloween horror houses everywhere to set mood. The then unknown Jamie Lee Curtis was launched into fame, becoming a star almost overnight and went on to do films like A Fish Called Wanda, Trading Places, and, even though most actors refuse to return to their roots (or even mention them), she went on to star in the sequel Halloween H20. People loved Halloween because it was still a scary film that made people afraid to walk home alone at night—or even with company. Halloween still clung to the notion that it wasn’t just a slaughterfest, preferring to imply gore rather than show it.
Leatherface had set a precedent—Michael Myers was big, he was silent, and he wore a mask. He carried a weapon of choice—his kitchen knife—and he went through teens one by one, just as his predecessor had. Also, the main protagonist and sole survivor of Michael’s blade was a woman, but she was slightly more rational and didn’t shake up nearly as badly as Sally had in TCSM. However, John Carpenter’s film set down one of the most unshakable rules of all slashers—every last person who was a “bad girl,” a jerk, or even hinted that they were going to get lucky died by Michael’s hand. In TCSM, the dating couple did die, but it was never confirmed that they were having sex, and you never even saw them kiss. In Halloween, it is established—the ditzy cheerleader, humping away at her idiot boyfriend. The girl wearing only a shirt and underwear, running next door because her boyfriend called for a little nookie. All died when Michael Myer’s strolled into town.
Carpenter also introduced the idea of the slasher having one specific person in mind—the last one standing. Leatherface and his posse never really targeted one person. They didn’t leave Sally for last; she was simply the last one to go into the house. Michael Myers kills his teens in order, and constantly watches Jamie Lee Curtis from behind a hedge, from the neighbor’s lawn, and from his junky car. In the end, once he’s killed everyone else, he finally comes for her. However, Curtis had the luck of being in the film that set the doom-sayer character in stone for slashers—Dr. Loomis, played by the ever-creepy Donald Pleasance. TCSM had hinted that someone who seems to know more than everyone else is good foreshadowing—the town drunk, sitting in the tire, giggling that he saw who desecrated the graves. Dr. Loomis, however, tries desperately to warn the town that Michael Myers is in town, and that he’s going to kill everyone he finds, and that you can’t stop him, no one can stop him. And so, Halloween promptly set up the rule of nobody listening to the one who tries to warn them.
Michael Myers was not only a big, scary man in a William Shatner mask, he was also seemingly indestructible. He got stabbed, a wire hanger was shoved into his eye, he was beaten and attacked and every time he fell, he got right back up and resumed his slow march towards his goal of killing. Halloween presented the audience with a killer that simply couldn’t be killed. It introduced the super-natural element, as well as hinting that sequels would be nice. Michael Myers is shot several times and falls off of a balcony—and then when they go to look for his body, he’s gone, ending the movie on a hanging note that can only be dropped with a sequel. And sequels it had—six of them (barring Halloween III, which did not feature Michael Myers for some incredibly odd reason), along with the recent remake by Rob Zombie and discussion of sequels to the remake.
Halloween was probably the last of the truly frightening slashers. Directors realized that the main thing that was selling was not the plot—it was the blood. It was the fact that audiences enjoyed watching a single figure slice and dice hapless teens. And one director—Sean Cunningham—took that idea and turned it into the most prolific and one of the most iconic horror figures in cinema history in 1980.
IV. Friday the 13th
“Jason was my son—and today is his birthday.”
It’s hard to talk about Friday the 13th and what it added to the slasher genre, because the original film did not feature Jason Voorhees. Point of fact, he didn’t become the hockey-masked murderer until the third installment, and he didn’t become the undead hockey-masked murderer until the fourth. So, first it must be told of what the first film added to the genre, because Friday the 13th is probably the one that plays the rules as strictly as possible, second only to Scream.
Sean Cunningham released Friday the 13th onto the unsuspecting public in 1980. It was the one that started having the plot hang by a thin (and usually badly-acted) thread, and established that audiences simply didn’t care that the plot was threadbare. Friday the 13th was welcomed by audiences as well as stirring up a little controversy in memory of TCSM—the main villain was the only female slasher to ever grace the screen, and the actress who played her—Betsy Palmer—was well known on stage as well as screen. As a result, some of her devoted fans despised the movie and threatened the filmmakers, disgusted with how they decided to portray her and accusing them of ruining their view of her forever. But, despite those negative views, Friday the 13th became very popular (and, in later years, very mocked), and it soon established itself in the halls of great slashers—because it was the one that contributed the most to the slasher genre.
It was extremely violent, and did not shy away from shoving a fire poker through Kevin Bacon’s neck (yet another person who owes his career to slashers). It brought in a large group of teens and killed all but one of them off, each in inventive ways, rather than just a simple knife to the chest, hammer to the head, or the ever-boring strangulation. And, when it was all said and done, all of the bodies were placed carefully about to ensure that the last female standing would have a chance to see the killer’s handiwork. It introduced the long-standing rule of “do drugs and die.” It adhered strictly to the already set rule of “have sex and die,” and promptly upped the ante—“get undressed and die.” It set up the idea that going into a dark room or venturing out to look for lost friends will kill you, and delighted in separating the group one by one so the slasher could do what it did best. And, importantly, it set up the grudge—the killer kills for a reason. Mrs. Voorhees’s son drowned at Camp Crystal Lake, because nobody was watching him—the counselors were off—guess what?—having sex.. So, she returns to the camp to kill off every last person who dares set foot at her son’s final resting place, as well as seeking justice against the teens as they follow in the neglectful counselors’ footsteps. However, the original Friday the 13th did present somewhat of a problem for the franchise.
Mrs. Voorhees was dead.
Leatherface did not die in TCSM, and Michael Myers mysteriously managed to live through all of his abuse. Mrs. Voorhees was firmly and spectacularly decapitated by the last surviving female, and she was dead. Obviously, that made it somewhat difficult for the Voorhees franchise to continue. So how did it continue? It’s the most prolific, with eleven films already out and a twelfth and perhaps a thirteenth (how amusing) in the works. How on earth did they manage to work around the fact that Mrs. Voorhees was dead and buried at Camp Crystal Lake? Well, I’m sure everybody already knows the answer to that.
They retrieved her son to do it for them.
Jason Voorhees, drowned in the lake at age twelve, was seen in the original Friday the 13th. You never know if it is a dream sequence that Alice has, of a half-rotted child leaping out and dragging her forcefully into the water. But, real or not, it was enough for directors and screenwriters. Jason Voorhees dragged himself out of the lake and became a true slasher—big, with a mask, and a choice weapon. Jason favored the machete, even though his mask took a little time to develop—filmmakers quickly realized that the burlap sack wasn’t intimidating, so, by Friday the 13th Part III, Jason had acquired the iconic hockey mask. However, he was also killed in the third one. That was when they decided to usher him formally into the undead, and now, at the end of every Jason sequel, he is put back down, but a simple jolt of electricity or an unfreezing or a summoning by a telepathic girl can bring him back out of the murky depths of Camp Crystal Lake and the bowels of hell—or the sewers of Manhattan—or outer space. Jason Voorhees was also the first to face down another slasher from an entirely different franchise, an idea introduced in the ninth installment Jason Goes to Hell, but not realized until ten years later in 2003. In Jason Goes to Hell, a familiar razor-glove snatches Jason’s mask and drags it down beneath the earth, presumably to hell. The razor-glove belonged to Jason’s biggest franchise rival, as well as the one that completely circumvented the problem of killing or hurting the slasher villain—he was already dead.
V. A Nightmare on Elm Street
“Don’t. Fall. Asleep.”
My apologies in advance if this particular bit is more glowing and doting than the others. Nightmare is my favorite of the lot, and Freddy Krueger is perhaps the most beloved of all slashers. He certainly my favorite!
Wes Craven had already had a taste of moderate success with his controversial Last House on the Left and his strange and sick tale The Hills Have Eyes. When he heard about a group of men who had refused to sleep because of horrible nightmares, but eventually succumbed to dreamland and all died screaming in their sleep, he couldn’t resist the idea of turning it into a movie. So, in 1984, after a ton of funding problems, time restrictions, set disasters, and fights with the censorship committees, he finally debuted A Nightmare on Elm Street, the film that launched him headfirst into the throne of slasher king. It told the story of a nightmare killer skulking into the dreams of innocent teens and slicing them to bits—or, in one memorable case, emulsifying them. People were stunned by the film—its gruesome death scenes, its buckets of blood, and, most especially, a killer that had a charismatic and smartass personality—all of it came together to make an instant hit. Freddy Krueger became a name that everybody knew, even before Jason Voorhees, who was still building his own reputation through bad sequels. Nobody could stop talking about it, and filmmakers eyed the young, never-before-seen actor named Johnny Depp who portrayed the heroine’s boyfriend with ideas of turning him into a teen idol.
Nightmare took the idea of a slasher and, while adhering to most of the rules, decided to break away from the typical lumbering giant of a killer with a tangible mask and a distinct lack of speech. Freddy Krueger had a sort of mask—it was his own burnt flesh. However, you could see his face, see his laughter, and watch him smile unpleasantly as he stalked children in their dreams. Not only that, but he was small and relatively skinny. But what he lacked in mass he made up for in killings—Freddy Krueger didn’t need mass. He killed in the dreamworld—dragging a girl up on the ceiling and disemboweling her, yanking a boy into his mattress and spitting him back out as no less than 200 gallons of blood, bone, and entrails, chasing down whomever he pleased through a clanking, steam-filled basement. Nightmare rescued the slashers from being doomed to march along as huge, nameless killers by giving Freddy a personality, something that has been repeated by every successful slasher since.
What set Freddy apart from the others was that he was original. Not satisfied with merely chopping up victims, Wes Craven took it a step further and used all manner of methods to kill teens. Even when Freddy was just slicing or stabbing, it was inventive—his weapon of choice wasn’t a knife or a chainsaw, something you could buy at the store; Freddy owned a glove with four razor-sharp knives protruding from the end, something he made himself. At the time, Freddy was unique among slashers, a figure that, for some reason, audiences didn’t want to see defeated. His sequels were often anticipated, for people wanted more, more, more of Freddy Krueger. People couldn’t wait to see how he’d been killing the next batch of teens.
However, he did still adhere to the rules—he killed the sluts, but let the virgins live. Glen Lantz, Nancy’s boyfriend, may have been a virgin, but he mocked the legend. Down he went, and in the most spectacular and goriest death scene ever put to film. He killed because of a grudge—the parents of Elm Street had burned him alive inside his boiler room, so he returned to murder the rest of the children he hadn’t gotten to yet. And, most importantly, the film ended with the chance of a sequel, and sequels came—eight sequels, to be exact and even a TV spin-off, each one hiding under a mask of legitimacy, dropping info about Freddy’s past and fleshing out his character, giving him even more motivation and explaining how he managed to come kill children from the spirit world, all while finding new and inventive ways to kill teens, such as turning one woman into a cockroach and crushing her.
So, Freddy Krueger set a new precedent—an inventive killer with a personality and a weapon that can do more than just stab. And what better way to follow up a snazzy serial killer like Freddy than with a bunch of leather-wearing sadomasochists from hell?
“We’ll tear your soul apart!”
Clive Barker’s 1986 Hellraiser was a real shocker. The Cenobites were more than just supernatural humans with intent to kill. In fact, their intent was far from killing—they wanted to torture. And torture they did—audiences everywhere were horrified by Pinhead and his gang of leather-clad demons, so horrified that the general message of the film was completely lost amongst the screaming. Hellraiser was interesting in that it delivered more than the twisted slasher message of, “Don’t do drugs, don’t be promiscuous, and don’t be a jerk.” It was a disapproving message of indulgence, following the story of Frank and his constant quest for pleasure, which led him fatefully to the puzzle box that summoned Pinhead to his side, where he was quickly ripped apart.
Yet again, this killer wore only a semi-mask—Pinhead’s name told the whole story. He had three-inch metal pins buried in his skull, covering his entire head. His compatriots were in similar states of eternal pain, all wearing black leather. In other words, they took S&M to a level it should never, ever be taken. They took the old slasher rule of “have sex and die” and advanced it to a disturbing level—sex is not just something indulged in by horny teens—point of fact, there are only two teenagers in Hellraiser, and neither of them die. Sex is the symbol of indulgence and a lack of self-control, and those who indulge themselves invariably die. Julia uses sex as a lure for Frank’s victims before she kills them and lets Frank suck them dry so he can regain his own body. However, in the end, her own twisted desires kill her as well, and the Cenobites eventually return and take Frank back to hell.
Hellraiser introduced the idea that there can be more than one main killer. While Pinhead was the character that became the moneymaker, he was actually not the central character that did the most killing. That would be Uncle Frank, the man who opened the puzzle box in the opening of the movie. You actually see Pinhead and his bunch kill only one victim in the first movie. Frank and his mistress are the ones who are truly evil and deadly. The Cenobites are almost like gatekeepers, and there is a point where you are eventually glad to see them. They arrive just in time to save the lead virgin, Kirsty, from Frank’s knife. Indeed, this theme prevailed through the majority of the Hellraiser flicks.
Another theme the Hellraiser movies started that was imitated in sequels from other franchises was the disgust factor. Hellraiser had plenty of gore and blood, but most of the time, it was utterly disgusting. Frank’s rebirth scene alone made thousands want to vomit. Then there were the dead bodies themselves, and the stretched flesh of Pinhead’s victims. Freddy Krueger was the slasher that most enthusiastically latched onto the idea of grossing out audiences with death scenes. So, while Hellraiser was inspired by Freddy to be inventive, Freddy was inspired by Hellraiser to be disgusting.
Pinhead himself, however, advanced the idea of a killer with a personality by making the leader of the Cenobites a sophisticated monster. He did not crack off jibes, like Freddy did, but he had a marvelous way with words (“Please—no tears. They are a waste of good suffering.”). He was an established immortal as well, circumventing the problem of how to bring him back—all filmmakers needed to do was drop the puzzle box off on some unsuspecting sap and they could easily manage to get some interesting kills in. Pinhead did not run or walk or stumble through a scene—he strolled, hands usually behind his back. He hardly ever raised a hand against his victims, preferring instead to use his telekinesis to send fishhooks flying through the air on chains to rip his victims apart. And, when he wasn’t in the mood to expend the effort, he let his lackies do it for him, and they were equally skilled in murder and mayhem. Pinhead was the first slasher to explain why he was supernatural in the first film, instead of later on in the franchise. Halloween never really explained Michael’s inhuman ability to recover. Jason had to wait for Jason X, the tenth in the series. Freddy was forced to wait patiently until the sixth movie, Freddy’s Dead until his supernatural dream abilities were explained. Pinhead? Immediate justification—they are demons. Done.
The Hellraiser franchise was odd in that it seemingly reached closure to the series with the fourth installment. The gateway was closed, the puzzle box seemingly destroyed. Apparently, the series was actually not supposed to advance beyond the fourth film. Naturally, that didn’t work, and Pinhead—always the same one—went on to be in nine films, with another one due next year. However, before any of his series could begin taking off, another killer marched onto the slasher stage—and this one was only two feet tall.
VII. Child’s Play
“Hi! It’s me, Chucky! Whaddya think?”
Probably the least notable of all the slashers, Child’s Play rode in on the coattails of Hellraiser in 1987 from director Tom Holland. It was a strange tale, featuring a Satanic serial killer that transferred his soul into a popular doll, which is bought by an unsuspecting family and chaos ensues. Oddly enough, it had the most big names in it than any other slasher, not needing to jumpstart any careers, as many of them had already prospered. Child’s Play
Child’s Play was a slasher that broke the rules. Like Hellraiser, there were no horny teens—but unlike Hellraiser, the main target was a five-year-old boy. Slashers had, until then, generally stayed away from small children, deeming them untouchable. Child’s Play went right for the kid, having Chucky pursue him for use in a Satanic ritual that would culminate in his death. There were no super-virgin women—the lead female was actually a divorced woman. And the one who delivered the final blow? Was a man. However, in breaking the rules, in introduced a few of its own. No one listened to the child when he tried to explain what he knew. It introduced the possibility of a law enforcement officer that wasn’t completely stupid. And, lastly, it waited a good long while before finally revealing the villain, something that hadn’t been done since Friday the 13th.
People generally regard Child’s Play as the red-headed stepchild of the seven heavyweights. It’s franchise is the second shortest of all of them, and its sequels are general frowned upon, considering every single one of them made it into theaters, which cannot be said for all of the others. However, despite the fact that Child’s Play is the smallest slasher in more ways that one, it still manages to attract an audience, as well as attract big names to its films.
And then…nothing happened. No new slasher franchises showed up for nine years. Sequels appeared to the existing series, no new villains thundered onto the scene. The slasher genre seemed to have reached a stand still—until Wes Craven stepped up to the plate once again and ended it for good.
“Do you like scary movies?”
Wes Craven revolutionized the slasher industry with A Nightmare on Elm Street. It stands to reason that he would be the one to finish it. In 1996, he released Scream to fans everywhere. It was highly publicized and a big hit, and very rapidly became one of the most talked-about films of the year. Why? Because while it was the story of an unknown villain slashing through horny teens, it didn’t just abide by the rules—it stated the rules. Scream was a slasher about two boys obsessed with slashers. A little too obsessed, because they decide to transfer the slasher rules into real life and kill everyone around them according to those rules.
Obviously, this was the one that finally came out and said, “Yes! All slashers are, at their core, exactly alike!” This was the one that almost mocked the rules, as well as deliberately breaking the “Virgins live, sluts die” rule. It paid homage to all of the greats, as well as pointing out facts that were somewhat ridiculous. Lastly, it made it personal on a different level—the killer doesn’t murder the lead heroine’s boyfriend. He is the lead heroine’s boyfriend, something that had never been done before. A teenaged boy as a slasher, rather than some nightmare monster or huge, hulking brute?
Scream did not add any new rules to the genre, but it didn’t need to because it went through and deliberately and formally lay out every rule slashers lived by. Even slashers who had become accustomed to refusing to have the truth about their favorite films pointed out to them couldn’t ignore this one, because it was the movie doing the pointing instead of a critic. So, while the Scream franchise was hugely successful, it was a) the shortest, with only three movies, and b) the end of the world for the genre. Originally, it had been fun to watch a slasher movie, watching it silently adhere to the rules and occasionally cast one aside and invent a new one. The slashers evolved, with new villains coming up and challenging the rules and attititudes of the previous. However, Scream did none of this. It challenged the rules, all right—challenged them to deny that they exist. As a result, the industry lost its edge. To have the playbook suddenly published out in the open was a disaster for the genre. Unfortunately, nobody told that to Jim Gillespie, and in 1997, he attempted to stand with the big boys.
IX. The One that Didn’t Quite Make It: I Know What You Did Last Summer
I Know What You Did Last Summer actually had three films in its series, but it never became a franchise. Some found that strange (probably Gillespie being one of them), because it had all of the elements—a masked killer, a choice weapon, and he killed teens off one by one. The surviving lead was a female, and the killer killed because of a grudge. Virgins lived, sluts died. The comedic reason was often that the title was too long. However, the truth is quite simple—it returned to roots that were long since abandoned and came out after Wes Craven’s Scream.
The villain of Last Summer is a large, silent man. You never see his face, and he carries a huge fishing hook that he uses to slaughter his victims. While that seems like a reasonable slasher villain, that particular form had fallen by the wayside in 1984 after Freddy Krueger. People simply weren’t interested anymore in the large, silent, masked murderer. They wanted a killer with personality—a killer not afraid to face you down and say a bad pun when he kills you. As a result, Last Summer was almost thirteen years behind the times when it came to the slasher visage. Secondly, it was released after Scream. Scream, as stated before, pointed out every single slasher rule. It whipped the veil off of the genre and exposed it for what it was, effectively ruining any other franchise that might try to come in and make new rules. While a slasher franchise attempting to revolutionize the genre might have legs, Last Summer did not. It merely adhered to rules already in place and attempted to use a killer that was obsolete. As a result, it never caught on, and, due to the lack of sequels and a killer that everybody can recognize, it cannot be counted as one of the heavyweights in the genre.
X. So—What Now?
After I Know What You Did Last Summer, not a single person attempted to produce another slasher franchise. Instead, sequels were made, most direct to video, and big-budget remakes of the classics have been cropping up, starting with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The most recent was Rob Zombie’s Halloween, Friday the 13th is already being discussed and casting is on the horizon, and a remake of Hellraiser is already written and now the writers and director are searching for funding. Even Child’s Play is having the eye of retelling cast upon it, and one wonders if Wes Craven will ever allow someone to touch his brainchild, A Nightmare on Elm Street, the only one prior to 1990 that seems impervious to the desire for a remake.
The seven villains themselves are flourishing. Just one look through the Halloween costume department at the store shows that Jason and Freddy are still battling each other, rows of hockey masks attempting to overpower the dozens of fedoras and striped shirts just below them. Machetes still clash with razor gloves, as children snatch up their favorite for Halloween. The Scream duo are no slouch, either—beside skull masks and Reaper costumes, you will invariably find a collection of masks resembling German impressionist artwork—and beside them, William Shatner in white-face stares blankly at the crowd. Cardboard replicas of Leatherface stand proudly beside Dracula and Captain Jack Sparrow, and I recently saw where you could buy a Chucky doll. And, while Pinhead memorabilia is somewhat lacking (mostly due to its usual graphic nature and the fact that very few people can go as a good-looking Pinhead for Halloween), their DVD collection is one of the biggest, and they recently released a two-disc special edition of the original Hellraiser.
So, the slashers themselves are hardly floundering. They still sell, whether it be in the form of movies or paraphernalia. People still talk lovingly about their favorite slasher, and I’ve been part and partial to dozens of Freddy vs. Jason debates. However, while the seven are quite successful and show no signs of dying out, I’m afraid they are going to have to carry the entire genre on their bloody shoulders, because the market for new villains has, plain and simple, closed.