Horror Movies 101: The Moral Majority Massacre (Part 2 of 4)
From writer/director Lonnie Martin comes the second part of his multi-part series exploring the horror film genre. Lonnie’s the force behind the award-winning Ningen Manga Productions (www.ningenmanga.com).
The Slasher Film
All right, name this film: A group of young people partying in an isolated location are stalked and killed one by one by a masked madman wielding a sharp weapon.
“Halloween!” “Slumber Party Massacre!” “Don’t Go In The House!” “Friday the 13th!” “Happy Birthday to Me!” “Hell Night!” “Scream!” “April Fools Day!” “Maniac!”
Anyone see a problem here?
It seems as if the slasher film has been around as long as cinema itself, and I suppose a convincing argument could be made that it has. In his overly defensive yet well intentioned book on the slasher film, Legacy of Blood, Jim Harper traces the origins of the sub-genre back to the Italian giallo films of the sixties and seventies, in which women are stalked and slaughtered by a mysterious killer . . . um, kind of like slasher films. Harper goes on to explain that the giallo differed from slasher films in that they traded off plot and story for camera style and elaborate set pieces. Now, while I’m not the expert on giallo films that Harper is, from his explanation, I don’t see much of the difference he’s talking about.
See, Harper is a hardcore slasher fan, and no one should hold that against him. Yet like most fans of the slasher sub-genre, he feels the need to constantly defend the, if not artistic, then cultural merit of these films. That’s all Harper’s reference to the giallo really is, his way of lending an air of legitimacy to a class of films that usually receives very little. Slasher film fans are rabid about them more so than any other group of fans save for perhaps science fiction and fantasy fans. While their love of the genre helps them to see more positive aspects than others might, it also blinds them to some inherent faults in the formula.
Critics of horror often describe slasher films as exploitative, violent, misogynistic trash, and honestly, it’s a hard label to argue much of the time. Sure, Halloween had style and grace, but films like it don’t come around very often. Most slasher films feature lots of fake looking blood and guts, at least one set of naked breasts, and a high level of violence and death, usually against women. Some are nothing more than staged snuff films. Every once in a while, when some conservative group or another starts complaining about the amount of violence in the media, the slasher film, right behind video games, is eventually sited as further proof of the continued degradation of social values.
The slasher fan of course says this is rubbish. They’re apt to quote Carol J. Clover’s feminist tome on horror in film, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: A Look at Gender in the Modern Horror Film as proof that despite its violence and gore, the slasher film loves and respects women. They’ll site the heroic virtues of the Final Girl and the asexual impotent nature of the killers. It’s a valid argument and I buy a lot of what Glover says in her book. However, if someone else says the slasher film is misogynistic, I’m not about to try to tell them they’re wrong, because while I believe a feminist argument can be made, a film about a psycho slicing up girls in their underwear probably stands on some pretty shaky feminist ground.
For the record, what is a slasher film? In essence it’s characterized by the description I used in the first paragraph. A group of people, usually college aged or teenagers, are hunted down by a mysterious unseen killer in a secluded location where outside help is absent. All are killed except for one survivor, usually female, who must face off against the killer or become a victim herself.
When we think about the modern notion of the slasher film, we usually start with Halloween. Though, to be fair, most of the slasher films of the early to mid 1980s, when the slasher film was at the apex of its popularity, use the less artistic, but just as effective Friday the 13th as their template. Halloween had a mythic sense of both story and style. What Friday the 13th lacked in those elements, it made up for in the variety and originality of the way its victims were killed. Imitators, more than willing to cash in on the success of both films followed Friday’s lead because it was probably easier to come up with an interesting way to kill somebody than a compelling story explaining why they’re being killed.
In this article, I’m not going to spend any time with the Friday the 13th films, nor the immensely popular A Nightmare on Elm Street series, which despite its supernatural trappings, I also consider a slasher story. However, If you’re interested in analysis on those films (all eighteen of them), I’ve written about them before, and hopefully give them a fair shake. That article will be posted after the conclusion of this series.
The average, open-minded, non-horror fan can find positive aspects to horror films such as Psycho, The Ring, The Exorcist, The Sixth Sense, and even The Blair Witch Project. These films, they’ll say, use character and theme to create an atmosphere of fear and suspense. Yet, when it comes to the slasher film, they invariably ask, “Why would someone want to watch this kind of thing?” It’s a valid question, and one without any truly good answer, at least not to anybody who considers themselves fine and moral members of society.
The slasher film is both reviled and loved because it appeals to the baser nature of humans. In essence, what is being portrayed on screen is a rape fantasy/nightmare depending on your point of view. Even though there is almost never any sexual contact between the killer and his victims, the undertones are there. Clover implies that the stabbing of female victims by a male killer is a symbolic intercourse. The killer, she says, though obviously male, takes on many androgynous aspects as well. The use of a knife implies impotence, so by stabbing the women, he’s achieving some sort of sexual release that he can’t get otherwise. Is there something to this idea? I think so. Again though, if someone says it’s bullshit on a stick, I’m not going to try and convince them otherwise.
I will say however I think if women are frightened by the slasher film, it’s because of the rape imagery implied by the chase, struggle, and death of the female victims. I’ll use Clover’s androgynous killer theory to also imply a bisexual aspect to the killer. The rape fear works in regards to males as well. The sexless yet male nature of the killer makes the killing of the male characters symbolic rapes as well. For in most slasher films, the killer is an equal opportunity slaughter. Man, woman, dog, it doesn’t matter.
The lure of the slasher film to many males is the rape fantasy aspect. Let’s all agree that rape is more an act of power than sex. The killer is exerting his power over what are usually buxom, sensual, attractive women. In modern reality, this is rarely the case. These types of women are the ones who hold power over men. I’m not lamenting the rise of feminism here. I’m simply saying that the genders are equal and it’s socially unacceptable for a man to exert physical power over a woman.
In the mind’s eye, though, there are no boundaries to what’s “socially acceptable.” What is interesting and a little frightening is that a man, while scared by a well-done slasher film is also titillated by it, even if only on a subconscious level. Women I think also recognize this, which perhaps adds to their level of fear while watching. They’re thinking of the onscreen killer’s urges but perhaps wondering if their boyfriend/husband, somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind, has those same urges.
So, maybe the ultimate lure of the slasher film is that those horrible, socially unacceptable urges are there, that they’re somehow hardwired into us from those ancient days when we were still less than human, but more than animal. And I think everyone recognizes it, including the conservative “moralists” who protest against such content in the media. I think they protest because they recognize the evils seen in these films within themselves, but don’t want to give them validation. They know that by accepting and acknowledging fictional evil, we must also understand and accept the possibility of real evil as well.
I think that’s enough on the slasher film. I didn’t go into the puritanical morals of the sub-genre (People who use drugs and have sex die. Sober virgins don’t.), nor did I go into detail on the masculine/feminine nature of both the killer and the Final Girl. If you’re interested in further gender role analysis, I’ll recommend Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws: A Look at Gender in the Modern Horror Film to you. It’s a little obtuse in places, but her arguments are well constructed. She’s more interested in the woman’s role in the films than the films themselves.
Harper’s Legacy of Blood is a bit more accessible than Clover’s book, though I disagree with much of his analysis. Still, I recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in slasher films. He tracks the history of the sub-genre well and gives over a hundred pages of individual movie reviews. He also raises some interesting arguments about thematic content and the varied elements that most of these types of films share.
What I will leave you with is a list of ten slasher films that either illustrate ideas I’m talking about, or are just really loads of fun, which ultimately is the reason we watch these movies. To me, what makes the violence and gender stereotypes in slasher films acceptable is the unreality of the situations. In very few other genres of film is there such a sharp line drawn between light and dark, black and white, the good and the evil. In almost every case, though not all, by the end of any of these movies, we see the Boogeyman thwarted.
All right then, the films:
The Funhouse (1981):
One of my favorite slasher films ever. Directed by Tobe Hooper of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, this follows two couples as they decide to spend the night in a funhouse at a traveling carnival to have sex. While there they witness the ordered murder of a Madam by a mentally handicapped man in a Frankenstein mask over money. They try to escape, only to find they’re trapped and being stalked and killed by the Frankenstein killer. It’s a pretty well done film, not too gory and the premise is carried out in a fairly plausible manner.
Prom Night (1980):
Jamie Lee Curtis cashed in or her Halloween success by starring in this precursor to I Know What You Did Last Summer with Leslie Nielsen. Four kids accidentally kill a little girl and swear never to talk about it. Years later at their senior prom, someone comes back to get revenge for the little girl’s death. It’s not as smart as it sounds. Weird phone calls, spooky notes, and axe wielding mayhem ensue. The film is dated, but that’s part of the fun. A bunch of sequels followed that have nothing to do with the original.
Slumber Party Massacre (1982):
Roger Corman produced this film in which an escaped “driller killer” ends up at a slumber party to wreak havoc. Irony of ironies, one of the most gore and nudity filled slasher films of the eighties was written and directed by women. It’s also notable for being one of the first film appearances of buxom “scream queen” Brinke Stevens. The film is more funny than scary and there’s also some nice and, believe it or not, subtle feminist nods to be found.
Friday the 13th (1980):
This is the film that inspired most of the imitations as much as if not more so than Halloween. Also, Jason Voorhees, the hockey masked killer of the sequels is pretty much the archetype of the slasher film killer. The original has some great twists and the ending is quite scary.
April Fools Day (1986):
Pretty standard slasher movie formula right up until the end, when the movie takes a complete 180-degree turn. This movie left a deep impression on me when I first saw it. Sure, I was only thirteen, but my barely-pubescent self thought the writing was sheer brilliance. Muffy St. John (great name) invites her friends to an isolated island for a birthday party and they start to disappear. The effects are somewhat sub-par, but the acting is good, as is the writing. All these years later I still remember a lot of the dialogue. (“I fuck on the first date.”) The twist ending is a spectacular, “What the hell?” moment you never see coming.
The Halloween Series (1979 – Present):
The original is modern classic. Since it spawned tons of imitators, it should come as no surprise that it also spawned a ton of sequels. Are any of these sequels any good? It depends on what your definition of “good” is. I tend to think of the Halloween movies as two trilogies, one stand-alone movie, and one steaming pile of dog turds.
One trilogy, and I might add the best one, is made up of Halloween, Halloween II and Halloween H2O, the seventh film in the series. These films make up “The Laurie Strode Trilogy.” Laurie, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, is the surviving babysitter from the first film. Halloween II picks up immediately where the first one left off; killer Michael Myers, having survived being shot by Dr. Sam Loomis (the fantastic late Donald Pleasance), tracks Laurie down to the hospital where she’s being treated. While he hacks up hospital staff, Loomis tries to explain what makes the evil in Myers tick and learns that Laurie Strode is Michael’s long lost sister. The film ends with Myers (and Loomis) apparently perishing in a fire.
Flash ahead to H2O, where it’s twenty years later and Laurie (Curtis again) lives under an assumed name teaching at a prep school and drinking herself silly. It turns out Michael’s body was never recovered after the hospital fire of Part II. Though most think he’s dead, Laurie still wonders. Her suspicions turn out to be right when Michael Myers returns to finish off the job he had started twenty years before. While neither of the sequels is as good as the original, they create a nice through story that comes to a satisfying conclusion.
But if H2O was part seven, what happened in between? Moustapha Akkad, producer of the Halloween films, decided that he would keep making Halloween movies, but each one would be a different unrelated story. The only element that would tie them together would be the Halloween holiday setting. Hence Halloween III: Season of the Witch was a non-slasher horror film about Halloween masks that killed children when they watched a certain image on TV. A man discovers this conspiracy and tries to prevent thousands of children being killed on Halloween night. It may sound a little wacky, but it’s actually not bad. The effects are effectively spooky, though the ending is a bit abrupt. The bigger problem was that Halloween III tanked at the box office and just about everybody, fans and critics alike, complained that Michael Myers was absent.
So, Akkad brought back Myers in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, which kicks off “The Jamie Lloyd Trilogy.” It turns out that both Michael Myers and Dr. Loomis survived the fire at the end of part II. Michael has been in a mental institution for seven years, but escapes when he discovers Laurie Strode had a daughter before dying in a car crash. (H2O pretty much ignores parts 4, 5, and 6. The only nod is Laurie talking about having faked her death in a car crash.) The daughter is Jamie Lloyd, and the next three films cover Michael’s attempts to find and kill her. While Part 4 has some great moments, the other two movies are a confusing mess. There’s weird subplots about a cult who worships Michael Myers, and a mysterious man in black who is trying to help him. Plus, the producers told the filmmakers to make movies that were “more like Friday the 13th.” The original began imitating the imitation.
The completely suck-ass film in the series is the latest one, Halloween: Resurrection. In this film, rapper/actor Busta Rhymes host a reality show in the house where Michael killed his sister when he was a boy and Michael returns to kill them. It’s just stupid and in the first five minutes they completely negate the satisfying ending of H2O, which would have been an honorable and classy note to end the series on.
While the Halloween series is still too much of a good thing, the creators more often than not held the quality bar a little higher than most slasher films, and most of the movies are worth watching.
Sleepaway Camp (1983):
Two personal items of note on this film: My wife was once in a play about lesbian camp counselors and, while watching it, all I could think about was how easily it could have been turned into a version of this movie. Secondly, people talked about what a shocker the end of Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game was when it came out, but Sleepaway Camp beat them to the punch by a decade. The plot is about a young girl at camp who falls in love with one camper while others start getting slaughtered. The acting is pretty good for the type of film it is, and the ending is a real shocker.
It’s often considered nothing more than a clone of Friday the 13th, right down to the summer camp setting, but this movie scared the piss out of me when I was a kid. Seriously, I still get the shivers when I think of the video cover with the silhouette of the madman with wild hair holding an axe. A group of campers tell the legend of Madman Marz who killed his family then took an axe to the face. Turns out if you say his name within earshot, he comes to kill you. One stupid little shit does this and the carnage takes off from there. Gaylen Ross from the original Dawn of the Dead stars in one of the goriest and scariest slasher movies ever made.
While its satirical tone may represent the death knell of the slasher film, the frightening and well told story, courtesy of screenwriter Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven, may also be the sub-genre’s finest hour. It takes its cue from Halloween, but instead of imitating it, adds another dimension by acknowledging the teenaged victims have been raised on slasher films, and therefore know the “rules” for surviving. (Don’t drink/take drugs. Don’t have sex. Never say, “I’ll be right back.”) Of course, the killer also knows these rules, and tries to thwart the teenagers’ attempts at survival. The killer could be anybody, and the guessing game of figuring out who is half the fun. What these elements add up to is a smart, stylish thriller that goes a long way to explain the allure of the slasher film: familiarity. When you go to see a slasher film, you know what’s going to happen, and there’s something comforting in that. What’s scary, and in the end really great, is when you get a movie that gives you a little more than you bargained for.
Okay, that’s enough. I really didn’t intend to spend this much time here. Next, in Part 3, it’s monsters galore as we take a look at werewolf, vampire, and zombie movies.