A Brief… ish (and Subjective) History of the Slasher

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I can’t put a finger on when I realized I was entirely a fan of horror film (though I took a stab at it a couple of years ago), so it’s hardly a surprise that I can’t exactly put a pin on the moment I realized I was finally completely a fan of slasher films. Yet somehow, after a good amount of time rejecting them, I’ve had enough of them in front of me to brainwash myself into enjoying them as a subgenre dear to my heart, even in spite of the incredibly often poor quality of the movies out there.

I CAN figure when I’ve been toying around with the idea of writing a brief history of the slasher film subgenre – since this past May when I was originally intending to put my friend Josh (yes, THAT Josh) through the whole motley crew of the subgenre’s most popular franchises. And this October, I told myself that if I don’t do any other horror movie posts… I’m gonna finally pull that off and try to sound like I know what I’m talking about (I also toyed with making it into a video, but that just seemed unlikely to do before October 31st).

So here’s what this is a brief compact history of the slasher genre with some amount of subjectivity based on how I encountered the films. If I am to make any mistakes, if there’s anything wrong with what I lay out… call me out on my shit.

But what IS a slasher film first off?

It’s generally simple, a slasher film is expected to simply be a film where a killer slowly dwindles out a cast of expendable victims by his violent hand – usually teenagers or young women – over a period of time. And while that – even while identifying the general structure of the film as similar to Agatha Christie’s famous Ten Little Indians novel – leaves a hell of a lot of open space for a lot of horror movies, it’s kind of a fashion that you recognize when it is in front of you. 9/10 you don’t have much connection with any of the characters being killed because they are all stock types, the killer usually has some distinctive visual aesthetic to their look that marks them out as the most interesting element of the film (usually it’s the weapon he uses), and they are based in the most titillating of content – the promise of sex and the promise of violence (gore if we can, please!) to the point that a good amount of viewers of the subgenre like to consider them intertwined in a fashion that renders the killings as punishment for teenage promiscuity, especially towards females (they are also extremely reductive amongst other things).

So anyway those four popular franchises I was gonna put Josh through? Those are The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and… significantly more popular and iconic in the subgenre… Friday the 13th. Each holding their own iconic and recognizable killer character – respectively, Leatherface and his infamous cannibalistic Sawyer family (Hewitt in the remake), Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Voorhees (and to some degree his mother Pamela). These four are almost certainly the most recognizable names and faces in horror cinema that are not Universal horror monsters. If you walk around and ask somebody to name a character from Suspiria or Cat People, mostly likely you’ll get a look of puzzlement. But at the very least Jason and Freddy… everybody who has even a cursory interest in movies knows them, even if they’ve never seen a single one of their films.

And years of watching and re-watching these films since my college years (my VERY first of the bunch was Freddy vs. Jason in 2003 – I had a fascination with Freddy since he was the one that kind of scared me enough that he was my first out-and-out slasher icon) has caused me to recognize that one could easily map out the status of the slasher subgenre as a film movement with those four franchises – so don’t be surprised to see several of the installments get name-dropped here.

Anyway, that’s a lot of words dedicated to the definition of the subgenre, let’s start cracking at the history starting…

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In spite of a certainty as to exactly the decade where the slasher film had its big boom rivaling the likes of the Western in the 1930s and the Superhero film in the 2000s-2010s, where the slasher film exactly began is a much disputed factor. Most histories on the horror genre or slashers like to paste the root of the whole thing on one very very very groundbreaking picture: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. And that’s frankly a very fair place to start, but then again Psycho indeed was the picture that went and broke the whole idea of moviemaking to begin with. A lot of that is parallel to its place in horror cinema – the sight of blood, the shocking deaths, the unseen status of the killer until the end, the psychological background behind the killer’s motives, and even Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score was one that found several derivations and blatant rip-offs in the subgenre to come.

But I want to be special. The roots to slasher films go deeper than Psycho and possibly far enough into the silent era if we acknowledge how the idea of a dangerous killer stalking others in a very isolated and menacing location in 1926’s The Bat and 1927’s wonderful The Cat and the Canary. In the 1944 Basil Rathbone/Sherlock Holmes vehicle The Scarlet Claw, yet another murder mystery amongst the several early in horror cinema, we can witness the early editing technique style of unseen murders with the raising of the weapon framed upwards and then moving down out of the frame, well before the infamous shower and stairwell scenes in Psycho where that was at its most iconic before being a mainstay of the genre. And so the murder mystery simply went on and on into the 50s as a matinee with the likes of House of Wax and Jack the Ripper (indeed, many a psycho killer film takes basis in the real-life works of notorious murderers – pre-Psycho had a handle on Jack the Ripper’s sprees and post-Psycho a lot of Ed Gein influence).

Which would bring us eventually back to Psycho in 1960 changing film history for good, but that’s not even the movie I wanted to look at from that same year. Just a little bit prior to Psycho’s release, Michael Powell, one half of the beloved filmmaking team the Archers alongside Emeric Pressburger and as such co-author of some of the most flat-out gorgeous movies of all time (if you have not seen any of his pictures, like… stop, drop, and roll over to your screen to watch them – particularly The Red Shoes).

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Peeping Tom was a film about a photographer and aspiring filmmaker murdering women with his camera to capture their visages of fear. If Psycho introduced the violence and psychology and some of the stylistic elements of the slasher to remain, Peeping Tom was the other half intent on the sexual aspect of the violence (as much as one can go for a film in 1960 and honestly Psycho still went further), the acknowledgement of the voyeuristic pleasure audiences get from witnessing such violence, and… with the usage of the camera… the ability to attach itself to the killers’ perspective prior to the kill outright. The unfortunate matter is that Peeping Tom was hated for its daring material upon its release and thrown aside until a re-evaluation thanks to a certain Powell/Pressburger fanboy named Martin Scorsese arranging a re-release in the late 70s.

The late 70s is getting still ahead of ourselves because even before everybody started figuring out Peeping Tom was actually perfect again, three big movements emerged in the film scene during the 1960s that paved the way for the slasher genre to begin slowly rising from its depths in the 1970s. First, all the way in Italy, a cinematographer-turned-filmmaker Mario Bava had released two films in 1963 and 1964 respectively called The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace, both essentially providing the genesis of the famous Italian giallo subgenre. These types of films essentially functioned as speedy Agatha Christie-esque murder mysteries themselves with an underlying sexual tone and a garish usage of blood for the murders, the latter element didn’t come about with The Girl Who Knew Too Much which portrayed its bloody violence in black-and-white. So what happened between 1963 and 1964?

Herschell Gordon Lewis happened. Months after the release of The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Lewis released the film Blood Feast and THAT, my friends, brought about the biggest pissing contest in horror cinema – how much blood can you get your film doused in. Blood Feast became the progenitor of the Splatter Film, a movement to fill your picture with as much colorful blood red viscera as you can possibly get on-screen and that hasn’t slowed down in the slightest, but the fact that Blood Feast had itself getting really down and dirty with some (kind of laughable yet historically significant) bloody effects suddenly made Psycho, the Hammer horror pictures, and the likes which also tried to titillate the audience with blood look like basement church productions. While the gore Lewis opened the gates for would be outdone many and many times over the years, it cannot be stressed that they happened because he opened the doors wide open for that stuff, even in spite of the generally dubious quality of every movie he made.

So, Blood and Black Lace got to be hella bold with its red blood color all over (amplified by the fact that it’s directed by a career cinematographer) and so the giallo goes on to follow the formula the successful Blood and Black Lace leaves behind of arthouse artifice in its design and staging and an abundance of foreboding atmosphere to the almost complete cost of narrative clarity or interest, for the giallo was just as much a slave to formula as the slasher. The major difference being how the giallo was essentially able to move past its exploitative nature to function as an artistic cornerstone, while the raw and bluntness of the slasher felt a bit too crude to be called artistic. Nevertheless, another later Bava vehicle in 1971 Reazione a Catena (known in the US as either A Bay of Blood if you’re a basic bitch or Twitch of the Death Nerve if you’re my dawg) would be considered – like Psycho and Peeping Tom – to be an early entry into the slasher genre but I wouldn’t be one of those people who gives Reazione a Catena that title. Nevertheless, the amount of influence the giallo would have –and especially Reazione a Catena with deaths and elements that would be later recycled in a landmark slasher film – cannot be slightly underestimated.

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Ah yes, the third big event that mixed into the comings of the slasher genre. Well, prior to 1968 and way back in 1930, the US motion picture industry had a set of guidelines based on an idealized decency and morality called the Production Code instated by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. And this had been a pain in the ass since it had been around to filmmakers, but by the 1950s, it was already getting sort of dismissed and challenged by films daring to be released without a certificate from the Production Code and becoming huge successes without it, such as Some Like It Hot, The Moon Is Blue, and Anatomy of a Murder. But the waning years of the 1960s, the Production Code was basically ready to get abandoned and right before the Code was replaced with the MPAA ratings system, George A. Romero released what is – to my mind – the benchmark of horror cinema, Night of the Living Dead. Where Blood Feast brought about a fun tawdry bloodiness to the horror scene, Night of the Living Dead suddenly made things mean, intense, and aggressive. As Travis Mills said once, “violence is an attitude” and I must say that I have never seen a film before or since more fucking violent in its attitude than Night of the Living Dead, so dedicated to being that much of an aggressor that it’ll convince me that these guys so obviously eating Bosco-covered Hams are committing acts of shocking carnage.

The stage is set for the 1970s to come in and with the 70s, the arrival of what is to my mind the first slasher films in 1974. Just barely winning the race is a Texan with a few pictures under his belt who wanted to use the tale of Ed Gein to mirror the cynical outlook of the early 70s with Watergate, the oil embargo of 1973, and Vietnam having consequence on the previous optimism of the US. That film was The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and if you can’t get that national commentary out of the film itself (and who would blame you? Certainly not yours truly, who had to learn that stuff after the fact), you’d nevertheless get a relentless feeling of dread for the less than 90 minutes that made up the picture from frame one and that proved unforgettable enough to canonize the picture. Following up on that was Bob Clark’s Canadian picture Black Christmas that began aggregating most of the stylistic elements that we remember slasher films for after their early introduction in those previous films. Black Christmas essentially constructed the formula that would define the genre, with a little exceptions like the virgin status of the survivor or the defeat of the killer by said survivor.

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Those two essentially came to us in 1978 when a hotshot young filmmaker named John Carpenter told Moustapha Akkad he’d make a film for Akkad within 4 weeks and a low-even-for-the-1970s $300,000 budget and what resulted is the seminal slasher film Halloween. When you think of a slasher film, 5 will get you 10 that the image of Michael Myers is what pops into your mind, with the other big possibility coming up real soon. Halloween’s status as a classic is solidified enough that I don’t think I have to go deep into it, despite not really being the first of anything of the genre so much as being the most impressive aggregation of what makes a slasher film, including the targeting of promiscuous teens and the physical stalking aspect of the killer prior to attacking his victims. It uses everything it doesn’t invent to the highest potential – the performance of the final girl by Jamie Lee Curtis, the first-person perspective of the killer at moments to heighten tension (featuring that Steadicam usage), and the creation of an iconic killer design (without spending much money since the Myers mask was famously created by spraying a Captain Kirk mask white) and an iconic score 5/4 score by Carpenter himself (Though if I laid everything he did right with his craft, we will be here forever). Halloween was especially one of the films to truly prove the slasher genres potential lucrative elements when its huge word-of-mouth success earned it the highest return-on-investment in film history until Mad Max’s release the next year.

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A masterpiece and a hell of a moneymaker, you’d think Halloween would be the movie to kickstart the great big slasher boom of the 80s, right? Except it wasn’t. Slashers were a-coming round since 1978 like Silent Scream and Prom Night, but they weren’t as plentiful and inescapable until the 1980s began. In fact, Halloween II wasn’t even released until 1981, shortly after another movie fired that starter pistol and got its own successful sequel on top of that.

Said starter pistol was loaded up when producer Sean S. Cunningham was inspired by Halloween to create his own slasher film to up the ante on all the shocking aspects, especially with its scares and its blood. He got started by thinking up a title and being so confident in it, he bought a full-page ad on Variety before even completing the script and then enlisting the aid of soap opera screenwriter Victor Miller, gore and makeup maestro Tom Savini, and composer Harry Manfredini (largely inspired by John Williams’ work on Jaws and giving us a just-as-iconic-as-Jason “ch ch ch ch ch, ah ah ah ah ah” motif) to mix together what ended up being Friday the 13th, the story of a campful of counselors being tormented and killed by the deranged mother of the dead Jason Voorhees, a character who would go on to being the iconic killer for 8 of the following 9 films in the franchise that spawned out of the film.

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A franchise was not the only thing the movie spawned, suddenly in 1980 everybody had a goddamn slasher picture to show – Terror Train, Christmas Evil, Maniac, and so many others popped out of 1980 alone – and it meant that studios had finally recognized slashers beyond their tawdry and trashy content that could be called out (very fairly) as misogynist and sadistic to being cash cows. Slowly throughout the 1980s, the amount of slashers grew to an inability to keep track of them all. It became so overwhelming when John Carpenter tried to push the Halloween franchise to his original intentions of it being an anthology and abandoned the slasher format for Halloween III: Season of the Witch, audiences wanted absolutely none of it and it pushed the Halloween franchise way way back (frankly, I don’t think they were missing on much, though like most things, there has been a revisionist audience for Season of the Witch in the past several decades).

Now that Halloween – despite being a bigger damn success than Friday the 13th – wasn’t the movie that dipped us into the sudden saturation of slasher films in the film market seems troubling, but I think it’s pretty obvious why that happened. Part of it is the placement of Friday the 13th at the turn of the decade and how it was able to delve us into the perfect time span for slashers to be big. The American film industry had choked out most of the auteurist attitudes of New Hollywood and became a lot more producer-driven, hence the ability to force out sequels to films interested more in what left a film attractive to a particular audience in the bluntest way than it would be interested in what makes a functional film or makes it considered a high work of art (a movie genre based in blood and sex would have to work for that “artform” status).

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The other is that a VHS market was actually aggressively growing. The home video format was introduced in 1977 and, despite being challenged by other formats such as BetaMax, remained the dominant format of home video distribution and that suddenly led to a much wider audience for low-budget filmmaking and an ability to distribute aggressively and receive a profit. Like pornography, home video became a safety net for the slasher film that provided a great opportunity to earn any lost money from the limits of theatrical distribution – movies such as Madman and The Dorm That Dripped Blood got right on by their home video markets, while movies like The Mutilator and Too Scared to Scream found second life well after their production specifically because VHS gave them that.

That also was aided by the 1983 creation of the Video Nasties list by the UK Director of Public Prosecutions and attached to the Obscene Publications Act. These were essentially films that were called films that “tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see, or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.” Sitting alongside the likes of Reazione a Catena, Cannibal Holocaust, and The Evil Dead were several slasher films such as The Dorm That Dripped Blood, The Burning, Bloody Moon, and Don’t Go in the House. And I’m sure we’re all aware of the Streisand effect. Controversy only breeds more interest.

The third is something that really earns this post the word “Subjective” in its title. We’re all friends here. We all know me. I love Friday the 13th. It’s grown on me. I don’t think it’s good. I think it’s really bad as a film. I think it’s amateur. And I think that was a real greenlight to filmmakers.

Suddenly you don’t have to be good to make a successful movie. You just have to have a hella good amount of bloodletting to tease the audience and that’ll give you all the buckets and buckets of money you want out of a film. It means ignoring the fact that the gore was created by a man who was the best at what he did, Mr. Tom Savini, but come on… anybody can do it?

And what about what attracted audiences to the franchise? Much as I am not kind of willing to read it under this lens, I feel the amateur manner of Friday the 13th’s creation communicates a rawness akin to the dirty grunginess of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s aesthetic and that was something that gave audiences a sort of realism to catch from the film added by Savini’s work on it. That it was able to salvage the movie while Cunningham’s previous work with Wes Craven The Last House on the Left got (rightfully in my opinion) disparaged as exploitative for a similar amateur quality in its filmmaking and nearly ruined Cunningham’s career early on must have seemed like happy fortune for Cunningham.

In any case, Friday the 13th got them gears rolling for the subgenre and further rocketed by introducing the unforgettable large menace of Jason Voorhees in its 1981 sequel.

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Even in the 1980s, the slasher run had been marked by ebbs and flows and the first ebb began in 1984 when the repetitive nature of the slasher left many of the audiences ready to move on to something else. It caused the Frank Mancuso Jr. and the rest of the producers behind the Friday the 13th franchise ready to put the series down despite the profits behind the film not yet dropping, hence the release of the aptly-titled Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter where Corey Feldman kills Jason Voorhees as we always knew he would.

Just kidding, the very next year saw the release of yet another aptly-titled Friday the 13th entry called Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, that – while garnering ill will from its fans by abandoning Voorhees as a villain until the next one brought producers to their senses – resurrected the franchise for a brand new run. What happened between The Final Chapter and A New Beginning that changed Mancuso’s mind?

A Nightmare on Elm Street happened.

Robert Shaye bid the hell of the future of his previous film distribution company New Line Cinema on its first production by Wes Craven about a disfigured man named Freddy Krueger killing teens in their dreams and it grabbed the slasher film box and shoved the concept of a larger budget and the opportunity of entering the supernatural element into the previously grounded subgenre (later on brought out more in the success of the killer doll slasher Child’s Play and its household name of Chucky). It also pulled aside the character of Freddy Krueger into becoming the third icon beside Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, built up the house of New Line Cinema into a film production company, and of course a franchise of the Nightmare on Elm Street films where at best (and most of them were just as unwatchable as the Friday the 13th films, frankly) the films were always looking for a new way to twist the slasher formula on its head – the homosexual themes in Freddy’s Revenge, the pseudo-superhero film and continuation of Nancy’s story with Freddy within Dream Warriors, the meta-commentary of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (where the director himself returned), anything but the usage of 3D in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare because fuck that noise.

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Things rolled along smoothly until a decline in the last years of the 1980s, where all three of those major franchises – Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street – had amongst their lowest-earning entries in their franchises. Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan went and was considered a box office failure by Paramount, pushing it to sell the franchise right over to New Line Cinema, while Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers became the lowest-earning film in the whole franchise. It was becoming abundantly clear that audiences were not interested in those types of horror films anymore.

By the entrance into 1990s, the slasher film had become a sort of parody of itself, the few movies of the genre attempting to twist themselves out of the regular mold in an attempt to have some semblance of originality or rejuvenate the formula for audiences. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare was an outlandish cartoon that bordered on (bad) comedy, the follow-up New Nightmare worked more as a piece of meta-work than a slasher in any right (with its low body count), Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday threw right out the window most of the rules of its franchise to define Jason now as a Lovecraftian creature borne of witchcraft (a move that earned New Line Cinema much ire as it was their first production for the franchise), and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers infamously became a complete mess of cuts and re-shoots and drama. The only notable entry into the pantheon prior to 1996 was Clive Barker’s Candyman, an impressively crafted supernatural slasher film in its own right produced by the famous author while also providing an impressively nuanced look at African-American disenfranchisement and race relations. It also made a well-respected horror icon out of Tony Todd, who portrayed the titular ghost terrorizing those who said his name in a mirror. Candyman‘s success was not enough to stop the slasher franchise from showing how obvious it was in need of a saving grace of a film.

Salvation came in the form of a necessary evil.

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In 1995, Harvey Weinstein, then the head of Miramax and already behind an impressive slasher of his own in the form of the 1981 The Burning, had bought a famous screenplay by a man in his late twenties named Kevin Williamson. Wes Craven had particularly pursued the chance of directing this script since it was on the market and called Scary Movie and was able to find himself in that seat when the movie went into production. It came out in 1996 and was called Scream and while it briefly re-ignited interest in the slasher genre for one more brief span… it reignited the genre in the form of a zombified “self-aware” form starring Teen Beat cover stars from their high school dramas of the WB taking part in the very painfully clear slasher formula while never actually commenting on the style except insofar as dropping movie references and calling that film criticism, while putting on a smug attitude like it’s BETTER than being just another slasher.

YOU THINK YOU’RE BETTER THAN ME?!

YOU FUCKING THINK YOU’RE BETTER THAN ME?!

Needless to say… I don’t have much care for that sort of post-modern emptiness, especially since Williamson doesn’t seem as intent on talking about what these movies mean as Craven did two years prior with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. That lack of sincerity never sat well with me, but it nevertheless lifted the genre for a nearly final hurrah in the success of I Know What You Did Last Summer, but it also quickly was shut-out by the box office failure of both Urban Legend and Valentine and both of them. In between that quick rise and fall in the late 1990s, familiar faces such as Bride of Chucky (also post-modern, but in a much more enjoyable manner to me) and Halloween H20: 20 Years Later garnered some last second good will. Still the hammer was nailed with Jason X’s actual loss of money in 2001, where Jason going to space would be expected to be gimmicky enough to grab that niche audience and yet did not deliver.

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If there is a final triumph for the franchise, it is the surprising success of a movie with a concept that doesn’t feel like it belongs in any real era, Freddy vs. Jason. This is the sort of thing that would only belong in the sensationalist 1980s when Freddy and Jason were most inescapable as icons (though only in a very short span of time between 1984 and 1988 – perhaps Freddy vs. Jason would have saved the day in 1988 from the slasher decline). And yet the film that pitted those two horror icons against each other became the single most successful entry in both the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises in their history. It didn’t reignite the franchise, but it’s maybe the last big hit of the film alongside the Michael Bay produced remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – both films released in late 2003.

If the slasher film has been able to slowly remain around without making a huge impression, it’s on the coattails of Texas Chainsaw Massacre ’03 showing with its over 100 million dollar win (dwarfing Freddy vs. Jason’s 82 million gain) that maybe remakes had quite the market – House of Wax, Black Christmas, Halloween, When a Stranger Calls, My Bloody Valentine, Sorority Row, Silent Night, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Mother’s Day were amongst the many remakes released throughout the decade. that tried to match up to Massacre’s unexpected win. In the meantime, several modern slashers bubbled up on the basis of being throwbacks like You’re Next, Hatchet, Cry_Wolf, and one more film that I’ll keep to myself. Included amongst that throwback pile are continuations of some once-big franchises in the form of Scream 4, Texas Chainsaw 3D, and Curse of Chucky (lo and behold Curse of Chucky is the only one of those three I can stand, though to be fair I have never thought highly of any of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s sequels and I think the remake is the only other film that is watchable).

None of these are enough for the slasher to regain its footing within the New Millennium to the point that the Friday the 13th franchise while go for another reboot after much delay due to Paramount’s recent re-acquiring of the franchise (as part of a deal that allowed WB to share Interstellar with them, the movie where Matthew McConaughey reckons with the fact that in a black hole he gets older and his performance in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation stays the same age). That the franchises are still around and going for it is very endearing to me and part of what makes me love them in spite of the datedness of their run.

And even then the extreme escalation of the slasher film seems to have given birth to the New French Extremity like Martyrs and Inside and High Tension and the torture porn genre to come in the 2000s so they have Saw and Hostel  to be proud o—know what? No. Nothing should ever be proud of Saw.

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If there’s one more movie I’d like to use as a last note for the franchise, it is in the form of a small-production in 2006 made by a couple of fans specifically to showcase both their self-awareness and love for the subgenre called Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. It happily deconstructs everything we know about slashers with a great big smile saying “obviously this is how it works for the killers” and shows an interest in its serial killer character by giving him admirable charisma and making him the primary face we see, before gladly indulging itself in the most conventional slasher film it possibly can be and succeeding for the most part in being proud of the craft that goes into creating the slasher film we watch within its final third. In a proper world, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon would be a hit that made the careers of its makers and it would have brought back an interest in the best form (it is every bit as intelligent as Scream thought it was, plus some change) of the slasher, maybe making a case that we should work to make them GREAT again. But it wasn’t, it’s quite possibly the definition of an under-seen gem and if either of these titles should be pressed into your hands because of this post, it is Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Its inability to make an impact implies that the slasher film is done and gone for certain and just as well it remains a time capsule to a film history that is usually just buried anyway for being far the more “serious” and critically appealing works in cinema.

But if there’s anything Michael, Jason, and Freddy taught us by coming back to life over and over, it’s that nothing stays dead with the right amount of persuasion.

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

All this awful awful useless knowledge was learned and my teachers are numerous, despite never sitting in the same room as most of them. It’s not really classy to acknowledge Wikipedia as a helpful guide to how I wanted to map this out, but verily I will also credit it to leading me to the great book Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the Films of the Stalker Cycle by Vera Dika. In the blogosphere, Kevin J. Olson’s fun Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies was an early guide as to the plethora of slasher films out there beyond the obvious and his Halloween review lead me to possibly the greatest tome I’ve laid my eyes upon towards the slasher genre, Adam Rockoff’s Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film 1978-1986 (btw Olson has not posted in years, so somebody get him back on that Frankenheimer retrospective). Likewise, El Santo’s 1000 Misspent Hours has an inexhaustible amount of reviews and most of them are in horror or slasher form so it introduced me to a lot more terrible movies to eat up before making this. Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film is a marvelous read if you’re like me and just want to add social commentary to everything around you. It delves much more into the thematics and psychological elements of the genre that I was only able to gloss over. These movies run deep. Most importantly, I’d like to bring out Tim Brayton’s Antagony & Ecstasy site as being a large part of what makes me excited to explore slasher films via his annual “Summer of Blood” series (this post in large part an attempt to outdo his own brief “History of Slasher” post that opened up the first Summer of Blood). It’s probably part of what made me realize I do have a great love for the subgenre. That other part and the most important element to me in these acknowledgements are my numerous film buff friends (especially the first generation SCS go-to crew) whom I would have late-night post-theater chats about our favorite slasher films (that would almost always flush into just talking about Friday the 13th movies some more, but sure was fun nevertheless). There’s too many of you to name so I will just pick out the main two who never shut up with me about the genre: William Butler (check out his artwork) and movie and vinyl hog Abraham Brezo. This one goes out to you two.

One more thing is that since this is such a labor of love, I think I’d like to remind any readers interested in supporting this blog to the patreon site I recently started for Motorbreath and give it a good boost to help out with the creation of other big-ass rambling posts like this while having a shot at also making videos (like I was thinking about making this one) so that you could see my face and dismiss my opinion based on that.

Thank you all for reading if you got this far down (and pass it on to any folks who gave up halfway if you see them). Once again, please feel free to comment if you have any thoughts on the genre or if you think there’s something to be corrected in this subjective history.

Happy Halloween!

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Man is Measured by Moonlight in Him

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One thing that bugs the hell out of me about Brokeback Mountain back in 2005 when it was breaking out a brand-new visibility for LGBT stories in all of its Oscar attention is how quick people were trying to spin Brokeback Mountain as NOT a gay story because its topics about the relationship between its two leads were “universal” and could apply to any heterosexual relationship. This made me mad – rather than just being a simple “I don’t agree with this” situation – because well… duh. Did you really believe that there’s a great divide between gay and straight relationships? There’s certainly things a gay man goes through that I’ll never experience being straight, but it should not be a surprise that in terms of romantic tragedy, one can find the story of Brokeback Mountain supremely relatable and it’s reductive to see people pretend this disqualified it as an LGBT story.

So, as Moonlight begins its much-earned run of critical acclaim leading up to its certain Oscar nominations, I’m gonna be really damn annoyed if I go on to find people try to dismiss it as a Queer cinema (something I don’t apply to the Ang Lee-directed Brokeback, but absolutely do here considering the film’s basis in an unproduced play  by MacArthur Fellow Alvin Tarell McCraney, who is openly gay) simply because it’s… again, frankly an incredibly relatable tale from my perspective about more than just the life of a gay man – we don’t get many tales of black LGBT people (last year’s Tangerine was a breath of fresh air, even while I was not overall crazy for the film) and a little more – but also a severe drought – allowing us to accept the concept of a child considering his or her sexuality at a young age, something that still seems taboo for people to deal with. These are clear matters that Moonlight shines on and considers and yet it also uses those three subjects as the groundwork to provide an overwhelmingly dense study on masculinity, identity, silence, fate, and isolation. And all this while holding in themselves the fingerprints of McCraney and writer-director Barry Jenkins’ personal backgrounds within the neighborhoods they depict in Miami (both born and raised), though I feel given the re-writing Jenkins makes in the material, Jenkins has a louder voice in the film than McCraney.

The tale of Moonlight is the kind of structural exercise that absolutely makes me all sorts of excited even without watching the trailer of the movie. To sum it up, Moonlight follows three different turning points in the development of Chiron. The three different segments are painstakingly compact – they strictly begin those three events in Chiron’s life at the very start of their rising and they end immediately at their conclusion without the implication of how they affected Chiron except in that we can suddenly see the subtle yet notable difference in the personalities child Alex Hibbert, adolescent Ashton Sanders, and adult Trevonte Rhodes embody in their respective years towards Chiron. They don’t act as surrogates to those years in Chiron’s life either, they’re pretty clearly just part of a greater development, but Jenkins and McCraney don’t want to waste time with the in-between. They just want to show WHAT happened to Chiron and I think that’s what really makes it easier to find Moonlight so surprisingly moving, that people will input their own idea of what strung together these moments in his life to such a painfully restrained ending that could only come from a movie interested again in blunt emotional strokes than making things easy.

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But I’m getting ahead of myself talking about the ending. The WHAT of what happened in Chiron’s life is identified not only by his age, but by the name he goes by. As laconic and insulated “Little” (Hibbert), he is found and semi-adopted by drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his infinitely generous girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) after Juan witnesses “Little” being chased viciously by bullies. Together, the couple are one of the only refuges Little has from his tumultuous home life and intense mother (Naomie Harris), the other refuge being his sole friend Kevin (Jared Piner) advising him on how to get tough without losing any warmth towards Little. The sanctuary Little finds amongst this loving couple he found crumbles away as he makes an induction towards the circumstances of his mother’s condition towards Juan (in a scene that swears Ali will be at the least nominated for an Oscar), one that Jenkins and McCraney had the delicate ability to show humanize the trap culture in a manner white filmmakers simply refuse to do while recognizing the repercussions of what a drug dealer like Juan does.

As he grows out of the name Little in high school, everything that troubled Chiron (Sanders) as a child escalates. He’s rarely staying at his home anymore, Juan has died at some point between the first and second segment with not even the hint of whether it was as a result of his trap life or otherwise, the bullies have grown much more violent and inescapable, and his feelings for Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) have exploded into romantic feelings that are briefly reciprocated. It doesn’t help that Sanders’ performance adopts Hibbert’s refusal to speak while making it a lot more clearer how many emotions Chiron is knowingly swallowing and how it makes him look like he might just faint from all the effort from the very first frame Sanders takes over. And then the comfort Kevin gives Chiron with his sexuality is absolutely demolished once again in a more assaultive manner and it’s clearly breaking Chiron beyond his own power (having had my own habit of ending up in the principal’s office or police station after a fight, the scene where Chiron is badgered by an official to report it was where the film hit me hardest. I swear to Odin, my fingers were digging into my palm with how real that scene felt to me again). This time however, Chiron retaliates to the world in a manner that doesn’t feel as triumphant as it should…

… probably because by the time we return one more time to Chiron, he’s now completely shed all his outer vulnerability into the hardest blackest motherfucker out of the cell block (another thing that no other white director would be able to do – put the mass incarceration of young black men on the table for discussion without calling attention to it) under the name of “Black” (Rhodes). And he’s doing a great job at letting this persona be his shield to stifle and suffocate the boy we met earlier in the film, but not as well as Rhodes is at letting glimpses of him show up all around the first half of the segment before it starts really struggling to breakout when he gets a surprise phone call from Kevin once again (Andre Holland) and that brings back all the complex emotions he wanted to pretend weren’t there in the first place. And this is inarguably the strongest segment of the film, largely because after the first two segments, we have a feel for the pacing and structure of each segment and know in advance exactly which beat this third (and the film entirely) will end, making its choice of ending point still more frustrating in the best way possible.

The things demanded of Rhodes to play both a shadow of the actors who played Chiron before him and to balance that with a muted gangster facade is surprisingly complex acting from an actor I didn’t even know existed, let alone was capable of providing possibly my favorite performance of the year (and I’m excited to see what he does in Terrence Malick’s next film Weightless) and he drives the third act by letting his inner commentary map out the growing emotional tension with his reunion with Kevin. Holland for his part fills in the silence Rhodes gives their scenes with his charm and smile, but it’s not his hour – it’s Rhodes’ and it’s only on Rhodes’ final word that the movie feels like it’s brought the story of Chiron’s reckoning with his attitude about who he truly is where it needed to reach.

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The entire cast is why the movie works so well. Even in the arch stage-driven manner of not only the dialogue between characters, but in the blocking of those dialogue scenes (including the same scene that’s gonna get Ali the Oscar nomination), the cast brings a respect to a side of African-American culture that is constantly relegated to caricature and stereotype and even the small size of the primary cast doesn’t stop the Miami of Moonlight from feeling lived-in and surrounding. And the three Chiron actors do a really impressive sleight, they make it three segments feel like one long stream without trying to pretend we’re not watching three different segments. It’s funny how every review I’ve read has had a different attitude on how little they look and like who looks more like who (personally, I feel Rhodes looks nothing like the young actors while I can see how an Alex Hibbert could grow into an Ashton Sanders). The screening I saw Moonlight at had all three actors (as well the two younger Kevins, one of the bullies, McCraney, and Jenkins) in attendance and they looked nothing alike, but they still got me thinking they were the same person. Their consecutive performances and how they only changed patiently over segments brought more smoothness to the structure of the film than all the crafty editing possibly could.

If there is any real gripe I could possibly have, Moonlight feels just as little less mechanical – but still mechanical as every other indie breakout picture of the 2010s has been. I nodded to how obviously this is still a stage script however Jenkins tries to beat it to film form, but Moonlight wants to be recognized for how it does the things it does, rather than just letting itself get away with the trick. Visual flourishes like surrounding circular Steadicam shots revolving around characters and the deepest blues to telegraph what’s happening in moments and overt usage of classical music with slow-motion where its better to let the audience sink into the moment without realizing it. But even that feels like a stretch – these aren’t creative decisions by Jenkins that are illiterate towards film vocabulary and they’re not decisions made flippantly. In a lot of the visuals, we get a much more David Gordon Green atmosphere to outdoors Miami – besides the two slickly shot beach scenes – that show both a love for the city Jenkins and McCraney come from (they’re more affectionate for Miami than yours truly, but that’s not a tall order) and a knowledge in how conditions are in the humid city. They’re just not nearly as delicate as the film requests.

But then Moonlight just as well sits between a spot like Chiron in toughness and vulnerability that it doesn’t have quite the need to grapple with. Losing more of the arch staginess of the dialogue scenes, I think, would lose more of McCraney’s authorship and I think that’s pretty important to retain as Queer cinema. And I’m not sure if Moonlight could be any more restrained about itself before the different branches of its themes become invisible. The Moonlight we have is still a moving work of visual poetry and if I were even half as capable of the things Jenkins does in the movie, I’d probably flaunt each at least at one point. No need to try to shut himself down and pretend to be any other director, that’d probably go against the moral of the film to begin with, no?

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PROFESSOR ABRAHAM SETRAKIAN’S VIRULENTLY VAMPIRIC, MALEVOLENTLY MONSTERIFFIC SUPER-STRAIN HALLOWEEN MOVIE QUIZ

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Getting myself back in the saddle of posting after a really long couple of weeks of work and school that kept me from posting. In any case, another quiz from the great Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog is perfect to get me back in the mood and since it’s Halloween, I’m going with his second Halloween survey that he’s posted, named after David Bradley’s character (basically an impression of an angrier John Hurt) on Guillermo Del Toro’s vampire tv series The Strain. Here we go, buddy!

1) Edwige Fenech or Barbara Bouchet?

I still love Bouchet, but Fenech just owns every shot she appears in and grabs my attention. I think it’s the eyebrows. She got them Kate-Bush-esque Eyes of the Devil wit dem eyebrows.

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2) The horror movie you will stand up for when no one else will

The Lords of Salem, it’s best horror film Zombie has made to date. It’s basically a slow burn descent into madness and it functions like a better Mothers film than Mother of Tears, please fuck with me. It looks gorgeous, it sounds menacing, what were you looking for?

Also, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds gets more hate than it deserves – it deserves no hate and all the love – simply because of its ending? Saving Private Ryan had a bad ending AND a meh movie prior to it and it gets so much love. At least War of the Worlds’ ending is beat-for-beat similar to the books’ (the only difference is the wife is a miraculous survivor rather than the son). It’s still dark as all hell and feels extremely dangerous even with Tom Cruise’s plot armor. Between Duel, Jaws, Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds, and even moments in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Spielberg had horror DOWN.

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3) Your favorite horror novel

Ohhhhh, that’s a toughie. I’m between David Wong’s John Dies at the End for sheer attachment (it has dick jokes, it’s my favorite thing) and structural ambition and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which is inarguably the better book by all means but I kinda wanna give it over to JDatE because I wanna make it into a movie myself. Y’know… a better movie.

Honorable Mention to Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Stephen King without the large-ass filler acting like he’s Charles Dickens paid by the word.

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4) Lionel Atwill or George Zucco?

Atwill’s a fucking joy to watch in any role he takes on, no matter how small, while Zucco only made a good impression on me in Scared to Death, which is such a shitty movie, you may as well not watch it. Atwill by a mile.

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5) Name a horror film which you feel either goes “too far” or, conversely, might have been better had been bolder.

I don’t think any horror film I’ve ever seen has “gone too far”, although I believe that Antichrist could easily be read that way – and I’m sure Lars von Trier would love for it to be read that way. Probably the moment in Saw 3D when the opening kill has two guys deciding the girl who’s been cheating between the two of them deserves to be sawed in half horribly in front of everyone. That’s outlandishly misogynistic in its assumption that the female victim is the only one culpable in the cheating and that she even deserved to die because of it, even by horror movie standards. Saw was always a franchise that was as shitty in its morals as its craft, but that was bad.

A movie that doesn’t go far enough for me I guess is Don’t Breathe. It could easily let itself be trashy and tawdry with its reveal of the Blind Man’s intentions and that would at least make it enjoyable, but no… it presents itself in that same somber darkened post-Goyer manner.

6) Let the Right One In or Let Me In?

Let the Right One In and, not that Let Me In is a bad movie, but it’s not a tough contest in the slightest. I’m almost offended you dared to ask it.

7) Favorite horror film released by American International Pictures

The Abominable Dr. Phibes. The biggest supervillain in horror besides The Phantom of the Opera and, y’see, Vincent Price makes Dr. Phibes a better superhero. Cause he’s Vincent Price.

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8) Veronica Carlson or Barbara Shelley

Blasphemy but I think I’ll go with Carlson here. Most Hammer women don’t get a lot of character to work with because they’re only walking boobs to be attacked by Christopher Lee, but at least Carlson felt more awake than the movies would let her be.

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9) Name the pinnacle of slasher movie kills, based on either gore quotient, level of cleverness or shock value.

Are we talking about the best slasher movie kills or the best slasher movie because of its kills? I’ll shoot for both.

The movie with the best slasher kills for me is A Nightmare on Elm Street, while they’re not exactly logical in some cases – Rod’s makes no sense… is like… the blanket dreaming? Huh? – Tina and Glen both get some iconically grisly imagery to them. And I’m sure Glen’s takes care of the gore quotient.

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The best slasher kill in all of movies to me is the spearing of a couple in the middle of coitus in Twitch of the Death Nerve aka Bay of Blood aka Reazione a Catena. The way their body still moves weirdly in ecstasy after they’ve been impaled is like a ghastly dream, absolutely exploitative of both sex and violence. And I do give a wink to the famous sleeping bag death of Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, right down to the kick he gives the bag afterward.

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10) Dracula (1931; Tod Browning) or Dracula (1931; George Melford)?

Melford’s version, the one that’s actually a functional movie rather than a poorly shot play. I mean, I know Browning was drinking a lot, but come the fuck on. Dracula dying off-screen? Fuck you. Browning had the better Dracula, though. Lugosi, dawg.

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11) Name a movie which may not strictly be thought of as a horror film which you think qualifies for inclusion in the category.

I did mention the previous War of the Worlds. It’s a horror film in the same devastating sense as the 1954 Godzilla – both dealing with the national climate of fear and making them into frightening giant inescapable beings that leave  carnage behind… Godzilla is Hiroshima/Nagasaki and WotW is 9/11 – and I’d honestly call it scarier too (though Godzilla is like the wayyyyy better movie). The blood roots are nightmare fuel.

12) The last horror movie you saw in a theater? On home video?

In theaters: Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, one of the few De Palmas I’ve been able to fall completely in love with.

On home video: Child’s Play, a movie I find myself kind of warming to a bit more now than the first time I watched it, without thinking it’s good. But hey, it went by quicker this time around.

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13) Can you think of a horror movie that works better as a home video experience than as a theatrical one?

Any trashy 80s slasher film functions better as a Saturday night dark living room viewing experience (preferably on VHS) than a Saturday night movie theater viewing unless you’re taking your girlfriend out on a Friday night walk to the local theater like you could only do in the old days. I think my favorite slasher to go with on a home video viewing is either Cheerleader Camp or Rock n Roll Nightmare.

Also, though I doubt it’s enough to elevate it as a good movie, I’m interested in how Unfriended feels as a VOD viewing on a laptop rather than at the cinema like how I saw it.

14) Brad Dourif or Robert Englund?

Aw goddammit. Brad Dourif is the undeniably better actor, anybody pretending otherwise is a complete fool. Dourif is one of the best character actors we’ve been lucky to see and unlike Freddy Krueger turning more and more into a clown, the menace behind Chucky has always consistent – he’s a foul-mouthed savage shit from beginning to end. But, y’know while Chucky is his best performance to date, the guy has always been wowing us – any actor on Deadwood automatically gets good will and his appearance in The X-Files was brilliant acting.

But Englund made the bigger impact on me, TBH. Partly because some friend of mine as a child tried to convince me Englund was a real-life serial killer, but largely because Freddy was the guy to actually frighten me as a child. I’d sooner jump to cast Englund in a movie than Dourif. So my vote goes to Englund.

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15) At what moment did you realize you were a horror fan? Or what caused you to realize that you weren’t?

When I saw Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and found myself thinking just how fun it is to reflect on horror as a genre. Or when I found myself cruising late at night to Blue Oyster Cult tracks and skipping specifically to the songs about ghosts.

16) The Thing with Two Heads or The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant?

I’ve only seen The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant so I will have to go by default with…

The Thing with Two Heads because Two-Headed Transplant fucking SUCKED.

17) Favorite giallo or giallo moment

Favorite giallo is easily Argento’s Deep Red, while my favorite moment within it is hard to pinpoint. Favorite moment in it is the haunted house scene, largely because there’s no actually ghosts to be haunting it, yet it’s completely atmospheric and creepy and I expect the children’s song to start playing any minute.

18) Name a horror remake, either a character or an entire film, that you prefer over its original or more iconic incarnation. (Example: Frank Langella’s Dracula/Dracula > Christopher Lee’s Dracula/Dracula)

Sean Cunningham/Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left is complete crap in all directions and the remake does so much better at being a movie to feel awful and cruel watching while also not looking like it was shot with turd or indulging in extremely questionable and tasteless creative decisions (almost certainly coming from Cunningham – Craven is too talented to stoop so low).

As for character, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in preferring the Christopher Lee’s Dracula to Lugosi Bela’s Dracula. He’s much more animalistic and memorable in such limited screentime (at least for the first film he did as Dracula), but it helps when you’re played by an actually good actor. Sorry, Lugosi… still love your Dracula, though.

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19) Your favorite director of horror films

Dario Argento. No matter how low he’s fallen, which is pretty damn low, his heights are bellissimo and blinding to me.

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20) Caroline Munro or Stephanie Beacham?

Caroline Munro easily. Like she’s eye-catching all the damn time.

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21) Best horror moment created specifically for TV.

The final scenes of Twin Peaks where Cooper enters the Black Lodge and the aftermath of his journey are the sort of nightmarish remainders you wouldn’t expect a show so in love with its characters to leave its protagonists at, especially in the former finality of its cancellation. That last image of what’s happening to Cooper is heartbreaking to me.

On a side note, as I mentioned in my Tales from the Crypt video, the opening of the show traumatized me so much as a child that I couldn’t look at a picture of the Crypt Keeper for like… all of my childhood without a mini freakout. And on a less understandable note, I was also frightened out of my wits as a child by the Treehouse of Horror variant of the Gracie Films logo at the end of Treehouse of Horror episodes of The Simpsons. My first one – I think it was the episode that Mr. Burns was a vampire – had a very long scream that continued into the organ variation of theme and faded out with end. The endlessness of the scream felt like the sort of things to happen in my nightmares, I guess.

22) The Stephen King adaptation that works better as a movie than a book.

The best Stephen King adaptation is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, easily. But I don’t know that I’d claim it works better as a movie than a book, since we know that the two are attempting and succeeding at very different things (though I’d say Kubrick accomplishes what he aims for much better than King, sorry buddy).

As for Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot, while it’s my second-favorite of the King adaptations, I think King does a much better job elaborating on the relationships of everyone in the town and making it feel familiar as we watch it slowly die and turn evil on our lead. Such would be easier to do with a large doorstop of a book like King does.

So I guess my answer would be to go with David Cronenberg’s adaptation of The Dead Zone. Even if it’s the lower tier of Cronenberg for me and his most restrained work, it’s a lot easier to get a visceral feeling of immediacy in psychic visions through the fluidity of film editing and letting it shove the audience into different moments unexpectedly. There’s certainly an ideal way to use the medium of literature to get there, but I don’t think King is aware of it or even tries.

23) Name the horror movie you most want to see but to this point never have.

In a little over a week, I’m gonna see Andy Warhol’s Dracula at Perez Art Museum of Miami and I’m really excited because I’ve always wanted a chance to check it out. I’ve already seen Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, which will precede Dracula as part of a double feature and loved it! If y’all are in Miami, join us.

24) Andre Morell or Laurence Naismith?

I’ve seen more movies with Naismith in them, but Morell is absolutely the one I actually associate with horror, given his Hammer work. So for the horror survey, I go with Morell

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25) Second-favorite horror film made in the 1980s.

Kubrick’s The Shining – unless you’re the type to pretend that 1980 doesn’t count as 1980s (I’m not that type) – at which point I’d go with Evil Dead II. The Beyond is my number one forever because MAMBO MAMBO ITALIANO, EY MAMBO MAMBO INFERNO DELLAMORTE.

26) Tell us about your favorite TV horror host and the program showcasing horror classics over which he/she presided/presides.

I know Elvira was THE TV horror host everybody knew and loved (rocking Vampira’s thunder, though) and much respect to her legacy and I enjoy her, but my childhood was spent with Svengoolie and he’s gonna be the one I love most. You never forget your first folks. I was also really fond of Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis, his continuous habitation in that role and having watched it a lot as a child made his presence very warm to me. M.T. Graves was way before my time (Lewis and Svengoolie too, but 80s were close enough to catch re-runs) and the question sounds like anthology television hosts are disqualified or I’d have picked the Crypt Keeper.

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Well guys, there you have it. Thanks for reading!

Uncle STinG’s Egyptian Blood Feast Recipe for Y’all

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For the Memory of Herschell Gordon Lewis 15 June 1926 – 2016

The idea of who brought blood and gore to motion pictures is not a certain thing (obviously the milestone moment of Blood Itself making its appearance in a motion picture is Psycho, but talking what movie really didn’t sanitize the matter and really indulged in the violent shades of red), but I can’t think of many people who actually know their way through horror cinema disputing the concept that the credit belongs to “The Godfather of Gore (and Direct Marketing according to his personal website)” Herschell Gordon Lewis. I don’t think the Direct Marketing aspect is an inaccurate self-observation – he didn’t always do horror pictures, but spent all of his career essentially mapping out and following the trends of cinema. What could be made cheap and quick and get some big damn return was on Lewis’ mind, but notably with his early nude pictures.

When the nude pictures were starting to lose their underground appeal, Lewis and his producer collaborator David Friedman jumped straight into horror and reached for the most shocking exploitative usage of gore and blood as they possibly could, selling their pictures on those extremities and forever making their mark in horror film history with their first indulgence in that genre, Blood Feast – a film about a crazed Egyptian slaughtering people to sacrifice to his Ancient Egyptian God. Amongst the bloodiness of its scenes, Blood Feast is also notorious for being the oldest film in the UK DPP’s Video Nasties list – movies prosecuted under their Obscene Publications Act in an attempt to censor them.

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These movies were honestly… not good. None of them. I don’t think Lewis made good movies (nor did he, I think given some of his interviews… especially this one by Juan Barquin for YAM Magazine). Some are among the worst movies I’ve ever seen, like Blood Feast itself. But I think a good amount of them are a joy to watch nevertheless, like Blood Feast again, which I’d recommend to you all right this second as so-bad-it’s-good good damn time. And to be real, I don’t think another filmmaker was able to have such pride in their status as truly meritless shlock in every way it can be considered art. It suggests a charming and down-to-earth personality which, given that here in S. Florida, I know of enough people who have either met (like yours truly) or been good friends with Lewis, can be confirmed by anyone who has encountered him.

And again… when it comes to making the blood fill the screen, most people agree he did it first. Sometimes, you don’t have to do it best.

Anyway, Blood Feast was my real introduction to the filmmaker (as per a marathon of the Blood trilogy held by my former A Night at the Opera co-host Britt Rhuart) and I thought it would be nice to revisit that movie in an urthodox manner. By trying to adapt it as a recipe for a feast akin to what Fuad is preparing for his victims (and with his victims). Nobody can cook it like Lewis, but why not take a look at what makes up the feast from the very beginning?

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INGREDIENTS

  • 10 Gallons of flop sweat from my boy Mal Arnold’s beady eyed forehead heat in the Miami sun playing the buggy Fuad Ramses.
  • Maybe a box of Just For Men on that grey hair on him too. But seriously, man, somebody get Arnold an AC.
  • 30 whole books on Egyptian culture and history. We ain’t gonna read these, we’re gonna burn them. A movie like Blood Feast ain’t got no need for cultural accuracy or correctness. We’re not making goddamn Citizen Kane here.
  • 118 lb.s of white meat named Connie Mason. That’s literally all she will function as… meat. It’s not like she put anything into her performance.
  • Also get some more white meat for the supporting cast surrounding Arnold and Mason, but make sure they literally can’t intone anything to sound human in their whole life. That’s very important.
  • -5 functioning lightbulbs. Like literally buy them and then break them.
  • 7 cans of gold spray paint.
  • 1 department store mannequin to spray that gold on. It will be the classiest thing in the movie.
  • A basketful of hats no living being should be seen wearing for Lyn Bolton.
  • 20 virgins. The movie is classy enough to suggest them as sacrifices and it’s not like it’ll be worse than appearing in this movie.
  • However, you can contain South Florida heat, you fucking get it. And contain it. It’s a necessary ingredient it adds that spicy flavor and that Florida Man tastefulness to it.
  • 10,000 buckets of red paint as crimson as we imagine blood to be in our nightmares.
  • 6 sheeps worth of body parts and organs from eyes to stomach to tongue, not a bit of sheep wasted without being used in the name of art.
  • Really that last ingredient was an understatement, we want all the blood and gore you can give. Not some, dude. ALL of the blood and gore.
  • Also all the red curtains you can get. It’s gonna look like a magic show in the Black Lodge up in this bitch.
  • Y’know what? Grab a canvas too, because this is gonna be a work of art, yo!

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INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Write the lines to the hands of at least one of those sacks of white meat (btw, you should probably refer to them as actors).
  2. Don’t mix those actors together very well, we’re not looking for chemistry at all by any means.
  3. Paint it all black.
  4. Burn down your script.
  5. Mesh all the listed ingredients together and shove it into your over. Heat at the highest you can go and for an indefinite amount of time.
  6. This is probably a good time to state I can’t cook and you shouldn’t listen to me.
  7. Let your house burn down. Don’t walk out of the house. This is fine. This is as insane as the movie is for sure.
  8. Go make the table while you’re at it. Invite your friends, have a bunch of beers, and pizza.
  9. Go watch Blood Feast right now, it’s a good time.

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Farewell, Lewis. Thanks for the meal!

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Blood on the Leaves

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It’s very unfortunate to have something this damned after the making of director-writer-actor Nate Parker’s controversial 2016 directorial (but not acting) debut The Birth of a Nation and before I personally got a chance to see it (but not before its debut at Sundance), especially in consideration of Parker’s personal passion for this film. Because I don’t personally have a problem with Parker’s performance in itself, he plays determination and the pain of seeing his fellow black brothers and sisters suffer as well as anybody should. But in consideration of the way the film’s subject Nat Turner – a slave and reverend who in 1831 led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia that led to a massacre to a possible total of 65 white people – is portrayed in the most holy unblemished light alike most other conventional biopics of American Heroes (and make no mistake, The Birth of a Nation is painfully conventional, but I will get to that) to the degree of being so much of a Christ parable you’d have to not know who Jesus is to miss it… well, I’m sorry but Nate Parker is not the right man to play a Christ figure. Whether or not his rape accusations have any merit (I will not be stating my feelings on the matter), it is impossible to ignore that baggage for this kind of role, especially when self-directed. I don’t think anybody is wrong or right to separate the art from the artist, but I can’t imagine anyone being able to see shots like a backlit Turner holding his arms out in a jail cell like a crucifix without the knowledge of Parker and co-story developer Jean Celestin’s rape charges in 2000 (which have been just as much the subject of controversy as the focus of this film) popping in the back of their mind.

Make no mistake on the matter either way, The Birth of a Nation is an important movie and a necessary one in this day and age.

We live in 2016. People are not only quick to shame Black Lives Matter, they’re outright calling them a “terrorist group” or “hate group” and claiming that the protests against systemic racism in America is too violent and unnecessary (or that systemic racism simply does not exist). When quiet protests like Colin Kaepernick’s kneel occur, they further shame them and tell them they have nothing to protest about, they should leave the country and so on. We need a movie like this that puts front-and-center a black man who knew that revolutions were not bloodless. That challenges that mindset in America that injustice should be taken laying down. That really deals with the ugliness of fighting oppression. Turner’s story is one that is perfect to put front and center for discussion on the state of race relations in this country.

Unfortunately, The Birth of a Nation is also frustratingly restrained and basically maps out as a beat-for-beat generic biopic on a man a lot more complicated than that. It begins with Parker as a child being told he is destined for greatness and being raised in parallel to his master’s son Sam Turner (Armie Hammer as an adult, with facial hair, costume, drunken aloofness, and even his home resembling Edwin Epps from 12 Years a Slave to an alarming degree), later to inherit him. It follows him learning to read on his own before being discovered by his master’s wife (Penelope Ann Miller), after which the family takes it upon themselves to develop Nat’s reading skills, namely the Bible given the patriarch’s profession as a Reverend. The manner of the Turners’ exploitation of Nat as a Reading Negro for their congregation leads to Nat’s adult life being sent around to different plantations to preach gospel to the slaves, specifically with the undertone to fear their masters as God. Behind Nat is the support and love of his mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and Grandmother (Esther Scott), resilient under the lash of their oppressors and slowly Nat finds himself witnessing the abuses grow worse and worse from the rape of his wife and another fellow slave (one of them outright arranged by Sam), the hammering out of teeth and force-feeding, the brains of a runaway spilled on a roadway, and all sorts of vile atrocities perpetrated by the slave trade.

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The crazy thing is that I actually thought it could have worked that to its advantage of Parker had some awareness of where he was going with this because I knew Turner’s story for the most part and expected a certain subversion. This movie was going more out of its way than any biopic this side of Sergeant York to portray its subject as unconflicted. And if The Birth of a Nation went the way I expected to use this method as a weapon, I would not have thought it was spotless – many decisions such as to interrupt the movie to suddenly give us a romantic comedy between Nat and his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) or the shockingly flighty and horribly mistoned score by Henry Jackman. Neither of those belong in a Nat Turner picture and they’re early points against the film, but for the most part, The Birth of a Nation starts off in an uncomfortably agreeable manner without undercutting the truth of slavery.

The closest thing it does – almost as a ticking clock to his anger rising enough to start the uprising – is that it had let Nat portrayed as witnessing these horrific acts at an uncomfortable distance suggesting that he’s in a relative place of privilege. We don’t see him antagonized by Sam or going through any punishments until later on, his reaction shots are usually shared with Sam himself (Sam being portrayed by Hammer with a very translucent sense of pantomimed fraternity towards Nat that turns uglier over the course of the movie). Nat as portrayed in the film by Parker’s performance feels for his fellow black men, but seems to think that white men can still be kind to him early on. Nat feels at ease early on to approach a white woman and hand her a doll her child dropped, he doesn’t hesitate to baptize a white man rejected by all other reverends, the film is absolutely disinterested in any character other than Nat in his bubble until it is burst violently by a revelation that he just another black man who is to be lashed and killed and that’s where the movie could have turned itself around and subverted itself.

When Nat turns to his rebellion, what we have here is the chance to really show the man we’ve come to love without any caveats indulge in unrestrained violence against white oppressors and massacring them for their actions as a symbol of wrath. We could have had a really sudden shift of perspective given and a real challenge to what we consider necessary or appropriate responses to a life witnessing horrors and being taken advantage of. We could have had scenes of the revolt involving casualties of women and children (something I think The Birth of a Nation could have gotten away with after several shots specifically showing children’s complicity in slavery).

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You see, I like to think the namesake of The Birth of a Nation was chosen for a reason. In D.W. Griffith’s original 1915 film, the first half of it is spent making us adore the two families involved in the main conflict and the second half shows the Griffith’s uglier side in its championing of violence against black people and oppression and stating it as necessity (something that I’m sure many white audiences agreed with in 1915, but was controversial even during those years). If Parker’s film is to use that sort of style as a weapon, he would allow Turner’s actions to be visceral, alarming, and intense, shaking the audience to its core.

Not only does Parker’s Birth of a Nation pull back on the violence (sure, it gets gruesome, but cuts are rapid fast and moments are usually given low-lighting), it outright rushes through the revolt itself and is very quick to wrap itself up as a picture once Turner makes the first blow. I would not be surprised if the revolt took up less than a 1/8 of the runtime and its aftermath another 1/8, but I didn’t keep a stopwatch. It absolutely falls flat on itself and considering how it’s more earnest to show the vile response by the white community to massacre a huge amount of slaves uninvolved with the rebellion (the exact number is undetermined but 200 is the optimistic minimum) might give the wrong message to a more absent-minded viewer that fighting only makes things worse. That shouldn’t be what you walk away from The Birth of a Nation with.

The only possible way I could imagine the movie getting itself back on track is if it were 30 minutes longer and turned to passion play during Nat’s capture, something the film tried to hint at by portraying many of Nat’s angelic visions with the most recognizable artifice and self-granting gravitas. Put all of Nat Turner on trial and really force the audience to reckon with its fact, practically kick-starting the conversation on current race relations right there in the middle of the film. But Parker was apparently less interested in that than making a harsh, complicated film about violence as protest and the sword bringing righteousness. It’s just really eager to stop and leave.

The movie we have is as a result as muddled in its message as it is amateur in its craft. There are some very brilliant backlit shots and well-arranged compositions (I particularly think of Nat’s first kill), but it for the most part feels like a debut feature all the way. I wonder if Parker would have made a much more solid biopic for Nat Turner later on his career as well as being wiling to go full-throttle on dealing with the fact of Nat’s revolt, but then at the same time, I’m not sure he would have made the same generic biopic decisions that would have established a great launchpad for that subversion and 2016 is pretty much THE year that a movie dealing with the history behind black protest should be made. In the end, we can only deal with the film we have made now and while I think it’s a well-made picture especially relative to a debut, it’s tough to shake the feeling that it could have been so much more.

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Into the Woods

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When The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, it was among many a horror phenomenon over the near half-century since 1968 that marked the division in horror followings straight down the line into two factions. On the one side was the moviegoers that favors quiet, patient atmospheric scares and let themselves sink into feeling creeped out that almost certainly fueled the word-of-mouth that made The Blair Witch Project the most profitable movie at the time of its release with the highest return-on-investment a movie could accomplish at the time. Despite really falling more into line with this side of horror movies, I actually was not as fond of The Blair Witch Project (though I’ve since warmed to it) as I was just admiring of what it accomplished for horror movies – on top of being the movie to bring “found footage” into the mainstream and have studios realize just how lucrative the style was even at its lowest points, it was an impressive manner of immersive storytelling largely through skeletal mythos and a bare narrative (I was only 7 when it came out and thus my peers were all around that age, but I of course very much recall hearing so many people claim that the movie was real.). Nevertheless, there is a much louder amount of praise for it than my meager “it’s fine but I’m not rushing to re-watch it”.

And still louder than my middle-of-the-road attitude is the amount of people who are not in the slightest moved by The Blair Witch Project eager to call it out as a movie where nothing happens. I don’t think I need to say I disagree with that attitude, though I sympathize with a few of their points. And these folks seem to favor more of a sensory overload in their horror, a visceral shaking of terror. Not necessarily lacking in taste in patience, but there needs to be an endgame, a climax, an escalation without restraint. And I think that’s what director Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s second sequel to Project, simply titled Blair Witch, falls into. It’s a movie that, like Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, uses the position of a sequel to act as a defacto remake in baldly revisiting plot beats, but is also more excited to get right to being a much more overtly spookier film than its predecessor. Given that my personal favorite horror films are Suspiria and Night of the Living Dead, I can’t say I don’t also love those movies as well, but in the case of Blair Witch, it works at one very important point for it to work for me, and otherwise comes across as either annoying or silly or both.

But let’s get through those plot beats Blair Witch borrows shall we as well as its connection to Project: As told via the footage found on memory cards in the Burkittsville Woods in 2014, James Donahue (James Allen McCune) has finally found footage recently released on-line that possibly would tell him what happened to his sister, Heather Donahue – who was among the three individuals whose disappearance is documented in Project. Accompanying him are his childhood best friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and Peter’s girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid), while their film student friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) who transparently has a crush on James is recruited by James to record their journey and findings into those very same woods again. Reluctantly, they bring along the local couple who claimed to know where the footage was found Lane (Wes Robinson) and Talia (Valorie Curry) and you can expect to know none of them are coming out of the woods by the end of the movie.

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Now, I don’t exactly think anybody really asked for this sequel’s existence (probably why they waited until Comic-Con 2016 to fire the hype cannon by revealing Blair Witch‘s existence after shooting it under the name of “The Woods”, compressing and concentrating all excitement to a two-month period), but I’d like to think they’re aiming for fans of The Blair Witch Project at the minimum (I don’t think the chained-up basement dweller who liked Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 will be allowed to re-enter society anytime soon, let alone a movie theater), fans of first-person camera films as a projected audience. I can’t think of a worse move to show contempt for that very style of filmmaking than doing everything you can to deal with the ramifications of that style and Blair Witch does that from the very start by giving every single character a camera, in some cases two. And the result is a movie that essentially is unchallenging to itself, allowing itself to be conventionally framed and edited but the shitty cinematography, sound design (though that’s not the case here thankfully – the sound mixing rivals You’re Next in my book), and kind of mediocre acting all around (I get the feeling that – save for the bland James – they’re all meant to be dislikable in some way, Lane is unambiguously the most odious of the bunch, but then why should I care for them) don’t give the film the rawness the style dishes in spades so much as it just has an excuse because the context is a bunch of cameras.

As for the overt scare moments… well, like I said at the top, the film takes a method I don’t really take kindly to: toss your camera around (almost always with the batteries in the flashlight failing meaning you will get frames of just nothing) and be as fucking loud as possible. It’s just a much more annoying version of the “show nothing” manner people blamed The Blair Witch Project only this time it leaves me with a fucking migraine and not one of the two people with more than one camera (Lisa sports a DSLR as well as a drone – WHAT?! A drone?! They don’t even do anything with except steal establishing shots of the same spot three times – and Lane has a DV Camera) dare to ditch their camera like any normal person would, yet can’t bother to also shoot in a manner that doesn’t feel like a bad trip to Six Flags.

Thankfully, it’s not all a complete wreck and the final act of the film involving a very familiar location ends up being a hair-raising trip into darkened hallways and doors with just the right amount of just missed visibility to every little noise the remaining characters hear (it helps that not only have the numbers whittled significantly by this point, but the movie sticks to one perspective for long enough to get the atmosphere and frenzy of each character). In all its blue-ish lightning punctuated lighting, just looking at a door long enough gets unnerving enough to wire me up. It is easily the best thing I’ve seen out of Adam Wingard yet (a filmmaker I otherwise have literally no care for) and if it’s still just a lesser version of Radio Silence’s section of the found footage anthology V/H/S (of which Wingard directed the frame narrative and so certainly saw), that doesn’t entirely take away from the film. Plus the Radio Silence sequence doesn’t have a moment nearly as clautrophobic as Lisa’s imprisonment.

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This final section will be getting into vague spoiler territory and if you are still interested in the film after all I’ve said, by all means, you can quit reading now. I’m just going to point out how the film ends on a silly note regardless of the craft of the finale (and silliness is constant in Blair Witch – Lane is kind of meant to be a second antagonist but he’s so weak looking that it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t be beaten up at any second, there are big versions of the stick figures now, it’s just completely wacky at points that undercut the idea that we’re meant to be scared), but the biggest one is…

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… the way Barrett interjects his own ideas into the mythology. Namely the temporal element. For one, time travel doesn’t seem to belong in the earthy groundedness of the Blair Witch any more than Lisa’s drone does, but it also opens up a new can of worms. We’re meant to understand that Lane and Talia have been experiencing time at a vastly more accelerated pace than the other three and we know that the footage on Lane’s camera has been recovered and that it’s miraculously had enough battery life to work for at least a year (given the beard he sports around the end). At no point does the film seem interested to alternate and see how the time shifts look from both sides of the schism. As well as the problem with giving everybody a camera is that there’s certainly no way ALL of their cameras had been shut off at the moment of their abduction/death (and if they were… how would the footage be recovered so easily). The abrupt ending doesn’t feel earned (although it was easy to see it coming this time around) as The Blair Witch Project before it… we saw the battery was close to death. But here, it just stops. Suddenly the footage that all the headset cameras were sure to get of the Witch doing her deeds with the characters are not interesting enough to be edited in, all that sound and fury and noise was just for nothing.

I don’t know. In addition to hating the fact that it’s found footage, Blair Witch doesn’t know how to make its specialness fit into the logistics of itself. It doesn’t know how justify itself as a movie. And it doesn’t know how to go full throttle on its attempt to be more intense and visceral than The Blair Witch Project. I don’t think anybody particularly needed to make this movie – not Wingard, who has probably been sick of the found footage style by his career (or maybe not). Not Barrett. Not Lionsgate. And I can’t imagine fans of The Blair Witch Project being amused, nor non-fans being convinced to be into the franchise. Maybe we should have left this movie wherever we found it.

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