“Hey Michael, Check This Out…”

Within the past week I’ve revisited Freddy vs. Jason, the 2009 Friday the 13th remake, and our subject here: the 2009 remake of My Bloody Valentine. And it’s evidently a small sample size of 2000s slasher cinema and reliant specifically on intellectual property with a pre-existing fanbase, but if there’s one major connection one can make of the three (as well as the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Rob Zombie Halloween remakes, and the Hatchet series*): the 2000s were not for want on slasher movies that had the proper attitude that that subgenre is meant to have. At the prime of the subgenre in the 1980s, they were all just filled with mean attitudes using the plot and characters simply as vehicles to deliver elaborate death setpieces that flex out their gore effects budget and artistry. They are happy to walk the exploitation walk all the way through.

Their achilles heel however is the fact that they came out in the 2000s and thereby are subject to the sort of polished clean digital look that removes the sort physical visual griminess that these previously often independent, frequently low-budget pictures were forced to have and in turn gave the subgenre a rawness to its craft that horror cinema was kind of moving to in the wake of respectability that stuff like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist were bringing. Film stock and the primitivism of that low-budget resource that allowed these films to pop out a dime a dozen in the 1980s was the source of most of the best examples of the form feeling like wallowing in grub. And try as the cinematographers of these 2000s production could, you just can’t have the same honesty with digital filmmaking.

My Bloody Valentine takes advantage of that by going the other way: it indulges in that vanguard of 2009 cinema, the very same year as Coraline and Avatar. It indulges in 3D, thereby allowing us to refer to this remake as My Bloody Valentine 3D for the remainder of this review to distinguish it from the original Canadian picture.

Which to be fair, Todd Farmer and Zane Smith’s screenplay (with a credit given to Stephen Miller for story) does quite a lot to try to pull from John Beaird’s original screenplay from 1981 but in overly complicated ways that end up making the plotting of the film at once extremely dizzying. We still certainly have a mining town by the name of Harmony (this time shot around Southwestern Pennsylvania around Pittsburgh or Armstrong County with not nearly the amount of edge-of-the-world coastline personality that Sydney Mines brought to the original film) and we do have an inciting accident that traps five miners with a single homicidal survivor by the name of Harry Warden (played by either Richard John Walters or Chris Carnel), sans the added sensationalist treatment of cannibalism (this time Warden killed the men simply to preserve more oxygen for himself). This time, however, the writers decide to cut out the middleman and make our ostensible young protagonist the worker whose negligence led to the methane explosion that caused the tragedy, Tom Hanniger (Jensen Ackles, the first of the two stars of the show Supernatural that amusingly starred in a slasher remake in early 2009; Jared Padalecki would follow his lead into Friday the 13th the very next month). Hanniger happens to be the son of the mine’s owner, a little bit of nepotism that evidently got him into an unqualified position and also probably keeps the entire town from lynching him over their considerable resentment for the tragedy he caused.

Doesn’t stop Harry however, who went into a coma immediately after his rescue only to wake up a year later and massacre his whole hospital wing in search for revenge from Tom. He finds Tom in the middle of a Valentine’s Day party being thrown at the same mine he was originally trapped in, which probably didn’t help his vengeful mood any further as he kills every teenager he runs into at the party: it’s only through Warden’s single-minded hunt for Tom that Tom’s girlfriend Sarah (Jaime King), their friend Axel (Kerr Smith), and Axel’s girlfriend Irene (Betsy Rue) are neglected by the bloodthirsty miner and it’s only by Sheriff Burke’s (Tom Atkins) sudden arrival and shooting of Warden that Tom makes it out by the skin of his teeth.

That funneling of the major plot points of the original My Bloody Valentine gets us barely 20 minutes into My Bloody Valentine 3D – partly because the mining accident is mostly registered by a montage of ridiculous newspaper headlines during the opening credits – and yet it still doesn’t hasn’t yet re-used of the love triangle from the original movie. For you see ten years later (a fact humorously communicated by a voiceover newscast saying “it’s been nearly ten years” EXACTLY when “Ten Years Later…” fades in on an aerial shot of the Kittanning Citizens Bridge), Tom came back after being gone since the attack to ostensibly sell the mine now that his father is dead and finds that Sarah is now married to Axel with a son (it is frankly laughable that Tom’s father is not at all a presence in the movie to substantiate his daddy issues, only appearing in the form of his ashes container. Sarah and Axel’s son is barely more of a presence with a frustratingly contrived moment of menace towards him that does not pay off). Meanwhile, Axel happens to be Harmony’s Sheriff and that leaves him in charge of investigating the horrifying murders that coincidentally started just when Tom arrived back into town: murders commit by somebody resembling Harry Warden in their miner’s getup and pickaxe weapon of choice.

Honestly, the structuring of this story makes it feel like the makers wanted to frame this as remake AND pseudo-sequel of the original (including the fact that one of the final shots in the 10 years ago prologue resembles the very last shot of the original movie, watching a wounded Miner retreat into the darkness of the mines). This is not the only area where Farmer and Smith’s script gets way to convoluted to find the long way around recycling the same story, but I don’t think you need to dive that much further into its weirdly shallow psychology of characters who are ostensibly grown ass adults with domestic lives and matured experiences still acting like teenagers to see just how frustratingly poorly put-together it all is. Frankly, My Bloody Valentine 3D is not a good movie by any metric: contrived writing only being the tip of the iceberg when faced with the extremely CW level acting talent (and it’s not like the original actors playing TJ, Sarah, and Axel were all that much better but at least they still lend a genuine humble presence to the small-town that these soap opera-esque leads just can’t meet), and Lussier as a director just does not have any sophistication or inspiration to offer to a sequence that does not take feature gore or 3D, especially obvious when it comes to the moments that rely particularly on tension… character-based tension worst of all.

But fortunately this IS a gore-filled movie and it IS one that’s in 3D. And I am sorry to suggest to anyone that this movie mirrors Lussier’s lack of offering to anybody who attempts to watch it in 2D, but that is certainly the case. Yet the 3D is absolutely the element that keeps me coming back to My Bloody Valentine 3D in the way that it happily indulges in any possible moment to have blood splash every which way through the screen or put us in the perspective of one of the murderous Miner’s victims so we’re consistently watching the pointy end of that threatening pickaxe jam right in front of us. Sometimes both at the same time as in an early moment where we watch the pickaxe-through-the-back-of-the-head-popping-out-an-eye kill from the original movie lovingly recreated as a little peek-a-boo moment that gets me giddy as a schoolboy when I see it. In fact, to My Bloody Valentine 3D‘s credit, a lot of kill styles get their own reenactment in this remake just for the sake of having Lussier, cinematographer Brian Pearson, and stereographer Max Penner play around with how to give it a smiling kitschy to its visceral imagery. It’s not like the revolutionary work of Avatar here but instead whole-heartedly treating 3D as the sort of gimmickry that it was back in the 1950s and that honestly seems the perfect sort of marriage to the purely junky motivations of the slasher genre to begin with. It also allows for even the most blatantly computer generated of the bloodiness to be forgivable in how the 3D gives the chintzy look more artistry on top of feeling more fun.

And that fun is something that My Bloody Valentine 3D gets to accomplish without falling into that oh too popular trap of being winking or self-aware. Sure, Lussier and company know they’re making trash and even lean quite into it with an extended rampage in a seedy motel that largely involves Rue spending most of her total screentime running around a parking lot wearing absolutely nothing but high heels (credit very much to Rue for being so bold; less credit to Farmer for writing himself a short bit part as the guy who she has sex with at the beginning of her commando run here) but they’re still taking it seriously and sincerely without the slightest hint of parody. The bones of the story obviously don’t earn that seriousness (and at around 10 minutes longer than the original, I even start to get exhausted at that po-faced mystery shit and the predictable direction it’s going before it ends), but I don’t go to this genre for narrative indulgences – just purely for exhibition of cheesy carnage and the 3D extravaganza and I like to imagine I’ve made clear how well this has delivered on both so that the 3D Blu-Ray has just ended up one of my guilty pleasure comfort foods. You’re not going to see what I see if you try to watch it in 2D. I am unashamed to say that My Bloody Valentine 3D does not need to function at any aspect to justify that placement – and it does not, it is admirable and dedicated but still a complete piece of shit movie – just as long as it gives me the satisfaction of watching a pickaxe point at me through somebody’s perforated skull more than once.

*I have not watched the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street since its release (which may be soon to change – I just finished a Friday the 13th binge, why not initiate a Nightmare binge?) and I will refrain from making a declaration on that one.

Come Back Again to Here Knows When

You can’t accuse My Bloody Valentine of not getting straight to the point: it opens with a dialogue-less sequence of two miners walking through a damp and dark mine shaft until one of them decides to stop walking and removes her miner’s uniform to reveal herself as a blonde busty woman in underwear. The other guy gets more and more foreboding in his refusal to remove even his helmet and that foreboding vibe turns out to be prophetic when he grabs the woman in the middle of her seduction routine and shoves her right into the pointy end of a pickaxe he stuck on the wall behind her. Oh, what’s that? I’m forgetting the Valentine aspect. Not to worry, the woman happens to have small valentine heart over her left breast, all the better to have a target for that pickaxe to poke through as she screams us into the title card.

Of course the movie would have to promise sex and violence to function satisfactorily as one more slasher of arguably the most prolific year of that subgenre’s run: 1981, the year of The Burning, Hell Night, The Funhouse, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and to top it off the best Friday the 13th movie: the one that introduced us to Jason Voorhees proper. Except those are all American productions and it does not do to forget that Canada was just as involved in the unholy beginnings of that craze as we yanks were, given Black Christmas‘ existence pre-dates fellow inaugural slashers The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Halloween and even matches up to their masterpiece status. My Bloody Valentine is a bit more humble than either of those three giants but director George Mihalka executes just about all the standards we expect of a slasher picture with no less an admirable turn of skill as any of the other 1981 greats (ok, maybe The Burning leaves it in the dust).

Those standards living in a fairly average screenplay by Jack Beaird (writing his first of two 1981 Canadian slasher pictures, the other being uncredited work on Happy Birthday to Me) about the suitably named town of Valentine Bluffs on the country’s east coast. It’s a small mining town with very little things for its fellas to unwind with after long day’s work in underground and that means that most of the young miners are looking forward to the Valentine’s Day party to come that weekend, the first celebration of the holiday in twenty years. Turns out that the dark memory of a tragic mining accident trapping five miners during that romantic holiday supersedes having “Valentine” in your name, all the moreso when Harry Warden – the sole survivor of that tragedy, whom we only see in a gas-helmeted miner’s outfit identical to what we saw at that tawdry opening and performed by Peter Cowper – took a year later to violently murdering the two mining supervisors whose negligence led to the explosion that trapped him with the co-workers he was forced to eat to survive. Warden left each supervisor’s disemboweled heart in their own candy box with a threat to continue his reign of terror if the town dares to throw another Valentine dance as he was taken away and institutionalized.

And no sooner than when a town volunteer Mabel (Patricia Hamilton) begins decorating the Union Hall for such a celebration does Mayor Hanniger (Larry Reynolds) and Chief Newby (Don Francks) receive a similarly bloodied up candy box with a horrifying human heart in it and a note promising to fulfill Warden’s legacy if the dance does not get called off. But the young miners and their girlfriends have no idea and pay no mind to the adults’ firm insistence of the dance’s cancellation, least of all Hanniger’s son TJ (Paul Kelman), the lead miner Axel (future sitcom animator Neil Affleck), or Sarah (Lori Hallier) as they are much too busy dealing with the love triangle when TJ went west and left Sarah behind to be picked up by Axel before TJ’s dejected return.

Now this all certainly sounds like nothing special in comparison to the legacy My Bloody Valentine had since left behind as one of the major non-franchise slasher films (discounting a remake in the late 2000s, but that’s a story for another time), but there’s reading about what’s going on and there’s actually sitting in with it all. My Bloody Valentine is most distinguished in its unorthodox choice of location as half of it takes place in the rec room of the central mine where the youngsters all decide to throw their party without the authorities’ knowledge or within the mine itself as they are to be stalked and killed by either Warden or somebody imitating him. But it’s the selection of the shooting location – that of Sydney Mines in Nova Scotia – that truly gives that atmosphere more verisimilitude as it’s one thing to build together a dreary set but it’s another thing to shoot within those decrepit mines, creepy in their own right and inviting shadow and tension in the way it winds or feels set to collapse at any moment*.

Added on top of that is just the hangout vibe that the cast of youngsters naturally sink into in their many scenes together, most notably Keith Knight (who just stands out so well with his magnificent moustache), Cynthia Dale, and Alf Humphreys. It’s not like they’re particularly performing on a dramatic level, but the casual chemistry between all of them – whether drinking at the bar, shooting jokes as they walk out the mine elevator, or just sitting around at the central party – adds that sense of real working class presence to this small-town setting. And they are of course aided by characterizations and dialogue that give no particular depth as complex human presences (this of course hurts most in the sequences involving the TJ/Sarah/Axel triangle) but allows them at least the dignity of responding to the discoveries that something horribly wrong is going on appropriately, particularly compared to other slashers that take years for their hapless victims to realize mayyyyybe a psycho killer is on the loose.

These are major enough strengths to allow My Bloody Valentine the ability to survive much of its notorious suffering at the hands of the MPAA, attempting to censor as much of the “bloody” in the movie’s title as possible, but the fortune of living in 2021 (I mean, one of the few) is that we have by now a blu-ray release by Shout! Factory that properly gives a 2K restoration to the original negative most of the previously cut footage that was added to a 2009 Lionsgate Blu-Ray release** (which honestly looked way too rough in the earlier blu-ray) allows us to indulge in the wonderful low-budget raison d’etre of slasher cinema: fake gore effects. And some pretty good ones too: an eyeball poking that would certainly get its due homage in the remake, the afore-mentioned piercing of a woman’s chest from behind, an awesomely gruesome moment where a body drops with a noose around its neck that instantly decapitates upon becoming taut from gravity, and so much more. It’s altogether impressive what this tiny Canadian production was able to put together as the savage spectacle was the subgenre was meant to be.

And it should be proud of those tricks just as much as the rest of the tricks Mihalka and his crew do to make an adequate slasher picture, from the measured usage of low-lighting in those creepy underground tunnels to the occasional usage of a broad angle when the tension is finally broken by the murderous miner popping up to claim another victim (including an opening usage of a canted angle that disorients us with what is already a pretty abrupt interruption to the sex – in fact, while we ARE in the company of horny 20-year-olds, I don’t think there’s another moment in the film as risqué as that striptease – and the violence). My Bloody Valentine is certainly part of an unsophisticated subgenre that came out right at its most blatantly mercenary era, but it constructs an example of that subgenre with elegance and care to its assembly that makes it a point of pride to many of the modest fans and connoisseurs of that subgenre. And being one of those connoisseurs, I gladly declare to cheers upon it for being such a reliable little piece of horror cinema I can return to.

*Funny enough, the owners of the mine where the film was shot ended up cleaning it before the production team arrived, to their absolute dismay. The set had to be filthied up proper to fit the ominous ambience that Mihalka and the producers were aiming for. Still there’s a big difference between a fake mine stage and a real one that maybe had to have some makeup put on it.
**One of the more grim murder sequences, whose aftermath we still see and frankly resembles a similarly cut up sequence from the same year’s Friday the 13th Part 2, is believed by Mihalka to be lost forever and so he accepts the restored uncut versions as the closest to his vision.

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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