"A true slasher isn't just about a body count. It's about the lore of an iconic antagonist. The story's exposition needs to be equally effective as the story's execution. We have to care about the dynamic between the hero and the villain, otherwise it's all blood and guts with no heart."
-Richard Stringham (Writer/Director Close Calls)
The modern audience has been without a slasher icon for far too long. Without a faceless adversary in coveralls to serve as our moral compass society as a whole suffers. It’s no secret that in times of unrest and chaos horror thrives, but when it’s hard to readily identify what exactly it is that makes us uncomfortable, that time demands a masked assailant for us to pin our anxieties to. Where previous decades have had the luxury of this cinematic catharsis, we are now left in the lurch.
Take for instance the seventies, amidst the disenfranchised hippies, and key party wives Michael Myers nestled up with sex and the suburbs. While the decade brought washed out film stock entries like Black Christmas, it was the “shape”, not the color palate that defined a decade. Only a fool would begin to claim to explain Halloween’s success . Perhaps it was a post war America, perhaps it was a residue of the sexual revolution. No one can say for sure. But one thing is certain: in 1978 an independent filmmaker and a princess of hollywood royalty breeding struck a deal with the devil, a devil in a Captain Kirk mask.
Four years prior to this polishing of the formula, in the heart of the Lone Star State, Tobe Hooper had taken the stories of a Wisconsin serial killer and weaved them into the roots of every slasher film to follow. To simplify, modern horror diverts at a pivotal moment. There was before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and there is after. The gritty, “far too real” look terrified audiences. That backwater ride through a fucked up world, feeling as if I was seated less than safely in a pickup truck bed, was hard to take. I still remember the first time I watched the film. With my parents out for the evening and my teenage excitement outweighing better judgement i slid the tape into the VCR...alone. I recall gagging along when I saw the chicken in a birdcage. Something about that eating bird in a singing birds prison cut me down to size. According to one source when TCM was shown, Drive-In snack bar sales skyrocketed. The public was hungry.
This cultural phenomenon would continue to gain momentum up to and through the 1980s. Cautionary campfire tales began to materialize in a vulgar, literal sense. Friday the 13th grabbed it's decade by the throat and didn't let go. Leaving in its wake a slew of copycat movies, and if they didn't steal the setting they sure as shit stole the formula. The fear of God had been replaced with a fear of slashers. Jason Voorhees answered a primal call in the souls of the Horror community. The audience cried out for more brutality and their pleas were met with the business end of a machete. Not to mention a spear, knife, and meat cleaver. Through eight sequels the audience witnessed gore and sex smashed together like two pieces of playdoh in the hands of a toddler. News reporter words like "pornographic" and "violence" became an unintended marketing campaign. But like any bubble, inevitably it had to burst and by the dawn of the 90s, masked killers were no longer in vogue.
The decade that saw the first widespread use of mobile phones surely spelled the end for slashers. Menacing faceless figure stalking your neighborhood? Why not just "call for help?" But it was Kevin Williamson who refused to let go. His screenplay shook the last of the slasher from the once limitless bottle. Scream delighted audiences, self referential humor blurred the line between camera lens and audience. Hindsight being 20/20 the meticulous dissection of slasher tropes was ultimately its undoing. Wes Craven giveth and Wes Craven taketh away.
Chrome Skull, Leslie Vernon, Hatchet, all noted films and characters praised by audiences and critics alike. But no one would argue that any of them have reached the cultural status of Michael, Jason, or Leatherface. The torch has been dropped.
Are modern audiences and their tastes to high brow for a masked killer? Has the PC movement removed any chance for the formula to return? Will a younger generation grow up never knowing the cinematic ramifications of simply being a teenager? One thing is certain, this lack of a slasher icon is detrimental to society.
“The fear of god had been replaced with a fear of slashers. "
This single sentence describes the horror film landscape in the 80s perfectly.
Well done, Ty.