How does one really write something positive about a subgenre of horror filmmaking, the premise of which can be reduced down to one deranged individual systematically murdering a group of rather clueless others? Sure, the slasher film genre is one that likely will never disappear, but how does one really explain their enjoyment of the genre? Is it even possible?
Intellectually, I hate slasher films. Like, really hate them — but to the point that I love to hate them. No matter how bad each may be, I keep going back again and again, thinking the next one will provide me with the worthwhile experience the last one did not. I continue to be disappointed, but despite this, there is just something about the genre, something I cannot put my finger on, that draws me irresistibly back to the theater for the next attempt. I do not tend to revisit the same movie twice, but I will always watch new films that come out in this particular field. In fact, I doubt I have watched nearly as many films from any single other genre than I have with slasher films. They are always in abundance, and every year brings a new supply fresh for the taking.
One of the more obvious things, I think, that brings me back continually is the creativity on display in the majority of these films. In any half-decent slasher film, the killer has to take out his/her victim in some form of visually exciting display every single time. There is no room for a lousy or half-assed kill. Even the most gruesome of death scenes in these films has some element of theatricality to them. And for the most part, filmmakers will spend almost the entirety of their efforts in making sure these scenes, above any others, look the best. Forget the plots, forget the character developments — the kills are what make these films fall in line with their brethren, and are at the heart of what makes the genre tick. And much like myself, audiences eat them up. What’s not to love, when a movie starts off with an innocent scene of one or two people just hanging out, only to soon find themselves sliced and diced into tiny pieces in the most ridiculous fashion ever?
Another reason I enjoy these movies is just how captivating I find some of these killers to be. Freddy Krueger is one of the most interesting film characters ever created, and seeing Robert Englund take on the character in six sequels and one spin-off will always be a much more worthwhile experience than the latest cookie-cutter comedy or huge miss Oscar-baiting drama. The plots may get sillier, the characters may even barely fit into the grand scheme of things, but seeing Freddy at his consistent best will always be a treat you just cannot replicate in any other genre of film. And the list goes on: Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Leatherface, Pinhead, Jigsaw, Chucky (who still terrifies me to this day) – the possible additions are just endless. These are just the killer characters I picked off the top of my head in ten seconds.
But I think this is also where the disconnect comes in for me. As much as I enjoy watching films starring these wacky characters, none of the movies in which they star are particularly very good. They are good for what they are, perhaps, but it is always puzzling that they were ever deemed good enough to inspire endless amounts of sequels, or even warrant the endless amount of remakes (I can already sense a Saw remake waiting in the wings). Sure, they are fun to watch with a group, or sometimes on your own for a light chuckle or two, but nothing more. It truly is a genre the enjoyment of which comes squarely out of how you feel towards what these films are selling. You need to be able to cheer for the villain. You need to be able to withstand horribly concocted drivel masquerading as the stuff of nightmares.
The exception to all of this can be found in the original slasher horror film, which is nothing short of a masterpiece. No, I am not talking about John Carpenter’s Halloween, and I am not even going to touch Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (but will point out that both are better than their modern remakes). No, I am talking about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho — widely regarded as the first movie to kickstart this killer craze.
But while Psycho may be responsible for much of what has come after it, it also acts as a bit of an anomaly when discussing the phenomenon as a whole. It follows the conventions of slasher film in that it has a mysterious killer taking out unwitting individuals in various gory ways, but that is where the comparisons between it and its later facsimiles start to dissolve. For one thing, it is not okay to hate this film. For another, every single element, every frame, has become legend. Norman Bates. The Bates Motel. The shower. Janet Leigh. A boy who loves his mother. This is truly ground zero for slashers, and is the one movie every new effort sets out to (or should set out to) top. They all fail miserably. Even Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake, featuring a rare freaky dramatic performance from Vince Vaughn, did not even come close to comparing to Hitchcock’s original. Hell, even Psycho has a handful of crappy sequels made specifically to cash in on the original’s wild popularity. It is doubtful any slasher film will ever come close to topping its greatness.
The in-thing among slasher filmmakers since the mid-1990’s has been the use of self-parody, and the deliberate camping up of everything. It works out for some movies (I will always hold a special place in my heart for Jason X, where Jason Voorhees gives up his time in Camp Crystal Lake to go kill teenagers on a futuristic space station), and not so much for others (the less said about Seed of Chucky the better). It makes for an interesting experience each time, because this is one genre that is always reinventing itself in order to stay current and stay in touch with the audiences. It also leads to experiments like Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, and right away, you can hark back to how creative and theatrical these horror film tend to be.
Yes, I find it fun to hate on these films, but there really is something inherently intriguing about the genre as a whole, in its innovativeness and its ability to shock, and in how enjoyable it is to watch.
I still find something endearing about Michael Myers’ need to kill.
And, hey, if you can find the comic genius in watching a hulking monster in a hockey mask murder a young woman by beating her against a tree while wrapped up in her sleeping bag, then clearly you can appreciate the genre for what it is and sets out to do every time.