On the State of ‘Slashers’

By Michael Varrati

Being in the business of horror, it is not unusual to find my calendar booked with travels to a plethora of genre-themed conventions and events. Over the course of any given year, many of my weekends are spent passing the hours amongst ghouls and goblins in the well-worn hotel conference rooms or expo centers of our fair country, promoting projects or just generally mingling with passersby. It’s definitely a nomadic lifestyle, and the many weeks on the road ensure that I don’t see home as often as I’d like, but I would never dream of complaining. Besides being a wonderful way to see the world, the one thing that is remarkably consistent about conventions is the sheer enthusiasm for horror & exploitation cinema that I see wherever I go. For a genre that is so often dismissed by the general public as underground nonsense, I see nothing but a loving, enthusiastic community in each city I visit. Above all, this excites me, and encourages me to continue doing what I do, for better or worse. As long as there are children of the popcorn, there will be those of us standing by with gallons of fake blood to feed them…and that warms my evil little heart.

But, this piece isn’t about my nostalgic feelings for horror or conventions, per se, but rather is a pondering rooted in my attendance to one such event.

Recently I joined Mike Watt and Amy Lynn Best at the Horror Realm convention in Pittsburgh to promote the upcoming DVD release of a film I worked on with them, Demon Divas and the Lanes of Damnation(Available 4/5/2011!!!). A modest and friendly affair, Horror Realm offered the usual convention accoutrements, as well as a few unique features that gave it a particular flair for fun. One such offering, The VHS Room, was a particular fan-favorite, screening videotape horror oddities for a room of lounging attendees.

Wandering in just as the crowd was selecting its next flick, I was lucky enough to happen upon a group of friends who were idly standing about waiting for the screening to begin. When the film was announced (it was 1987’s Blood Rage, for those who care), some in the crowd met the selection with glee, but a member of my little party just grimaced.

“Not a fan?” I asked, attempting to sort out any discontent she may have with the little-seen “classic.”

“It’s not that I’m not a fan,” the reply came, “It’s just that it’s a guy with a knife stalking teenagers. We don’t need to watch that. We’ve seen a hundred before.”

At the time, I dismissed the aside as a decent critique, moved on with the weekend, and thought little more about it as I partied my way through the rest of Horror Realm.  Yet several days later, the comment came out of the void and stuck in my craw…and I haven’t been able to shake it since.

We’ve seen a hundred before.”

…and with that little kernel nestled in my brain, I can’t help but wonder:

What has become of the slasher movie?

Obviously, as a subgenre, slashers are still going strong. In the wake of all the Freddys, Jasons, and what-have-yous, there are numerous masked marauders with a literal axe to grind with the buxom teens of the world, but therein also lies the problem. It has become formula.

“The problem is horror lost its originality for a while there,” myDivas co-star Gwendolyn (one name, a la Cher) told me recently, “They’d intro on an amusement park or something, you’d learn about how some guy was wronged there, and you basically knew what was coming from that point on.”

…and essentially, this is true. Once the motif of the masked stalker proved to be profitable for horror filmmakers, the only thing that seemed to change was the increased inventiveness of a film’s murder set pieces. Indeed, such a familiar stamp was left by such works that at their height, famed critic Roger Ebert took to calling them “dead teenager movies.” Though Ebert’s assessment was particularly snide and meant as a derision of the films themselves, through the lens of time it can’t be denied that the Chicago critic’s demeaning nomenclature rang more than a little true.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the 80s-era of horror more than anything, and for better or worse, it is directly responsible for giving birth to a whole new generation of monster kids. It’s a sheer inevitability that the aforementioned conventions are flooded not just with Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th fans, but also fans of lesser known slashers like The Prowler and Graduation Day. Yes, if there was a film that was made in this milieu during that era, it is almost guaranteed that it will have its devotees, and formulaic or not, has earned its love.

But for all this unbridled enthusiasm for films of days gone by, the question still stands: Since SO many slasher films were made, is it ever possible for this particular subgenre to be fresh? Or will we forever embrace them for their familiarity, all the while rolling our eyes at what is perceived to be expected and usual?

Thinking long and hard about the issue, I have come to the conclusion that the slasher film doesn’t have to be a victim of its own, delicious trappings. Indeed, though they are few and far between, there are some iconic lights in the darkness that prove the very conventions of this rote motif can be its very advantage.

Take for instance one of my favorite gems of the slasher-era, Fred Walton’s April Fool’s Day.

(Warning: There be spoilers ahead)

The sheer effect of April Fool’s Day relies on the fact that the viewer implicitly understands and is familiar with the tropes of a typical slasher film. Even the title and setting are meant to evoke previous films with killer holiday themes. As we wind our way through the movie, the pattern is met at every turn: Gruesome deaths, dwindling numbers, idiotic teens. It is in this strict adherence to everything that we know about the “dead teenager” movie that makes the final frames of April Fool’s Day such a masterstroke. After following every step to the T, we discover (alongside the disheveled heroine), that the whole film is an elaborate prank. The deaths were a ruse, the body count zero. For some, this conclusion was maddening, perhaps because the film didn’t stick to formula, or perhaps the audience didn’t like to feel duped the way the “final girl” did. What’s most deliciously frustrating about April Fool’s Day is the fact that the final revelation is right there in the title, and yet we still somehow don’t see it coming.

Just as Sleepaway Camp did with its shocking genderfuck ending, April Fool’s Day relies on the fact that you expect everything to be run-of-the-mill. In playing with what you know, and then slapping you in the face with it, these films were able to stand out amongst their peers as both slasher films and something terrifically unique.

Indeed, it is this perversion of formula that also made Wes Craven’s Screamthe genre redefining piece that we now know it to be. Craven, along with scriptwriter Kevin Williamson, usedScream as meta-fictional piece to make fun of a style of cinema that Craven himself helped create, and in doing so reinvigorated the blood-thirst at the box office for a whole new generation. It’s not that Scream was horribly original that won it love with fans, but rather the fact that it was blissfully self-aware. Never before had a movie winked so boldly at the audience, as if to say, “Yeah, we know it’s ridiculous too,” thus immortalizing on film that sense of inclusion all true fans of horror have always held in their hearts. Since its success, Scream’s imitators have been many, so it is easy to forget just how pivotal it was for our genre. But the truth is right there on celluloid, it was the movie that re-launched the slasher film by doing what no one expected: Admitting to the world exactly what it was.

In the years since Sidney Prescott was first stalked by the Ghostface killer, there have been numerous attempts at redefining the slasher film, as well as the return of many old standards. Some filmmakers, like Scott Glosserman, the man behind the slasher mockumentary Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, have been able to breathe new life into the motif by merging genres and styles, while others seek to keep the time-honored tradition of the simple “man with knife” alive and well.

I am left with the sense that there is no right path for the slasher subgenre to take. That there are films that defy expectations and prove themselves to be swans in a lake full of ducks is appreciated and lauded. However, that there are also films like “a hundred we’ve seen before,” may not always be a terrible thing either. For the consummate horror fan, there’s a comfort in familiarity. Having a certain standard we can always return to is a nice thing, and it must be a continued trend in our community for a reason. Perhaps, at the end of the day, the rote slasher film is appreciated because it’s like mashed potatoes at a holiday meal…we may not always want a serving, but it’s comforting to know they’re there.

…and really, as imitated as some of the original slashers like John Carpenter’s Halloween and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas have become, the films have lost little impact several decades on. Certainly we know what to expect when we sit down to watch them, but ultimately, there is little detraction from the fact that they are well-made, atmospheric, and most importantly…pure fun.

In summation, while slasher movies are not always wholly original, I would never say that they are without merit. These movies, for many, are what initially brings horror fans to the theater and convention halls, and it is from that enthusiasm that they may discover the deeper, more rooted aspects of our beloved genre.

So, while it may be tiring to occasionally see yet another stab-happy villain stalking the night, I ultimately hope that they never truly stop menacing teens. After all, with every drop of blood spilled, there’s a greater chance that one day you’ll come to me, enter the church of Peaches Christ, and be one of the children of the popcorn forever and always.

Like a hundred before, here’s to a hundred more.

Keep those knives sharp…

…and I’ll see you on the road.

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