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An Alternate History of Horror XV: Teenage Wasteland.

By Ryan Fleming.

The grandmother of slasher films.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

An oversaturated marketplace caused by innumerable sequels. Gimmicks and crossovers used to cover up a lack of original ideas. Multimedia film franchises centred upon colourful, over-the-top characters. No, we are not talking about modern day superhero films. Instead, what was being described was the state of slasher films in the US a little more than a decade after they had first burst onto the scene in 1978 with John Carpenter’s Halloween.

Slasher films dominated the US horror market of the 1980s, much like monster films such as those of Universal Studios had dominated the 1930s. And much like that earlier strand, the very American productions owed much to what had been done in European film during the preceding decades. The nature of the slashers meant that they could be produced at a low budget but offer high returns. Producers in other countries took note of the successful American pictures and began to make slashers themselves.

Despite a few resurgences, the slasher craze in American horror films fizzled out. They may have fizzled out far quicker too had a few courageous decisions been made that would have send the genre down a different path. It is also possible that without a few preceding figures, strands and works that the slasher film might never come to be in the first place.

To understand the emergence and evolution of the slasher film, the person to start with is its grandmother: Agatha Christie.

At first thought, the may seem to be little linking the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, to 1980s horror fiends like Freddy Kruger or Jason Voorhees. In fact, many of the early slasher films took a lot of their structure, plot points, and even twists from the works of Christie. She was not alone in this, with other writers and filmmakers from the UK or continental Europe owning some of the thanks (or blame). Unlike the others, Christie perhaps wrote the original template for a lot of slasher films, if one squints hard enough at it.

Here's Freddy.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A small group of people arrive at an isolated location, where they are killed off one after another by some unknown antagonist, avenging some sin from their past. No, it is not Friday the 13th (1980), nor Prom Night (1980), nor My Bloody Valentine (1981). It is Christie’s 1939 novel And Then There Were None. The characters are not camp counsellors, or high school seniors, or coal miners, but the usual Christie cross-section of characters from private investigators to doctors to retired soldiers to domestic servants. The plot twists and surprise ending of Christie’s book would become trite in slasher films with many of them having an element of a whodunnit before the franchise monsters had become solidified. Christie’s novel was adapted into a film in 1945, and it would be in that medium that the works of another British author would make their mark on future slasher films. Starting in 1959, the Danish company Rialto Film would produce a series of adaptations of the works of Edgar Wallace for the German film market. These “Krimi” films usually featured as their villains a murderer in an elaborately masked costume, prefiguring the colourful serial killers of the 1980s Hollywood films. In that respect, slasher films may be another branch in that direct chain between the Battle of Shiloh in the American Civil War and Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. that goes through Edgar Wallace.

Two far more direct film influences on the slasher genre came in 1960 from opposite sides of the Atlantic, albeit both were helmed by British directors. April saw the UK release of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. The killer in that film used a camera to photograph the dying expressions of his victims, making it the earliest film to show the perspective of the killer from the first person. It would become a common technique in slashers, so much so that in Wes Craven’s Scream 4 (2011), it is stated in dialogue to be the first slasher film. July would bring the New York premier of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Adapted from the 1959 novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, formerly of the pulp fiction horror magazines, and inspired by the very real crimes of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, is another claimant to the title of first slasher film. For years it held more of a claim due to the critical lambasting that Peeping Tom received upon its original release. Psycho ushered in a slew of imitators both in the United States and in the United Kingdom from the famed horror studio Hammer. It too would introduce techniques later done to death in slasher films, particularly in any scene involving a shower, albeit with far less finesse than done by Hitchcock.

In Italy, horror director Mario Bava intentionally evoked Hitchcock in the title of his 1963 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much, an early example of a giallo thriller. The gialli were named for a series of cheap pulp paperbacks in the crime and mystery genres, which included translations of the works of Christie and Wallace alongside the likes of Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen, and Rex Stout. These paperbacks in turn owed their name to their lurid yellow covers. The film gialli would feature an unknown killer stalking and killing a series of young women showing a lot of blood compared to most other films of the time. Occasionally they would feature a supernatural element. More akin to murder mysteries than horror, these films found an audience at US drive-ins throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The blood and eroticism of these Italian films would carry over into the slashers, with some imagery directly lifted such as a scene from Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood (1971) imitated later in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981). Gialli such as Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) would be crossed over with North American exploitation films in Bob Clark’s 1974 film Black Christmas. Films such as Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (also 1974, also inspired by the real-life crimes of Ed Gein) would show a level of violence, whether explicit or implied, unseen in wide releases, and be the final coalescence before the slasher would finally be unleashed upon audiences.

Halloween was made on a low budget by young filmmakers like other North American exploitation films. Like Christie’s work, it put its main characters in an isolation as they were picked off. Like the Krimi adaptations of Wallace’s works, it featured a masked killer (infamously, a William Shatner/Captain Kirk mask spray-painted white with the eyes cut out and hair teased). Like Peeping Tom, it put the audience into the killer’s point of view. Like the gialli, it offered a new level of violence and eroticism. And it even had a character named for one in Psycho and cast the daughter of Psycho star Janet Leigh, Jamie Lee Curtis, as its lead.

Halloween became one of the most profitable independent films of all time, launching the career of its director John Carpenter. Many other filmmakers saw the success Halloween had and thought they could do it too. Many films would be made within the next few years embodying all or some of the elements from its progenitors. Too many, in fact, and the marketplace quickly became oversaturated. However, like any good villain in a slasher film, they were down but not defeated, ready to rise again.

Canada had a claim to the first true slasher film in the shape of Black Christmas, and their entry in the genre did not end there. These films were ostensibly set in the United States, but the budget did not stretch to hiding the occasional maple leaf flag in the background. Prom Night and Terror Train (1980) both featured Jamie Lee Curtis fresh off Halloween. My Bloody Valentine featured one of the most unique settings for a slasher film, with its location and characters being coal miners, their families, and their girlfriends. Visiting Hours (1982) was set in a hospital, which was a popular setting around then, also being seen in the US productions Halloween II and Hospital Massacre (1982). High school and higher education institutions (and associated parties) were another popular setting, The Prowler (1981) and The House on Sorority Row (1982) joining Prom Night and Terror Train. Maybe the most prolific, and stereotypical, setting was a campsite. There were US style summer camps in Friday the 13th and its sequels, The Burning (1981), and Sleepaway Camp (1983); but you could even run afoul of a killer just out hiking as in Just Before Dawn (1981). Yet only one was ever set in the coal mines. Maybe if the United Kingdom had not so drastically sought to outlaw horror films, the government could have commissioned a sequel to My Bloody Valentine, with its miner killer, during the miner’s strike of 1984-1985.

The term “video nasty” was coined by Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers and Listeners Association (NVLA), a pressure group of people with nothing better to do with their time than complain about television. In the pre-social media days, this required a lot more effort. A loophole in film classification laws allowed videos to bypass the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) review process. The NVLA campaign resulted in a list of dozens of films violating the Obscene Publications Act 1959, including some that had already been cleared of an obscenity charge or had BBFC certification. There were further films which were not to be prosecuted as obscene but could still be confiscated. This meant many 1980s slasher films did not see an uncut UK release until the DVD era.

The United Kingdom had long had a dichotomous attitude towards horror films, from trying to outright ban all of them in the 1930s to leading the world production of them in the 1960s. Ironically, the UK film industry could have launched their own home-grown slasher-type films a decade before Halloween. The Haunted House of Horror (1969) has many of the same ingredients as a slasher film, and rare for a UK horror film was set in the modern day with a cast of younger people. It was even intended to star a very young David Bowie, before the American distributor insisted that a very past-it Frankie Avalon be cast instead. That and script rewrites let the film slide into obscurity, but between it and other UK almost-slashers like The Beast in the Cellar (1971), Fright (1971), and Tower of Evil (1972) could have given UK horror studios like Hammer and Amicus a modern outlet during what would become their moribund 1970s. Perhaps the video nasties debacle would not have gotten as far with home grown horrors still being regularly produced.

From the number of titles being released in such a short space of time, the market was quickly oversaturated with slasher films. The most successful of them would receive sequels, but there was still plenty if uncertainty about exactly what form these sequels would take. Halloween II was a direct sequel to Halloween, and seemingly ended the story of Michael Myers permanently with his crazed doctor blowing both of them up in the finale. Distributor Moustapha Akkad wanted another sequel, and so the decision was made to turn the franchise into a horror anthology series with each being an unconnected scary story set on Halloween. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) took the series down a more science fiction route originating from a script by legendary Manx television writer Nigel Kneale, who insisted they take his name off the final product. It turned a profit, but performed poorer than its ancestors, and was negatively received with many wondering where was Michael Myers.

Akkad still wanted another sequel, and after early attempts to make a fourth film featuring Myers as some sort of ghost or spectre, Carpenter and producer Debra Hill left the project that eventually became Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988). Halloween was not alone in this notion; Friday the 13th Part 2 was originally conceived as a story unrelated to the first based on the superstition around that date. The popularity of the first films ending instead made the film about Jason Voorhees, who was presumed dead in the first film. Oddly, had they gone down that route, it may have led to Hugh Jackman never entering the acting profession, since he originally took it up by wanting to play Jason.

The Halloween franchise continuity. Each circle represents a film; connected films have a shared continuity.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The most successful slasher films becoming anthology franchises may have had more success had the Halloween series gone down that route with its first sequel instead of its second. Carpenter was developing The Fog (1980) at the same time as Akkad was knocking on the door for a Halloween sequel. Had Halloween and Friday the 13th both successfully gone down that path, it could have allowed Stuart Gordon more success in pitching a series of HP Lovecraft adaptations directed by him and starring Jeffrey Coombs and Barbara Crampton, which started with Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986) but ended when he could not find backing for an adaptation of The Shadow over Innsmouth (1931).

There could have been a 1980s where the most prolific American horror film series were anthologies; instead the series continued to run the same scenarios with the same marquee monsters: Michael Myers in Halloween, Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th, Freddy Kruger from A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Chucky from Child’s Play (1988), Leatherface was brought back with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), and Psycho II (1983) even brought back Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Some series were returning to the same well practically every year, and it was starting to run dry.

In 1984, audiences were promised Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. Friday the 13th Part III (1983) was also intended to be the final instalment of the series, but this time they meant it so much that they put it in the title. It was the fourth film in the series, followed by another one year later when the prospect of a final entry seemed to draw people back to the box office despite declining popularity of slasher films.

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985) tried to revive the whodunnit aspect of the series, but that proved no more popular than Halloween III. The next time, in a shameless attempt at letting the audience know they were getting what the wanted in the title, there was Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986). After resurrecting their franchise player as a zombie, the series turned to increasingly outlandish gimmicks including pitting him against a telekinetic girl (Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood – 1988), promising to take him to New York City but mostly filming in Vancouver and setting most of the film on a cruise ship since Crystal Lake was not connected to the Atlantic Ocean (Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan – 1989). There were many unmade scripts submitted for sequels as the 1980s turned into the 1990s.

Peter Jackson submitted a script for the fifth Elm Street sequel which would abandon the familiar trappings of the series. This was unacceptable to the producers who instead commissioned Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991). That film was released in 3D, which is always a sign of distress for the film industry when a number are released, but when you are the only major release using the gimmick, you should have real cause for concern. Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993) (for those following along at home, this is the third final outing for Mr Voorhees) ended on the prospect of a crossover between its series and the Elm Street films. Both characters were now under the ownership of New Line Cinema, but the project would be trapped in development hell for over a decade.

Whilst Freddy vs Jason (2003) was stuck in pre-production, both series would see a new film released. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) advertised the return of the director of the original film, this also being the era of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994). The real gimmick of the film was that it was ostensibly set in the real world where the Elm Street series existed as films. It allowed the script by Craven to make a commentary on horror films in general, which would be amplified to the maximum in Scream (1996). The script, by Kevin Williamson, explicitly addressed many clichés of the slasher genre, such as what actions would get you killed (having sex, doing drugs or alcohol, leaving a room with the words: “I’ll be right back.”) Many of these clichés became self-fulfilling prophecies that do not hold up when examining most of the original strand of slasher films. The notion of the final girl who could defeat the killer being a virgin standing up against examples such as Friday the 13th Part 2, or those cases where the character in question was male, such as A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985).

The popularly cited one that it would always be a Black character that would die first gives filmmakers too much credit for diverse casting, when examples of Black actors in anything other than background roles can be counted on one hand prior to the 1990s. The popularity of Scream ushered in not only its own sequels, but similar films like I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998), and Urban Legend (1998). These films were part of the young zeitgeist of the day with many crossover actors from popular teen dramas such as Party of Five (1994-2000), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), and Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003).

Scream also altered the trajectory of the troubled Freddy vs Jason. Jason X (2001) was intended to be a quick injection of cash for the producers whilst the crossover simmered, but itself fell into development hell. It was originally intended to be very tongue-in-cheek and self-aware at the ridiculousness of sending Jason Voorhees into space. Freddy vs Jason was released in 2003, and despite some plans for a sequel (which would feature either Halloween’s Michael Myers or Ash (Bruce Campbell) from the Evil Dead series that began with The Evil Dead) represented the final outing for the original series of films before remakes became vogue. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) was massively profitable at the box office and ushered in an era of remakes like Halloween (2007), My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009), Friday the 13th (2009), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). Since then, the most notable slasher films have been those that use it as a background for more high concept outings such as The Final Girls (2015), Happy Death Day (2017), and Freaky (2020). There have also been remakes of sequels starting with David Gordon Green’s Halloween (2018) (for those keeping track, this is the third film named Halloween mentioned herein) which disregarded the continuity of the series aside from the first film.

Had Freddy vs Jason been made in the early 1990s, before Scream, then it’s possible that it would have been yet another moribund entry into both franchise without the freshness that was brought to the genre. It could have been the final nail in the coffin for the genre, creating a vacuum into which something would have stepped. That could have simply been remakes a decade early, but they could just as easily have been something else once horror found its new craze.

Slasher films often attract derision for their quality and subject matter, justified in some cases, but those same elements have their origins way before a production assistant on Halloween turned a cheap image of Captain Kirk into the bogeyman. Even taking that into consideration, they offered early opportunities to many filmmakers and actors. They created the most well-known stable of film monsters since Universal in the 1930s.

It is this last that means their popular culture impact has been indelible. As remarked in New Nightmare, Freddy Kruger was as well-known as “Santa Claus or King Kong” to most children. This despite these films never being intended for children. Unlike slasher films, there has long been horror content aimed principally at children. It will be those works that will form the subject of our next article.

The slasher films prefigured a lot of what would become standard practice in Hollywood decades later on superhero films. The flaws in these models are apparent in both instances; the major difference in superhero films had a lot more money injected into them. Consider that, adjusting for inflation, a studio could have made one hundred and thirty-three and a third (133.33) Halloweens for the cost of one The Flash (2023). That cost is based on the lower end of budget estimates for the superhero film, and the higher end of estimates for the slasher.

133.33 Halloweens.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

He can’t outrun him, but Michael Myers certainly doesn’t break the bank like Barry Allen.

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Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP.

There is also SLP’s own Horror anthology, Travellers in an Antique Land (edited Katherine Foy).

SFP has produced Ghost Written, a collection of ghost stories.


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