By now, slasher films have become formulaic and predictable, defined by rules in ways that other subgenres of horror tend not to be; in general, slasher films tend to be made up of the same key components; a killer, usually in a mask or some other of costume, stalks his victims; usually, teenagers until only one survivor, the final girl, remains. The action usually unfolds on a date significant to the killer, be it the anniversary of a personal tragedy or a holiday tied to a traumatic event. The killings, usually creative to the point of black comedy, unfold between POV shots of the killer stalking his (because he is almost always male) victims.
Despite the prominence of the subgenre in America and its mostly American origins, the early roots of the slasher can be found in German Krimi films with their boldly costumed villains set to jazz scores and in Italian Gialli with their black-gloved killers. This concept isn’t hard to connect to the masked killers of slasher films and the grandiose ways that they kill. A vital example of this influence is Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood (1971), also known as Carnage, Twitch of the Death Nerve and Blood Bath, which has been theorized to be a direct influence on several of the kills in Friday the 13th Part II (1981), as well as having influenced the “body count” phenomena most prominent in the “Golden Age” of the 1980s but still seen decades later in franchises like Wes Craven’s Scream franchise, which began in 1996 with the film of the same name. Other influences for the subgenre came from splatter films like those of Herschell Gordon Lewis (sometimes called the “Godfather of Gore,” a title shared with Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci.)
While the Final Girl, the sole survivor of the killer, who is most often a manifestation of the “virgin” archetype, is essential to Slasher films, she rarely becomes the franchise’s focus after the first movie. The Scream franchise is one of the few franchises that follow the original girl (Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott) throughout its run instead of following the masked killer, as is the case with Friday the 13th and A Nightmare Elm Street.
So we have the slasher film as it is now, with its rigid structure rarely broken and even then, only broken to either poke fun at the genre or to subvert it to play with audience expectations, but where did that structure come from? Who used it first? As with all genres, there isn’t a single person who created the slasher film whole cloth. Instead, it was a series of directors who, over several decades, created the subgenre collaboratively, regardless of whether that collaboration was intentional or not. But, there is a starting point: 1960.
On September 8, 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho premiered. The film was, to say the least, a departure from Hitchcock’s previous film, North by Northwest. Rather than being a tale of mistaken identity, Psycho instead follows the events surrounding an encounter between Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a secretary who goes on the run after embezzling $40,000 and Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the proprietor of a motel where she stops for the night. Marion has, suffice it to say, an awkward encounter with Norman. He prepares dinner for her (sandwiches and milk), which they eat in a room filled with birds he has taxidermied himself as he cryptically tells her that his mother is ill. During her stay at the motel, Marion meets her end, being killed by a shadowed figure presumed to be Norman Bates’ mother.
While not what would be traditionally thought of as a slasher, Psycho is generally considered the first film containing some of the elements that the films that followed would contain, i.e. voyeurism, sexualized violence, and a heightened level of violence than had previously been shown on screen. However, some have pointed out that Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom preceded Psycho by a few months, having premiered in April of 1960. Like Psycho, Peeping Tom shares themes of voyeurism and sexualized violence that would, through the “rules” of the genre fully established by 1980’s Friday the 13th, become the building blocks of the slasher subgenre, more specifically the idea that sex equals death that was inadvertently introduced by Halloween (1978). Peeping Tom also features an early instance of the subjective POV shots that would become a staple of the slasher film, with the killer filming women as he kills them to capture their expressions as they die.
As a minor aside, before we move on to 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I would like to bring up Ray Dennis Steckler’s 1971 horror film Blood Shack, also known as The Chooper and Curse of the Evil Spirit. Blood Shack is not a good film per se, but it does have proto-slasher elements that show up, albeit perhaps not as skillfully done as in its successor, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974); the film has elements that would become mainstays of slasher films, the masked killer chasing a frightened woman, and, in the end, the woman emerging as the sole survivor of the killer’s pursuit. That being said, there is no conclusive evidence that I could find during my time researching this article that proves that Blood Shack had any actual impact whatsoever on the slasher subgenre, leaving its only concrete legacy as an appearance in a Red Letter Media video.
On October 11th, 1974, what would be thought of as the first true slasher film hit theatres. Directed by Tobe Hooper and co-written by Hooper and Kim Henkel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, marketed as a true story, is about Sally Hardesty and her paraplegic brother, accompanied by their friends Jerry, Kirk, and Pam, journeying to the Hardestys’ grandfather’s grave following reports of vandalism and grave robbing in the area. While important to the subgenre, Texas Chainsaw is not, according to the conventions of slashers as we know them post-Friday the 13th (1981) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), precisely a slasher itself. Like Black Christmas, also released on October 11th, 1974, and Halloween (1978), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre does not have enough of the elements of a slasher film to be itself considered a slasher film if one is using a purist definition of slasher films.
This doesn’t, of course, discount the contributions that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre made to the subgenre’s development. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, after all, would go on to become a slasher franchise akin to Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street and would even rival the Halloween franchise in terms of how many retcons the timeline of the films would undergo (at last count, the Texas Chainsaw franchise sits at four continuities while Halloween sits at three.)
The first seeds of the idea for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre came to Hooper in 1970, while he was working as both an assistant film director at the University of Texas at Austin and as a documentary cameraman. Already having developed a story involving the elements of isolation, darkness, and the woods, the graphic coverage of violence that Hooper saw coming from news outlets based in San Antonio would serve as further inspiration for the film. The most well-known of the elements that inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is perhaps the crimes of Ed Gein, a murderer and grave robber from Plainfield, Wisconsin, who also inspired Psycho (1960) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
Hooper’s previous experience with documentary filmmaking is clearly visible in how The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is filmed and presented to the audience, both in terms of the framing device presented by the now-iconic title card and opening narration and the actual visuals in the movie. On page 248 of Contemporary North American Film Directors: A Wallflower Critical Guide, “Texas Chainsaw [sic] uses documentary techniques — gritty hand-held footage, washed-out colours — to efficiently heighten its realism.” While not a key part of the development of this particular subgenre, the realism of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, especially when it concerns the title card and opening narration which (falsely) proclaimed the film to be true, would be (along with Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust) go on to be seen as an important part of the development of found footage.
“Texas Chainsaw [sic] uses documentary techniques — gritty hand-held footage, washed out colours — to efficiently heighten its realism.” While not a key part of the development of this particular subgenre, the realism of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, especially when it concerns the title card and opening narration which (falsely) proclaimed the film to be true, would be (along with Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust) go on to be seen as an important part of the development of found footage.
It should also be noted that Wes Craven, the man who would go on to direct the slasher juggernaut A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and meta-slasher Scream (1996), itself a deconstruction of the genre he would help build, intended his 1977 film The Hills Have Eyes as an homage to Texas Chainsaw, complete with its own deadly gas station attendant.
While there are those, who consider Halloween (1978) to be a “mayhem-by-the-numbers knock off of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” this assertion is factually incorrect on almost every possible level one could even come close to considering. Halloween could be viewed as a knockoff, just not a knockoff of Texas Chainsaw. The actual movie that Halloween could be accused of knocking off is Bob Clark’s 1974 proto-slasher Black Christmas (coincidentally also released on October 11th, 1974, perhaps that’s where the confusion stems from). This film had such an undeniable influence on John Carpenter that Bob Clark has alleged that Halloween was inspired by an idea Clark told Carpenter he had for a sequel to Black Christmas. From a 2005 interview:
“I never intended to do a sequel. I did a film about three years later, started a film with John Carpenter … his first film for Warner Bros. … he asked me if I was ever gonna do a sequel and I said no. I was through with horror … He said, ‘Well what would you do if you did do a sequel?’ I said it would be the next year and the guy would have actually been caught, escape from a mental institution, go back to the house, and they would start all over again. And I would call it Halloween.”
In the same interview, when asked if John Carpenter copied Black Christmas, Clark said:
“The truth is John didn’t copy Black Christmas, he wrote a script, directed the script, did the casting, Halloween is his movie and besides the script came to him already titled anyway … he may have been influenced by [Black Christmas], but in no way did John Carpenter copy the idea.”
Black Christmas is inspired by the well-known urban legend of the babysitter and the murderer in the attic. This legend was previously explored in Terence H. Winkless’ (The Howling) 1971 short film Foster’s Release. The urban legend, which dates back to the 1960s, is simple, and the odds are that you’ve heard it in at least one variation. The story goes like this: a babysitter is watching television alone at night while watching some children who have been put to bed. The phone rings, and the voice on the phone tells the girl to check on the children. She dismisses it at first, brushing it off as a prank call. But the calls keep coming. Eventually, she calls the police, who tell her they’ll trace the next call. When the stranger calls again, the police inform the girl that she needs to leave immediately. She does, and the police meet her outside, telling her that the call was coming from inside and that the voice on the phone had been the killer calling her after having killed the children upstairs.
Like the legend that inspired it, Black Christmas is simple. It opens with a scene shot from Billy, the killer’s, perspective as he walks around a sorority house, eventually climbing into the house’s attic. From there, he begins to torment the girls in the house with phone calls full of snarling and profanities interspersed with what sounds like allusions to the murder of a young girl. In between harassing the girls with phone calls, he creeps out of the attic to pick them off one by one, killing them in creative and horrific ways. But that isn’t the entire extent of Black Christmas’ influence and innovation; as Contemporary North American Film Directors, a book that I mentioned previously and that I will mention again, says:
“The film anticipates a number of plot twists and visual motifs that would become commonplace in the slasher sub-genre after Halloween (1978). These include the use of a subjective camera to represent the killer’s point of view and scary phone-calls that originate from inside the victim’s house.”
The book also points out the gialli conventions that influenced Black Christmas, something which should by now serve to hammer home the fact that gialli films were a massive influence on the slasher genre. As a contributor, Ian Cooper writes, “The stylish murders, including suffocation by plastic sheeting and stabbing with a crystal ornament, would seem to owe something to the baroque Italian horror of Mario Bava and Dario Argento.” It should be noted that Mario Bava has been theorized as having influenced on Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981), and Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975) has long been considered an influence on the genre writ large, but especially on the Halloween franchise, the very franchise which invented slashers as we know them now.
In 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween premiered, and the face of horror changed forever. Starring Jamie Lee Curtis (interestingly enough the daughter of Janet Leigh of Psycho fame) as final girl Laurie Strode, Halloween tells the story of what happens after Michael Myers (Nick Castle), a murderer who was imprisoned in Smith’s Grove Sanitarium fifteen years earlier for murdering his older sister Judith when he was six, escapes and makes his way to Haddonfield, his hometown, where he unleashes terror on the town. In the days leading up to Halloween, Myers stalks Laurie, leading up to Halloween night when the actual massacre begins.
One of the most significant aspects of the killer, Michael Myers (called The Shape in the credits of both the original film), is that he is unknown. He is nothing more than a dark shape chasing you through the house, knife in hand. The killers who follow would have far more personality than Myers has ever had, Freddy Krueger of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise being the most obvious example of that change.
In the forty-three years since Halloween was first released, the film has gone on to be (rightfully) viewed as one of the most influential movies in the history of the entire horror genre, going so far as to be seen as the film that birthed the slasher genre as we know it. From the aforementioned Contemporary North American Film Directors:
“So many elements in the film now seem overwrought and obvious, but Carpenter was among the first to introduce many crucial features to the genre: the underlying scariness and alienation of small-town America; the last girl standing; the masked psychopath; the terrorized babysitter.”
While many of these elements had previously existed on their own, Carpenter and his co-writer, Debra Hill, brought them together and used all of them at once to tell a story. The films that came afterward, like Friday the 13th (1981), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and all of the clones that would follow, would take this collection of themes and concepts and run with them. One can not stress enough how much of what is in this movie was new. Undoubtedly, Halloween was the movie that made it possible for slashers to exist in the first place, something we’ll see when we explore the “golden age” of the 1980s in the next part of this series.