Ryan Murphy’s campy Scream Queens premieres tonight, and it pays heavy tribute to the legacy of slasher films. The cast even features Jamie Lee Curtis—one of the greatest slasher-film icons of all time. Join us as we explore the slasher genre’s blood-splattered past.
What was the first slasher movie? Depends on who you ask, but Bay of Blood (1971), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Black Christmas (both 1974) are most often cited as laying the genre’s foundation. John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), one of the highest-grossing independent films of all time, provided the cinematic template that would be re-used again and again as slasher films became more popular throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s.
One key element of that successful formula was, of course, casting Curtis in the role of the “final girl”—a term coined by Carol Clover in her oft-cited critical-studies tome Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (for further reading in the same vein, check out Vera Dika’s Games of Terror: Halloween, Friday the 13th, and the Films of the Stalker Cycle). Though Halloween offered the best of Curtis’ slasher roles, in 1980 and ’81 she also appeared in Prom Night, Terror Train, and Halloween II.
When Curtis wasn’t available, directors turned to stars of a similar age and varying wattage (Linda Blair in Hell Night; Melissa Sue Anderson in Happy Birthday To Me) or just went with complete unknowns (Adrienne King and Amy Steel, in Friday the 13th and Friday the 13th Part II, were particularly great finds). As exemplified by Curtis’ shy babysitter character, the final girl was typically portrayed as a head-screwed-on-right “good girl” (though Laurie Strode, lest ye forget, does puff on a joint!)—personal qualities that would help her survive whatever night of terror the scriptwriters crafted for her. Slasher films were far from misogyny-free, but at least most of them, by definition, featured at least one highly capable female character—no small feat for genre films at the time.
Casting a sympathetic final girl (and a scary/memorable villain; we’ll get to that later) was of utmost importance, since as Scream would point out 20 years later, the first wave of slasher films tended to follow a rather predictable formula. The story would begin with a tragic incident: Jason Voorhees drowning in Crystal Lake; Freddy Krueger killing kids on Elm Street; a pint-sized Michael Myers slashing up his sister on Halloween; a prank-gone-wrong that sets the stage for sweet, gory payback on prom night/New Year’s Eve/etc. Then, it would shift ahead to when its main characters were high-school- or college-aged, having blissfully forgotten whatever nasty thing happened in their past.
Though the feckless kids/townsfolk might be told of impending danger (Crazy Ralph in Friday the 13th: “You’re all DOOMED!”; Dr. Loomis in Halloween: “DEATH has come to your little town, sheriff”), braying old-timers (including parents, who rarely play a significant part in the plot) are always ignored. Really, what would be the fun of a movie in which kids heed sensible warnings and act responsibly to avoid the machete-wielding maniac that’s lurking in the woods? Slasher movies are all about the audience knowing that one dreamy camp counselor is about to be disemboweled, and screaming “Don’t go there!” as he or she decides a solo skinny dip would be so awesome right now.
As the movie progresses and the body count increases, only the audience knows what’s going on, since most of the kills happen in secret—until the final girl eventually starts to suspect that something’s up. (Many slasher films, including Halloween, feature a scene near the end in which the heroine discovers the butchered corpses of her friends, the shock of which helps give her the strength to fight the killer at the end.) Academics like Clover and Dika have pointed out that one of the slasher genre’s most subversive aspects is that it encourages the viewer to share the POV of the villain (often literally; think of that one-take shot that opens Halloween, seen through the mask-eyes of young Michael) and even identify with them—which can make the viewing experience even more scary and off-putting.
But once the killer is unmasked/defeated/subdued (and has that “one last scare” moment that Scream so memorably emphasized), the movie ends. It has to (at least until the sequel).
There is no slasher movie without a formidable villain, and filmmakers did their mightiest to come up with creative spins on Halloween’s masked boogeyman. We all know icons like the Friday the 13th series’ Jason (and Mrs. Voorhees, the scariest person to ever wear a cable-knit sweater) and A Nightmare on Elm Street’s dream-haunting Freddy Krueger—but films outside the big franchises often contained the most unsettling killing machines: the insane miner in My Bloody Valentine, the shears-wielding camp caretaker in The Burning, the deranged Santa Claus in Silent Night, Deadly Night. Though Jason and Freddy went on to pop culture infamy, these smaller-scale killers were weird and unexpected, and way creepier for it.
Early slasher movies were criticized for their extreme violence, but for horror fans, that was a big part of their appeal. In a genre where, as we’ve discussed, all of the storylines tended to be rather similar, death scenes that achieved new heights of gruesome artistry—thanks to glorious, pre-CGI special effects make-up wizards like Tom Savini; that’s his handiwork on a then-unknown Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th—became increasingly important.
But even blood-gushingly great kills that would make Grand Guignol audiences flinch couldn’t sustain a genre that spiraled into creative bankruptcy as the 1980s continued. Freddy Krueger became a joke-slinging parody of himself, and Jason just got kinda monotonous. And horror was no longer a fringe interest for teenage moviegoers; in 1991, The Silence of the Lambs became a huge mainstream hit and later swept all the major Oscars. (It’s still the only horror film to win Best Picture.)
But like slasher villains, the slasher genre just wouldn’t stay in the grave. In 1996, Scream managed to be both legitimately scary and knowingly self-referential, a formula that raked in the kind of box-office dollars to inspire a full-on splatter revival (I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legends, etc.), sequels to anything that did remotely well, and hugely popular parodies like the Scary Movie series. Ahem:
In even more recent years—with a few exceptions, like the through-the-looking-glass clever exercise that was Cabin in the Woods—the slasher genre has mostly taken the form of remakes. Most of which, I have to confess, I haven’t seen, partially due to my general bias against PG-13 horror movies, and partially because I’m a stuck-in-my-ways geezer that chooses to deny the very existence of, say, any Nightmare on Elm Street film that doesn’t contain Robert Englund.
The best horror movies of the 21st century have been those that’ve broken completely new ground. It Follows was clearly inspired by slasher-films past, but mines its frights from fresh, contemporary terrors, leaning more heavily on psychological torment than gore.
Perhaps it’s appropriate that the old-school slasher tale—no longer capable of offering potent big-screen scares after being repeated, revived, ragged-upon, and remade all over the place—finds life anew on TV ... even if the jury’s still out on the kitschy-yet-brutal confection that Scream Queens aspires to be.