Blogger Stacie Ponder’s horror columns appear every Wednesday.
The other day I watched John Carpenter’s Halloween with my friend Bridget, who’d never seen it before — in fact, she hasn’t seen many horror movies because she sorta, kinda hates them because, well, they’re scary. She made it through the escapades of Michael Myers fairly well — she screamed and jumped a few times, but in the end she wasn’t traumatized and wouldn’t be suffering nightmares — it was scary, but not that scary. I wasn’t completely surprised by her reaction; though this movie has been a perennial favorite of mine since childhood, times and filmmaking styles have changed. Halloween is indeed a slow burn and not as shocking as some modern fare… and let’s face it, once you decide that Michael tooling around town in a giant station wagon is more silly than frightening, it’s all over.
But it was more than the 1970s pacing that led Bridget to declare Halloween “not that scary” — it was all the horror movie tropes we’ve seen countless times since 1978. It’s the “Hey you guys, this joke isn’t funny anymore!” and the “Oh, the killer is dead! I’ll just sit here next to his body and relax!”… these clichés are terribly effective before you know they’re clichés, but not so much when you’ve seen ’em a million times. And Bridget’s right: It’s all pretty familiar because slasher films are just about the most formulaic movies you’ll ever come across. Plug A, B, and C into the equation and you too, my friend, can have yourself a slasher film!
So what are the As, Bs, and Cs of slasher moviemaking? What are these common elements? Funny you should ask, because I was just going to talk about them!
Killers in slasher films usually have some reason
for their killing sprees, and that reason is most often plain ol’
revenge for some trauma or injustice he or she has suffered. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Krueger seeks revenge against the people who killed him by murdering their children. In Prom Night (1980), Alex avenges his dead sister, while in Friday the 13th Mrs. Voorhees avenges her dead son. Then there’s Kenny of Terror Train, who doles out payback for a practical joke that broke his brain.
Of course ,there are killers whose motives are never explained —
they’re just your garden variety cuckoo nutsos– but most of the
psychos of slasherdom are driven personal vendettas. The biggest
problem is that these folks simply don’t know when to stop. Jason
Voorhees, for example, evened the score with Alice after she killed his
mother, but then he just kept on dispatching anyone he felt like, and that, my friends, is called going too far.
Masks are totally optional — and totally awesome.
Hmm… “Slasher” films. I wonder where that name came from…wait!
Knives go slash, and more often than not, the killers in these movies
use knives or other pointy objects to dispatch their victims. Again,
there are always exceptions to the rule; Angela of Sleepaway Camp 1, 2 , and 3
undoubtedly wins the “Most Creative Killer” award for her use of
everything from lawn mowers to bees to get her kill on. But can you
imagine Michael Myers wielding a gun? It doesn’t seem right — it’s
akin to imagining a clown riding a hippo. Sure, it’s possible, but it’s
a little too surreal for my liking. Most slasher psychos go so far as
to have a signature weapon. Yeah, as the Dream Master, Freddy can morph
into a killer motorcycle (truly a low point in the series), but it’s
really all about his practical and fashionable knifeglove. Where would
Leatherface be without his chainsaw? What about Mr. Slumber Party Massacre ? That dude is nothing without his giant phallic drill.
In most slasher flicks, the cast comprises
teenagers. As a result, the locations found in the films are usually
places teens frequent, such as summer camp, school, slumber parties,
the mall, and Miley Cyrus concerts. (Maybe not that last one… but
tell me that a Miley Cyrus concert-related horror movie isn’t the best
idea ever!) It helps if the location is cut off from society at large,
whether it occurs naturally — camp tends to be way out in the woods
— or thanks to circumstance: Kids sneaking in places after closing
time, or staying at school over a long break. So long as no one can
hear you scream, you’re good to go.
Over the years, graphic violence and
bare breasts have become hallmarks of the genre. No matter how good or
scary a horror movie is, if there’s no blood and no boobs, many folks
don’t consider it a true horror movie — and this goes double for
One of the biggest complaints about slasher
flicks (and even in the horror genre as a whole) is that the characters
are rarely more than cardboard cutouts, on screen simply to provide a
bigger body count. There’s really no arguing with this one, as most
slashers feature the same archetypes over and over again: The Slut, the
Bitch, the Annoying Joker/Nerd (“Shelly” of Friday the 13th Part 3 exemplifies this best), the Ineffective Authority Figure, The Crazy Townsperson Doomsayer (again, to cite Friday the 13th,
see “Crazy Ralph”), and in more recent movies: The Guy Who Brought His
Camcorder and Films Everything. It’s fun to try to point them out as
early as possible: When a girl walks on screen and says “Why are we
going camping? I hate camping!” yell “There’s the Bitch!” and dazzle all your friends.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the character type that’s most
essential to the slasher film: The Final Girl. Essentially, she’s the
one left alive, the last one standing, the one who faces the psycho
killer and wins. Often, but not always, she’s the “good girl”, the one
who doesn’t sleep around. Often, but not always, she’s actually a girl ( The Burning ,
for example, features a Final Boy). She’s generally smarter, nicer, and
more resourceful than her friends. Sometimes she herself is the killer,
as in Happy Birthday to Me .
They’re the yin to the cuckoo nutso’s yang, and they’re often
remembered as well as the psychos themselves; Freddy’s not Freddy
without Nancy, and Michael Myers and Laurie Strode are only a slightly
more terrifying pair of siblings than Donny and Marie Osmond.
As you can see, slasher films are a bit like the cinematic
equivalent of Mad Libs …or maybe they’re like making chili. There’s a
base set of ingredients you throw in the pot, but you can change things
up and season to your liking. I’ve given you the slasher flick recipe:
Now it’s up to you to make the magic happen!
A fan of horror movies and scary stuff, Stacie Ponder started her blog Final Girl so she’d have a platform from which she could tell everyone that, say, Friday the 13th, Part 2 rules. She leads a glamorous life, walking on the razor’s edge of danger and intrigue.