Like an unstoppable villain, the teen horror flick just keeps rising from the dead. STUART O’CONNOR chronicles its bloody history.
Slasher films: to some people, they’re almost the best fun you can have with the lights off; to others, they’re no better than pornos. Also known as slice’n’dice, stalk’n’slash or f—‘n’die films, the slasher genre has left hundreds of corpses, but it’s also given life to many celebrated careers. After first appearing in Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis became known as the “scream queen”; Johnny Depp appeared in the first Nightmare on Elm Street and Kevin Bacon in the first Friday the 13th. More recently, TV stars Sarah Michelle Gellar, Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox and Jennifer Love Hewitt have launched their silver screen careers with fake blood.
The genre has also given us three of the best-known and best-loved movie villains of all time – Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger. Between them, this unholy trio have starred in 24 movies, with more on the way. The slasher genre was started by director John Carpenter in 1978 with his seminal, critically-lauded Halloween, which introduced the concept of a faceless, unstoppable killer. It also established the “rules” of the slasher film – the more taboos the teens break (drinking, having sex), the more quickly they’re killed; the character who knows what’s really going on but is never believed; the killer, presumed dead, always resurfaces; any character who says “I’ll be right back” is never seen alive again
Not only did Halloween set the scene for the films that followed, it was unusual because it lacked blood and gore. Carpenter relied more on Hitchcock-style scare and shadows than outright gross value, establishing a sense of menace that still frightens today. Friday the 13th arrived in 1980 and took the slasher genre over the top with its bloody, explicit killings. The Friday series also introduced us to Jason Vorhees, the hockey-masked lad who rose from a watery grave seeking revenge for the murder of his mother.
Then in 1984, along came pizza-faced Freddy and his fingerknives. A clever little chiller mixing dreams with reality, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare On Elm Street brought respectability back to the genre and made a true horror star of the man behind Freddy’s mask, Robert Englund. Nearing the end of the ’80s, though, while the sequels seemed to roll on endlessly, the popularity of the slasher film faded. Maybe it was the backlash against video violence; maybe it was a general decline in teen movies; maybe it was simply market forces exercising themselves after a glut of particularly appalling films, including Slayground, Hell Night, My Bloody Valentine, Visiting Hours and Night Warning.
The corpse came back to life in 1994 with the release of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which cleverly recaptured the soul of the original by playing with horror’s conventions. Craven had even more success with Scream (1996), a box-office hit that further deconstructed the mythology of horror. In its wake, we’ve seen the genre return with I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legends, Halloween: H2O and now Australia’s entry to the field, Cut. There’s more to come – Scream 3 has just been released in the US with an opening weekend box office of $US35 million ($56 million). A 10th Friday film, Jason X, is in pre-production, as is Halloween H2K: Evil Never Dies, while Freddy vs Jason, currently in development, will finally unite the two madmen.