Nothing says Halloween quite like a slasher film. A good, old-fashioned slasher will terrify you in the theater and keep you on edge for days later. If you’re anything like me, a good slasher will make you jump and screech and check the locks on your windows for days afterwards. You’ll tell yourself, this is stupid, that movie was stupid, and–HOLY CRAP WHAT WAS THAT SOUND?!?!
Because while slashers may be campy, cheesy, and perhaps a little dumb, they’re effective. We are simultaneously repulsed and drawn to this movies that are usually light on plot and heavy on violence.
Many will point to the sex and brutality depicted in many slashers and claim these films are evidence of our own sick minds. Maybe they’re right, a little bit. Or maybe slashers, like all horror movies, touch on deep-seated anxieties and we cannot help but become transfixed, despite our disgust.
The quintessential slasher villain is a dreadful, menacing men (usually). He is physically imposing and incredibly strong, filmed in a way that he dominates the frame and towers over the other characters. Any back story or motivation is disclosed solely to provide a plot and reasoning behind the killers actions. Beyond that, he is nothing more than a predator with one purpose in mind.Unlike a serial killer movie, the slasher is not interested in a character study of the killer.
A slasher is not about the killer: it is about the fear he inspires in his victims. A slasher is about a predator, uniquely human, who fulfills man’s full potential as a savage killing machine. We cannot help but watch because we are all at risk of falling victim to such a predator, just as are capable of becoming one.
To celebrate this subgenre, I’ve listed 8 of my favorite classic slasher movies and my thoughts on the killers. In this often misunderstood and underappreciated subgenre, the killer can make or break a movie. We have a lot to learn from the films with terrifying killers who separate themselves from the pack.
(Note: I know Scream is a slasher, but it’s not a “classic” slasher in terms of influence. It was hugely important in reviving the horror genre in the mid-90s, but it’s not a classic in the sense that it contributed to and influenced the slasher genre as we know it today. Think 80s horror. Don’t be mad at me.)
There are spoilers, so tread lightly.
Black Christmas (1974)
A group of sorority sisters celebrate the Christmas holiday with a cheerful party at their sorority house. Little do they know that a deeply disturbed man has hidden himself in their attic, where he can linger undetected, making obscene phone calls to the house and waiting for the chance to brutally murder the girls one by one.
While it’s true that Halloween is the most iconic and influential of the slashers, it wasn’t the first slasher to terrifying audiences. That honor goes to Black Christmas, which is a classic slasher. The film is notable for its attention to detail and use of suspense and atmosphere to ratchet up the tension, allowing the film to forgo super-gory deaths. In fact, compared to later slashers, Black Christmas is downright tasteful. Don’t think this means the film isn’t scary, because it is. The killer is especially terrifying, especially because he is never fully shown on camera, let alone identified.
Black Christmas also gave us priceless pop culture moments such as “The call is coming from inside the house,” not to mention kicking off a long list of holiday-themed slashers. Last but not least, Black Christmas solidified the status of horror archetype The Final Girl, a resourceful, invincible girl and perfect foil for the killer. She is able to outsmart the killer long enough to kill him or escape his clutches…at least until the sequel.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Sally, her paraplegic brother Franklin, and their friends road-trip across Texas to visit the grave of Sally and Franklin’s grandfather. After stopping to visit their old family homestead, the group stumbles upon a family of savage cannibals living in the decaying house next door. One by one, each member of the group is attacked and murdered by the terrifying chainsaw wielding Leatherface. Only Sally remains, forced to endure a depraved “family” dinner from which she must try to escape.
Let’s get something out of the way—some people say that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a slasher, preferring to say that it is a horror film of its own stripe that happened to have a tremendous influence in slashers. While I sort of see that argument, since some of Leatherface’s victims come to him and he doesn’t chase anybody until halfway through the film, I disagree. Leatherface is a monolithic, inhumanely strong, silent, unbeatable villain with a gore fetish. He’s a blank slate, incapable of empathy or reason aside from his violent outbursts and coordinated plans with the rest of his family. Leatherface and his ilk are completely removed from society and any semblance of civility died a long time ago, and they made a lamb out of its bones. That sounds like a slasher to me.
Murderous psychopath Michael Myers has escaped from Smith’s Grove Sanitarium. His psychiatrist, Dr. Loomis, knows exactly where Michael has fled—back to his hometown. There he will finish the killing spree he never finished. Meanwhile, teenager Laurie Strode tries to focus on her Halloween plans, instead of that feeling like someone is watching her, like a strange man might be stalking her.
Of course, when anyone thinks “Slasher,” they think of three movies: Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween, the latter of which is the undisputed King of the Slasher Movies. In my opinion, this is mostly due to the strength of killer Michael Myers, with his featureless, blank white mask and silence, save for sparse grunts as he murders high school kids. John Carpenter’s excellent direction deserves a lot of credit as well, showcasing Carpenter’s gift for atmosphere and tension, all of which nicely underscore the horrific realism of Halloween. Delving into themes of sexual repression and the latent danger of suburbia, Halloween was and is an audacious film, depicting the slaughter of teenagers with one foot in childhood and the other in adulthood.
Friday the 13th (1980)
June 1979 promises all the expected joys of summer at Camp Crystal Lake, a newly reopened summer camp. It’s the first time the camp has been open in 20 years, after a young boy drowned and two counselors were murdered. Despite dire warnings from the locals, the new counselors continue their preparations for the first day of camp. It’s not long after night falls that a terrifying masked killer starts picking off the counselors, slaughtering them in more and more ferocious ways.
Friday the 13th isn’t as good as several other films on this list, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a very effective slasher. The movie-going public clearly thinks it is, as the Friday the 13th film franchise is the most financially successful horror franchise in Hollywood. Reveling in its cheese and sleaze, Friday the 13th focused its energy on creating a horrifying movie experience rather than a coherent film with plot or character development. It is horror stripped down to basics—young and attractive teens behaving badly, an unstoppable maniac, a dark and tragic secret, a vengeful character from the past, and a dramatic showdown complete with slow-motion. This movie ticks all the boxes on the scary melodrama checklist, and it does it well.
The Burning (1981)
Five years ago, a group of bratty teenagers pulled a prank on their camp’s caretaker, Cropsy. The prank wen horribly wrong and Cropsy almost died. Now that he’s out of the hospital, permanently disfigured from his burns, he decides to take his revenge against the new campers at Camp Blackfoot.
Picking up where Friday the 13th left off, The Burning takes the summer-camp-of-horrors setting and runs with it. Where Halloween has an amazing killer and Black Christmas employs a stunning use of atmosphere, The Burning has gore. So. Much. Gore. Cropsy is constantly coming up with imaginative ways to slaughter the campers with his favorite pair of gardening shears. The Burning popularized the role of ultra-violent, graphically depicted murders. Aided by the indispensable talents of special effects genius Tom Savini, The Burning sliced and diced to its place in the slasher hall of fame.
My Bloody Valentine (1981)
20 years ago on Valentine’s Day, in the town of Valentine Bluffs, the supervisors of a mine deserted their posts to attend the town’s annual Valentine’s dance. Their reckless behavior resulted in a horrific accident that killed several miners. The only survivor of the accident, who murdered the supervisors in a rage, has vowed to kill anyone who dares celebrate Valentine’s Day. A group of teenagers, foolishly ignoring the threats, decide to hold the dance anyway.
Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for characterization, but I really loved The Miner as a villain. He has one of the most developed backstories, and even though murdering people isn’t cool (for reals), his motivation for revenge is compelling. I was continually struck by how the killer was a working-class man who almost died for the industry on which the whole town depends. It seemed entirely human, though twisted, to want a tragic day to be remembered and respected. No wonder he’s mad about the dance.
And he’s got a great costume. I looooved the costume design. It gives Michael Myer’s mask a run for its money.
The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
A group of teenage girls get ready for a weekend-long slumber party just as serial killer Russ Thorn has escaped custody. Russ stalks the girls and decides to make them his next round of victims.
Originally intended as a feminist satire of the slasher subgenre, The Slumber Party Massacre retains a lot of the signs of its feminist bent, despite ditching the parody and playing straight to type. A notable example of this feminist satire is the killer himself. Russ Thorn is a walking personification of misogyny, stalking the girls, caressing them as they die in his arms, and swinging his 12-inch power drill in his hands like the obvious phallic symbol it is. Spoiler alert: at the end, one of the girls impales him with a machete and he literally dies on top of her. The Slumber Party Massacre is a lot of fun, but it sure isn’t subtle, mixing potent imagery with schlocky slasher genre fare.
Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
An unknown man with a bladed glove and burned face plagues the dreams of a group of teenagers. If the teen is caught by the man in his or her dream, it means certain bloody death. As more of her friends die under unexplained circumstances, Nancy wonders if her and her friend’s parents know exactly who the terrifying man is.
Freddy Krueger is one of the most terrifying villains in all of cinema, mostly because of the manner in which he taunts and toys with his victims. Whereas a villain like Michael Myers is scary because his victims don’t know what he’s planning, Freddy Krueger is horrifying because he loudly broadcasts his exact intentions. He takes as much joy in killing as he does scaring victims with his gross quips and his chilling laugh. God, that laugh! Not to mention that his ability to kill people in their sleep! There is no rest for his victims, especially when he begins to exploit dream logic to create hellish images and feed on his victims’ fears. It’s too horrid for words.