The History of Slasher Movies

While the location of the slasher movie varies greatly, usually to give the somewhat familiar storyline some individual identity, venues such as fairgrounds, campsites and dorm rooms are generally used as a way of isolating the doomed young cast. The killer is usually driven by a perceived injustice from the past, often related either to the location where most of the action takes place, or to one or all of the people in the group.

The stalker is often (but not always) male, disfigured, masked, and also – usually by the last reel at least – quite psychotic. He or she may possess seemingly supernatural powers of regeneration and is likely to be found leaping into frame for one last scare at the film’s climax. Increasingly, he or she is hardy enough to show up again in a sequel! The slasher is a BOO! machine, designed to scare and entertain audiences. It appeals to our craving for safe thrills and allows the audience to enjoy the ultimate in schadenfreude, while paradoxically cheering on the Final Girl (and it is usually a girl) as she fights for survival in the last 30 minutes or so of the movie, after the killer has murdered all her friends and/or family in a range of increasingly gruesome and inventive ways.

Despite being around, in one form or another, since the beginning of the movie industry, the slasher is often unfairly seen as bottom-of-the-barrel horror. It is the horror genre’s whipping boy, often accused – by critics and genre fans alike – of pandering to the lowest common denominator. Respected genre critic Alan Jones once described the slasher as ‘comfort horror’, part of its charm being its lethal predictability. But while the slasher movie may rarely challenge, it is horror at its most basic and enjoyable. Perhaps surprisingly, many slashers from the Golden Age still have the power to unnerve and shock. Watching a one-off theatrical showing of the original Friday the 13th (1980) about 10 years ago, the guffaws turned to stunned silence once the axe began to fall. Part of the pleasure of yesterday’s horror movies is that many still hold up today, and, just as many have improved with age and now boast an air of camp and cheese to add to their already irresistible appeal. For example, Halloween (1978) is still a sleek shock machine, despite its bell bottoms and seemingly antiquated teen talk.

Teenage Wasteland takes an affectionate, yet critical overview of the popular history of the slasher. However, writing a book on films that most critics have turned their backs on is fraught with difficulties. Myths and inaccuracies have grown up around many films, and J. A. Kerswell has attempted to unravel these mysteries as best he can. For some of the more obscure films, such as Savage Water (1978) and Bloodbeat (1982), almost no information exists. Other films, such as The Prey (1980), for example, languished on the shelf before getting a cinematic release or going straight to video, and some made it to neither. The date given for each film is that of the cinema release in the country of origin, unless otherwise stated. Box office figures are always expressed in US dollars, unless otherwise stated.

It would be impossible to cover every movie ever made in this genre – especially given the glut of straight-to-DVD slashers still being released with dizzying regularity. However, Teenage Wasteland takes a long, lingering look at the best – and, yes, the worst – that the subgenre has to offer. The modern stalk ‘n’ slash movie, as we know it, was born when John Carpenter unleashed his bogeyman on small-town Americana in 1978 with Halloween, but the film wasn’t created in a vacuum and draws on many earlier genres. Teenage Wasteland traces the roots of the subgenre in folklore and violent French theatre. Violent horror thrillers from Europe were hugely instrumental in shaping the subgenre and J. A. Kerswell examines the krimi (the term used in Germany for crime or mystery thrillers) of the 1950s and 1960s; the stylish and sexy giallo (meaning yellow) from Italy in the 1960s and early 1970s; and even the homegrown goings-on in Pete Walker’s drolly macabre 1970s British shockers. (The term ‘giallo’ originates from the yellowcovered crime and murder-fantasy books popular in Italy since the 1920s). Similarly, J. A. Kerswell discusses how early horror films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), as well as bloody drive-in features, and movies such as Black Christmas and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (both 1974), all played their part in the subgenre’s evolution. Illustrated with colourful artwork from all over the world, Teenage Wasteland concentrates on the era that many fans consider the Golden Age of the slasher movie – the period from 1978 to 1984. Halloween’s success in 1978 opened the floodgates for imitators, and gave birth to another slasher movie classic in Friday the 13th. For six furious (and glorious) years, nowhere in America seemed safe and high schools and summer camps ran with teenage blood; every holiday date was marked with a flash of the knife. Teenage Wasteland revels in this most disreputable of subgenres, and also touches on the cultural impact of the genre on society and other subgenres.

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