In horror movies, the sky is the limit as to what can scare an audience. There really is no backend when it comes to how a horror movie can play out and frighten people, but there are some loosely defined areas that constitute the sub-genre that a film can play out in.
“People are strange!”
First of all, a great horror movie can essentially be categorized in two ways. The most used category is where you have horror movies that have no basis in reality, therefore cannot come true. That’s the part where you tell young people that “monsters are not real.” The other, slightly underused, category are where the monsters (the evil people or groups) are far too human and can sometimes be inspired by real events, only fictionalized for the purposes of dramatic cinema.
So in this lecture, I’m going to break down the basic elements that constitute a slasher film and speak to how they differentiate from a supernatural horror film. For those of you who are dedicated horror fans, I am fairly confident you can relate to the examples I provide.
Starting with 20th century slasher horror, there are several films that come to mind right away. To name a few of the most widely recognized in the slasher genre, that would include The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Psycho, Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street (falsely categorized), Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend.
Let’s just start this out the right way and immediately take A Nightmare on Elm Street off that list. Although many of you dedicated horror fans out there would disagree with me, Fred Krueger (The Springwood Slasher) was only a slasher maniac in the back-story. He was not alive in the first installment of the popular film franchise, therefore his presence in the film was supernatural from the very beginning. Once you go supernatural, your categorization in the film transforms into specifically that and constitutes the status of “monsters are not real,” which will further be shortened to “MANR” for the sake of brevity in this article.
Did you notice how I used the first two main examples of a slasher movie with two films that were based on the same true story? The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Psycho were both based on the story of Ed Gein, who after the loss of his mother began murdering people for their skin and using it to permeate things around his house. He even went as far as to make a skin mask (Leatherface) and was attempting to recreate the living image of his mother (Norman Bates).
— Charlie Brigden (@moviedrone) May 26, 2017
Both of these two horror movies can truly be classified as a slasher film all the way through their respective franchises. Neither one ever really crossed the line into supernatural, so their portrayal on the big-screen was further terrifying knowing that it could come true, or in other words, a non-MANR film.
But then we come to the two biggest slasher franchises on the list, Friday the 13th and Halloween. This is where the film franchises start to diverge from the normal slasher “MANR” code. Both started out as slasher films, considering Michael Myers was a mortal human being and Pamela Voorhees was a crazy grieving mother whose son watched her get beheaded. Jason Voorhees did not die when the world thought he had drowned, so he was also a mortal man in the second and subsequent sequels in the franchise. This premise means that their stories could actually happen in real life, making them true slasher horror films.
The plot thickens…
In the Friday the 13th franchise, the first four films featured Jason Voorhees (Pamela Voorhees in the first one) killing people as a mortal man. He was stabbed and chopped, but survived the attacks only to be featured in another sequel. The subsequent timeline between the sequels shows that Jason Voorhees remained mortal until Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman) chopped his face to pieces in Part 4, thus ending his true mortality.
In Part 5 of Friday the 13th, Jason Voorhees was not in it, but a man copycatted his modus operandi and killed people with a hockey mask… machete and all. What was noticeably missing from the hockey mask was the gouge mark from where Jason was first axed at the end of Part 3.
But when Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives came out, Jason Voorhees was accidentally brought back from the dead by Tommy Jarvis (Thom Matthews from Return of the Living Dead). To make matters even worse for the poor camp counselors, he could not be killed by mortal methods. He was shot, stabbed and beaten, but nothing put him down. Eventually Tommy had to find a book on the occult to figure out how to kill him, which meant returning him to his original resting place, (presumably) at the bottom of Crystal Lake.
What this means is that in Friday the 13th Parts 1 – 5, the films were a slasher franchise. But In Friday the 13th Parts 6 – 10, the films were a supernatural franchise that forced the protagonists to kill him using occult methods, which included two Crystal Lake drownings, one toxic drowning in Manhattan, one stabbing from a family member and another one that, well… he never died in space (Jason X).
Halloween is a different story. Excluding the supernatural element of Halloween III: Season of the Witch, the franchise with Michael Myers never fully crossed over to the supernatural realm, but teetered on the edge of the genre.
Let me ‘splain…
Yes, in the beginning Michael Myers did seem to have uncanny strength with superhuman powers of catching people by walking, but he was still a mortal man who bled and could die from a gunshot or a stab wound. It is incumbent for us horror fans to simply assume that even though he was “shot six times,” he was lucky enough that the bullets missed all major arteries and organs to allow him to survive the attacks. It would also be incumbent for us to believe that since Dr. Samuel Loomis survived the hospital explosion in Part 2 that Michael Myers could have survived as well… even though we saw him bust out of the room on fire and witnessed his masked face being burnt to a crisp.
So why must we believe this? Well, for continuity sakes, we have to assume that since Myers was brought back in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, also known as the Jamie Lloyd era, that his previous incarceration in a medical ward at Smith Grove means that the state coughed up the funds to save his life. So Michael was comatose for a decade following the events that played out with Laurie Strode, but he was still a living breathing human.
In short, one thing lead to another, people died, Michael Myers was shot ten thousand times and fell through a cemetery plot that just so happened to lead to a raging rapid river where a man lived and nursed him back to health, enter Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers.
Now this is where it gets tricky. At the beginning of this Halloween film, a faceless man got off a bus wearing a weird identifiable boot and near the end when Michael Myers was finally caught alive and incarcerated, the man walked into the police station and blew it up, setting Myers free and the movie was over.
Although it oozed supernatural mystique, there was nothing evidenced in the film that gave the audience empirical evidence that there was a supernatural force at play in the Michael Myers universe.
“Vintage horror fiction!”
But in Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (Halloween 6), which is still part of the Jamie Lloyd universe, a strange cult is shown for the first time and appears to have some sort of command over Michael Myers. The start of the film showed Jamie Lloyd all grown up and incarcerated with the mysterious cult. She gives birth to a child, which would in effect be the only living relative of Michael Myers. Myers is also seen strolling about inside the cult compound, as if he was right at home. So the plot indicates that he is in sync with the people of the cult.
Long story short, Jamie escapes with her baby and is on the run. Michael tracks her down and kills her, but realizes that she has hidden the baby somewhere, so his mission continues. Tommy Doyle, the kid from the first Halloween now played by Paul Rudd, finds the baby in a train station after listening to a live broadcast of Jamie calling for help.
Tommy befriends the lady across the street who is living in the original Myers house. The lady also has a kid who is seemingly haunted by a strange apparition while staying in young Michael Myers first bedroom, but it is without consequence, mostly. In the end, Samuel Loomis returns to finish off Michael Myers once and for all, but the screaming Loomis is where the film ends and leaves fans wondering what their fate was.
Again, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers does nothing so intense to make me believe that it crossed over into the supernatural genre. Neither does the Halloween H20 reboot/continuation, nor Halloween: Resurrection.
Rob Zombie came close to a supernatural reimagining of Halloween, but fell short in his version of Halloween II. So the essential takeaway here is that Halloween stayed a slasher franchise all the way through, with the exception of the Halloween III spinoff film.
This is how the slasher genre was revived…
In the middle 1990s, Kevin Williamson came along and envisioned a new world for slasher horror that stayed even further away from the supernatural genre when he landed his script for Scream with horror legend Wes Craven.
When Scream was released in 1996, horror fans everywhere were electrified by the intensity of the plot, which was expertly combined with young and hip actors of the era. The film did so well in theaters that it spawned its own franchise with super-sized box office returns.
The subsequent surge led to films like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend to find a small niche in the market and land with a moderate amount of success. But after that, the slasher genre started to die out again.
Until the millennium hit…
I didn’t want to just come out and say it, but torture porn is the bastard son of the slasher genre. Franchises thrived in this sub-genre following the release of a young and upcoming director’s vision of a horror cinema legend.
“Atmospheric and Creepy”
In 2004, James Wan was only 27 years old and he was ready to make a name for himself in horror. That year, Saw was released in theaters and fans everywhere cringed at the bone-crunching elements inherent in the film. The title really said it all and just like that, a new franchise was born.
With seven installments in the Saw franchise (one more to come in October 2017), not once did the producers ever venture into the supernatural horror territory, making the films one of the most cringe-worthy horror franchises of all time, not to mention the fact that any psycho out there could take his love of horror movies a little too far (did you catch that reference?).
— OpenCastings (@OpenCastings) February 14, 2017
Following the success of Saw, the “torture porn” subgenre of slasher horror saw the emergence of Eli Roth on the big screen with his Hostel series, which also relied solely on fictional “real-life techniques” to scare its audiences.
The rise of Political Horror…
But then again, slasher films have also laid the framework for semi-dystopian films that were destined to hit the big screen. Just like John Carpenter’s They Live before them, The Purge films envision a world where people are subject to criminally immoral governmental authority.
Although some argue that The Purge is not really horror, but more of a thriller… you should keep in mind the amount of blood that spills in the films and how depraved the characters in the franchise really are.
Even though the events that have unfolded in The Purge series are worthy of potentially real-life scenarios, they are highly unlikely to happen. Although some on the political-left say that The Purge is what they envision coming out of the Trump administration, others on the political right made the same argument about the Obama administration.
Either way, The Purge can still be classified as an event that is capable of coming true in real life, thus categorizing itself as a film under the slasher horror category.
So in conclusion…
What we have here is a very clear representation of what scares audiences now and then, today and yesterday… now and forever. Supernatural horror has been the classic box office draw with films like The Conjuring and The Exorcist. But there has been success in the slasher horror genre as well, which includes Scream and the many franchises that were born out of the 1980s. But the real horrors are the scenarios where people cannot distinguish fiction from reality. The real horror is when life imitates art.
[Featured Image by New Line Cinema]