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A Look Back at 1980s Slasher Movies

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look back at the 1980s slasher genre.

The 1980s were generally defined by optimism. Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” slogan captured a yearning for stable wholesomeness which was a reaction to the cynicism and volatility of the previous decade. This emphasis on optimism was reflected in the popular music and television of the era. The 1980s also saw the rise of pop psychology, fad diets, and the advent of workout culture. On the surface, mainstream culture of the 1980s emphasized renewal and health and wellness.

It’s ironic, then, that one of the most popular and prolific cinematic trends of the 1980s was the slasher film. Horror was in many respects the last vestige of the independent filmmaking scene of the 1970s. There were a lot of great horror films released throughout the 80s but the genre was dominated by slashers. These films had a complicated relationship with the mainstream. Slashers were hated by many critics and social commentators and the movies were frequently affronts to what was valued by the culture at the time. Slasher films also, in some instances, reflected the values of the mainstream and eventually become a part of it.

The term “slasher movie” refers to a particular subgenre of the horror film. In most of these pictures, a group of young people gather in an isolated location like a summer camp. The characters typically adhere to youth movie stereotypes—the jock, the nerd, the party girl—and they are murdered one-by-one. A single survivor remains, usually a woman referred to as the Final Girl, and she must face the killer.

Slasher movies were hated or dismissed at the time and not without cause. A few of these movies were great scary tales and many others were trash. But the most interesting art is frequently found in the gutter and the slasher subgenre was a key part of 1980s culture and American cinema in general. These movies, which were regarded as corrosive to American society, are now looked at with nostalgia and have influenced contemporary filmmakers.

Friday the 13th

Arguably the single most important film of this category was 1980’s Friday the 13th. The movie is about a group of young adults prepping a camp for the summer season and they are stalked and killed by an unseen murderer.

Friday the 13th was not the first slasher film. Black Christmas, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween predated Friday the 13th and did it better. What was significant about Friday the 13th was primarily economic. Other slasher movies had been produced independently and released by small distributors with little marketing muscle. They would create a handful of prints that played in a few theatrical markets at a time. Friday the 13th was produced independently but it was picked up by Paramount which gave the movie a wide release and a lavish marketing campaign. Paramount’s gamble paid off. Friday the 13th, which was made for $550,000, grossed over $5.8 million in its opening weekend and was one of the top twenty box office hits of 1980.

The box office success of Friday the 13th as well as the success of 1980’s Prom Night prompted producers to get into the horror business. Hollywood studios began replicating Paramount’s Friday the 13th acquisition and over the next few years literally hundreds of slasher movies were released to theaters and many more debuted directly on video. A lot of them were cheap and exploitative rip-offs of Friday the 13th which itself had ripped off Halloween.

The success of Friday the 13th came in spite of the fact that the movie was derided by critics. The Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel was especially aggressive. He campaigned against the movie in his newspaper column and on the television program Sneak Previews which he co-hosted with Roger Ebert. Siskel’s review of Friday the 13th deliberately spoiled the reveal of the killer so as to dissuade viewers from seeing the movie. Siskel also encouraged his readers to write complaint letters to Paramount’s then parent company Gulf & Western and to Friday the 13th actress Betsy Palmer, shaming her for being a part of it.  

Forty years later, Friday the 13th is now as popular as ever and it is frequently screened in theaters and on television. The ongoing popularity of this film is due to the series that it inspired. Friday the 13th spawned ten sequels as well as a remake. Jason Voorhees—who is not the killer in the original movie—is now as recognizable as Mickey Mouse and Jason merchandise and Halloween costumes continue to sell. The transformation of Friday the 13th from a seedy one-off title to a corporate brand is also the trajectory of the slasher film.

Actors Get Their Start

Part of the fun of looking back at the slasher films of the 1980s is spotting actors who would go on to mainstream success. Johnny Depp’s first acting credit was in A Nightmare on Elm Street and among Kevin Bacon’s first roles was in Friday the 13th. Other familiar faces include Tom Hanks in 1980’s He Knows You’re Alone and Holly Hunter and Jason Alexander in The Burning and George Clooney in Return to Horror High and Patricia Arquette in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3.

One actress who’s had an ongoing relationship with the genre is Jamie Lee Curtis. Her first starring role in a feature film was in the original Halloween. Curtis became a familiar face in the horror genre throughout the first half of the 1980s with roles in Prom Night, Terror Train, The Fog, and Halloween II. Curtis went on to have a successful mainstream career playing roles in dramas and comedies but she’s always spoken well of her horror roots and defended the films against their detractors. She’s also returned to the genre on the television program Scream Queens and reprised her Halloween role in several sequels.

Gore

One of the qualities that distinguished slasher movies of the 1980s was the gore. The origins of the slasher genre were actually quite bloodless. There’s more on-screen gore in the PG-rated Jaws and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom than there is in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Halloween. But in the 1980s things changed. At this time there was a renaissance in makeup effects and it was now possible to create realistic gory images that no one had seen before. The bloody magic tricks were one of the main marking ploys as well as a point of criticism from the genre’s detractors.

There’s a bit more to say about the gore of slasher movies. The first is the way it connects to the body culture of the 1980s. This was the period in which going to the gym became a regular pastime and there was an emphasis on wellness and maximizing physical performance. That can be seen in the workout programs available on VHS and broadcast television as well as the muscled out heroes of 1980s action movies played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.

At a time when the mainstream was celebrating the body, the slasher film ripped it apart. People didn’t just get killed. Bodies were mutilated and blood was splashed. This imagery may have been created for crassly commercial reasons, but it had broader cultural meaning. The idealization of the body was closely linked with the political and masculine mainstream of the 1980s and destroying the body had political implications.  

Slasher movie gore has another dimension. What’s unique about horror as well as science fiction and fantasy is that these genres sustain a whole industry of conventions, documentaries, magazines, and websites that cater to the fans. Romantic comedies and historical dramas don’t have anything equivalent. This fan service industry made stars out of special effects artists. It also educated the fans on filmmaking craft, giving them an understanding of how movies get made. As a result, the horror, sci-fi, and fantasy audience were much savvier consumers.

One of the special effects stars of the 1980s was Tom Savini who did work on movies like Friday the 13th and Day of the Dead. Of his slasher films, Savini points to The Prowler and Maniac as among his best work. The Prowler (also known as Rosemary’s Killer) follows a standard slasher formula with young people picked off by a masked killer and it has some extraordinary physical gore effects. Maniac is less a slasher film and more of a character study of a serial killer stalking the streets of New York City. Both films are quite ugly and deliberately so with bodies mangled in very realistic ways.

Violence Against Women

One of the major criticisms of the slasher film was its violence against women. In its early years, a critical talking point calcified among cultural commentators. They held that slasher movies were misogynistic because they exclusively targeted women for butchery and female characters who engage in sex and drug use were killed whereas women who remained chaste survived. This puritanical criticism stuck and it continues to shape the way we talk about these films.

But the slut-shaming criticism of the slasher film isn’t really true. In early titles, including the first few installments of Friday the 13th, it is implied or overtly revealed that the so-called Final Girl isn’t a virgin or a prude. And while these movies dangled sexuality and violence in front of the viewer, most deaths did not link them. Academic work on the genre bears this out. In an article published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Fred Molitor and Barry Sapolsky analyzed thirty popular slasher films and found that the majority of the victims were men and that sex only prefigured a character’s death about twenty percent of the time. However, Molitor and Sapolsky did find that women were shown in danger for longer periods than men.

Furthermore, slasher films suggest a feminist as opposed to a misogynistic reading. First off, these movies have gender parity in their casting. Mainstream Hollywood films, then and now, dramatically underrepresent women. In contemporary films only about one-third of lead roles are played by women. By comparison, 1980s slasher movies had much more equal representation of men and women, especially in the central cast. Secondly, slasher movies are frequently about female heroes who face violence and must rely on her own wits to survive. The place of men in these movies is either as killers or feckless would-be saviors. Male authority figures are either useless or they get killed. Women are left to face the monster on their own. As the academic Carol Clover has said, the point of slasher movies is that it is up to women to save themselves.

What was especially pernicious about the puritanical “sex equals death” reading of slasher films is that it was so widely circulated that it became self-fulfilling. Producers who wanted to get into the slasher business took this lazy criticism as instructions and a few horror directors have themselves echoed the puritanical line and deliberately created it in their movies. Blame falls partly on the critics who advanced this idea but also on filmmakers who didn’t try to make something better.

This is not to say that all 1980s slasher films were feminist texts. Some of them were and others really weren’t. The nudity of these movies, especially in the 80s, was predominantly female and frequently unnecessary. This is well illustrated by the sorority slasher subgenre. Titles like Sorority House Massacre and Girls School Screamers featured casts of young women dressed in lingerie and wandering around in the dark until they are killed. One notable entry in this area is 1982’s The Slumber Party Massacre, directed by Amy Holden Jones, which was self-conscious about the clichés of slasher movies and it plays just short of a parody.

Ultimately, the sexual politics of slasher films are more complicated than either the misogynist or feminist label allows for. So many of these movies were made in the 1980s that blanket condemnations are lazy and unhelpful. Like any film genre, there are better and worse examples. There are certainly ugly films that objectified women in life and in bloody death. But slasher movies also put female protagonists front and center and depicted them fighting off misogynist violence. That sounds an awful lot like a feminist piece to me.

Psychosexuality

One of the core qualities of the slasher film is its psychosexual themes. The precursors to all of these pictures were Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Both films were about disturbed and socially isolated men who murder people in response to childhood trauma. That concept carried through in many of the movies produced decades later.

Matters of sexuality and gender were complicated in the 1980s both on and off the screen. In the 1970s the GLBTQ community had made great strides toward tolerance and inclusion. The rise of the religious right and the fear of AIDS caused that progress to flatten and regress during the 80s. But at the same time, the 1980s also saw androgyny become somewhat fashionable and there was gay subtext in mainstream hits like Top Gun and Rocky III.

The culture’s complicated regard for sexuality is reflected in some of the horror movies of the time like The Hunger and Dressed to Kill. Among the most psychosexual slasher titles is A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. In this film a young man is gradually possessed by Freddy Krueger and the picture uses S&M imagery as well as double entendres that nod at sexual themes. The legacy of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 was investigated in the documentary Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street.

Another major psychosexual slasher film of the 1980s was Sleepaway Camp. This is one of the nastier titles of the period. In addition to the gore, Sleepaway Camp hints at child abuse and the violence has an unmissable sexual quality. Most extraordinary is the twist ending which has caused Sleepaway Camp to be reevaluated in a negative way by contemporary viewers. Without giving the ending away, there is a credible case against Sleepaway Camp as a transphobic work but, as Harmony M. Colangelo points out in this Medium article, there’s a bit more to it than that. This doesn’t mean that Sleepaway Camp is a misunderstood masterwork. It isn’t. But the film is a fascinatingly weird artifact of the 1980s.

Holiday Horror

One of the regular components of slasher films was exploiting holidays and other events. Titles like My Bloody Valentine and Happy Birthday to Me and New Year’s Evil concocted slasher scenarios around annual traditions. High school and college gatherings were also the setting of a lot of slasher films especially proms and other formal events. The holiday settings were as their core an economic choice. The filmmakers of Halloween and Friday the 13th and Prom Night had great success naming their movies after a date or life event. This also gave each movie a unique hook that distinguished it from the competition. The taboo factor was also important. Most holidays are associated with joy and families while high school and college events like prom are rights of passage from adolescence to adulthood. Foregrounding murderous mayhem against those traditions gave the impression of spitting in the culture’s eye.

This didn’t go unnoticed. While no one much cared about slasher films exploiting Hallmark holidays, horror movies set at Christmastime crossed a line. Pictures such as To All a Goodnight, Christmas Evil, and Don’t Open ‘till Christmas conjured terror in the December holiday season and for some concerned citizens this was too much. The film most at issue was 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night. The movie concerns a young man on a murder spree while dressed in a Santa Claus outfit. It’s a nasty and mean spirited movie but what really caught the public’s eye was the advertising campaign. The poster depicted a rooftop with Santa’s arm sticking out of the chimney and brandishing an ax while the television spots made it look as though St. Nick himself was committing murder. What’s more, some of these television ads aired during early evening and primetime hours when children were likely to see them. Parents groups mobilized against Silent Night, Deadly Night, protesting outside movie theaters and writing letters to distributor Tri-Star Pictures. The studio was skittish of the bad publicity and pulled the movie from theaters although not before it had earned a profit. The noise around Silent Night, Deadly Night has elevated its place in the slasher movie canon even though it’s not very good and Christmas Evil is a far superior killer Santa movie.

Slasher Sequels

The 1980s horror genre was on the forefront of several trends that became mainstream later, among them sequelization. As of 1980, Hollywood had just started to realize the potential of sequels; projects with name recognition had less risk than original films and preexisting filmmaking crews allowed studios to fast track movies into production. Slasher movies were already inherently formulaic and they lent themselves to “the same but different” industrial approach to filmmaking.

Many sequels were attached to the most popular franchises. The 1980s saw eight Friday the 13ths, five Nightmare on Elm Streets, and four Halloweens. The decade also saw sequels to Prom Night and Sleepaway Camp and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silent Night, Deadly Night. And that’s only counting the slasher sequels.

One of the unlikeliest sequels of the 1980s was also one of the best. Twenty-three years after the original classic, Anthony Perkins returned to the role of Norman Bates in Psycho II. The 1983 movie sees Norman released from an asylum and trying to get on with his life but the world won’t let him escape his past. Psycho III followed in 1986 and a made-for-TV prequel, Psycho IV: The Beginning, debuted in 1990. The sequels to Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic mostly turned out better than expected with Psycho II especially impressive in the way it reconciled the sensibilities of the original film with the bloody special effects of the 80s horror market.

Slasher Villains

The villains of 1980s slasher movies have a type although that profile did evolve over the course of the decade. Early slasher films were more or less realistic. Many of them were essentially murder mysteries with gore and the killer was a human being out to avenge some old sin or he suffered from a psychotic compulsion. In either case, the killer would go about picking off victims until the final confrontation in which the villain’s identity and motive would be revealed and the Final Girl would defeat him.

The villains of early slashers generally fit a profile: they were male but not entirely masculine, they were disfigured or psychologically damaged, they were sexually impotent or at least socially inept, and they were obsessed with vengeance and bloodletting.

These slasher villains are especially interesting in contrast to the action heroes of the 1980s. In one respect the slashers are the opposite of the action hero in that the killers are often pathetic men and their most important relationships are with women, either because it is a woman who wronged them or the killer finally meets his match in the Final Girl. By contrast, the muscled action heroes of the 80s are confident and their primary relationships are with other men. However, there is also a commonality between slasher killers and 80s action heroes. Both are silent, kill with impunity, and are indestructible and unstoppable. This has a cultural and political implication. If action characters like Rambo represent the political establishment of the 1980s, then it’s not too much to see the slasher villain as a critique of that establishment.

Over the course of the decade, the slasher genre and its villains went through a critical change. By the mid-80s, the public had tired of the down-and-dirty slasher movies and most of the independent slasher titles fell away or went straight to video. What remained were franchise titles and three slasher villains dominated the field: Michael Myers of the Halloween series, Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th and Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street. The early slasher films, and indeed the early entries in these franchises, emphasized the young people who were in danger. By the end of the 1980s, the villains were the stars of the show and the films pivoted to accommodate them. Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees were superhuman killing machines and each new installment was less about following any sort of ongoing story and more about introducing a new batch of victims who were offered up as sacrifices to the slasher stars.

If any single slasher villain dominated the 1980s, it’s Freddy Krueger of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Although he didn’t arrive until 1984 and wasn’t really front and center until 1987’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, Freddy Krueger was the most popular and the most interesting of these characters. The reasons for Freddy’s dominance are rooted in the way the Nightmare films were different from their competition. For one, the Nightmare series was simply better than most other slasher films. They were better made, had more interesting teenage characters, and a compelling premise which allowed for imaginative special effects rather than just gore. Also, Freddy was actually a character. He spoke—as the series went on he spoke a lot—and had a personality courtesy of actor Robert Englund. In a decade that championed the return of traditional family values, Freddy emerged as a cultural anti-hero. Merchandisers got on board, producing all manner of tie-in products and Freddy even hosted his own MTV specials. In a few short years, Freddy Krueger went from the villain of a low budget independent horror film to a corporate trademark and one of the most recognizable characters of the 1980s.

Self Parody

In the late 1980s, the horror genre became self-referential and tongue-in-cheek. We can find traces of this as early as 1981’s Student Bodies and 1982’s The Slumber Party Massacre which poked fun at the clichés of the genre. Throughout the decade, satirical and meta-textual elements gradually moved forward. Slaughter High and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives and Sleepaway Camp III had self-aware gags.

This trend toward humor was probably inevitable. Slasher movies were always inherently ridiculous especially as the violence and body counts became more and more excessive. And with as many slasher films as were produced in the 1980s, there was nowhere to go but to be silly. That self-awareness, when it was done well, played to the intelligence of the audience. This probably extended the genre’s life.

Two parodic slasher titles of the late 80s stand out. April Fool’s Day unfolds as a standard slasher movie and it is sufficiently scary. But there is a major reversal in the ending (the title clues you in) that upends the whole film. April Fool’s Day wasn’t so well received at the time but it is now better regarded. The very nature of this film lent it to cult appreciation and it’s the kind of movie that’s fun to share with unaware friends.

Also notable is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The sequel came thirteen years after the original film with Tobe Hooper returning to write and direct. Instead of the raw and nihilistic tone of the 1974 film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 had an excessive and cartoonish style. It parodied the slasher genre as well as the commercial notion of franchising these murderous characters.

Self-parody is the last gasp of a dying film genre. The same thing had happened forty years earlier to the Universal Monsters when they started doing crossover films with Abbott and Costello. And since many of these slasher films were specific to the era in which they were made, it was time for them to fade out.

Legacy

The slasher movies of the 1980s were the cinematic equivalent of punk music which also sprang forth in this era and had a similarly combative relationship to the political and cultural establishment. In the years since the slasher heyday, much of what was considered scandalous has been integrated into the mainstream. The gore that was so derided in the 1980s is now found in respectable films, especially war pictures, as well as television shows like Hannibal and The Walking Dead. These movies just aren’t shocking anymore because mainstream entertainment has adopted so much of what was controversial at the time.

In the 2000s, the success of Saw and Hostel resurrected body horror and most of the major titles from the 1970s and 80s were remade. The new versions varied. The remake of Friday the 13th was acceptable but the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street was not. The new versions frequently played as though their filmmakers did not understand what made the originals successful in the first place. Films of the 80s had a rough look; special effects were well executed but the productions looked cheap, weathered, and grainy. That usually wasn’t a stylistic choice but a consequence of low budgets and the filmmaking technology of the time. The remakes had higher budgets and the polish of digital filmmaking; this scrubbed the edge off of them which consequently eliminated the humanness and the charm that the original movies possessed. 

A critical failure of the slasher remakes was the music. One of the greatest assets of the 1980s horror genre was the many wonderful scores. John Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s music from the Halloween sequels as well as Harry Manfredini’s work on Friday the 13th and Charles Bernstein’s score to A Nightmare on Elm Street were immeasurably important to the success of those films. Unfortunately, those themes weren’t ported over and the music of the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street remakes sounded like nothing.

Aside from remakes, contemporary filmmakers have expressed their affection for the slasher pictures of the 1980s with movies that have a retro feel. Adam Wingard’s You’re Next possessed the lo-fi thrills of the slasher film down to its electronic music score. The sequel to The Strangers had a focus and a viciousness as well as an 80s aesthetic that made it a much better film than its predecessor. The movies Final Girl and The Final Girls played on the clichés and sexual politics of this genre and Hell Fest recalled movies like Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse with its carnival setting. The ninth season of the television series American Horror Story also paid tribute to the slasher genre.

The influence of the slasher film, on horror and on the culture in general, is undeniable. But contemporary horror is mostly going in a different direction. This is for the best. As I editorialized back when slasher remakes were all the rage, the originals were better but they were better for the time in which they were made. The slasher genre was born of a specific cultural moment which has since passed. That today’s horror filmmakers are moving on to new ideas that speak to this moment is good for the genre and good for audiences.

But like the music of an earlier era, the 1980s slasher films remain a curious body of work that’s rewarding to revisit. They may not shock in the way that they did then but the 80s slasher pictures possess an odd combination of nostalgic charm, visceral brutality, and gonzo creativity that distinguishes them from horror pictures made before or since.

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