March 29, 2013 by Matthew T.
Blood, Babes, and Boogeymen: Stalking the First Slasher Film
“I like women, especially beautiful ones. If they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or a man.”
– Dario Argento
“The police are always off track with this shit! If they’d watch Prom Night, they’d save time! There’s a formula to it. A very simple formula!”
– Randy (Scream)
– Almost every victim in a slasher film
A Brief Note to the Reader
Although I have made every effort as to not deliberately spoil the films discussed, it was still unavoidable in some cases. The vast majority of films referenced are those which reside in the realm of “popular” horror – that is, those films which almost every horror fan has undoubtedly seen. However, if you are a newcomer to the genre and looking to avoid any plot reveals, I urge you to tread lightly.
That said, I hope you enjoy. The original intention of this article was simply to collect my thoughts and answer a much-debated question. To my surprise, what I imagined to be a brief, 500-word article quickly unraveled into what you see before you.
I hope that I was able to provide a clear and logical presentation of my thoughts on the matter, and as always, I welcome your thoughts and input.
Stalking the First Slasher Film
As any horror fan knows, there are certain topics which are, simply put, irreconcilable. One only has to propose a question like “what is the scariest horror film ever made?” to see a group of passionate horror connoisseurs lock horns in an endless debate. Of course, questions like this are, at their essence, a simple matter of taste and personal preference. It’s why the horror genre is so
expansive and plays host to so many subgenres: zombies, creature features, demonic possession, hauntings, etc. Therein lies the challenge of the horror storyteller: to find the common elements that terrify all of us; that which resonates deep within our psyche and creates an unshakeable feeling of pure horror.
There are questions pertaining to the horror genre that have been raised which, by all accounts, should be answerable, but still find themselves shrouded in the veil of debate. It is one such question that I have chosen to tackle as the topic of this article:
What is the first slasher film ever made?
The slasher film is near and dear to my heart, and this topic is one that I’ve been meaning to address for a long time now. I too am guilty of debating it with other genre buffs, and though I enjoy hearing other theories, I thought it was time to lay down my own thoughts in writing. Before we begin, know that I make no pretense; admittedly there are people who are far greater experts in the slasher film subgenre. And if they have not been able to determine with absolute certainty which film bears the rightful honour of being the first, what hope do I have? Still, bear with me as I travel through the annals of horror history in hopes of unearthing the answer to an age-old question.
The horror film, like everything else, is the product of evolution. I think we can all agree that the slasher film did not simply arrive, but came into being after a slow process of development. Herein lies the problem: where do we draw the finish line of the development process and say “This is where the slasher film emerged in its pure form”? Of course, in order to do this we must know what we’re looking for. A definition of the slasher film is unarguably essential.
What is a slasher? What separates it from the other brands of horror film? We know it to see it, so it shouldn’t be beyond us to properly label it. Let’s begin then by stating some of the accepted characteristics of the slasher movie:
The slasher film adheres to (with only slight variation) a formula:
1. The killer is male (though very rarely exceptions can occur).
1a. Their motive for killing generally stems from a childhood trauma or incident.
1b. They are often indestructible (especially when masked) and inescapable.
1c. Their weapons are typically sharp tools and objects, such as knives, axes, chainsaws, and scythes. This is perhaps one of the most important criteria for a slasher film. Any other method of death must be the exception to the rule, and not the norm.
1d. The killer often takes the role of the anti-hero, punishing the promiscuous and morally lax, or in many cases, returning to wreak vengeance on those who unjustly wronged them.
1e. Although we never see it, the killer takes great pains to carefully hide the bodies of his victims, often orchestrating elaborate reveals.
1f. The killer is always the voyeur, spending the majority of the film watching and stalking.
1g. The killer possesses the ability to further isolate the victims through sabotage, be it by cutting the phone line, puncturing their car tires, etc.
1h. At the end of the film the killer, thought to be defeated, proves himself to be alive, thus preparing the way for a follow-up film.
2. The protagonist (henceforth called the “Final Girl”) is primarily female (though notable exceptions can occur, such as in NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2, et al.)
2a. The Final Girl is generally aware of the situation, and acts with a common sense lacked by the supporting characters.
2b. She/he is a virgin (although later deviations occurred, the essence of the Final Girl is intended to be pure).
2c. At the climax of the film, the Final Girl discovers the bodies of all her friends (thus earning her name) and is forced to directly confront the monster.
3. The victims are often attractive young-adults, typically in either high-school or college.
3a. There is always at least one promiscuous couple who engage in sexual activities. After the act is complete, the couple typically separates (the most common situation involving the woman leaving to shower) thereby giving the killer a way to destroy them individually.
3b. Often the attitude of the character determines whether they will live. A bully is likely to die, regardless of any additionally immoral behaviour. This also solidifies the monster as the anti-hero, standing up for the weak – albeit unintentionally.
4. There is often an “expert” on the killer who spends the duration of the film hunting them, or providing advice on how to stop them (ex: Sam Loomis in HALLOWEEN, Sister Mary Helena in NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS). When needed, they are able to shed light on the monster’s origin and expand the character’s mythology.
5. There are scenes of excessive nudity.
5a. Breasts and blood are two staples of the slasher film. The most common is to feature a woman showering/changing – that is, to show her concerned with her aesthetic presentation, exposed and vulnerable, under the assumption that she is alone.
5b. It should be noted that, as an exception to the rule, nudity does not equal death: the Final Girl herself can be shown naked (ex: Nancy bathing in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET)
6. The use of illegal drugs is punishable by death.
7. The setting/location plays a vital role.
7a. The killer often strikes only on a particular day, be it a recognized calendar event (HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13th, CHRISTMAS, APRIL FOOL’S DAY, VALENTINE’S DAY, etc) or a day/anniversary that is personal to the killer (ex: the traumatic day responsible for creating him).
7b. Favourite locations for slasher films include: campgrounds, schools (including dorms, college campuses, and highschools), friendly all-American neighbourhoods/towns, and isolated farmhouses.
8. The audience is frequently put in the killer’s point of view, often times also incorporating the heavy sound of the killer’s breathing.
There are, of course, exceptions to the formula (the formula just defined could be expanded further to address the role of law officials, parents, etc), often intentionally altered for the purpose of adding an element of unpredictability to the mix. However, the exceptions to the rule are not important to this article. For them to be deliberate exceptions inherently means that they follow the first slasher film, and are thereby not worthy of our consideration at this time.
In HER BODY, HIMSELF: GENDER IN THE SLASHER FILM, Carol J. Clover opens the first chapter with the statement:
“At the bottom of the horror heap lies the slasher (or splatter or shocker or stalker) film: the immensely generative story of a psychokiller who slashes to death a string of mostly female victims, one by one, until he is subdued or killed, usually by the one girl who has survived.”
While she has no doubt hit the nail on the head in generalizing the plot of the slasher, my problem falls in her undiscerning amalgamation of the slasher and the splatter film, which I feel are two very separate beasts.
The splatter film, whose lineage can be traced back to the early days of the French Grand Guignol theatre, concerns itself more with the ability to shock; mutilation, torture, and the graphic dissection
of the human body are presented throughout its blood-soaked celluloid. Though it may contain elements of the slasher – point of view shots, a final girl, etc – these are incidental. The true slasher is less savage in nature; the kills can be gruesome, but it is the buildup – the methodical stalking – that sets it apart. The killer of a slasher film is fully within his element as the voyeur, watching in the shadows and choosing how much of his presence to reveal to his victim. Indeed, the slasher movie killer is a master of suspense, playing a lethal game of cat and mouse before delivering the final cut.
The same as only the most discerning wine-tasters can differentiate blindly between vintages, the average horror viewer will most likely not see a difference between some slashers and splatters. Take, for example, Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1972 bloodfest THE GORE GORE GIRLS. The film features ample nudity, killer’s point of view perspectives, a strong female lead, and even a detective sworn to hunt the killer. Yet it should by no means be considered a slasher. What it lacks is almost as abundant as what it shares: there is no build-up to the murders; the killings are savage and exploitative, often featuring additional, excessive post-mortem mutilation; the victims are not the traditional young people associated with the slasher subgenre, but are instead middle-aged and often unattractive; the kills are prolonged, beyond repulsive, and are not performed with knives, axes, or sharp tools; and the list goes on. Additionally, at the time of its release in 1972 the slasher formula was not yet defined (but more on that later).
Some may argue that a careful consideration of foreign horror must factor into our search. It has been well established that Mario Bava’s 1971 picture A BAY OF BLOOD (also released as TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE) was perhaps more than simply a source of inspiration for the later 1981 American slasher FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2; some of its death scenes were recreated shot-for-shot.
The Italian giallo, a movement which encompassed both literature as well as film, began as early as 1929. The term – which is Italian for yellow – referred to the trademark cover colour of the crime/mystery themed paperback novels. These books served as the precursors for the films which evolved to have their own unique style and subject matter; as we will see, the Italian gialli proved to be a very strong influence for the slasher.
The first recognized giallo film, THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, emerged in 1963 and was directed by Mario Bava. Though it lacked the elements generally associated with the genre, his follow up film, BLOOD AND BLACK LACE (1964) featured the popular black-gloved killer archetype.
For Europeans, the term giallo can be used to describe any number of films belonging to the horror/thriller genre. However, we would be making a categorical error were we to simply dismiss
all slashers as gialli. The giallo has itself developed to include a set of defining characteristics, which include a permeating theme of madness, obsession, or murder; a black-gloved killer who conceals his identity well; the frequent use of the red herring as a plot device; highly stylized visuals which utilize brilliant primary colours; and elaborate, often sadistic murder sequences.
It is clear that the slasher paradigm responsible for the “golden era” of slashers (approximately 1978-1984) stemmed from both North American as well as European influences. On one side low-budget American filmmakers (influenced by the French Grand Guinol and spearheaded by filmmakers like H. G. Lewis ) were producing exploitative guts-and-gore pictures; on the other hand, Mario Bava and his protégé Dario Argento were pushing the boundaries of violent cinema in the Italian giallo.
It was necessary to first establish where the slasher film originated from, in order to distinguish it from what came before. But where does this leave us in our search to discover the first true slasher? Truthfully, we are close to pinpointing it.
In 1974, a young Canadian filmmaker followed up his zombie-themed cult-hit CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (1973) with a low-budget picture about a psychopath who terrorizes a group of young sorority women during their holiday break. At the time of its release, audiences were shocked by the obscenity and raw violence that permeated from each terrifying frame; featuring Margot Kidder and Olivia Hussey, the film was none other than BLACK CHRISTMAS.
BLACK CHRISTMAS is of vital importance because it is widely regarded to be the first true slasher film ever created. At first glance, it seems valid enough; the age group, the location, the point of view shots, the cat-and-mouse stalking… but is it enough? Are we able to draw the definitive line and declare it to be the official starting point of the slasher subgenre?
Let’s first examine the killer and see if he remains consistent with our earlier list of “monster” characteristics. The identity of the killer in BLACK CHRISTMAS is never revealed – the audience is granted a single scene which displays only his eye, peering through a crack in the door. There is no explanation for his homicidal spree and no backstory given to his character; even his name remains debatable. At the beginning of the film he simply infiltrates the sorority and begins to prey on the young women. We are led to believe there is nothing especially supernatural about him, although none of the girls have the chance to fight him and prove otherwise. They are subject to his sporadic and lethal attacks; he reveals himself only through the profane prank calls he makes, leaving the viewer to imagine what his physical appearance looks like.
His first victim is a shy, morally righteous girl on the verge of leaving the sorority for the holiday break. In claiming her life at the onset of the film, it is shown that the killer acts indiscriminately, destroying the just and unjust alike. Additionally, his method of murdering victims does not utilize the characteristic “sharp object” as demonstrated by the typical slasher film; of the seven deaths in BLACK CHRISTMAS, only one involves a knife.
The Final Girl of the film (Olivia Hussey) is also a slasher-film oddity. Although in no way promiscuous on-screen (there is in fact, no nudity to speak of in the film) she is most definitely not the virginal character one expects from a Final Girl – she is not only pregnant, but seeking an abortion.
Although BLACK CHRISTMAS demonstrates several of the characteristics found in the American slasher film, it is also lacking a great deal of them. BLACK CHRISTMAS is not the first full-fledged slasher, but sits just at the cusp. It is very accurate to say that had BLACK CHRISTMAS never come into existence, the first true slasher would also not exist in the way we know it, and therefore we owe a great deal of gratitude to Bob Clark and his terrifying holiday nightmare.
In 1978 a budding young filmmaker named John Carpenter was approached to direct a movie, having previously had a good deal of success with an offbeat, controversial action film titled
ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Irwyn Yablans, the producer, explained the intention of the film: to portray evil incarnate as it maliciously sought out and destroyed young-woman babysitters. Set on the most sinister night of the year, the film was, of course, HALLOWEEN.
Once again I must stress, to the average moviegoer there probably isn’t a great deal of difference between HALLOWEEN, BLACK CHRISTMAS, or even THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE for that matter. Yet as horror fans we possess the ability to discern such differences, thereby categorizing films properly. All one has to do is re-read our earlier list of slasher film characteristics and you will see that HALLOWEEN meets all criteria.
It is all the more relevant in that it was the first film to portray a character like Michael Myers – physically impressive, masked, and unstoppable. Although characters like Leatherface from THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE had been created prior, their character treatment was still as mortal men capable of being stopped, and not pseudo-supernatural entities. The unrelenting (and unsettling) force of Michael Myers hearkened back to WESTWORLD (1973), a sci-fi picture in which a murder-bent machine was seemingly undefeatable.
Before HALLOWEEN, all of the pieces were there… they just had yet to be assembled in the right order. John Carpenter was able to gather up the fragments and, for the first time, create a fully finished masterpiece. HALLOWEEN not only popularized the slasher genre thus paving the way for countless sequels and imitators, but it also cemented the formula that the golden era of slashers would be built upon.
Today’s horror films have become an indistinguishable pastiche. They are the culmination of everything that has come before; the borders of subgenres have been broken down, making it occasionally impossible to accurately label a film. However, more often than not, mainstream horror films still operate according to the basic formula laid out in HALLOWEEN. The bad men will always die, the floozies will always die (often naked), and 99.9% of the time the Final Girl will resist temptation and vanquish the evil before the end credits role.
HALLOWEEN is, in every way, responsible for inspiring an era of horror. Its influence is still – and will forever – be felt in horror cinema.