Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why a Slasher? - The Devin's Advocate

From's Devin Faraci


Slashers are back in a big way. My Bloody Valentine 3D is going to sail past 50 million, a huge number considering it cost about 15 to make. Friday the 13th opens this weekend and something tells me that film will make a whole bunch of money as well. Halloween 2 is on its way, and I'm sure that there's a whole passle of other slasher movies in various stages of production and more waiting to get greenlit. Horror is cyclical, and we've hit the maniac mass murderer phase of that cycle.

I suppose it was inevitable, but I have to admit that I thought the slasher was done for good. I thought that Scream and a whole endless series of terrible slasher movies had done the sub-genre in. But just like the slasher himself at the end of the movie, the genre has proven to be quite tough to kill and has come back for a sequel. And just like with any slasher sequel, many people stand on the sidelines and wonder 'Why?'

That's a tough question to answer. Slasher films might be the lowest form of film making next to the various sorts of porns (hard and softcore*), and they're tough to defend. With very rare exceptions, slasher films are cheap, are created by people who probably have little business making movies, are stupid and are exceptionally repetitive - both in the genre and within the movies themselves. Variations on established themes are what tends to pass for innovation for these movies. I feel like any attempt to explain the appeal of the slasher film must begin by acknowledging these facts, especially as so many of them are integral to why the genre is beloved.

Before all of the defending of the genre, maybe I should try to define it (as loosely as possible). The slasher film is at its core about a killer - whether that killer be mysterious and unmasked only at the end, or completely iconic in stature and public in nature - who is methodically murdering a number of people in gruesome ways. These killings must be the primary focus of the narrative and must take place over a collapsed time frame (usually a night or two), which means movies that are just about serial killers - Dahmer or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer for instance - are not automatically slasher films. Everything else is up for grabs, including who the victims are, what the location is and what method of murder is utilized. If you're saying to yourself, 'Hey, Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians (aka And Then There Were None) fits into that definition,' you're totally correct. Christie is Jason Voorhees' grandmother.

With those loose boundaries in place it's important to remember that slasher films, first and foremost, are light entertainment. Anyone over the age of 9 who gets really scared by a slasher film - nightmare scared, not jumping in your seat scared or slightly spooked in a dark alley scared - is an easy mark. Filmmakers and fans will pay lip service to the idea of these being scary movies, or films that prey on fears that we all have, but the truth is that slasher films are the horror movie equivalent of a fun house; you get quick shocks, some red wetness, you laugh a bunch and you move on. As always there are exceptions, and there are a couple of slasher movies that have genuinely disturbing elements, but your average film in the genre is fun.

That fun comes from the kills. Everybody knows that the killer is the protagonist in a slasher film and not the Survivor Girl who offs him, but the real hero of the film is the FX artist. In many cases the make-up artist is the true mastermind behind the kills, not the screenwriter or the director, and the kills are what we're there to see. Slasher fans don't care if a director's mise en scene is of any value, they just care that the camera captures the kill in the best and usually bloodiest way. Quick: name your top ten slasher film performances. While you're thinking on that, rattle off your top ten slasher movie kills. I bet I know which list comes easier.

Slasher films have tension, but they're not thrillers in the more traditional sense. The long scenes leading up to the kill aren't tense because you're afraid the maniac is going to off the girl, it's because you can't wait for him to do it. It a tension not based on dread but rather a tension based on anticipation and the filmmaker denying you the release you want. There's almost a math to this - the shorter the tension before a kill, the less graphic that kill needs to be in order to satiate an audience. If the kill is a jump scare, we're okay with seeing just a slashing knife or the victim's reaction shot, but if the kill comes after a long stalking sequence the audience wants to see something extreme. But in the end what the audience wants is that victim dead.

The kills are the money shots, and just like porn theater patrons in the days before fast forward, they're why we sit through the rest of the stuff. At least that's the theory. I know that I can get impatient waiting for the masked killer to finally start slicing his way through a campground full of horny teens, but a compilation of kills wouldn't make for much of a movie; hell, it wouldn't even rate above a random entry in the I Know What You Did Last Summer franchise. There's no questioning the fact that the kills are the reason we paid our money to get in the door, but there's more than squirting blood that brings us back to slasher movies.

There's certainly an element of ironic enjoyment to be gotten out of slasher films. Not even the pillars of the genre, the classics themselves, are immune to snarky comments and jokes. Most of these films are pretty shoddy, and because they are usually geared towards a Friday night date crowd they're often filled with tone deaf depictions of teens. Add to that the way so many older slasher films reflect the worst of the styles and tastes of their time period and you have bad movie nirvana. In many ways the mixture of bad movie with good kills is almost enough to explain the appeal. Almost.

Slasher films are so formalized they're almost ritualistic. But it's within that formality that the joy of slasher films hides. On the dumb side of things that formality, that ritualistic quality, is comforting. I have a theory that slasher film fans are made in childhood or adolescence; that your soft, still-forming brain is susceptible to becoming attuned to the base pleasures and rhythms of the genre. It's not nostalgia, per se, but familiarity. Law & Order reminds me of slasher movies in that after seeing enough episodes you can watch a new one and be pretty certain what's going to happen next. It's not challenging, but it works.

The rigidity of the genre is what makes me love it. There's something exciting about seeing a formula movie carried out well within its own rules, and there's something transcendent about seeing a filmmaker leave a personal mark on such a film. It's like hearing an alternate take of a song you grew up loving; all of the riffs are as you remember them, but all of a sudden the second verse is different or the solo has a totally new sound. This is the thrill all fans of rigid genres know, whether it be murder mysteries (a forefather of the slasher) or romances or traditional Westerns - getting what you expect but also something new. It's a rare thing in slasher films; I love exploitation movies because their low stature and budgets often allow them to be bizarrely personal works, while slasher films are also cheap and poorly regarded but tend to be more anonymous. Maybe it's because slasher films tend to be entry level positions while exploitation movies** attract obsessive weirdos dedicated to their creepy self-expression - whatever the case it makes a good slasher movie all the more magical.

Slasher films aren't great art; I think the genre may have the highest miss to hit ratio in all of filmmaking. The only slasher film that I might try to defend as great filmmaking is the original Halloween, the one that pretty much started it all anyway***. Slasher fans are like gold rushers sifting through river mud for specks of gold; we'll sit through hours of crap just to find one scene of genuine invention or imagination, we'll be stultified by reels upon reels of garbage just to be amazed by one unique moment. We have a taste for the macabre and a connoisseur's appreciation for trash. And in the end we really like seeing people get killed in movies.

* although there are real gems - movies with extraordinary artistic merit - hidden in the world of softcore.

** and I know that more than technically slasher films fit under the umbrella term 'exploitation film.' I'm talking about your more psychotronic stuff here.

*** if I was doing a historical overview of the genre I'd talk about giallos and about Black Christmas and other precursors, but what we know as a slasher movie today was really born with Michael Myers.

- Jordan M.

Sulphur Springs, TX

No comments:

Olympic Artichoke banners designed by Whalehead

Email us: