Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) is sometimes described as the mother of all slasher films. Although there are only two murders in the story, the idea of a disguised and insane killer came to prominence with this film. However, unlike other slasher films inspired by it, the characters in the film are well developed and revolve around a far more complex storyline.
Indeed, the murderer's insanity is also clearly explained in comparison to other slasher film villains. Psycho was so influential that many critics see it as a turning point in cinema history. It marked the transition from the Gothic horror of vampires, were-wolves and monsters to modern issues and fears. The famous "shower murder" with its screeching violin soundtrack is perhaps the most famous scene in horror film history. However, although it directly inspired the subsequent slasher genre, Psycho is more accurately categorized as a psychological horror/thriller.
Early examples of the slasher genre include Herschell Gordon Lewis' Blood Feast (1963), Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Reazione a catena (1971) (the latter known by over a dozen titles in English, including Bay of Blood, Carnage and Twitch of the Death Nerve), Tobe Hooper's 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974).
The three films most often charged with igniting the slasher film "craze" of the 1980s are John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th (1980) and Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), all of which spawned numerous sequels and countless imitators that endlessly recycled their predecessors' character archetypes and plot.
Halloween, though not the first film of its kind, is often considered the film responsible for the rise of the slasher trend, popularizing many of what would become key elements in the genre.
However, the film Black Christmas (1974), released four years earlier, was very influential on all that followed, including Halloween. Directed by Bob Clark, the film practically invented modern slasher convention. Many elements from the film, such as point-of-view shots from the killer's perspective and threatening phonecalls made from inside the victim's house, would be reused by later filmmakers for decades to come.
Following a trend set by Black Christmas, Halloween, and Friday the 13th, many films of the era focused on holidays or specific dates, such as My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me, April Fool's Day, Prom Night, Mother's Day, and Silent Night, Deadly Night.
During the height of the genre's popularity, despite a strict formula developing within the genre, audience interest was maintained by developing new, increasingly "novel" ways for victims to be killed, as well as increasingly graphic and realistic special effects. Some series such as Nightmare on Elm Street and later Child's Play added supernatural twists to the slasher formula, as well as comedic elements as the respective series progressed. Earlier films such as Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were also revived and given a series of increasingly gory sequels in attempts to compete with other franchises. The genre arguably peaked in 1983, a year in which, according to the book Crystal Lake Memories, nearly 60% of all box office takings that year were for slasher movies.
Long running franchises in the genre tended to focus more and more on the returning villain than surviving victims, effectively transforming characters once viewed as frightening monsters into anti-heroes who would be cheered on by audiences.
Nevertheless, by the end of the 1980s audiences were tiring of "unstoppable" masked killers and predictable plots. The profitability of the slasher genre began to dwindle, and controversy over the subject matter would eventually convince some studios to stop producing and distributing slasher films. Sequels to the most popular slasher series, as well as new series such as Leprechaun, would continue to be released in theaters or direct-to-video throughout the early to mid-1990s. However, few gained the success of the genre's earlier productions, and even entries in popular series such as the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street became less frequent.
The slasher genre resurfaced into the mainstream in the mid 1990s, after being successfully deconstructed in Wes Craven's Scream (1996). The film was both a critical and commercial success which attracted a new generation to the genre. Two sequels followed, and the series was even parodied in Keenen Ivory Wayans' Scary Movie (2000) and its three sequels.
Scream kicked off a new slasher cycle that still followed the basic conventions of the 1980s films, but managed to draw in a more demographically varied audience with increased production values, reduced levels of on-screen gore, increased self-referential humor, more character development, and better-known actors and actresses (often from popular television shows). This style continued for the duration of the 1990s with competing series such as I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend.
In 1998, the Halloween series was revived, playing off the success of the Scream franchise. The new film, Halloween: H20, was conceived as a direct sequel to 1981's Halloween II, and would lead to one further sequel, Halloween: Resurrection. Shortly after, other "classic" slasher faces would also be revived: A nearly scene-for-scene remake of Psycho was released a few months later, in December of 1998. Chucky of the Child's Play series also returned to the screen, first being given a bride and later a child. In 2003, two of the largest slasher series, Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, were combined by New Line Cinema in the film Freddy vs. Jason.
Another revival attempt came in 2003 when a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released. It was financially successful and a prequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, was released in 2006. The success of TCM leaded to a slew of other slasher remakes, including The Hills Have Eyes, Black Christmas, The Hitcher, and the upcoming "reimagining" of John Carpenter's Halloween by Rob Zombie.
While figures from the "golden age" of the slasher genre continue to be revived, new franchises have also appeared. Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects introduced audiences to the murderous, necrophiliac Firefly family, both films taking obvious inspiration from earlier works such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
In 2004, the first film in the Saw series was released into theaters, featuring much of the gore and sadism considered a staple of the 1980s slasher genre, but with a twist: the victims are now tricked into killing or harming themselves; however, Saw is also considered part of a more modern movement in horror loosely referred to as "horror porn", "torture porn", or "gornography". As a whole the genre has begun to return to a bloodier, more shocking formula over Scream's trendier aspects. Hostel is another example of this new genre that delights in sex-gory scenes.
Critic Roger Ebert has taken to referring to slasher films as "Dead Teenager Movies", and Carol J. Clover tackled the genre at some length in her book Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, which defines the Final Girl archetype. The history of the slasher was also explored by Mikita Brottman in her book Offensive Films : Toward an Anthropology of Cinema Vomitif. Like most horror films, slashers have typically been ignored (if not derided) by the majority of serious mainstream critics.
Notable slasher films
- Psycho (1960) - Though not technically a slasher film per se, Psycho helped create the archetype of the disguised, mentally deranged killer who preys on innocent (if sexually indiscreet) young women, and would directly influence many later films. As the slasher craze took off in the 1980s, Psycho was resurrected in the form of three bloodier, less subtle sequels. The film was also remade in 1998.
- The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) - The film most often credited with establishing the "staples" of the slasher genre, including young people poking around in places where they don't belong (and harm consequently befalling them), the lone female survivor (or Final Girl), the lumbering masked killer who never speaks, etc. The film was followed by three sequels, a remake, and a prequel.
- Black Christmas (1974) - One of the first films to combine the elements of a murder mystery with the slasher genre. Notable for use of long tracking shots from the point of view of the film's killer, an element that would later be cemented by Halloween as a staple of the genre. Later remade by Dimension Films.
- Halloween (1978) - Popularized the "classic" slasher formula and, together with Friday the 13th, helped kick the slasher film craze of the '80s into high gear. Also established the tropes of the innocent, virtuous "Final Girl" (as opposed to her more free-spirited, promiscuous friends), the long tracking shot representing the point of view of the villain (often accompanied by ominous breathing), and the unstoppable, seemingly immortal masked killer. Halloween was followed by seven sequels, with a remake currently in postproduction.
- Friday the 13th (1980) - The first in one of the longest and most well known slasher series. Notable for the increased level of gore when compared to earlier genre entries, and increasingly elaborate or unique death scenes. Followed by ten sequels.
- A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) - First in the series that gave slashers a supernatural twist. Unlike some of its darkly lit, shadowy predecessors, Nightmare on Elm Street films used make-up, special effects and post-production techniques to create startlingly realistic horror images. Followed by seven sequels, and a television spinoff
- Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) - Most notable for the amount of controversy surrounding it during it's release: the film was condemned by critics such as Siskel and Ebert, and was protested by various parents and religious groups for it's depiction of Santa Claus as a murderer. Followed by four sequels, with a remake currently planned.
- Child's Play (1988) - Another notable series in the genre to combine traditional slasher elements with both humor and a supernatural twist. Followed by four sequels.
- Scream (1996) - This horror/dark comedy film added a satirical and tongue-in-cheek approach to the standard formula (teens being brutally killed off). The film contained many references and nods to previous films in the slasher genre. Scream began the 1990s slasher revival, and it was followed by two sequels. However, despite its many jabs both at previous slasher movies and itself for following film clichés, the series in fact broke the traditional mold by focusing on the surviving victims rather than a returning killer.
- I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) - The most successful of the post-Scream cash-ins. The screenplay was written by Kevin Williamson, who also wrote Scream. Followed by two sequels.
- Freddy vs. Jason (2003) - Combined the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, as the main killers from the two series' clash after crossing into each others' killing territory. The eleventh film in the Friday the 13th series, and the eighth in the Nightmare on Elm Street saga.