With new entries in several classic slasher franchises coming around the bend (Halloween, Friday the 13th, Child’s Play, and more) it looks as if we’re headed for a stalk n’ slash renaissance. Not since Wes Craven’s Scream and its many imitators has the subgenre racked up the the box office dollars to go along with its massive body count. As a huge fan of “dead teenager” flicks and an aspiring (read: “wannabe”) writer/director myself, I’m often contemplating what the new iteration of the slasher will be.
The popularity of these films always tend to run in cycles. Each cycle contains its own specific clichés and characteristics. Despite this, a slasher-is a slasher-is a slasher, and they all retain certain tropes and themes that are instantly recognizable.
The Slasher’s Past
For instance, the 70’s proto-slashers such as Black Christmas, Halloween, and The Redeemer were setting the groundwork for what the subgenre would become. Their focus was more on building suspense and less concerned with piling up the bodies. The “Golden Age” of the 80’s saw the rise of the psycho-killer as an anti-hero. Audiences flocked to the Friday and Nightmare films. They could care less about most of the characters. Fans were practically rooting for the next successive death to outdo the last in terms of shock and gore.
After that, the slasher film laid dormant for quite some time until the late 90’s. Films released during this era were too hip to simply follow the previous blueprint. All the clichés and tropes were old hat, the mystery of “who is the killer” came to the forefront with self-referential humor poking fun at what had come before. All the more salacious bits of T&A, creative kills, and the unstoppable madmen fell to the wayside. Then, audiences grew tired of it all. Our slasher surrogate for the early 00’s was “torture porn”. So…what’s next?
I’m genuinely asking. You see, I’m currently hashing out an idea for a screenplay that would present the slasher from a different angle. It’s not what I would call groundbreaking in any way, but it provides a modern update to all the tropes we’ve come to love and fear. At least, this is my intent with the project. There’s a fine line to toe between “something different” and “something unrecognizable”.
Breaking the Slasher Mold
The truth is, there has been a lot of innovation within the subgenre through the years. If Freddy never came for the Elm Street kids in their dreams, we might not have ever gotten the supernatural slasher. If the giallo (Italian murder mystery) film didn’t greatly inspire the original Friday the 13th and it’s shocking (spoiler alert) reveal of Jason’s mother as the killer, would we have gotten Scream? However, while innovation and “original” concepts are always begged for, we don’t always welcome them.
The Friday series has become the quintessential poster child of the body count film. When you plop down in your seat for a new Jason flick, you know just what you’re getting into. That said, some Friday films have taken pretty big risks throughout the years, much to the chagrin of some fans. Friday the 13th V: A New Beginning dared to give us “Fake Jason” in a twist that hearkened back to the original. The franchise has also gifted us “Slug Jason” and “Uber Jason” (I prefer the term “Mecha-Jason”, but I’m a Big G nerd).
The majority of fans have not have not been too kind to those chapters in the franchise. I happen to enjoy all three to various extent, but am fully aware they don’t fit in the provided F13 mold. Every time a cinema psycho is launched into space (Pinhead, Leprechaun) or given familial ties (Freddy, Chucky) to try and spice up the formula, they are greeted with less than mild applause. Why change things up at all?
The Slasher’s Present
I personally believe, in essence, there’s no original stories left to tell. There’s only so many ways to seclude a group of characters and only so many ways to unleash a murderous evil upon them. When Carpenter made Halloween he was already cannibalizing Clark’s Black Christmas. He pretty much copied the man’s idea for a sequel and made it his own.
Mark Twain put it best:
“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
Those same pieces of colored glass are coming back into play, and while I believe a lot of horror fans are hungry for “more of the same”, will they be happy if that’s all they get? If the new Friday the 13th is nothing but a bunch of quick murders, minimal suspense, and no actual plot – would fans rejoice? Or would they prefer the same pieces to be presented in a new combination?
A simple shift could make all the difference. A group of teens return to Camp Crystal Lake for “insert reason here”. They soon learn the legend of Jason Voorhees only to be slaughtered one by one by the hockey masked murderer. The new angle would have all the “filler” characters bite the dust half way through the film, leaving only our final girl. An entire 45 minutes could be spent with the lead trying to escape, outsmart, and survive.
My favorite part of most slashers are the chase scenes, so why not make that the major focus? See? There’s nothing really original in that concept, but we take a tired story and present it in a slightly different way…Or do we change nothing?
The Retro Slasher Revolution
The release of Rodriguez and Tarantino’s Grindhouse opened the floodgates to faux-retro cinema. I can’t stand it (this coming from someone who utilized fake film scratch on a movie I shot years ago…lame). I’m all for a “throwback” or an “homage” if done through ones own creative kaleidoscope. No matter what, though, digital video looks like modern technology. I don’t care how many scratches, “missing reel” inserts, or cigarette burns you add to your footage. This is not the 80’s. Why is it that indie filmmakers insist on doing this?
Because, the 80’s were the Golden Age, and nothing has come along since to ignite the subgenre the same way. Yes, Scream was great, and some the films that followed its success were fun. The point is, the revival of the 90’s didn’t last very long. Upon Scream 3’s release in 2000, the slasher was already on its last leg…again. So, whether we grew up in the 80’s or the 90’s, we still fondly look back to the Golden Age with memories from either the cinema or the video store. We want to recreate that magic.
The Possible Slasher Solution
Two recent indies that come pretty close to that magic are All Through the House (2016) and Lake Nowehere (2015). ATTH is a blast of Christmas cruelty, shot with slick digital photography, served up with all the sex and gore an 80’s stalk n’ slash fanatic could dream of. It works because it plays its ludicrous killer Santa plot straight, and it delivers on the expectations of the genre without resorting to faux-retro gimmicks. Lake Nowhere does exactly what I’ve already rallied against; it presents itself as a lost VHS classic. Hypocritical? Sure, but the filmmakers handle this exceptionally well. The film only lasts about 50 minutes so as not to wear out its welcome. Different from ATTH, Lake Nowhere works by NOT delivering on the expectations of its premise, a partying group of kids spend a weekend at a cabin in the woods.
There are two examples of modern films in the subgenre that work for different reasons. ATTH is a film that borrows the tropes and clichés of the 80’s and presents them without any knowing winks to the audience. Lake Nowhere passes itself off as an old school slasher only to go in a wildly different direction, ending on an almost mystical note. Is this the future of the slasher, an amalgam of old and new?
The Slasher’s Future
I don’t claim to have all the answers. I believe the key for future slashers’ successes are in the details. Filmmakers must crack the modern audience code in order to elicit maximum scares and minimum eye rolls. Only it can’t be done by ignoring the over 40 years of lessons the subgenre has to offer.
We can’t rely on the meta approach of the 90’s. This brand of humor has been done to death with increasingly diminished returns. Maybe “self-referential” could be replaced by “self-reflective”? If general audiences won’t show up for the meat and potatoes vibe of the 80’s, a subgenre has to make money to thrive after all, maybe we can at least bring back the crazy practical effects and inventive kills of the period. The pacing of 70’s genre fare may bore some of today’s moviegoers, but suspense is always in style. If you can’t blow people away with an original idea, blow them away with masterful filmmaking.
My idea is far from revolutionary or game-changing. It’s pretty simple. Take some of the old, subvert the expectations of the audience, add a pinch of personal style and voila! You have yourself a modern slasher film.
I hope I’ve given you something to chew on. Do we want more of the same, something radically different, or just a fresh take on an old idea. I’m genuinely curious to know what you guys think. What do you want from the upcoming slate of slasher movies? Do you agree there’s no original ideas? Let’s chat down below, fiends!
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