Desert Island Films: Slasher Franchises


In “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” Robin Wood describes a simple structure for the Classical horror film as normality “threatened by the Monster,” but following Psycho the significance of the monster shifted (Wood 117). The greatest fear addressed in a majority of horror films since 1960 is the fear of other people. It took a directors like Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock to first break this barrier for filmmakers in the genre to “expose the illusory securities and limited rationales of contemporary life to reveal the chaos which underpins modern existence and constantly threatens to ensure its collapse” (Wells 75).  Peeping Tom and Psycho helped contribute to the feeling of social insecurity, as they created monsters that were fully human and would change the face of horror.


Marion (Janet Leigh) is killed in a motel shower rather than the usual spooky locations such as haunted castles or moon-lit wilderness, thereby crossing a “substantial social and emotional barrier” which implied “a general condition in which average people felt less safe” (Worland 87). The British horror film Peeping Tom not only contained a human psychopath as the monster, but he makes the audience complicit in one of the genre’s most defining cinematic moments. While also utilizing the point-of-view photography to place the audience in the killer’s perspective, the camera is actually used as a weapon as its tripod is affixed with a deadly point. Both films show a shift in cinema which made audience members complicit with the acts of atrocity by utilizing voyeuristic pleasure as a tool in the terror. Psycho opens with a shot through an open hotel window where we are able to witness Marion lying post-coitus in her underwear. Though it is the shower scene that made Psycho most famous, it was after this set-up shot that American horror film would never again be the same. 


Though In Cold Blood (1967) is not technically a horror film, the film realistically relayed the facts from the brutal slaying of a rural family within their own home. The message delivered to audiences was simply this: “in a world where this type of criminal exists—if this can happen to a decent God-fearing family, nobody’s safe anymore” (Maddrey 163). This message only seemed to be amplified in the decade that followed. People were suddenly far more terrifying than any variety of monsters that mad scientists could create. The success of Psycho can again be attributed to the shift in horror morality by its treatment of the human monster. In the opening sequences, Hitchcock gathers the audience’s sympathy for Marion (Leigh) as she steals $40,000, only to shift sympathy onto Norman, whom we are led to believe is cleaning up after his mother’s murderous jealousy. This destroys any sense of right or wrong for the audience, “and the world is seen to be an amoral and random place” (Wells 75).


The horror films of the 70s seem to be lacking a ‘faith in normality’ that had exited prior to the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, and as censorship became more lax, there was “an increasing tendency to deny catharsis and/or to present monstrous evil as an unstoppable force” (Wood, Hollyood 137, Worland 14). The films that followed in the 80s had a tendency of using first-person camera for killer, putting the audience in the shoes of the killer and shown whom to identify with. Halloween would inspire a stream of ‘slasher’ films which would populate the 80s with “episodes of highly sexualized violence” and “a sole survivor’s struggle to escape” (Worland 227). As these films became more popular, the need for the franchise to continue eventually turned many human monsters into supernatural forces, and audiences were invited to vicariously share in the carnage.


In the 1970s Wes Craven made it crystal clear that in order for the monster to be destroyed, “the protagonist must, to survive, become more violent, more savage, then the ostensible monster,” with The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) (Crane 12). In the 1980s survival was dependant upon purity, with sexual promiscuity most often inviting attacks from the killers. The manner in which the attacks occur and how the audience in invited to participate is often an indicator of the social concerns of the times in which the films are made. This is also why there have been an onslaught of home invasion horror since the attacks of 9/11(Them [2006], Inside [2007], Funny Games [2007], The Strangers [2008], Mother’s Day [2010] Trespass [2011], You’re Next [2011], Straw Dogs [2011], The Aggression Scale [2012], The Purge [2013]), usually giving little to no explanation for the attacks. When horror first emerged, we learned that it was haunted mansions and eerie castles that were meant to be avoided in order to stay away from the deadly forces of this world. Since then, we have gradually come to realize that the place we often feel safest is the most terrifying to imagine deadly. Oh, what a world we live in, that we can no longer feel safe at home.


5. Scream (1996-2011)


        With all of the talk about the social significance of psycho killers, Scream is a film which shows how safe audiences felt in the 1990s. It was a horror film about the love of 1980s horror, making more reference to movie rules than any type of reality, made by Wes Craven, a director who thrived in the previous decade’s horror films. It is a popcorn horror film, meant to entertain with humor and thrills simultaneously, while making no real statement in the process. The most shocking part of the film was the opening scene, which killed off star Drew Barrymore, whose face was featured on the poster as though she were the star. This method borrowed from Hitchcock’s Psycho was an indicator of the self-referential borrowing/homage which the film franchise would rely on through each installment.

4. Friday the 13th (1980-2009)


        The progression of the iconic horror monster that is Jason Voorhees is actually much more interesting than the films themselves. As anyone who has seen Scream or just has a basic knowledge of horror films would know, the first film has Jason as a victim, whereas his mother is the killer avenging the negligence of camp counselors all around. As a child Jason drowned, and his mother kills the camp counselors that try and open a new camp at Camp Crystal Lake. At the very end of the film there is a final scare with Jason coming back out of the water of the lake, suggesting that he is something inhuman. The sequel, Friday the 13th Part 2 has Jason at his most human, conceiving of the possible truth behind the myth that he has survived.


        In the first sequel, and Jason’s first appearance as a killer, he doesn’t have the superhuman strength that he will develop as the series continues, nor does he seem impervious to pain. It doesn’t take much to knock Jason over, and in one scene he is even frightened away by a chainsaw, giving a humorous comparison to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We are even given a view of his living conditions in the woods, letting us know that he is human and requires the same basic needs on top of his thirst for blood.


        In the search for Jason’s identity more than just Leatherface was used as a model. As the iconic hockey mask first appears in the third film (which also introduces 3-D to keep the same scares from becoming stale), there is a transitional phase in Jason’s appearance in this film. For most of the film he is shown only through first-person views or legs walking. Once he does appear onscreen he dons a sheet over his face in the same manner as the serial killer from the 1976 film, The Town That Dreaded Sundown. The eerie difference is the fact that Jason only uses one eyehole.


        Although there are many problems with the cookie-cutter plots of the Friday the 13th movies, it is difficult not to give the series more credit than the more recent Saw series. At least Friday the 13th had the sense to make clear that the entire procedure was a spectacle of amusement by the second sequel, releasing it in 3-D. My guess is that they realized audiences might tire of seeing the exact same thing, unless there was a new perk to the experience.


            Though Jason is seen as more of a supernatural serial killer because of his unwillingness to stay dead, it wasn’t until the fourth film that he became something outside of the living realm. I suppose Jason had died before, but there was always a vaguely realistic answer for his survival. The series seemed intent to at least try and explain the famous killer’s survival after each climactic death from previous sequels, but he becomes superhuman and supernatural in his ability to survive at this point in the lengthy franchise. The Final Chapter finally takes Jason out of the woods, by way of the morgue, though he doesn’t stay in his bag for long. The series would continue the sequel-a-year trend, with a revival of the infamous human monster occasionally after that, including a re-imagining in 2009. 


3. Nightmare on Elm Street (1984-2010)


        Technically, I suppose, Freddy Krueger is entirely supernatural in his abilities to kill, but it just seems a shame to exclude him from a list that includes Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers and Leatherface. Supernatural or not, his choice of weapon also seems to beg for inclusion in this list of slashing serial killers. Whereas many of the other killers included in this list took several sequels to become immortal, Krueger somehow started out that way. We join the narrative when his human terror has ended, replaced by the supernatural ability of revival for each sequel.


Nightmare on Elm Street has a remarkable place in film history. Not only was writer/director Wes Craven able to revive a genre, but he also basically made New Line what it is today and gave Johnny Depp his first film role. This is also one of the only slasher franchises that remained entertainingly creative through nearly all of the many sequels, excluding the atrocious remake in 2010.


2. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974-2013)


Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is often associated with slasher films, due to the murder of four young co-eds and a ‘final’ surviving girl that seems to fit the Carol Clover’s famous study of the sub-genre,[1] though Worland points out that “unlike the typical explanations for the psycho’s vengeance in the slasher cycle (or Hitchcock’s Psycho), Chainsaw Massacre gives little or no coherent grounds for the killer’s actions from grave robbing to cannibalism” (Worland 222).  Though featuring monsters of living human flesh, Hooper’s monsters are filled with an ‘aggressive malevolence’ similar to Romero’s zombies (Worland 99). Even more significant is the absence of any means to destroy the monster, as Worland states:


In Living Dead, traditional symbols and figures of civil, religious or scientific authority, the ultimate solution to the monster’s rampage in traditional horror films, are either dismissed or virtually become the ‘monsters’ themselves in the careless shooting of heroic Ben; in Chainsaw Massacre, such figures or institutions are absent entirely. (225)


While the slasher films of the 1980s would be built upon structure, death proceeding sinful nature almost as a cautionary tale to youthful viewers, Texas Chainsaw Massacre exists in the morally complex era of the 1970s. There is an element of chaos in the terror, as though anyone could fall victim to the horrors of psychopaths and it is only due to a chance encounter along the way. An argument could be made that all of the carnage in the film comes from the initial kind act of picking up a hitchhiker, and just as easily by the randomness of the choice to make a pit stop at the very home of the psychopath they encounter along the road.


1. Halloween (1978-2009)


(Excerpts taken from reviews of Blu-ray releases; click here and here for the full reviews)


From that astonishingly long and uninterrupted first shot that puts the audience in the point-of-view of Michael Myers, John Carpenter changed the face of horror movies for decades to come. Credit is often given to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho for being the first slasher film, but it is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom which shares much more of the credit, especially this opening shot of Halloween. There is a sequence in Peeping Tom in which the killer uses the sharp edge of a camera tripod to kill a victim, as the camera is still rolling. The implication is that the camera itself is a killer, implicating all viewers as accomplices to the enjoyment of the murder. This would continue into the 1980s, becoming a staple of the slasher genre along with the gruesome deaths of the least moral characters and survival of a single pure heroine.


Jamie Lee Curtis was the first “final girl” in her debut role as Laurie, the babysitter who survived the attacks of the boogeyman, Michael Myers. She would continue to re-appear in the series as various female offspring are chased by the masked madman with a dozen lives. The first Halloween film is a modern horror classic. The second one continues the same story, picking up immediately after the previous film had left off. These first two films technically take place on the same Halloween night, and then Michael Myers vanished until the fourth film in the series. The third film strayed from the storyline to have a plot about some haunted masks instead, but the fourth film is a return of sorts. Both Halloween 4 and Halloween 5 continue the story of Michael Myers, and he remains human rather than supernatural despite how unbelievable his survival in each film may seem.


        Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers brings back the original storyline, minus Jamie Lee Curtis as the sister under attack. Instead it is her daughter who is targeted by Michael. Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris) is just a small child, but she is helped by her babysitter and cousin, Rachel (Ellie Cornell). These two spend the next two films attempting escape from Michael, over the course of two different Halloween nights. In Halloween 4, Rachel agrees to baby-sit her cousin begrudgingly only to discover that they are being hunted down by an escaped killer.


        How Michael is able to continuously escape as well as survive the brutal onslaught that ends his reign each film is a mystery. This is another where Michael is able to escape during transport and makes his way back to his hometown, apparently now able to drive. The fourth film is famous for amping up the amount of gore as well as a twist ending that is somewhat discarded for the next film.


        Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers has the same characters and continues the storyline in a similar way that was successful with the first two films. Both Rachel and Jamie are back as the victims of a once again attacking Michael Myers. By now there is no question about his destructive abilities and after he was gunned down only to survive, there is no telling how he can be stopped.


        The sixth film marks the end of Donald Pleasence’s reoccurring role as Dr. Sam Loomis, the only one to remain in the franchise since the original. This is about all that makes Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995) stand out. The attempts to revive the series with Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998) and then Halloween Resurrection (2002) were unimpressive, despite the return of Jamie Lee Curtis to battle her long-lost brother. Still, these were masterpieces compared to the Rob Zombie re-imagining, which had white trash melodrama in the middle of suburbia as reason for Michael penchant for destruction.


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Clover, Carol J. “Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.”

              Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Crane, Jonathan Lake. Terror and Everyday Life: Singular Moments in the History of the

Horror Film. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1994.  Print.

Maddrey, Joseph. Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American

Horror Film. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2004.  Print.

Russell, David J. “Monster Roundup: Reintegrating the Horror Genre.” Refiguring

American Film Genres: Theory and History. Ed. Nick Browne. Berkeley

and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998.  Print.

Wells, Paul. The Horror Genre: From Beelzebub to Blair Witch. London: Wallflower

Press, 2000.  Print.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan…And Beyond. New York: Columbia

University Press, 2003.  Print.

Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. 



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[1] Clover, Carol J. “Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.”
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

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