Oh, the old reliable slasher film. One of the biggest genres of horror ever to grace the theatre screen. This little subgenre has lasted well over 60 years and still has output today. It has created a million cliches, villains, tropes, characters and brutal murder weapons through every entry. It’s created DVDs, VHS’, Vinyl Soundtracks, figures, halloween costumes, sneakers and mugs. Throughout every era, it’s created iconic images that rival shelf space with other franchises like Star Wars, with figureheads like Ghostface and Michael Myers. But how has it changed? Has it been this way for the genre? Has it changed at all? How can you tell a good slasher from a bad slasher? Are there any good slashers at all? Here’s your complete guide to the evolution of the slasher subgenre.
First, what is a slasher and what makes it so different from other horror movies? A slasher movie is a movie that features a main focus on some sort of serial killer. These were separated from early horror movies which were very monster focused, ghost focused or extremely religious. Imagery in these movies were very broad in comparison to slashers, which have a very specific killer, with specific methods and specific motives all laid out in 90 minutes. Slashers also approached a new level of brutality with very defined kills, that are usually applauded on how creative or brutal they are.
What’s considered the first ‘real’ slasher is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, featuring his level of suspense and thriller injected into a horror movie. It was the first horror with explicit violence and where the killer is a main character, has a complete backstory and motive. Psycho also introduces an iconic location where the killer resides, being the Bates Motel, foreshadowing all the towns, summer camps, and mental hospitals to come. The violence in Psycho pushed boundaries of how violence was allowed to be shown in movies. This opened the doors to many creatives and inspirators in the sixties and seventies, starting a first wave of slasher movies. Among these were classics like Black Christmas, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Peeping Tom, all of which leveled up the violence and iconography that plagued most slashers to come.
The next huge step in evolution for the slasher genre was the classic 1978 John Carpenter directed Halloween. This movie was one of the first that created the plot structure for a slasher, where the first half is usually during the day, full of tension and showed the killer throughout the movie saving most scares until the second half. The killer himself created an iconic symbol of horror. Unlike Psycho, which has many mystery elements, there is one sole horror in the entire movie, Michael Myers. This was also the first slasher to get a sequel immediately, enforcing the idea of the unkillable killer, due to Michael Myers being set on fire at the end of the movie.
This is the beginning of the golden era of slashers: after Halloween, many imitators followed creating some of the most recognizable franchises to this day. Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Child’s Play all debuted in this decade. A lot of early slashers also got sequels, like Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This was also a golden era of practical effects, as the movies got more creative and gorier with kills, the practical effects had to match that to bring these things to the screen.
But eventually, it had to end. Sequel after sequel was released sometimes yearly for franchises (due to low cost and easy production that could be streamlined), causing a lot of big franchises to go off the rails due to running out of ideas. By 1989, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street had five entries, and Friday the 13th had eight. Most of these franchises only got a few more entries in the 90s until some were rebooted entirely. Supernatural stories took over more realistic franchises, a lot of them becoming sillier and sillier until a lot of slasher movies turned into straight up comedies. The kills were still there, but gone was the tension of early Halloween and Texas Chainsaw films. By 1994, all the big slasher villains were essentially retired.
The entire genre seemed dead in the water until 1996, when Wes Craven’s Scream released, a movie that transcended boundaries between the movie and the movie viewer. Instead of falling into old tropes, it completely acknowledged them, poking at them and exploiting them. This started a new wave of late nineties horror movies that were usually either meta (the following Scream films) or extremely nihilistic (Final Destination).
The slasher movie has ebbed and flowed since Scream. Unlike the genre’s dark ages in the early nineties, it seems we get a decent group of slashers every few years, with films such as Fear Street, X and Terrifier 2 all coming out recently. Usually, they offer some new twists on the genre.
Along with these the requel has become a prominent figure in the modern genre with fans’ mixed reactions along the way. Texas Chainsaw 2022 essentially re-killed the series, Scream 5 was released with 2 other sequels planned and a supposed The Exorcist sequel trilogy is in the works. A lot of it raises the question, are we in some sort of slasher renaissance?
Kinda. A lot of the movies that get announced usually stay in development hell, psychological thrillers and foreign horrors rule the market currently. Movies like X and Halloween Kills show a promising future for how profitable classic slashers could be, but it is extremely hard to start a new franchise when people would rather stick to the classics. So if you love slashers, support what you love, and support creativity when it appears.
Matthew Hornyak is a Freshman Writing for Film, TV and Emerging Media major who has memorized every line from Halloween, and can recite the entire movie backwards. They can be reached at [email protected].