Thursday, 11 September 2008

Video Nasties: An Analysis of the Slasher Genre


"The earliest recorded use of the term "slasher movie" was in the Whig-Standard (Kingston Ontario) 2 Oct 1975 when circulation of suspected snuff movies was discovered: "New York City police detective Joseph Horman said... that the 8-millimetre, 8-reel films called "snuff" or "slasher" movies had been in tightly controlled distribution."
(Whitehead, 2003, p.7)
The following is an attempt to analyse the slasher genre and its conventions. For this, it will be seperated into three chapters; the first will focus on gender and sexuality within the genre, most notably what many critics have referred to as "the final girl," the female protagonist who shows independence and intelligence far surpassing the male characters and thus is usually the only one to survive at the end, but only after dispatching the killer. The lack of homosexuality and the death of the more sexually active characters will also be analysed. The second chapter will focus on the evolution and metamorphosis of the morality tale, from its roots in 18th century folklore and fairytales, through American urban legends to the slasher movie, and how these stories warned the youth of the dangers of straying from the path of normality. The final chapter will focus on the controversy the genre has caused since the release of Psycho, via Child's Play 3 to the latest incarnation of slashers.

Ever since the first slasher movie, Psycho, these films have been met with negative publicity, either as a moralistic backlash against the contents if the movie or with the film simply dismissed as trash. In his review of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in the Autumn 1975 issue of Sight and Sound, David Wilson commented that; "Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a gory celluloid horror comic which, apart from its undeniably animated finale (involving a power-driven chainsaw and barbecued victims) hardly seems worth the rumpus it is going to create." It is clear that he was not impressed with the movie, considering it rather mundane, but that he knew the movie would cause controversy among other critics and cinemagoers. In his BFI Monthly Film Bulletin (December 1976) review of the movie John Pym described it as; "Simply a contrived piece of nonsense (we sympathise with no one) and content to pad out the action before the final capture-and-escape sequence with derivative or repetitive devices."

After the release of Friday the 13th, Tim Pulleine's review of the movie was less than flattering, stating in the July 1980 issue of BFI Monthly Film Bulletin, that it was; "... shoddily dependent on simulating its gory murders with maximum relish." There is some truth to this. Director Sean S. Cunningham was the first to confess that the movie was designed to capitalise on the success of Halloween and had tried to recreate what had made that movie so successful. But whereas Halloween relied on tension Friday the 13th's main attribute would be its special effects, mainly due to the involvement of Tom Savini, whose gory work on Dawn of the Dead had made him an industry favourite. Pulleine's review of Friday the 13th Part 2 was just as negative, describing it as; "Rather more polished than its predecessor, Part 2 is no less feeble in plot and dialogue." Again, this comment is not entirely unfair, as Part 2 does follow the blueprint laid out by the first movie a little too closely.

It seems that the BFI Montly Film Bulletin was never a fan of the slasher movie. In his April 1981 review of Don't Go in the House, Steve Jenkins commented on the film's moral message, that; "This cynical pretence to a universal "message" - don't mistreat your children or they'll turn into women burners - serves only to highlight the film's weakness as drama." While this was not one of the most respected of slashers, this negative attitude seems to flow through all of their reviews of the genre. Paul Taylor's review of The Toolbox Murders, in the March 1980 issue, described the movie as; "A humourless, suspenseless, once-gory exploiter."

In fact, it seems that the only slasher movie this magazine was willing to recognise as anything but terrible is the critics' favourite, Halloween. Onthe subject of the sexually active characters being slain due to their promiscousness, Richard Combs stated that; "... the victims are all youngsters caught in, before or just after flagrante delicto also complies with the sexual hang-ups of the movie monsters but is not, the film is careful to establish, part of any psychological theme."


Chapter One
"Given that the word "heroine" has many associations and implications of its own and does not simply mean "female hero," many modern authors have chosen to discard it entirely, preffering to use the word "hero," and qualifying it with "female" and "male." In discussing slasher movies this is a sensiblw choice, because the Final Girl is definitely a hero in the masculine mode, despite being female."
(Harper, 2004, p.31)
The following chapter will be exploring sexuality and gender within the slasher movie. As well as the aforementioned final girl, other subjects discussed include how both males and adults are portayed as inferior charactersm unable to save the heroine and thus leaving her to save herself, and the lack of homosexuality within the genre.

The slasher film has constantly been accused by critics as being both misogynistic and exploitational. As one critic, Jeff Young, commented on the website VideoVesta; "Without a doubt, there is something grossly exploitative, if not quite inherently misogynistic, about the subgenre of slasher movies - and yet filmmakers around the world keep producing them, and the appetite of video renters for the same old stalker and screamer formula is undiminished by 25 years worth of slice 'n' dice action."

Their main focus has always been on the murders of the female characters in these movies, stating that the bloodiest and most brutal slayings are usually reserved for the young girls. Now, as with any accusations, there may be some truth to this. Some movies in the genre have certainly degraded the female as she has begged for her life and then been promptly killed off, such as Lucio Fulci's New York Ripper and William Lustig's Maniac. But other examples. like John Carpenter's Halloween and Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street, show their female protagonists as resourceful and independent, much stronger than their male counterparts.

The genre was first conceived in the late 1950's, when the crimes of Wisconsin farmer by the name of Ed Gein influenced Alfred Hitchcock's seminal classic Psycho. This was the first slasher movie and, although different to the ones that flooded the drive-in theatres in the early 1980's, it was a huge influence on what was to follow. The 1960's also saw the rise of the feminist movement, where women marched on Washington demanding equal rights in the workplace and condemning pornogaphy.
"It wasn't until the 1960's that feminism was able to infiltrate the law system and begin taking control of society via the law system. When feminism first obtained power within the law system during the 1960's, they initiated their acquisition and monopolisation of the media. This included the acquisition of the television, radio, movie industries, as well as the education system and workforce."
It seems that the slasher film, more than any other genre, was influenced by the newfound strength that women were now showing and incorporated it into its movies, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Bob Clark's Black Christmas became the blueprints for what would later become the genre standard. Both featured strong female heroes and sexually confused killers. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Sally was a more typical cinema heroine; screaming and running to safety, after all, this has been the same in horror since the likes of Frankenstein. But Black Christmas features a headstrong and independent female, one who fends off the supposed killer by herself and defeats him without the help of others. Both films were released in 1974, during the rise of feminism, and both films would have a great impact on the horror movie.

Film feminist Carol J. Clover, for her book Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, dubbed this demale her "the final girl." And this is now a term that has become widely used. Most notably this phrase is reserved for Laurie Strode, the heroine of Halloween. It is she who realises that something is wrong and it is she who survives, while her friends are killed off after having sex, and it is she who puts up the most resistance to the killer.

The accusations levelled at the slasher movie by critics who have condemned them as exploitational to womenhave not paid enough attention to the genre. It is the slasher that has shown its female protagonists to be totally independent and not needing the help of males, parents of authority figures (the police are never helpful or capable) while other films, such as 1980's action films and recent hits like Spider-man, show the female to be totally dependent on the male hero. Surely this is more degrading to women than the way they are represented in the slasher movie?

The most notable examples of female characters are located in movies such as Lethal Weapon 2 (the character of Rika van den Haas is a typical damsel-in-distress, except this time she does not live to the end of the story), Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and various Steven Seagal films, such as Hard to Kill (a scene shows female protagonist Andy Stewart watching in awe as "hero" Mason Storm practices his martial arts).

But is the final girl in slasher movies a symbol of feminism like certain writers have stated? She is truly independent; showing intelligence, individuality and resourcefulness, able to act and defend herself without the help of a man. She is not just a symbol of sexual desire, as the protagonists in films such as Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction are.

The best example of feminism in the slasher genre is during the climax to the original A Nightmare on Elm Street movie where, after losing her friends and mother to the maniacal Fred Krueger, final girl Nancy pulls her enemy from out of her dreams and into the real world, promptly setting him on fire. But she knows it is not over. She realises it is her fear of him that has given him power over her and that it is only by taking this fear away that she can truly defeat him. So when he reappears to take revenge she turns her back on him, telling him that he no longer has a hold on her and that he is just "shit." It is this strength that finally defeats him and saves Nancy. It is interesting to note the parallels between this and true-life cases of domestic violence. It has often been stated that a woman should turn her back on her abusive partner as this will take away his hold over her, metaphorically "castrating" him (relinquishing him of his weapon) and leaving him powerless.

Homosexuality is not a common factor of the genre, most probably because in the late 1970's and early 1980's when these movies were being made it was still a taboo subject that was widely disregarded. While the Gay Rights Movement had been established by then it was widely ignored by mainstream cinema. Any horror film that did dare brush on the subject would be accused of being homophobic. In his book Slasher Movies: Pocket Essentials Film, Mark Whitehead accused A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge of promoting violence towards gays;
"A distasteful homophobic subtext lurks beneath the slaughter of the SM-loving coach and Jesse's best friend, especially as the love of a good woman saves Jesse from Freddy's attention."
(Whitehead, 2003, p.56)
These accusations seem unfair. There is nothing in the film that states that Freddy's motives for killing the coach are sexual. Just because the victim happens to be gay does not mean that the murder was a homophobic attack. And, as with any good horror, there is a love story, so the fact that he is saved by the love of his girlfriend is just reinforcing the romantic aspect of the plot. Surely two heterosexuals displaying their love for each other cannot be misread as homophobic? Is this just reinforcing the moral codes society has placed upon the hererosexual relationship?

And is sexuality is a large part of the slasher morality thn surely the virgin is the one who would survive, as is the case in Halloween. After all, straight after losing his virginity in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Jimmy is murdered by a corkscrew being thrust into the side of his skull, courtesy of the still-sexless Jason Voorhees. One of the more intriguing post-Scream slashers was Geoffrey Wright's Cherry Falls, the tale of a serial killer stalking a campus and playing only virgins, prompting the students to hold a "lose your cherry or die" party. It is revealed at the end that the killer is the offspring of a young girl who was raped and left for dead years before, and that the ones who attacked her had now grown up to become respected members of the community; sheriff, high school principal, etc.

It is worth noting that many critics have concentrated on the fact that it is always the characters who have sex that are immediately killed off, but does this not beg the question that surely a person is easier to kill off if they are drunk and/or stoned with their pants around their ankles? After all, several characters throughout the Friday the 13th series have been murdered during sex. Does this not just make them easier victims? Whether or not this is a strong enough point to argue is debatable but it is at least worth considering.


Chapter Two
"Despite its reputation as lowbrow or mindless entertainment the horror film has a rich literacy and oral tradition that eclipses many other forms of storytelling. Primarily, confrontation of fear in a safe environment (whether it's in cinema, around a campfire or snuggled up in bed) works at a primordial level to psychologically prepare an individual for life's hardships as well as acting as a cautionary source of morality."
(Blanc, Odell, 2000, p.4)
This chapter charts the history of the slasher genre, from its origins in old European folklore and nursery rhymes, as well as American uban legends, to its current format. It also explores various elements used within these movies, such as locations and the choice of weapons used by the killers.

The roots of the genre can be traced back to the 18th century, throug European folklore and fairytales. They primarily dealt with warning children of the dangers of the forbidden and unknown. Old stories such as Frankenstein also tell of a creature that live outside of man's domain and how straying from the path laid out before you could result in violent punishment. This is at the centre of the slasher movie.

It could be argued that the grandfathers of the slasher movie were the Brothers Grimm,, whose stories of morality and caution were often used around campfires to scare and entertain. Tales such as The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was and Little Red Riding Hood showed youngsters leading into temptation and coming face-to-face with a dangerous outcast. These were also told to children to warn them of the dangers awaiting them in later life. Aaron Evans, in his Internet essay Slasher Movies: A Narrative Analysis, stated that;
"The threat of an eschatological punishment for an act commited during youth failed to scare many. After all, they needed only to seek repentance from their youthful transgressions. So, adults contrived stories about ghastly consequences befalling those who violated the cultural mores including the taboo on premarital sex. These stories became fairy tales of yesterday and eventually the urban legends of today."
(Evans, 2002)
Other stories that followed this mould include the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland which, along with its counterpart, Through the Looking Glass, featured a young girl wandering off alone to find herself in danger, and Heinrich Hoffman's Struwwelpeter. The influence of Hoffman's The Great, Long Red-Legged Scissorman can still be seen in horror today, most notably Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street, the character being a blueprint for Freddy Krueger.

The morality fairytale was first conceived in Italy and France in the 17th century, through the works of Giambattista Basile and Charles Perrault, and were told as bedtime stories to children or at night by travellers around a fire. Another form of entertainment that was used to educate the young into being cautious were nursery ryhmes, innocently sung by children who were often unaware of their true meaning.

The slasher movie was also born from urban legends. They warned of the dangers of premarital sex, drugs and other sins that parents tried to discourage them from. Probably the most famous of these was the take of the hook. This infamous story was told to many generations of Americans by their parents before bed and consisted of a patient with a hook for a hand that had escaped from a mental hospital. A young couple were getting intimate in the back seat of the boy's car while parked up in the woods but are soon interrupted by a strange scratching sound. The girl remembers that her mother had warned her about being sexually active with boys and soon becomes worried, promptly asking her boyfriend to take her home. Begrudgingly, he complies but when they pull up outside her house and he goes to open her car door he discovers a hook hanging from the door handle, still with flesh attached from where it had been ripped from the patients' arm.

The moral behind this story was that because the girl heeded the warning of her mother and never went through with their intentions they had survived, but had they stayed and had sex the killer would have got them and their lives would have been cut short. This is the message at the centre of the slasher movie. Every filmmaker from Wes Craven and John Carpenter to Tobe Hooper and Tom Savini have cited this story as a major influence on their work. This is evident when watching films such as Halloween and Friday the 13th, where the sexually active characters are usually the ones who perish while the virginal ones are more likely to survive.
"A common criticism levelled at the slasher genre is that it is inherently reactionary - the virtuous live while the "bad" deviant teenagers get sliced up as punishment for their dalliances. It is often cited that in Halloween Laurie is the virtuous teenager and therefore the only one allowed to survive."
(Blanc, Odell, 2001, p.27)
It has become probably the most significant trademark within the slasher movie that the "final girl" is the most innocent and level-headed character while her friends are sexually promiscuous. This is the most evident in John Carpenter's Halloween. The character of Laurie is pure and warm-hearted, a much more sympathetic character that her best friends (one of whom dies in her underwear while the other is strangled immediately after sex). But co-writer and director John Carpenter insists that this was not the defining factor in his movie and that Laurie's sexual innocence was for other reasons; "They (the critics) really missed the boat there, I think. Because if you turn it around, the one girl who is the most sexually uptight just keeps stabbing this guy with a very long knife. She's the most sexually frustrated. She's the one that killed him. Not because she's a virgin, but because all that repressed energy comes out. She used all these phallic symbols on the guy... She and the killer have a certain link: sexual repression."

So if this is the case it could be said that maybe this phallic symbol has become a major staple of the slasher movie from then on. Surely it could be no coincidence that the killers in these movies tend to use "piercing" weapons, such as knives, spears, arrows and scissors, so they can penetrate their victims up close and personal, After all, would it not be simpler if the killer had a gun and had just shot their victims instead of stalking and stabbing them. Could their weapons of choice be used as metaphors for their penises, venting their sexual frustration out on their victims shortly after watching them have sex? And if so, is this why Laurie is the one who survives, because she shares the same repressed emotions as the killer? In Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Leatherface rubs a chainsaw between the heroine's thighs before ejaculating, thus showing his repressed sexual urges, represented through his "weapon."

Technology, or lack thereof, seems to feature heavily in the slasher movie as well. The protagonist must survive without the aid of machinery, computers or weapons and rely on their own animalistic cunning and strength. Cars will never start, lights always seem to go out and there is never a gun when you need one. In an Internet essay Why Slasher Movies Expose the Folly of Gun Control, an unnamed author stated that had the final girl been given access to a firearm she would have been able to relinquish the killer earlier on in the story and thus have saved the lives of many of her friends. An interesting point, although Scream seems to have been the only slasher movie to acknowledge this, with the killer being shot in the head at the end of the film.

As Jim Harper pointed out in his book Legacy of Blood: A Comprehensive Guide to Slasher Movies, these films are usually set in one of three locations; campus, urban and wilderness. The latter could stem back to those old fairytales, such as Little Red Riding Hood, with the defenceless youngsters stranded in the woods with a monster in pursuit, elements echoed in such movies as Twitch of the Death Nerve, Friday the 13th and The Burning. Some of these old tales even featured scenes of violence and/or gore, another influence on the slasher movie;
"When Little Red Riding Hood did not come home that afternoon, her parents were very worried. At last her father went to Grandmother's cottage to find her. How horrified he was when he found a fierce animal in Grandmother's bed! With one blow of his axe, he killed the wolf. Then Little Red Riding Hood's father cut open the wolf. Out jumped the little girl! She felt very strange indeed."
(Grimm, Grimm, 1993, p.15)
Referring to the fairytale origins of the slasher film, Carol J. Clover once stated that in our dreams we straddle the divide between monster and victim, stating that we are both Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. What she meant by this was that our dreams allow us the freedom to experience whatever our minds are capable of and to play out our darkest fantasies. In this respect, we become the killer and the final girl, the unstoppable menacing force and the symbol of innocence. Yes even those these tales have been passed on from generation to generation it seems that the slasher movie, which are retellings of these old stories, has constantly been met with resentment and disgust by those same people who sing praise for those old fairytales, The following chapter charts the slasher movie's journey from creation, through the years of controversy and censorship, to its place in cinema today.


Chapter Three
"I do self-censor. I don't go to see films like A Nightmare on Elm Street. I find them quite scary and there tends to be a predomonance of violence against women and I don't like that. I know a lot of people don't find them scary but I find them absolutely terrifying. I do self-censor because I don't want to see women as victims."
(Participant 3-FG5, 1997, p.70)
One question that has arisen during the writing of this is why are peoples' main focuses on the violence directed towards women within these movies? Surely violence against anyone, regardless of gender, race or sexuality, is equally disturbing. So why is it more acceptable to see a man die in a horor film (male characters in these movies are very rarely credible) than a female, as then it is viewed as misogynistic? So it could be argued that maybe slasher movies are sexist - towards men. While many of the female characters may die, usually all of the males will meet their end - usually dispatched with very little effort, compared to the females who put up more of a fight - leaving only the final girl to survive. The rare exceptions to this, where a male protagonist will last the length of the film, including The Burning and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (although the hero in the latter still has to rely on this girlfriend to save him, thus making her the "hero").

Many filmmakers are conscious of the kind of reaction they would get from misogynistic violence towards women so often cut such material from their work (Danny Steinmann, who started out making exploitation and pornography films, cut a scene from his movie Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning, which featured the character of Violet being impaled through the groin - this scene was re-shot at the wishes of the producers). Yes other filmmakers exploit the concept of a defenceless female at the hands of a killer, such as Italian director Dario Argento who, as Clover mentioned in her book Men, Women and Chain Saws; "I like women, especially beautiful women. If they have a good face and figure, I much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man." This is a point worth considering, after all... sex sells. A pretty cast is more likely to help sell a film than a cast full of overweight, unattractive people. Maybe this is some form of childish mentality that if we watch an attractive person killed off in a film (such as Casey (Drew Barrymore) in the opening sequence of Scream) we almost think "what a waste," whereas watching an obese person die (or the gruesome aftermath in movies like Se7en) provokes very little sympathy. Do we judge the character's merit and worth in films in terms of sexual attraction?

The film that was responsible for the slasher boom of the '80's was Friday the 13th. After seeing what a profit Carpenter had made with his drive-in movie, producer-director Sean S. Cunningham deconstructed Halloween in an attempt to take what elements had made that so successful and recreate them within his own movie. Surprisingly enough, Paramount bought the movie and gave it a large oublicity campaign. Slowly over the months the movie bame a huge hit, prompting other studios to make their own versions (Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, Maniac, Sleepaway Camp, Nightmare in a Damaged Brain, etc).

It is interesting to note that although Paramount was making a tody sum from the Friday the 13th franchise they were becoming increasingly embarrassed by the negative reactions from critics and campaigners for being associated with such "filth," twelve years and eight movies later they would eventually sell the rights to New Line. But Paramount is not the only major studio to have received this kind of negative publicity over a slasher movie: Universal received copious complaints due to Psycho and Tri-Star would eventually withdraw the release of Silent Night, Deadly Night (a film about a murderous Santa Claus that caused protests from disgrunted parents).

But even though the moral outcry was helping sell tickets, it would go on to cause serious damage for both filmmakers and horror fans. In 1984, due to the release of The Evil Dead, Nightmare in a Damaged Brain and Abel Ferrara's notorious The Driller Killer, the British media went on a witch hunt promptly demanding that the BBFC banned those films they considered unacceptable. The press dubbed these "video nasties" and, under a new legislation entitled the Video Recordings Act, many horror films were taken off the shelves. There was a reason for this. The early 1980's saw the release of the home video recorder (VHS or Betamax), meaning that any household could own any film and watch it at any time. This meant that those who would not normally watch a horror movie in years were disgusted by what they witnessed in this new wave of special effects-heavy independent movies. It would not be until 1999, when BBFC director James Ferman stepped down and was succeeded by the more liberal Robin Duval, that many of these films would finally be released (partically thanks to the introduction of DVDs).

But the slasher movie would also begin to die a slow, painful death for another reason: marketing. Not only were these movies beginning to look more like music videos (A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master), but the franchises that both Paramount and New Line (who owned the rights to Elm Street) who eventually be milked to death; Freddy Krueger gloves "for children" (it seems ironic to say that Krueger was a child murderer), Jason Voorhees lunchboxes, etc. Any suspense that was created by the original movies was diminished by the middle of the decade.


"The best horror films avoid overwhelming us with gore and violence, which can easily turn comical when overdone, or be pointlessly punishing to the audience. Both Carpenter and De Palma work more by suggestion, like their acknowledged master, Hitchcock, and like some erotic filmmakers who eschew hard-core sex for being too literal and unimaginative: organ-grinding rather than fantasy."
(Dickstein, 1980, p.32)
This quote seems at its most relevant when discussing the slasher movie. It is intersting to compare two films such as Psycho and Friday the 13th. For all its faults, Friday the 13th did borrow extensively from Hitchcock's masterpiece, even to the point of virtually stealing the ending (whereas Norman Bates is "possessed" by his mother, Mrs. Voorhees is "possessed" by her son Jason). Both stories are about loss and both have almost sympathetic killers in them. But that is where the similarity ends. Psycho is an assault on the senses whilst Friday the 13th is just an exercise in modern effects. One is a well-constructed narrative, the other is just a vehicle for elaborate deaths and T&A.

But are slashers immoral and misogynistic?

There is no way of coming to a conclusion on this debate that everybody would be satisfied with. Whilst some people take slasher movies to be mindless fun (full of inventive deaths as a substitute for originality, tension or realism), others consider them sexist smut that does not deserve to exist. Whilst some critics, such as Clover and Mark Kermode, will at least acknowledge that the genre has conceived a few classics (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween), others stubbornly refuse to accept that the genre could produce anything but trashy filth. Maybe they both have their point. The slasher genre is certainly cheap, and open to criticism (bad acting, unconvincing dialogue, predictability). But isn't that part of its charm?

- Blanc, Michelle Le and Odell, Colin (2000), Horror Movies: Pocket Essentials Film, London: Pocket Essentials
- Clover, Carol J. (1992),
Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, New Jersey: Princeton University Press
- Dickstein, Morris (1980), American Film
- Harper, Jim (2004), Legacy of Blood: A Comprehensive Guide to the Slasher Movie, New Jersey: Headpress
- Hill, Annette (1997), Shocking Entertainment: Viewer Response to Violent Movies, Luton: John Libbey Media
- Whitehead, Mark (2003), Slashers Movie: Pocket Essential Guide, London: Pocket Essentials

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