Halloween Horror Primers: The Slashers!

Sean Smithson, Contributor
A mainstay of horror films is the venerable "slasher" sub-genre. Whittling down the good from the bad can be an arduous task though. So instead of you less muck-bound readers getting crap all over your boots, let me help you through the muck to the more palatable examples of the blood good stuff.

HALLOWEEN -
It's almost impossible to think of Halloween without John Carpenter's iconic killer Michael Myers coming to mind. The escaped lunatic who may or may not be powered by supernatural forces, and wears a blank white mask (really the unpainted guise of William Shatner!) basically has a monopoly on the word "Halloween" itself. The first film is really the only one that truly matters in the franchise, and is an indisputable right of passage for anyone who loves the sinister holiday, or has dressed up in a monster costume to go knocking on doors for candy on October 31st. It also, while arguably not the first slasher, set the bar and tone for the entire sub-genre and is still the yardstick by which all comers are judged, even 35 years after it's initial release.
*Recommended for ages 13 and up.

FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 -
Easily my personal favorite of the series, this introduces Jason Voorheese as the real antagonist, not his crazed and vengeful mother, a malformed and politically incorrect killer, suffering from retardation and a serious Oedipus complex. Before he donned the hockey mask, this slobbbering, lumbering force of nature ran amok among the grounds of Camp Crystal Lake in an amazingly simple yet brutally effective cloth sack with a single eyehole cut out. The final scene, a showdown in his trashed shack in the woods where he keeps the decapitated head of his mother on an altar is probably the single scariest set piece in the long running franchise. This one stands alone in the ouvre and is just plain ole' creepy as all get out.
*Recommended for ages 13 and up.

JUST BEFORE DAWN -
Jeff Lieberman, the writer/director himself, bristles a bit at the mention of Just Before Dawn as a "slasher" film, and in ways I agree with him. As a bystander and consumer of the film though, I politely also disagree. Take a group of people in an RV in the woods, a (for the most part) unseen maniac who picks them off, and a survivor girl and I have to respectfully say "A rose by any other name". That said, this is one smart and inventive, as well as realistic, chase and kill flick that doesn't adhere to the cliches of the sub-genre. Factor in a small role from character actor George Kennedy, and an early role from Greg Henry as one of the travelers, and you have an early comer that was a harbinger of things to come. Too bad they all can't be this intense and inventive. Graphically tame by the gory standards of the 80's, what it lacks in crimson soaked make-up FX it more than makes up for in tone and on-screen performances. This is one helluva back-pocket flick, criminally overlooked. See it this Halloween season or it's your loss fright fans!
*Recommended for ages 13 and up.

AMERICAN PSYCHO -
Patrick Bateman is a suave, successful, and very stressed out Wall Street suit and tie guy who has a serious problem with controlling himself around sharped edged objects. The novel, a pointed (ha!) allegory and diatribe against the privileged and upwardly mobile "Me Generation" packs a darkly comic punch, and an insanely good performance from Christian Bale, who was at that point more well known for playing the kid in Empire Of The Sun than for being the man underneath the cowl in the Nolan Batman films. Prepare to see him in an entirely new hilarious if horrific light if you've never had a chance to view American Psycho. The character of Bateman is brutally vicious yet incredibly ineffective as he tries to make a bloody mark in a town known for it's cut-throat pace.
*Recommended for ages 16 and up

MY BLOODY VALENTINE -
Out of Canada, this 80's slasher about a masked miner in a small industrial village is another major sleeper of the genre. Quickly running out of holidays to exploit, the makers of My Bloody Valentine set upon the gift-card created fake holiday to, er, mine (ha! again) for terrors. The films finale, taking place in the claustrophobic tunnels where the townsfolk work is truly scary stuff. Just pure fun, with that quaint home-spun sense that only Canadian exploitation films can have. Low budget goodness that was eventually dug up as for a remake a few years back (that wasn't half bad in a Scooby Doo gone gory kind of way), the original still stands up to scrutiny and supplies a couple of scream inducing moments. You'll never look at a pick axe the same way again.
*Recommended for ages 13 and up

WAIT UNTIL DARK -
Made way back in 1967, this one featuring a top natch cast including the elfin beauty Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman trapped in her apartment, stalked by a black gloved killer, played by funny man Allan Arkin in an unlikely and particularly vicious turn. Wait Until Dark pretty much sneaks in under the radar, but man oh man what a ride. The third reel of the film is tense as all get out, evoking a Hitchcockian sense of dread in it's white knuckle inducing game of cat and mouse. Heavy with crime and noir elements as well, this one works on many levels (as many great films do) and works across the board for many types of film fans, with an appeal for cineastes and slasher fans alike. Absolutely compelling.
*Recommended for ages 13 and up.

TENEBRE -
Ask me at the right time and I'll name this as my favorite film from Italian maestro Dario Argento. From it's incredibly inventive camera work, to it's insane set pieces, this sometimes illogical but always terrifying giallo is off-the-rails scary at times. Back in the day it was heavily cut, but now thanks to the work of archivists and the lifting of those silly video nasty type laws that kept fans from getting the full bloody experience, home viewers can get the real fix. The romantic Rome, Italy settings, colorful lighting, and off kilter nightmare logic of Tenebre make it a must for Halloween time viewing. It crawls off the screen and right into your id.
*Recommended for ages 16 and up.

AUDITION -
Men aren't the only ones with an axe, or in this case a length of razor-wire, to bare in cinema. This one put Japanese iconic director Takashi Miike on the map, and still makes fans of the gruesome stuff uneasy with it's slow build and super-intense payoff. A widower places a fake ad looking for an actress, to cul the women who come to audition (hence the films title) in a sneaky bid to look for a new wife to serve as a new paramour, and mother to his young son. The lonely man's plans go horribly awry when he focuses on a beautiful woman a few years his junior who turns out to be a complete psychotic.
*Recommended for ages 16 and up.

FADE TO BLACK -
This flick came and went in 1980, predating the slasher crazes apex,  and unfairly so. An homage to film fans themselves, the tale of the orphaned and tragically lonely film geek Eric Binford who becomes obsessed with a struggling actress who bares more than a passing resemblance to Marilyn Monroe is compulsively watchable, and amazingly entertaining. Inter-cut with clips from classic films like White Heat and Universal's Dracula, this is also a defcato film class for kids lucky enough to stumble across it on the dvd shelf. It all ends in tragedy in downtown LA at the Graummans Chinese. Reference heavy and just a hell of a lot of fun, this is a stalker/killer flick with incredible heart, and like Wait Until Dark, across the board appeal for fans of movies other than the overtly bloody stuff. Somehow cheesy and classy at the same time. I. Love. This. Movie. Criterion...are you listening?
*Recommended for ages 13 and up.

ROAD GAMES -
Straight out of Australia, and featuring the bad ass Stacy Keach and a post-Halloween Jamie Lee Curtis, Road Games follows a hitchhiker as she journeys across the outback, picking up a ride with a personable trucker with a penchant for passing time with his canine sidekick playing silly games such as pontificating on the drivers he passes on his lonely route. Simultaneously, a mysterious van traveling the same stretch of road may be driven by whoever has been killing young women. The trucker and his rider become enmeshed in the goings on, and eventually his passenger disappears. Now he has become the suspect. It's like Hitchcock, a giallo, and an automotive adventure (a mainstay of the car obsessed Aussie culture) all rolled into one. Top notch.
*Recommended for ages 16 and up.
Around the Internet:
  • Dean<3Castiel

    The new My Bloody Valentine 3D isn't as jump-inducing as the first one, but Jensen Ackles did an amazing job carrying this movie. He's really the only reason I watched it, seriously. If you don't think it's scary and your attracted to men, at least you'll have his delectable face to enjoy throughout the entire movie. ;)

  • Matt Mitsu

    'Audition' is a slasher film? How?

  • Just A Little Curious

    Okay, I've got a stupid question. How do some of these movies get a "Recommended for ages 13 and up." Some say 16 instead of 13 and granted I haven't seen all of these, but wouldn't the vast majority (if not all) be recommended for 17 or 18 years of age and up? For example, the Friday the 13th movie listed (granted I haven't seen that one but knowing the series), doesn't that movie have content not suitable for younger viewers (ex. nudity, sex)? I mean, even the first one had some.

    Maybe it's a stupid question and I'm totally misunderstanding something, but I'm just curious and a little worried that 13 year olds would watch some of those movies. Yeah I know they probably see a lot worse on today's TV but still, just something I was thinking while reading the article.

  • I'd have to add Nightmare (1981)... for the opening scene alone. Maybe even something newer like the Meat Grinder. Fade to Black! Truly is a love-letter to film geeks. Wait Until Dark is a clever cross genre film. Tenebre is a gem.

  • Iam_Spartacus

    I just noticed that the Grandaddy (or Momma) of slashers was not included. Hint: "Oh, we have 12 vacancies. 12 cabins, 12 vacancies." I don't see how this one can be overlooked!

  • I was thinking the same thing!!! Where oh where is PSYCHO?!?!?

  • Derek Chambers

    Where's Sleepaway Camp? Easily my favorite.

  • Iam_Spartacus

    Check out Dementia 13, it was Francis Ford Coppola's first film.

  • FrankenPC

    Where's Silence of the Lambs? Seriously. REAL world slashers are the absolute most horrifying.

  • Juan Andrés Valencia

    This list needs Alice Sweet Alice :D

  • TheGhostOfGriffinMill

    Great, great list. Only one I might have added would be TERROR TRAIN -- like FADE TO BLACK, pre-dates the craze, top-for-genre performances, claustrophobic feel, Roger Spottiswoode directing. (Plus, Hart Bochner! Love me some Hart Bochner.)

  • Sean Smithson

    Yeah good call on TERROR TRAIN. Also MANIAC by William Lustig should be up there. I'm hoping all the great ones that should be mentioned pop up here in the comments. THE PROWLER. MADMAN. Etc.

    Also Mickey Roarke was one of the bullies in FADE TO BLACK as well!

  • kidplus

    Nice list. Bay of Blood aka Twitch of the Death Nerve is another that deserves to be seen. It's a great one, especially for fans of Friday the 13th Part 2.

  • Brian Clark

    Seconded. Twitch of the Death Nerve is amazing.

  • kidplus

    It blew me away. For something so influential it feels remarkably fresh.

  • Sean Smithson

    I LOVE Bava. Make no mistake. So little time so many movies, and I'm really trying to keep it rounded. But man...Mario Bava is one of the film makers that makes life worth living!

  • kidplus

    Certainly! Bava is great. I think Bay of Blood is my favorite he made. This is a well rounded list. It even has Road Games!

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