The slasher genre is making a comeback.
Well, the genre never really left, but it does take up less of our mainstream consciousness. Slasher movies have fallen off from their heyday in the 70's and 80's, when big-screen slasher flicks commanded top dollar, and horror icons like Jason, Freddy, and Michael Myers were created. Horror still sells, but these days it's of the found-footage or haunting variety. There's little in your local cineplex featuring one deranged person with a love of sharp objects and a desire to kill others.
The genre is looking to make a new mark on our hearts and minds, but the interesting thing is the push isn't focused in Hollywood. We're celebrating the 35th anniversary of the original Friday the 13th, but the only major slasher film releasing this year is the horror-comedy The Final Girls. Instead, other mediums are picking up the slack. In television, MTV is preparing to launch a series based on the 2000-era slasher hit Scream and Fox is readying Scream Queens, a campy slasher series from American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy. Even Jason Voorhees is getting in on the TV action with a Friday the 13th series in development.
That's little compared to what we're seeing in the gaming industry. These are the titles that have already released or are coming within the next few years:
- Lakeview Cabin Collection - Roope Tamminen
- Slasher Vol. 1: Summer Camp - Gun Media
- Until Dawn - SuperMassive Games
- Project Scissors: NightCry - Playism Games
- Last Year - James Matthew Wearing
- Friday the 13th - Crystal Lake Entertainment
- Power Drill Massacre - Puppet Combo
That's seven titles all coming within the next year or so. Some are single-player, some are multiplayer, some are small indie projects; all of them harken back to a different era of cinema. Why are all these games coming out now? Why are all these developers focused on the slasher genre? Is it simultaneous conception, the current zeitgeist, or did a number of factors just come together to build this trend?
I spoke with the folks behind three of the titles mentioned above - Lakeview Cabin Collection, Summer Camp, and Until Dawn - trying to understanding why the slasher genre was enticing to them and how they plan to stick out amongst their competitors. You'll find those spotlight articles of subsequent pages, or you can jump directly there from the links above. But before we get there, let's attempt (and fail) to define the genre itself.
What is a Slasher?
This is one of those widely debated questions, with many people leaning on the old standby, "I know it when I see it." As a subset of the horror genre, slasher films are usually concerned with an unrelenting force that murders a number of hapless victims, usually with a bladed weapon of some sort. Sometimes the killer is unknown to its victims, but the most popular slasher films tend to have a known, iconic murderer. Scholar Vera Dika explicitly defined slasher films with her "stalker cycle": a community commits a wrong that incites a killer, the killer returns after that community observes that wrong, and the young perish, until our heroine or hero puts the killer down or escapes. (This is expanded in her book, Games of Terror.) Women tend to be the lone survivor at the end, which lead to the genre trope of the Final Girl.
Dika goes further in noting that many films tend to give us the killer's viewpoint without characterizing that viewpoint; we see their victims through their eyes, but lack insight into why they are killing. In fact, the killer tends to stay offscreen for most of the opening entries in slasher films. Despite that, slashers from the 80's tended to play up the murderer; audiences were there for Jason, Leatherface, or Michael Myers, not their victims. Dika is more formalist than others who attempt to define the slasher, stating that the "stalker film" trend began with John Carpenter's Halloween in 1978 and lasted for around 4 years
Others are more open in their definitions. Carol J. Clover is the one who coined the term, "Final Girl", and she's a bit more open in her classifications. In her essay, "Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film", she begins with Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho as the immediate ancestor of the genre.
"Its elements are familiar: the killer is the psychotic product of a sick family, but still recognizably human; the victim is a beautiful, sexually active woman; the location is not-home, at a Terrible Place; the weapon is something other than a gun; the attack is registered from the victim's point of view and comes with shocking suddenness," Clover wrote.
That definition allows us to pull in films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film that falls outside of Dika's classifications, and even reach backwards to previous eras in film. The truth is the slasher occupies a grey area between a criminal thriller and a splatter or torture porn film. Trying to rigidly classify a slasher is difficult; like religion, everyone has their own interpretation. Part of that is because of the disparate origins of the genre.
The History of the Slasher
So where the hell did the slasher come from?
Some point back to Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, a theatre in Paris that specialized in graphic horror plays. From 1897 until it closed in 1962, the Grand Guignol played host to some amazingly gory plays with realistic special effects. The theatre's works inspired early splatter films, a horror genre that relies on graphic gore, but similar tropes can be found in slasher films.
Others point the finger at real-life serial killer, Ed Gein, who confessed to killing and mutilating two women and robbing nine graves in Plainfield, Wisconsin in the later 1950's. Gein's actions and life were the inspiration of Robert Bloch's 1959 novel Psycho, which in turn inspired Alfred Hitchcock's film of the same name. The film was released in 1960 and is considered by many to be one of the early examples of the slasher genre.
In the early 60's, the genre would pop up in the United States and abroad. Overseas, the Italian Giallo films were crime thrillers that played up violent, stylized horror and sexuality. Mario Bava directed Blood and Black Lace, a landmark entry for the giallo trend. The film was released in 1964; its masked stalker and sexual leanings were a hit and paved the way for later giallo films. Director Dario Argento, inspired by Black Blood and Lace, created The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970, which turned giallo into a bonafide cultural phenomenon. Bava's most violent giallo film came in 1971 with Twitch of the Death Nerve, which was controversial at the time, but was later hailed as a pioneering effort. Sergio Martino, who started out directing documentaries and exploitation films, released Torso in 1973, featuring many of the ideas we'd find common in later slasher films: a masked killer with a wounded past murdering young female college students, culminating in our final girl. Giallo dominated Italian audiences until the trend began to decline in the later 70's.
Around the mid-70's in the US and UK, the exploitation film craze began to give way to the beginnings of the slasher film golden age. In 1974, Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Bob Clark's Black Christmas began to lay down a formula that would be repeated in later films. Black Christmas finds a group of sorority sisters alone in a house with a serial killer during the holiday season, while Texas Chainsaw Massacre featured Leatherface, one of the early iconic slasher villains.
Black Christmas would later inspire John Carpenter's Halloween, which released in 1978. Halloween became a critical and commercial success, establishing a number of imitators in the process. Carpenter wrote, directed, and composed the soundtrack for the film, which was budgeted at a mere $300,000. The masked Michael Myers, scenes from the killer's point of view, the sex-equals-death trope, the final girl (played in her debut by Jamie Lee Curtis), and the low-budgetness of it all; a number of slasher genre tropes were codified here. Halloween was filmed in 20 days with Carpenter cutting corners wherever possible, but it ended up making $47 million domestically. Like 1999's The Blair Witch Project popularized the found-footage horror film and showed studios there was money to be made in the genre, Halloween did the same with the slasher film.
Studios rushed to make their own slashers with mixed success. Two years after Halloween, Friday the 13th became the right hook the genre needed and one of its biggest standouts. Critics hated the over-the-top violence in the film - famous critics like Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and Leonard Maltin mercilessly panned it - but audiences loved the hell out of it. Halloween showed that a slasher could be a success and Friday the 13th's repeat of that success showed Hollywood there was money to be made. Paramount loved that slasher money so much that Friday the 12th Parts 2 and 3 came only a year apart.
By 1985, the genre's popularity in movie theatres had declined due to a glut of available films, but home video allowed the genre to carry on. The mid to late 80's saw a ton of no-budget horror films and sequels in the Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare of Elm Street franchises. 1989 was the killing blow for all three franchises, with Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child all failing to perform for studios.
Hollywood tried to keep the dream alive, but nothing quite made its mark until 1996's Scream, which relied heavily on horror movie tropes and subversion to sell itself. Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson also offered up I Know What You Did Last Summer a year later. Both films proved there was life in the slasher still, leading to a bump in internationally-made slasher films. Both also gave way to quick sequels and even revived the classics with disappointing entries like Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, Halloween: Resurrection, and Jason X.
As I said before, the slasher genre never really left, as films have been made even outside the golden age. For a while there, remakes and reboots were the order of the day. Texas Chainsaw Massacre had a successful reboot in 2003, but other remakes from the 2000 era failed to catch on. Even when the films were financially successful, like 2006's The Hills Have Eyes or 2007's Halloween, following sequels failed to capture audience interest.
Which brings us to today, where the slasher isn't a big-budget draw. The current zeitgiest is the superhero film, with new adaptations on the tips of every movie executive's tongue. Instead, the slashers that get made are from fans of the genre's golden age and returning veterans looking to recapture the magic. Titles like 2009's Sweatshop, 2010's Dream Home, 2011's You're Next, or last year's Blood Widow and Cub stand as new, lesser-heard attempts at slasher greatness. There's also less reliance of films as the only popular entertainment medium. The resurgence in serious television projects and the growth of the game industry means there's new places to tell slasher tales. We don't know how well Scream, Scream Queens, or Friday the 13th will play with audiences, but shows like NBC's Hannibal and FX's American Horror Story point to a viewership that's not opposed to the idea of horror.
You've probably noticed in that legnthy history a lack of major video games. Our industry has flirted with the slasher here and there, but it's never been a major genre, with most horror titles tending to be survival horror games inspired by Capcom's Resident Evil. Many remember Friday the 13th for NES, but other entries in the genre include the Clock Tower series, 2001's Illbleed, or 2013's Outlast. But those games have only released sporadically and there's been nothing to lead to our upcoming wave. There's no slasher game that's been a critical and commericial hit and spawned all these imitators.
So now that we've seen where the genre has been, let's look at where it's going, with spotlights on three of the slasher titles you can look forward to.