This is the fourth article of a 4-part series that will look at those
people most influential on movies in the 1980s. Click here to read
Part I: John Hughes,
Part II: The Brat Pack and
Part III: Kenny Loggins.
slasher film as we know it today was not born in the 1980s, but rather
in 1974 with director Bob Clark's Black Christmas.
(Yes, the same Bob Clark who brought us such '80s gems as Porky's
and A Christmas Story is,
essentially, responsible for the slasher films that scared us in the
same decade. But it's even better than that. Check out his resume
pre-1974. If you're surprised he's responsible for Black Christmas,
you'll be blown away by his earliest directorial efforts. Ralphie is
reaching for the soap as we speak.)
Around the same time that Black
Christmas was unveiled, more obscure slasher films were released
that only devotees of the genre would easily recognize, save perhaps
Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). And then, in
1978, director John Carpenter gave us Halloween, with its
backstory of a troubled youth, its pretty female target (Jamie Lee
Curtis in her first role), and its unstoppable masked killing machine,
Michael Myers. As horror films go, it was excellent. As slasher
films go, it was close ... but something was missing.
Enter 1980, and the film that used the foundation laid by Black
Christmas, and the framework constructed by Halloween, to
build a haunted house called Friday the 13th. What director
Sean S. Cunningham realized would make a better slasher movie was not
just a higher body-count of prettier victims (because he had that, too),
but a higher body-count of prettier victims who found themselves as a
collective target, yet eliminated one at a time. In this case, they were
camp counselors (including a young Kevin Bacon in one of his earliest
roles) trying to reopen a camp where something horrible had occurred
years before. Instead, they found themselves being stalked ... and
murdered ... by Jason Voorhees.
Thanks to the popularity and success of these two films, the Slasher Era
found itself in full swing, with sequels and rip-offs galore. And just
when you thought everything had been done, Wes Craven decided to improve
on the slasher film by giving the slasher not only a voice, but one hell
of a personality. In 1984, Craven introduced the world to Freddy Krueger
in A Nightmare On Elm Street. All of the elements were there,
from the unstoppable killing machine to the high-victim collective to
the pretty cast (including the prettiest of them all, Johnny Depp, in
his first film role), but the new element of the wise-cracking Krueger
gave the audiences a choice to stay the traditional course and root for
the victims, or try something new and root for the killer.
This, too, ushered in rip-offs where the body counts grew, but so did the
personalities of the killers, to the point that slasher films became as
much about the hamminess of the murderers as they were about the terror
those murderers caused.
Friday the 13th
A Nightmare on Elm Street
But while most of the posers are long forgotten, with only a few novelty
acts lingering in the memory (Chucky and Pinhead come immediately to
mind), Michael and Jason and Freddy remain as memorable today as they
were then. They dominated the decade like no other trio of characters.
Their combined franchises account for 26 films, nearly two-thirds of
which (17 in all) were released in the 1980s.
The slasher film is still around today, and the basic components are still
there. And I suppose only time will tell if any of these current films
will launch careers the way the '80s slasher flicks launched Curtis and
Bacon and Depp. Regardless, no matter how prettier each cast gets, and
no matter how gorier each violent act gets, and no matter how hammier
each killer gets, none will compare to the Golden Age of the Slasher
Film - the 1980s - and its Unholy Trinity of Michael, Jason, and Freddy.
Without them, and particularly without them in the 1980s, the horror
landscape as we know it today would not exist.