When The Wolf Is At The Door:
The Rise and Fall of The Slasher Film and Why It Needs To Make A Comeback
Danny S. Warren
When Alfred Hitchcock released “Psycho” in 1960, he was taking a big gamble. At that point, all films had to adhere to a strict code of content called The Motion Picture Production Code, or as it was more commonly referred “The Hay’s Code” (coined by the public after William H. Hayes, who was president of Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America at the time). The Motion Picture Production Code prohibited what it deemed to be gratuitous violence, any licentious or suggestive nudity, and anything deemed as a sexual perversion among others. Hitchcock’s film pushed the absolute limit of decency for the times. It showed a man and a woman in the same bed, actress Janet Leigh in a bra, a toilet flushing, a man watching a women getting undressed through a peep hole, and, of course, that infamous shower scene. The censors in charge of enforcing the code tried to force Hitchcock to remove all of these things, but in a tactic commonly used now with contested ratings by MPAA, Hitchcock made little to no changes and resubmitted. The film passed. People lined the blocks of movie theaters to see what would become the most influential horror movie of all time, and it became a hit. “Psycho” was a revolution in film-making and many credit two important events triggered by Hitchcock’s masterpiece: the erosion of The Motion Picture Production Code, and giving birth to the Slasher Film genre.
The 1960’s was a radical time in American history. It was a time of freedom, peace, love, sex, drugs, music, and rampant xenophobia. The government massacred students on a college campus; young men were forced to participate in a war they didn’t believe in and were coming home broken in mind, body, and spirit, and, during the end of this turbulent decade, The Manson Family had people locking their doors for the first time. Interest in the occult exploded, and teenagers began flocking to the drive-in’s and theaters in droves to see bloody and violent films. All of a sudden adolescents represented the largest demographic of movie goers, and their message was clear: “We are tired of the dreamy beautiful lies; we want the real uncensored horrible truth.” Horror films started grossing higher than any other genre, but tended to be so over the top with sex, violence, and gore that the audience was becoming desensitized to it. Blood and guts were no longer scary. Ghosts and devils peaked with 1973’s The Exorcist, and ticket sales were dropping. The public knew that the real threat out there wasn’t supernatural, but people. Real, living, breathing, people. People can be more horrific than any ghost, monster, or devil. The audience wasn’t abandoning horror movies. They were just waiting for the right Bogeyman.
In 1978, a young film-maker by the name of John Carpenter released an independent horror film titled Halloween and finally audiences were terrified once again. Recycling and fleshing out a student film about an unseen killer murdering college co-eds during the holidays, Carpenter finally showed us how the slasher film infant, birthed by Hitchcock, had matured into our worst nightmare. An escaped mental patient whose first kill was his sister on Halloween night while still just a child comes home, dons a mask, and begins stalking and killing babysitters in his hometown. Carpenter’s score, the baroque influenced cinematography, and the slow building tension struck a nerve with its audience, who found themselves looking over their shoulder when they were alone in the dark.
No one had much faith in Halloween becoming any kind of success, but as word of mouth spread, the low budget independent film became an explosive hit. It set a tone for many imitators that still show up in our modern films. A masked silent killer who stalks and kills teenagers, and the lone survivor, a virgin pure of heart, who defeats the killer in the end, only to turn around and discover that the villain has escaped to kill again. As many young film-makers attempted to jump on Halloween’s bandwagon, the market became saturated with holiday themed killers. Friday The 13th, My Bloody Valentine, April Fool’s Day, and Silent Night, Deadly Night were just a small percentage of Halloween imitators dipping into the cookie jar. The latter, a film about a man dressing as Santa Clause and entering his victim’s homes through the chimney, became the tipping point where parents and church groups began protesting the films and calling for their end. The gratuitous, and violence, and the growing trend of rampant misogyny within the genre led famed critic Roger Ebert to say:
These films hate women. A woman or young girl is shown alone and isolated and defenseless… a crazy killer springs out of the shadows and attacks her and frequently the killer sadistically threatens the victims before he strikes. I’m convinced it has to do with the growth of the woman’s movement in America in the last decade. I think that these films are some sort of primordial response by some very sick people… of men saying “get back in your place, women.” One thing that most of the victims have in common is that they do act independently… They are liberated women who act on their own. When a woman makes a decision for herself, you can almost bet she will pay with her life. The nudity is always gratuitous. It is put in to titillate the audience and women who dress this way or merely uncover their bodies are somehow asking for trouble and somehow deserve the trouble they get. That’s a sick idea. [There are] good old fashioned horror films… [but] there is a difference between good and scary movies and movies that systematically demean half the human race.
And, although his words did little to stop ticket sales, it did cause people to take notice that every movie they were seeing was a formula. After the 4th and 5th Nightmare on Elm Street, the slasher film became a joke that had run its course for too long.
Many believed this would be the death of the slasher film, but one seasoned veteran of horror and, ironically, the creator of the beast that brought it down would breathe new life into the genre simply by acknowledging the absurdity of it all. Wes Craven’s Scream would debut December 20th, 1996 and make over $6,000,000 in its opening weekend (a feat that was much rarer at the time). A witty script, a cast of Hollywood’s youngest and most talented up and comers, and a gripping “who done it!?” revived the slasher film. Soon others like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Urban Legend, and Valentine’s Day would once again ride on the coat tails of its predecessor’s success, but two lackluster sequels and the very real horror of September 11th would seal the fate of the slasher genre. Many films have attempted to revive it since; such as Cry Wolf, You’re Next, and The Strangers, but none managed to bring back audiences like Psycho, Halloween, and Scream.
Since the death of the slasher film, the horror market has been flooded with films focusing on the supernatural and the occult. Kicked off by the huge success of Paranormal Activity, which has since spawned five sequels. Each one becoming more tired and an old hat. There is hope, however, for fans of the genre. It has been 19 years since Scream, echoing the 18 years between Psycho and Halloween. Once again the world has become xenophobic. We are at war for confusing reasons again, with soldiers coming back broken like they did in the late sixties. People are being beheaded all over the world by insane religious groups, just like the insane followers of the occult in the sixties and seventies. Innocent people are being shot at in movie theaters and children are being slaughtered in schools. Audiences are beginning to no longer fear the fantasy of ghosts and devils, because the true threat is once again real people. Horror movies have always acted as a cathartic release for our fears in our daily lives, and this is why supernatural movies are failing more and more. The conditions are right. People want to see a realistic monster. A wolf among sheep. A living breathing person who wants nothing but to prey on the weak. We are ready for the resurrection of the slasher film.
But, for the slasher film to make its return, we have to reinvent the wheel. Old tropes will not work. People do not want to see masked killers stalking teenaged girls anymore. We want…NEED… real fleshed out characters, people with virtues and vices who are just doing their best to survive. Characters who don’t just run around doing drugs and having pre-marital sex, but people worried about their relationships with each other and frightened about their future. This is the target audience of today, and studios are blind to it. It’s time for the independent film-makers out there to stop waiting for the perfect circumstances and the large budgets to explore their visions. Instead, they need to scrape everything they can and make films that truly terrify them. I am willing to gamble that what people are truly frightened of is not demonic possession and living dolls, but real life people who are more than just a walking shape in the darkness. The next Halloween is out there right now, sitting on someone’s laptop, waiting to have life breathed into it. Until then, the wolf is going to be scratching at the door waiting for its chance to feed.