It’s the month of October here at Grimdark Magazine and time to discuss all things scary. This article will deal with one of my favorite subjects: slasher films!
Slasher films are the burger and fries of horror films. There are some that reach the height of cinematic classics and the vast majority that just provide a cheap thrill for your movie ticket (back when movie theaters still existed). For the purposes of this list, slasher movies are defined as survival stories about a group of people being stalked by a relentless unstoppable killer in a confined environment. They can be science fiction, horror, comedy, or even fantastical if they have these elements.
Technically, this would mean Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None was the first slasher movie, but I find that an amusing quality rather than a disqualifying one. The heyday of slasher movie was the late Seventies to late Nineties, however. This twenty-year period is when the most iconic slashers in film were created and were still able to be treated with a modicum of terrifying respect.
10. Tucker and Dale versus Evil
I had a lot of choices that could have gone in here and a few of the ones I chose this over should probably be on this list over it (Child’s Play, The Hills Have Eyes, Candyman, and Return of the Living Dead). However, this movie is just hilarious and sends up just as many slasher tropes as Scream. Two lovable hillbillies are going to a cabin in the middle of the woods to have a weekend of fun. Unfortunately, they get mistaken for a pair of serial killers by a group of college kids who assume they’re in a horror movie. Hilarity ensues as does an impressive body count due to these college kids being the dumbest teens in the history of these movies.
9. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
A dark horse candidate for this list, Behind the Mask is an incredibly fun movie about a documentary team that decides to investigate a real-life slasher named Leslie Vernon. In this universe, all slashers are real but seem to be more special effects men than supernatural serial killers. Leslie, himself, seems like Xander from Buffy more than Jason Voorhees. He’s so disarming that the documentary crew becomes immersed in his dorky quest to become a slasher. It’s only as things reach their fruition that they realize he’s not kidding. This movie is an amazing homage to slasher movies and anyone who loves the genre will love it. Robert Englund guest stars as a serial-killer hunting psychologist in the style of Doctor Loomis.
8. The Evil Dead 2
Bruce Campbell is as iconic as Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees in his own way. Note: I said Bruce Campbell versus Ashley “Ash” Williams. The Evil Dead movies are a major part of this. While Army of Darkness is probably the best of the three films, so many tropes come from the first two movies that it’d be a mistake note to include it. The Evil Dead 2 is effectively a remake of the first film for the first thirty minutes or so and all the better for it. It is a delightful mix of horror, comedy, and sheer insanity that everyone should see.
7. Scream and Scream 2
This one is cheating but I recommend these two films be watched as a double feature. Wes Craven had already defined much of what we loved about the slasher genre. Here, he creates one of the first metatextual analyses of what makes slasher movies good. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Scream really helped define the post-irony world of slashers for better and worse. It also helped influence other genre like Marvel Comics Cinematic Universe in being both a movie about its genre as well as in its genre. Nev Campbell is amazing and so is Courtney Cox in their role as Final Girl as well as woman who probably should die yet inexplicably doesn’t.
Alien is possibly cheating but is also one of the best slasher movies ever made. Part of this is due to its immensely talented cast who would almost all go on to bigger and better things (and Alien is no small thing itself!). Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is iconic as one of the greatest science fiction and action heroines of all time. However, what makes Alien great is it makes use of its unique setting and strong character development to keep the tension constant. It is not just a great horror movie, it is a great movie period. The xenomorph is the stuff of nightmares and gives a perfect rationale for its relentlessly evil behavior: it is a territorial animal hunting its prey.
5. Friday the Thirteenth part II
Picking which Friday the Thirteenth to put on this list is a difficult choice because so much of what made the movies good came one film at a time. It is a film series that goes from being a shameless knock-off of Halloween to something that had its own unique identity. III and IV held this rank at various points before I decided that II is the closest to the ‘quintessential’ Friday the 13th movie. Amy Steel is my favorite Final Girl, Jason is relentless, and the summer camp setting is used to maximum effect.
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street
Freddy Krueger is probably the greatest of all slashers, if not quite the most iconic, because he’s the one with the most personality. Robert Englund occasionally let the character drift into parody but he’s at his most terrifying in the original. A serial child murderer and possibly pedophile, Freddy Krueger was killed by justifiably vengeful parents in hopes of protecting their children. Unfortunately, that’s released Freddy’s nightmare-controlling ghost and there’s not a thing anyone can do about that. Heather Langenkamp remains arguably the greatest Final Girl herself, her only competition being Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver (who is more the Final Woman).
3. Black Christmas (1974)
The original Black Christmas is one of the films that most people look to when thinking, “What is the first slasher movie?” It is also one of the best with both many of the earliest tropes of the movies as well as some stunning subversions. A group of young sorority girls are spending the holidays together when the unseen pervert, Billy, starts stalking them. The police are useless, and the girls look to one of their boyfriends because he’s taking news of a planned abortion poorly. No one wants to contemplate the idea they’re being hunted by a psychopath who just hates women and may have picked them at random. Margot Kidder is the stand-out performance here and now stands with Superman for what I remember her for. Avoid the remakes like the plague. They’re worse than even the usual sequel fodder.
2. Halloween (1978)
I bet a lot of you expected this to be number one and you know, it was for a while. Halloween is the iconic slasher film for most audiences. Michael Myers is an escaped mental patient hunting a group of babysitters in a tiny suburban town. Why? No one knows, certainly not his psychologist Doctor Loomis. Michael is just pure evil and has been since he was a small boy. Despite this, there’s just enough ambiguity that you think there might be a rational explanation for all this.
Maybe Michael has some weird psycho-sexual thing going on. Maybe his seeming invulnerability is just reflection of his mental condition. The ambiguity of whether something magical is happening versus a mundane serial killer (if such a thing exists) helps add to its iconic status. Donald Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis are deservedly immortal for their roles in this.
1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
An odd choice for people who haven’t seen the movie. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is the film that deserves the title of “first slasher movie” for me and also “the all-time greatest.” Leatherface and the Sawyer family are the iconic cannibal clan of hillbillies. It goes beyond this, though, into Blair Witch-style lie to the audience that this is a true story. It’s not. Ed Gein existed but it’s no more an adaptation than Psycho. However, the mood of the story feels plausible enough. The teenagers in their hippie van feel plausible and there’s just enough “weird” going on that every shocking twist stuns the audience while also feeling believable in retrospect.
The cinematography is amazing and feels just cheap enough to add to the experience. Many of the shots in the film have deservedly become cinematic legend. There’s even an odd bit of social commentary in the film with the family’s sickness driven by a combination of poverty as well as untreated mental illness. Or maybe I’m reading too much into a movie I love.