THREE GUYS AND… A MOVIE
series created by Marvin Mercer and Nick Stephenson
“BIRTH OF THE SLASHER GENRE – PART 1”
written by Dominick Cappello
There are always exceptions, but from the birth of talkies in the 1920s until filmmaking became grittier in the 1960s, horror flicks could be divided into two main sub-genres, the supernatural (or gothic) and science-fiction. “Dracula” (1931), “The Mummy” (1932), and “The Wolf Man” (1941) are famous examples of the supernatural. These macabre films were all about ancient curses and the undead. “Frankenstein” (1931), The Island of Lost Souls (1932), and “The Invisible Man” (1933) incorporated more science-fiction elements such as mad doctors, laboratories, and man-made monsters. A horror film from this era which caused a great deal of controversy was Tod Browning’s “Freaks” (1931). There were no spooky castles or full moons, just a group of angry circus performers who take revenge upon their enemies. The plot was unsettling for movie goers at the time. Horror films still needed to be fantasy based for audiences to fully accept them. If “Freaks” was to be remade today, it would probably be torture-porn directed by either Eli Roth or Rob Zombie.
Vincent Price became the master of horror after the careers of original boogeymen Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr. began to wind down. He starred in an eclectic grouping of fright films throughout his storied career. “The Fly” (1958), in which Vincent Price portrayed the brother of the titular monster, was a definite throwback to “Frankenstein” and “The Invisible Man.” “House of Wax” (1953) and “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971) were instances where Vincent Price portrayed flesh and blood murders, but these were highly stylized films with little resemblance to the horrors of reality. No modern horror antagonist would ever be as debonair as Vincent Price with the exception of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector.
Creature features were the staple of the 1950s. Films like “The Thing from Another World” (1951) and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954) are examples of humanoid monsters either arriving from outer space or emerging from the sea to run amuck. Across the pond, Hammer Films continued the tradition of gothic horror by producing remakes of the classic Universal Studios monster movies, such as “Curse of Frankenstein” (1957) and “Horror of Dracula” (1958), both starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.
A film which took an early step towards the modern slasher flick was Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom” (1960). Karlheinz Bohm (billed as Carl Boehm) starred as Mark Lewis. He wasn’t a vampire or a werewolf, he was mentally disturbed serial killer, a voyeur who murdered with his camera’s tripod. Also, he wasn’t portrayed as an evil character. He was somewhat sympathetic since his cruel father was the cause of his psychological troubles. “Peeping Tom” was the precursor to a much more heralded film, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960). Anthony Perkins starred as Norman Bates. Whereas Mark Lewis was traumatized by his father, Norman Bates had some serious mommy issues. Initially, it seemed as if Norman was just a good son covering up his mother’s heinous crimes, such as murdering Janet Leigh in a shower. As story unfolded, it was revealed that Norman had killed his mother and her lover years ago and now suffers from a spit-personality. When he adopts the persona of his dearly departed mother, he cannot help but commit murder. He dresses in drag and uses a kitchen knife. “Psycho” does not follow the format of a modern slasher flick, it would be classified as a psychological thriller, but Norman Bates definitely set the stage for later slasher movie maniacs.
The horror genre began to get a bit more gory in the late 1960s. It now took more than creaking stairs and ghostly bellows in a haunted mansion to get people’s attention. George A. Romero took horror to the next level with “Night of the Living Dead” (1968). If you incorporate a character like Norman Bates into an edgy George A. Romero-esque film, the result is Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974), the film which set many ground rules for the modern slasher flick. The protagonists were teenagers, or actors in their early twenties playing teenagers, stranded in an isolated location, being killed off one by one in a creative manner. Leatherface, the most recognizable member of a deranged family of cannibals, wears a mask made out of human flesh, and even though he uses a mallet and a meat hook at points in the movie, his signature weapon was of course the chainsaw. Teenage victims, a mute killer, a distinctive mask, and a trademark weapon. The slasher movie was born.
Next, was “Black Christmas” (1974), which while a favorite of genre enthusiasts, usually gets lost in the shuffle. What was so unique about “Black Christmas” may also be why it’s been overlooked by the general public. The killer was unseen for the entire movie. As was the case in the 1980s, the killer in a slasher movie is who becomes the most popular character. Without a marketable villain, “Black Christmas” is primarily a footnote. The atrocious 2006 remake featured a homicidal Santa Claus, so the filmmakers obviously didn’t know if they were remaking “Black Christmas” or “Silent Night, Deadly Night” (1984). But, “Black Christmas” has the distinction of being the first slasher flick to be set on a specific day of the year. The template was evolving.