Listen to the full FRIGHT CLUB PODCAST.
Senior Aussie Correspondent Cory Metcalfe makes a return trip, because he is a slasher junky and we needed the assist. Together we walk through the five best slashers in cinematic history, but first we had a couple of arguments to settle.
There are millions of potential films in this category, so we defined the term slasher for our purposes. Well, Hope defined it and George grumbled about it. Definition: A group is stalked in a neighborhood/woods (not a single, isolated location) by a seemingly indestructible killer with a blade of some kind. So, no Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, Maniac.
On to our second argument – one of Cory’s all-time favorites (and likely a film you expect to see here) did not make the list. Again, blame Hope, though Cory was a great sport about it.
With that out of the way, it’s time: Fright Club counts down the five best slashers!
5. Bay of Blood (1971)
Here is where you might have seen Friday the 13th, but won’t. In fact, nearly every campground slasher – The Burning, Sleepaway Camp, the wonderful new Belgian horror Cub – all owe a debt, not really to Friday the 13th, but to Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve).
If you’re familiar with Bava (and you should be), it’s probably because of his more romantic, visually lovely films like Black Sunday, but in ’71 he made his bloodiest film and created nearly every gimmick we’d soon see across the slasher subgenre.
The story is basically nonsensical. There’s a murder early on that sets up a fight for an inheritance; meanwhile four nubile youths stumble into the same inheritable bayside cottage, where they have sex, skinny dip, die, etc. You will notice entire scenes lifted directly for use in Friday the 13th, but the film is also fun because, as it predates the genre, it often feels like it’s somehow veered off the path (because there was no path yet). So Bay of Blood gets the nod because it did it first.
4. Black Christmas (1974)
The other foundational work in the genre, like Bay of Blood, Black Christmas created the architecture for the slasher. Fun trivia: director Bob Clark made two Christmas-themed films in his erratic career, including the iconic A Christmas Story (You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!). Black Christmas is remembered less well.
Sure, it’s another case of mysterious phone calls leading to grisly murders; sure it’s another one-by-one pick off of sorority stereotypes; sure, there’s a damaged child backstory; naturally John Saxon co-stars. Wait, what was different? Oh, yeah, two things. Maybe three. The story veers off on a red herring chase that’s utterly ludicrous. Also, the actors – Margot Kidder, in particular – show more commitment than you’d normally see in this kind of film. Most importantly, the phone calls are actually pretty scary. There’s something unseemly about them, unsettling.
Why the girls remain in the sorority house (if only they’d had an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!), or why campus police are so baffled remains a mystery, but Clark was onto something with the phone calls, as evidenced by the number of films that ripped off this original convention.
3. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Teens on suburban Elm St. share nightmares, and one by one, these teens are not waking up. Not that their disbelieving parents care.
Depositing a boogieman in your dreams, creating nightmares that will truly kill you, was a genius concept by writer/director Wes Craven because you can only stay awake for so long. It took everyone’s fear of nightmares to a more concrete level.
Plus, Craven had plenty of iconic kills and images up his sleeve. That face that stretches through the wall is cool, the weirdly long arms out behind Tina are still super scary. The nightmare images are apt, and the hopscotch chant and the vision of Freddie himself were not only refreshingly original but wildly creepy. All of that plus an iconic villain, brought to glorious life by Robert Englund’s darkly comical performance, and you have a real keeper.
2. Scream (1996)
A dozen years after recreating the genre with Nightmare, Wes Craven did it again. When Scream hit screens in 1996, we were still three years from the onslaught of the shakey cam, six years from the deluge of Asian remakes, and nearly ten years from the first foul waft of horror porn. In its time, Scream resurrected a basically dying genre, using clever meta-analysis and black humor.
What you have is a traditional high school slasher – someone dons a likeness of Edvard Munch’s most famous painting and plants a butcher knife in a local teen, leading to red herrings, mystery, bloodletting and whatnot. But Craven’s on the inside looking out and he wants you to know it.
What makes Scream stand apart is the way it critiques horror clichés as it employs them, subverting expectation just when we most rely on it. As the film opens, Casey (Drew Barrymore) could have survived entirely (we presume) had she only remembered that it was not, in fact, Jason Voorhees who killed all those campers in Friday the 13th; it was his mother. A twisted reverence for the intricacies of slashers is introduced in the film’s opening sequence, then glibly revisited in one form or another in nearly every scene after. It could be the wryly clever writing or the solid performances, but I think it’s the joyous fondness for a genre and its fans that keeps this one fresh.
1. Halloween (1978)
No film is more responsible for the explosion of teen slashers than John Carpenter’s babysitter butchering classic.
From the creepy opening piano notes to the disappearing body ending, this low budget surprise changed everything. Carpenter develops anxiety like nobody else, and plants it right in a wholesome Midwestern neighborhood. You don’t have to go camping or take a road trip or do anything at all – the boogeyman is right there at home.
Michael Myers – that hulking, unstoppable, blank menace – is scary. Pair that with the down-to-earth charm of lead Jamie Lee Curtis, who brought a little class and talent to the genre, and add the bellowing melodrama of horror veteran Donald Pleasance, and you’ve hit all the important notes. Just add John Carpenter’s spare score to ratchet up the anxiety. Perfect.