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The Origin of Slasher Films

Updated on January 12, 2014
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Film critics, horror fanatics, and cinema-lovers alike have been debating for years about how the horror subgenre of “slasher” movies came to be what it is today. Which film truly started the genre? Which film revolutionized the genre and set the standards? You could say the genre started as far back as the 1930s from films such as Thirteen Women or Universal’s classic monster movies. Some people claim Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was the first real slasher flick, while others argue that Michael Powell’s British thriller, Peeping Tom was truly the first. Funny enough, both of the films were released in the year 1960. However, I believe most horror fans can agree that the golden age of slasher films was the 1980s. That is when the genre was extremely popularized, exploited, and perceived as its own category of filmmaking. So, which film really started it all? That is hard to say. But I will tell you what I believe to be three of the most crucial films that gave the slasher genre its wings, allowing it to soar through the following decades with grace and gore.

Psycho (1960)

There are very few films in cinema history that are as memorable and praised as Alfred Hitchcock’s classic masterpiece, Psycho. Before 1960, there was never a film with such suspense and terror that it shocked audiences around the globe (and it still does to this very day). The movie was revolutionary because Hitchcock was bold enough to do the unthinkable and unimaginable at the time. Within the first thirty minutes of the film, the heroine is killed and never seen for the remainder. That alone shocked audiences and critics and helped give the film the attention it deserved. In fact, to prevent the film from being spoiled for movie-goers, Alfred Hitchcock had the owners of movie theaters across the country reject admittance to the picture after it started. That way, no one could show up to the movie late and miss out on the first shocking, important scenes.

Psycho was also a very controversial film due to the depiction of sexuality and violence. In 1960, The Production Code’s standards were still a concern, including unmarried couples being shown in the same bed being considered taboo. Right when the film begins, two of the main characters are shown as lovers in the same bed, the female wearing lingerie. The movie was racy, violent, and perhaps ahead of its time, which is why I believe it truly got the wheels on the slasher bus turning. While there may not be a ton of blood and gore, there is a body count, a psychotic murderer, and a chilling mystery behind the events that keeps you sitting at the edge of your chair. Psycho was truly a game-changer in the film industry and it inspired countless slasher films for decades to come.

The mysterious house behind the Bate's Motel, holding secrets from a haunted past that is as dark and horrifying as it looks.
The mysterious house behind the Bate's Motel, holding secrets from a haunted past that is as dark and horrifying as it looks.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is another world-renowned, critically acclaimed film that captures the true terror of a psychotic mind. The 1970s is my favorite decade of horror movies and possibly movies in general because it was a new, unrestricted era of cinema that pushed the boundaries of the creative mind. Even mainstream horror movies were now becoming more violent, gruesome, and most of all – real. Perhaps too real for some people to handle. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was inspired by the real-life crimes and events done by Ed Gein in the 1950s. Ed was a grave-robber and murderer who skinned female bodies and created body suits for himself that resembled his dead mother. Though the film was not directly based on Ed Gein and his story, it created a new, terrifying one and brought it to life. Unlike Psycho, you see the murderer known as “Leatherface” kill and injure his victims, blood and all! The film included gruesome, disturbing visuals that would never have been possible back in 1960. Tobe Hooper brought a whole new shock factor to the big screen by creating this story of a group of teenagers who travel to Texas and are terrorized by a family of cannibals. There is no music throughout the entire film; only eerie noises and sound effects, and it works because it adds to the realism this movie has. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre truly coined the term “slasher movie” due to it’s simple, realistic storyline and intense, horrific violence.

This is one family you do not want to have dinner with.
This is one family you do not want to have dinner with.

Halloween (1978)

Who would have thought this low-budget independent horror film would change the many faces of horror for years to come? Directed by John Carpenter, Halloween brought audiences a whole new type of slasher movie that in my opinion was all the more terrifying. This time, rather than the victims going off and finding the killer, the killer comes to you. I don’t know about you, but just writing that put a chill up my spine. The plot to Halloween is as simple as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s: after stabbing his sister to death on Halloween night at the age of six, young Michael Myers is then institutionalized at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium. Fifteen years later, he escapes and drives back to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois where he stalks a teenage girl and kills anyone who gets in his way of reaching her.

The plot is simple, but the beauty of the film is the true art that John Carpenter put into it. For the first half of the film, there is no killing or violence; Michael Myers escapes from the sanitarium one night and then it cuts to the next day, which is Halloween. You let your guard down during the day scenes because nothing terribly scary happens, besides occasional shots of Michael stalking the main character, Laurie Strode, from a distance. But then the sun sets and as nighttime rolls in, you get this blue, eerie look on the screen. All of the suspense has been built up and is finally unleashed during the second half of the movie as you witness the horrific nightmare that has become Halloween night. The body count has been raised, the music is terrifying, the kills are creative and the suspense corresponds with them perfectly. During your first viewing of Halloween, you will feel exhilarated by the end. The movie becomes progressively terrifying as the night goes on and the ending is satisfyingly creepy. The cinematography by Dean Cundey really gives the night shots a creepy, surreal look. But as surreal as this nightmare may be, it is all too real at the same time. In the end, it is increasingly frightening when you realize that there could be a Michael Myers in your quiet, little town as well.

Because of the brilliance achieved from such simplicity and low amount of money, Halloween spawned countless sequels to the franchise, as well as many other franchises, such as the Friday The 13th series. In fact, Sean S. Cunningham, the director of the original Friday The 13th, stated in an interview that he called up his writer, Victor Miller, and said, "Hey, that movie 'Halloween' is making a ton of money. Let's rip it off." Apparently, many other directors were hatching the same idea when the 1980s came. And so countless slasher movies were being released, all trying to outdo the others in different ways. Movies like A Nightmare On Elm Street raised the bar for the amount of blood, gore, and special effects in a slasher movie. Sequels to these films kept pouring out of Hollywood, some obviously made purely to "cash-out" on the franchises. But no matter how cheesy and unoriginal, the slasher films of the '80s will always have a loyal fan-base that appreciates every kill and every chase. Without the three films I listed, the slasher genre quite possibly would not have lived throughout the years and we would never have some of our favorite villains. Much like these villains, the slasher genre never seems to die.

I'm sure the fact that she's not wearing any pants isn't helping the situation at all.
I'm sure the fact that she's not wearing any pants isn't helping the situation at all.

What is your favorite classic slasher movie?

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    • Christian Delgado profile image

      Christian Delgado 3 years ago

      This article is really cool. You gave a lot of depth into writing this. I am a horror movie fanatic myself, and this article is both interesting and useful.