If we consider how many Friday the 13th movies there are (there are 12 feature films, and 1 short film), as well as the Halloween franchise being able to continue despite the nine year gap, there always seems to be a ready audience for such films. So why are we drawn to slashers, and what is the art to a good slasher film?
Firstly, for a film to be considered a slasher, it needs to have a few qualities, one of which is a high body count. This is why Psycho, while setting the tone for the slasher film, doesn’t really count as a slasher. It focuses more on the psychological space of Norman Bates, and the dark desires he feels a need to enact on his victims because of his background.
There needs to be an iconic villain at the centre of it, like Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street (there is much debate on whether this is a slasher since it takes place in dreamscape, but I think it is), Michael Myers for Halloween, or their mask/attire becomes a symbol for others to don, like Ghostface for Scream or the rain slicker attire for I Know What You Did Last Summer.
There is no element of mystery for the ones with the iconic villain attached, like we all know it’s Freddy concocting the kills, but for franchises like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, it becomes a kind of whodunit, where we try to figure out who the perpetrators are. The slasher also involves the unheimlich, which is rendering the home space un-home-like. In Scream, Drew Barrymore’s Casey is all set to have a nice quiet night in, when a phone call rattles her. The call doesn’t start off as scary immediately, where the caller appears to be flirting a little, but it suddenly takes a turn when we realise he’s watching her.
Wes Craven also does a great job in subverting our expectations, by casting someone like Drew Barrymore, who was probably the most well-known actress in that film, so we definitely didn’t expect her to be the first to die. This subversive element is later mimicked in other slasher films, like Urban Legend. When a woman pulls into an isolated area for gas, and is asked by a creepy, stuttering man to go inside his dilapidated gas station and talk to the credit card company, we expect that he is the one who will attack her, not knowing that he is actually trying to help her since someone else is in the backseat.
Friday the 13th Part 2 begins very much the same way as Scream, with Adrienne King’s Alice still traumatised from events of the first movie. As she goes about her mundane, routine activities, like talking on the phone, or taking a shower, we feel the tension of someone watching, before Jason strikes in full view of the cat.
For the Friday the 13th franchise, what’s interesting is the evolution of Jason, who wasn’t really an evil entity in real life, but drowned tragically. Somehow, he returns to life in Part 2 to exact revenge on Alice for the death of his mother, before going on a killing rampage in this film, as well as the sequels, starting off with a sack on his head before donning the iconic hockey mask.
This is different from Michael Myers, who is born evil and has an insatiable bloodlust and decimates his victims at lightning speed. The ultimate horror here is that there is no bargaining with these figures, both of them so far from human that they don’t even have faces anymore. Well, Michael does have a face, but we mostly get a glimpse of his full visage in flashbacks. We are more acquainted with his mask, which is in some ways his true face.
Inherent to all slasher films are the final girls, someone who has been put through the wringer, having to watch/experience her friends and loved ones being killed, leading to the final showdown between her and the villain. But her defeat of the villain doesn’t always ensure her survival. Alice survives the first film only to die in the second. Then there is the fate of Sidney Prescott and Laurie Strode, where survival means having to endure continuous horrors, film after film.
These films posit that there is something special about these final girls, which allow them to survive over their peers, where they are usually resourceful and virginal. In Halloween, while her friends were hooking up (and getting murdered while doing so), Laurie is babysitting. Later on, she finds herself going up against Michael, saving the kids and herself in the process.
Over time, we see the subversion of this trope, with final girls getting more nuance, and are more than just mere foils for their female friends who engage in sex. This is the case for Sidney Prescott in Scream. Initially, she appears to be chaste, as the first thing we see is her turning down her boyfriend Billy’s request for sex. But it is clear from the beginning that she doesn’t toe this virtuous woman line, where she flashes him her boobs and ends up having sex with him later on in the movie. Sex usually means a death sentence in a slasher film, but Sidney survives, and her survival is due to her resourcefulness and agency, not just because of arbitrary qualities attached to the final girl trope.
We can see the difference in the way Neve Campbell’s Sidney handles the phone call compared to Barrymore’s Casey, where despite the threats from the caller of being able to see her, she recognises that this is impossible since the caller isn’t some supernatural entity, and taunts him by digging her nose. Even though she is unable to call out since the phone line is down, she uses the computer to dial 911, which is what saves her life. This is probably why Wes Craven’s Scream franchise will always be my favourite among the lot; the space created is infinitely more human, with regular individuals donning the mask, and this to me is scarier than the out-of-this-world inhumanity of Jason and Michael.
In the world of Scream, the killer could be someone close to you, someone who wants to see what your insides look like, and that my dear friends, is the most frightening thing of all.
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