Thanks to a fine series of articles right here on Retro Slashers, the notion of “proto-slashers” – the films that paved the way for the slasher movie boom – has become a familiar one. And, thanks to Dave Stewart’s reviews, hopefully, you’ll have come across a few early-period gems you might otherwise have missed. Now I’d like to take you on a trip through the movies that followed the slasher craze… Not via the boom-and-bust cycle of sequels and copycats we’re all familiar with but, rather, with a look at the way that slasher sensibilities seeped into several other filmic genres. In other words, how the humble slasher flick managed to get its bloody fingerprints all over the mainstream movies of the 1980s.
Now, this isn’t a new idea – in fact, Justin Kerswell sums it up neatly in his essential slasher guide Teenage Wasteland (p.161 if you have to make a dash to your coffee table) – but I’d like to focus specifically on the years 1978-1996, which any slasher fan will recognize as the period from Halloween to Scream, and particularly on the early-to-mid Eighties, when no movie was quite safe from the slasher influence.
In fact, for a few years following Halloween and Friday the 13th, a whole slew of well-budgeted, ostensibly mainstream thrillers (at least half of which were directed by Brian De Palma) took their gory throat-slicing and suchlike so seriously that we might as well call them slashers in their own right. You’re no doubt familiar with the likes of Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981) and Body Double (1984), as well as The Shining (1980), Dead and Buried (1981) and Psycho II (1983). We could even go so far as to argue that the slasher mood had been brewing across related genres since the likes of 1978’s blockbuster Jaws 2, which is basically a toothy slasher flick, and the same year’s stab-happy police procedural, Blood Relatives, and stalking-heavy medical thriller, Coma.
What’s interesting is the way that some subsequent non-horror films took slasher themes to heart so vigorously that genre fans will likely find them as satisfying as straight-up slashers. I aim to list as many as I can think of in this article (and perhaps follow them up with some in-depth reviews later on) but please feel free to suggest any slasher “aftershock” movies I’ve missed – I’d love to hear the recommendations. Now let’s get stuck in!
The Thriller Mainstream
It’s easy to map the overlap between thriller and slasher, going right back to the giallo films of the 1970s, as well as Halloween (itself as much an exercise in suspense as horror) and When a Stranger Calls (1979), the curious melding of detective thriller and slasher that more-or-less defined the rules of the now-inescapable Scream-style opening. Equally obvious is the genre’s influence on mainstream thrillers of the mid-80s like Jagged Edge (1985), Fatal Attraction (1987) and Someone to Watch Over Me (1987), which pushed domestic violence to its blood-soaked, crowd-pleasing limits. An often overlooked but particularly satisfying example is the 1987 courtroom thriller (and Cher vehicle) Suspect, which turns at the climax into a genuinely hackle-raising chase that’s up there with any of the preceding Friday the 13ths. Similarly, the decade saw Farrah Fawcett playing cat-and-mouse with a rapist in Extremities (1986) and Mary Steenburgen trapped in a snowbound house with a psychopath in Dead of Winter (1987). Both films mix slasher thrills with quality performances, good casts and more. Finally, without slashers, would big-name thrillers like the Lauren Bacall-fronted The Fan (1981) have upped the gore and violence to such extremes? I think we owe the genre a big thank-you for that!
The legacy of these violent mainstream thrillers – themselves often featuring generous doses of romance and psychology – has been that direct-to-video (and cable TV) mainstay, the erotic thriller. Reaching a heyday in the early Nineties with successful (or at least high-profile) cinema outings like Basic Instinct (1992), Sliver (1993) and Body of Evidence (1993), the genre essentially boils down to the exact same blueprint as the slasher: namely, nudity and murder. Of course, the emphasis is on the former here – after all, who wants to be presented with a realistic disembowelment when you’re sitting there with your hand down your pants? (Don’t answer that.) The Seduction set the mould back in 1982, with Morgan Fairchild and a lot of bubble bath, while the slasher influence even found its way into the popular, Private Lessons-type sex-comedy format in They’re Playing with Fire (1984). By the Nineties, increasingly graphic shagfests (usually starring Shannon Tweed) were big money despite the fact that most viewers only tuned in for, er, as long as necessary – meaning that such elements as plot didn’t so much take a back seat as find themselves clinging to the roof-rack, flapping shamefully in the wind. Still, slasher fans may get some enjoyment out of some of the more actually entertaining examples, such as Mirror Images (1992), Animal Instincts (1992) and Scorned/A Woman Scorned (1994). If not, check out Debbie Harry’s see-it-to-believe-it, blowtorch-wielding turn in the very slashery Intimate Stranger (1991)… but don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Before delving deeper into various other sorts of thrillers, I want to try and convince you that the slasher boom affected a few other genres too: action, detective, and even war… Yes, war! Don’t believe me? Try on 1987’s Full Metal Jacket for size, and notice how the cycle of humiliation and abuse turns into violence, bloodshed, and friends being picked off one-by-one. OK, so military training is hardly the “pranks gone wrong” of a college campus, but the overarching theme and structure is largely the same. Also watch 1981’s Southern Comfort and tell me it’s not a backwoods slasher. And, while we’re enjoying a few action movies, add Silent Rage (1982) to the pile, in which Chuck Norris confronts an indestructible boogeyman killer, and Cobra (1986), wherein Sylvester Stallone squares off against a whole army of psychopaths. They’re slasher movies, both, no matter what they call themselves.
Cops and Killers
We’re starting to touch now on the serial killer genre that has its roots in the slasher (think back to When a Stranger Calls) and takes us all the way through to the Oscar-winning glory of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the arguably even better but less lauded Se7en (1995), and, with their focus on the at-home activities of demented maniacs, the torture-porn-flavoured outings of the current century. 1983’s 10 to Midnight makes a strong starting-point, boasting a title that makes no sense but alternating kill scenes straight out of a slasher movie with scenes of Charles Bronson investigating said kills. Cops also face slasher-like scenarios in one of Clint Eastwood’s edgiest films, Tightrope (1984), as well as in Too Scared to Scream (1985), The Mean Season (1985) and Deadly Pursuit/Shoot to Kill (1988), which features an extended backwoods-slasher sequence and starred none other than Sidney Poitier. How’s that for respectable? I’d say things reached a head on this front, however, in Maniac Cop (1988), a full-on, gore-filled and rather brilliant action-horror hybrid helmed by William Lustig, the man behind 1980’s classic Maniac. (Lustig also made another cop/horror movie a year later in Relentless – it’s more low-key, but slasher through-and-through.)
The Cuckoo in the Nest
Slasher movies, it is said, like to punish their victims for having too much sex. In the Nineties, however, the punishment was for having too much money – but the punishment was nevertheless the same, and generally involved being chased around by a psychopath and possibly dying in gruesome fashion. So it was goodbye self-obsessed 80s, hello self-aware 90s, when the “yuppies in peril” cycle really took off and guilty suburbanites were left to defend their homes and yachts from psychopathic intruders in Dead Calm (1989), Pacific Heights (1990), Cape Fear (1991), The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), The Temp (1993), Mother’s Boys (1994) and, oh… you get the picture. I’ve found one a year there for six straight years in a row and still had time to eat a bagel. I’m not saying these films are slashers, but they usually feature violent and protracted climaxes of the sort you don’t find on the other side of the 80s slasher boom. Some, like The Temp and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, are also based around showpiece deaths, while the slash-informed differences between 1962’s Cape Fear and its 1991 remake are only too clear.
So What Else?
Well, since you asked, I’ve come up with a handful of other films that take their cue from the slasher genre but are less easy to place in tidy boxes like those above. Returning to the Eighties, there’s Paul Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man (1983), a manic, religious-themed forerunner of Basic Instinct, and Michael Winner’s surprisingly suspenseful suburban thriller Scream for Help (1984). I also detect a hint of slash in the spy/romance Eye of the Needle (1981), starring Kate Nelligan, not to mention the similarly espionage-themed Half Moon Street (1986), which also bares Sigourney Weaver’s breasts. Move into the Nineties and all bets are off. Consider Brian De Palma’s insane later psycho-thriller Raising Cain (1992): it’s not quite like his Eighties efforts, yet not quite like anything else, either, except perhaps the work of Dario Argento (and, believe me, you don’t want to get me started on that subgenre or we’ll be here all night). All I’ll add is that I know a number of people who call it one of the scariest movies they’ve ever seen. There’s also Misery (1990), the underrated A Kiss Before Dying (1991), death by giant scissors in Dead Again (1991) and the influential Danish Nightwatch (1994).
By the time Scream arrived in 1996, the public was so familiar with the tropes and tricks of the slasher movie that Dimension Films didn’t even need to market it as such, keeping their options open by calling it a glossy psychological thriller-cum-teen horror movie. No one was fooled, however, and indeed no one was cheated – after years of skulking around the fringes of the mainstream with a mask over its face, the slasher flick had finally gone legit.