Maybe I’m spreading this thought too thin, because there is psychological motivation in most slashers. Whether it be Jason avenging mommy’s death or the sociopathic stalking of the unstoppable force known as Michael Myers, some kind of inner demon (the non-literal kind) has inhabited the most notorious killers of the slasher genre. And then there are the films that take it one step further, attempting to bring a more human element into an inhuman act. Are they successful? More often than not, absolutely.
Legends abound in the slasher genre, and rightly so. How can you not fall in love with the creepy story of Madman Marz who killed his family, was stalked and hung only to disappear by morning (by the way, don’t say his name above a whisper!)? While stories like Madman or Crispy Cropsy bring a chill down one’s spine, there is something more sinister about the killer who inhabits his form in a realistic manner. In a way where the killings seem more random… and more real.
The following is a short list of films who tackle the concept of a killer who kills simply because they either can’t stop themselves or even more sinister, they just simply enjoy it:
Alone in the Dark (1982) – I’m including this one because it’s about a psychologist and his family being stalked by escaped patients. Although played with a broad sense of humor, the escaped inmates (played by Martin Landau and Jack Palance among others) are kept very believable in personality, if not completely in motivation. But the highlight of Alone in the Dark is Donald Pleasance’s delightful portrayal as Dr. Bain, who may be just as crazy as his patients!
Blood Rage (aka Nightmare at Shadow Woods, 1987) – A slasher version of The Other, this movie is kind of haphazard, but downright fun (I’m basing this on the heavily cut version). A young killer blames his twin for his own murderous act and goes about living life as the good one. Later, the so-called bad one is released and let’s just say sibling rivalry ain’t pretty. Blood Rage makes up for a lack of scares with all out groovy gore. Also, there’s a nice sense of humor lying just beneath the carnage.
City in Panic (1986) – Oy vey. The less said about this one the better. I only mention it because for it’s time this little slasher about a madman stalking gay male HIV victims was fairly breakthrough. The movie is too boring to actually sit through (and I admit, I’ve only seen bits of it), but the idea is one worth grasping. Somehow the subject of HIV kind of got swept under the carpet, but still remains among us as if some dirty secret was being passed between strangers. And that my friends, is terrifying.
Don’t Go In the House (1980) – Dude with a mommy complex wreaks havoc by setting fire to various female victims. Can you believe I’ve never seen this movie?!? But don’t despair, I found my dusty ol’ vhs and plan on giving it a spin very soon. I am including it here because the gist I got is that this movie is reminiscent of Lustig’s classic Maniac and does try to offer up some thought process to the villain’s actions. Plus it gives me an excuse to finally sit down and watch it!
He Knows You’re Alone (1980) – Depending on your taste, He Knows You’re Alone is either pretty great or really horrible. I fall in the former and love this movie… to death. I think there’s something so scary about a scorned lover who stalks brides-to-be in an effort to exact revenge on the lady who done him wrong. This killer skips the mask and in full Fuad Ramses glory (check out those eyebrows), he’s practically creaming his jeans as he dispatches various ladies. The reason this movie works, (because the play by play and set-pieces were pretty well used up even by then) is the cast. Don Scardino, Caitlin O’Heaney and Elizabeth Kemp are all superb, not to mention a young and then-unknown Tom Hanks who walks the audience through Psych 101 in a nice little scene. The organic scares also play up the worn out premise and all and all, this becomes one of the most welcome slashers of that time period.
The Initiation (1984) – Another slasher set against the backdrop of people involved in the world of psychology. This time it’s a student (Daphne Zuniga) who is trying to decipher her nightmares with the help of a college sleep experiment run by a hunky TA named Peter Adams (James Read). While she searches for answers, her friends and family are being picked off by an unseen assailant who may know Daphne quite well. Way more slasher than psychological study, this movie gets points for piecing together a pretty neat mystery with the help of dreams… and a hunky TA! The second half of the movie is when psychology and mystery takes a backseat to all out violence and the twist, gulp, actually works! Someone should do a study on that!
Maniac (1980) - My favorite of all of the realistic slashers that came out in the early 80s, this much maligned film’s only mistake was being about ten years ahead of its time. When it opened up in New York, women protested this movie and slammed it as misogynist. Well, doy. Let’s face facts, ladies. WE are usually the victims in these types of horrible serial crimes. At least Lustig painted Frank Zito in such an ugly, uncompromising light that there is no mistake that he’s not the good guy. He’s not even an anti-hero. He’s the person we follow around the film but he’s clearly the bad guy… the sicko. Not much is given into his background, but there’s enough in Spinell’s chilling portrayal to give you a good idea that some bad men are simply just bad and that yes, they do exist.
Nightmare (aka Nightmare in a Damaged Brain, 1981) – This movie is a pretty terrific if not all together perfect slasher film. Creepy to the nth degree, this movie follows the exploits of George Tatum (Baird Stafford), a loony who is having even loonier experiments conducted on him before he’s released from an institution. His newly trained wiring completely snaps and he heads off to find his ex-wife and obnoxious kids who have found life without him. This movie is probably most famous for the tremendous beheading scene which is played over and over. It’s a little dated, but remains effective. The script itself is mostly non-existent, and don’t quote me but I believe a lot of this film was improvised… and it shows. Still, it’s scary as all get out with a great kill featuring a woman whose only crime is owning a car. This is the kind of gritty stuff great 42nd Street horror was made of, and it does not disappoint.
Night Warning (1983) – Another gay themed slasher, Susan Tyrell plays a nutbag who kills a handyman after he rebuffs her advances (and let’s face it, wouldn’t you?). She tells the police the man was attempting to rape her, but a homophobic cop (Bo Svenson) believes her young nephew had something to do with it all. A pretty crazy movie that goes from here to there and then back again, the real treat is watching Tyrell get crazier and crazier as the film goes on. Also, there’s a nifty decapitation scene at the beginning in case you needed your gore quotient met for the day.
Offerings (1989) – Wow. This regional effort is kind of mixes Halloween with I, Madman. Well, it badly mixes those two movies. But even in its ineptness (and trust me, Offerings is ham-fisted), there’s something going on here. The story is about a geeky mute kid who is constantly tormented to the point he falls down a well. Presumably left for dead, he comes back 10 years later and offers his heart to the only girl who was nice to him as a kid. Well, it’s not quite his heart per se; it’s more this bully’s ear, and whatnot. How funny that the girl of his dreams doesn’t dig on that… Anyway, there’s a bit of background given to our killer, like an abusive mother and the fact that he likes to hurt animals. Yeah, it’s all Psych 101, but a damn fine step above movies who glide over even those tried and true tidbits. Am I saying you should see this? No, not really. I’m just saying, someone actually thought a bit about this movie when they were making it and that’s a nice change.
Schizoid (1980) – You know how Klaus Kinski usually plays the lunatic? Well, here he is the keeper of the lunatics, one of whom is stalking the various members of a therapy group. Not that Kinski doesn’t get creepy, I mean, can he keep from being creepy? He’s good here, if not completely believable (trust me, if he was my therapist, I’d find another one!). Donna Wilkes plays his equally off-kilter daughter and Marianna Hill plays the Final Girl. To round out the seasoned cast, look for Christopher Lloyd, Joe Regalbuto and Craig Wasson. An honest attempt at bringing a little class into the slash, but still a bit slow and uneven.
Silent Rage (1982) – An interesting hybrid of action/slasher, Silent Rage stars Chuck Norris as a small town sheriff out to stop John Kirby (Bryan Libby), a man who has been given experimental tests that not only don’t work, but drive him to the brink of utter sociopathic madness. The balance of Chuck hitting dudes with so many lefts, they beg for a right and purely slasher set-pieces creates an odd mixture, but Silent Rage stays engaging throughout.
Silent Scream (1980) – One of my favorite actresses of the 80s, Rebecca Balding (The Boogens, SOAP) is the adorable Scotty Parker, a college girl looking for a room to rent. She stumbles upon that typical creepy house on the beach and finds a room she loves and can afford. What she doesn’t realize is that the idiosyncratic family and some deranged person watching folks through the crawlspace was part of the package. A flawed but interesting attempt at bringing some kind of pathos to the loony, Silent Scream remains a classy thriller with a few punches to keep the audience interested.
Sweet 16 (1983) – Pretty Melissa (Aleisa Shirley) would like to meet a nice young man and have a steady beau but they keep getting killed! Is it Melissa, a girl on the verge of a sexual awakening so intense that is driving her to kill, or might it be someone else? Leave it up to the hunky sheriff (Bo Hopkins aka machismo on a stick!) to solve the mystery. Sweet 16 is interesting because there are several layers to Melissa who captures that feeling of youth gone wild in search of something more real. It’s kind of poetic, ain’t it? The set pieces are pretty creepy too, not to mention that bitchslap of an ending! So, is it thoughtful horror or sleazy slasher exploitation? Hmmm, probably somewhere in-between and that’s a good place to be.