Adam Rockoff, in his excellent history of Slasher films, Going to Pieces, tells of a meeting he’d had with John Dunning, producer of such Slasher classics as My Bloody Valentine and Happy Birthday to Me. Rockoff told Dunning he was writing a book on Slasher films, to which Dunning replied, “What’s a Slasher film?” Of course, Dunning didn’t mean that he didn’t know a Slasher film when he saw one, only that he wouldn’t be able to put into words exactly what a Slasher film is.
Most people seem to know—or think they know—what a Slasher film is, but their definition will usually resemble that provided by Sidney in Scream: “Some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can`t act.” But I’d like to think Slasher films are a tad more complicated than that, and certainly more difficult to define.
In her must-read book, Men, Women and Chainsaws, Carol J. Clover offers a similarly succinct yet less derogatory definition of the Slasher: “The killer is the product of a sick family, but still recognizably human; the victim is a beautiful, sexually active woman; the location is not-home, at a Terrible Place; the weapon is something other than a gun; the attack is registered from the victim`s point of view and comes with shocking suddenness.” Clover was actually speaking of Psycho specifically, but her definition, with minor exceptions or modification, nicely fits the Slasher sub-genre as a whole.
Then again, Clover’s definition may not be specific enough. In Men, Women and Chainsaws (a book-length expansion of her essay “Her Body, Himself”), she breaks Slasher films down further, analyzing the killer (she focuses largely on killers who have experienced some form of trauma, usually at the hands of a family member), the victims (Clover actually coined the term Final Girl to describe the lone survivor of a Slasher film), the settings (usually non-urban and with its own terrible history), and other components that have become the makings of a typical Slasher.
In his book, Blood Money, Richard Nowell also lists the elements of the Slasher film: “a distinct setting, a shadowy killer, and a group of youths.” He defines the killer as “a shadowy prowler, who monitors young targets before … dispatching instant death, although little suffering.”
Writing in Thrillers, Martin Rubin notes that the killer in Slashers is “depersonalized, devoid of psychological detail, and faceless.” The killer often wears a mask or is disfigured, rendering him literally faceless; a sort of externalization of his inner self. The killer’s identity is often hidden, but even when the killer’s name is known to the victims, the killer himself remains a mystery, a figure whose existence has only recently been discovered.
The shadowy nature of the killer in Slasher films allowed filmmakers to use two distinct means of creating intrigue. Rubin defined these story-types as the “cipher format” and the “whodunit format.”
With the cipher format, the killer’s identity is known; intrigue arises from getting the audience to wonder who will survive and how. Examples of Slasher films that use the cipher format include Halloween, The Burning, and the later Friday the 13th movies, beginning with part 3.
The whodunit format compels audience members to figure out who the killer might be. Movies of this sort include the first Friday the 13th, Black Christmas, and Sleepaway Camp.
But Howell goes a tad further in deconstructing the blueprint used by the makers of Slasher films. He outlines not just the parts that make up the whole but the formula that must be followed to bring those parts together to form the whole.
Slashers, Nowell writes, consist of seven story points: the Trigger, whereas some past event acts as a catalyst for the killer’s eventual attack; the Threat, whereas the killer picks his or her target; Leisure, whereas a group of youths indulge in recreational activity, both illicit and not; Stalking, whereas the killer shadows his chosen targets, making him or herself known only subtly; the Murders, in which the killer does away with some of the kids; the Confrontation, whereas the few remaining kids (often only one or two) make a stand against the killer; and Neutralization, whereas the killer is stopped, at least for the time being.
Howell’s criteria, however, apply only to what he defined as the Teen Slasher Film, a sort of sub-sub-genre, and to the first Slasher film cycle, beginning in 1974 and ending in 1984. By Howell’s definition, for example, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) would not qualify as a Teen Slasher Film, presumably because it does not include the Leisure component and the main characters may be too old. Similarly, though the original Halloween (1978) fits Howell’s criteria perfectly, Halloween 2 (1981) does not. Other films excluded by Howell’s blueprint include Maniac (1980) and The Funhouse (1981).
Furthermore, though the above definitions still apply to the second Teen Slasher Film Cycle, beginning with Scream in (1996), Slasher films as a broader sub-genre have evolved greatly over the years as both the market and distribution channels for these movies have changed. Slasher films today rarely target a mainstream market, focusing instead on a more underground audience that is at once more discerning and more open to experimentation. As such, the line between Slasher films and so-called Torture Horror has (unfortunately) blurred, as has the distinction between Slashers and thrillers.
Slashers today—more than ever—exist on a spectrum, with serial killer thrillers at one end (maybe), and splatter and torture horror at the other (possibly). An exclusively teenaged cast isn’t necessary anymore, nor is a non-urban setting needed, or the inclusion of a prologue to hint at the killer’s past and/or motivation.
For these reasons, it is much more difficult to set down definitive criteria which must be met by a particular film to qualify as a Slasher. For the purpose of this site and its content, however, we’ve come up with two lists of elements, one primary and one secondary, to help define Slasher films as we see them.
The primary elements are those that must be present before a movie can be refered to as a Slasher.
- A killer stalks a group of people
- The killer uses a weapon (or weapons) other than a gun
- The majority of kills are sudden with limited suffering (the emphasis is on killing, not suffering)
- The movie was released during or after 1974
The secondary elements must not strictly be present, but at least a few of them should be present:
- The movie begins with a prologue
- The movie takes place in an isolated, non-urban setting
- The killer’s identity is hidden or unknown to the victims (at least initially)
- The victims are representative of the target audience
- The victims participate in leisure activities before the killing begins
- The kills are creative or elaborate (but, as dictated by the primary criteria, the majority of kills remain sudden)
- Tension is built up before the killing begins
- Tension is built through stalking
- The victims are killed one-by-one
- The body-count exceeds three
- In the end, only a small group of survivors remain, often only one, often a woman, the Final Girl
As mentioned, not all of the secondary elements need be present for a film to qualify as a Slasher, but the more are present, the more the movie fits our definition of a Slasher.
We subscribe to Howell’s and Clover’s date of 1974 as the birth of the Slasher film sub-genre, beginning with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas. Some, like Rockoff, place the Slasher genesis later, in 1978, with Halloween, while others believe the first Slashers were produced far earlier, in 1960, with Psycho and Peeping Tom (while others go even further back, tracing the roots of the Slasher to 1931 and Fritz Lang’s M), but we define those movies that resemble the Slasher in some ways but were produced between 1960 and 1973 as Slasher Precursors.
These include Psycho and Peeping Tom, as well as splatter films like Blood Feast and Wizard of Gore, revenge films such as The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and the Italian Gialli like Twitch of the Death Nerve and Blood and Black Lace. These films are all important and influencial, they contributed to the eventual development of the Slasher film as a film-type, but they are not Slashers in their own right and, as such, they will feature in much of our analyses and articles, but they will not be reviewed.
As mentioned, modern filmmakers have created a growing grey area surrounding the Slasher film. In this less defined and definable zone we find films such as The Strangers and Autopsy. Are these films Slashers? We would say no, and would not review them, but we’d have to admit that, given a reasoned argument, we may allow ourselves to be convinced otherwise. Just as Slasher filmmakers have given themselves greater liberties in creating Slasher movies, well, why wouldn`t we reserve the right to do so in reviewing and analyzing them?
One thing is certain: we’ll be staying as far away from the torture craze as possible. The more torture and rape contained in a film, the less likely we are to qualify it as a Slasher and the less likely we are to review or discuss it. That’s not to say that any inclusion of torture will disqualify a film from examination or review on this site. Some great, authentic Slasher films have included elements of torture, including Wrong Turn, The Hills Run Red, and even the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But the more emphasis and screen-time is devoted to torture, the less we’re interested.
Michael Myers is a well-tuned killing machine, dispatching his prey with the precision of an assassin. Jigsaw is the sickly kid on the playground, hovering over an anthill with a magnifying glass tilted to the sun.
We subscribe to Wes Craven’s definition of the source of fear and thrills in Slasher films: they are about death, sudden and seemingly unavoidable. Torture is not sudden and allows for the possibility that the victim may survive, may make it through the pain and out of harm’s way. Death is final. When you’re dead, you’re dead. That is the foundation upon which good Slashers are built; it is, in effect, the Slasher’s promise.