Note: click here for Brett H.'s original list of Ten Slashers to Die For!
Despite being the simplest horror genre out there, the slasher genre is also the hardest to expertly pin down and describe. Most of the time, the term is thrown out there to describe everything from Psycho to Scream (and everything in between). It would seem that any movie featuring a knife wielding psychopath would qualify, but no--there’s more to it than that. Or less, I should say; see, slashers are all about simplicity. To qualify as a slasher, your plot needs to be paper thin, and the focus needs to be on people being stalked and killed. This doesn’t mean a slasher can’t be atmospheric or stylish (otherwise, Halloween goes out of the window), but the minute it becomes some sort of character study (like Maniac) or the actual slashing stops, it’s something else.
Brett H. did a fine job of describing that certain “feeling” in his original top ten list, and I think that’s correct; I will also take it a step further by saying you just know a slasher when you see one, which is really just a bullshit trump card I’m going to pull now that I’ve been charged with delivering the next set of slashers to die for. It should also be noted that, over time, this list has evolved from a simple ranking (I feel like a good handful of these good be shuffled depending on my daily whims) to a celebration of all the flavors this genre has to offer. So that's enough semantics—let’s get on with the slashing!
16. House of Wax (2005)
To be perfectly honest, this spot was automatically reserved for a more contemporary effort, mostly because I didn’t want this list to come off as only lionizing the genre’s more vintage efforts at the expense of ignoring its modern output. With so many prime candidates from the past two decades—including the likes of Valentine, Black X-Mas, Behind the Mask, the Hatchet and Cold Prey series, My Bloody Valentine, Friday the 13th, No One Lives, and The Final Girls—it’d be downright negligent to do so, lest we want to imply that slashers pretty much died out at the turn of the century. Far from it, in fact, and I keep coming back to Jaume Collet-Serra’s update of House of Wax as the best evidence. Maybe it’s actually more of an update of Tourist Trap, but it’s wonderfully macabre echo all the same, one that deftly captures that elusive feeling of bygone classics, all while delivering so many genre touchstones: an isolated, backwoods setting, a twisted backstory involving a lurid family history, and plenty of disposable teens just waiting to be slaughtered for your enjoyment (look no further than the casting of Paris Hilton as proof that this film gets it).
However—and this is perhaps also the best evidence in making the case for Collet-Serra’s enshrinement as a modern genre master—House of Wax also delivers far beyond those expectations. In what has become his signature style, Collet-Serra takes this ludicrous proposition and plunges headlong into it, baking an insane blend of classic melodrama and grindhouse sleaze into this effects-laden Grand Guignol showcase. At no point does it feel like the director is above this material; rather, it feels like Collet-Serra is a kid running amok in the slasher movie sandbox, where he’s dreamt up the most ornate house of horrors imaginable to host yet another round of hack-and-slash mayhem.
Every slasher list deserves at least one goofball entry, and none claim such a label quite as forcefully as Deborah Brock’s sequel to The Slumber Party Massacre. Where the original film is a wry attempt at upending slasher conventions, this follow-up turns them all inside-out and allows them to rummage through the most 80s landscape possible. It’s perhaps best described as being the sort of film that the uninitiated imagine this genre to be crawling with: complete, abject nonsense that exists only as a showcase for gratuitous violence and nudity. You wouldn’t exactly be wrong about that, but you would be mistaken to take that as a bad thing. In this case, it’s quite possibly the best thing, as Brock’s film strips the slasher down to its base elements—a maniac stalks a group of nubile girls—but adorns it with the gaudiest accessories imaginable, be it the rockabilly killer’s drill guitar, ridiculous dialogue, dramatic pillow fights, or even an honest-to-god dance number to usher in the killing spree. Both the best and worst impulses of the genre are crystallized here, capturing the strange paradox that makes this strand of slashers so irresistible: they are at all times some of the most incredible and incredibly absurd things you’ll ever witness. Good luck trying to look away in either case.
I would be remiss if this list didn’t acknowledge the quasi-amateur regional scene that contributed so many different, idiosyncratic voices to this genre. While many of them were under consideration for this slot, my heart kept returning to a pair of Carolina slashers in Final Exam and The Mutilator, with the latter separating itself by a razor (or sword, pick, or axe) thin margin. Buddy Cooper’s boozy seaside slasher has become a personal staple over the years thanks to its potent blend of desolate atmosphere, deranged violence, weirdo digressions, and the snappiest theme song this side of an 80s Natural Light commercial. Many would-be auteurs picked up cameras in hopes of securing a video store shelf spot with splattery nonsense, but few did so with the gusto of The Mutilator, one of the era’s most eccentric efforts that’s also genuinely works beyond its oddness. It’s an honest-to-goodness spooky, sometimes otherworldly slasher, one that just so happens to also boast a bumbling drunk as its titular psychopath.
The woods were a popular place to get splattered in the 80s, but college campuses might have been even more popular places to get smashed and splattered. I was again tempted to put Final Exam here because I actually think it works better as a college-set party movie, what with all the pranks and blatant stereotypes. However, The House on Sorority Row functions much better as a slasher and is one of the best examples of the “prank gone horribly wrong” subset of flicks that came out of the genre. It uses the college setting well enough too, as there are some good party moments and a memorable cast of gals we get to know before the bloodletting begins in earnest. And when it does begin, one girl loses her head, which ends up in the crapper. Awesome.
The Italians’ contribution to this genre are largely confined to the giallo movement, which is very much its own thing for the purposes of this list on account of being more ornate in terms of plot and style than most of their American cousins. Like a slasher, you know a giallo when you see it; otherwise, just know that several efforts from Argento, Bava, and Fulci would be very much in this conversation. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s discuss those Italian splatter merchants who didn’t completely sit out the more low-rent slasher scene, like Michele Soavi. For my money, his Stagefright is the best of this bunch, primarily because it marries his homeland’s dazzling aesthetics with the base impulses of the splatter movie. While the whodunit plot is obviously propelled by a mystery, the more pressing issue here involves just how horribly this cast of characters will die. An assortment of chainsaws, axes, and electric drills answer on Soavi’s behalf, his camera capturing the carnage with unflinching artistry. StageFright is equal parts brutal and beautiful, wonderfully grotesque and alluring in a way that’s distinctly European in its overwrought grandeur. There’s something almost operatic about it, making it impossible to deny.
If you can describe a film as being about a group of friends that go into the woods and get hacked up, chances are, it’s a slasher. Jeff Lieberman’s take on that particular kind of film is one of the most raw of its type, too; by ‘81, many slashers had begun to take the Friday the 13th Grand Guignol route of crafting elaborate death sequences. This one keeps the gutting pretty simple and is just really creepy instead of being super bloody, and it’s all the better for it. Not many films can pull off being disturbing in broad daylight, but Just Before Dawn captures an impenetrable deep woods landscape whose eerie silence is only punctuated by the occasional scream. A suspenseful scene involving a rope bridge is particularly nail-bitingly brutal.
A dark horse entry on this list—at least in the sense that it’s really grown in esteem during the past five years or so—Happy Birthday to Me has just about everything you crave from this genre: memorable, lived-in characters that seem especially germane to Canadian slashers, grisly gore, and one hell of a clever yarn that climaxes with a wild twist. Most impressively, so much of it shouldn’t work, at least on paper: boasting an 111-minute runtime and only six on-screen deaths, it’s one of the longest slashers and sports an unusually meager body count. And yet, it’s undeniably a blast, infused with a wry sense of humor as director J. Lee Thompson and company positively fuck with the audience, leading them down a byzantine path lined with red herrings, buried secrets, and repressed trauma. Given that the plot hinges on a questionable brain surgery, it’s fitting that Happy Birthday to Me is a total synapse-smasher, one that rewires the DNA of Agatha Christie, gialli and slasher films into an unforgettable triple-layer cake soaked in blood and sleaze.
How good of a slasher can a made-for-TV movie be? If Dark Night of the Scarecrow is any indication, the answer is “pretty fucking good.” Like Sorority Row, this one is another tale of the revenge, and it has an eerie, supernatural slant. This one functions just as well as a good old fashioned campfire tale too, with its fall setting and Halloween-set climax accentuating the spooky, chilly atmosphere. Considering its TV roots, it has to imply a lot of its splatter, but those implications are quite grisly--let’s just say it might not be the best idea to be near a wood chipper if a vengeful spirit is roaming the countryside.
Here’s where things get tricky. Given my own criteria, you’d be right to balk at the inclusion of Fade to Black here because it’s more of a Maniac-style character piece (albeit with the scumbag factor dialed way down) than a straight-up slasher. I won’t argue with you and will be the first to acknowledge that maybe the criteria is full of shit; however, I’ll also reiterate that I warned you up front. Besides that, it’s actually easy to make a case for Vernon Zimmerman’s early slasher effort here, as it anticipates exactly where the genre was headed in terms of its Grand Guignol potential. While Fade to Black wasn’t the first to envision death as an audience spectacle, it pushes the notion to the logical extreme by having lovelorn sad sack—and cinema addict—Eric Binford exact vengeance in elaborate sequences that take inspiration from the maniac’s favorite films. Assuming the guise of Lugosi’s Dracula, the Mummy, and even a prohibition-era gangster, Eric terrorizes Hollywood in a manner that few of his slasher contemporaries could quite match. Many slashers prompt audiences to wonder how their victims would perish, but Fade to Black arguably provides the most spectacular answer, all while doubling as a genuinely tragic tale of a lonely weirdo.
I’ve never heard of “Thanksgiving camp,” but in the world of slashers, sometimes you just have to make shit up to get a bunch of campers out in the woods so they can get killed. Madman is an awesome fusion of a campfire tale (Madman Marz is introduced by campfire and is only evoked by speaking his name above a whisper), slasher nonsense (hello, awkward, interminable hot tub scene), and silly gore theatrics (I don’t think you can really decapitate someone with the hood of a car, but it’s an awesome spectacle). Of all the woodsy splatter movies out there, this is one of the most atmospheric, as the howling winds and the ominous tree-line capture a moody isolation. Marz himself is pretty distinctive too: he looks like an overweight hillbilly farmer, but he’s a lithe son of a bitch who skulks from tree to tree in search of naughty campers.
This is where I also get to pull my trump card a bit because the first Prom Night sequel does a few things differently than most slashers. For one, Mary Lou is front and center: we know she’s the killer, we know why she’s the killer (she’s rightfully and righteously pissed about being burned to death), and we know how she’s doing it (possession, which is usually the domain of…well, possession movies). It’s a lot more Nightmare on Elm Street than a standard slasher, but the high school/teen movie trappings and the insistence on over-the-top kills makes it a prime fit. It's also much better than its more infamous predecessor; that one might have Jamie Lee, but even she is no Mary Lou Maloney, who deserved to be a more prominent slasher icon.
Did someone say something about naughty campers? Angela Baker returns to slaughter hordes of them in this improved second outing (the first--while unnerving and effective at times--is somewhat stiff and not entirely my speed). This time around, instead of Felissa Rose staring vacantly into the camera, you get a show-stealing Pam Springsteen crafting one of slasherdom’s best anti-heroes. Also, this is a camp movie that actually works as a fine camp comedy when people aren’t being sliced and diced--there’s pranks, awkward teenage romance, and awesome mullets. If not for The Burning, this would be the definitive camp slasher. But at times, I think Sleepaway Camp II is the best representative of the completely silly, stereotypical body count splatter flicks that the 80s were known for: the kills are wicked and Springsteen’s quips are delightfully corny. I imagine she’s exactly what a younger Mrs. Voorhees would have been like, what with all of her indignation towards premarital sex.
I always thought Scream 2 was a good follow-up to the original, but a recent revisit caused me to realize that the worst thing I could say about it was that it just wasn’t quite as good as the first. And considering that the first Scream is one of the best slashers of all time, that’s actually pretty high praise for this sequel, which not only acknowledges the sequel rules (they’ve gotta be bigger and bloodier), but also follows through on them. It also takes the time-tested college setting and dares to populate it with real characters (some old faces, some new) before eviscerating them all over the campus. One of my favorite things, however, is its clever story connection to the original, especially the way it comes straight out of the slasher handbook. And the best part? You never see it coming, just like a good knife to the gut.
Obviously, summer camp was pretty killer in the 80s. Everyone associates the Friday the 13th series with mutilated campers, but this sixth entry is the only one that actually features a fully operational camp. Though it falls a bit short on typical camp shenanigans, it delivers what everyone came to see at this point in the series: Jason, who is alive and well and hacking his way back to Camp Crystal Lake (er, Forrest Green). As recently as a few years ago, I probably would have placed Part III here, but, let’s face it: this is just about as good as it gets for Friday the 13th. Tom McLoughlin is arguably the best director the series ever had, and his slick, black comedy-laced entry delivers laughs, gore, and a great cast that’s brought to life by some of the franchise's most memorable performances. Jason wouldn’t be this fun again for another fifteen years, and he had to share the screen with Freddy to pull that off.
The further exploits of the night he came home, Halloween II was essentially Carpenter’s answer to the flicks that splattered their way into multiplexes in the wake of his original film. There’s a moment that really encapsulates this when a young boy shows up at a hospital pouring blood from his mouth, an obvious victim of the old “razor in the apple” urban legend. Whereas the first film captured the innocuous side of Halloween night tricks or treats, the sequel captures the really dark, pagan heart of the holiday, right down to the now synth-driven, gothic-tinged score. But despite its newfound gore-soaked mean streak, it also retains the first film’s eeriness. The early scenes of The Shape skulking around Haddonfield truly capture the spookiness of a madman on the loose.
Believe it or not, this entry was one of the toughest to reckon with. Not necessarily in terms of placement, mind you, but whether or it not is should even appear at all. Should Tobe Hooper’s seminal slaughter movie really be counted among a crowd of slashers that are, frankly, largely beneath it? While it certainly shares the DNA of so many of the slashers it eventually inspires, it certainly sets itself apart in terms of tone and approach, to the point where it’s really hard to lump it in with those lesser efforts. However, after wrestling with this question for years, I’ve ultimately decided it’d be damn weird if we produced two slasher movie lists without acknowledging The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which might actually be the purest expression of the genre. Despite its reputation—and its sensationalist title—Hooper’s on-screen bloodletting is mostly restrained in favor of wringing genuine, unnerving terror from a premise that would often be recycled to a more raucous (and, let’s be real, lesser) effect by later slashers.
Seemingly endless hordes of doomed youth would be slaughtered on-screen in its wake, but none of those films is an absolute meat grinder like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a film that doesn’t inspire sympathy or amusement. More simply, it’s a grueling exercise in unrelenting nihilism, its nerve-jangling tenor ultimately matching the primal howl of Leatherface’s chainsaw: nothing captures the slasher genre’s insistence on doom quite like a bleakly efficient death rattle that opens with a shot of an exhumed corpse and ends with a chainsaw-wielding maniac twirling in both frustration and ecstasy.
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