Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Paramount)

Film

Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to slasher movies

What exactly sparked the obsession with brutal slasher horror villains in the 1980s? Throughout the decade audiences saw such gruesome icons as Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers thriving with as much popularity as modern-day superheroes as they hacked and slashed their way through hordes of young teenagers, only to see their constant demise at the hands of a plucky ‘final girl’.

The emergence of this subgenre of horror brought a new set of rules for the genre to follow, as convention took hold and production companies latched onto the newfound craze, churning out movie upon movie. 

No doubt, these movies were created in direct response to the real-life horrors on display in America throughout the preceding 1970s, with race riots raging and the Vietnam war coming to a bloody end. Stabbing at the national zeitgeist to awaken a new dawn for horror cinema, filmmakers such as John Carpenter, Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper exposed the facade of American peace, justice and liberty, opening the door for an influx of nasty cinematic villains to rear their ugly heads. 

Tracking the history of the subgenre from the very first inspirations to modern-day impressions of the horror movement, let’s take a look back at over 62 years of slasher cinema.

The six definitive slasher movies:

Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

Popularly known as the movie that kicked off the slasher subgenre which would obsess late 20th-century audiences, Psycho, by Alfred Hitchcock contained many of the trademarks that the horror movement would become known for. 

A psychological thriller years ahead of its time, that subverts cliches of the genre and leaves you on tenterhooks till it’s shocking, and now infamous final sequence, the film follows a young man named Norman Bates who runs the everyday functioning of the ‘Bates Motel’, a secluded hideaway where a young woman evading the law finds herself trapped.

Toeing the line between thrilling terror and well-constructed art, Psycho introduced audiences to the idea of a senseless, mentally deranged killer, whose identity is hidden until the terrifying climax. Taking to his villains with a kitchen knife, Bates’ murderous ways finally come to an end at the film’s climax where the final girl, Lila Crane, helps to incarcerate the killer.

 

Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974)

Much time passed following the release of Psycho until the conventions of the slasher subgenre would begin to catch on, with several other films also working to consolidate its themes. Whilst Hitchcock’s film was pivotal for the movement, it would be unfair not to mention Michael Powell’s voyeuristic slasher Peeping Tom of 1960, or indeed the work of the Italian filmmaker Mario Bava, whose films like 1964s Blood and Black Lace helped to spread the slasher tastes abroad. 

Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre also created the very first commercial villain in Leatherface when the film was released the very same year as Black Christmas, a film that arguably had more of an impact on the shape of the subgenre going forward.

Familiar in tone and narrative structure to the countless slasher movies of the 1980s, Black Christmas, by director Bob Clark, followed a group of sorority girls who are stalked by a murderous stranger during their Christmas break. Brutal, senseless and intensely violent, the film shares many similarities to later movies of the subgenre that too featured groups of teenagers being picked off one by one by a masked assailant. 

Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)

It would be wrong to consider John Carpenter’s Halloween as the first slasher movie, even if it was the first of the genre to seize both critical and commercial acclaim for its efforts to the horror genre. Though, whereas such aforementioned films often gave a backseat to their grizzly villains, John Carpenter put the killer of Halloween, Michael Myers, front and centre, making his blank white mask iconic in the process. 

Donning the terrifying vacant mask, Michael Myers (a name as starkly fearful in the genre as Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees) wreaks havoc on a small Illinois town following his escape from a mental hospital. 

In a town as defiantly postcard-American as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, John Carpenter’s Halloween brought a sense of unease to every homely U.S suburb—suggesting something fantastically abnormal could be lurking in the shadows. Setting the standard for modern horror cinema Carpenter’s film is underscored by his own, timeless creeping score. A synth-led nightmare that has you instinctively checking over your shoulder. It would be the starting pistol for a new age of western cinema. 

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)

It’s 1984 and the slasher movie subgenre is in full swing, with the Halloween franchise having already spawned three movies, alongside Friday the 13th which already has four films despite only starting in 1980. 

It was in the release of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street the very same year, however, that slasher movies would see their most revolutionary villain in Freddy Krueger, a killer explicitly not part of the realms of reality, operating in the ethereal plane of dreams.

Wes Craven’s fleshy supernatural slasher is a creative masterpiece of the subgenre, creating one of cinema’s most subversive and iconic villains, Freddy Krueger. 

Starring a young Johnny Depp, Craven’s film follows the evil spirit of Krueger, a deceased child murderer who seeks revenge from the grave on the children of those who sent him to his death. Featuring revolutionary, grungy special effects and a truly unique sinister entity, straight from the camp underworld, A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the slasher genre’s best and most fascinating creations. 

Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)

Formulated, established and commercialised, slasher movies had become extremely tired by the end of the 1980s, with audiences fatigued after numerous sequels, reboots and copycat movies. This didn’t just apply to the many movies of the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises either, with movies such as Prom Night, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Maniac Cop, Intruder, The Slumber Party Massacre, Stagefright and The Prowler each looking for their slice of box-office pie throughout the decade.

In 1996s Scream Wes Craven doffs his cap to the very horror genre he helped to create, establishing one of the very best slasher villains in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Scream, Craven’s final masterpiece, heralded the arrival of a brand new genre icon, Ghostface, bringing the terror of slasher movies to an entirely new generation.

Satirically twisting the conventions of the horror genre itself, Craven would kill off the film’s biggest name, Drew Barrymore, within the first sequence of the film, letting you in for 110 minutes of pure surprise. The story is predictable, and purposefully so, following a teenage girl and her group of friends, stalked by a serial killer using horror films as inspiration for his murderous acts. 

With all its twists, turns and misdirection, Scream is thrilling to its very core, pedalled by a leading cast reaping obvious enjoyment from the inspired script. 

Hush (Mike Flanagan, 2016)

Where do the slasher movies of the 1980s exist in modern-day cinema? The short answer is, that they don’t. As with all genres, tastes come and go, with the likes of Leatherface and Michael Myers being dragged out in modern cinema to little applause or care at all from modern audiences. 

Look closer, however, and you’ll see that the identity of such movies has merely shifted, being shown either in the pastiche of such movies as Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods and the recent release of Ti West’s X or in the revisionist take shown in film’s like Adam Wingard’s You’re Next or Mike Flanagan’s Hush, where convention is turned on its head and filmmakers adopt a brand new of looking at modern horror.

In an ever-connected world where mass population is resulting in densely populated cities and any friend or service is available at the tap of a phone screen, one of the most daunting modern fears is loneliness. Flanagan’s film taps into this fear perfectly, adopting the viewpoint of the deaf protagonist, Maddie, who is attacked by a masked assailant in her secluded woodland home. 

Playing on the same riffs of the ‘80s slasher movement, the 2016 movie lets a masked killer loose on not a group of vulnerable teens destined for death, but just one unlikely protagonist, who is forced to fight for survival. Where sound and jump scares played a large part in the circus of slasher movies, by muting the sound and increasing the film’s visual intensity, Flanagan takes the subgenre to new grounds.