Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Mainstream Scribe Makes Mess of Slasher Movie Meditation

Why would an allegedly intelligent professional writer try to pass off, as an informed, learned article, something he'd written about a subject of which he really knows very little? Does the thought that his ignorance is immediately going to be apparent to anyone who does know anything of the subject give him pause? Why would he do it?

The answer, as best I can tell, is that he assumed there aren't a lot of horror fans who read the Atlantic. In that, I'll admit he's probably right. But when it's put on the internet, everyone can see it, including those fans of dark fantasy who, randomly scanning the internet one night, come across it and immediately recognize it for the thin inaccuracy it is. Sometimes, they even feel the urge to come to their own little corner of the internet and rant about it.

The offender, here, is James Parker. His article: "Don't Fear the Reaper," from the April 2009 Atlantic. The subtitle: "Learning to love the slasher-film renaissance." The premise: That we're in the middle of a full-bore revival of the cinematic slasher sub-genre. The problem? The author doesn't know what a slasher movie is.

Slasher films, properly speaking, are a sub-genre that emerged in the 1980s in the wake of the huge success of 1978's HALLOWEEN[1] and, particularly, 1980's FRIDAY THE 13th (which proved HALLOWEEN hadn't been a fluke).[2] It's no accident of history that they proliferated so prodigiously in the Reagan '80s. The slashers were simple, reactionary morality fables wherein bad little boys and girls--particularly the girls--are punished for their "sins," those "sins" being any deviation from the sternest Puritanical morality. Take a hit off a joint, a shot of booze, party while the parents are away, or, worst of all, get laid and you're guaranteed to be laid to rest before the film runs its course.[3] Such sinners are destroyed in slasher films by a killer who, brandishing bladed weapons, is often little more than a cypher, a living embodiment of those Puritanical moral notions--gaze upon the blank "face" of HALLOWEEN's Michael Myers or FRIDAY THE 13th's Jason Vorhees.[4]

As a matter of convention, the killers were usually given some sort of backstory that began years earlier and tied into this theme. There's usually a "final girl," the last to survive the killer's onslaught and who usually defeats him in the end. This, too, ties into the central theme. The "final girl" is always "virtuous," by the curious "morality" embraced by the films. She's not allowed to be sexual, to dissent from this stern "morality," to do much of anything to assert her independence. She's the one left babysitting while everyone else is out partying. And everyone else is merely a target, thinly written non-entities whose job is solely to sin and to die for it in various ways.

What I've just outlined doesn't make for a complete definition of the slasher movie, of course. Other conventions and clich├ęs grew up around the subgenre, and there are other elements floating around on the outer strands of its DNA, but that basic reactionary morality fable was its core, its central defining characteristic, and the slashers were, with very few exceptions, rigorous in their devotion to the formula. By 1996, that formula had become so universally recognizable that it could be effectively parodied--and turned into a huge money-maker--in Wes Craven's SCREAM. The slashers are an identifiable group of literally hundreds of films sharing the same genes in incestuous fashion. Their family tree is, for the most part, a straight line. You can pull out virtually any dozen genuine slasher films at random, watch them back-to-back, and, with the exception of the obvious disparities in talent, different settings, and so on, you'd essentially be watching the same movie over and over again.[5]

I don't think much of slasher films. There were some good ones over the years, to be sure, but out of those hundreds of productions, the good ones can easily be counted on the fingers of one hand with fingers to spare. They are, for the most part, creatively bankrupt ventures that, at their height in the '80s, became a blight on the horror genre, nearly strangling it to death. Or perhaps "cutting its throat" would be a better metaphor. I suppose that's why I get all uppity when someone like James Parker comes along and writes an article about "the modern slasher movie" wherein non-slashers like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, and SAW are aggressively thrown on the same slasher pile as genuine slashers like MY BLOODY VALENTINE and the FRIDAY THE 13th movies. Parker seems to think the only thing a slasher film needs is a killer who slashes. A killer with blades does not a slasher film make, though.[6]

To be fair, Parker isn't alone in this. One encounters this same sort of thing all over the internet; whenever fans on message boards are tasked with compiling a list of great slashers, there are almost inevitably numerous non-slasher inclusions. It's a sign of the complete creative bankruptcy of the slasher subgenre that, with so many films from which to choose, not even their most fervent fans seem capable of compiling a simple list of worthy efforts, even one only ten movies long, without padding it with at least a few non-slashers.

"But why this press of remakes," Parker asks, "this slasher-jam at the box office, right now?" He hasn't made any case for any "slasher jam," though. Hollywood has been aggressively remaking every horror success story of the past for years, now; it was inevitable that it would eventually get to the slashers. It didn't just get to the slashers this year, either--it has been remaking them (along with everything else) for a few years now. Parker's assertion of a current "slasher jam" is partly premised on the current remakes of slasher films, but it also relies heavily on those numerous remakes of films that are not, in fact, slashers, and on more recent films that aren't slashers, either.[7]

Parker says "the modern slasher movie... is a child of the 1970s," but it is, of course, much more closely--and properly--associated with the 1980s. In the '70s (starting, really, in the late '60s), filmmakers were using horror and other exploit genres to present interesting ideas and radical points of view. Films like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT are much more sophisticated than the simple, Puritanical morality fables of the slashers. They follow no blueprint. No one in them is "safe." They were made in an atmosphere in which "The '60s" had crashed and burned really hard and it seemed as though America itself was winding down, sentiment the films reflected. There's a heavy emphasis on things like American self-image vs. reality. The evil you see in these films isn't some sort of exterior force that can be made to vanish by waving a crucifix at it or mumbling incantations over it. It resides within us.[8] The slashers think there's evil in us too, but their notion of "evil" is infantile, and they're all about cutting it out instead of contemplating the horror of it. They're like the dumbed-down revenge of angry, stupid, grunting conservatism, finally stomping out all those dope-smokin', fornicatin', long-haired troublemakers.

Parker is light-hearted in his comments. It would probably be wrong to be too hard on him. Most "mainstream" writers don't like horror films, and their work reflects it. That this one isn't openly hostile to the genre is, alone, a plus. And it certainly doesn't betray the shocking degree of ignorance and idiocy of a David Edelstein (He Who Created "Torture Porn"). Still, it is an uninformed piece, and, pretending to be informed, ends up dragging some good movies through the mud. I thought that was worth a grunt or two of protest.



[1] Though I recognize that it belongs there, I've never been entirely comfortable with including HALLOWEEN in the slasher category. The things that made HALLOWEEN work--the mythical element, the incredible visual stylings, the consistently menacing atmosphere, the suspense, the killer-as-projection-of-the-mind--are all pretty much ignored by the slashers that followed. FRIDAY THE 13th is the one that really popularized the by-the-numbers formula the subgenre would follow, and the long green it raked in was the point at which it really took off.

[2] Various commentators have unsuccessfully tried to make a case for the slashers starting earlier. BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) is often cited by this contingent. The fact that the film was a failure, disappeared, and had no real influence wouldn't disqualify it as being a slasher film, but, among other things, it doesn't have the slashers' habit of lovingly lingering on the sinners getting their comeuppance, and, in fact, doesn't really offer the slasher movie morality fable at all. It's much more closely related to regular suspense films and thrillers. The full gamut of elements that would come to characterize the slasher film first congealed in HALLOWEEN.

[3] Women who express their sexuality in any way or who just get naked (even if no one but the camera is watching) are slaughtered without mercy, and the films always lovingly dote on the deaths of the women far more than the men, because female misbehavior is always thought far worse by this particular breed of moralizing.

[4] Those are extreme examples--slashers obviously didn't all go this way--but they were the most successful.

[5] The slashers are sometimes referred to as "body count" movies, and the appellation is certainly appropriate. Coming at the end of a great period of horror, they're not just stripped of the intellectual content of their predecessors, they're stripped of nearly everything. As my description suggests, they amounted to an effort to reduce horror down a few basic elements. They're horror in its most degraded, dumbed-down form, an artless, soulless assembly-line product featuring a standardized procession of unidimensional targets committing sins and being destroyed for it.

[6] Some would like to use that as the defining element of a "slasher movie," but doing so results in so many non-slasher horrors, thrillers, and mysteries being dumped under the classification of "slasher movie" that the huge body of work that legitimately falls under it and that does contain the clearly identifiable elements that make a cohesive subgenre is completely overwhelmed by these new additions and the classification is rendered meaningless.

[7] He uses, for example, the SAW films, which aren't slashers. The first is quite good, and is really a throwback to the pre-slasher '70s, in that it has an actual story, a psychological approach to the horror, characters who are more than cardboard cut-out targets, and a killer with an intriguing point of view (it borrows heavily from SE7EN, which is also excellent).

[8] That's not to romanticize the horror cinema of the '70s. Like any other era, it produced scores of films ranging from mediocre to outright worthless. Sturgeon's Law always applies: 90% of everything is crap. It's usually closer to 99% of everything. The top horrors of that era were crude, nasty, pitiless and in-your-face. They were also sublime. The slashers not only marked the end of this era of horrors of substance, they helped kill it off.