Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Pitches + genre: some pointers on slasher movies

Creature feature or unkillable killer: John Carpenter’s slasher 1978 archetype Halloween (the ending of the original where Myers has been shot but still disappears creates the template for the unkillable killer), and Sean S. Cunningham’s 1980 gorefest Friday the 13th (Jason Voorhees swiftly becomes an inhuman creature) are the foremost examples. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984) adds a neat twist of a creature killing through teens’ dreams, the late paedophile Freddy Krueger having been burned to death by vengeful townsfolk wreaking his bloody revenge. There are many others, often rather daft, such as the Child’s Play and Leprechaun franchises. Like Jason Isaac’s 2001 Friday the 13th X (better known as Jason X – great tagline: “Evil gets an upgrade”), some slasher sequels have been set in space, such as Leprechaun 4: In Space (Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1997 – not sure how it even managed to get a 3.1 rating on IMDB!). The fifth and sixth Leprechaun movies are set in ‘the hood’ (sorry, tha hood).
Right there we have one of the keys to the slasher’s enduring success: its capacity for hybridity,
taking on aspects of a second or even third genre to help widen appeal beyond traditional slasher fans. As Richard Nowell’s superb book Blood Money points out at some length, right from the outset slasher producers plus their distributors and exhibitors all sought to widen the traditional male audience base for horror by exploiting what Carole Clover, in her riposte to the criticisms that the slasher scream queen symbolised the misogyny of the genre, dubbed the final girl. Most slasher movies provide a romantic sub-plot; most (especially the franchise sequels, summed up by Freddy Krueger’s wisecracks with each kill, or the ultra-postmodern Jason X scene where the newly mechanized Jason bashes nude blonde Swedish campers off a tree in their sleeping bags … not realizing he’s in a holodeck) also provide some comedy (the false scare is also to some degree a comedy routine).
This works the other way round too, other genre films taking on the slasher template to broaden their appeal: the original Alien movie prefigures the shlockier Jason X by having a final girl pursued through a confined space by a ruthless killer. Indeed, the notion that the knife is a phallic object is made literal here, as Ripley falls pregnant from an attack in a sequel.
Scream kickstarted another trend for the postmodern movie, centred on levels of intertextuality with the characters for the first time well aware of the genre conventions and even discussing slasher movie rules – and later Scream instalments would use the film-within-a-film idea (Stab), culminating in the really rather silly Scream 4. Indeed, Wes Craven had used this idea even before 1996, with the 1994’s New Nightmare centred on the mayhem sparked by Wes Craven (playing himself) writing a new sequel script! Scary Movie (Keenan Ivory Wayans, 2000) took the postmodern idea as far as it can go, with the same year’s Cherry Falls (Geoffrey Wright) also pushing the genre envelope with a novel turnaround of the scream queen and final girl characteristics. Joss Whedon had already done this, twice over, with his TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer starting with a classic scream queen setup – only for the would-be victim to turn out to be the killer (the vampire Darla). Buffy herself is a cheerleader, but this glamorous blond teen, more interested in boys than books, turns out to be the ultimate final girl, a clear rejection by Whedon of the gender norms within horror.
Also postmodern but using a murder-mystery approach (as Scream also does with great success) I Know What You Did Last Summer (Jim Gillespie, 1997) and Cry_Wolf (Jeff Wadlow, 2005) are good examples of movies that are centred on keeping you guessing who the killer is, pushing the narrative enigma line as far as it will go. Indeed, the superb 2009 TV series (13 hour-long episodes) Harper’s Island showed that a single slasher narrative can comfortably be stretched over a much longer time frame than a movie or even the likes of Halloween (the original’s sequel carried on immediately from the end of the previous movie – rather ironically, as the third movie simply ignored the entire plotline, and subsequent sequels were far from faithful to facts established in earlier movies).
There are lots of good articles and videos out there which would help you gain a good overview of the genre, as will your vodcasts! The two feature-length slasher documentaries we have, plus the feature length docs on the Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises would also be useful – and then there’s the plentiful books. The Pocket Essentials book on slashers is a nice one if you’re after a quick read, but there are many more challenging ones there too.
Richard Nowell sets out how the slasher movie often remixes the main strands of a narrative; you really do have plenty of choices with the slasher movie. We haven’t mentioned the psychological thriller – Dressed to Kill (Brian de Palma, 1980) may have been panned by the critics but I think its amongst the finest slasher movies, and shows how using adult characters leads to a different emphasis whilst still basically retaining the slasher framework. Its opening is a really interesting example to look at too, a great example of using a dream sequence. Eden Lake (James Watkins, 2008) is another you should look at before settling on your idea, an interesting UK slasher. Warp X’s Donkey Punch (Oliver Blackburn, 2008) is also a useful one.
It also highlights the diversity of scenarios that can be had whilst sticking to the basic convention of having a confined space – which has been a suburban house, sorority house, hospital, asylum, circus, train, spaceship, forest/campsite, and in this case a boat!
There are movies marking every occasion, from April fool's to prom night (both remade in 2008); various Xmas; birthday ... even wedding.
Your opening could be for a fictional sequel (ie, a franchise that you invent, NOT a sequel to an actually existing movie). You could go for the ultra-realism of films like Wrong Turn or The Last House on the Left or alternatively the slightly campy creature-feature approach. It’s a very diverse field – the more examples you look at (and blog on; make sure you get credit for your research) the better informed and prepared you’ll be – and the more ideas will be sparked.

Here's a few examples of online articles: a list of 'the 10 best slashers you've never heard of', with brief synopses for each. A discussion list of users' top 10s. Where is Friday the 13th placed in this list of the 25 best all-time movie franchises?

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