Slasher films killed in the '80s, but their violence, perceived misogyny, and endless sequels almost ended the genre. Supernatural killers Chucky and Freddy saved them from extinction.
- The most extreme form of horror films, slashers have been vilified since they first came on the scene. But they have also been tremendously popular. The worst of them can still be entertaining; the best of them tell us brutal truths about ourselves, our fears, and our secret desires. Over two episodes, Eli Roth and all-star lineup of horror film creators and critics explore how and why slashers scare, attract, and anger audiences.
It all started with Psycho (1960). Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece changed the horror genre's typical setting from castles in far-off Europe to small-town America, and its monster from a pale aristocrat in a cape to the boy next door. Psycho's shower scene - perhaps the most famous scene in cinematic history - showed that the combination of an editor cutting film and a knife cutting flesh could terrify audiences and make a fortune at the box office. Psycho paved the way for the brutality of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), in which Tobe Hooper channeled his rage over the Vietnam War, the displacement of American workers, and the brutal conditions in meat slaughterhouses into a documentary-style nightmare of redneck psychosis. The spirit of these films led to John Carpenter's landmark Halloween, which turned slashers into an international phenomenon. Halloween marked the debut of Scream Queen Jamie Lee Curtis, the first great "final girl."
Halloween inspired legions of imitators, including Friday the 13th (1980), the first slasher to emphasize "creative kills" and high body counts. The blockbuster success of Friday the 13th led to a glut of slashers that were adored by fans but hated by feminist activists and movie critics. No movie spawned more hatred than Maniac (1980), a painfully realistic film about a loser who viciously murders and scalps prostitutes. Maniac and its ilk led to protests outside theaters and editorials proclaiming that slasher movies caused an uptick of violence against women. At the same time, a study showed that 55% of the slasher movie audience was made up of women. (In the episode, young feminist critics reclaim these movies for accurately depicting the anxieties of women forced to live in a world filled with dangerous misogynists.) By the late '80s, political pressure and audience fatigue forced filmmakers to come up with something new: supernatural killers like Chucky, a doll possessed by a trash-talking serial killer.
Interviewees include Stephen King, Quentin Tarantino, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Savini, Rob Zombie, Elijah Wood, Jack Black, Edgar Wright, John Landis, Bruce Campbell, Leonard Maltin, Kane Hodder, Greg Nicotero, Sean Cunningham, Karyn Kusama, Dean Cundey, Bryan Fuller, Joe Hill, Lil Rel Howery, Leigh Whannell, Mick Garris, and Tom Holland.