We talked on here last year about the birth and evolution of the slasher film. Although the time before the peak contained slashers and many more have been made since then, the actual peak was a very short period filled with tons of films. That’s because, like with a certain movie studio and their comic book films, the industry will take a popular idea and say hey, let’s run this popular idea into the ground as quickly as possible. That is exactly what happened to the slasher film. 1974 may have brought two of the best slasher films in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Black Christmas, but neither caused the explosion of films that Halloween and Friday the 13th caused. Coming out in 1978 and 1980 respectively, that means the real rush of other slasher films didn’t last more four or five years. The traditional slasher star burned out very fast.
Anyone who’s seen even a couple of slashers is very familiar with the cliches. A good deal of time, you can figure out right from the start who will live, who will go first and each and every murder will be telegraphed (like a couple right after they have sex). But even within that formula, there are some other specific types of films or tropes. Before we look at the specific elements and where they came from, let’s look at the different types of slashers:
The holiday/killer returns on a specific day
This could very well account for most slasher films. If there’s a holiday or special event, there’s probably been a slasher film made about it. Halloween nailed down the market for films actually taking place during Halloween, but Christmas has made up for it with a few films. There’s also My Bloody Valentine, April Fool’s Day, Happy Birthday to Me and New Year’s Evil, among others. And then there’s others that focus on other “important” days, like Prom Night and Graduation Day. Some films like The Prowler even made up major events.
In a lot of cases, the holiday or event are setups for a killer to wreak havoc on a town. They might, as is typically the case, be out for revenge over something that happened to them in that day. Or the holiday might be used for no real specific reason.
The camp slasher
Although the camp slasher is mostly associated with the Friday the 13th series, it also spawned other series like Sleepaway Camp and numerous standalone films like The Burning. It’s the ideal setting for a slasher film, since it easily packs the typical teenage cast into one setting. It also gives plenty of opportunity for tropes like the promiscuous teens getting killed off while the “innocent” ones live. As with the first category, revenge for past actions is usually the motive for the killings. In that sense, these really don’t veer that much in a main plot from the others. It’s really just a different setting and time of year.
The killer is a member of the cast in disguise
Obviously, most of these films overlap with the two categories above. But there are two distinct categories of killers in slashers: those who’s indentity we know, and those that are a mystery. The films that are part of a series make no secret who the killer is (although there is one later Friday the 13th film that tries to change that. The killers are established characters there, but the killers are sometimes known entities too in other films. The Burning, for example, makes it known from the start who the killer is, with the only payoff being what his face looks like. Other films try to hide it, leading to a Scooby-Doo like mask ripping off the end. Some films handle the end reveal great (Sleepaway Camp), while others make it a little obvious (The Prowler).
So where did all those common elements start? Almost all can be traced back to the early ones:
The Final Girl: Both Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas predate the use of this element in Halloween. It can be seen in the vast majority of all slashers, with a few exceptions.
Having sex leads to death: First seen in Halloween, this ended up being a particular favorite in the Friday the 13th series, which loved to use this scene to telegraph deaths.
The menacing phone calls: The urban legend of “the calls are coming from inside the house” was first featured in Black Christmas and then later in When a Stranger Calls. Halloween also features menacing calls, although not from in the house. Sorry, Wrong Number, a suspense film from 1948, used the phone call idea long before any of these films.
The killer isn’t really dead: It wouldn’t really be a slasher film without the killer looking dead, only to jump back on the attack again (for one more jump scare). This is another one that predates the slasher film. 1967’s Wait Until Dark handles it better than pretty much any other film.