Unbridled Chaos and Unfiltered Creativity: The Beauty of '80s Slasher Films

A few weeks ago, in a state of boredom and genuine curiosity, I decided that I was in the mood for something festive for the Halloween holiday. I have no costume ideas, my town is not very keen on the idea of trick-or-treating (especially at night), and I mainly stay at home most days to begin with. A nice horror movie and/or show is the perfect way to spend your fall now that the weather (at least in the northern United States) is starting to cool down.

In my state of curiosity, I came across the new arrival of a heavily hyped horror slasher that made waves at the 2019 FrightFest: Haunt, from Scott Beck & Bryan Woods, the two writers behind the successful 2018 horror film, A Quiet Place. Haunt was recently picked up by Shudder for streaming, so I took advantage and checked out the apparently beloved slasher film for myself.

Watching it, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic.

No, I’ve never gone to one of those role-playing haunted house attractions (and this movie didn’t exactly spur any strong urges to do so either), but rather my nostalgia was rooted in the type of film I was watching. For the first time in what has felt like ages, I was watching something I could legitimately call an original slasher. The haunted house premise is familiar, but we’re still dealing with new characters and a different-enough set of events transpiring.

Most importantly, Haunt presents itself as a slasher film in the simplest of forms. There are no real twists in the movie or anything resembling an attempt to stray away from the classic slasher formula. The 90-minute runtime is dedicated to a cavalcade of psychotic killers terrorizing a young group of friends, much in the same style of the slashers of old. This may sound morbid, but there’s something beautiful about bearing witness to such well-known clichés onscreen.

To me, Haunt represents a brief throwback to a time when slasher movies dominated the horror market, saturating the genre with many variations of the same formula of young kids (preferably high school or college-aged) combating a strange figure hellbent on murdering them. If you grew up in the 80s and 90s, chances are that you were never able to escape these movies, even if you wanted to. Seemingly every month, a new “terrifying” romp was released, copying and pasting the basic premise of the slasher formula and varying it up by setting them in schools, camping trips, home invasions, etc. Even with the slight differences, most of them were practically the same movie.

Yet, I personally find it impossible to outright despise these movies, despite their transparency in what they were really doing. Maybe it’s because I was born and raised after the slasher boom of the 70s, 80s, and the late 90s, but I can’t find good reason to punch down at these old slasher flicks. Slashers feel as though they operate under their own rules, completely separate from the trappings of other forms of horror like psychological and supernatural by simplifying the horror to its barest essentials.

Psycho is often considered to be the father of slasher horror and in many ways, it is. The pulpy atmosphere mixed with the high body count and crazed serial killer made for a visceral experience not felt at the time in the early 60s. But where American horror seemed to truly begin its shift into the slasher boom of the late 70s and 80s was with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974. Tobe Hooper’s grungy and disturbing slasher helped popularize the horror film that saw younger people fall victim to an evil being with no reasonable explanation for their outrage.

This trend continued through films like John Carpenter’s Halloween and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, each one delivering a fresh and exciting experience that felt unique to each respective film, despite them both being a part of the slasher genre. Halloween benefited from John Carpenter’s meticulous direction and an unkillable antagonist with no logic or reasoning existing in his head. Friday the 13thplays out like a schlocky and more violent version of Psycho, adding a whodunit element to the story that made its mystery both intriguing and disturbing knowing that whomever was killing the camp counselors actually had their own logic behind their rage.

Friday the 13th, to be specific, was released in 1980 and at the height of its success, broke down the doors for violent slasher movies to be made. It was not only wildly successful at the box office, but even more profitable thanks to an incredibly low budget and the use of mostly unknown actors, save for Betsy Palmer. The slasher sub-genre of horror had finally proven that films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Black Christmas, and Halloween weren’t complete flukes when it came to mass appeal, leading to a wild and chaotic period in the 1980s when slasher films became the norm, trying to capitalize on the booming market with what seemed to be new slasher flicks coming in every 1-3 months or so.

Films like Sleepaway Camp, Maniac, Prom Night, The Slumber Party Massacre, Final Exam, and later supernatural-flavored slashers like Child’s Play, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Slayer, etc., were just a handful of a wide array of slasher films in the 1980s, taking advantage of the market while it was profitable to craft some of the most memorable (for good and bad reasons) horror films of the time. While there was still room for psychological horror when needed, slasher films were THE coolest things in town. But why? Furthermore, why do I love this era of horror so much?

As I’ve said many times in previous articles of mine, I look at horror as a genre defined by the taboos of communities and society in general. Horror gives us a peek beyond the façade of safety and examines what truly scares us the most. The 1970s in America was one of many politically turbulent periods of American history, with the Watergate scandal and the grim situation of the Vietnam War leading to the young generation of American people becoming disillusioned with their home and the rules they soon began to defy.

Exploitation films actively worked to poke the bear during these times, shying away from simple creature features and demonic possession films to showcase horror films that explored the brewing darkness of 1970s America. Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left was notorious for its bleak depiction of misogyny and rape and while the film wasn’t a roaring success, it laid the foundation for Tobe Hooper to put his own spin on exploitation two years later with Texas Chainsaw to stronger financial success.

But those two films, as important as they are to the slasher genre, were not as concerned with entertainment and creative kills as 80s slashers were, nor should they have been, given what they were going for. These were dark, gritty, and atmospheric explorations of 1970s America and far from the mainstream at the time. But when the 80s rolled around, the intention of a slasher film became geared somewhat towards the entertainment factor, leading to the boom of movies mentioned above that simultaneously poked the bear while still having a unique and incredibly fun edge to them.

Unlike Texas Chainsaw, 80s slashers aimed to provide horror thrills to the audience in a more tongue-in-cheek manner. Not necessarily as full-blown comedies, but more with a dark sense of humor that had audiences acknowledge and sometimes even embrace the fun that could be had watching these kinds of violent movies. 80s slashers, despite following the familiar slasher formula, were bluntly violating the rules of filmmaking, putting a stronger emphasis on the experience of watching a film over concerns to tell a technically well-crafted story.

Monster movies from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, as joyously schlocky as they could be, still operated under a general rule of finality and a need to reinforce the rules that people lived by at the end of the films. Even early slashers like Psycho and The Last House on the Left ended with a sense of true finality, albeit with much more disturbing paths to the end. But 80s slashers were not concerned with presenting us a nice and tidy story.

Films like Sleepaway Camp, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13thmade it a point to not only depict teenagers and adults getting killed in gruesome ways, but to not even provide a conventional conclusion to their stories. Things aren’t “resolved” by the authorities coming in and solving the whole damn case or the final survivor remaining triumphant in their victories against their tormentors. Much in the spirit of Halloween, these films left the audience with a sense of uneasiness, refusing to let them go home knowing that everything is okay. Sure, the films end at some point, but their final shots leave a lingering impact on the viewer, calling into question just how safe one truly can be.

Even when 80s slashers ended on somewhat positive notes, their presentation and portrayals of violence were aggressive, in-your-face, and most of all, done with a sick smile on their faces. Slashers never forgot how to have fun with themselves, becoming quite meta in how they treated their content. It almost feels as though the characters themselves know that they are part of a movie (and not in a self-referential way like Scream and New Nightmare), putting on the kind of show that you couldn’t truly get from any other type of horror film.

The violence was enhanced by the masterful work of a cavalcade of practical effects gurus aiming to depict the violence onscreen in the most visceral and confrontational way possible. When characters got their throats slit, audiences got a look at the whole deal with a close-up of the fated character’s neck. If someone got hacked up by an axe, we saw exactly where the weapon connected and how badly the poor sap was injured post-swing. There was no shying around the violence and the films had enough of a sense of humor to have a laugh about it, in their own dark ways of course.

Alas, the boom had to eventually come to an end, with slashers waning in popularity during the second half of the 1980s, but the success of the various slasher films during the first half led to them receiving large followings on home video. Even theatrical bombs like My Bloody Valentine, Night School, and Silent Night, Deadly Night received cult followings in the years after their release on home video. It was through home video, in fact, where I discovered most of these gems, as well as the 90s slashers that I was introduced to at around 4-5 years old.

Growing up in a home that loved horror films, I was always surrounded by a seemingly endless selection of both mainstream and independent horror films that my mom bought (mostly in blind buys). But after being quite spoiled by the enhanced visual and practical effects of new-age horror films, I never quite found myself to be “scared” by the multitude of 80s slashers that we owned on VHS. After seeing Drew Barrymore’s corpse hung from a tree with her stomach populated by bloody stab wounds in Scream, movies like Friday the 13thand Nightmare on Elm Street just didn’t have that same impact for me personally.

Yet, I felt compelled to watch them regardless. Sure, they were kind of dated by that point in time, but even back then, there was a sense of genuine honesty in these films that I couldn’t get from most newer horror films. 80s slashers felt a larger-than-life experience and even today, watching them brings out feelings of joy for me, even among the blood splatter. These films were both provocative and inviting, holding my hand as they took me on a wild ride through schools, camps, dreams, small apartments, etc.

I loved what 80s slashers were doing with the horror genre and today as I write this, I appreciate not only the fun that was to be had with them, but the pure, unadulterated boldness that came to define the sub-genre. Were they sometimes cheesy? Of course. The 80s had different priorities and beliefs and that was very much reflected in both the characters and social dynamics. Were they tasteless? A little bit, but not any worse than offensive content found in various other films at the time, horror or not. 80s slashers will always byproducts of their time, yet that’s what I find so fascinating and ultimately beautiful about them.

80s slashers, more than just being cheesy horror flicks, were the leading examples of unfiltered creativity in the horror genre. Even when the market became over-saturated, they still represented a group of films that presented taboo topics to the mainstream. Above all else though, 80s slashers were the perfect examples of the fun that could be had in filmmaking. Not all of the films were fun to make (Texas Chainsaw and Friday the 13th Part IV being prime examples), but they represented a strong team effort to create an insane and bloody romp for audiences to have fun with.

These films ran so that the likes of Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, You’re Next, Ready or Not, and of course Haunt could sprint and make something new out of the sub-genre. Though slashers are far from their peak in popularity, effort is still being put in to create fun and unique horror rides that mix creative kills and gore with social commentary in the same vein that 80s slashers did, though with a difference in presentation. Maybe I’m just biased towards them, but I’ll take a great slasher film over a boring Oscar drama any day of the week.

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