Moving Pictures April 2009

Don’t Fear the Reaper

Learning to love the slasher-film renaissance
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Julia Ames
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Video: "Jason X: The Doctors"

James Parker provides voiceover commentary for a scene from the Friday the 13th franchise.

The modern slasher movie, like your correspondent, is a child of the 1970s. But the slasher himself, the splatterer, the reaver of life, swinging out of the darkness with his death claw cocked, is as old as the hills (which have eyes, as we know). The slasher enforces those clauses of our contract with existence that we feel to be most punitive—the suddenness, that is, with which the whole thing can be revoked, and the sharpness or rigidity of the objects that are often involved. Getting slashed is human, all too human. “Reality was giving its lesson,” wrote Ted Hughes in one of his Crow poems, “Its mishmash of scripture and physics, / With here, brains in hands, for example, / And there, legs in a treetop.” Or, in the words of Tobe Hooper, creator of 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: “The true monster itself is death.”

Slasher films, as a consequence, have always done rather well. The classic slasher flick is produced at high speed, on a squeaker of a budget, and bows briefly for an anointing of critical scorn before going on to make piles of money. With a bit of luck, that critical scorn will be amplified into cultural censure—1980’s rape-revenge slasher, I Spit on Your Grave, for instance, was widely and windily reviled, to the enduring profit of its makers. “The more the film was attacked,” writer-director Meir Zarchi confided to Variety last year, “the more money shot into my pocket.”

Zarchi was talking to Variety because he’s currently involved in an I Spit on Your Grave remake, news of which increases the sensation that this year we’re caught in some kind of slasher loop or wormhole. January brought a 3-D remake of 1981’s My Bloody Valentine. A month later, New Line Cinema released its remake of 1980’s Friday the 13th, which was followed last month by a remake of Wes Craven’s 1972 directorial debut, The Last House on the Left. And October—high season for slashers—will give us a sequel to Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of 1978’s Halloween.

Spin-offs come with the territory, of course, unkillable recurrence being something of a slasher theme. To date there have been nine Halloweens and six Texas Chain Saw Massacres. There have been eight films starring Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, and next year there’ll be another. Hockey-masked Jason Voorhees, God love him, has trudged with zombie stoicism through a dozen Friday the 13ths. In a tolerant spirit, the slasher fan gets in line for the new sequel or prequel or remake or “reboot.” If it’s crap, so what? The next one might be better.

But why this press of remakes, this slasher-jam at the box office, right now? Naturally, theories abound. One hears (often from the filmmakers themselves) that horror tends to boom in wartime, and that our lately renewed interest in torn flesh has the same relation to Iraq that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Last House on the Left had to Vietnam. (“Thanks to George Bush and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld,” Eli Roth, director of Hostel and Hostel II, told Fox News, “there’s a whole new wave of horror movies.”)

But a better explanation might be that the success of the two newest slasher franchises—Roth’s Hostel flicks and the Saw cycle—has simply concentrated the mind of the industry. The first Hostel made more than $80 million worldwide in 2006, off a budget of less than $5 million; the first Saw, $103 million in 2004, on an investment of barely more than amillion. These numbers are electric, invigorating: they have reanimated the slashers of yore, like the fortuitous lightning bolt that gooses our man Jason in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, or the severed power line that zaps him back to sentience in Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.

Saw and Hostel succeeded, above all, because they are serious slasher flicks. The extremity of their goriness reclaimed the splatter death from mainstream movies (where it’s become unremarkable to see a man fed screaming to a propeller, or run through with a drill bit). And the immersive nastiness of their aesthetic—decayed bathrooms, foul workshops, seeping industrial spaces, blades blotched with rust—distilled the slasher-flick elixir: atmosphere. No franchise thrives without it. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had it: a choking, sunstruck intimacy, with madness pulsing in the eyeballs. Halloween was suburban-autumnal, a minor rhapsody of long shots and breezy streets and scuttling leaves, the whole effect tingling like wind chimes inside the empty psychosis of the slasher Michael Myers. Friday the 13th was strictly B-movie in its technique, but it succeeded in perforating an American idyll: summer camp was never the same after those nice guitar-strumming sing-along kids got slashed in their lakeside cabins.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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