State of the Slasher Address 2: We've Come a Long Way, Baby
Stephen Graham Jones revisits the slasher film genre in the wake of My Bloody Valentine 3D to show how we may just be on the verge of another slasher renaissance.
Editor's note: In true slasher film style, this article is a sequel to the previously published "State of the Slasher Address". When we last left the author, Jones was lamenting the decline of the slasher while simultaneously searching for signs of its resurrection. And as the remake industry continues to update the classics with the release of My Bloody Valentine 3D, the cold dead hand of the slasher has pushed itself back up from the grave once more.
By 1981, one of the central gimmicks of the slasher film had already been very well-established: pair up this killing spree with a holiday. The contrast, the inversion of what we associate with this day and what’s happening on screen -- it was transgression, plain and simple. Christmas was no longer safe. Halloween was finally scary. Thanksgiving left more than just a turkey carcass. Friday the 13th wasn’t just superstition. Even Mother’s Day and New Years and a class reunion or prom or your own birthday were suddenly something to survive, not just blindly enjoy.
All the more reason to get to that first showing, right?
However, with slashers planting flags all over the calendar, the holidays left to occupy were getting scarcer and scarcer. If you wanted to take a stab at originality and hope to hit something vital, you were going to have to go minor, and then deliver something very clean, very tight.
Enter My Bloody Valentine, maybe not the most notable of the Canadian slasher invasion -- Black Christmas, Happy Birthday to Me, Terror Train, Prom Night, Humongous, Curtains -- but nevertheless a film with high production values, strong-enough performances, and a premise just simple enough to work: instead of chocolates in that heart-shaped box, it’s an actual heart.
Cue the screams. Look away. Laugh into somebody’s shoulder at all of this, and then wait for it to all happen again in the next scene.
But what made My Bloody Valentine work, especially in a market suddenly glutted by killers, wasn’t just efficient storytelling or a clever hook. The other dominant gimmick in the slasher funhouse was the trademark weapon, a trend you can attribute to Leatherface, or even go all the way back to Norman Bates for if you want. The result’s the same. Somebody in Valentine’s Bluff killing people with something that already looked pretty dangerous, even without the blood coat: a miner’s pickaxe.
And what’s especially elegant about this is that, unlike with Bates or Leatherface or what Jason would become, this time the weapon could actually match the killer’s mask, a trick that wouldn’t be used to such good effect for nearly twenty more years with I Know What You Did Last Summer.
So, just taking that into account, what we’ve got, scarily enough, is a killer that makes sense, instead of somebody we have to contrive a mask for.
And that mask, it’s so essential. Without an effective way to completely hide the killer’s identity, the film will have to resort to camera angles, which doesn’t engender trust in the audience at all. But masks are vital for another reason as well: without them, without disguising the killer, there can be neither the succession of red herrings the slasher movie is absolutely dependent upon, nor the eventual reveal, the unmasking, and the obligatory flashback sequence to explain this reveal.
So far, My Bloody Valentine, it’s doing everything right.
Simply put, My Bloody Valentine hit, and justifiably so. No, it didn’t bring anything revolutionary to the slasher scene, but it did show how, in a time of almost gleeful excess at the box office, simple and straightforward could still work. Looking at it like that, it may have been less an inevitable expression of all things slasher than it was a drawback, a correction, a reminder of how the genre could work.
The genre, however, was too busy indulging to notice.
In a matter of years, it collapsed under the weight of its own conventions, went dormant for a few years, then was born again as Scream, which cracked the door open for the slasher again. But this time, instead of excess pulling the whole project down, it was its own fear of deviating too far from Kevin Williamson. As fun as they were, all the Scream clones were still clones, and fairly sterile. And in a market like the slasher film, where each new franchise installment has to one-up the last, all the escalation is lost when everything’s derivative rather than inventive. So, again, the slasher waned, at least until the studios began trying to prop it up with the only sure-fire thing: what worked before. Remakes. Because the audience was still out there, no doubt; maybe all it needed was When a Stranger Calls, updated. It’s a strategy that makes sense. When the contemporary stuff, the Tamaras and the like, aren’t filling the seats, retreat to what’s already been proven: the golden age slashers.
And that’s what we’re about to the end of right now. Or maybe at the height of. Not that there haven’t been some solid entries to the slasher market in the intervening years -- All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, to name a couple of recent ones -- but they haven’t been gifted with that necessary wide release, either. Seven months ago, however, Prom Night did get that wide release, that hard marketing push. And, for all its problems, it may still have been exactly what we needed to get to where we are now: My Bloody Valentine, circa 2009.
Not the frame-by-frame redo of Van Sant’s Psycho, which mostly just made us appreciate how ahead of its time the original had been, but not the complete reimagining of Zombie’s Halloween either. Instead, this My Bloody Valentine smartly keeps what made the original a success (heart boxes, pickaxe, mask, and all the paint-by-number conventions), yet brings enough new in that the audience can watch it for what feels like the first time, without knowing what’s around each corner, without knowing who’s under what mask.
And that, it’s so important.
If we know who’s under the mask the whole time, then the way red herrings trick us into engaging the film is lost, and without the audience investing themselves that much, extending themselves into the film and thus becoming vulnerable, there’s no way to scare them, to thrill them, to make them scream laughter like they want to, like they need to.
So, that’s smart move number one for this My Bloody Valentine: excellent management of red herrings. Excellent retention of trademark weapon, complementary mask, and memorable name. Excellent awareness of the formula we all know, love, and depend upon.
But no, I’m not going to bullet-point all the smart moves it makes here, simply because I don’t want to spoil it for you.
However, I can highlight what I think are the new things this My Bloody Valentine is bringing to the genre -- the things that make this a peculiarly 2009 experience, a post-Scream experience that’s not derivative of Scream.
Beautiful writing, I’m saying.
Second, as we’ve seen in Hostel, the trope of the final girl can be complicated beyond some Jamie Lee finally taking her hair down and picking up an axe. To say it indirectly, so as not to give things away: in the old days, it was the Highlander model of there can be only one. Christopher Lambert hasn’t been on the scene in a while now, though, and he’s definitely not in this My Bloody Valentine.
Third, as we also saw in the Hostel films -- Eli Roth knows his stuff -- if you’re going to have a mountain of gore, then that mountain’s even taller if you’re going there from nudity. Call it contrast, call it counterbalance, but finally just understand that the T&A of the golden age wasn’t just obligatory; it actually served a purpose, it actually contributed to the dynamic of the story. But My Bloody Valentine takes this further: instead of a scantily-clad, low survival instinct co-ed shrieking away from some striding killer, this time we have girl running away from this walking man, and she’s only wearing shoes. Heels at that. Somebody say "R rating"? Most definitely. This is a slasher, after all.
Fourth -- and of these, this is maybe the most important -- as we’ve seen in the Final Destination franchise, set-piece killings, each one harsher and funnier than the last, so that they persistently escalate -- they’re just so, so necessary. Friday the 13th was less about Crystal Lake and more about showcasing Tom Savini’s magic. My Bloody Valentine is a direct heir to this. Some of the kills in here, they’re works of art, seemingly the product of a whole sick childhood spent thinking about ways to take the human body apart. It’s beautiful in its gore, and, talking necessary ratings again, has already earned it before the first sequence has even played out.
However, there is something about this My Bloody Valentine which doesn’t quite fit. Unlike nearly all of its grandparents, My Bloody Valentine’s catalyst doesn’t seem to be some essential injustice that, gloriously unpunished, conjures a slasher in a mask each time to punish the pranksters. Terror Train and Friday the 13th are probably the most pure strains of this, but all the solid slashers had it to one degree or another. And, sure -- okay, there might be a spoiler here, so be careful -- there is an attempt to establish some of that here, both in what accident ‘made’ Harry Warden in the first place and what was done to him later, by a group. But if you follow that through, you see that in order for the perpetrators to get their justice served to them, Harry Warden has to be the one to serve that justice. Slashers are all poetic like that. Until now.
You’ll see. The person serving up the ‘justice’ here -- well, it’s less High Plains Drifter, more Scream, I guess you could say. Quoting some vintage Psycho: “We all go a little mad sometimes.”
But is that really a problem?
Maybe drawing direct lines from killers to their victims was a dynamic that was apt for the '80s, but it's outmoded now. Which -- yes, sixth -- is exactly what that Prom Night remake I was talking about last time gave us.
Now, seven months after that, the slasher is doing exactly what a slasher always does: rising from its own grave. Stronger, faster, more determined, with a higher bodycount. We should have seen it coming, too. Just as Fatal Attraction legitimized the slasher conventions at the box office, so did last year’s Lakeview Terrace take all the supernatural out of the genre, yet show that it can be just as compelling without it.
But is the slasher film all the way back yet? Not quite, I don’t think.
For the slasher to truly enter another golden age, what it needs is a little capitalism. The marketplace, the competition, it’s what drives the slasher movie to take greater and greater risks, until something truly magic happens, almost as if by accident, when nobdy’s looking. So, yes, this My Bloody Valentine, it’s amazing, but at the same it can be written off by non-believers as just an especially good remake, instead of the necessary update it is. What we need, though, is something original, but of the same caliber as this. But for that to happen, we need the competition, and for that competition, the audience must first be primed.
And look out. That’s about to happen.
Friday the 13th's going back to the beginning? In theaters today.
Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven on Scream 4? Next year.
It’s happening all over again. Just wait. Put your hands over your eyes if you have to, but look through your fingers too, like you know you will. It’s the only way to see that blade coming for you.
And are you sick for smiling when it does?
Sure. But we’re all a little sick sometimes.
Stephen Graham Jones's first experience with anything slasher was The Terminator. Not the actual movie -- he couldn't go to R movies in 1984, at twelve years old -- but the version his friend acted out for him in a living room, sound effects, (limited) stunts and all. It took nearly two hours and a number of props pilfered from the kitchen, but at the end of it, Stephen was hooked for life, and can't help writing things like this. Fiction too, though: one story collection and six novels so far, with another collection on the way. The most recent two novels are Ledfeather and The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti, though if you're more into slasher analysis than giant, time-traveling caterpillars, there's always Demon Theory. Jones's previous writing for PopMatters includes the first "State of the Slasher Address" and an analysis of zombie culture. Stephen's currently Professor of English with the University of Colorado at Boulder. More at demontheory.net. And no, the motel room scene from Terminator, where the future of mankind was conceived, he claims it wasn't part of that first redramatization.