State of the Slasher Address

This isn’t a review of the Prom Night remake, though that’s what it started out as. Instead, it’s a quick little look into the slasher, then and now.

First, to codify. Back-when, a slasher film wasn’t a slasher film until it had a fair sampling of these:

  • An enabling prank or accident, misdeed, or crime (Terror Train, The Burning)
  • A killer made faceless — that is, his/her humanity ’stripped’ — either by masks or camera angles or distractions (Halloween, say)
  • Red herrings galore (My Bloody Valentine)
  • A big reveal (Sleepaway Camp is the king here, by far)
  • The killer’s origin story (Friday the 13th)
  • A distinct final girl (take your pick)
  • Isolation (Cheerleader Camp, Intruder, Curtains, Black Christmas, etc.)
  • A supernatural killer (Nightmare on Elm Street)
  • Set-piece killings (Savini set the standard here with Friday the 13th, yep)
  • Teens who, by smoking/drinking/sex, are ‘asking’ to be killed (yes, as Carol Clover showed, all of them)
  • Nudity, to balance out the gore (Slumber Party Massacre, Sorority House Massacre, etc.)

And probably some distinctive theme music, and adults who don’t believe the kids, and kids who don’t think they’re at all mortal, and an obligatory sequel set-up, and usually somebody early-on warning about what-all’s going to happen here (thank you, Joseph Campbell), and then, too, as Scream gospels, the characters themselves all have their respective roles, their expected lines, their cues and exits.

But most important, more important than all the individual conventions, is the essential dynamic of punishment, that cycle of justice grinding these kids to bone meal. The idea, the certainty, that what you did, even what you’re doing right now, it’s going to come back around to get you. And there’ll be nothing you can do — your parents can’t help, your friends are all showing up dead, the cops are useless, your dog’s loyal but not much good against machetes. And the only way to finally stop this cycle, at least temporarily, is to turn around, fight back, look inside yourself and overcome. You don’t kill a slasher with muscles or with cleverness, but with willpower, with a desire to live when there’s no chance, an insistence that your life is worth redeeming, that that prank back in fourth grade kind of got out of hand, yeah, but you don’t have to pay forever, do you? It probably wasn’t even your idea in the first place.

All of which is good and fine and perfect, I think. The slasher film is such a neat, self-contained genre. By far my favorite, just because within those tight confines of convention, a select few still manage to tell a story that surprises you, that even, as backwards as it probably sounds, makes you feel safe — what world is better to live in than one in which there’s pure and absolute justice, after all? Never mind what kind of mask it wears. And sure, there are kids dying left and right, in every way there is and then some, but, too, in the sense that those kids are ‘asking’ for it with their actions, their behavior, those deaths are safe, they don’t count — they don’t induce terror in you, because you’re not that stupid, not like them, not going to meet that end, right? Or maybe in some complicated way they’re up on-screen paying for the sins you’re committing every Friday night, making it all safe again for you next weekend.

But that was the golden age of the slasher. The early ’80s, going a few years on either side, when production values were low, acting not all that rehearsed, and roles lucked into that would make careers (Jamie Lee Curtis, Johnny Depp, Kevin Bacon, Tom Hanks, George Clooney). And of course that golden age, that slasher-that-was, didn’t just blip into existence one day when Bob Clark or John Carpenter snapped their fingers. Rather, it was some grainy remix of the Italian giallo, where there were gloves not masks, and of Psycho and Peeping Tom and Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear.

And then that golden age was over. Hannibal Lecter stole Leatherface’s mask and ported the slasher conventions into the thriller for the early ’90s. It’s not all his fault, though. In the same way that the multiple versions/collector’s editions of comics made comics too heavy a thing right around the same time, what happened to the slasher was that Freddy and Jason had effectively crushed the competition under the weight of their sequels. And the need for variety in those sequels led to more and more ridiculous stuff — Jason going to Hell, Freddy getting campier and campier, all that (un)fun. I mean, aside from Popcorn (1991), maybe, and Wes Craven’s solid attempt to reclaim Freddy Krueger (1994’s New Nightmare), the last solid slasher of that age, for me anyway, would have to be the already self-referential (parody being a form of self-governance — of survival) Return to Horror High.

The slasher flick was soon to correct itself, however: Scream. It recodified the whole genre, simply by pushing those conventions to the front, and then still managing to tell the same old story we all knew and hadn’t quit carrying a torch for. And, like anything successful, it spawned a whole legion of clones, a second wave of slashers, a boom of sorts — Cherry Falls, the Urban Legends, all the I Know What You Did Last Summers and Final Destinations — and even managed to revitalize the whole horror genre, pretty much. A lot more of it seemed to be getting the green light, anyway, just on the chance of breaking the box office wide open. At least, until Cry_Wolf in 2005, anyway. Not that that movie is the hard-edge, definite end of the post-Scream slasher boom, but it’s the last solid slasher I can remember that got that so-important wide release — and the last one loyal enough to stick to the conventions of pranking kids getting punished by a mystery killer in a mask, who could be anybody, leading to a final girl, big reveal, all that tasty goodness. Plenty of set-piece kills, some isolation, and a star-power cameo. I mean, an honest to goodness slasher film, and very entertaining.

Around that same time, though, horror was being taken over by imports, and by remakes of those imports (The Ring, The Grudge, etc. — all the J-horror, which is still happening now, though with less and less fanfare, especially as the torture-porn thing has taken hold). But more important for the slasher in particular, some of the foundational stuff started getting the remake treatment as well, the biggest probably being When a Stranger Calls, Black Christmas, and the recent Halloween, none of which anybody’s been all that impressed with, maybe in part because, whereas a remake can be considered an ‘update’, which essentially ‘fixes’ the things wrong with the original, there really wasn’t anything at all wrong with the original Stranger or Christmas or Halloween (to say nothing of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho). So their respective remakes had the bar set high, maybe impossibly high. And, those three, they’re sacred relics, right? Nobody’s supposed to touch them but the high priests who placed them there. And maybe not even them.

But Prom Night, yes. Prom Night’s one of those golden age slashers, one of those which, for better or worse, was somewhat pivotal in establishing — or at least maintaining — the formula. But at the same time, there was a lot not quite clicking with it too; an update might be just the thing.

Yeah, ‘However…’

This Prom Night is just a remake in name. Sure, it’s got a final(-ish) girl, it’s got some of the token grisliness going on, some oblivious, soon-to-be-dead teens, and nobody ever looking in the right doorway at the right time, and even some bodies springing up in the final reel. But putting antlers on a basset hound isn’t going to make it fly, right? Not unless you believe really, really hard. I don’t mean to list the evidence against Prom Night 2008, but c’mon:

  • Instead of the necessary isolation, here the cops have no problem getting to the kill zone — even the hotel employees are helpful.
  • Instead of adults who are too busy to care, or are drunk, inept, or guilty themselves, here the adults are warm and caring and, even worse, more worried than the kids.
  • Instead of set-piece death scenes protracted way out of proportion to everything else (this is why Ebert and others used to accuse the golden age slasher [‘gimp’ movies] of being shaped like porn: the story’s only ‘purpose’ is to get to these set-piece indulgences, these money shots the audience is really there for), all the killings here are boring and ungrand, and only convenient instead of the malicious or vengeful acts they should be.
  • Instead of the final girl ‘overcoming’ her insecurities or reaffirming her chasteness or inner demons in order to beat down the bad guy, the cops swoop in very un-slasher-like and save the day, leaving her absolutely no room for any real character development.
  • Instead of skin, or a breast-count like Joe Bob Briggs used to give us — which Hostel understood — here we have cleavage, which does very little to balance out the slit throats.
  • Instead of a sequel set-up — What? Michael’s not dead on the lawn anymore? Jason’s finger just moved? — here, the story’s just over, done with, roll the credits, go home.
  • Instead of a faceless killer who could be anybody (and probably will be in the final reveal), we have the killer’s name and identity almost immediately — and, to add insult, he’s got a face too, is one of us, is articulate enough to ‘pass’, even, and instead of some home-made trident or something (if the prom theme were in line with a Marty McFly dance, say), he’s just got this slick little folding knife, and absolutely no origin story to speak of, and his wayback association with these kids is tangential at best, and that hat pulled down military-low, instead of inducing terror via erasing the vestiges of your humanity, it just makes you functionally anonymous — which, as Leslie Vernon would tell you, is simply bad slasher protocol.

And those kids. Instead of excessive teens who in a sense ‘deserve’ to die movie deaths — kids who, by their very excessiveness, make us root for the killer (a very important dynamic of the slasher-as-it-used-to-be) — these teens are nice and supportive and nurturing of each other. And, of all the dead ones, only one even goes so far as to nip at a flask — forget bongs or car sex or even, I think, much profanity. And the one girl who’s in opposition to this victim pool, and thus by definition ‘bad’ (the prom committee chair/queen nominee), a gimme kill if there ever was one, she doesn’t even get properly punished, or dealt with at all. I mean, even the jocks at this high school are good in their dopey way. All of which is to say that, by the usual slasher rules, none of these kids really need any of that good old-fashioned killing.

And this is absolutely key, I think, that these kids don’t deserve what they get. It’s maybe the single most vital distinction between the back-when slasher and the slasher-as-it-is-now. What’s happened is that, instead of a cycle of justice juggernauting through some high school, ripping off facades and cutting right down to the heart of what matters, what we have is a killer juggernauting through some high school with no reason to be doing so. And you can see where this is going now, I hope. Prom Night in a capsule: A bunch of innocent kids getting mown down by a killer we know only in name. Why only known in name? Because, finally, there’s no explanation sufficient to explain away his crimes.

A school shooting, yeah. A real concern for this new teen audience, whom this teen fodder is built to adjust itself to. Whereas in the golden age, the slasher — the Jasons, the Freddies — all seemed to be some amalgamation of guilt, maybe even a specifically American brand of guilt, what’s scariest now to the target audience is the meaninglessness of all this violence; that anyone can be a victim, and for no reason at all, Stu. It’s a concern that is reshaping the slasher film, it would seem. Not just messing with the formula, but taking it to a whole ‘nother lab. And sure, this Prom Night, it’s a lot more disappointing than the first. Okay. Granted. But if we’re lucky, then it’s like… it’s like how when you’re growing your hair out, there’s a year or two of ugliness, of awkwardness, of your bangs always in your eyes. Maybe that’s what Prom Night and its crowd is: the in-between stage, the genre still trying to look like its predecessors, but, at the same impossible time, trying so hard to please its current audience that what it ends up doing is satisfying neither. Which maybe feels like a raw deal now, sure. But you can also look at it with hopeful eyes like me, if you want: as the lull before the next storm, as the last pupal stages before the slasher unfurls its new wings, then turns around and bites our heads off.

Can’t wait.

The most recent of Stephen Graham Jones’ five books was the horror novel Demon Theory. Next up, The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti, Summer 2008, then, in August, Ledfeather. And, Summer 2009, The Ones That Almost Got Away, a collection of horror stories. As of Fall 2008, he’ll be on faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder, teaching fiction writing, and likely some horror besides. His Ph.D. is Florida State, his tribal affiliation’s Blackfeet, and he’s been an NEA Fellow, a Texas Writers League Fellow, and has won an Independent Publishers Award and the Texas Institute of Letters Award, each for fiction. Other than all that, he likes to hurt himself playing basketball, tends to work on trucks too much, likely spends too much on comic books, listens to all the wrong music at all the wrong volumes, and considers Star Trek and X-Files a religion, and a very good one at that. As for what he doesn’t play: poker, golf, the stock market. Everything else is fair game. More at