With all the talk about slasher movies lately – owing to the fact that this week is sporting its own Friday the 13th, which is more than enough to get me on a personal favorite tangent of mine – one question naturally keeps cropping up pertaining to more recent movies. Where did all of the slashers go?
After all, these things were everywhere in the 80s and 90s. Movie theaters were positively flooded with killer-of-the-week movies in which masked murderers armed with increasingly elaborate melee weapons would stalk teens (and especially virginal young women) over the course of a night, hacking and slashing their way through anybody hapless enough to get in their way. It reached such epidemic proportions so quickly that famous Chicago-based critics Siskel and Ebert produced a special episode of their nationally syndicated TV series At the Movies about it (“Women in Danger,” for the curious among you) a mere two years after Halloween (1978) kicked the cycle off two years prior.
What started as the curious pairing of Psycho and Peeping Tom in 1960, and later elaborated on in movies like Black Christmas (1974) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) became a cottage industry by the start of the 80s. And although it dominated the horror landscape over the next two decades, production of similar movies has stalled to a virtual drip-feed of retro passion projects and late-in-life revivals.
Since the start of the new millennium, next to no slasher movies have been made (and even fewer have actually been successful). We got revivals of many of the mainstay franchises over the last two decades, ranging from Friday the 13th (2009) to A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) to Curse of Chucky (2013) to Cult of Chucky (2017) (all of which, despite their collective reputations, have been some degree of good). The somewhat obscure arthouse horror movement in France, the New French Extremity, has explored the subgenre in High Tension (2003), Them (2006) and Frontier(s) (2007). Them even got an American remake The Strangers (2009) and its sequel Prey at Night (2018). They were lampooned in Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006), monster-mashed together in Freddy vs Jason (2003), migrated to Netflix with Hush (2013), revived in You’re Next (2011) and pushed through the studio assembly line with Wrong Turn (2003). These are good movies, to be sure (even if Freddy vs Jason is a cheap thrill and Wrong Turn takes a few sequels to get it right), it’s hardly where we left the subgenre a few short years ago.
Over-saturation may have had something to do with it. Certainly, with so many high-profile slashers invading local multiplexes in such a short span of time, people were ground to grow tired of the repetitive plotlines and increasingly non-threatening “iconic” weapon that the killers choose to use. And, of course, horror evolves: the final days of the slasher’s dominance of horror was the dawn of the revamped zombie craze that began with 28 Days Later (2002). That cycle of movie was better-equipped to emblematize the unique trials, tribulations and fears of the 21st century than the specter that was best equipped for the tail-end of the twentieth.
Really, though, I think that the simple answer is that the slasher never quite went away. Oh, to be sure, it did go underground for a while and it has yet to reclaim dominance as the face of the horror genre (if it ever does again). The classic horror genre was intrinsically tied to the rising dominance of the early blockbuster landscape (celebrity-status killers whose bloody sprees were the splatterhouse equivalent of the lavish special effects sequences in a growing number of tentpole summer movies). The increasingly antiquated gender conventions of the genre (namely, the Final Girl) gave way to a more sophisticated and contemporaneous understanding of what a strong, capable woman looks, sounds and acts like.
What remains of it in the 21st century is still a cornerstone of the modern horror genre: one of many pillars that prop up the fears of the modern age. We still have the aftershocks of the 80s (continuations and reworkings of that era’s most colorful costumed killers), European imports that lack that first cycle’s franchise potential and low-budget reworkings of the familiar tropes of the subgenre. These films are still around, and still evolving, if you only know where to look for them.