WILL THE REAL FIRST SLASHER PLEASE STAND UP?
By Mark Doubt
As the release of Halloween 2018 approaches, Mark Doubt looks into the history of the slasher movie, and finds that its ancestors might be older than you think…
One of the most enduring and durable additions to the horror pantheon that the 1970s heralded was the rise of the slasher - a high concept horror subgenre with a simple template that almost guaranteed success: a marriage of the whodunit murder mystery, confined or remote setting, a crazed and charismatic antagonist and a high kill count (including increasingly inventive murder set pieces) proved to be popcorn fodder in the making.
The 1970s produced a series of films that confirmed the genius of this new subgenre, and the film industry took notice. Moving into 1980s the slasher was clearly cemented, and a string of hits followed in a short space of time from several territories. The slasher did big business at the box office.
There is a popular school of thought amongst horror fans and writers alike that the slasher movement was born from two films – Bob Clark and A. Roy Moore’s sorority house stalker Black Christmas (1974) and, latterly, John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s seminal Halloween (1978).
Black Christmas was a holiday-themed film – itself a component that would be adopted by a number of slasher movies – that set up a number of murders (body count) in a sorority house (confined setting). This smart Canadian thriller was successful partly because of its accomplished cast (Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and Giallo star John Saxon), partly because it dealt with smart and complex subject matter (both abortion and alcoholism were explored through the narrative) but mostly because it set up a high concept and played it out with a rich amount of tension and suspense.
Carpenter’s Halloween took the burgeoning template and added to it. The action was limited to few locations (confined setting) due to budgetary constraints, and featured a terrifying masked killer in Michael Myers. What Carpenter introduced to the slasher template included certain technical elements (the memorable, repetitive score, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shots where the killer stands, out of focus, in the background of the picture, a series of gory, inventive kills) and embellished the concept of the Final Girl – a virginal Jamie Lee Curtis, who survived long enough to defeat the killer where her promiscuous friends had not been so lucky. This was the first time the sex-equals-death idea had featured in what would become the slasher template, though it came predominantly from the Gialli of Italy. Halloween was a rampant success and essentially set the template that seemingly every horror filmmaker followed for the next eight years.
While it is reasonably clear that Black Christmas was among the first movies to contain most (if not all) of what we now know as the classic ingredients for a slasher movie, and Halloween popularised the burgeoning subgenre and spawned a slew of copycats, the true originator is not so clear cut.
Slasher tropes (the high concept; the whodunit murder mystery; the confined, single setting; the crazed and charismatic antagonist; the high kill count and increasingly inventive murder set pieces) have been around a long time, and there are a list of classic films that could be considered genuine precursors to the slasher movie craze.
The most obvious progenitor to the slasher would be the Italian Giallo filone that became popular in the 1960s and 1970s. These sleazy, sexy, violent thrillers often featured a number of elements that would later be found in the US-led phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, three films from the genre in particular bear such startling similarities to the slasher that they cannot be excluded from any list of its forbears.
The gialli of Sergio Martino are particularly notable because they are all so different. The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971) is very much a Hitchcockian thriller, where Your Vice is a Locked Room and only I have the Key (1972) is essentially a retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Black Cat. It is Martino’s Torso (1973) that we are most interested in.
Torso (Alternative title: ‘The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Volence”) is a violent, sexy whodunit set initially at an Italian university. A group of fun-loving and promiscuous co-eds are picked off by a sadistic, masked killer. As the plot progresses, the remaining girls relocate to an isolated cliffside villa, only for the killer to pursue them and claim more victims in a deadly game of cat and mouse.
Known for its unflinching violence and liberal sexuality, the film precedes Carpenter’s Halloween in its sex = death idea, as the killer’s first few victims are killed post-coitus and sex is conflated with death throughout. It predates both Halloween and Black Christmas in its use of a Final Girl, as Suzy Kendall’s sensible (read: virginal) Jane is the one to survive to the end and unmask the killer. Throughout the mystery of the killer’s identity takes a back seat to the film’s inventive death sequences, as the killer uses an ascot to strangle them, stabs them with a knife then gouges out their eyes.
Nastasi (2015) suggests that “Torso’s focus on repressed sexuality, centred on a killer whose childhood trauma has twisted his psychosexual mind, influenced the hormonal American slasher genre…Torso takes place in a secluded setting…champions a final girl…indulges in visceral thrills.” before going on to compare the film’s moralizing killer to Pamela Voorhees in Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980).
Torso is not the only Giallo to have influenced Friday the 13th and its peers. Mario Bava and Dardano Sacchetti’s 1971 film A Bay of Blood (aka Twitch of the Death Nerve) can be considered a proto-slasher. While it features many of the tropes associated with the slasher subgenre, it predates both Halloween (1978) and Black Christmas (1974), the two films most often celebrated as heralding the era of the slasher. An entry in the Italian Giallo movement that is regularly credited as being partly responsible for the rise of the slasher, it is often cited as the primary influence for Friday the 13th, features a maniac killer dispatching members of a warring family as they fight over a bequeathed estate, and boasts a number of imaginative kills including a billhook machete to the face and the original double-impalement coitus interruptus.
Once again, Nastasi (2015) offers comentary:
“His plot about a familial inheritance drama exists only to propel us to the next kill. A Bay of Blood is often categorized as a giallo film, and it bears a few hallmarks of the genre (red herrings and a glimpsed black-gloved killer), but what Bava has created here is an early prototype for the slasher film”.
Indeed, those two most cherished murder scenes (the spear plunged through a couple making love; the hatchet to the face) were virtually copied shot for shot in Sean S Cunningham’s first two Friday The 13th movies.
Prior to this, in his film Blood and Black Lace (1964) Bava had set up the coda for the Giallo subgenre and, unwittingly, also set up many of the tenets of the slasher. Blood and Black Lace codified the elements that made Giallo great – the murders (often elaborate); beautiful women (as victims); lurid colour; a sense of irony – and also contributed towards the yet-to-be-defined elements of the slasher. In addition, Blood and Black Lace’s killer bears more than a few similarities to Ghostface from Wes Craven’s definitive post-modern slasher Scream. The antagonist is a faceless killer, covered by a black shroud, who seems to appear from nowhere, inexplicably finding its way into locked rooms and previously explored nooks and crannies. There are further links between the killers of Blood and Black Lace and Scream, but to discuss them would venture into spoiler territory.
Oft-mentioned in the conversation is Alfred Hitchcock and Joseph Stefano’s Psycho (1960), with the iconic shower scene where Norman/Mrs Bates slashes at Janet Leigh (the mother of Jamie Lee Curtis, star of Carpenter’s Halloween) with a carving knife. While oft described as the film that birthed modern horror, if it is to be considered in the slasher argument then just as relevant is Michael Powell and Leo Marks’ Peeping Tom, from the same year.
In Peeping Tom, Carl Boehm’s character makes a documentary on fear (which just so happens to involve him filming the reactions of several voluptuous female victims as he murders them) in his portrait studio in what was about to become swinging sixties London. While Psycho is noticeably low on kill count, and plays primarily as a psychological study of the Norman Bates character, Peeping Tom plays more like an arthouse horror, much more an insanely twisted commentary on its time period and a satire on the film-making process (another trait that would be adopted much later in Wes Craven’s meta-slasher, Scream) than a splatter movie.
“Fishie Fishie, in a brook, Daddy caught you on a hook”
Dementia 13 (1963) saw young upstart director Francis Ford Coppola (under the watchful gaze of none other than Roger Corman) create what is perhaps the most coherent historical example of the classic slasher elements being brought together in one movie – as an axe-wielding lunatic picks off members of a troubled family with a mysterious past, in a remote Irish castle. Dementia 13 predates Black Christmas by 11 years, Halloween by 15. The skill and instinct of the young director would bely the cinematic legend he would become (although Corman’s influence, as ever, should not be overlooked) – watch Dementia 13 and it is not difficult to surmise that this is the director who would go on to bring the world The Godfather and The Conversation.
But it is by turning the clock back a further 30 years, to Colombia Pictures, director Benjamin Stoloff and one Bela Lugosi, that what may well be the first example of slasher tropes committed is discovered.
That movie is Night of Terror (1933), featuring The Maniac.
Starring Bela Lugosi, the film came out just as the initial wave of Universal horror pictures (including Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula - starring Lugosi – and James Whale’s 1932 success Frankenstein) had spread, and other studios were getting in on the act. More Universal classics followed (and would continue to do so until well into the 1950s), as did Paramount’s Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, and MGM’s release of Tod Browning’s Freaks (Murray and Phipps, 2012). While such movies remain in the horror fan’s consciousness today, Night of Terror is one of a few that have not benefited from the same reappraisal as others mentioned (TheMissing Link, no date).
This Columbia picture (at a time when Columbia were by no means a big fish in the Hollywood pond) takes place at the Rhinehart estate, where a professor is ready to reveal his discovery (a serum that puts a person in a state of suspended animation) and the Rhineheart family suffer the death of their patriarch, apparently at the hands of a murderer dubbed “The Maniac”. As the patriarch’s will reveals that surviving members of the family will share his estate, all of a sudden they too start getting offed, one by one, apparently by The Maniac (incidentally, Lugosi plays neither the professor nor the maniac, but the trusty family servant, eager to get to the bottom of the murders).
Put in context with the movie environment at the time, Night of Terror is an oddity. It’s not a straight out horror like Dracula, Frankenstein or The Mummy, but more of a whodunit that features some murders and the biggest horror star of the past decade. The movie plays out entirely in one confined location, perhaps due to budget concerns, or not having the vast Universal back-lots put to good use in the original creature features. It features no monster to fear or pity, but a mysterious madman who lurks in the shadows and is rarely seen. Where it also differs from the Universal classics is in its body count – the Maniac, we are told at the start of the movie, is already onto victims 11 and 12, with two more confirmed kills (and at least three others that may or may not be attributed to the character) before the hour long movie ends (Hanke, 2014).
However, when viewed in a context yet to come into existence in the cinemaphile’s consciousness, Night of Terror’s tropes start to become very familiar indeed. Looking at the key components one by one:
High Concept – check.
Mystery/whodunit element – check.
Contained setting – check.
Crazed killer – check.
High body count – for the time, absolutely.
Inventive kills – not really (although one character is stabbed through a chair), but The Maniac does have a quirk to his kills; leaving victims with a news clipping about his exploits pinned to them.
This film, released an incredible 41 years prior to Black Christmas (45 years prior to Halloween) appears to tick every box in the list of commonly agreed slasher tropes. In fact, a change of nothing besides the physical setting (imagine Night of Terror at a lakeside summer camp, high school at Prom or a sorority house at Christmas) and it instantly becomes very recogniseable indeed.
To add to the discovery, Night of Terror contains another element set to astonish – self-awareness. Yes, this 1933 oddity goes meta! At the end of the film, The Maniac breaks the fourth wall to invade ‘real life’. He threatens the audience not to give the ending away, lest they receive a visit from the supposedly imaginary killer, predating Wes Craven’s masterful New Nightmare (and, in turn, his Scream franchise) by over 60 years.
Ladies and Gentlemen, for your attention and consideration: Presenting 1933’s Night of Terror – possibly the first slasher movie.
REFERENCES & FURTHER READING
Bell, J Albert, Belofsky, Rachel and Bohusz, Michael Derek (2006) Going to Pieces: The Rie and Fall of the Slasher Film [movie]
Brooks, Xan (2010) The Peeping Tom timebomb
Directors Series, The (2013) Francis Ford Coppola Dementia 13
Gavalier, Ryan (no date) Dementia 13 Review
Greene, Wes (2013) A Bay of Blood
Hanke (2014) Night of Terror/The Corpse Vanishes
Hunter, Dan and Knowles, Jason (1998) The Terror Trap: Black Christmas
Lambie, Ryan (2010) Looking back at A Bay Of Blood
Michael’s Moviepalace (2015) Night of Terror (1933)
The Missing Link (no date) Night of Terror 1933
Murray, Noel and Phipps, Keith (2012) A guide to the Universal Studios monster movies, 1923-1955
Nastasi, Alison (2015) The Beyond: Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood http://www.shocktillyoudrop.com/news/374057-beyond-mario-bavas-bay-blood/
Nastasi, Alison (2015) The Beyond: Sergio Martino’s Torso
Reel Club (2013) A Peeping Tom is No Psycho: Voyeurism in Powell’s PEEPING TOM and Hitchcock’s PSYCHO
Shaughnessy (2011) Peeping Tom and Psycho
Vampire Over London: The Bela Lugosi Blog (no date) 1933: Night of Terror
Wikipedia (no date) Slasher Film
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