We approach the season of the Pumpkinhead. As winter looms, an army of ghouls and ghosts run amok around housing estates the country over. It is the time of year when the darker side of ourselves takes over, and we become someone else for a few delightful hours.
Halloween is a time of catharsis, of transformation. Of rebirth, even. Ànd back in 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween heralded a new era for the so-called slasher genre.
In Halloween’s mythos, the Illinois town of Haddonfield becomes the hunting ground for Michael Myers, a psychopath escaped from a psychiatric institution. Soon, our killer begins stalking high school student Laurie Strode (played by a very young Jamie Lee Curtis), and serial killing of Laurie’s circle of teenage friends soon ensues. A pretty hackneyed set of ideas and conventions by today’s standards. But back in 1978, Halloween came out of nowwhere to shock and scare a great deal of cinema goers.
Made on a budget of around $300,000, Halloween went on to earn $47m at the box office in the United States alone, and around $70m worldwide, which equates to about $250m in 2014 money. This high grossing made it one of the most financially successful independent films ever released.
What is more pertinent to this article, however, is that Halloween set in stone the rules, conventions, and more common tropes of the slasher genre; the masked killer who gruesomely slays anyone who gets in his way, the scantily-clad, sex-crazed teenagers, plenty blood and guts, the so-called “final girl”, and the eventual demise of the perpetrator, which almost invariably is never final and always leads to sequel after sequel of continued bloodbath.
Throughout the 70s, 80s, and beyond, slasher movies were a dime a dozen. You have the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, for instance, with innumerable sequels, reboots, and imitations. The European market soon caught on to the craze, and Italy in particular, began producing its own version of slasher films called giallo, where over-the-top blood and gore were disgustingly common features.
To understand the slasher genre however, we must cast our minds back a little further back in time. Enter Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal film Psycho (1960). Considered one of the earliest examples of the often-derided genre, Psycho deeply revolutionized American cinema. It set new standards in terms of acceptable level of on-screen violence, for example, and put the character of the odd, loner, soft spoken, and seemingly harmless psychopath into the minds of movie audiences the world over. An Anthony Perkins at the top of his game played the part of Norman Bates with passionate aplomb. A lonely and almost child-like character controlled by his unseen mother, who in the end is revealed to have been kept as a mummified corpse in the basement, with Bates himself committing all the heinous crimes disguised as her. Psycho was based on the eponymous book by Robert Bloch, which itself was loosely inspired by the true events surrounding real-life killer Ed Gein. The life and exploits of Ed Gein would later become the inspiration for another icon of the horror genre, Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
The slasher movie works because it appeals to a basic human fear, that of being singled out and hunted by an anonymous and merciless killer.
Most, if not all of these mass murderers either wear a mask or are horribly disfigured to further dehumanize the character behind the savage acts of violence. The scare factor goes up to ten when the killer is more a thing than an actual human being. Thus, being confronted by a faceless murderer often implies the externalization of most people’s deepest fears; anymous, lonely (remember, most slasher victims die alone), and sudden death.
Slasher movies also prey on people’s lowest common denominator, of course. That of pure voyeuristic delight in witnessing these unholy acts of murder and maiming that go against all that we have been told is right and proper. Some critics believe slasher movies are profoundly mysoginistic, though such connotation is up for debate. Most movies cater for both male and female victims, after all, though the opposite is not true; almost all of slasher killers are male. Only in very few ocassions the killer turns out to be a female. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) and Bleed (2002) being two of a very few exceptions to this rule.
But back to the film that arguably started it all (though Alice… actually predates it by two years), Halloween took the lead in an onslaught of new American cinema, cementing the career of its director, John Carpenter, and ensuring the longevity of a genre that has produced as many gems as it has churned OUT frankly embarrassing and gratuitous efforts.
The slasher movie, though somewhat fallen out of grace as of late in favor of mass-appeal blockbusters, nevertheless lives on in DVD collections the world over, and its most iconic figures endure a quasi-legendary status in the minds of an army of die-hard fans.