Knives, hatchets, machetes, spears, screwdrivers, chainsaws or pruning shears. Slashing throats, bashing skulls, severing heads, ripping apart limbs or bisecting torsos. A hockey mask, a gas mask, a clown mask or a plain cloth sack. Mix, match, add hormonal teenagers and a plot with a twist. Start stabbing and slaughtering and you've just made yourself a slasher flick.
The recipe since the 1978 debut of Halloween hasn't changed much, and the avalanche of careless copycats, cash-in sequels and over-the-top pukefests that followed it stand as evidence. That sameness (which is the definition of a "genre" film) has soured many critics and non-teenage viewers on the very idea of slasher films, and though a great many awful films were made in the name of the genre, that's no reason for all of the era's films to be blithely dismissed as barely a step above pornography on the quality ladder. Just because a breathtaking number of below-average road-trip movies have been made, does that mean Sideways shouldn't have been greenlighted? More important, does that mean that Easy Rider or Stranger Than Paradise should be ignored?
Putting aside the semantic difference between the (literally) visceral aggression of slasher movies and the spooky, implicative terror of true horror films — The Shining is exponentially more scary than Maniac, but a fraction as bloody — the true beauty of slasher movies is their simplicity: A psychopath goes on a killing spree. Why he/she does it is irrelevant. Whom he/she is killing is irrelevant. Where he/she is doing it is irrelevant. All that matters is the "how" and "what." As in, "How will this film top the last scene, where we saw a guy's throat cut with a rusty hacksaw?" Or, "What is he going to do with that massive hunting knife while that hot chick takes a shower?" All sorts of semi-psychological motives have been ascribed to the underlying themes of slasher movies, but as special effects king Tom Savini states in a new documentary, "We just want to see how many different ways we can kill people."
That documentary — Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film — debuts on the Starz cable channel, appropriately enough, on Friday, Oct. 13, as an introduction to the channel's "Fear Fest: 2006." Ironically, the fare the channel's offering up after the doc — Child's Play 3, Dark Water and others — are exactly the sort of movies not featured in Going to Pieces. (To be fair, sister network Encore will be showing Night of the Living Dead and The Omen, along with, er, the fourth Hellraiser movie.) Instead, the documentary focuses on the highlights of three main "cycles" of slasher flicks, while dismantling many of the preconceptions about the genre; namely, that it was sexist and exploitative. Really, Going to Pieces posits, the genre was just about gallons of fake blood and stab tricks employed solely to scare the shit out of audiences.
The first was the golden age, from 1978 to 1982, featuring the likes of Halloween, Friday the 13th, Prom Night and My Bloody Valentine. This was the era when every notable day on the calendar, from graduation day and birthdays to Christmas, was treated to its own spectacularly gory inversion. When maniacs whose only notable attributes were their invulnerability and facility with killing implements roamed free in suburbia. When people felt that watching a coed camper get hacked to bits was respite from the horrors of the world outside the theater. In other words, the Reagan era.
Toward the end of this cycle, repetition and boredom began to set in, only to find the genre revived for its second spin in 1984 with Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street, which interwove psychological terror and Eastern philosophy into a Johnny Depp—blood volcano. That revival was short-lived, though, as Nightmare and its followers collapsed quickly into self-parody. It wasn't until Craven managed to make self-parody a horrifying art with 1996's Scream that slasher flicks seemed to regain their footing for the third cycle. As informed by the extremities of Japanese horror movies as the '70s flicks were by Italian splatter films, the current slasher cycle is more convoluted and glossy than the golden era, but thanks to CGI effects, far gorier.
Featuring excellent, informative interviews with Craven, Savini, director John Carpenter and others (but, sadly, no Jamie Lee Curtis) and packed with tons of prime-era blood-and-tits footage, Going to Pieces may not pack the horrifying punch of the films it lauds, but it does go a long way to legitimizing a long-maligned batch of firstname.lastname@example.org