The Golden Age of Slasher Films

Updated on March 19, 2018
Kyle Atwood profile image

Kyle Atwood is a published author of horror who plays too many video games and watches too many horror movies to be of sound mind.

The Golden Age

Slashers started out as a simple idea with meager budgets that were massively successful in the box office and escalated into a global phenomenon.

The period from 1978 to 1984, has been cited, numerously, as the "golden age" of slasher cinema. In today's article, we take a look at that six year period and its influence on horror and thriller films proceeding the six years, and give some insight on its influence on films today.

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1978

1978 was the start of a very beautiful six years in horror cinema.

The most important rule in slasher cinema, I feel, is simplicity. Try, but not too hard, if that makes sense. Each of the films in this section are exactly that, simple, and by God they are effective.

Are You in the House Alone?

A television horror film involving your average, run of the mill, "baby sitter in peril receives multiple phantom phone calls" scenario. This movie certainly set the tone for the 100+ slasher flicks that would go on to be released in this six year period.

Eyes of Laura Mars

Written by John Carpenter (also being his first major film) and directed by Irvin Kershner, Eyes of Laura Mars is a thriller with elements of psychological-esque horror. A photographer is stalked by a killer, but that's not where it ends. Our heroine has the ability to see through the killer's eyes, and watches as her friends are killed off. There is plenty of twists and turns that we all know and love Carpenter for in this movie (tactics he would later utilize again and again).

The Toolbox Murders

Regarded highly by cult film enthusiasts, The Toolbox Murders is perhaps the first film to be classified as a slasher movie on this list. In my opinion, however, this movie is more of an exploitation horror than a slasher film (that's a very thin line, to be honest). All in all, it is a fun film that oozes with late 70's/ early 80's penchant and is perhaps the most Slasher-esque film so far and the basis of the plot of this film has been thrown into the blender plenty of times to dish out a fresh new slasher cocktail every couple of years.

Halloween

The father of the slasher sub genre. A masterpiece that shows the beauty of simplicity sprinkled with bits of originality and, my God, is it delicious. We can thank this classic for defining what we know about slasher films from beyond this point and, not to mention, responsible for launching the slasher sub genre out of grind house cinema and obscurity, into a worldwide sensation.

All praises for this film's elements aside, the feats that Carpenter's classic overcame are astounding by itself. Just to give you an idea, the signature mask of Michael Myers was a Captain Kirk mask bought for two dollars and spray painted white. A meager $300,000 budget, a 20 day filming period, limited resources for making the signature piano tone, very little marketing, and many other challenges, Halloween grossed an impressive $70 million at the box office.

Halloween is not only a major influence for everything in the slasher field, but in the horror and thriller genre as well. We see fantastic building of suspense that is always capitalized upon, we see a pretty great story that is, essentially, what the audience makes of it, and we see Halloween take a rather cliche idea and re-imagine it into its own concept.

All in all, it is just a great, revolutionary, and influential film responsible for so much in horror/thriller/dramatic cinema.

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1980

Although many slasher films were in production in 1979, no really notable ones were released until 1980, when the genre completely exploded into the spotlight. While this was going on, America adopted a stronger sense of conservatism and with it came the growing concern of violence in entertainment. While the slasher genre found itself at its commercial peak, it also found itself in the center of many heated political and social debates. Still, all this backlash didn't keep it from pumping out some really fantastic gems.

Buckle up! This one's going to be a beefy one.

Prom Night

Prom Night was a very well done Halloween clone where a masked killer stalks a group of teenagers during a certain time of a year and this anniversary, much like Halloween takes place on-- Halloween, Prom Night takes place on, well, prom night. What stands out most, however, is that the killings are not just a series of unfortunate events where our victims cross path with the killer, the killings in Prom Night are in revenge for a young girl's death whom the group of teenagers are responsible for, albeit, accidentally.

Silent Scream

Considered the first box office success of 1980, Silent Scream took elements from Halloween and made it into a seedier take. This film really plays with the "sex is death" idea, where teenagers who are having, well, sex, are punished are seemingly punished for doing so, in a sense.

Don't Answer the Phone!

Don't Answer the Phone! Hotwired the start to a series of films that then smashed right into the wall of another social debate, dwelling on the suffering of female characters, earning the slasher genre a hot seat in the firing line of the National Organization for Women (NOW).

Don't Go in the House

This is a good tie in for the rest of the list because it puts a lot of focus on the killer and the reasons why he does what he does. A film that was even protested by NOW, Don't Go in the House is a psychological horror about a man who was abused horrendously by his mother, do he sets out for revenge on any woman that resembles her. From here we start to see our beloved slashers have more of a purpose for doing what they do. Where as in Halloween we were left with more of a speculation, rather than clearly shown agenda.

Friday the 13th

Where Halloween is the father of the slasher genre, Friday the 13th is the oldest son and, by a very small margin, the more well known film from the golden age. It was ultra violent and blended each of the elements created by previously released films in the genre, to create this household franchise. Everyone knows Jason Voorhees and the seemingly endless trail of death he leaves behind him. As with the Halloween movie, there is nothing I can say that hasn't been said already, so we'll look at some very similar feats Friday the 13th demolished.

A $550,000 budget with a massive profit of $60 million in the box office, it showed that the slasher genre could break through all the backlash, it invited fresh ideas to the market, and ushered in a whole new generation of horror.

Needless to say, Friday the 13th is as important of a movie to the slasher/horror/thriller genre as Halloween. Our hockey masked killer (or in this case, SPOILERS, his mother), was able to sustain the genre at the top of its game for a few more years by himself.

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1981

By this time, the market for slasher films was very saturated with multiple studios trying way too hard to make the next Halloween or Friday the 13th. For example, a film like My Bloody Valentine, which is marketed to death, was a box office failure. Audiences just couldn't find their satisfaction in so many potentially amazing films, simply because of Michael and Jason hacked their way into viewer's hearts

1981, as a result, was dominated by sequels to Halloween and Friday the 13th.

Still, there were still some pretty notable entries here.

Just Before Dawn

As with many fairly unknown entries on this article, Just Before Dawn gained a substantial cult following, despite its commercial failure.

Just Before Dawn brought a more artistic style to the cinematography of slasher films. Where, before, the cinematography was there to simply get the job done, in Just Before Dawn, the cinematography was fifty percent of the job.

My Bloody Valentine

While it was a failure at the box office, it wasn't a terrible film, in fact, I think it was a great film. Picked up by Paramount, following the success of Friday the 13th, the film tried to make itself a heavy hitter in the slasher genre. Unfortunately, it fell victim to some scrutiny by the MPAA after the death of John Lennon, so it was heavily edited. Audiences came with a strong thirst for blood and gore and left still craving more. It had a fantastic setting, killer, pretty average slasher story, and some pretty good kills, despite being censored. My Bloody Valentine showed that originality in the genre could still be a thing while sticking to older elements, but the MPAA, for lack of a better term, killed this movie.

Friday the 13th: Part 2

Friday the 13th is, perhaps, the master of sequels. Like Jason, the franchise didn't know when to die.

Anyway, with the release of the second installment in the Friday the 13th series, we saw slasher films adopting sequels as well.

The second film is an essential 80's slasher film, maniac stalks hormonal teens in the woods. Simplicity. The sequel didn't try to re-invent the wheel, it just kept on rolling with more violence, twists, and thrills. While it wasn't as successful as the first one, it still raked in an impressive $21 million at the box office and only had a little over a million dollars to work with. On top of that, Friday the 13th Part 2 was still heavily edited due to the orders from the MPAA and it still managed to deliver the brutality audiences were hoping for.

Halloween II

John Carpenter was reluctant to release another Halloween movie, as he realized that the horror genre was incredibly different, thanks to Friday the 13th being as successful as it was, and, as a result, made Halloween II with more gore and a higher body count. Still, Halloween II retained many of its key elements that made it so successful to begin with. The only downfall was that the film's pacing was inconsistent, one minute we have Michael Myers stalking his latest victim, and the next we see a car exploding.

Like Friday the 13th it didn't tried to re-invent the wheel.

When the film debuted, it brought home $25 million at the box office, making it the second highest grossing film of 1981.

Many studios tried very hard to make their own version of Friday the 13th, numerous times and continued doing so until the arrival of 1982.

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1982

As studios failed to re-enact the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th, the slasher market became one for direct to video films with budgets getting smaller and smaller as time went on.

Madman

Once again, simplicity is key in the slasher genre and with Madman, the first notable release of 1982, simplicity worked wonders and earned Madman its well deserved cult following. It didn't try to be Halloween , it tried to be a slasher, just a good 'ole fashion teen killing spree and it was brilliant. Madman was simply a victim of the times, while it did see commercial success on its direct to video release, it didn't achieve enough of a prophet and didn't receive any sequels.

Parody Slashers

At this point, filmmakers were making waves of films that were, in a way, making fun of the conventions of the slasher genre. Most notable films of this period were Alone in the Dark and The Slumber Party Massacre, both of which, essentially, flipped the table on all popular elements of a slasher movie.

Visiting Hours

With the success of Halloween II, 1982 saw a brief surge of hospital slashers, and there was one of these that are really noteworthy as they made the slasher genre into a brief, political protest.

Visiting Hours was a Liberal Feminist versus Conservative values film and we see a lot of political views carrying over to horror films today.

Night Warning

Night Warning tackled the issue of homophobia and a little about incest.

A pretty run of the mill slasher plot line, but the execution is used as a means to psychologically convey its message, making it seem as though the movie is being too preachy.

Where Visiting Hours was very direct with its message, Night Warning required more digging.

Friday the 13th: Part 3

Jason Voorhees not only makes his leap to 3D cinema, but he also adopts his signature hockey mask. Nothing really groundbreaking happened with this entry, however, aside from the staggering $36 million at the box office, making it the most successful Friday the 13th film at this time. Also, this was the first slasher film to reach its third entry in a series.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch

When Halloween III released, movie goers were shocked to see that the film didn't involve Michael Myers-- at all. The plot was completely different and a lot of people, even now, were not too happy with this. Here we see a very successful slasher franchise trying to milk its title for all its worth and joining in with the ranks of the ever growing supernatural horror movies (better than sending Michael in space, am I right?). This was because John Carpenter felt that, given the title of the series, that the Halloween franchise had potential to branch off and make new, independent stories of its own.

1983

Slashers from 1983 continued using the same elements, but continued taking on political issues, more namely, racism.

We all seen more made-for-television films. At this point, slasher films were becoming more of a throwaway, quick money making genre than anything.

Sweet Sixteen

Sweet Sixteen was a fairly original slasher, being that it focused on more of the mystery and promiscuity aspect than the average "kill all teenagers" agenda. The film tried its best to point a finger at racism towards Native Americans, but unfortunately, fell flat as its message was lost. This was the really only notable made-for-tv film because it was one of the first of many that fell victim to the same problems Sweet Sixteen had.

Psycho II

1983's most notable and successful film was the sequel to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Rather than a series of unfortunate motel guests, we see Norman Bates slaughtering a group of pot-smoking teenagers, keeping in spirit with all former slasher movies while also maintaining what made the original so stunning.

This was the oldest sequel to come to a popular movie and manage to still be successful in the box office with a heavy $34 million.

Sleepaway Camp

A Friday the 13th clone, Sleepaway Camp is perhaps the most fondly remembered movie from 1983. A cult classic that spanned a number of sequels.

Sleepaway Camp is a great example of how to convey a political message while not losing sight of the horror and thrills and managing to not appear preachy in anyway.

Sleepaway Camp also had plenty of taboo topics, for the time, portrayed in the film; ranging from homosexuality, transvestites, and many other topics. It was bold and praised very highly for that exact reason.


1984

Once 1984 rolled around, the public had largely lost interest in slasher films and were finding their thrills in supernatural movies. Studios had all but abandoned the genre and went on to find and release the next big thing. The "Golden Age" of slasher cinema was effectively over.

While it was rare to see a slasher film on the big screen anymore, there were still a few films, most of which had short theatre life spans, that are noteworthy. The slasher world also saw of the birth of a horror culture icon, in the midst of one of its most uncertain times. We'll get to that one shortly.

Satan's Blade

As I mentioned above, supernatural was taking over the horror market rapidly and the slasher genre didn't want to go down without a fight, and so Satan's Blade was released. A fairly different slasher film, it follows the same dimension of "killer stalks victims. Killer kills victims" but includes a supernatural twist on the whole ordeal. We see that again in one of the most well known slasher movies of all time.

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter

This entry in the Friday the 13th franchise was the end, not only to the series, but to the slasher genre as a whole. The death of Jason, meant the death of the "Golden Age" as well.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

While the slasher genre was spurting out its last few moments of life in the form of lackluster made-for-television movies, director Wes Craven came back in with the gold-plated shock paddles named A Nightmare on Elm Street. Not only did Craven give the slasher genre a fresh breath of life, he took it and flipped it on its head, taking all dimensions and throwing them out of the window. Before, we saw most killers killing because they were wronged in life, as is the case with Freddy, but Freddy was evil to begin with. His victims weren't all teens we wanted to be killed, instead they were fairly innocent, their only crimes being their parents. The most important dimension that Craven flipped, was killers stalking their victims in a set, physical world, usually going to their demise. This time, their demise comes to them in the form of their dreams.

A Nightmare on Elm Street blended the supernatural, fantasy, thriller, and slasher genre into one perfect horror film that would go on to dominate the eighties horror scene. However, with the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street and its large budget, gone were the days of small budget horror films like Halloween and Friday the 13th .


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And Beyond

While the slasher genre did begin making a come back, it never had the same charm as the films from the "Golden Age" had. Where the originals like Halloween and Friday the 13th were raw and practically unfiltered, films following A Nightmare on Elm Street became more and more watered down until, essentially, the slasher genre was left to direct-to-DVD/VHS movies once again, excluding the numerous remakes of popular franchises.

Unfortunately, in 2018, the slasher genre is a dying art, it is my hope that when the new Halloween is released in October, that the genre will be revived to see a new generation of hack-and-slash beauty, especially since modern cinema is given a lot more freedom now, regarding the recent It remake and its opening scene where we see a child's arm getting ripped off.

Who knows what a new wave of slasher films could bring to horror? One can only dream, or rather, have nightmares about such a thing.

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