The Origin of Slasher Movies
Mankind's interest in watching one another inflict violence on each other can go as far back as ancient Rome with gladiatorial combat and public executions. However, fictionalized accounts hadn't become abundant until the late 19th century. There were broadway shows depicting fictional, brutal murders and silent films that did the same thing. Showing that slasher films have forever been viewed negatively by the vast majority, there was a public outcry regarding the numerous, violent films which, eventually, led to the passing of the Hays Code in 1930; the entertainment industry's earliest set of guidelines restricting sexuality and violence.
Now the earliest influence I could find for slasher films was the film The Bat from 1926. To summarize, a group of unfortunate victims is stalked by a killer in a horrifying mask. Already sounds familiar right? Anyway, when silent films and broadway plays were all about violence and little to no plot, The Bat adopted a means to a gruesome end.
So, with the success of The Bat, there was a brief trend of 'old dark house' films, like The Cat and the Canary from 1927 and The Old Dark House from 1932.
1940 - 1950
During the ten year span of 1940 to 1950, there wasn't a whole lot of 'slasher-esque' films. The style was dominated by the mystery genre at the time.
However, once 1943 came around, we saw the birth of The Leopard Man which is the earliest American film we've seen that tries its best to realistically portray a serial killer. Anyway, our killer is given a motive for killing numerous people and makes it out to be the work of an escaped leopard.
In 1944, we see the release of The Scarlet Claw where the one-and-only Sherlock Holmes is investigating a series of murders where the killer is using a garden weeder to repeatedly attack his victims. In terms of story, it's your average run of the mill mystery film, but this is significant because we see the birth of the cinematography of slasher films, we see the camera work focusing on the brutality of the murder being committed. Strangely enough, something as simple as that gave the slasher genre shape and form. We see this kind of cinematography in the Halloween franchise, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the list goes on and on.
Finally, for this time period, we have And Then There Were None which was released in 1945. This film centers around eight different people who are systematically killed off, not without reason, however. The victims of And Then There Were None all are being punished for various, secret sins they had committed. This ideal became a popular tool utilized by later movies like House of Wax (1953), I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), and even, to some extent, Friday the 13th.
Another decade passes, and, sure there are a handful of 'slasher-esque' films that were released, but none of them really did anything notable for the genre. They just kept utilizing the same formula that had made the earlier titles, that I mentioned earlier, so popular and successful.
The 1960s were dominated by thriller and mystery films that got progressively more and more violent.
Obviously, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho needs no introduction. I'm sure 95% of the people reading this essay at least know about this movie. This is where the slasher film genre was born. Hitchcock used visuals that sparked much controversy at the time of Psycho's release including brutality, murder, and sexuality. Psycho had built much of its mystique around tension and plot twists and a sense of vulnerability that every single slasher film has given us. Shots of murder, nudity, and shock really did set the tone for future movies in the genre. Psycho stands as the great grandfather of the slasher film genre since it gave so much to build from.
1960 also saw the release of a commonly overlooked film called Peeping Tom which has also been widely accepted as an ancestor of the modern slasher film genre. Peeping Tom tells the story of a serial killer who is obsessed with recording the deaths of his victims on a camera, we not only see the birth of more brutal scenes here, but we also find the origin of splatter cinema, which we will discuss later. Psycho established controversy during this time, but Peeping Tom exploited it, foreshadowing the negative look that many slasher films would receive in the future.
In 1961, however, splatter cinema was born. We saw the release of Homicidal which surpasses the structure, suspense, and thrill of Psycho in my opinion. There is more brutality and gore and less censorship overall which, in my opinion, was an ingeniously bold move.
Some years passed of Hollywood wearing the thriller well dry until, finally, in 1969, The House That Screamed was released in Spain which essentially featured all of the basic tropes of horror films at this time, but had a hand in setting the framework for campus-based slasher movies.
Whereas Psycho and Homicidal gave birth to the slasher genre, splatter and exploitation films were where slasher films started to walk.
I think we can all agree that the number one influence for slasher films in the splatter film genre. With over-the-top violence trying to salvage forgettable plots from a sea of movies, there was bound to be a few gems in here during this time. This subgenre dominated the horror scene for about twenty years from late 1950 - 1970, so that is to be expected.
Anyway, let's start by talking about the father of the splatter subgenre, the Godfather of Gore, Herschell Gordon Lewis. Let me just say that I admire this man, he was very bold with his film work during a very censored time and he continued to release films until 2009; that's a lot of bloody good movies (pun intended). He released numerous films like The Wizard of Gore (1971) and Blood Feast (1963) and kept releasing more and more visceral stuff during this time. For the sake of time, I'm going to cut this portion a little short, especially since I could make an entire essay on Lewis alone. All you need to know, humble reader, is he gave the splatter/slasher genre a really bloody, meaty pile to build with.
Splatter films had given audiences more blood and gore than they could ever ask for. Slashers would adopt the same style of violence, albeit not nearly as extreme. Splatter cinema is also a much more shunned subgenre than slasher films. They were more interested in shocking and disgusting their audience, rather than actually scaring them. Splatter films focused almost strictly on killing and often felt like they were giving very little regard to the story, a lot of the violence was left up to the interpretation of the viewer. I'm going to use Halloween as a good example here because viewers are left wondering why Michael Myers is killing all of these people, the answer is usually something we craft in our minds.
I'm going to have to cut this section even shorter considering I could talk about the splatter genre for this whole essay as well, so let's move onto the exploitation/grindhouse era.
By the early 1970s, films began to take on more of an exploitative tone, which, you guessed it, gave birth to the exploitation genre. Filmmakers were all about finding the discomforts of their viewers and doing whatever they could to try and 'exploit' those very same discomforts. Splatter films pretty much gave up on the plot at this point, usually writing in a story to loosely justify all of the violence onscreen. Splatter/exploitation/slasher films pretty much carried this tone all the way through the early 70s.
The Grindhouse Era
The grindhouse film era is when the slasher genre hit its adolescence and went spiraling into its adulthood, which would later be known as the golden age.
Once exploitation films became the norm for most horror movies, audiences were lured to grindhouse cinemas and drive-ins by the various advertisements promising sex and violence. There were even directors using negative reviews as a selling point for their films, which the slasher genre adopted later down the road.
During this time, the slasher genre was mixing itself up with violence, controversy, suspense & even adopting a better method of storytelling and, by 1974, began to abandon its exploitation beginnings in favor of a more suspenseful form of storytelling.
Anyway, we start off with And Soon the Darkness (1970) which kicked off the exploitation & grindhouse wave of the seventies.
Next came Fright (1971) which follows the "babysitter vs. deranged lunatic" concept.
Then came Tower of Evil (1972) which is all about careless, partying teens getting brutalized in gory fashion.
Frightmare (1974) came next which introduced stronger storytelling methods for the slasher genre, introducing psychological influences in a more understandable light. Still, the film felt almost like a parody of the exploitation genre.
By 1974, exploitation horror films began to take on water as they tried to battle against political correctness. Films were beginning to receive much notoriety, not for the violence and sexuality, but for promoting bigotry and this was hurting them pretty badly. However, there was one film that stood above all of that and managed to be a success against all of the odds.
"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and Beyond
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre became a major hit, becoming the most commercially successful horror movie since The Exorcist. The film has taken something from every source of horror leading up to this point and really perfected this formula with a plot that concerns the violent clash of cultures. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre gave something for every fan of the horror genre, there is thrills, suspense, gore, and grim views on traditional conservative ideals.
We see young people being picked off one by one by the squealing, chainsaw-wielding Leatherface, we see gore, we see the cliche "girl who got away" idea and so much more with this film.
Honestly, not only is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre an American horror phenomenon to this day, but it can also be considered the first, official slasher film since it did pave the way for the Golden Age of the genre.
Speaking of Halloween, 1974 also saw the release of Black Christmas which can be considered, thematically and visually, a precursor to Halloween.
After the hype surrounding The Texas Chainsaw Massacre finally died down, there was one more film that helped establish the trail to the Golden Age and that movie is The Hills Have Eyes released by none other than Wes Craven himself in 1977. The Hills Have Eyes was so good because it built on themes presented by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and becoming yet another huge financial success which saved Craven from the failure following his previous film The Last House on the Left.
Following the financial success of Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes, the slasher genre was propelled forward into the late 70s and early 80s that many film buffs, film scholars, and horror fanatics accept as the Golden Age of their beloved subgenre.