Commentary Track: Slasher Films as Art


Say what? On the surface, horror films and, more specifically slasher films, seem to be easy targets for critics and snobs alike to pick apart as the lowest common denominator. It’s not unusual for someone to compare slasher films to pornography – hell, there is even an entire subgenre that is both derogatorily and occasionally lovingly referred to as “torture porn.” I’m not exactly certain as to why being compared to porn is bad considering that porn is, by all accounts, awesome. It was of no surprise to me that while perusing the world wide web for more and more information on slasher flicks, I came across the page of one of our compatriots – CHUD. Now I haven’t personally met site owner and author of this particular egregious column, but from what I’ve heard I think Devin Faraci is a pretty cool guy. He fights Alex Billington and isn’t afraid of anything.

But in reading his article, he seemingly held the lowest common denominator view of slashers, comparing them to both hard and softcore porn (seemingly rating softcore porn above the slasher), while also calling them generally repetitive, stupid, cheap, and asserting that most slasher fans became so as adolescents while their brains weren’t fully developed, causing them to latch onto the simplistic and formulative nature of the genre. And while he went on to indicate some level of love for the slasher, I was sufficiently either offended or off-put by his expressed opinion (which everyone, of course, has the right to express) that I felt it necessary to defend the slasher as art.

If you go into a slasher film with your brain turned off or only attuned to the boobs and kills, then you’ll get exactly that. It’s true that you don’t necessarily have to think to enjoy a slasher film – something I chalk up in the positive category. That obviously fills a need in the cinema – not all films should be heavy handed and heart wrenching. The slasher film can be a channel for pure escapism. Everyone takes some level of joy out of a killer wiping out bratty kids that have done some wrongs to make them somewhat legitimate targets. It is abundantly clear that slasher films are modern day morality plays. Would you lump poet laureate John Skelton amongst the lowest common denominator for his morality plays? In the slasher, it is common that the “final girl” or the survivor will be a bit of prude. She will decline drink, marijuana, and sex. She will be the voice of reason and justice and by making the right choices, she is rewarded with life. Those that make the wrong and immoral decisions are dispatched at the end of a pitchfork.

Slasher films can also delve into other deep territories. Take, for example, Friday the 13th. Counselors neglect their duties, embrace drugs, alcohol, sex and other perversions of society and in doing so allow the death of an innocent child. Not only was Jason Voorhees innocent, but he was a special needs child being bullied by others. His mother’s actions in the first film are out of love that begets revenge – how far would you go? In the following films, you can dig even deeper. Friday the 13th Part 2 is almost a study on nature versus nurture. Jason Voorhees does not know the meaning of life or death. He was never taught that. All he learned in his short life was the love of a mother and the cruelty of those camp counselors his safety was entrusted to. He learned murder by seeing his mother, the only person he ever trusted, being beheaded. His natural animal tendencies allow him to survive, while his learned behavior has turned him into a single minded killer. If that is not enough for just that installment, look at the characters. You can accept them as cookie cutters, but if you wish to ascribe to them deeper meaning, you easily can. Vicki is immediately seen to go out of her way to help Mark, the man in the wheelchair, before knowing a single thing about him. She later chooses to stay behind with him, flirts obsessively with him despite his status as a stranger. Vicki decides to give herself to Mark, again without having known him. Couple this with her decision to work multiple summers as a counselor, Vicki comes across as acting out of some selfish need to help others, possibly to make herself feel better, and not out of a legitimate interest in Mark as a person.

Did I dig a bit deep there? Am I reaching? Was that the writer’s intent? Perhaps. But it’s not what goes into the batter that matters, but rather it’s what comes out of the oven. Whether or not that was the intent of the film, I can take that message away from it. So two people can watch the exact same scenes and one can see what he wants – a flirtatious girl ends up getting stabbed. Or you can choose to see a much more complex interaction between a prideful man (he’s in a wheelchair due to his own fault, a motorcycle accident, and he could be described as arrogant in action) and a selfish woman fulfilling her own needs by preying on the disability of another. If you want to find that message in horror films, you will. If you want to ignore them and call them pornography, you won’t enjoy the whole thing.

Much has already been written on the subject of women empowerment and the slasher film, so I’ll try to be somewhat brief in talking about it, but it is important. The vast majority of survivors in horror films are women who begin somewhat meekly but become independent and rise to the occasion, rescuing themselves and at times those around them, including either children or fully grown men. You can not have a more literal interpretation of female empowerment than a woman fighting a knife-wielding man, disarming him of his admittedly phallic weapon and then penetrating him with the knife. I could spell it out even more, but I think you get the picture. If you love sexual metaphors in your horror though, take a look at The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 which graphically utilizes the chainsaw as a phallic projection and a woman’s terrified screams and writing to escape a semi-simulation of the severely sexually repressed nature of Leatherface, which in itself is indicative of a deeper suffering of the character. Later, two men do battle, each with their chainsaws, again substituting in for an actual dick measuring contest. No one ever said slasher films were subtle, but the messages are indeed there for you to read.

In addressing the repetitive or formulaic nature of the slasher, I don’t automatically consider this a negative. If anything, following the formula makes it more difficult for the films to be considered good and especially great. Because we know what is supposed to happen next, it forces the creative team to work harder and innovate to keep our attention. Though is it necessary to defend the slasher formula when comedies, “quirky” films, action films, revenge films, and even Oscar baiting films all have their own formulas that are adhered to 95% of the time?

Sure, there are plenty of bad slasher films, but there are plenty of bad movies in general. It would be unfair to harshly judge the slasher because they’re often underproduced and utilize amateur actors. Any group of friends with a prop knife, a camera, and a few thousand dollars can make a slasher. Hell, some slashers go to DVD with budgets well under $250,000. And again, they’re easy targets. They’re acceptable targets. Someone like Roger Ebert can sit on his high horse and talk down about slasher films and call them trash all he wants. Though maybe Ebert is just pissed off that his screenwriting career went nowhere despite all the lesbian sex scenes he put in his debut, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

The slasher film is a reflection of the viewer. It will give you exactly what you ask of it. If you ask it to be a movie that offers nothing, you will take nothing from it. If you ask it to be a fun time full of nudity and sex and noting else, you will have a nice time. If you approach it with the same open mind you’d approach some Kate Winslet film, you’ll likely find the film operates on many levels, commenting on morality, empowerment, justice, and understanding. A failure to grasp and appreciate the slasher film is tantamount to admitting one does not understand the concept of satire. Where you may witness cardboard characters or blatant stereotypes, watch them through the viewmaster of satire and you see sometimes rather cunning observations on the current youth trends.

If you’re looking for a litmus test to find out who to hang with, show them a slasher film. If they fail to see beyond the Crystal Lake surface to the hidden depths an d deeper meanings, let them go be snobbish somewhere else. As for me, I say let the boobs flop and the bodies drop! I say praise be to the slasher for playing to my basest of desires and offering up entertaining and awesome kills! Though don’t forget, once in awhile, to search for a deeper meaning and you may just be surprised at what you find.

And finally, thank you to anyone who managed to read all 1550 words of this.

Photo courtesy of Slainmonkey at DeviantArt

What do you think? Is the slasher nothing more than cheap trash or is it art?

Robert Fure is many things: horror expert, ruggedly handsome man of the world, witty prose composer, and writer of his own biography page. Beneath the bravado is a scared little boy, ready to grow into an awesome man and make lies about a scared little boy inside of him. Wait a minute...

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