Though horror has historically been the most critically-maligned genre in cinema, most would agree that when done right, good horror can, in fact, contribute to the innovative nature of filmmaking as much as any other genre. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) are widely regarded as landmark films in the genre, having influenced the industry both thematically and artistically. More specifically, their variety of techniques and themes can be best illustrated by examining and comparing each filmmaker’s uniquely individual take on a plot device shared by each film: the kill scene.
Hitchcock’s Psycho contains just two on-screen deaths, but can arguably be credited with the transition from â€œclassicâ€ horror to modern horror and the very creation of the slasher movie. Before 1960, horror films usually centered around the supernatural: monsters, ghosts, and traditional gothic lore (i.e. the various incarnations of Dracula or Frankenstein). Traditional thrillers, meanwhileâ€”especially Hitchcock’sâ€”featured more realistic elements and plots, and did indeed contain murders, plot twists, and elements of suspense. But while the thriller’s aim was to excite (or, naturally, to â€œthrillâ€) the audience, Psycho was perhaps the first non-supernatural film to assign high value to the objective of scaring the audience. Hitchcock’s pre-Psycho cinema had psychological suspense (Rear Window), white-knuckle close calls (Notorious) and breathtaking, escapist-entertainment chase sequences (North by Northwest). But Psycho made audiences scream. It relied less on a sense of foreboding and ominous impending dread and more on sheer shock value. The psychological â€œthrillâ€ was no longer just in the audience’s head. Now, Hitchcock had added a physiological component that caused the audience to jump out of their seatsâ€”or cover their eyesâ€”in a knee-jerk reaction.
The film’s first death scene is the murder of Marion Craine, played by Janet Leigh, by a shadowy feminine intruder as she showers in the Bates Motel. Leigh enters the tub, turns on the water and takes obvious delight in its familiar, sensual comfort. While she is awkwardly framed in the foreground of the shot, a human figure creeps into the stark-white bathroom in the background, blurred behind the shower curtain. Nearly a hundred abrupt cuts and less then three minutes of film time later, audiences had witnessed perhaps the most iconic scene in film history. Leigh’s screams rip through the theater. The killer’s arm lurches out at its slippery, struggling victim. Blood mixes with water and spills down the drain. The metallic, stabbing strings of Bernard Herrman’s jarring score echo the killer’s knife as it plunges into Leigh’s naked, defenseless body. Or does it?
Closer frame-by-frame inspection reveals that only once does the knife actually seem to touch Leigh’s skin, and even then no explicit penetration is evident. It’s likely that, as the saying goes, necessity was the mother of invention here: Hitchcock had the dilemma of shooting the brutal murder of a nude woman in the most terrifying way possibleâ€”and then getting it past the conservative eyes of censors in 1960. Fortunately for us, he found a way. Turning to the technique of montage sequence popularized by Sergei Eisenstein, Hitchcock formed new meaning from the juxtaposition of certain shots at specific angles. Though the eyes never see Leigh’s character get stabbed, the brain unconsciously chooses to see it happen. Eisenstein himself explained montage as â€œjuxtaposing representative shots thatâ€¦are neutral in terms of their meaning, in meaningful contexts and series.â€ Hitchcock thus placed otherwise implicitly â€œneutralâ€ shots of a screaming woman, a plunging knife, an outstretched arm, and a thick, dark liquid running towards the drain, in such a way that audiences â€œsawâ€ something that wasn’t necessarily there. While Hitchcock did not invent the montage sequence, he revitalized the technique for a new genre.
The influence of Psycho was so far-reaching as to inspire a young filmmaker to weave his own psycho-killer tale nearly twenty years later, casting Leigh’s own daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, as the lead in an homage to Hitchcock’s film. Inspiration aside, John Carpenter’s Halloween emphasized considerably different techniques in its murder scenes, displaying an original style that would itself further influence the genre. Though no less brutal than Psycho‘s, the deaths in Halloween are not chopped up into jarringly abrupt quick-hits, but rather take place in long, extended cuts reminiscent of Bazin’s style, in plain view of the camera, and centered rather deliberately within the frame.
Carpenter intended his masked, faceless villain, Michael Myers, to be nothing less than evil incarnateâ€”a murderer without motivation fueled by an unquenchable bloodlust. Thus, unlike Psycho‘s gut-wrenching shower scene, the emphasis is not on the terror of the victim but the calmness of the murderer. Myers first expresses his psychotic nature as a child in the film’s opening scene, killing his sister on Halloween night with a knife taken from a kitchen drawer. An exterior establishing shot of the house is revealed to be young Michael’s point-of-view through the eyeholes of a clown mask. The equivalent of a first-person narrator in literature, this technique literally places the audience behind the killer’s mask and, subsequently, â€œinside his head.â€ Michael watches voyeuristically through a first-floor window as his sister and a boy fool around on the couch before moving upstairs, echoing Psycho (Norman Bates watches Leigh through a hole in her motel room wall). The ensuing, long-take P.O.V. shot follows his room-by-room path for several minutes, stalking through the back door, into the kitchen, and up the stairs, where he stabs his sister to death.
As an adultâ€”now recently escaped from a mental institutionâ€”Myers first kills a teenage babysitter in her car, strangling her. The static camera captures her struggle for nearly a full minute, while cutting just five times. Two more murders are shown on-screen, each with a noticeably limited amount of cuts andâ€”quite contradictorily to Hitchcock’s shower sceneâ€”hardly any visible bloodshed at all. Perhaps the most disturbing murder is that of another teenage girl, Lynda, as she talks on the phone with Curtis’ character. Myers, donning a ghostly white sheet, creeps up behind her, strangling her with the phone cord. A score like Herrman’s is conspicuously lacking; the only audible sounds are the muffled gasps coming from Lynda’s tightening throat filtered through the other end of the phone. As the static shot holds on the killer and his victim, Lynda slowly slips toward the bottom of the frame until she is completely offscreen. Still, the director and editor decide to not cut away. The shot lingers until the sheet finally falls off Myers, revealing once again his haunting white mask and re-emphasizing his cold, calm demeanor.
If Psycho created the slasher sub-genre, then Friday the 13th made it relevant to mainstream audiences for decades to come. Along with Halloween, it laid down the thematic ground rules that would govern the slasher film throughout the 1980s and 1990s, among them being the now-clich©d virginal â€œfinal girlâ€ and the cause-and-effect relationship between sexual activity or substance abuse and impending death. Like Halloween, Friday makes no secrets about its debt to Psycho, echoing its overprotective-mother motif in the person of the vengeful Pamela Voorhees and employing the surprise twist with the reveal of the killer’s identity. However, also like Halloween, its take on the specific moment of the kill scene is undeniably original, leaving its own distinct mark on cinema.
Friday takes place at innocuous, picturesque Camp Crystal Lake where, legend has it, a young boy, Jason Voorhees, drowned while the camp’s counselors were neglecting their duties in favor of partying and fornication. Years later, the camp reopens and a predictably similar group of horny teens show up, oblivious to the camp’s history and unaware of the killer now stalking the surrounding woods. The aforementioned parallels to Psycho are quite apparent, and director Sean S. Cunningham also owes a debt to Carpenter for his contributions. Cunningham makes liberal use of the P.O.V. shot from the murderer’s perspective that was so effective in Halloween, again placing us inside the killer’s head. This technique also has a more practical use, as it enables Cunningham to keep hidden the identity of his killer, which will not be revealed until the film’s denouement.
Friday popularized the modern slasher model in which, as one film historian puts it, â€œthere is no building of a climaxâ€”only variations on the theme of slashing, creating a pattern that is more or less reversible.â€ While Halloween stoked its slow-burning plot into a climactic showdown between Curtis’ virginal Laurie Strode and Michael Myers, Friday essentially uses a micro-formula that shrinks the â€œsuspense packageâ€ from the full duration of a film to just several minutes. Sacrificing characterization in order to maximize instances of suspense (a â€œquantity-over-qualityâ€ approach, perhaps), Cunningham quickly establishes characters in comfort, then introduces an element of dread (i.e. the ominous sounds of footsteps outside, or a creaking floorboard), and creates suspense that leads up to the moment of the victim’s death. The buildup is neither gradual nor implicit: Cunningham makes a conscious effort to create a painstakingly tense atmosphere as efficiently and economically as possible. The people in the film are essentially interchangeable, since we learn nothing about them that would make them stand out as individuals. Like a recipe, the process is repeated with calculated precision over the film’s seven onscreen murder scenes. Friday also diverged from its predecessors’ paths by taking advantage of Hollywood’s growing adeptness in special effects and makeup artistry to create truly unprecedented representations of gore. Now-renowned makeup artist Tom Savini led the way in creating groundbreaking, realistic prosthetics. Whereas Hitchcock implied murder, Friday the 13th actually showed it, repeatedly, in a disturbing variety of ways.
Though these films borrowed from one another and showed little attempt to hide their predecessors’ influences, they are considered landmarks for combining this with each filmmaker’s own originality. Psycho essentially created modern horror and the slasher sub-genre for all intents and purposes, and its influences on the themes and techniques in Halloween and Friday the 13th are hard to miss. But their moments of originality and creativity are best illustrated by their varying approaches to the kill scene. Psycho‘s unsettling, abrupt edits assaulted the audience with an unprecedented shock value, creating a biological reaction to go with the psychological suspense that, to Hitchcock, was now old hat. Eighteen years later, Halloween created a new form of shock by showing just the oppositeâ€”a haunting, lingering depiction of brutal murder that dared the audience to look away. Friday the 13th pushed the envelope even further, condensing Carpenter’s P.O.V. technique with Hitchcock’s suspense and amping up the gore quotient. Unfortunately, horror has long since resorted to an over-reliance on the repetition of these same ideas without that element of originality mixed in. Just as these three films are landmarks of the genre for both their shared themes and variety of styles, horror has become relatively stagnant due to its lack of these creative and original qualities.