October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article ranking the thirty-one best slashers is part of our ongoing series, 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Like a Surinam toad whose back is overflowing with pustules about to birth hundreds of babies, horror is a genre filled with an abundance of subgenres. Ghost stories, possession tales, monster movies, body horror, home invasion thrillers, cannibal flicks, zombie romps, vampire films, animal attacks, crazy cults, and many, many more. They all share a trait in common, though, in that they’re very clearly defined.
But what exactly defines a slasher film?
It seems simple enough, and ultimately, much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography, we know a slasher when we see one. A human killer sometimes imbued with a supernatural element, stalks and kills a small group of people (usually young) in a limited geographic locale, and it typically comes down to the killer and one final girl (or boy). Some folks argue that giallos don’t count, but let’s be real: they’re just Italian slashers. Some would say that the killer’s identity should be a mystery until the end, but you try telling Leatherface that he’s not starring in a slasher. Some would suggest that the presence of investigating police makes it a serial killer thriller, but you’d hardly accuse Christopher George’s Lt. Bracken of taking his job picking up the pieces all that seriously.
So yeah, we know a slasher when we see it. Narrowing down the subgenre, and our collective love for it, to a top 31 slashers was a thankless task. We know with utter certainty that numerous favorites — both ours and yours — didn’t make the cut. But that’s democracy for ya! There are five of us in this little group, and each vote weighs the same, so sometimes you lose a Wes Craven classic and gain a mildly entertaining faux documentary. We made it even tougher by limiting franchises to just one entry on the list to avoid multiple spots going to Friday the 13th films or Halloween sequels. Anyway, here are the 31 best slashers, i.e. our 31 favorite slashers as of this writing, as ranked by Chris “The Cleaver” Coffel, Brad “Boning Knife” Gullickson, Meg “The Machete” Shields, Jacob “Tomato Knife” Trussell, and me.
31. April Fool’s Day (1986)
There’s a chance that April Fool’s Day sneaking into our list of top 31 slashers is the source of debate. Is it truly a slasher? Perhaps it would be more accurately described as the slasher that isn’t? It follows the standard beats but takes an unexpected left turn at the end. At any rate, it’s a really fun film that deserves some more love. Muffy (Deborah Foreman) invites a group of friends to spend the April Fool’s Day weekend at an island mansion — as one does — when, one by one, they begin to disappear. As the dead bodies pile up, the movie keeps us guessing as to what is actually happening. It’s not nearly as gory as other slashers, with most kills taking place off-screen, but it’s darkly funny and has some great performances. (Chris Coffel)
30. The Funhouse (1981)
When you’re craving the best slashers, but you’re full on the classics, you reach for The Funhouse. Tobe Hooper‘s 1981 anemic slaughter-fest is an odd one amongst this list. However, it fulfills the sub-genre’s desires. A group of teenagers stumble into a cool locale that comes pre-packaged with a murderous killer. Amy (Elizabeth Berridge) knows better but can’t resist the peer pressure. Suddenly, she’s trapped inside a carnival with her dopehead friends, struggling to survive the constant attacks from a psychopathic carnie. There are movies on this list with far more kills, but Hooper’s childish pervert imagination puts quality over quantity. Placed next to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Funhouse fails tremendously. Do not compare and despair, though. Spend an evening with Gunther Twibunt, this flick’s Leatherface, and take pleasure in his grotesque originality and determination. (Brad Gullickson)
29. Hell Night (1981)
There aren’t many slashers from the 80s that I would argue work beautifully as gateway horror for preteen viewers, but Tom DeSimone‘s Hell Night is definitely one of them. No, seriously, hear me out. Sure, it’s R-rated, but it’s the softest R imaginable as it’s a slasher with no nudity, no real foul language, and the most minimal of gore. And it’s still both scary and fun! Linda Blair stars as a sorority hopeful who, along with another girl and two guys, is left to spend the night in Garth Manor as part of an initiation. It’s an abandoned mansion rumored to once house an unfortunate family who fell victim to a murder/suicide that left one of their twisted own to wander the grounds.
DeSimone gives the film a terrific Halloween feel as we move from the college campus celebrating “Hell Night” to the mansion itself, and the script keeps the victim pool high as upperclassmen/women sneak around trying to scare the four hopefuls with spooky sounds and Scooby Doo-inspired holograms. It’s not long before the last remaining Garth starts offing the trespassers one by one, and while the kills include beheadings, impalings, neck snaps, and more, there’s very little blood. DeSimone keeps the atmosphere suspenseful and delivers some great set pieces, including a rug slowly rising behind our oblivious protagonists, a claustrophobic chase through underground tunnels, and more. Seriously, it’s one of the best slashers and worth sharing with the preteen in your life. (Rob Hunter)
28. Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)
I was a late convert to the cult of Leslie Vernon, in part because I’m stupid, and took the poster at face value. Clearly, this movie was just some on-the-nose pretender to the long-abandoned throne of Friday the 13th, right? It was only in the intervening years that the word-of-mouth testimonials reached me. Pre-dating the likes of Cabin in the Woods by half a decade, Scott Glosserman’s whip-smart horror comedy packs a meta-fictional punch while delivering some genuinely grisly goods. The film follows a plucky documentary crew keen to capture the inaugural killing spree of the titular murderer (Nathan Baesel), whose greatest wish is to rise to the heights of Voorhees, Krueger, or Myers. While modern audiences have become sufficiently jaded with lampshaded genre conventions, Behind the Mask manages to have its metatextual cake while remaining uncynical and genuine. It sits comfortably in the video rental store (that lives in my mind) alongside Scream and Man Bites Dog. Coveted real estate, to be sure. (Meg Shields)
27. Tourist Trap (1979)
Picture this: you take the general concept behind The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (kooky rural family, hapless teens, hulking dude in creepy mask), then you add in a touch of Carrie and a dash of Psycho. Once you mix all that together, you get Tourist Trap. I like to consider this film the perfect primer for people who want to watch Texas Chain Saw but don’t have the nerve to really plunge into the deep end with Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece just yet. It even shares Chain Saw’s intentional humor, though here, the comedy is far more obvious in the bizarro images and scenarios Tourist Trap throws at us. For instance, late in the film, as one of our heroines makes her escape, the killer chases her down wearing a mannequin mask with rosy red cheeks and a bleach-blonde wig. He holds up a decapitated mannequin head and screams, “SEE MY FRIEND!” Suddenly, he hurls the head in her direction and, thanks to the killer’s psychokinetic powers, the head turns towards the camera as its jaw drops, emitting a sound that I think is meant to be a scream, but it really sounds more like “Blaaaargh.” It’s an objectively hilarious sequence in a movie filled to the brim with wild moments like this. It’s a zany, mesmerizing rollercoaster of ho-ly crap that has to be seen to be believed. But the power of Tourist Trap lies in the fact that, despite all of this madness, the film’s atmosphere and vibes are effective at making your skin crawl. Like Chain Saw, it’s a mashup of exploitation and surrealism that washes over the audience in a tide of weird vibes. (Jacob Trussell)
26. Angst (1983)
Angst is a movie that will always remain a memory because I don’t think I’ll ever put myself through the experience of watching it again. Case in point: I didn’t re-watch it in preparation for this list, as the effect of the movie is something that is as unshakeable as it is unforgettable. I recommend going in blind to the plot, but I can say that it features the most harrowing hallmarks of home invasion horror, distilled into 75 grueling minutes that make you feel like you’ve seen something you really shouldn’t have been seeing. Yet even still, to borrow a sentiment Roger Ebert volleyed at The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the film is an off-the-wall achievement. I may never want to watch this movie again, but I respect the artistry of the film’s cinematography and unrelenting pace, as well as the fierce commitment of its lead actors. If you can earnestly say you love Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier and are in search of another extreme flavor of “art house horror,” Angst needs to be the next film on your watchlist. (Jacob Trussell)
25. Stagefright (1987)
When rehearsing for a musical centered on a mass murderer, make sure to pick a space far away from an asylum for the criminally violent. You can learn from Stagefright‘s doomed theater troupe, who ignore this critical rule and run afoul of an escaped psychotic with delusions of performance. It’s an operatic slasher that joyfully embraces its thespian theme, delivering gnarly murders with a paradoxical self-serious wink. Director Michele Soavi, protegé of Dario Argento, stages the violence with a passion that mirrors his character’s boundless enthusiasm and allows for meta moments that leave fancies tickled. He’s new to the game, and it shows, but Soavi’s inexperience creates a frenzied, infectious energy. (Brad Gullickson)
24. Happy Death Day (2017)
It’s not every day you get to call a slasher a “time-leaping romp,” but not every slasher is Happy Death Day, a breath of fresh air in a genre that was beginning to lose its edge after Hollywood squeezed the mid-90s meta-slasher to death a decade before. While every slasher has some element of “whodunnit,” Happy Death Day makes the question of who killed Tree Gelbman the central focal point of the plot, in part because the death she is investigating is her own. When she dies, she wakes up alive, destined to relive her death day again and again until she can solve the mystery of who’s behind her murder(s). With a charming cast, led by the incredible Jessica Rothe, and a memorable Babyface mask that’s already been etched into horror movie history, Happy Death Day is the kind of creativity the subgenre can thrive on if only more people took the initiative Christopher Landon and Scott Lobdell made with their film. Now let’s twist our fingers into crosses once again so that we’ll get a final chapter to conclude the Happy Death Day trilogy. (Jacob Trussell)
23. Blood Rage (1987)
Blood Rage holds a very special place in my heart. Along with Pieces and The Mutilator, it makes up what I affectionately refer to as the holy trinity of ’80s sleazy slasher trash. This is unquestionably a sleazy, trashy movie, but in the best possible way. Twins Todd and Terry are enjoying a drive-in movie when Terry goes axe-happy and chops up a poor teen just trying to partake in some sexual activity. Terry frames Todd for murder and gets him sent away to the crazy house. Ten years later, on Thanksgiving, Terry’s murderous rage returns, and Todd escapes. Uh oh. Blood Rage doesn’t try to pretend to be something it’s not. It goes straight for the jugular, delivering the blood-soaked mayhem we all want in the best slashers, low-grade or otherwise. It’s the perfect Thanksgiving tale, but beware, that’s ain’t cranberry sauce! (Chris Coffel)
22. Psycho II (1983)
There’s no touching Psycho. Just ask Gus Van Sant. Alfred Hitchcock‘s iconic Mama’s Boy movie is an all-timer and will go down as one of the greatest thrillers ever made. Richard Franklin making a sequel twenty-three years later is kinda bizarre but also incredibly daring. No way does it live up to the original, but the swings it takes are mighty, and Anthony Perkins acts the hell out of this piece that very much leans into the violent behavior that Hitchcock would have unleashed if he could have (see his penultimate effort Frenzy if ya doubt it). Psycho II is very much an eighties slasher with the kill count cranking, and while it goes places og fans might detest, it never does so out of character or spirit. The film’s final shocker sends the next sequel into a realm where you thought this one would start and makes you respect the forked path Psycho II actually chose. We wish we could say Psycho III ups the ante, but it’s a downgrade. However, it comes with its own charms and is worth seeking out for Jeff Fahey‘s Anthony Perkins counterbalance. (Brad Gullickson)
21. Madman (1981)
This movie is cheap, cheap, cheap, and its premise matches its budget. Just barely. We’ve got another camp, another batch of campers, and another squad of counselors. There’s no hockey mask or overprotective mother, but there is a supernatural hulk wandering the woods with an ax in hand. Madman is laughably absurd more often than it’s not, but the titular beast comes complete with an addictive campfire bop, and the silhouette he casts is adequately dreadful and impressively memorable. If you can survive past the neverending hot tub sexy times, you’ll be rewarded with overly brutal kills and a rather rad yet repetitively buzzy score. It’s one of those has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed kinda slashers. It shouldn’t work, but it does. (Brad Gullickson)
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