Ah, the slasher. Easily the most maligned of horror’s sub-genres, it’s also probably the most studied one. The attacks have come hot and heavy since TV critics Siskel and Ebert dedicated half an hour of their show in 1980 to bemoaning the supposedly nihilistic and misogynistic tendencies of slashers, a besmirching picked up and amplified by some of the grimier voices of the Satanic Panic. While one can see some of their points (some slashers do seem to take special pleasure in dispatching female characters cruelly), they primarily trafficked in stupid generalizations, lazy misreadings, and profoundly unfair assumptions about the viewers of these movies. The latter was a tendency that began seeing correction with the publication of Carol Clover’s influential Men, Women, and Chainsaws (a must-read for anyone interested in horror criticism) as well as the thoughtful and nuanced studies that followed in its wake.
But let’s leave the moral panics and intellectualization for another list. As strange as it might be to think of, these movies which are all about innocent people (often teenagers) being murdered in weird and brutal ways are also some of the most fun the genre as a whole has to offer. Maybe it’s the way most of them stick to a pattern that makes them so familiar, even comforting, for so many fans. A killer, often masked and sometimes unidentified, stalks and kills a small group of people, usually in a secluded location. More often than not (its true of about half the films on this list), a young woman is the only survivor of the massacre, a figure Clover dubbed the “Final Girl.” A ton has been written about this archetype, with Stephen Graham Jones standing out as a particularly passionate and cogent defender of her importance.
The movies on this list are, as always, a grab-bag of my favorites, covering several decades and a few countries. The slasher is a sub-genre that travels very well, a fitting attribute for a style of story that essentially began as a merger between British detective fiction and Italian horror. From summer camps to movie theaters and opera houses, from psychopaths to obsessive lovers to frustrated home buyers, you ought to find a good time somewhere here.
Twitch of the Death Nerve/Bay of Blood (1971)
Twitch of the Death Nerve, alongside Black Christmas and Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None, is the font from which the first slashers flowed. A decade before Mrs. Loomis picked up that machete, Mario Bava filmed this movie, creating a scenario still being followed now. The Friday the 13th franchise in particular borrowed heavily from this one, including one of the most famous double-kills in film history. Bava had already laid the groundwork for the Giallo genre with The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace by this time, and gialli and slashers would continue to influence one another for years to come.
On a beautiful bay somewhere in Italy, an elderly countess is murdered, setting off a chain of gruesome deaths as people struggle to inherit her property. Unlike most of the slashers that came in its wake, Twitch of the Death Nerve has a slew of killers, these ranging from the coldly calculating to the floridly insane. Cruelty and bloodlust seem to be in the air in Bava’s flick, a contagion capable of infecting even the innocent. In this regard, Twitch of the Death Nerve set the template for a rather rare subgenre, one that the Israeli film Rabies belongs to. But Bava’s most violent film will likely always be remembered as the precursor to the hundreds of slashers that followed it.
Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
Speaking of gialli, Alice, Sweet Alice, a serial killer thriller from 1976, has often been considered an early American instance of the subgenre. More visible, though, is its place in the slasher lineage. Aside from Blood and Black Lace, it’s difficult to think of an earlier serial killer who wore a mask, and Alice, Sweet Alice features a translucent one that’s particularly creepy. The film also references Don’t Look Now, based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier, by dressing its murderer in a vivid yellow raincoat.
The movie opens on the conflicts of two sisters (one of whom is played by a tiny Brooke Shields) in New Jersey. Karen Spages, the younger of the two, is a dutiful little Catholic, excited about her first Communion. Her older sister Alice, though, seems to be a bit warped, taking joy from bullying Karen and spooking their fellow parishioners. Just before Communion, Karen is strangled to death by a small figure, and her family is thrown into turmoil. Soon, other people associated with the Spages’s start being attacked. Alice, Sweet, Alice is my favorite type of slasher, in that it keeps the killer’s identity a secret deep into its runtime.
Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
J. Lee Thompson
In horror circles, Happy Birthday to Me, like Alice, Sweet, Alice, is considered a minor classic of the slasher subgenre, so I’m not sure I need to be calling attention to it here. It is, though, just old enough to have fallen off the radar of some younger fans of the sub-genre. I’m fond of it for more than nostalgic reasons, though. Its merger of mystery story elements with the stalk-and-kill format makes it one of the Scream franchise’s true progenitors. From what I’ve seen, Happy Birthday to Me was the first slasher to focus on outre methods of murder, something it proudly advertises on most of its posters. Aside from this, it also features a bonkers climax you will likely not see coming.
The movie centers on young Ginny Wainwright and her circle of fellow students at the prestigious Crawford Academy. Ginny’s had a rough time lately. After her mother died in a tragic accident, she had to undergo an experimental treatment, one that’s left her a bit uncertain of herself. She’s been on the road to recovery for awhile, however, when a mysterious killer starts taking out people close to her. Ginny now has to reckon with this threat as well as doubts about her own sanity. Who will survive to enjoy the birthday party at the end of the movie? And will there be any cake left?
Stage Fright (1987)
By the time Michele Soavi directed this stylish slasher, he’d already helped film and even appeared in several iconic Italian horror movies including classics like Tenebrae, Phenomena, Demons, City of the Living Dead, and Opera. Years later, he’d direct the wonderfully batshit crazy Dellamorte, Dellamore. With Stagefright, however, he took the helm for the first time, creating a visually arresting and slick thriller that still manages to be deeply weird as well as plenty gory.
The cast and crew of the musical play “The Night Owl” are pulling a late-nighter preparing for its opening performance. When a madman escapes from a local mental ward and murders the theater’s wardrobe mistress, the play’s director has the brilliant idea of adding the missing killer’s name to the production. His other inspired notion is to lock his crew, cast, and himself in the theater for a marathon rehearsal. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, he’s also locked a raving psychopath in with them.
Aside from its visuals, Eurosleaze ambiance, and the excellence of its kills, Stagefright is also playful about the boundaries between art and “real life,” often verging on metafictional territory without quite spilling over into the fourth-wall-breaking you’ll see in later entries on this list. And, on top of these other qualities, you get to see someone in a giant owl mask butchering obnoxious actors, so that’s fun.
Dario Argento’s Opera is sometimes cited as the last of his “great” movies. It’s a point I find debatable (The Stendhal Syndrome, for instance, is quite powerful), but Opera is always somewhere in my top ten film list. You could certainly argue it’s inclusion on this list is an aberration. It is, after all, a giallo film, leaning heavily on mystery elements and spreading its killer set-pieces across several days, instead of the compressed time-scale most slasher movies depend on. The same, though, could be said of the Scream films, and Opera delivers far more blood and butchery than that series does, while also sticking close to conventions like the Final Girl and the killer having a memorable modus operandi.
Betty is a young understudy to a diva of an opera singer meant to star in an avant-garde production of Verdi’s Macbeth. When the original singer is injured in a car accident, Betty is suddenly thrust into the limelight. Her first performance is greeted with cheers, critical praise, and the violent murder of a stagehand. See, Betty already has a fan, and they are intent on putting on a show of their own for her, one she won’t be able to tear her eyes away from.
Opera has so much going for it I think it’s a crime it isn’t better known. Filmed in one of Europe’s largest opera houses, the movie is gorgeous. Not only is the movie set in such a sumptuous location, Argento works in plot-central animal cognition, heavy metal, and bravura cinematographic feats, as well as truly chilling kill sequences and understated parodies of other musicals.
High Tension (2003)
To call this movie “divisive” would be, among other things, quite an understatement. The ending has stirred up everything from passionate defenses to pitiless attacks. What most everyone agrees on, though, is that the first two-thirds of the movie are a grim, often brilliant, thriller. While I for one enjoy the climax of the film, I think its greatest strengths are visible throughout, particularly in the way it combines old-fashioned suspense with brutal and gory kills. The latter shouldn’t come as a surprise when you learn this was one of the foundational films in the movement that came to be known as the French New Extremity.
Marie and Alex are two college students on vacation in rural France. Their planned idyllic time in the country falls apart on the first night, though, when a brutish psychopath breaks into Alex’s family home and attacks her parents. What follows is an intense game of cat-and-mouse between Marie and this monster, a chase that manages to get weirder as well as bloodier as it goes on. Come for the gripping suspense and the savage killings, but don’t @ me about the ending.
Dream Home (2010)
In this vicious satire from Hong Kong, Cheng Lai-sheung is a hardworking woman with dreams of owning an apartment with a beautiful view. With a sick father and two time-consuming jobs, Lai-sheung has had more than enough on her plate. When the apartment she’s been hoping for opens up, it looks for a moment like things are finally going her way. Then, fluctuations in the housing market drive the price of the place up too far, and Lai-sheung decides she’s finished playing by the rules. It’s time to secure that dream home regardless of what it takes.
Even aside from its sociopolitical satire, Dream Home is a fascinating entry in the slasher sub-genre. It moves quickly and surprisingly between humor and gory killings, often combining the two. Unlike most slashers, it also centers on its killer, painting a primarily sympathetic portrait of a woman pushed to extremes by the rapaciousness of others.
Detention is a whackadoodle movie, a free-wheeling parody of everything from John Hughes-style high school fantasies to time travel and body-swap stories. At its core, though, it’s still a slasher and boasts some entertaining kill sequences amidst all the metafictional goofiness and renditions of Hanson’s “MMMBop.” I’ve no illusions most people will enjoy this flick, but I think it’s a lot of fun and this is my list, so deal with it.
The students of Grizzly Lake High are being targeted by a serial killer, one who has adopted the costume of Cinderhella, a fictional movie slasher villain. When a group of misfits are put in late-night detention by their principal (played by a surprisingly funny Dane Cook), they soon find out that more than their lives are at stake in this murder spree. In fact, the very fabric of space-time may be at risk.
While movies like the Scary Movie franchise ably (sometimes) spoofed the conventions and cliches of slashers, as well as other horror sub-genres, Detention is playing a smarter, more creative game. It splices together so many strange elements that something narratively unique emerges from the mess. The comedy will of course prove to be hit-or-miss for many viewers, but that is the nature of comedy, isn’t it?
The Last Matinee (2020)
Here’s a bit of trivia for you: did you know there’s a word for removing someone’s eyeball? It’s “enucleation,” and if even hearing this little fact is bothersome for you, then The Last Matinee is probably not the movie for you. Eyes are gouged, yanked out, squished, thrown around, and snacked upon in this Argentinian/Uruguayan slasher and if eye trauma is especially horrifying for you, you’ll likely spend the entire movie with your own tightly closed. This is ironic, because one of the movie’s chief pleasures are its visuals. The Last Matinee follows many of the beats of the slasher formula, but mixed in with the regular killings and psychopaths is a cinematic style more reminiscent of the giallo movies of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, with slick and haunting shots as well as a dark pulsing soundtrack.
Set in the 1990’s, The Last Matinee follows Ana, a college student who takes over her father’s projectionist duties at a rundown movie theater in Montevideo. Hoping for a relatively quiet evening in which she can do a little studying, Ana doesn’t notice that the sparse audience in attendance at the midnight showing is being cut down, one by one. Neither, for that matter, do the other members of the audience, and the film gets a lot of juicy tension out of this postponement of general panic. This movie definitely leans towards style over substance, but the tension is solid, the minor characters are well sketched, and the killings themselves offer copious gore. And the style, this slasher/giallo hybrid, is lovely.
The Fear Street Trilogy (2021)
I’m cheating a bit by including Fear Street in that this is a trilogy, but unlike most any other horror series I can think of, this one has a coherent through-line, one obviously intended to be a single story. In a canny bit of sub-genre mashing, Fear Street manages to combine slashers, supernatural horror, mystery, and historical fiction into a deeply satisfying smoothie of terror. That on top of this it also includes strong acting and an interesting examination of long-standing social ills makes it all the more impressive.
Split into three chapters covering three eras, the Fear Street trilogy centers on the lives (and gruesome deaths) of the teens of Shadyside, an economically (and culturally) depressed town somewhere in Middle America. Shadyside has been plagued by mysterious killings since its inception in the 17th century, something for which its inhabitants blame Sarah Fier, a woman long ago hanged for being a witch. The trilogy begins with a new series of murders in the 1990’s that touch the lives of Deena Johnson and her friends, then moves onto classic slasher territory with a tale set at a summer camp in the 70’s, before travelling back to the 1600’s for a Puritanical nightmare.
Filled with likeable characters, funny dialogue, genuinely surprising twists, and gory kills, Fear Street is worth every bit the hype it got in the summer of 2021. I hope its unique take on slashers proves influential in years to come, showing that a sub-genre often decried for empty characters and nihilistic violence can actually tell complex stories about people whom it may hurt to see butchered.
*Check out Ti West’s X, as well, for a rockin’ slasher. I’ll be covering it on another list soon, but I recommend it wholeheartedly.