When people think of slasher films, the first thing that probably comes to mind is a list of iconic horror villains: Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Leatherface, Chucky. These characters are just as prominent in horror now as they were during the initial slasher boom of the 1980s, and they give the genre a sense of enduring timelessness. But slasher movies originated in a very specific way, with independent horror filmmakers drawing inspiration from European giallo films and classic psychological thrillers like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. At its most basic, all a slasher movie needs is a killer with a knife and a series of hapless victims, and that’s easy to put together on a small budget.
Stories structured around a mysterious killer knocking off victims one by one have an even longer history, of course, and at heart many slasher movies are just murder mysteries with more violence. That’s especially true during the earliest days of the slasher boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before the most successful movies were turned into franchises. It’s easy to forget now, but for the first audiences seeing Halloween or Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street , the identities of the killers were unknown, and it was a surprise to learn about character details that have now permeated pop culture.
There’s no consensus on when slasher movies actually began, since the development of the subgenre is a continuum of sorts, but Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the first movie to introduce a long-running slasher character (chainsaw-wielding hillbilly killer Leatherface). That same year, Bob Clark’s holiday-themed horror movie Black Christmas introduced much of the slasher-movie template, including a cast full of young people, mostly women, getting murdered, until they’re whittled down to the “final girl.”
Both of those movies were successful, but it was the huge popularity of John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978 that led to the main slasher-movie boom, including dozens of largely worthless knock-offs. Halloween bears plenty in common with Black Christmas, shifting its setting to a different holiday but still following a silent killer who takes out careless young people one by one. Carpenter adds just enough mythology to make the mute, hulking Michael Myers into a tantalizing villain, one who, like Leatherface, would go on to carry multiple movies of varying quality over the next several decades.
The ’80s saw numerous slasher movies expand into franchises, and in addition to the big names, there were plenty of minor hits, including movies like My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night, and Sleepaway Camp. Stars like Jamie Lee Curtis and Heather Langenkamp were branded “scream queens” for their appearances as victims in multiple slasher movies. Even as slasher movies became less successful at the box office, they flourished on home video, where cheap imitations of the hits were easy to market to eager horror fans. As a whole generation grew up watching slasher movies at sleepovers and summer camps, the genre itself became a major influence on future horror filmmaking.
One of the pioneers of slasher movies, A Nightmare on Elm Street director Wes Craven, kicked off a new slasher era with 1996’s Scream, a self-aware horror-comedy that plays with knowledge of the established “rules” of horror movies. Like the slasher hits of two decades earlier, Scream inspired plenty of mediocre imitators, but it’s remained a durable franchise itself. The meta commentary on the genre has since become just another element of the slasher-movie template.
At this point, slasher movies are firmly established as a cornerstone of horror, beyond simple trends. The early slasher icons continue to be reinvented and reintroduced, and low-budget filmmakers continue to produce small-scale slasher movies that thrive in the world of indie horror. The early formula for slasher movies, borrowed from giallos, murder mysteries, and psychological thrillers, has proved just as durable as its inspirations.
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Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He’s the former film editor of Las Vegas Weekly and the former TV comedies guide for About.com. He has written about movies, TV, and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, CBR, Inverse, Crooked Marquee, and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.