Nightmares, Chainsaws & Campfire Stories: My 10 Favorite Video Slasher Movies

Nightmares, Chainsaws & Campfire Stories: My 10 Favorite Video Slasher Movies

Brick-and-mortar video rental shops are a thing of the past. These days, movies are distributed by vending machines and streamed directly to laptops and phones. Picking out a movie is no longer an adventure; there’s no more perusing aisles or arguing with movie-nerd Blockbuster clerks. You don’t have to leave your chair to make a selection, and if you decide you don’t like your pick, you can flip to something else within seconds.

But I remember the video days. Inside every rental shop were endless rows of VHS tapes and a handful of life-size action-star cardboard cutouts. And there was always a slasher movie section: Big clamshell boxes covered in blood and mayhem, irradiated monsters and throat-slashing serial killers, with crazy titles that included words like Terror, Death, and Massacre. I remember some of the most vivid imagery: The garden shear-wielding silhouette from The Burning; the girls in nightgowns from Slumber Party Massacre; the skull-pumpkin from Halloween II.

Renting movies back then – especially slasher movies – must have been quite a gamble. VHS box art was almost uniformly excellent, even for terrible movies like Nail Gun Massacre and Don’t Answer the Phone. But when you made a selection, you had to stick with it. There was no stopping the movie and starting another – this was the one you paid for and brought home.

This list is for the past – those primitive days of rewinding tapes and paying late fees.

These are my 10 favorite VHS slasher movies. Remember them next time you find yourself looking for something to watch in 1993.
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#10 – Friday the 13th – The Final Chapter (1984)

It’s hard to pin down what people like about the Friday the 13th series.

I mean, none of these movies are really any good. The slasher formula first presented in Black Christmas and purified in Halloween was dumbed-down for the first Friday film, and the series never really got any more clever or interesting from there. A Friday the 13th movie consists of Jason Voorhees killing a bunch of asshole 20-somethings that you wished you hadn’t of met in the first place. Great.

But The Final Chapter, the fourth in the series (and definitely not the last, no matter what the title promises), boasts talented castmembers in Corey Feldman, Crispin Glover and Lawrence Monoson, as well as a bevy of likeable  characters that you actually don’t want to see killed.

Needless to say, this one works more often than it doesn’t, resulting in a largely entertaining flick.
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#9 – Sleepaway Camp (1983)

Sleepaway Camp is a thoroughly strange movie. Everything and everyone is hyper-sexualized (including children), the camp owner is a kid-hating lunatic, and the killer’s motives are muddled. But what the film lacks in rationality it makes up for with sheer insanity, offering gruesome, mind-bending murders and a cast of characters that are either senselessly angry or viciously horny. Any game played at Camp Arowak ends in oddly homosexual wrestling matches that sometimes extend into the cabins, where the only pranks pulled by the young campers involve their own bare buttcheeks.

There’s nothing quite like Sleepaway Camp, and I doubt that fact will ever change.
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#8 – The Stepfather (1987)

Much more low-key than its peers, The Stepfather takes its time setting up its violent climax, making sure viewers are good and creeped out before the bloodletting begins. Terry O’Quinn is masterful in his portrayal of a man with multiple personalities and the screenplay is consistently engaging, allowing time to develop character and setting. There’s even an interesting sleuthing aspect at play, as well as some dark, dark comedy buried within the premise.

This is one of the few slasher movies that works because of a central engaging character and performance. There’s little blood or carnage to be found, but the ol’ Dead Teenager spirit is still there, giving us an obligatory shower scene at a most inopportune time so you know it’s still sleaze. But it’s good sleaze.
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#7 – Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1989)

Sleepaway Camp II is a big surprise. Rather than just being a retread of the first film, it blows the doors off the slasher genre, delivering a madcap 80 minutes that does everything any jaded Dead Teenager fan could ever wish to see. Angela, our machete-swinging antagonist, is a wisecracking camp counselor with a soft spot for kids who follow the rules and a literal axe to grind with everyone else.

The movie does away with any inkling of realism presented in the original in its portrayal of wild-eyed, sex-starved teenagers who’ll drop their pants anywhere, anytime, and with anyone they can. The movie’s tone is pitch-perfect, employing bargain-bin gore effects (blood is often thrown onto wounds instead of seeping from them) and genuinely funny one-liners and physical comedy.

Sleepaway Camp II does what Cabin in the Woods did 15 years later: It deconstructs and celebrates the genre without ever once sacrificing character in the process.
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#6 – Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter’s shot-on-a-shoestring story of the night HE came home may not retain its potency after 35 years of rip-offs, imitations, sequels and remakes, but it more than compensates with its minimalist style and oppressive atmosphere – traits that most slasher films since have failed to successfully emulate.

For me, Halloween is a collection of striking images: An eerie midnight trip to an insane asylum, a victim pinned to a wall by a kitchen knife, and Michael Myers’ blank and emotionless white mask, appearing from darkened doorways or behind billowing sheets strung from a clothesline.

The scares may not scare like they used to, but the film’s cinematic pull remains as strong as ever.
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#5 – Child’s Play (1988)

By 1988, the slasher movie boom had come and gone, causing studios to stop gambling on slice-and-dice Dead Teenager movies and make the move to different kinds of horror offerings. The slasher subgenre still remained, with the Friday the 13thHalloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street series still limping their way to diminishing box-office returns, but audiences had finally grown tired of watching camp counselors get chopped into pieces over and over again by the same emotionless dullards. More and more often, slasher movies turned to humor: Freddy Krueger was just as much a comedian as he was a murderer by the end of his ’80s run.

But Child’s Play proved there was still some life left in the formula by infusing a horror-laced crime drama with supernatural elements, giving viewers Chucky: a living, breathing children’s doll with a foul mouth and a bad temper. Brad Dourif’s voice acting is the film’s centerpiece, but along the way we’re treated to effective jump-in-your seat scares and a few truly deranged setpieces. That the film manages to hold up so well after all these years is testament to its multifaceted tone, moving from eerie to disgusting to hilarious without once feeling forced or overdone. And that ending? Pure nightmare fuel.
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#4 – A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)

This is the gayest slasher movie of all time. Or maybe the most homophobic.

As far as my own analysis goes, Freddy Krueger is the embodiment of homosexuality, threatening to escape Jesse’s nightmares and come out of his body to murder kids in the real world. As Jesse fights to retain control over his own flesh, we follow him on midnight excursions to leather clubs and watch as his gym teacher is whipped with a jump rope in a high school locker room. Freddy’s tongue jumps from Jesse’s mouth as he’s putting the moves on his girlfriend. Jesse’s bestie is a hypermasculine jock who boasts about wet dreams. The two have a weirdly intimate friendship culminating in a sweaty sleepover in which Freddy rips out of Jesse’s body like a snake shedding its skin.

This is one of those movies you really have to see to believe.
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#3 – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Edwin Neal, who played the Hitchhiker, unfavorably compared filming the climactic dinner scene to serving in Vietnam. With the midday Texas heat reaching 100 degrees, the cast and crew worked in a room devoid of air conditioning or electric fans. The windows were covered with blankets, as the scene was to take place at night, and the stench of rotting food and dead animals caused some crewmembers to pass out during filming. Gunnar Hansen, Leatherface in the film, was forced to wear the same sweat-drenched shirt day after day for weeks, as it was dyed and couldn’t be washed. While shooting an insert of a knife cutting open Marilyn Burns’ finger, the tube that carried the fake blood failed and they were forced to actually cut open her hand. After completing the film, the crew was cheated out of adequate compensation, receiving a measly $405 apiece.

Every aspect of filming The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a nightmare.

The pain and anger endured while making the movie can be felt in every frame of the finished product. There are few films as viscerally intense. The first time I watched it, I was left completely unnerved, barely able to stop shaking.

It’s a masterwork of grueling intensity and it’s barely aged a day since 1974.
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#2 – A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Much like Halloween before it, this is a movie made up of unforgettable images: Freddy Krueger’s claws scraping against steel pipes; Tina in a body bag, worms and snakes squirming around her feet; dead leaves bouncing through a high school hallway; and Nancy pulling Freddy’s ratty fedora out of her dreams and into the real world.

The ’80s are an oppressive presence in A Nightmare on Elm Street, giving the movie an otherworldy feel, as characters watch movies from boxy televisions and wear gummy tennis shoes paired with acid-wash jeans. Charles Bernstein’s synths are muscular and forceful, plunging viewers into an ’80s nightmare of drum machines and electronic echoes.

A Nightmare on Elm Street feels out of place, out of time. Alleyways are filled with blue mist, streets are slick with moisture. Nancy’s high school feels empty and the rooms of her home feel like they were pulled straight from a furniture catalogue. Johnny Depp’s presence is singularly eerie – He’s far too young, much too boyish.

The film falls out of step with its peers as its final girl never masculinizes herself, never once picks up a knife. Freddy’s demise isn’t brought upon by violence – Nancy simply refuses to let him terrorize her. This removal of the male gaze is rare in slasher movies and never has it been done so subtly or naturally.

A Nightmare on Elm Street exists on another plane, shrugging off the horror movie clichés that plague its peers, paving a new road to follow, a new world to escape to, a new reality to explore.
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#1 – Black Christmas (1974)

Before slasher movies were slasher movies, there was Black Christmas. Before New Year’s EvilMy Bloody ValentineApril Fools’ Day, and Halloween, there was Black Christmas. The first instance of threatening telephone calls coming from inside the house, of a killer hiding in the attic, of an extended, continuous POV shot – Black Christmas.

But the film’s immense influence isn’t what’s important. It’s simply a fantastic movie featuring pitch-perfect performances, creatively-crafted sound editing, and skin-crawling setpieces, all coated in a thick sheen of very tangible dread. Unlike other holiday-themed horror movies, Black Christmas actually succeeds in taking the piss out of its titular celebration, turning yuletide cheer into a bile-smeared nightmare.

Perhaps the biggest reason Black Christmas remains so effective is its freshness, its vitality. Its killer doesn’t wear a mask or prey on the sexually promiscuous. There are no rules to follow or clichés to regurgitate. It’s a movie, written by people who hadn’t been exposed to countless knife-wielding imitators or ever-rising body counts. It remains a singular accomplishment, easily sitting head and shoulders above its peers.

So raise a glass of eggnog to the best Christmas movie Bob Clark ever made. Forget about his other one with the Red Ryder BB gun and the bunny suit.

So where are the 24-hour Black Christmas marathons? At my place every holiday season. Bring chips.

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