It all led up to this:
SLASHERS IV: Michael Myers Resplendent
Thirteen entries for the final installment seemed fitting. Also, 1983 was the year that slasher films took 60% of the box office. First up: the best slasher of the 90's
Holy shit what just happened to that retarded kid's penis?, 1992
Clive Barker's Candyman character ends up being the rare classic 90's slasher movie, and maybe the only one. I can't really name its better, nor can I any film as legitimately scary. A lot of that has to do with who worked on the film - this isn't a B movie, writer and director Bernard Rose had worked mostly on a lot of well funded period pieces. Phillip Goddamn Glass did the score. The cast is entirely great actors, not just name people or whoever they could find - Tony Todd is perfect as Candyman of course, but also Virginia Madsen in her career best performance, along with the always rocksolid Xander Berkley and Kasi Lemmons. These are people who were chosen for how believable they could make the material, not for any other reason, and that is what Candyman's greatest strength is - that this is one of the most naturalistic films that you can still call poetic. The core idea behind Candyman is urban mythology, but also class and race and how those play into urban mythology. The imagery that Baker has created for Candyman, delivered when an academic professor rattles his origin off in sharp graphic detail - of a slave being mutilated and consumed by bees for touching a white woman - is powerful enough on it's own. But Barker and Rose then use the weight of that atrocity as implication on, not just the violence we see the Candyman do, but the violence that is everywhere in the Cabrini Green Projects where the film is set. There's a genuine racial divide that is evident between the Academics which populate Helen Lyle's world (her best friend is black and telllingly warns her off this bullshit) and the black population in Cabrini who don't need Candyman to keep them awake at night. It is also made clear that Cabrini isn't just a gang-laden cesspool, that real people live there. But Kasi Lemmons is also real upfront about how it's stupid to walk in there unaccompanied as two women. The amount of violence we see in the film - first as stories of white suburban teenagers getting chopped up, but as the film goes on it's all women and children (mostly black), animals getting mutilated, doctors. There is an escalation in the severity of the kills - but also of the power of the imagery - Helen crawling through the painting of Candyman's mouth, the dog's head and blood everywhere, the toilet full of bees, the baby buried in the bonfire. At any point this film could have become racist cliche, or pandering, but it smartly avoids all of that, it doesn't come down on that "black people need the white people's help" message that these types of films so often come down on. Instead the "message" of Candyman has nothing to do with that at all, those are just facts that add to reality of the film, which is about modern myth; the hunger people have for fictions to be scared of, the use of that fear to hold their lives together, especially ones who's real lives aren't safe to begin with (fittingly, in the end the black baby is spared and the rich white professor gets butchered in a bathtub). Tony Todd's performance is entirely about the seduction of violence and death, and how that is both intoxicating and harmful. Tony Todd plays the core of the horror, and that is the greatest power the film has, even when the pacing punches you in the face HARD at exactly the halfway point and never lets up. Casting is everything I guess, no mater how good the writing and direction are. Good thing this one has all three.
Next, THREE from the Maestro, Dario Argento.
72. Cat O' Nine Tails
Most boring gay club scene ever, 1971
Probably the most overly complicated Argento movie, at least until he got into his visually baroque period after Tenebre and becomes less fun. The plot of a blind man, the orphan girl he takes care of, and an always-late reporter discovering a murder scheme at a genetic testing corporation? It's incredibly complicated. These are some weird avenues that Argento decided to go down - a genetics lab discovers a test for possible criminal tendencies relating to chromosomes, there is a long protracted subplot involving a gay scientist, a millionaire's daughter, some cops. And of course, there are Argento's long-running fixations: brutalized women, killer pov, the inability of characters to see. Here it is the blind guy, in Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Tenebre it is a witness not being able to comprehend what he sees. There is a great element in Argento's films that he knows that people are not really reliable when put under stress and can miss things happening right in front of them. It's a fantastic recurring element for a director who deals a lot with witnesses and crimes; with the unreliability of human perception. The story kind of doesn't hold up or even grab in the way that nearly every other pre-Suspiria Argento story does. In fact, the last scene adds a lot of tension almost completely out of whole cloth, proving that when he needs to deliver a payoff, especially a morally troubling one, Argento doesn't miss.
73. Deep Red
What was with the old guy and the lizards?, 1975
While I couldn't tell you about a kill that has stuck with me from this film, I think that some of Argento's most indelible images are found here. From the opening shot of a silhouette committing murder, to the pan up to Daria Niccolodi's eyes as they meet the camera in front of the burning building. The hanged man on the chalkboard. The drop of blood on the tile floor. The horrific image hiding under the paint in the old house. The walled in body of the father.
Argento's other films spend a lot of time on locations and objects. The totemic nature of Argento is never more prevalent than this movie, where the people dying are never as important as what they were killed with or where. Connected to this is how unreal a lot of the film can be - the opening scene with the psychic in the auditorium is not too far from the film premiere at the start of Wes Anderson's Life Aquatic. Curtains are drawn by unseen hands, setting up the unreality of a lot of scenes - culminating in the bizarre clockwork doll that menaces one victim. Maybe even more then the constant cutting to dolls and knives and all sorts of things to later appear at murders sitting on a table together as the unseen killer applies eyeblack. There is no reason for these scenes other than setting tone. David Hemmings is kind of playing a continuation of the character he played in Antonioni's Blow Up, but there isn't much of a character here to play. Instead this is a film of items, images, places. It is almost as if the murder is just what unites everything that isn't alive. And the guy being dragged to death and then crushed exemplifies the brutality that occurs when someone clearly uninterested in humanity except as bags of blood to be thrown in the street comes along. I would say it's not a good look, but it so is.
Features the most useless lady cop in the entirety of film history, 1982
Argento has said that Tenebre is set in in a theoretical future version of Rome, five years from 1982. What is interesting is that instead he has made perhaps the most 1982 movie possible. Tenebre is Argento's best film, it is stunning because it is about the kills. It is about murder in a way that most movies would never want to be about murder. Argento has a lot of fun with his critics here - the girl who calls the author of sensationalist slasher fiction a misogynist gets killed savagely. And the member of the press that only sees the story as an allegory for the removal of perversions (the way a lot of critics have viewed the slasher genre as fairly conservative genre - sex is generally rewarded with death, even in movies mot playing by the rules) is revealed to be a deviant, maniacal murderer. Argento could care less about either of these readings, and has chosen to indulge them and show how simple they are when attempting to expose the reasoning of murderers. The killer, at least the killer in the end, is shown to be guy who makes these things - Argento not confessing but explaining that the only character smart enough to get away with something like this. He makes a point of having the detective in charge of the case say he can never guess the killer in mysteries. But the idea here - that a writer would take advantage of a serial killer in his life by killing him and then using him as a cover for his own murders (his agent and his ex-wife). Like other Argento movies, the particulars aren't nearly as interesting as what they total up to. The lesbian roommate is only here for the moment of titillation that her suggestion creates, just as the feminist roommate is only frigid to contrast with the half naked lesbian in her stairwell. The girl is only savaged by the dog to show her terrified and alone, and chased bloody into the killer's home. The ex-wife's arm is torn off just to show her arterial spray painting the walls.
What is important is the kills, and the story is largely the story of the kills, in a really intelligent and direct way. Which is why it is so odd that Argento wanted this to be a science fiction movie, because of how little the space matters, especially when compared to his other films. The flashback/dream sequence that litters the film of the half naked woman in red heels, surrounded by shirtless men is nothing if not sexual unconscious imagery. Argento has characters quote Hound of the Baskervilles, there was never any motivation to make this movie other than making a movie about murder. It is a subject he is uniquely suited at - murder, covering up murder, faking a suicide, and dying for real. It's not just the movie - all of that in the last scene. Perfect for Argento, it isn't the final girl standing that takes out the killer, but a statue - an object, an accident.
Next one from Brian De Palma, Who, like Argento, is a disciple of Hitchcock; and who is still waiting on his royalties check from that Refn jackass on the bathroom scene in piece of shit DRIVE movie (Walter Hill and Paul Schrader must have already got theirs).
75. Dressed to Kill
SHOWER SCENE, 1980
Alfred Hitchcock notoriously, responding to John Landis saying "Well, it's an homage", said of this movie "More like fromage". Which, yeah. Dressed to Kill is not a movie that anyone would ever call naturalistic. As influenced by Hitchcock (Psycho, Read Window, Suspicion, Vertigo, Marnie, hugely amounts of Family Plot released only 3 years before) as Argento, the movie is incredibly De Palma, in that it is about manipulation and sensation, as well as amazing technical control. You know the story - a woman cheats on her husband with a stranger, is cut to pieces by a mysterious blonde woman, a prostitute sees it, and the prostitute and the woman's son are then forced to solve the mystery together. But De Palma is so playful, and so aware of how to serpentine around cliches. The introducing a famous actress with a major, emotionally complex role and then killing her by a mysterious woman in the first act? We should have known the killer was a man in drag right away, because that shit is Psycho. The sense of helpless voyeurism saved by authority in the last minute - sure this time there is a prostitute in lingerie (played by Nancy Allen, De Palma's wife - like in his masterpiece Blow Out the following year) instead of Grace Kelly, but same thing. De Palma has an interesting habit of inserting himself into the narrative though, this time he is the tech-savy near shut-in son (played by eventual director Keith Gordon who took roles in De Palma and John Carpenter's films as a young actor so he could see how they worked) who plays his sexual frustration down to a simmer like Alain Delon. Michael Caine is great as the bipolar transsexual psychiatrist murderer, but of course he is. The best stuff here, tellingly, is the material written for Nancy Allen. It was clear what De Palma was interested in doing, which was watching her work. The chase through the subway, where threat is constantly shifting from the killer to the gang she offends and back and forth between, is done with the deftest touch. The final scene, where Allen and Gordon have a meal, discuss sex changes, and decide to go home together all to the horror of the woman sitting behind them eavesdropping. It is the most Hitchcock moment in the film, but it is the moment that has the least to do with him.
Now, TWO of the rare greats of 00s horror films.
76. The Strangers
Since when is Liv Tyler in good movies?, 2008
- This was an absolute surprise to me, the kind of movie that they literally don't make anymore magically appearing in 2008 like a time traveller stumbling in from a world of pale imitations, remakes, and unsatisfying meta (at least torture porn had some kind of payoff but it is dead and those movies were terrible). Here is a movie with - real pacing, real stakes, characters you can invest in. No cheating, no jump-scares. It is remarkable for all the things that is not, but that is a reall easy way to praise something, and it is easy to look good when the competition is the Sorority Row and When a Stranger Calls remakes. So instead, The Strangers is a movie that treats the material of masked home invaders as if it were a real movie about real people. Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman's couple is compelling enough in their interpersonal relations and conflicts that you actually could watch a movie about these two people before the fun starts. It also has the effect of establishing real people for the violence to happen to - maybe better than most of the movies that pay lip service to doing just that. The Strangers themselves, the slow and deliberate way they screw with this couple, eventually leading to tearing apart the house, murder, and torture. The central conceit - of just how easy it is to people's lives, of how fragile whatever safety we've surrounded ourselves with really is - it doesn't matter if they are strangers or not. It doesn't matter if she recognizes the girl under the mask. "The Strangers" might just be a flawed title, but the overall lack of a safe haven is what you have to take away from this movie. Like the horror greats, it makes the mundane feel less safe, because in reality it is. No one ever watched a Saw movie (or Cabin in the Woods or High Tension or any horror remake made after The Thing) and left with a sense that they wouldn't turn their porch lights off that night. No one ever. This is a movie that scared me, not through shock or tension but from the very core idea of it. They did nothing wrong, the didn't flaunt any moral rule. People just showed up in the middle of the night and decided to torture them, for no reason.
77. The Devil's Rejects
What if Sam Peckinpah made a torture porn movie? , 2005
The difference between the Rob Zombie who made House of 1000 Corpses and Devil's Reject is shocking, the five years between shooting each is evident in the confidence in every shot and decision made. All of the cartoonish elements and the vast breadth of material Zombie was attmepting to cover (essentially as much of horror as he could cram into the shape given by the Firefly family). The setting isn't the vague, Anytown south. It is now replaced by a very real Texas in 1978. The songs are period needle drops, not Zombie's own incongruous music (there is surprisingly a Steely Dan track in this film).
Bill Mosley isn't really playing the character he was in the first one - a Charles Manson-Dennis Hopper hybrid that seemed evolved out of his performance in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Instead he seems to have specifically cultivated hos look to appear more like Zombie himself, and his performance recalls of nothing less than Warren Oates in his unpredictable, wrath of god prime.Sid Haig and Sherri Moon Zombie's characters are essentially the same but deepened and given more nuance - even as both characters operate completely without nuance. Mosely's unfuckwithable Otis is perfectly at home in killing and sadism, as is Baby. But Sid Haig's Captain Spaulding - you can tell his distancing himself from the family was a decision to at least control the amount of violence in his life. He's perfectly willing and able to do everything as awful and sickening as the corpse-fucking Otis, but he is not at home in, and a little taken aback at what his children are capable of. The Rejects, they're the stars of the show, but the film shows just how smart and adept Zombie is at casting his movies. These roles have apparently been written for every actor here, and most of them are horror or western veterans. Ken Foree is fantastically cast as Sid Haig's brother and old partner, because they've spent their entire careers playing essentially the same roles. Michael Berryman of The Hills Have Eyes shows up, Geoffry Lewis from Heaven's Gate, PJ Soles from Halloween, Mary Woronov from Death Race 2000. Like Corpses, there is a sense in each of these performances that this isn't the level of material these actors are usually allowed to sink their teeth into anymore, and there is a "let's show em how good I still am" quality to even the cameos. Dann Trejo and Diamond Dallas Page play the throat-slitting bounty hunters they were born to play (THE UNHOLY TWO deserve a spinoff so much more than Machete, these two are magic together). Leslie Easterbrook has the unenviable task of following Karen Black's performance in the first film, and blows the doors of the thing. Tom Towles cranks it up in his one scene, doubling as the greek chorus of the film intoning "I WANT THESE MOTHERFUCKERS DEAD."
But it's William Forsythe's movie. There isn't even a question of that. It is as intense and gripping as the three antagonists he's set against. Forsythe is a righteous, hardass man of the God and law, his trajection from that to corruption and savagery - to becoming worse than the people he's going against. Forsythe's John Quincy Wydell is the entirety of Devil's Rejects, he is the character that elevates the material from smart to great, and a large part of that is the William Holden by way of Elvis manner he carries himself. "Dying is not an option." he says, scene one, and pretty much sets the tenor how how fucking no bullshit intense a performance can be this side of Daniel Day Lewis. Once more that is about the least hardcase thing he says in the film. Once he starts invoking "Lord, I am your arm of justice" again and again, you can be god damn sure that this movie is not ending with any arrests.
Like Sam Peckinpah before him, Rob Zombie is concerned with what the capability of violence is in people, and how far it goes. But he is also, and this is what separates both this film and all of Peckinpah's work, concerned with what the effect of violence is on people. Not just in how bodies look when they are torn apart, or what it takes to kill a person. But what being touched by violence, committing violent acts, what that does to a person. In what is essentially a godless universe (though not a universe without the concept of God), the central subject of the Devil's Rejects is what killing does to a man's soul. And what it doesn't do, what creates people who are simply just good at killing.
Talking about a godless universe, Otis Firefly standing over two men bleeding to death, saying "I want you to pray to your god. I want you to pray that he comes and saves you. I want lightning to crash and come down on my head." with his bloody face covered in hair blowing in the wind. The desert getting louder. "I don't feel anything." He says, pulls his hair out of his eyes and locks eye with the man. "I am the devil. And I am here to do the devil's work." Before he bashes one man's head in and carves the face off another. These aren't the kinds of things that serial killers say in movies, that is the language of the secular western - where good and evil battle for psychic territory more than physical territory.
Zombie has found a commonality in the bickering, unforgiving family in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the no-quarter-given tensions between criminals. Constantly in the film, there is the ratcheting of "Fuck you" "Fuck you" between friends, colleagues, family. What loyalty really is, that's addressed constantly. The moment where you are not only screaming for help but your captor is mocking you the way a child would, that's the level of cruelty that the film rests at. Where no matter what you say, it is turned against you, where language is as much a cudgel of power as the real actual cudgel Otis uses to beat that guys head in.
Because, let's make it explicit, Devil's Rejects is torture porn and a western and an old-school slasher. But the torture porn thing, it has been intellectualized that those are the movies are the conscience of the War on Terror years. These movies are supposed to our culture processing real horror as a kind of horror we can understand. But those movies, they dont' actually come to grips with what the War on Terror actually was. Horror isn't actually a narrative conscience these days the way a lot of popular fiction used to be. Devil's Rejects on the other hand, uses the format of not just horror but the western (both genres routinely used to probe the unconscious tenor of the times) to discuss the War on Terror's emotional toll on America. Sherriff Wydell, his name is even John Q. Wydell's over-arching story, because of a personal loss he moves from man of God to being consumed by the violence of his enemies. It doesn't just bring him down to their level, unleashing all of the pent-up violence within this man, it makes him something worse than them. In his final moments, he is more cruel than the Rejects, he is more petty and vindictive than they ever were. The way the film is broken up - the first half being the slasher movie starring the Rejects, the second half being about Wydell's descent into unchecked fury, is probably one of the more profound movies about the Bush years. In the way that the best films about Vietnam are things like Southern Comfort, the best movies about World War II are noir films like Out of the Past - the best popular fiction about Iraq, Afghanistan and 9/11 is comedy and science fiction. In this instance, The Devil's Rejects is about being consumed by anger and retribution - all of things that define Wydell are eaten away by the end of the film, he's not even the Elvis meets William Holden hardass he once was, he's just another fucker who likes to kill and torture people. It doesn't matter if they're bad people.
Devil's Rejects is an audacious film, full of a lot of things - unlikeable characters, sex murder and torture, a deus ex machina that only leads to a deeper tragedy, the entirety of Freebird in the final scene (!) - that don't really seem to at first demand any kind of subtextual reading beyond kill scenes and badassery. But it is there and it is rewarding, even some of the simple film-making choices - the confrontation between the Rejects and the Unholy two is played silently and quietly, undercut by mournful music and going by with no real fight from the Rejects to speak of. The final, Bonnie and Clyde meets Wild Bunch meets Vanishing Point bloodbath that concludes the piece is not just about the power of these characters as survivors - no matter how disgusting they may be as human beings - but how they are just that, human beings who can die just like all the people they killed. The final "message" of the film, and I hate movie "messages" unless they're absolutely true, is that this is what people are capable of.
AND THEN, not 100% a slasher but one of the most influential movies of all time.
78. Evil Dead
Tree rapes woman, 1981
Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert went around to dentists real estate agents to finance their horror movie. It is almost impossible for me to fully express how much I admire this movie and the people who made it. Evil Dea d 2 is the more fun entry, equal parts slapstick comedy and 80s video store gore - Raimi is kind of Michel Gondry before Michel Gondry, able to do more in-camera trick shots than anyone. The first Evil Dead, of five teenagers going out to a cabin in the Tenessee hills and being confronted by a Candarian demon who posseses and kills each one of them until only Ash (played by Bruce Campbell) is left to fight it out. Evil Dead starts off feeling like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Friday the 13th, but finds its own voice immediately. This is the universe that Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell would lay out - one where all the bad things literally emerge from out in the woods or deep in the basement. The unconscious darkness isn't just personified by the demon-possessed and the now-alive trees but by a faceless, unstoppable pov camera (which is a camera on the front of a two by four on the hood of Raimi's truck) of the demon itself. Ash as a character is a final girl in every aspect but being played by a man - reticent and unable to act until he's forced to take a chainsaw to his possessed friends (and girlfriend's corpses). The effects aren't great - but they are inventive and disgusting, and the final meltdown of evil is still bizarre and terrifying some 30 years later. This is one of those cases where no matter how much I write about this movie, I feel like I'm not doing it justice. Evil Dead is a blood-drenched announcement that having no money doesn't mean you can't be great. Something that is very problematic considering there are a lot more people who make movies like Monsters than Evil Dead when they are amateur filmmakers. The thing people forget is that you also have to be great, Sam Raimi level great. In a perfect world, there would be a dozen Evil Dead-level classics made by kids who loved movies and were smart and hard working enough to get them made. In real life, there's just this one. We are profoundly lucky to have this one.
AND AFTER THAT, the FIVE movies that could be called the best the genre had to offer.
Vince Vaugn not pictured, 1960
The roots of this genre -- the slasher films all have their roots in the classic thrillers -- long before anything like gore was a possibility in movies. But in practice, these movies are all from the same sources, some of them not really great movies, some of them absolute classics - this section is about a few of them, but I've already touched on a few, and I'm going to discuss a few more. But there are fingerprints of non-slashers that are all over these films - Rear Window, Dial M For Murder, The Lodger, Hausu, Deliverance, Straw Dogs, Death Wish, Eyes Without A Face, Hellraiser, Suspiria, The Warriors, Night of the Living Dead, Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, dozens more - but Psycho is generally and rightly thought of as the galvanizing moment of the difference between THRILLER and SLASHER. It is telling nearly all of the generation that redefined what American horror was - Carpenter, Romero, Cronenberg, Craven, Savini, many others -- including a lot of non-horror directors -- all of them were of an age to see the revival of the Universal monster films, Hammer, Roger Corman's Edgar Allen Poe movies, William Castle -- and to then see Psycho obliterate all of that in a theater. They went, not expecting any movie to ever pull the rug out the way that Psycho did in its day. Hitchcock himself, he was a) trying to make a cheap, fast, nasty movie to see if it would make money, and b) following the french film Les Diaboliques, which he had tried and failed to adapt years earlier. Peeping Tom examines a lot of the same territory in possibly a skeevier way, but Psycho is the ur-text of the slasher movie. It is the heart of most of the films that followed, not just from a content but a storytelling and maybe more influential, an economic standpoint.
Psycho is so rich and so full of lasting imagery that it is kind of jarring to see how completely it has been metabolized by the culture. Not just in the big stuff, like the GREAT MOMENTS IN CINEMA shower scene, but things like the overhead shot to hide the mother's face on the stairwell, the stunt casting (this was one of the first times the phrase could be used), and the use of music. The scene in the car dealer bathroom has been ripped off so much its not even a ripoff anymore. Thematically, all of it starts here - a woman's misdeed leading to savage retribution, the sexual urge of the killer being turned into murderous urges, the psychology of the killer being the ultimate decision making process of the overall film. Psycho is still a movie movie, though, it's still a movie where a famous actress gets naked and then gets stabbed to death. It's a movie where audience identification is played with for extreme reactions, where everything is explained away by a speech in the last scene of the movie. Hitchcock lets a lot of the real world nastiness creep in - not just the sex stuff, which had been the subtext of every one of these movies until Hitchcock simply addressed it as text - but in the nuts and bolts realities. How do you clean up after a murder? How do you get rid of the victim's car? How do you cure a human body like a taxidermied animal? All of it was the first time most people ever had this addressed, this is a movie that snapped convention and rewrote it to make you as an audience jumpier. Hitchcock even changed theater-going practices by asking people not to sit down after the film started. It is a watershed film, in at least a dozen senses. But let's get real - it wouldn't have any of the lasting effect it has had without Hitchcock getting you to sit there and go "oh no" when the car doesn't sink at first. Once he did that, you - everyone - were no longer in charge of how you reacted to murder on film. All bets were off since then. This is where all those thousands of poor dead girls got marked for future slashers - you can get the audience to identify with the killer. That's what everyone took away. Shit hasn't been the same since.
80. Peeping Tom
It's creepier because he's German, right?, 1960
The film that got Michael Powell blacklisted in the UK and then didn't really get revived until Martin Scorsese praised it and had it re-assessed in the late 70s. This is a film about a man who was raised being filmed by his behavioralist father, and can only experience sexual satisfaction by filming and murdering women, and by showing them their own reflections at the point of their deaths. He even kills them with a knife on a tripod. Powell's film is a dark sister film to Hitchcock's Psycho, and the two of them taken together are kind of the Oedipus/Electra dichotomy of slasher movies -- Psycho is sexual dysfunctional created by the mother, it's about driving the perversion out by destroying the thing creating the sexual urge. Psycho is about stabbing a naked woman in the shower at its core. Peeping Tom on the other hand is sexual dysfunction created by the father -- it is about cultivating the perversion, which is what the father does. Mark Lewis isn't killing these women because they arouse him, he's escalating like a real serial killer, every kill isn't about the woman it's about the video, and the video of the aftermath of the police interring the body. He always needs more videos. Both films are about children becoming their parents - Norman Bates dresses up like his mother and kills, Mark Lewis just kills and turns out to be exactly like his father. It is also a movie about the urge to witness murder, which is what Hitchcock toyed with in Rear Window, and audience identification with the killer, which almost all slasher movies are about in some way. But voyeurism is almost what Mark embodies entirely - not just the manner in which he kills, which is about getting pleasure from watching pain and terror, but he also is a stag photographer on the side, and a cinematographer by day, and has spent nearly all of his life on film. He is subject, star, patient, technician director, and participant; in nearly every scene he fills one of those roles. The voyeurism here, this would later be reflected not just in Brian De Palma films that joked with its title, but later when all sorts of films had serial killer filmng themselves - from Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer to Manhunter to the endless well of fake found-footage movies. In America, Psycho was a success so the sexual weirdness of it wasn't considered offensive. In the UK the content of Peeping Tom was considered so damning of Powell that it was taken out on him, instead of being a part of the movie.
Mark falls in love with his downstairs neighbor, who writes children's books, and they try to collaborate on something together - and Mark becomes more and more consumed with not showing her his own strangeness and danger. For Powell, who had just come off a long period of creative partnership working on musicals with his co-director Emeric Pressburger, it is not hard to read in a level of hiding darkness from a partner in a lighthearted endeavor. Michael Powell had made movies like The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman with Pressburger. By himself, he helped invent the slasher movie. Martin Scorsese has said that Peeping Tom represents all of the dark aspects of being a director, and in a way it does, but it is also about the toxic side of the urge to make things, about how it chews up not just relationships but the people creating. What Mark is creating is videos of dead women, the psychiatrist in the film describes it motivated "the morbid urge to gaze", which is what anyone who makes this kind of movie is experiencing as well. Or anyone who'd want to watch a movie about women being murdered. Or anyone who rather watch movies than experience life. It is not just a movie about the people who make movies, or a movie about the people who watch movies, or a movie about what watching movies does to people. It's all of those things, and more.
81. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Wolf Creek sucks shit, 1974
Near the end of Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Cook says "I just can't take no pleasure in killin. Just some things you gotta do, don't mean you have to like it." Which is a pretty perfect description to how the movie treats violence. This film, while entrenched in violence and entirely committed to how easily it is to damage the human body, isn't a celebration of murder in a way that nearly every other one of these movies is. At least kind of is, anyway. Texas Chainsaw kind of has a more interesting interpretation of just presenting savagery as fact. This is how you kill a person with a hammer, this is how you bleach their bones and make a couch, this is what happens when you decide to kill people for food.
Watching this film in succession with a ton of other slashers, what really sticks is that unlike all of these other films (especially other Tobe Hooper films) there is an investment in stillness. Not just stillness, but nature. There has been a lot of talk over the years about the political subtext of the film (which is quite blatantly announced in the opening of the film, where shots of a solar storm are paired with a newscast talking about the gas shortage (also a case of mass grave-robbing). This is a movie about the economic realities of 1974 in a lot of ways, with mechanization forcing Leatherface and his family into weirdness and perversion. Maybe. But what makes the film strong is how it doesn't rely on any of that to make the movie worthwhile. Instead, with the way that Hooper chooses to frame his figures in the first half of the movie, it recalls Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven. A lot of huge expanses, small figures moving against huge vistas of sweltering nature. Unlike Malick, Hooper sees no contact with the divine in nature. Instead nature is just more savagery and frailty, and decay. When the kids are photographed as they get closer to the house, the cameras drop lower and we see their bodies take on the size and significance of the landscape, right before they are dispatched completely. There is a gas shortage, but the sound of the house is one of a generator rattling constantly, only overshadowed by human screams or the chainsaw - which is a tool entirely tied to running on gas. There is a sense that the separation of modern society from nature might be the cause of the family's dysfunction - but that is undercut by the sense of waste found right alongside fields of flowers in the universe Hooper has laid out. This is, in a incredibly fucked way, a natural response to the world.
Franklin, the kid in the wheelchair - in any other movie he'd be the final girl. In every one of these movies, the final girl idea is really a gendering of something that occurs even in the movies without one. Which is that the character introduced to be victims are often given an outsider, or at least an alienated character which represent the aspects of the killer inside the group, the separate-ness is what reflects the evil. It is telling that Franklin and his sister Sally are constantly bickering, and once Franklin is dispatched by Leatherface she's introduced to a family that is constantly arguing and threatening one another.
What we can't sidestep is just how terrifying the movie is, and how it gets under your skin because of the odd decisions made by the director, actors, picking this location. But also because of how stark and sharp the violence is (Hooper edited it with a mind to get a PG rating, never showing explicit gore), and how the rest of the film is just swimming in the threat of violence once that (literal) threshold is crossed and Leatherface slams that door closed. There are no rules once that happens, and once the night drops it is like the natural world of the early scenes has been wiped off of the earth. Instead there is just this house, inescapable and magnetic. Sally screams literally the entire last 15 minutes of the film, and when you discuss the film with people that is all they remember. Her screaming, in terror, with no help in sight. The final scene with Leatherface just waving the chainsaw around as the sun comes up (the night of the unconscious shit is not subtle at all in this film) and the girl gets away, there is a real point that there is no defeating evil, there is only frustrating it. And surviving. Surviving is a big thing that a lot of slasher movies kind of put as secondary to defeating and triumphing over the killer. Texas Chainsaw - like Halloween and Black Christmas - exists before the rules are laid out (essentially by these films) and sees the victory of surviving for what it is. Maybe that's what Hooper has in common with Malick and a lot of the great 70's directors - the movie ends without traditional catharis because surviving is catharsis enough, and it is less of a lie. In Days of Heaven they just keep moving. Maybe that is another political aspect to Texas Chainsaw, not getting torn to shreds by the end of the day is enough. It was for Sally.
82. Black Christmas
Steve Martin saw this movie in theaters 27 times, 1974
In horror films, specifically in slasher films, mental illness is the easiest place to go, as is the explanation of the killer's motivations in general. With Black Christmas, there is a choice to depict as close to legitimate, unhinged mental illness as you're likely to see in any film. "Billy", the shrieking, faceless cacophony of voices on the other end of the phone, lurking formless in the attic, is scary. He is not a cause and effect series of psychological boxes to be ticked off - childhood witness of trauma eventually coming out in the way he murders all the girls at this sorority. Black Christmas sidesteps all of that, and gives us an unexplained jumble of lunatic ravings, hinting at some kind of family insanity. The sense that crazy is catching is very real, especially when we hear moaning and "cunt cunt cunt pink cunt" of the calls devolve into "BILLY BILLY what your mother and I must know is...". That's not movie crazy, it is gibberish of a diseased mind. More in common with the language of no wave cinema than film madmen. Here is where "the calls are coming from INSIDE the house" comes from, this is the genre's purest example. The cast is fantastic - John Saxon as yet another cop (see also half the movies we've discussed), Margot Kidder as the tough girl, Kier Dulla as a tightly wound but slipping concert pianist, and Olivia Hussey as the final girl, worried more about her newfound pregnancy than the odd events happening around her (a 13 year old girl is murdered in the park near their house on the periphery of the story) until they get explicitly personal and she realizes she's the only one left alive in the house. But Black Christmas is most famous for the first girl that dies, wrapped in plastic, which is placed in the attic window. No one ever finds her, and no one ever finds Billy, or finds out anything about him. It is a random crazy person, who has appeared only to do harm and never be brought to any kind of justice. Black Christmas is one of the best slashers because of how unrelenting and bleak it's ending is. The people who dedicate their lives and do everything they can to keep these girls safe, the can't even see the body in the window. Crazy always wins. And the phone is still ringing.
Not one beats the king since 1978
I'd like to start off by saying John Carpenter is the best director to ever make a horror movie. My John Carpenter obsession should have been well announced by this point, and you should be able to guess what I am going to write here now that I've waded through 82 movies talking about how good Halloween is, consistently throughout, only to get here and then talk about how good Halloween is some more, until this is over, and then when you talk to me later in the week or long after this is done I'll still want to talk to you more about Halloween. Well, yeah. Of course! I would say that, even if you remember how good Halloween is, the movie lives up the hype every time you see it. It's essentially Carpenter's second real movie - not a student film, like the classic Alien precursor Dark Star, not something for tv like Someone's Watching Me!. Carpenter's first real solo effort was the zero-budget, ultra-pragmatic take on Rio Bravo, Assault on Precinct 13, with he followed with The Babysitter Murders, which was later retitled Halloween. Halloween is Carpenter at a period where he understood that it was the make or break moment in his career. He was getting the chance to make a movie after two films that didn't hit, and he only got offered the job for Halloween because Assault had been entered in the Venice film festival, and it was on the stipulations that he set it on Halloween and be about a guy with a knife killing teenage babysitters. Even as Halloween was hitting the zeitgeist hard, becoming an international success, Carpenter had already taken a job to direct an ABC biopic of Elvis, spooked by a horrible reaction to a screening at his former film school USC. Carpenter and his producer/co-writer Debra Hill sought to make a movie that would deliver what was expected from a horror movie at the time - violence and sex, but to add a depth to the material that wasn't normally afforded any.
Halloween is where the rules come from. Sure, the pre-Halloween slashers have elements, Psycho creates the context for the genre as a whole, and Friday the 13th codifies it al into weird, repressive moralism, which is its own kind of fun, but Halloween is the mother. The rules: the final girl is the kind of character who is ostracized from the group, kept chaste, and brought to represent good and battle evil and survive. The other girls engaging in normal behavior - sex, drinking, drugs - for a lot of slasher movies that was a sign that these movies should be moral fables about the dangers of sex, drugs, drinking. Carpenter didn't intend that at all, choosing to have Laurie Strode (played by the absolutely fantastic Jamie Lee Curtis) represent all of the repression built up in Michael Myers. The opening sequence is a massive influence on so much afterwards as well. The killer's pov leading us into the film and making us as an audience complicit from the start, and the transition from identifying with the (male, or at least phallic) killer to identifying with the triumphant victimized woman. Carpenter's opening puts us in a place where we are not quite sure if it is a pov or not, and then it is reinforced by putting the mask on, and then stabbing the half-naked sister to death. The reveal, and first non-pov shot of the film, is of the audience's identification point - an 8 year old kid staring blankly, holding a bloody knife. The middle of the film is where the truly interesting filmmaking happens. This is enhanced by Carpenter's own score - which is ominous but also a driving, pulsing 5/4 uneven behemoth - too simple to be anything but completely deadly. There is a lot more of the lingering, haunting sense of being watched and being stalked in the bulk of Halloween. The sense that real evil is out there and has a purpose. There is also an ease and unease intertwined throughout the film - Laurie and Annie in the car talking about the next night's dance - the sun going down behind their profiles. Beyond being a far more gorgeous way to shoot that scene (something the large part of American slashers just plain suck outside of is their kill scenes), it is also a representation that once night comes these characters aren't going to be safe anymore, that this conversation is the last one not to be tainted by the evil observing it. Once night falls, the movie just gets incrementally smaller - going from town to block to two houses to one house to a closet. The camera and setting is a vice grip tightening on the characters and viewer.
The end of the film where Michael Myers finally enters the house and just plain will not die is so powerful because of the amount of time spent on building that tension as the movie goes on. Suddenly it all pays off: Michael is the unkillable evil we all hoped and prayed wasn't real. Carpenter's film, and all his films, are built on deliberate and controlled pacing. Halloween is exactly 90 minutes, and all slasher films rely on very rigid format and structure. You can guess how good a slasher is going to be by looking at how far away it veers from 90 minutes. If it is significantly longer or shorter you probably have a film that is choppy or bloated. Halloween isn't just reliant on 90 minutes - and that last 15 minutes being a constant unrelenting assault paying off the rest of the film - it puts on a fucking clinic on how to build to and reward that structure. In fact, it is strange because Carpenter's rhythms are so idiosyncratic and hard to replicate that an entire genre was built on one of his entries. Not just the plot, the characters, the way cameras move, but the way synths took over a lot of 80's horror is because Carpenter showed that they could be cheap and effective. What a lot of slashers didn't take - and this is true in both Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas - is that Michael Meyers doesn't die and isn't caught at the end of the film. He just vanishes. The triumph here isn't killing the ultimate evil - because Carpenter knows that is impossible - but surviving it. Surviving is more heroic than winning, Laurie isn't standing over the killer covered in blood herself at the end of the film. She's in the corner crying, terrified. Finally, Carpenter shoots all over the empty rooms of the house, down the street, out into the town. Michael could be anywhere, when the film ends he's still out there. There is no satisfying payoff beyond living. There shouldn't have to be.
-Sean Witzke, 2012