But everyone knows that one of the cardinal rules of the slasher movie is: it doesn't matter how dead something looks, don't rule out an impromptu resurrection. And, just as the death-rattle was sounding, Wes Craven released his A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1985); a clever, scary little teens-in-peril movie, which had enough of a twist to interest jaded audiences; and made an unlikely anti-hero out of a scarred, undead child murderer. This was, however, only a brief respite. Pretty quickly as the 80's wore on, horror became a neon mess of big hair and latex. Apart from a few gems like Michele Soavi's stylish slasher/giallo STAGEFRIGHT (1987), the sub-genre was relegated to barrel scraping, straight-to-video sequels of films that barely played cinemas in the first place- SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II (1987) anyone? How about SLEEPAWAY CAMP 3: UNHAPPY CAMPERS (1989)? Thought not.... A few elements of the sub-genre made their way into mainstream thrillers like JAGGED EDGE (1985) and FATAL ATTRACTION (1987); but by the early 90's the whole thing was just so completely mired in cliché and over-familiarity as to seem to be irretrievably redundant.
However, 1996 saw the coming of an unexpected saviour for the sub-genre in screen-writer Kevin Williamson. Deftly directed by horror veteran Wes Craven, SCREAM (1996) was a hip, post-modern updating of the slasher movies from the early 80's; ( which was, incidentally, financed by Miramax Films- whose very first movie was THE BURNING). It was reverential satire as opposed to out-right farce. Williamson, who was a fan of the sub-genre and was quoted as saying, "HALLOWEEN was my CITIZEN KANE", insisted it was played straight; arguing that it had to also be scary to succeed. And succeed it did riding on the wave of 80's nostalgia, the film was a massive hit (taking over $100 million at the US box-office), with both adult audiences (who reminisced their misspent youth), and teenagers (for many it was the first horror pic they'd seen at the cinema). Despite being a cause-celebre, the stigma associated with the film being a slasher movie was apparent from the off (it was originally promoted as a 'thriller'); Neve Campbell balked at suggestions that she was a Jamie Lee Curtis for the 90's- "I really don't want the comparison", she moaned; and Skeet Ulrich was quick to point out that "I don't really think of Scream as a horror film"- let alone a slasher flick.
Just like in the months after the release of HALLOWEEN it seemed inevitable a slew of SCREAM wannabes would follow. First out of the gate was another movie based on a Williamson screenplay- I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (1997), a curiously subdued affair, with a hook handed killer, attempted to re-invent the teen-slasher without the self-referencing of SCREAM; but using the same (cheap) device of peppering the movie with teen TV stars. It succeeded, at least at the box-office, where it made a staggering $72 million in the US alone. And, again repeating the pattern from the early 80's, the sequels began to appear post-haste- starting with SCREAM 2 (1997); which used the ultimate get out clause by conforming to its central ironic observation that sequels suck. It wasn't too bad, but seemed more intent on satirising the first film, rather than the dorm-slashers like FINAL EXAM (1981) and HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW (1982), to which it merely paid lip service to. More movies followed, URBAN LEGEND (1998) (which EMPIRE magazine rather stupidly berated for not being SCREAM-like enough); HALLOWEEN H20 (1998) (where, if Neve Campbell didn't want to be the next Jamie Lee Curtis, then Curtis herself proved happy to oblige); and the sequel I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (1998) (which included the awesome moment where a karaoke machine was used as an instrument of terror- I adored the film; but understand that I'm in a slim minority!). By now it was clear to see that film makers had been very selective in what they borrowed from the previous cycle of films; strong female heroines were still mandatory (and in the case of SCREAM's Sidney, retained the earlier film's habit of giving the female protagonists masculine names ); but were pretty much missing the t&a/sleaze angle that the FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels thrived on; and, with the exception of perhaps I STILL KNOW, they avoided the gorier excesses of some of the earlier entries. Despite being what could be seen as slasher-lite these films shared one major thing with the early 80's flicks- controversy. In Britain, the 'voice' of Michael Myers which was blamed for sending Robert Sartin on his fatal killing spree in 1990, was just one of the factors from slasher movies which were spuriously blamed for violent crime; the media was also instrumental in perpetuating the myth that the CHILD'S PLAY movies had anything to do with the murder of James Bulger. Their knack of not letting the truth interfere in a good, salacious story and their pathological obsession with the effects of violence in the movies had clearly not deserted them; and quickly the 90's slasher boom (specifically SCREAM 2) found itself mired by similar accusations of turning previously normal teenagers into homicidal maniacs. At the time of the Columbine School massacre, earlier this year, it was widely regarded as 'un-American' to go and see the horror (all-be-it not slasher) movie that was on release at the time- IDLE HANDS (1999), stiffed as a result.
It was not just the increasing concern over violence in movies that hurt the newly revitalised sub-genre; being regarded as a fad didn't do it any favours either. The cyclical nature of Hollywood is increasingly rapid these days; and fashions come and go with alarming regularity. What had been press darlings in 1996/97 were now regarded with open hostility by the press; or at best complete apathy. Another sure sign that the sub-genre was on the wane was the announcement that Miramax were going to do an all-out spoof, SCREAM IF YOU KNOW WHAT I DID LAST HALLOWEEN (1999) (which is released in the States on October 29th); it neatly mirrors slasher-spoofs WACKO, STUDENT BODIES (both 1981) and PANDEMONIUM (1982), which sounded the death knell for the sub-genre back in the early 80's. Surprisingly the SCREAM era films haven't initiated a series of cheap straight-to-video rip-offs; only THE CLOWN AT MIDNIGHT (1998) coming to mind. Other sure signs of its demise are the announcements that, after the relatively poor box-office of I STILL KNOW, there will be no I'LL ALWAYS KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER; and the disappearance of a mooted remake of the Jamie Lee Curtis teenie-kill favourite TERROR TRAIN (1979). At the box-office only the fittest will survive and, just like the mid to late 80's, it will be mostly sequels for the various successful franchises. By the time you read this the troubled SCREAM 3 will have finished shooting (Kevin Williamson walked from the project at the 11th hour; being replaced by, the aptly named, Ehren Kruger); the film which follows Neve Campbell's character to Hollywood where she is an understudy to a bitchy horror movie actress where... (well, you can guess the rest), has, somewhat worryingly, been described as, "...more of a psychological thriller, with increased humour". Upcoming sequels include URBAN LEGEND 2; and HALLOWEEN H2K (I can't wait to see how they resurrect old Mikey for this one!). The long promised slasher mega-mix FREDDY VS. JASON has a tentative US release date of Summer 2000, but, seeing as it was originally due for release in December 1997, I wouldn't hold your breath. It's more likely we will see a new FRIDAY THE 13TH sequel before then- JASON X is the title being bandied about. There are a couple new slashers on the way, namely CHERRY FALLS (1999), from the director of ROMPER STOMPER (1992)- the twist here being that a killer is only targeting virgins (debuting in the US in Spring); and CUT (2000), an $12 million Australian entry which pits a group of actors working on a re-opened film project against a homicidal killer- starring (of all people) Kylie Minogue and Molly Ringwald.
So, the sub-genre may be waning somewhat, as the teen-slasher goes out of fashion once again; but, as it has proved before, it's a part of horror's legacy that refuses to lie down and die. Anyone else for a SCREAM revival in 2015?
CHAOS MAGAZINE (where this article originally appeared)