The slasher film began to build momentum in the late ’70s and really took off in the early s80s. Halloween was a major independent success and Friday the 13th followed right on its heels and launched an empire. From 1980 to 1985 there was rarely ever a time without a slasher movie in theaters. But in the middle of the decade they began to die off. Sure, they existed, but the releases and budgets became smaller and smaller. Things like Slaughter High didn’t have nearly the same release strategy as The Burning and didn’t cost nearly as much to make. While this movement and era of horror is one of the biggest, it ended just as quickly as it began.
By the end of the 1980’s the only major slashers at the box office were sequels. The iconic franchises constantly battled to see who was still relevant, with the ticket sales for each of them dwindling little by little. When the 1990’s rolled around, the slasher gave way to the psychological thriller. The likes of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees gave way to more intellectual villains like Hannibal Lecter. These films were popular, but they didn’t support the same type of franchise model that Friday the 13th had presented. These were classier pictures and while they centered on serial killers and could be gory when they wanted to be, they weren’t slashers.
The slasher movie didn’t return to the mainstream until Scream in 1996. It took an ironic deconstruction of the genre to effectively resurrect it. Scream gave birth to the post-modern 90’s slasher, which is a large part of why many fans roll their eyes at it. By a good majority of horror fans, this was not seen as a good time for the genre. It almost directly parallels the way Halloween was looked at after all of its imitators came out. People turn up their nose at the likes of Urban Legend and I Know What You Did Last Summer the same way that they used to reject The Prowler and Happy Birthday to Me. This attitude toward pretty much anything in the genre doesn’t help anyone. It prevents people from enjoying something because they consider it to be a ripoff.
Moreover, there will always be the people who don’t want to warm to something because it’s popular, they don’t want it shoved down their throat, and this is understandable…to some degree. But here’s the thing: We really needed a movie like Scream to come along when it did.
While there were financially successful horror features in the early 1990’s, they were very different from the horror productions of the past. They were rich and lavish, huge big budgeted tentpole features that had either a strong element of drama or fantasy to them. Even the realistic ones had big budgets and the kind of A-list casts that were extremely rare in ‘80’s horror. But they got by under the guise of being a psychological thriller. Horror was dead at the box office.
Scream not only resurrected the slasher movie but it brought back the genre in a big way. It got the ball rolling again. Scream was a huge hit that gave way to I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was another huge hit, which then gave way to Urban Legend, Valentine, Cherry Falls and so on. Not only that, but it branched out into other areas. There were films like the darker take on teenage witches, The Craft and the alien invasion horror-thriller The Faculty. Both modernized old concepts while paying homage at the same time, and both did well at the box office.
The major complaint with 90’s slashers was that they watered the genre down for a teenage audience, which has never sat right with me because horror has always been made for a teenage audience. Even though plenty of actors in the early 1980’s features were well into their thirties, they were playing teenagers. Yes, it’s something that anyone can watch and enjoy, but there has always been a target audience. Moreover, almost all of the slashers from that era carried an R-rating.
The other complaint with these types of films was that they tried to apply the Scream formula to everything, which is not necessarily true. I Know What You Did Last Summer had the same writer as Scream and Kevin Williamson has a particular style. Both movies had competent, aware characters for the most part, but I Know What You Did Last Summer is not a deconstruction of fishermen. It’s much more straightforward while keeping a similar tone and style to that which made Scream work. A lot of times when people argue this point, they’re arguing against the fact that these 90’s slashers were given very smart, capable protagonists. And I don’t know why that would be a bad thing.
The slashers that came out after Scream were not bad movies. They were not better than that particular feature, but that doesn’t mean they were bad. It was the same thing for Halloween. None of the films that popped up after its release really topped it, but a whole lot of them were fun. Scream’s existence doesn’t discredit these others, nor should we feel obliged to like the rest just because we liked one. Sure, there was a major difference in the fact that these had much higher budgets and studio backing, but that just led to a slicker look and feel. These were the slashers of the MTV generation and now that they’re behind us I think we can at least appreciate them as a time in the genre’s history. Like the first heyday of slashers, this one didn’t last long. But I for one look back on it fondly. Now, if you’ll excuse me I need to go dispose of a dead fisherman that I hit with my car will joyriding with a group of friends.