Much like the villains they depict, slasher films will not die. Reviled yet prolific, the slasher is arguably horror’s most popular subgenre. Author J. A. Kerswell took on the daunting task of writing a comprehensive book on slasher movies, appropriately titled The Slasher Movie Book. The publication was previously released in the UK under the name Teenage Wasteland: The Slasher Movie Uncut, but it is now stalking bookshelves in the U.S., courtesy of Chicago Review Press, with its simpler title.
The book begins, appropriately, with an introduction. Kerswell was first exposed to the genre at the tender age of 12, when he watched Halloween 2 on Betamax. As with many others, slashers were a gateway for him. Kerswell soon developed an insatiable thirst of horror and has continued to seek them out ever since. He now runs the slasher movie website Hysteria Lives and has participated in DVD commentary tracks, establishing his credibility on the subject.
Kerswell traces the roots of horror entertainment back to 1897, when a Paris theater known as Grand Guignol opened its doors for notoriously graphic plays. Early films such as George Archainbaud’s Thirteen Women (1932) are cited as the beginnings of the slasher formula. The genre would really start to take shape in 1960, which saw the release of both Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the presence of which is still felt to this day.
From there, Keswell discusses the krimi, German adaptations of crime novels by Edgar Wallace that were popular in the ’60s; and the giallo, thrillers influenced by trashy mystery novels that dominated Italy in the ’60s and ’70s. Meanwhile, increasingly explicit cinematic output in the North America and England foreshadowed the rise of the slasher. A significant impetus for change was 1974, marking the release of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas. The latter surprisingly only gets a couple of paragraphs, despite some believing it to be the first modern slasher – although the text does note its importance.
Finally, we arrive at what Kerswell calls the golden age of the slasher, spanning from 1978 until 1984. It begins, of course, with John Carpenter’s Halloween, which forever changed the horror landscape. It was a bona fide success story, and then Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th became a smash hit in 1980 as the subgenre came into its own. With studios eager to get in on trend, the floodgates opened for more than 100 slashers in the six years span.
A chapter is dedicated to each year of the fruitful golden age, and every movie has a paragraph or so written about it. (More significant films receive longer entries, while lesser known titles may be reduced to a sentence or two.) All of the classic slashers of the time are covered – Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, George Mihalka’s My Bloody Valentine, Robert Hiltzik’s Sleepway Camp, Tony Maylam’s The Burning, Amy Holden Jones’ Slumber Party Massacre, etc. – along with many obscure movies, some of which I’ve never even heard. (I actually kept a running of list of titles that I wanted to seek out as I read the book, although some are next to impossible to track down.)
By 1985, the law of diminishing returns had set in. The remainder of the ’80s was largely dominated by the lucrative Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, along with formulaic slashers attempting to make a quick buck in the budding home video market. The horror genre remained largely stale until Was Craven’s Scream single-handedly resurrected it in 1996. Of course, it also spurred a plethora of imitators. The passing of that fad brings us up to date with studios’ current fascination: remakes. As the last few years have proven, no beloved slasher is safe from Hollywood’s desire to cash in on a recognizable title.
The Slasher Movie Book is an immediately striking publication. The cover art depicts a shadowy monster wielding a bloody knife, in the reflection of which is a terrified woman. The artwork is actually borrowed from Ruggero Deodato’s 1987 slasher entry, Bodycount (AKA Camping del Terrore), but it essentially typifies the subgenre. It’s imagery that we’ve seen hundreds of times, yet it remains interesting.
The paperback front cover folds out to reveal the beautifully illustrated British poster art for the original Friday the 13th, while the back features an equally eye-catching Mexican lobby card for Terror Train. A quick thumb through the book’s 200+ pages reveals a plethora of other gorgeously gory movie artwork, posters, stills and lobby cars from all over the world. There is a lot of international artwork for well-known slashers that most fans have probably never seen. It’s the kind of creative and vibrant art that is rarely seen these days.
Even with the many images, The Slasher Movie Book is jam-packed with information. Kerswell’s exhaustive research and in-depth retrospective makes it a must-own for any genre fan. It’s a perfect coffee table book or conversation piece – and it’s not merely for display; even the biggest horror enthusiasts will learn a thing or two.
Book Review: The Slasher Movie Book – Author J. A. Kerswell