What can I say? The slasher sub-genre is one of my favorite categories within the horror genre. So, when faced with the reality of staying home far more often than normal, I thought, why not go for it and watch as many slasher films as I can. I won’t give you any exact numbers, because you’ll just be like, “Wow! That’s excessive!” But what I will do is break down some of the better entries of my latest horror project for you. If you too want to attempt to make quarantine a bit less painful and full of sleazy horror films, this is the list for you.
The Burning (Maylam, 1981)
This is generally regarded as one of the slasher classics but I, for some reason, had not watched it prior to COVID-19. Featuring some great practical make-up effects by the great Tom Savini, this 1981 film has a rather generic plot where Cropsy, Camp Blackwood’s caretaker, is accidentally horrifically burned in a prank gone dangerously awry by some of the campers. Five years later, Cropsy returns to exact his vengeance at the camp. While this may be a pretty typical set up for a slasher film taking place at a summer camp, it is full of engaging death sequences, fun performances from folks like a very young Jason Alexander (of Seinfeld fame), and good use of location. If you’re a fan of the Friday the 13th series and want something that branches out a bit, The Burning is one to check out.
Graduation Day (Freed, 1981)
Also released in 1981 is Herb Freed’s Graduation Day. I knew that there was a reason that I hated running. Freed’s film tells the deadly story of Midvale High’s varsity Track and Field team. The film begins with the death of Laura Ramstead as she crosses the finish line at a meet, after being pushed to the limit by the menacing Coach Michaels. The film picks up two months later when Laura’s older sister Anne comes back to town from serving in the Navy to honor her sister at the graduation ceremony. But, as graduation day approaches, the remaining members of the team are slowly being killed off one by one. The reception of this film was pretty terrible at the time, and horror fans don’t seem to look too kindly on Graduation Day, either. I think this is a big mistake and a shame. While it does conform to a lot of slasher tropes, Martin Jay Sadoff’s editing makes the film stand out in a way that few slasher films are able to. The film features really unique editing during the death sequences, as well as a few other moments, that is used to heighten the intensity of the killer’s acts. If you’re looking for a film that technically stands apart from traditional slasher fare, this is the one for you.
Happy Birthday to Me (Lee, 1981)
I know what you’re thinking. Damn! Why are all these films from 1981? And honestly, I think it’s just the result of Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980) being such a significant success the year before that studios were eager to crank out as many knock-off slasher films as they could. While many of the resulting films were pretty terrible, the films here prove that attempting to cash in on a trend can allow for fun horror films that can attract audiences with their own merit. J. Lee Thompson’s Happy Birthday to Me also proves that point. The film focuses on Ginny, a member of the “Top Ten,” the cool kids at Crawford Academy. Featuring some of the more unique deaths in a slasher film that I’ve seen, the film tries to get a bit more psychological than the standard slasher film and utilizes some pretty fun surprises along the way.
Popcorn (Herrier, 1991)
Finally, a film from not only a different year, but a different decade. The early 90s is well-known as the dead period of the slasher film. People were getting burnt out on Freddy and Jason and the quality of the multiple sequels of each franchise were going downhill, looking at you Freddy’s Dead (Talalay, 1991) and Jason Goes to Hell (Marcus, 1993). Popcorn kind of pre-dates Wes Craven’s Scream in its attempt at including victims that are familiar with horror films. Not reaching the meta-level of Scream, Popcorn instead includes film production majors who are hosting a fundraiser to save the film department by creating a classic monster film marathon. Herrier obviously has a huge love for these classic films, as he references William Castle gimmicks like the shocker seats used when audiences saw The Tingler (Castle, 1959), odorama, and more. The film also features horror icon Dee Wallace as the protagonist’s mother. While not exactly scary, Popcorn is a very fun slasher film for people that love classic horror films.
Pieces (Simon, 1982)
Just to clarify, Pieces is a pretty terrible film. It contradicts itself constantly, features very comical product placement, and doesn’t really attempt to scare. But that is probably the reason why I loved it. This co-production between Spain and the US is a hoot. While it may not be scary, it does serve some of the greatest examples of slasher sleaze and violence that I’ve ever seen. Pieces works more as a mystery with outbursts of chainsaw violence and over-the-top brightly colored blood explosions. While not for everyone, if you’re up for some vintage 80s sleaze, Pieces is a great and more obscure slasher film to check out.
Stage Fright aka Deliria (Soavi, 1987)
This Italian/American slasher focuses on the deaths of members of a theatre troupe as they’re working on their latest production. The setting is limited to the stage, the dressing rooms, the rafters, and other hidden places in the theatre. What could have been just another cheesy slasher turns out to be an incredibly effective and creepy effort. The killer wears an owl mask, which sounds silly but is actually quite creepy both from a distance and in close encounters. Each of the actors in the film really go for it as they portray theatre actor tropes. If you’re someone who likes being on stage, someone who likes creepy owls, or someone who likes horror films in contained locations, Stage Fright is definitely worth checking out. I was very impressed with the visuals of the film. Soavi definitely utilized visual techniques from the giallo films to increase the intensity.
Savage Weekend (Paulsen, 1976)
Savage Weekend is a very interesting slasher. Filmed in 1976, long before Halloween (1978, Carpenter), but not released until 1980, Paulsen’s film is rather innovative in its representation of sexuality. The film also extends Tobe Hooper’s town vs. country theme from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Personally, I had never even heard of this film, until someone suggested it in a slasher film Facebook group I’m in. It’s quite clear that Paulsen is more invested in the sex shared between the characters than the narrative, but it does feature a very interesting story that was very surprising. One really important standout for this film is its inclusion of a gay character who is shown in a rather complex way. While Christopher Allport’s Nicky may fall into some of the gay stereotypes, he is far more than the female protagonist’s best friend. Instead, Nicky is a fully developed character that strikes out at homophobia in the small-town bar, which is pretty incredible considering that this film was made in 1976. Savage Weekend is a sexually-charged slasher film, but stands out even more for its ahead-of-its-time portrayal of gay sexuality.
Sweet Sixteen (Sotos, 1983)
Wrapping up the list is Sweet Sixteen. While Sotos’ film features some pretty standard slasher elements, it relies on red-herrings and mystery to surprise the viewer, which worked pretty well, overall. What this film does attempt to do differently is to address issues of racism against Native Americans. I’m still a bit undecided if Sotos actually does achieve anything from this discussion, but he at least attempted to address the issue. Honestly, most slasher films do not attempt complex discussions of race, so by raising the issue beyond mere representation, Sotos does more than most. The film also includes a fun performance from Patrick Macnee (Steed from the original Avengers television show).
If you give any of these films a go, let me know what you think or if you hate them and think I’m just watching trash! Regardless, these films have been a fun distraction for me during this COVID non-sense. And you can’t really ask for more than that.
Until next time!