How to Make an Eighties Slasher

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Steve Jablonsky “Friday the 13th Soundtrack Suite”

 

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Eventually everything winds up coming round full circle. Whether fashion, hairstyles, or bouts of chlamydia, sooner or later what goes around will invariably head back that way. Mankind may have mastered the art of invention but, once the toothbrush has been heralded as the most effective instrument for flossing those pearly whites on a daily basis, that doesn’t leave much market space for those looking to offer an alternative. That said, it doesn’t stop some driven entrepreneur from taking that basic template and jazzing it up for the modern-day consumer. How else would the electric toothbrush have ever made it to the high streets? Reinvention is the key and, when you consider that half the legwork has already been done for you, it does appear to be something of a no-brainer.

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So what does all this have to do with the eighties slasher I hear you say. Elementary my dear Watsons, folk have a lot of love for this particular sub-genre and, while not held in particularly high esteem at the time, it’s hard to argue that it didn’t bring something to the table, at least on some level. That was well over thirty years ago now and, despite some fairly decent attempts to resurrect the formula in recent years, nobody appears to possess the cojones to really grab the bull by its horns. Actually, that may be a tad unfair as it is nigh-on impossible for independent filmmakers to get their visions realized thanks to an industry so utterly culpable of negligence that it makes O.J. Simpson look innocent. But I cannot help but find the output of bankable modern slashers somewhat nominal.

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To truly understand the eighties slasher I feel we must first trace it back to its origins and learn what made it so saleable in the first place. While very much aware that the wheels were set in motion long before the decade began, it was around the time that Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday The 13th was doing the rounds to the tune of thousands of ringing cash registers worldwide that the slasher began to hold some weight for investors. When you consider this rabble-rouser took around $60 million in box-office receipts (over one hundred times its budget), it’s easy to see how this green-lit the entire movement. Indeed, many of my personal darlings from the epoch emerged hot on its heels, with the likes of George Mihalka’s My Bloody Valentine, J. Lee Thompson’s Happy Birthday To Me, Joe Giannone’s Madman, Joseph Zito’s The Prowler, and Tony Maylam’s The Burning among others all following the stencil to a degree.

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The rule-set, as illustrated by Wes Craven’s Scream in the mid-nineties before it dropped to its knees like the final girl, was rather meticulous. In order to stand any hope of surviving the onslaught, participants were required to jump through a number of strategically placed hoops and non-compliance would invariably spell toe tag. The stipulations couldn’t have been more clear and all but the very best succumbed to its rigid not-to-do-list. Alas, the downside to all this was that it all wound up growing a tad predictable and, by the time the mid-eighties arrived, fresh ideas were at a premium and cinema-goers stopped donating their hard-earned cash to the slasher cause. Indeed, for as much as I still delighted in the sub-genre, even I found it increasingly difficult to defend once it commenced its swift and decisive fall from grace.

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As for what went wrong, well that doesn’t take a degree in neuroscience to fathom. You see, each lemming was practically neon-lit, with buxom blondes earmarked for the offing from the offset and only mousey-haired plain Jane virgins offered the opportunity of running the ultimate gauntlet. When this came to be, they spent most of their time on their bland faces as even the most rudimentary balance became compromised by blind fear. Meanwhile their least slutty friend would stand a chance of making it to around the seventy minute mark before the all-important finale. Needless to say, as a shameless supporter of the underdog, it ordinarily concluded in anti-climax as my interest soon waned once any fringe pawns had been subtracted from the equation. That said, many clamored for these films on sole account of their lack of deviation so what do I know anyhoots?

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To enable for rousing scenes of mass celebration, each dufus would be entirely one-dimensional, have no awareness of incoming peril, and think only with their hook or crook. Promises of any cats being tossed amongst the pigeons as shirtless jocks wandered off post-coitus to their eventual undoing were as hollow as their prospects for survival and their belles swiftly followed, proving unequivocally that sex kills. It’s worth bearing in mind that this was the decade where AIDS became commonplace and this approach seemed like one large advertisement for contraception. Prevention over intervention right? Who would have thought that a genre that so many dismissed as pure trash was actually attempting to drive home a responsible message? Granted, I severely doubt this was the number one priority to filmmakers at the time but credit where it’s due after all.

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We were supplied a handful of stereotypes to keep things nice and varied and all bases were soundly covered. These included the nerdy whizz kid who wouldn’t know a labia if he stumbled inside a life-sized one, the brazen cheerleader type complete with bubblegum and pom-poms, the obnoxious jock traditionally named something utterly bland like Steve or Brad, and the token black dude whose sole objective was to cry out stuff like “will everyone just chill the hell out” and “dang”. It made me want to shed tears of lactose I tell you, pure optical milk drops, and nobody seemed prepared to think even vaguely out of the box so it all got old, real fast.

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As for the final girl of the piece, well in addition to exhibiting the balance of a newborn venison, she also had a tendency to drop whatever weapon she brandished the very moment that danger appeared to have passed and I guess we have Jamie Lee Curtis to blame for this short sight. Another favorite was forcing her to tip toe past the felled mask-head of the day and this looked to be going so well until the obligatory opportune ankle grab. Should her wounded knight in shining armor have been fortunate enough to make it to this point in one piece then now would be the time he’d step up to save the day although the final frame would reveal that all was not well as we had suspected and that kept things nice and open for a potential sequel.

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As mentioned beforehand, decision-making was never the strongest in slasher with poor choice after poor choice leading our lambs directly to the slaughter. Sticking together in groups was just too unappealing a notion to the deadhead buffet we were served up. To be fair, The Burning proved that there wasn’t necessarily safety in numbers either as five suchlike seafaring co-eds rowed their boat to obliteration absolutus in one of the most jaw-dropping scenes from the entire era. I think this is where Maylam’s film excelled above the likes of Friday The 13th for me. Everyone was on the same raft, whether four-eyed and frigid, sleazy masturbatory slime, or simple nondescript – what fit one fit all. But even post raft-gate I’d feel safe enough blending into the crowd if it were my head on the chopping block. Having said that, if some spunky siren began to lure me between her thighs with her supple orbs and delightfully unpruned eighties bush, then I would probably be waving bye-bye with the rest of the walking sperm.

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The fact that audiences craved such indignity called to mind the old Roman amphitheatres of a thousand or so years back . Folk loved to act as judge and jury, and any alpha males among us would revel in showing their marvellous insight to their dates before offering them their pierced popcorn when things got a little bloody. Hell, these douches were just as much of a stereotype as the hateful characters they scoffed at. I should know as I was one of those shit nuts. With that said, it did aggravate me to the nth degree. You see, around that time, I was developing a healthy crush on the media of film in general and was watching these flicks in tandem with such masterful art as Paris Texas and Apocalypse Now. Need I even continue?

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I got why they followed the template to the letter as it was both tried and tested, but didn’t necessarily agree with the methodology used by virtually every filmmaker adding cash to the cow. This always felt a little like a wasted opportunity as I felt on a different plain of existence to most when viewing slasher after slasher throughout my entire adolescence and couldn’t work out why others didn’t spot the cracks. Whilst occasionally pleasant to just switch off the old cerebellum for 85 minutes and slum it with simple pleasures, the lack of ingenuity removes any ta-da from proceedings and it becomes one big inane box-ticking exercise. I think it was around this juncture that I embarked on writing a treatment for my own slasher although, despite frantically hand-scribbling the rough draft for a manuscript, this regrettably never came to fruition.

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Anyhoots, if I were making a modern-day slasher, then it would be an entirely different kettle of fish. While the goals would remain largely remain the same, the rules will have changed considerably as slasher cannot ever hope to launch a comeback just by going through the same tired old motions. Thus, sex would not necessarily be punishable by death regardless of whether or not protected and peroxide hair in bunches wouldn’t necessarily translate to an early bath. What I’d look to provide would be an even playing field for all and, if this meant pulling the rug from beneath the audience’s feet, then all the better in my book. Fuck it, I’d even throw in a dash of meaningful dialogue just to prove that these high school kids have something between their ears other than sawdust. Most critically, I would cherry pick the elements that made slasher so much darned fun in the first place as, over three decades on, it still commands a spot right there in my beating bloody heart.

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Click here to read Pajama Party Massacre

 

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6 Comments

  1. *quick, sharp intake of breath* Squee!! For real? ‘Caretaker’ dreams and expectations and uncontained anticipation… oh my!

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