Everything devolves. In only a decade, the high bar set by seminal 1970s slasher films like BLACK CHRISTMAS, HALLOWEEN and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE became a giant heap of crap. Hollywood released a ton of often boring higher-end slasher movies, while smaller companies churned out creatively vacant, straight-to-video flicks to feed the product-hungry shelves of video rental stores. But it wasn’t all terrible. Even though it didn’t seem to matter much to VHS sales if a horror movie was good or bad, some filmmakers still cared enough to create awesome little slasher movies that bucked the by-the-numbers trend. The five sick flicks below managed to burrow out of the 1980s garbage heap through sheer force of art…or at least brashness and personality.
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT
This movie is remembered mostly for the moral panic it caused upon its release. Back in 1984, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT was singled out from among the many horror flicks of the time, and pulled from theaters. A killer that dressed as Santa Claus and killed a nun was just too far for the time. This was before society abandoned all decency, so people actually cared that a beloved childhood icon was depicted as an axe-wielding lunatic. Many higher-minded horror fans regard SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT as pretty bad — formulaic and uninspired. But they are so wrong.
SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT is a great slasher flick because it’s so uninspired. It hews so perfectly to the “blueprint” of slasher movies, it might be the most slashery slasher movie ever made. It’s quintessential. At its core is a single, simple idea — a guy dressed like Santa Claus kills teenagers — and every inch of film exist only to further this one idea. It’s perfect in its economy: Nothing is wasted. It’s the horror movie equivalent of the Apache Indians using every part of the buffalo. There’s no pretense. There’s nothing extra. No waste. The acting is just convincing enough to get by. The killer is given just enough motivation to suspend our disbelief. Even the sets express this aesthetic: What’s supposed to be a toystore is a dimly lit room with a few toys scattered around, like a minimalist set from a Noh play. It’s a slasher-movie-fan’s slasher movie and makes no apologies.
JUST BEFORE DAWN
The set-up of this hillbilly-themed slasher flick is about as rote as possible: A group of attractive teenagers goes camping, but their fun is interrupted by an inbred, backwoods serial killer. But JUST BEFORE DAWN transcends its TEXAS CHAINSAW/FRIDAY THE 13TH rip-off origins by twisting the tropes of the slasher genre just enough to keep things interesting, but not so much that it becomes self-referential or parody. It’s a thin line this movie walks perfectly.
The photography of the Oregon woods is beautiful, the suspense sequences are actually suspenseful, and the mid-movie plot twist is legitimately shocking. It still works, even in 2016. The ending is a bit of a mess, and an interesting subplot/theme about the role of religion in the killer’s motivation isn’t really developed, but even with these flaws, JUST BEFORE DAWN is head-and-shoulders above most examples of the slasher genre.
The second Christmas themed movie on my list, CHRISTMAS EVIL is the (North) polar opposite of SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT. While the latter flick was as formulaic as possible, CHRISTMAS EVIL constantly confounds expectations. It’s less like a typical slasher movie and more like an artsy proto-indie movie disguised as a murder flick.
CHRISTMAS EVIL tells the loopy story of Harry (played by singer Fiona Apple’s father, Brandon Maggart), whose traumatic childhood encounter with Santa Claus develops into a dangerous obsession with Christmas. Dude dedicates his life to the holiday, filling his apartment with cheap decorations, getting a job at a toy factory, and counting down the days until the 25th. But as the middle-aged recluse’s mental health deteriorates, he begins to think he is Santa Claus. He wears the suit. He gives away toys to orphans. He also appoints himself keeper of the “naughty or nice” list, and begins to exact terrible punishments on the naughty, whether they be the kids in his neighborhood or his boss at the toy factory. Harry’s mental deterioration and murder leads first to an over-the-top climax influenced by Frankenstein and ultimately to the single greatest twist ending in movie history. Straight up: CHRISTMAS EVIL has the most perfect ending of any film, of any genre, in all of film history… and yes, that includes CITIZEN KANE. (I will fight you over this.)
FADE TO BLACK
This peculiar movie maybe isn’t technically a slasher movie, but it features a series of elaborate murders committed by a psychologically damaged weirdo, so it’s close enough. It doesn’t really aim for horror movie suspense as much as schlocky cultural criticism. While a financial flop, FADE TO BLACK was ahead of its time. The main character, Eric Binford, is an early filmic portrayal of an archetype that has become ubiquitous: The media-obsessed superfan.
Binford lives in Los Angeles, and is way into movies. Since the Internet hasn’t been invented, he can’t obsessively watch Netflix and start a blog, so he devotes his life to seeing movies and dressing up like his cinematic heroes. A chance meeting results in an unrequited obsession with a Marilyn Monroe lookalike, and Binford’s psychological life begins to unravel. Because Zoloft hasn’t been invented yet, he starts murdering everyone who has ever wronged him, using famous movie scenes to inspire his kills. The police are stymied by reports of murders committed by James Cagney and Dracula, until a dashing police psychiatrist cracks the case, leading to a rooftop shoot-out on Graumann’s Chinese Theater stolen from WHITE HEAT. With its sly references to great films (including shot-for-shot recreations of famous sequences as well as actual retro clips used to illustrated Binford’s internal life), and its media-aware plot, this flick that isn’t quite like any movie ever made. Plus, it features Mickey Rourke in his first movie role ever.
I love “killer kid” movies, and while this one might not be the highest quality example of the genre, it captures the mindless, breezy/cheesy vibe of schlocky 1980s horror flicks perfectly. It’s as lighthearted as a movie about murderous children could be, managing to be both totally fun and weightless, and totally twisted and wrong at the same time.
BLOODY BIRTHDAY tells the tale of a trio of kids who were born in a small town during a lunar eclipse. Everything is cool in their lives until their tenth birthday. That’s when it’s revealed that they don’t have souls because of astrology or the devil or something; it doesn’t matter, really, because what’s important is that they start murdering everyone. Showing neither joy nor remorse, the deadly trio of towheaded tots strangle people, poison birthday cakes, smash folks over the head with baseball bats and slash ‘em apart with butcher knives. Good clean fun! No one suspects them, of course, because people in 1980s horror movies are way stupid, and the kids are only 10, so the body count rises. If that wasn’t enough, BLOODY BIRTHDAY features MTV VJ Julie Brown in a looong nude scene, which is worth the price of admission (free on Netflix) in itself.