Collins’ Crypt: THE SLASHER MOVIE BOOK (Review)

Brian reviews a book on the history of his favorite genre, slasher movies.

While I'm sure I'd experience fatigue, if I had to stick to one type for Horror Movie A Day I'd choose slashers without the slightest hesitation. Indeed, it's the second most prolific sub-genre on the site, after only the fairly vague and wider-reaching "Supernatural" horror, and boasts nearly a hundred more titles than the next closest competitor ("Monster" movies). It's also the easiest one for me to like, because the genre has such a straightforward (and admittedly limited) template to work from, I can't get too worked up about the clichés appearing again and again. I mean, if you love rom-coms, you're going to see a lot of mad dashes to the airport, right?

But I am by no means a certified expert in the field. I may know more than my mom or some pals, and even some colleagues who choose to spend their time with craziness like "going outside", but there are some folks out there who I'd never want to go up against in a trivia battle. One such person is J.A. Kerswell, who runs the website Hysteria Lives! and has contributed commentaries to certain DVD releases in the UK. He's also put together the pretty great, and appropriately titled "The Slasher Movie Book." which is just over 200 pages and covers the entire history of the slasher film.

Starting in the 1920s with "proto-slashers" such as The Cat And The Canary and The Bat, weaving through the mid-century thrillers and drive-in gore films, exhaustively covering the "Golden Age" (each year from 1978-1984 gets a chapter), and finishing in 2011 with thoughts on the disappointing Scream 4, the book is a terrific read for newcomers and hardcore fans alike. Eschewing detailed analysis in favor of not leaving too much out, only a few films get more than a paragraph or two devoted to them, and they're pretty much the ones you'd expect - Psycho, Halloween, Scream, etc. While his own thoughts on the films often creep into their "shout-outs", Kerswell wisely avoids rubbing fans the wrong way by devoting time and space defending a personal favorite that is under-loved by fans at large. Instead he only goes out of his way for the ones that are universally agreed to be important and significant, which leaves more space to give the more obscure films their due.

And I tip my hat to him in this department - I compiled a list of nearly a hundred slashers (many from that "golden age") that I had never even HEARD OF, let alone seen. For every "oh yeah, I still need to see that" title like Night School and Sweet Sixteen, there was a "How have I never heard of this?" potential gem like Blood Beat, which features a murderous seven foot tall samurai "conjured up through female masturbation." Not to mention the ones the author describes as bad, like Savage Water ("possibly the worst slasher ever made") and the "execrable" Halloween ripoff Trick Or Treats. Under the right circumstances, a bad slasher can be just as enjoyable as a good one, and I've long since assumed I've seen all of the really good ones (as they'd be well known instead of obscure for a reason), so it's worth seeking them out just in case I don't share his sentiment. He might not think much of Whodunit?, but I might love it.

In fact, there's enough evidence throughout the book to suggest that I won't always see eye to eye with him, as he refers to New Year's Evil as "dull" (no movie with a killer name-dropping Erik Estrada can be considered as such, in my opinion) and considers the (IMO) rather bland House On Sorority Row to be a top-tier slasher on the same level as My Bloody Valentine. But I have to remember that everyone has their own favorites; the book's introduction explains that Halloween II was his first slasher and thus he has a soft spot for it, though he's thankfully honest about its shortcomings in the text itself. And he's on the right (meaning: MY) side for some other underrated flicks, such as the 2005 House of Wax, and he also (correctly) refers to Cold Prey II as one of the best post-Scream slashers, a bit of a surprise given his affection for Halloween II, which it was clearly aping.

I'd never judge a book of this type on a few opposing views of some low-rent slasher films, however - it's meticulously researched and the occasional flubs are likely due to typographical error, not ignorance (though he seems to suggest Wes Craven directed Hills Have Eyes 2 AFTER Nightmare On Elm Street, when in reality they were just released that way). But I'd have to stop just shy of calling it "exhaustive," as there are some puzzling oversights. No mention is made of 1991's Popcorn, for example - strange given the fact that it was one of precious few slashers of that time (and fairly well regarded to boot), and Craven's Shocker is also missing, odd considering that the "death" of the slasher cycle of the '80s could probably best be exemplified by one of the genre's founding fathers trying and failing to create a new slasher icon. No Dr. Giggles either, another "too late" attempt to revive the sub-genre. I wouldn't consider this odd in a typical book that just covered the marquee titles (Friday the 13th, Halloween, etc), but come on - there's two paragraphs on To All A Goodnight but not even a passing reference to Horace Pinker? For shame...

These occasional oversights are evened out with the thoroughness of the rest of the book, however. The pre-giallo "krimi" (German for "mystery thriller") are given their own chapter, a nice touch since this sub-genre is often overlooked today as its heyday was unfortunately right around the time of Psycho and its imitators (and, to be fair, not nearly as internationally popular as the later Italian gialli). There are also a few sidebars that highlight a particular filmmaker (Dario Argento, for example) or recurring themes like the early '80s slasher spoofs like Pandemonium and Student Bodies. And there are a few appendices; some are too vague to be of any use (the body counts for a few of the most popular slashers, oddly missing the character's names), but I particularly liked the box office chart showing not only a few films' respective grosses, but also that number with inflation factored in - lets all giggle that the cheapo Friday the 13th Part 3 sold more (domestic) tickets than the mega-budgeted Battleship ever will (or cry that Visiting Hours sold more than The Mist or The Descent).

But what if you just want to look at the pictures? You're in luck - nearly every page of the book has at least one poster or lobby card to enjoy, many of them from the UK or other territories. A few resemble their US counterparts, but there are some wonderfully oddball ones as well, such as this UK Halloween poster that I had never seen before:

He even dug up a Mexican (?) quad for Home Sweet Home (or "El Invitado Del Diablo"), which is impressive considering how rare that movie is - I wouldn't have been surprised if the film had been skipped entirely, so seeing some rare art for it was a definite treat (I am an apologist for that one, if you recall), especially when juxtaposed with a strikingly similar ad for Prom Night. Even if you're just as much of an expert on the subject as the author, it's worth buying the book just to flip through it and enjoy the art, particularly all of the stuff pre-1996 when Scream and its goddamn "line of faces" poster forever changed the quality of horror marketing.

But what I love most about the book is his genuine appreciation yet honest take on the genre. Again, even though Halloween II is so important to him (being his introduction to this crazy world), he still points out how idiotic the whole "Laurie is his sister" plot reveal is, rather than defend it to the death like some misguided fans. I've read other pieces on the slasher genre that are written by folks who are blindly convinced that these are the best horror films ever made, or by those who consider even classics like Halloween to be beneath them, so this is the best of both worlds - a fan who is wise enough to realize that not every entry is worthy of undying praise, but who also doesn't let his biases get in the way of painting a complete picture of his topic. A terrific read.

Note - this book was previously published as "Teenage Wasteland" in the UK, in 2010. Given the (very brief) mention of 2011's Scream 4 (including its box office take), it has to be at least SOMEWHAT updated; I am unsure what other, if any, changes were made to the existing text. He certainly didn't fix his Shocker oversight!