Collins’ Crypt: The Pros And Cons Of Whodunit Horror

Brian reflects on masked killers in honor of his screening of SCREAM this week!

One of the all time great surprises in a slasher was the original My Bloody Valentine, which spent the entire movie chalking up the murders to an escaped mental patient named Harry Warden, who had come back on the anniversary of his crimes to kill again. With the simple, straightforward holiday slasher Halloween being the obvious inspiration, there was no reason to think it was anything more complicated than that, and so when I was 14 or 15 and seeing it for the first time, I was pretty blown away when (SPOILER - but you suck if you still haven't seen it) "Harry" got his mask pulled off to reveal co-hero Axel under it. The stealth whodunit slasher is pretty rare in the genre; it takes a number of elements to work properly, and let's face it - most of these movies didn't have that much thought put into them.

It's one of the reasons I've always considered MBV to be one of the best slashers in that golden, post-Halloween era (which dried up by around 1984) - even as a young teen I recognized there was a little more effort on display than movies like The Funhouse, or even the original Friday the 13th, which was a "whodunit" that couldn't bother to talk about its killer even in passing until she introduced herself in the final reel. I like a good mystery, and this approach to a slasher forces the writers to refrain from killing everyone off the second they are introduced, allowing for slightly more characterization than you'd normally get. The most successful is probably Scream - not only did it have a huge cast of potential suspects (some whodunits really only have like two real possibilities), but the mystery was cleverly engineered in a way that it was almost impossible to guess everything about it, but when you go back and watch the film again you'll feel dumb for having missed it.

But does this approach work for sequels? My Bloody Valentine never got a sequel since it wasn't really a hit until it was released on video and 20 years of "Hey this is a lot better than its competition" thinking gave it a new lease on life, and Lionsgate idiotically refused to do a followup to its smash success remake from 2009 (which opted for a full on whodunit approach, but changed the identity of the killer). It seems pretty daunting to capture that sort of spark again; even Kevin Williamson himself couldn't pull it off with I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was more Friday the 13th than Scream in that it was a whodunit that was impossible to solve since it was someone we'd never heard of until their reveal. Our killer was not any of the suspicious people we met along the way, but Ben Willis, who was (if memory serves) the would-be father-in-law of the guy they thought they ran over at the beginning. Williamson didn't return for the grammatically challenged sequel I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, but Ben did - along with his son ("Will Benson - Will, Ben's son" being the hands down stupidest reveal in slasher and possibly movie history) to retain a bit of the mystery angle. The third entry goes above and beyond, setting up red herrings and putting the killer in a mask, only to reveal that the killer is... Ben again! Now he's a zombie. Seriously.

However, while it didn't work on a financial level (I Still Know... was a huge dud, and the third film went direct to video), you can see why they'd at least make the effort at turning Ben The Fisherman into another icon along the lines of Michael and Jason. While "Ghostface" may be a popular Halloween costume or action figure, he will never be as iconic as those other guys, because it was just a costume for a revolving series of killers. Depending on who you ask, Ghostface is actually any number of people at this point - regardless of how you feel about the movies, that's just diluting the brand value of the killer. Producers tried that sort of thing once with Roy the ambulance driver (in Friday the 13th Part V), and look how that turned out - a ton of undeserved fan outrage, to the extent that some refuse to admit it even exists. But a bad Jason movie or two doesn't kill his stock value in the eyes of the fans - he's still great even if the movie isn't, unlike a bad Scream sequel which lives or dies depending on how interesting the actual killer behind the mask is.

So maybe that's why you don't see too many whodunit types - it severely cripples opportunities to franchise the hell out of the thing. As these tend to be more "realistic" (for a horror movie, I mean), you can't always have the killer just keep coming back like Jason Voorhees without committing to something more supernatural - and building up a character people love enough to follow into such territory - and if the mystery element was a big part of the first one, even money grubbing producers tend to realize that it's something that they should try again. Friday the 13th is the major exception - but watching those movies in retrospect it's clear that they didn't exactly think things through - power of a hockey mask! Urban Legend found a reasonable way around it for its sequel - it introduced a whole new cast of heroes and only brought back a supporting character (Loretta Devine's security guard from the original) to tie them together. New mystery, new angle, even a new costume - again, it probably didn't help the brand any, but in my eyes it made a hell of a lot more sense than finding another killer that had a beef with Alicia Witt (the third abandoned the idea all together, opting for a "supernatural revenge from the grave" concept borrowed from Nightmare On Elm Street). While it worked once for Scream 2, I think one of the biggest problems with the Scream series as a whole is that they refused to kill off Sidney and kept making it about her, rendering the killers' motives increasingly stale - just how many lives did she "ruin," exactly? And why did it happen to turn them all into psychopathic killers? Doesn't anyone have a problem with Dewey or Gale?

Then there's the third kind - the non-whodunit that also doesn't bother to make an iconic killer. Final Exam is probably my favorite example; it's hard to imagine anyone was thinking that their killer, named "Killer," would ever return to kill and kill again, with horror fans going to conventions dressed in his awesome green coat and blue jeans. While you might find some (mostly ironic) fans of these types, on the average they satisfy no one in the long run. Don't do it.

By the way, I got to thinking about this stuff because I am hosting a screening of the original Scream at the New Beverly in Los Angeles this Saturday (April 20th) at 11:59pm - tickets HERE and more info HERE! I've talked about it before, but Scream was the film that got me fully back into horror after a early/mid '90s dry spell, so it'll be great to see again on the big screen and hopefully entice some folks who still haven't seen it to come check it out - I'd love to hear that gasp again when the big reveal goes down (which is why I've been careful not to spoil it!). Scream also kickstarted the slasher genre again, and all of those (save sequels) were whodunits, a big difference from the post-Halloween era where it was pretty much 50/50 - for every Madman or Hell Night, there was a Terror Train or Happy Birthday To Me. We have yet to see another major resurgence; most of the newer slashers of the past six or seven years are foreign (Cold Prey and its sequels) or independent releases like Hatchet and Behind The Mask. The last non-remake/sequel slasher movie released by a major studio was Craven's My Soul To Take, and that's.... well that's its own slasher sub-genre entirely; the last traditional original one was probably 2006's WWE production See No Evil. But it's interesting that they've mostly gone back to the "iconic local legend" type slashers instead of whodunits - even the Prom Night remake eschewed the original's mystery for a straightforward "psycho teacher" (with no disguise) angle.

I can't figure out why that is, however. Does Scream's considerable status in the pantheon scare away new filmmakers from trying to come up with their own mysteries? Or did the relatively quick flameout of the slasher revival (compared to the '80s one) prove that we need more "horror heroes" in the mix that can be franchised like Victor Crowley and (hopefully) Leslie Vernon? And more importantly, which do you guys prefer? Do you want some mystery built in, or do you find that slows down these movies when you just want to see wall-to-wall kills?