Collins’ Crypt: If A Slasher Isn’t Fun, What Is It?

BC revisits the 1983 sorta-slasher FINAL TERROR, out this week from Scream Factory. 

Beyond convoluting its mythology in sequels, nothing makes me angrier than slasher movies that purposely make the "hero" characters into unlikable assholes. I get the thinking behind it - if we don't like them we won't feel too bad when they die, and cheering on the killer is sort of a tradition (especially in sequels) - but there's no reason to actively hate the people we're watching for x amount of time before they are dispatched. One asshole in the group is fine (I'm thinking Trent in the Friday the 13th remake, or Tina's boyfriend "Mikey" in Halloween 5), but when they're all hateful douches, I'm not cheering for the killer - I'm just wondering why I'm bothering to watch the movie at all.

Admittedly, it's a tough line to balance. If a character is so loved that killing them off legitimately makes an audience angry (Randy in Scream 2), then you're betraying what is the primary goal of a slasher movie - for the audience to have fun. That's where the tough part comes in, because unlike most other horror sub-genres, a slasher movie without any kills is like a comedy without laughs - you need to have a severely reduced cast by the time the credits roll (they are, after all, referred to as "body count" films by their critics), or else you haven't delivered. A death-free haunted house movie is fine, perhaps even preferred (Poltergeist, The Conjuring), but if your slasher movie doesn't have slashing, then what is it?

However, if you love every character who's partying in that cabin or celebrating Valentine's Day in a mine, you're bummed out to see them go, which is why the best '80s slashers give the characters a bit of personality but not much depth. We love Crispin Glover's character in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter not because we know a lot about him (What is his job? Or his last name?), but because he hilariously wants to get laid and finally does so - shortly before getting a cleaver to the face. His "arc" is complete, and so his death - while presumably tragic to someone - is able to pass without making the audience sad, retaining the movie's sense of fun. Compare this to any of the hateful jerks in the lousy seventh film, where they could die in any order and it wouldn't matter, as by that time we're apparently supposed to just root for Jason and not give a shit about any of his victims even for a second.

So what happens when a "slasher" is never all that fun, but doesn't rush to kill anyone in it, either? It's what makes The Final Terror, hitting shelves today courtesy of Scream Factory, such an oddity in the early '80s slasher canon. Ironically, the film was shot in 1981, at the same time as many a slasher looking to cash in on the success of Friday the 13th and Halloween, but it sat on a shelf for a couple of years - partially because its low body count had would-be distributors knowing that it couldn't compete. But when a few of its stars got to be pretty famous in the interim, the movie suddenly had a different kind of appeal, and hit theaters in 1983 - making it look like a response to all of those movies in some ways. By that point audiences were losing interest in such fare, but this was a marked departure from the standard stalk-n-slash, so it comes off as if a producer said, "Audiences are sick of the same old thing - let's do something different!" Whether this approach paid off is unknown; I was unable to locate any box office information beyond a May 1983 release date.

It's kind of hilarious, then, that the movie begins with a typical slasher opening sequence - two random teens are in the woods, they separate, and when the girl returns to the guy he is dead. She screams, runs and gets killed herself - it's textbook slasher stuff. Unsurprisingly, this was a late addition to the film, inserted without original director Andrew Davis (yes, the director of The Fugitive) and intended only to give the film an early jolt it otherwise lacked. Even with its standard plot of a bunch of young folks heading off into the woods, Davis and his writers weren't too interested in finding ways to off them all - only four of the group (of ten) are killed, and two of them are during the film's closing moments.

But even stranger than the low body count is how unpleasant it is. No one in the movie seems to be having any fun - two of our characters are introduced screaming at each other ((understandable since one woke the other up by attempting to strangle him), and even the typical "this is our fun-loving group!" scenes are rife with tension. When they're driving to the woods the bus driver (Eggar, played by Joe Pantoliano) tries to bring them to a different place only to be insulted and yelled at for his trouble, and later on they send him off for good by mocking his upbringing (the specifics are spoiler territory). But even with him gone the group still has Zorich (John Friedrich), who is just as unhinged as Eggar - one of his highlights includes screaming at one of the girls in the group for jumping in the raft after it's been established that she can't even swim. You get the impression that even if a wildman in the woods wasn't (occasionally) killing them off they'd all just eventually kill each other.

So it's tough to even classify it as a slasher in many ways, but it without question belongs next to Madman and The Burning in your collection (if you're sorting by genre instead of alphabetically, that is). I mean, here's the plot: a group of attractive young folks go to the woods for a weekend trip and are hunted by a mysterious killer who may be someone they know. Without any supernatural or alien elements (despite the trailer's hint at the latter, possibly due to the fact that Alien co-writer Ronald Shusett had a hand in this screenplay), you can't really put it into any other horror sub-genre, and even without the very Friday the 13th-y addition at the beginning, it's clear that the filmmakers were inspired by the few slashers that existed when they started filming. The first death in the Davis section of the film, for example, is of a guy getting slashed in the back as he makes love to his girlfriend - a death so common in slashers that there's probably a supercut of them all somewhere.

However it doesn't feel like they're trying to circumvent the slasher or actively go against its "rules" - it seems more like they merely forgot to kill off more of the cast. On his (impossibly dull) commentary, Davis points out that he doesn't like horror movies and has never made another one, so it almost seems like he kept the body count low, not because he wanted to go against the grain or make some sort of statement, but simply because he wasn't interested in filming any more carnage than he had to. If anything, he seems more engaged with his photography, as he was also the film's DP - the movie looks pretty great compared to other woods-based horror flicks of the era (with several soon-to-be famous cast members making it look even classier), and he opted for some unusual techniques, such as lighting a bus attack scene using only the in-camera flashlights. Add in the several shots of wildlife and sun poking through the trees, and you have what I'm sure someone will call a Terrence Malick slasher movie.

If you already know you're a fan (or you're just a completionist), the Scream Blu should satisfy you. Davis' commentary may be an impossibly boring affair (he goes so long without talking at times that it might startle you when he finally decides to open his mouth again), but at least they got him to sit down for it (he says it's 2014). And the two lengthy interview pieces are quite good; one has actors Adrian Zmed and Lewis Smith discussing their work on the film (it was Zmed's first feature, and Smith's first anything, though both had other films come out before its release due to the delay), and the other has editor Allan Holzman and composer Susan Justin offering up their own take on it - it's interesting that none of them seem to think it's a particularly great movie, but are proud of their work on it and how well it's made in general. And Justin impersonates a wolf at one point, so there's something. The film's misleading trailer and a still gallery are also included.

Overall, I think Final Terror proves that you really need a strong hook to make a slasher movie that can compete with the proven classics. Hell, the body count is technically higher than Halloween's, but without any real memorable aspect to it (you almost never see the killer, there's no holiday tie-in, etc) it feels so much slighter. And again, no one in the movie is ever enjoying themselves, so it's nearly impossible for the audience not to follow suit. I think all rules are meant to be broken, but I'm struggling to think of another slasher movie that's never any fun (for the audience or its characters), so it might be best to make sure you stick to that particular rule. Just don't make the characters a bunch of assholes in the process!