It's technically in December, but whatever - 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of Wes Craven's Scream, which was not only instrumental in reviving the traditional horror genre after Hollywood all but abandoned it in the mid-'90s (in 1994, there were only four genre movies in wide release - three of them big budget "prestige" affairs like Interview With The Vampire), but also gave a new lease on life to the slasher film after a long dormancy. Apart from the occasional sequel (like the previous year's Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers) and oddball attempt at a new franchise (Dr. Giggles forever, yo), no one seemed interested in pitting a madman (usually in a mask) against a group of (usually) teens anymore.
After Scream, this changed - with the monster success of the following year's Scream 2 as well as I Know What You Did Last Summer (all three films written by one man - Kevin Williamson) cementing the revival, we were once again inundated with "dead teenager" movies for a while, both in multiplexes and in the DTV market. Not as many as we were in the early 80s, of course, but certainly enough to qualify it as a "phase", even if (too) many were borrowing a page from Scream and taking an ironic approach to the material, with in-jokes and snide commentary as commonplace in these things as someone saying "I'll be right back" and dying before fulfilling that promise.
So yeah, they were a little different and even a touch snobbish about the sub-genre, but so what? For this slasher-starved horror fan, it was wonderful to be able to go to packed theaters* to see these movies, having been mostly denied that opportunity for the previous 10 years. As I didn't turn 16 (read: get a license and drive myself) until 1996, any horror films I saw theatrically before then were largely when my parents opted to take me - which was usually for a weekend matinee so they could run errands and come back 88 minutes later to pick me up. Naturally, the crowds weren't usually large during these times, even if the movies were big hits (which, again, wasn't often during the '90s). The crowd experience is pretty vital to these things (I refuse to listen to anyone slam Friday the 13th Part V unless they've seen it properly - with 200 other people in the room), and I was denied that time and time again. Every time I get to see something like Final Exam or My Bloody Valentine at the New Beverly or other revival house, I bemoan the fact that I wasn't born in 1965 or so, making me the exact right age to see these and other "golden era" slashers for the first time with a full crowd.
Now, if you're not a slasher aficionado, you might wonder when that golden era was (and if you're a slasher critic, you'll think there never WAS one - if so I'll kindly ask you to go to hell). Roughly, it started with Halloween in 1978 and ended in 1982, as the over-saturated market (and continued decline of drive-ins, the ideal locale for this sort of fare) resulted in Hollywood losing interest, moving on to the next thing. Of course, that's not to say it was totally over (the franchises endured, and the occasional original like Silent Night Deadly Night would pop up and cause a big stir, if not for the right reasons), and of course, Halloween wasn't the FIRST slasher movie (Black Christmas, The House that Screamed, etc all came long before it), but that 3-4 year period was undoubtedly the sweet spot. If you ask a slasher fan to name their top 10 slashers, I'm guessing at least half of them would come from that timeframe, and the rest would probably include Scream and the ones that came after it.
And that's why I say it's time for a new wave. Scream came along eighteen years after Halloween - it's now been twenty since Scream. In 1996 the time felt right to revive that "old" brand of fright fare, but Scream is actually older now than Halloween was when Kevin Williamson paid tribute to it with his nostalgia-driven script. With social media and other forms of the internet making everything feel older than it actually is (i.e. when we start seeing oral history articles on movies that are only five years old), it feels that the time is even more right for some guy (or gal) to don a stylish mask, gather his friends in the woods or at an isolated cabin, and kill off every one of them except the girl he was actually mad at. After all, we're in a very similar place right now as we were in 1996: horror films are under performing (albeit still technically successful) and too often are forgettable - junk like The Forest may earn a few bucks for those involved, but will anyone care about it in a year or two? I won't be writing Collins' Crypts about it in 2036, just like I don't write about the likes of Hideaway or Brainscan now. Audiences are seemingly growing tired of ghosts and supernatural entities - it's time for one of the other sub-genres to take prominence for a few years.
So why does it have to be slashers? Well, for starters, they're cheap. I would love a big monster movie revival even more, but those things cost a lot of money and since they will likely be digital monsters, I can't see them being embraced by the genre fans or critics the way they'd need to be in order to get a full on revival. One thing about Scream that's easy to forget is that it didn't look to be a big hit at first - it only made 6 million dollars on its opening weekend, less than disappointments like Halloween 6 and The Relic. It was word of mouth and strong support from critics that turned it into a sleeper hit, which almost never happens in horror. Horror films are infamous for making the majority of their money on opening weekend (Chainsaw 3D is a funny example, opening at #1 and dropping out of the top 20 entirely three weeks later), making sleeper successes all but unheard of - and to date it was the last time a film opened in wide release to under 10m and ultimately topped that magic 100m threshold. It would be a risk for a studio to try to dip into this particular well again, so the fact that you can make a good one for peanuts (in fact, if you're spending a lot of money on a slasher you are definitely doing it wrong) should be enticing.
But more importantly, they're fun. There's a sense of playfulness to the best slashers that is usually absent from the supernatural movies, where everyone seems bummed out all the time. The Paranormal Activity sequels always focused on dysfunctional (or just plain disinterested) families, which grew tiresome, and the heroine of The Forest spent the entire movie with a worried look on her face. This is fine when the movie is actually suspenseful or scary (see: The Witch), but when the scares aren't working and everyone is so damn moody, it makes for a rather unpleasant affair. The key ingredient to slashers is that they usually focus on a group of pals, who are more likely to crack jokes and have fun than a family unit - so even if Jason or Freddy is no longer very scary, their later movies still endure because they offer the audience a good time when the protagonists are just doing their thing (usually fucking, drinking, or smoking pot - all of which would be really out of place in Paranormal Activity 6). The success of Krampus proves that audiences want to scream AND smile, and there's no sub-genre better equipped for that than the slasher. That's not to say you can't have a fun ghost or monster movie, but a jump scare in a slasher is almost kind of essential - the killer literally jumps out at his victims! So it can get away with those corny tricks without ruining the experience, as long as they don't go overboard (looking at you, pseudo Prom Night remake**).
Luckily, things are slowly turning around - a revival might not just be a pipe dream of mine for much longer. I am more optimistic now than I was two years ago thanks to the success of It Follows, which is for all intents and purposes, a slasher film ("in idyllic suburbia, a mysterious killer targets a group of friends - if you're a virgin you'll be OK though!"). This was a movie that was supposed to premiere on VOD two weeks after its limited theatrical release, but, as with Scream, strong word of mouth and critical raves kept it in theaters a lot longer than anyone expected, ultimately grossing 14 million dollars. Yes, that sounds like a terrible number, but consider its original release plan and total lack of marketing (not to mention its distributor, Radius-TWC, who had never released a movie that broke the 5 million barrier) and you realize how impressive that is. And they've finally figured out how to make the formula work on television, with both Scream: The Series (which had zero connection to the movies) and Scream Queens earning second seasons (and most of my respect, which is even harder!), and a Friday the 13th series (this time it's related!) on the way.
Of course, such successes only happen if they are offering the audience something new, which makes things tricky for the slasher genre as it's hard to find a fresh hook considering how many of the things have been made already. Some even said that it was impossible to go back to traditional slasher films after Scream lampooned their tropes so well, but that's not true at all - Cold Prey is a terrific example of how the slasher movie can still work without any pretension (as is its sequel), and I quite liked the House of Wax "remake" (it wasn't really one, but that's a whole other article), which had some levity but no real "winking" that I can recall. Ditto for Hatchet, a throwback to woodsy slashers like Madman and The Burning that offered all of the great kills you want as well as some character-based comedy - none of it poking fun at slasher tropes. I think audiences will show up for something that's different than the last 3-4 horror movies that were shoved in their faces, regardless of sub-genre, and those odds are even better if the movie is good - what could be more different right now than a good slasher movie in wide release?
In the past few years there have been some occasional, kind of wacky examples, like 2014's Stage Fright, which was a Sleepaway Camp-ish slasher but also a musical. It didn't totally work (even with Meat Loaf on hand to butter me up), but it was a solid effort, and like Cold Prey and Hatchet, proved that the genre hasn't totally spent itself just yet. Sure, Stage Fright wasn't a knockout, but most of them aren't - they just have 30+ years of nostalgia to help them. How else to explain why anyone will defend Prom Night or Terror Train (including me, for the latter), if not for the fact that they saw them when younger? Stage Fright probably would have blown my mind when I was 8 or 9, and likely has done so for some still impressionable horror fan who was born in 2004. And that kid deserves more mysterious killers to reveal themselves with 15 minutes left of the movie before engaging in one final chase with the only girl in the movie who seemed like a decent human being.
But like the others, Stage Fright barely got released. Again, seeing these things with a crowd - not whoever else is home when you rent them on VOD - is a big part of these films' appeal, which is why any revival needs to be embraced by the studios, to ensure they're playing at the multiplexes and not those tiny indie theaters that largely only exist in the big cities. There's a new Texas Chainsaw movie coming from the Inside guys, and if they were left alone and allowed to make something that lives up to the franchise's good name (out of seven movies, only two of them are bad - that's a pretty good track record), perhaps the ball can get rolling, though as we learned in the late-'00s I think it would take a solid original to really get things going. The franchises are dependable for a profit, but we need the 2016 equivalent of Scream or Halloween to blow us all away and kick off a new wave of cash-ins (and yes, lesser sequels). And more importantly, I need the 2016 equivalent of Final Exam or Valentine to be in that group so that I have something to defend in this column 20 years from now.
* Urban Legends: Final Cut was a notable exception, as I went at like 4:30 on a weekday afternoon and not only had a private screening, but had to go tell the theater to turn the movie on as they didn't realize anyone had bought a ticket and weren't going to run the projector. Ah, the pre-digital days!
** Which was still better than the original. Come at me, bro.