By the end of 1984, the slasher sub-genre had been dying a slow death for a couple years before it got a new lease on life thanks to Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street, which took the usual plot of a body count film (madman seeks revenge on teens!) but added a supernatural element and literal dream logic to the mix. Most of the post-Halloween slashers were confined to traditional reality (the murderers' high potential to survive being shot several times notwithstanding), but Freddy Krueger's ability to invade the dream-space of his victims opened up all sorts of new ways to murder teenagers, and so the likes of Killer Party, Bad Dreams, and Craven's own Shocker followed, alongside the Freddy (and zombie Jason) sequels, keeping the basic "let's kill a bunch of teens, creatively!" concept afloat.
But then that well dry, and it was ironically Craven himself who would once again revive the sub-genre with Scream in 1996, a return to the masked killers of yore, now even more "real world" than before as Ghostface's victims were all horror fans who had seen the Elm Street movies and their ilk (Randy was probably the only one who bothered with Shocker, alas). To its credit, the sequels always found different people to wear the Ghostface mask instead of implausibly resurrecting Billy and/or Stu every time out, and its success inspired a new wave of similar whodunit types, along with the expected resurrection of the old franchises like Halloween with the "back to basics" H20, which notably disregarded the supernaturally-charged previous entry. Once it got tired (again) audiences pretty much just moved on to other types of horror entirely; there hasn't been another "wave" of such fare since then, with only the occasional hit like Happy Death Day or successful revivals like Halloween (2018) to keep the slasher subgenre alive, or at least on life support.
However, there were always outlier entries that were available to those who took the time to find them. Interestingly, one such example is Deadly Manor, which came along in 1990 - exactly at the halfway point between Craven's two classics. And that's kind of perfect, because the film itself is an even blend of pre-NOES and post-Scream slasher - it lacked the supernatural elements of most of its competition at the time, but also has a sprinkling of the "clued in" vibe that would become so prevalent with Scream and its imitators. When a character notes that him and his girlfriend "have everything a couple in the '90s needs", or another notes that a friend has "seen too many creepy movies", it gives the movie a resemblance to the ones that would be all over the place 7-8 years later, a wit (or "wit", if you will) that the older stuff almost always lacked.
Needless to say, it made for a fine discovery thanks to Arrow, who remastered the film and put it out on Blu-ray for the first time (and, in turn, alerted me to its very existence). The plot is such standard-issue body count stuff you can almost assume it IS the sort of spoof Scream is often mistakenly accused of being: our group of college-aged white folks is traveling to the lake for a weekend camping trip when their van breaks down, forcing them to seek shelter in the first place they find. But - wouldn't you know it? - the house seems "off", with photos of the same woman adorning all but one wall (which has a big crack on it, hmmm...), coffins in the basement, and jars full of body parts, which our Mensa candidates treat with about the same level of "Hey, that's weird" concern as the photos. The only exception is Helen, who is rightfully too freaked out by the place to stay there and decides she'd be better off in their car until morning.
Now, up to this point, if you were to guess who the Final Girl was out of the three women, she'd probably be the favorite - she's more observant, doesn't seem ready to tear her clothes off, etc. So when she decides to leave, I figured she'd go off on a separate adventure where we'd learn all the backstory while her friends got killed at the house in the meantime (think Trish in F13: Final Chapter). But no! She serves as the first death, at which point I realized all bets were off when it came to knowing who'd die next/last. Whereas most slashers (especially by this point) were operating from a sort of victim template that could allow you to probably guess the death order from the first scene they all appeared, Deadly Manor kept surprising me on this front - no one seemed preordained in their role, but instead just happened to be the last one the killer managed to get alone to kill. It's kind of refreshing!
In fact, I had so much fun being surprised at this or that survival (or lack thereof) that I barely noticed the kills themselves are kind of low-key, which is all the more surprising when you consider my interest in the film piqued because I noticed it was directed by José Ramón Larraz. I am not too familiar with the filmmaker, but quickly became a fan after seeing his film Edge of the Axe at the New Beverly All Night Horrorthon, and a quick check of his filmography revealed that Manor was his followup to Axe, leading me to think they were cut from the same cloth. Axe, for those who haven't been blessed (Arrow released that one last month, if you're curious), is also a Spanish-American slasher, but the kills are incredibly splattery, almost (bite my tongue) *too* liberal with the caro-spray at times, and the whodunit mystery had several red herrings, which are always fun.
Deadly Manor, on the other hand, is more like the original Friday the 13th in that it's only a "whodunit" because they don't introduce the killer or anything about their story until the final reel, so it's not possible to solve the mystery nor are there any other suspects. In fact, I was leaning toward a possible supernatural explanation for its events (natch), but nope - the killers were still living and breathing, and, as is often the case, taking revenge on people who had nothing to do with what set them off x number of years ago. But this one was so hilariously specific (as it turns out, people who drive motorcycles are to them what Haddonfield residents are to Michael Myers) that it more than made up for the lack of a good "Oh, it was YOU!" kind of moment, because the actual Final Girl doesn't know anything about them and even questions, repeatedly, why they are going after her and her friends when they haven't done anything to them.
Don't get me wrong - the above things sound like complaints but I actually found them charming, because while Larraz was embracing the changing world with the comments about the '90s and such, he was also going back to the older slashers, and perhaps even further to the Giallo era that inspired the standard slasher mold in the first place. With the whodunit types like Prom Night and Scream, there are red herrings and things that make it fun to go back and watch the film again knowing who the killer is (or killers - I think I literally slapped my forehead when I rewatched Scream for the first time and caught Billy giving an "I'm late because I just killed someone" look to Stu when he arrives at the party), but Friday and some Giallo didn't have that kind of thing - you'd get your first whiff of the backstory and, in some cases, introduction to the killer only when all but one or two people were dead. It may feel unsatisfying to those who had their detective caps on, but if you meet the movie on its own terms it's kind of liberating: you enjoy the ride and get your jolts, and then get an explanation for all of it before being sent on your way. Nothing wrong with that, it's just different.
It's with that in mind that I will do my best to keep looking for more stalk n slash pics from this "down" period. Without a need to compete with the others flooding multiplexes, and seemingly knowing they weren't going to be making the next Jason or Michael-level icon, there's a weird freedom in many of the ones I've seen from this time. They may be pretty hit or miss, sure, but their lack of refinement and occasionally downright baffling storytelling (did I mention Deadly Manor repeatedly shows a smashed-up car that's been preserved in a shrine?) make them easy enough to watch and stick with me for a while, which is more than I can say for many of the ones that are doing everything "right". Here's hoping Arrow and their peers can keep digging them up for like-minded folks who will never, ever get tired of hearing people say "I'll be right back."