Between 1978 and 1984 a sub-genre of the horror movie entered a gloriously brutal period of creative (and exploitative) endeavour. After several false starts, the slasher reached its pinnacle and fans were delivered shock and gore on a regular basis over the course of six bloody years – IMDB cites 36 films released in 1981 alone.
What marks the slasher out from most sub-genres, though, is its levels of endurance. Despite the golden age ending over three decades ago, slasher films continued (and continue) to be made. A second-coming of sorts arrived in the mid-nineties with Scream leading the charge. As with the Golden Age, quality dwindled and tastes changed by the end of the decade, yet a core fanbase – probably the most passionate and loyal of all sub-genre fans – remained, fervently supporting the slasher and never allowing the flame to die.
A cursory glance at the sub-genre’s output in this decade alone reveals the Hatchet and Child’s Play franchises, smaller films including Girlhouse, the television series Slasher, and even MTV’s My Super Psycho Sweet 16 series attempting to carry the slasher can. With the release of Happy Death Day the slasher – albeit a somewhat gore-free version – finally returned to the mainstream, and with a sequel on the way, there’s still an appetite for a little stalk-and-slash.
Here are my top 20 films from the Golden Age of the Slasher*. This list represents my favourites at this moment in time. Ask me in a year and one or two may have dropped out, while others may go from the tail-end of the top 20 into the top five. I’m not suggesting certain films are better than others from a budgetary, storytelling, cinematic or even competency level, just that on the day I posted this I just happened to prefer one over the other. It’s nothing more or less than a purely subjective list, but if you don’t like it, I’m sure you’ll tell me why. Or you could just write your own.
On that note, let the fun commence…
(20) Silent Night, Deadly Night – 1984
In the wake of the success of various holiday-themed slashers, it wasn’t long before the festive season was exploited again. A decade before Bob Clarke’s Black Christmas was one of a handful of proto-slashers that ushered in the sub-genre and holiday-themed sub-sub-genre. By the mid-80s, however, new ideas were thin on the ground. For every A Nightmare on Elm Street, there was a Splatter University; even Christmas had already been well-covered with the aforementioned Black Christmas and Christmas Evil. So it’s something of a surprise that Charles Edward Sellier Jr., director of Silent Night, Deadly Night had a background in faith-based fare, especially given the protagonist, Billy, spends part of the film being systematically punished by the Mother Superior at the Christian Orphanage he’s grown up in. Of course, it’s Billy’s aversion to Santa Claus (watch the film) that sets him off on the path of destruction via a series of memorable and enterprising kills – antler impalement, a Christmas lights hanging, death by bow and arrow. Allegedly, Sellier Jr. was uncomfortable filming the death scenes and employed the film’s editor Michael Spence to handle the gory stuff.
(19) Final Exam – 1981
When talking of slasher tropes, it’s often said that the killer requires a certain degree of charisma or at least an aura that enables the viewer to be equally enthralled and fearful as they watch the body count pile up. What then, of the killer in Final Exam? It’s a curious one. The killer appears and begins to slay the students of Lanier College one-by-one with seemingly no motive at all, no any other reason for being in the vicinity other than to kill. In many ways, this should be film’s failing – a bland killer does not necessarily a good slasher film make. However, it’s the characters that ultimately lift the film into the upper echelons. While it’s true they are relatively standard archetypes (the nerdy Radish, bookish Courtney, and frat boy Wildman could all have comfortably featured in any of the teen screwball comedies of the era) it’s hard not to care when Radish succumbs to the killer. A final note on the killer: yes, he may be something of a Michael Myers knock-off and is apparently partly responsible for the lack of a sequel despite Final Exam performing admirably at the box office, but with hindsight, perhaps a random killer is precisely why the film is still so well-regarded. There is something singularly terrifying about a lunatic with no backstory, no connection to the victims, and no motive, just an intent to do as much damage as possible. All hail, ‘The Killer’.
(18) The Mutilator – 1984
This one was originally released in 1985 so technically falls outside of the parameters of the Golden Age, but it was made in 1984 and premiered on January 4th, so it’s admissible. The Mutilator is a curious one as it plays like a screwball comedy, family drama, slapstick, and horror movie. It’s never quite sure what it wants to be and so tonally suffers. What is even more jarring is that despite the moments of broad comedy The Mutilator one of the most mean-spirited when it comes to kills – a scene in the garage is a particular lowlight. It’s hard not to wonder whether the film, under its original title Fall Break, was intended to be more of a murder mystery in the Scooby Do tradition but instead ended up exploiting the slasher wave and hoping for the best. Despite its faults, The Mutilator is such a strange little curio that it’s hard not to love it. And it has one of the great taglines.
(17) Prom Night – 1980
Ostensibly a cash-in on the success of Halloween and the burgeoning slasher wave, but Prom Night marches to the beat of its own drummer. Very much a product of its time, featuring a full-on disco-dancing number, Prom Night still manages to sit a level above the standard slasher fare, partly due to its cast featuring Jamie Lee Curtis and Leslie Nielsen and because it arrived well before the slasher began to hit the point of saturation. It’s certainly less bloody than some of its contemporaries but accrues extra points for featuring a genuinely sympathetic killer. I’ve written more about Prom Night here if you want more on my thoughts about the first film in the franchise…
(16) Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Some films have are so subtle they linger on the memory for days while you try to piece together their meaning. Other films are suggestive, never quite revealing their true nature. Sleepaway Camp is none of those things. It is, if you’ll pardon the pun, full-frontal. While still regarded as a genre classic, it is nonetheless a problematic film with its depiction of transgender viewed as something evil, however unintentional. A number of writers have covered this issue in greater detail than I could, so I’ll leave to up to you to read further. There are two sides to the story, of course, and Felissa Rose, who starred as Angela, is still a passionate supporter of the film and cites how she still engages in conversation with people who relate to the character she played over 30 years ago. It would be remiss of me to suddenly decide that a film I’ve enjoyed for years is suddenly one to be reviled. Looking at Sleepaway Camp from a pure entertainment perspective, it still ranks highly hence its place in my top 20.
(15) Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
It’s always interesting when A-list talent brings their skillset to a sub-genre unfairly regarded as inferior, so J. Lee Thompson directing a slasher must have raised eyebrows when it was initially announced. After all, this was the same man who’d helmed The Guns of Navarone and Ice Cold in Alex, pointing the camera in the direction of the likes of Gregory Peck, David Niven and John Mills. When it came to filming ‘six of the most bizarre murders you’ll ever see’ Thompson’s skill as a director is plain for all to see. Granted, Happy Birthday to Me is a little ponderous in places and the bell tower scene is strangely out of place with the rest of the movie, but the kill scenes are excellent, and the reveal is still worth the wait. It’s a shame that another Hollywood legend, Glenn Ford, was less than enamoured to be part of a slasher movie. Allegedly Ford threw tantrums as well as punches while on set, and John will never eat shish kebab again.
(14) Tourist Trap – 1979
Taking its cue from classic horrors Mystery of the Wax Museum and its sequel, the Vincent Price vehicle House of Wax, Tourist Trap replicated the creepiness of waxwork figures housed in a dilapidated museum and brought alive by telekinesis. It’s a superbly disturbing construct which elevates the film beyond the slasher tropes that were in 1979 only just beginning to mould into cohesive conventions. Tourist Trap mixes sub-genres to produce one of the most chillingly effective films of the era, and by employing Chuck Conners to play the killer, director David Schmoeller took a well-loved character actor and subverted his public and acting persona, so when he is finally revealed as the killer, it’s all the more shocking. Sadly, nearly 40 years later the effect is long lost on current audiences. As a supernatural slasher, though, Tourist Trap is as good as it gets.
(13) Friday the 13th Part 2 – 1981
Tom Savini’s suggestion that Friday the 13th needed a ‘Carrie‘ moment proved to be a telling one as one year later the deformed figure who leapt out of the water to drag young Alice Hardy below the depths was back. Jason Vorhees, the unstoppable mother-fixated killing machine would, of course, go on to chalk up an incredible body count up to and including 2009’s Friday the 13th reboot, but it all began in 1981 with an ice pick. I’ve always been a fan of the burlap mask look for Jason (depth perception be damned!), and so Part 2 was for the longest time my favourite and Amy Steel’s Ginny Field is certainly one of the great final girls of the genre. It’ll always remain in my top 20, but like Crazy Ralf, it’s doomed…
…..to be overtaken by the Final Chapter.
(12) Hell Night – 1981
Hell Night is what happens when a decent script, likeable characters, a fun setting, a great killer(s), and an excellent cast all come together to make a slasher film. It’s also a film that demonstrates what happens when a hazing ritual goes horribly wrong. Hell Night is probably the most outwardly fun film on the list, which makes it all the more surprising that it was so disliked upon release, even to the point that Linda Blair was up for a Razzie! Regardless, Hell Night certainly has grown a following in the intervening years and deserves the reputation appreciation it’s currently enjoying.
(11) The Initiation – 1984
Hitchcock alumni have a habit of appearing in slasher movies. Farley Granger in The Prowler, Janet Leigh in Halloween H20 and Vera Miles here in The Initiation. This is a slasher where nothing is ever quite as it seems. What starts as a sorority initiation turns into a cat-and-mouse game around a locked department store and a final reveal that one doesn’t see coming. It’s another slasher with an interest in the meaning of dreams, repressed memories, and also the price of buried secrets. These are recurring themes among slashers that are more interested in following the basic tropes of the sub-genre. While not well-regarded upon its release, The Initiation has developed something of a cult following and is often cited (as in my list) as a fan favourite.
(10) Halloween II – 1981
Halloween II and the story of Laurie Strode and Michael Myers as siblings is about to be erased from the canon with Blumhouse’s new take on Halloween (40 years later). It’s entirely up to the production company where they take the story and to be fair the sibling element always felt a bit tacked-on anyway, but it’s a shame that Halloween II is to be excised entirely as it’s one of the best of any slasher franchise sequels. Set on the same night as the original, we follow the continued ‘adventures’ of Myers as he slashes his way around an oddly deserted hospital, with Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode curiously sidelined for much of the running time and Donald Pleasance’s manic Dr Loomis in pursuit. The retention of stars and Director of Photography Dean Cundey was a smart move. Pity then that the Carpenter/Hill axis only returned to write and produce the film, though kudos to Rick Rosenthal who managed to recreate much of the original’s suspense and tension. Ben Tramer, sadly, didn’t fare so well.
(9) The House on Sorority Row – 1983
Taking inspiration from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, The House on Sorority Row follows the young women of a sorority whose attempts to celebrate their graduation are curtailed by their house mother. When a prank at the house mother’s expense goes awry, killing her and her body subsequently disappears it’s not long before the girls start dying too. The House on Sorority Row is one of those films whose poster is a masterpiece of mismarketing. In actual fact, it’s so misrepresentative of the movie as to be entirely irrelevant. While the film is concerned with the price of burying (or submerging) a secret, the poster is edging dangerously towards the more ‘adult’ end of the market. It’s now rightly regarded as a jewel in the slasher crown and is particularly notable for its unresolved ending.
(8) The Slayer – 1982
While The Slayer is not unique in the slasher canon for having pretensions to be more than the sum of its parts, it almost wholly succeeds where many others fail by utilising an odd chronology, excellent performances and more sophistication than typical slasher fare. The Slayer would certainly make an interesting companion to A Nightmare on Elm Street thematically-speaking with its notions of dream logic and the blurring of lines between dream states and reality. The Slayer is also layered with ambiguity that even after several viewings never really reaches a resolution, leaving the viewer to decide who it is committing the murders. There are even parallels to Robert Weine’s silent German classic Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari with the central protagonist, Kay, a potential somnambulist killer. Strange then, given its cerebral nature that The Slayer was placed on the UK’s notorious video nasty list in 1983, though only remained banned for 18 months. Overall, it’s something of an oddity in the slasher canon, preferring atmosphere over persistent shocks, but definitely one of the more intriguing films of the era.
(7) The Burning – 1981
For the raft massacre alone, The Burning‘s anointed slasher classic status is assured. When thinking about summer camp slashers, after the Friday the 13th series The Burning has to feature next on the list (and to some, it’s always number one). It ticks all the boxes: an iconic killer in Cropsy, likeable kids – Alfred aside, but we’ll cover that in a minute, the perfect setting, etc., it’s a franchise-worthy film that sadly never went beyond a single entry. It’s also somewhat unique in that it features a final boy in Alfred. Unfortunately, Alfred’s a little difficult to route for due to his voyeuristic, slightly creepy nature, which is a shame as it tempers the final showdown a tad. Nonetheless, The Burning is a giant of the sub-genre and one of the best of the standalone slasher films.
(6) Friday the 13th Part: The Final Chapter – 1984
For years I favoured Friday the 13th Part 2, and I’ll always retain an affection for Amy Steele’s final girl par excellence, Ginny Field (as mentioned above) but I can’t deny that overall The Final Chapter is the series reaching a level of perfection it never quite managed again. I’ve also previously expressed my adoration of A New Beginning, but still, there’s no getting away from the fact that Joseph Zito’s effort hits all the beats. Great kills, plenty of action, characters to actually care for, Crispin Glover’s dancing (which he initially did to AC/DC’s Back in Black, apparently), and a young Corey Feldman battling Jason and giving it his best Damien Thorn in the final freeze frame. It’s no surprise then that there was nowhere else to go with the story other than engaging in experimentation with the franchise; hence Roy, zombie Jason, Manhattan, space, etc. On a final note, the fourth instalment in the series eventually went on to become the fourth highest earner in the franchise after the reboot, Sean Cunningham’s original and the 3D gimmicky of Part 3. Not bad for ‘a piece of vile trash.’
(5) Graduation Day – 1981
Here’s a slasher wholly lacking in originality. It’s pretty much a by-the-numbers effort, and even the masked killer is a bit, meh. And yet, I’ve placed Graduation Day in my top 10. But why? Three reasons: Linnea Quigley, Felony’s Gangster Rock, and because it’s one of the first slashers I saw as a teen. Sometimes it’s all about the nostalgia not the worthiness of a film. It evokes a particular place in time, a feeling that you can’t quite put into words. Yes, it’s not as good a film – if I was to look at it critically – as some others lower down on the list, but it’s a perennial favourite of mine, and I won’t apologise for that. Besides, it tears along at a decent rate, features some fun kill scenes and doesn’t overstay its welcome. I would have included the fabulous Christopher George as one of the reasons I love Graduation Day, but let’s face it, he plays a pretty revolting character.
(4) My Bloody Valentine – 1981
An unfortunate victim of the MPAA following the murder of John Lennon (My Bloody Valentine was mid-edit when news arrived of the former Beatle’s assassination), George Mihalka’s slasher about a homicidal miner punishing anyone who dares celebrate Valentine’s Day received an alleged nine minutes of cuts in order to gain an R rating in the US. Since then only around three have been reinserted into the film and rumours of further footage still existing abide (depending upon who you believe). That aside, My Bloody Valentine is a brilliantly creepy entry – the scene in which Harry Warden looms towards the camera breaking lightbulbs above him with his pickaxe is a highlight – filmed and set in Canada and following the fates of twenty-somethings as opposed to the more traditional teens. It’s a strangely melancholy movie, not usually befitting the slasher genre, but this only adds to the plausibility of the premise. And that poster art (above) is sensational!
(3) A Nightmare on Elm Street – 1984
A Nightmare on Elm Street has been written about ad nauseum. So, rather than attempt to add something new, all that remains to say is that Wes Craven’s film perfectly rounded out the Golden Age with a terrifying premise – explored in the Slayer but fully realised here – a future icon in Freddy Krueger and of course one of the best examples of poster art ever (above). The idea that the killer manifested and took his victims while they were in a dream state was a singularly frightening proposition. Sleep became not a place of safety, but a place of fear as the children of Elm Street paid for the sins of their parents. As the series continued and was increasingly played for laughs, Freddy became less the shadowy figure of our nightmares and more a pop-culture figure, but back in 1984, he was still a threatening, violent and unmerciful monster. After Craven’s franchise debut, Freddy was never this scary again.
(2) The Prowler – 1981
Probably the most graphically and wincingly violent slasher in this list. It’s also a favourite because it features a strangely haunting, eerie atmosphere that sets it apart from most other slashers. As a demonstration of the special effects mastery of Tom Savini, it’s hard to look beyond The Prowler (although his work on The Burning is also superb) with the infamous bayonet scene a particular gut-churning highlight. It does suffer slightly from issues with pacing if you’re keen to move quickly from kill-to-kill, but this languid pace compliments the somewhat ethereal mood of the film. Definitely, one that improves with repeat viewings.
(1) Halloween – 1978
There’s little if anything to be said about this bonafide horror – and indeed cinema – classic that hasn’t been covered countless times already, suffice to say it’s a masterpiece of tension, story and technique rendered simply and with devastating effectiveness. Unlike one or two other slasher franchises, every film in the series that followed has attempted to capture the brilliance of the first, and every single one has failed (some more so than others). Halloween is the yardstick by which all subsequent slashers are measured.
* Despite my adoration of Gialli, all films selected here are American/Canadian made to represent slashers in their purest sense.