ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Begley is the host of Wake Up Heavy: Recollections of Horror which, according to his daughter, is The World’s Greatest Horror Movie Podcast. (He may have told her to say that.) Guests have included Mike White from The Projection Booth Podcast, poet Ronald Dzerigian, Simon Fitzjohn, Jerry Smith, and the one and only Sam Panico (Here’s the episode and the bonus content if you’re interested in listening.)
I have made it clear on my show Wake Up Heavy that Slashers were not my “thing” when I was younger. I gravitated more toward possession (The Evil Dead) and cult (Rosemary’s Baby) films and the weird and surreal like Tourist Trap* and Phantasm. I don’t think I saw any of the Friday the 13th films until 1985 when I watched The Final Chapter on VHS at a sleepover. As a teenager my favorite of the first three Halloween films was Halloween III: The Season of the Witch, which is probably the most telling thing I can say about my relationship with the sub-genre. When I saw the original A Nightmare on Elm Street it was the surreal dream imagery, not Freddy Kreuger, that appealed to me. I avoided, or wasn’t interested in, the massive glut of Slashers (and their sequels) from the “Golden Age” but in the last five or six years I have been trying to fill in this personal horror blind spot.
That’s why I had to chuckle to myself when Sam asked if I would do a Top Ten Slasher Films list for his site. Because of my history, I told him, it’ll be a strange list. And it won’t be a THESE ARE THE BEST SLASHER films list. This is simply MY Top Ten based on my weird predilections.
I found it helpful to set some boundaries for myself for fear of falling down a very deep slasher rabbit hole. I avoided gialli, and other foreign copy-cats, as well as most of the proto-slashers (Peeping Tom, Psycho, Bay of Blood, TCSM, et al). I found this loose guideline from Paste Magazine helpful (Slasher villains are human, Slasher films have a body count, and Home Invasion films are not Slashers), and, except for a few instances, I followed these boundaries and guidelines.
Without further ado here’s My Top Ten Slasher Films List…
10. Pieces (1982): Anything that compared itself to TCSM was NOT in my wheelhouse. Hell, I didn’t watch Hooper’s classic until I was in my late 20s! And here I am already abandoning one of my own guidelines with the first movie, but hey, it’s supposed to take place in Boston, so it gets a pass. These are just a few of the amazing things Pieces features: one of the best movie taglines, horror mainstays Christopher and Linda Day George, a random Kung Fu attack, a pig carcass substituting for a showering co-ed, and a surprise ending to rival that of Sleepaway Camp’s.
9. Happy Birthday to Me (1981): A lot of Slasher fans don’t like this one, but I dig it. Directed by J. Lee Thompson (most known, to me at least, for his sleazy flicks with Charles Bronson) and starring Glen Ford, Susan Acker, and Melissa Sue Anderson this one is kind of a mess. The ending was changed at the last minute and makes no sense, but for me that’s part of the charm. The set-piece kills are fun, there’s an SFX obsessed character, and it’s Canadian! A lot of the characters are assholes though, which keeps it further down this list.
8. The Burning (1981): One of a BAJILLION campground Slashers from the early ‘80s The Burning is most famous for ONE scene that features some stellar Savini wet works. What stands out for me is the great cast: Jason Alexander (with HAIR), Fisher Stevens, Brian Backer, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Holly Hunter. It’s also one of the few Summer Camp films that shows the counselors and kids actually doing Summer Camp stuff! Bonus points for offing the littlest of campers in one of its more disturbing scenes.
7. Don’t Go in the House (1979): Gotta admit, this one is pretty ugly. The violence towards women, a staple of the sub-genre overall, is particularly nasty here. In my initial viewing notes for this I described it as a cross between Psycho (mommy issues) and Taxi Driver (psychologically damaged anti-hero) with Dan Grimaldi’s offbeat performance front-and-center. It might be a stretch to call this one a Slasher, but it does hit the guidelines. Not for the easily offended.
6. My Bloody Valentine (1981): Another Canadian joint (you can really hear the accents in this one) and the first Holiday Horror (still waiting for a Flag Day Slasher) on my list. We’ve got all the staples of an ‘80s Slasher—a masked killer, decent amounts of gore, misdirection, humor—but instead of teenage babysitters or camp counselors we’ve got 20-something coal miners, and I like that divergence from the norm. I also enjoy the sequel if for Tom Atkins alone.
5. Sleepaway Camp (1983): What could I possibly say about this one that hasn’t been said a hundred times before? It’s mean-spirited, progressive yet transgressive and a tad perverted, the characters are foul-mouthed and ooze New Jersey charm, and it has the most bat-shit insane twist ending ever. Plus, a character has a black-tape-mustache in one scene. ‘Nuff said.
4. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976): I did a WDIRT episode on this one, which is a series for my podcast based on movies I have seen as an adult and wondered Why Didn’t I Rent This as a youngster. Alice is one of the exceptions to my proto-slasher (and possibly the giallo) rule, but it’s such an amazing little oddball film I had to include it. It’s staunchly anti-Catholic (which got it condemned by the Catholic church), stars an itty-bitty Brooke Shields, and was directed by one-time porno director Alfred Sole. The mask the killer(s) wear in this one will give you nightmares.
3. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984): I consider this my introduction to Slashers and rank it as my absolute favorite of the F13 franchise. It’s meta without the obnoxious wink-winking at the audience, has some emotional depth (Rob’s search for his sister), a great cast, Crispin Glover ripping up the dance floor, some of the best effects of the series, my favorite Jason, likeable characters, and boobies! What more could you ask for?
1. Black Christmas (1974): I did an episode on Bob Clark’s other Christmas classic even though I’d never seen it as a kid. It has quickly become one of my favorite horror films in general, and my number one favorite Holiday Horror ever. Heck, one of the last times I watched it it gave this old man a nightmare! Black Christmas has earned the number one position over Halloween because, a) I think Halloween owes a lot to it, and b) BC has just a bit more going on. A bit more emotion, a bit more depth, better acting, more well-rounded characters, and a touch of the strange (Billy and those phone calls are creepy as all get out). Some people call BC a proto-slasher, but I like to think of it as the original Slasher. Also, it’s another Canadian classic!
And here are a few Honorable Mentions: Alone in the Dark (slides too far into home invasion on my scale), Tourist Trap, F13: 1-3, Madman, Maniac (1980), The Town That Dreaded Sundown, The Prowler, Madhouse, Christmas Evil (which I like more than any of the Silent Night, Deadly Night movies) and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
*Tourist Trap is one of my favorite horror films, but I do not consider it a slasher per se. However, on S1E2 of Wake Up Heavy I did refer to it as a pseudo-slasher. It shares some similarities with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre which also feels different than most Slashers. More like a reverse home invasion scenario? But that may be splitting hairs. They certainly fit the guidelines I have referred to.
So there you have a novice Slasher fan’s Top Ten Slasher list. When Sam does a cult or folk-horror Top Ten I’ll be much better equipped for that!