This weekend, after literal months of watching slashers prepping for this October’s Slasher Month event, I started thinking about each subsequent slasher as a game of Clue. To wit: How did each person get killed? What holiday or time of year killed them? And why did they get wiped out?
Francesco Mazzei’s 1972 giallo lent this piece its title: The Weapon, The Hour, The Motive. These are central to the giallo, the deadbeat dad of the slasher genre. Whereas most giallo are refined pieces of high fashion interbred with psychosexual madness and free jazz soundtracks, the slasher has no need for high couture or dashing yet doomed leads. But the killing? The killing is much the same.
My fascination on this subject comes from my continual reading of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, which is an essential guide to the tropes and story beats of scriptwriting. Nearly all horror can be placed into the “Monster In the House” category. Within this framework, the movie is always about a powerful creature intent on destroying the cast, an enclosed community into which the beast is let loose to apply his trade and a critical third element: one of the characters — or many — must sin against the villain to cause them to gain that intent. Alien is a great example, as the greed of the corporation — which flows down the line toward even the crew — is the reason why the Xenomorph gets on board the Sulaco.
I then discovered the beats of the original Halloween. The cousin of the “Monster In the House” is the idea of the “Serial Monster,” which is an individual who is a threat to the entire cast. Unlike many movies where the cast itself is the cause of the sin — the campers of Crystal Lake, the parents of Elm Street — the sin in this film would be that the staff of Smith’s Grove underestimated both Michael’s cunning and the veracity of Loomis. Notably, that same sin motivates him through the second film — which is really just the first part continued — and even The Shape’s return in part four, where the sin becomes the hospital crew again not thinking that Michael could be a threat. Hilariously, this is the very same sin that happens all over again in the 2018 reimagining, with the addition of a doctor whose sin is wanting to be just like Meyers.
As you can tell, I obsess over movies. Instead of pushing the Saves the Cat! construct on each and every slasher, I felt that it was even more intriguing — and perhaps fun for those that don’t want to learn every piece of screenwriting — to break down the slasher form into those three vital chapters. Basically, I feel that we can tear these movies apart and discover their component reasons for being, as well as why the murders within them had to happen in three simple categories:
- THE WHAT: The weapons used, or THE WEAPONS.
- THE WHEN: The date most significant to the murders, or THE HOURS
- THE REASONS: What drove someone to kill? What is their modus operandi? How is it unique, or THE MOTIVES. Location may also play a large part in this category, as well.
And it’s by no means the final word on the subject, but it’s definitely a start.
At their most basic, slasher killers rely on the most simple of weapons. Instead of the modern pistol, they favor edged cutlery such as machetes and long knives.
For example, let’s take a look at Jason Vorhees, probably the most iconic of all slashers.
While the first film doesn’t include Jason — SPOILER WARNING FOR A FORTY-YEAR-OLD MOVIE his mother is the killer in that one — the man who would become the face of slashers started things off with a simple ice pick to the brains of former final girl Alice at the start of Friday the 13th Part 2. For the first few films of the cycle, he was content with using his trademark machete and the occasional pitchfork or spear when he felt like ripping off Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood.
Yet by the end of the series, he was using weedwhackers, party favors, his own brute strength to tear people in half and slam sleeping bags filled with sorority sisters into scarlet oaks and finally, freezing a woman’s head in liquid nitroglycerine. Give the man a break. He was in deep space.
Jason didn’t specialize. But a killer that came a few years before him began a trend of having trademark weaponry.
If you’re going to be the star of a movie entitled The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you better be an expert at your craft. Enter one Thomas Brown Hewitt — if you’re following the remake that named him — who is better known as Leatherface.
While chainsaws would also show up in films like Motel Hell and the Evil Dead series, Leatherface would be the undisputed king of the chainsaw.
Of course, the only chainsaw movie that comes close to equaling the usage of the tool would be 1982’s Pieces, a film that somehow unites the giallo and the slasher with a tagline that promises, “It’s exactly what you think it is.” Where Tobe Hooper’s artistic vision crafted a film that’s much less explicitly gory than anyone remembers — that’s the true magic, that by suggestion the film is seen as a film awash in the red stuff when it’s anything but — Juan Piquer Simón crafted a bastard film that is pornographic in its excesses. It’s as if it’s a leering devil sitting on your shoulder, whispering “You kids wanna see something really violent?”
Despite holding vast powers over the Dream Dimension, Freddy Krueger is infamous for the weapon that he wears throughout every one of the A Nightmare On Elm Street films — a glove with razors on each finger that earned him the title of the Springwood Slasher.
Yet by the mid-point in the series, Freddy seems more devoted to using his near-limitless powers beyond the wall of sleep. I mean, if you had the ability to make giant hands crush people and turn teenagers into human roaches that crawl into Roach Motels®, wouldn’t you do the same? Was he just using the glove-like Guy Caballero used the wheelchair? For respect?
However, by the time Freddy finally got around to facing off with Jason, he went back to glove-based murder. Was he slowing down his game in the hopes of not making Jason look bad? Was it like the old days of pro wrestling when it was real, but people still had gentlemen’s agreements not to attack hurt body parts or damage good looking faces?
Similarly, Candyman has the ability to move in and out of even waking nightmares, but has that hook so handy that he just has to use it. After all, what’s the good of saying things like, “What’s blood for if not for shedding? With my hook for a hand, I’ll split you from your groin to your gullet.” if you’re not going to follow through on your threats?
By the time of The Toolbox Murders and Nail Gun Massacre, slashers were being named for the weapon of their killer’s choice. While some killers like The Prowler and the shears-wielding slasher in The Burning stuck to one weapon for the most part, other more inventive killers diversified.
Victor Crowley, for example, might tear your jaw the whole way backward just as easily as choose to deploy a gas-powered belt sander. The killer in The Mutilator favors all manner of bladed weaponry. Just look at the film’s tagline, “By sword. By pick. By axe. Bye bye.”
Some killers went the extra mile and crafted their own unique weaponry. They probably didn’t care that this would allow the police to track them better, but hey — logic has no place in a slasher movie. A great example is Slumber Party Massacre II, where The Driller Killer goes all in on the musical direction of the proceedings by crafting a guitar drill. Maybe he was influenced by Frank Zappa’s “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama.” Or perhaps what creativity he lacked in coming up with a sobriquet was made up for with this outlandish kill toy.
For just plain weird one-off weapons, here are a few of my faves:
- Black Christmas: A crystal unicorn statue
- Leprechaun: A pogo stick
- Deadly Friend: A basketball
- A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master: A pizza pie
- Halloween H2O: An ice skate
- Silent Night, Deadly Night: Deer antlers
- Silent Night, Deadly Night 2: An umbrella
- Halloween 2: A hot tub face boiling
- Intruder: A box crusher
- You’re Next: A blender
- Happy Birthday To Me: Shish-ka-bobs
While they aren’t slashers, there are also inventive weapons in Sleepwalkers (a corn cob to the back), Tenebre (this is a giallo, not a slasher, but it has insane kills and a final death by modern art), the wine rack in Waxwork and pretty much the entire Final Destination series.
If you’re looking for where the trend of slashers being set around a certain day of the year started, look no further than Halloween. Amazingly, the movie was originally going to be called The Babysitter Murders until producer Irwin Yablans suggested basing the story around a holiday. The rest is history.
While so many slashers take place on Halloween (Trick or Treats, Trick or Treat, Night of the Demons 2, 31, Clownhouse, Babysitter Massacre, The Collection, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, The Guest, Deadly Friend (which also encompasses Thanksgiving), Terrifier, all of the Halloween sequels to name a few), other holidays have been cause for stalking and killing.
Valentine’s Day: The most well-known slashers that celebrate the Festival of Saint Valentine — which in itself is a day that looks back at a martyr who was pretty much decimated like a victim in one of these films — would be 1981’s My Bloody Valentine. Remade in 2009, it tells the tale of a mining town whose romantic dance has been cursed ever since a series of murders. But these aren’t the only slashers that take place on the holiday. There’s also:
- Lover’s Lane
- Holidays: Which is off the table after this, as it features just about every single bank holiday in one film
- Hospital Massacre: Also known as Be My Valentine or Else…
- Happy Death Day
- Happy Death Day 2 U
April Fool’s Day: Of course, the movie April Fool’s Day would be the go-to film for April 1 slasher watching (or the 2008 remake). But it’s not the only one! There’s also:
Father’s Day: While only The Stepfather 3 takes place on this day that celebrates fatherhood, paternal bonds and the influence of fathers in society, you could watch either the original, the sequel or the remake. There’s also the Astron-6 movie Father’s Day, which features a man seeking to stop the serial murderer known as the Father’s Day Killer. And the Eli Roth remake of Death Game, 2015’s Knock Knock, also takes place on dad’s big day.
PS — We know that Creepshow has an entire segment called “Father’s Day,” but this is all about slashers, dear reader!
Thanksgiving: We did an entire list full of gobblerific horror films, but if you don’t feel like clicking that link, they include:
- Blood Freak
- ThanksKilling 3 (There is no ThanksKilling 2)
- Blood Rage
- Home Sweet Home — where Jake “Body By Jake” Steinfeld is the killer!
- The remake of Boogeyman
- Thanksgiving — which is a cheat, as it’s a fake trailer Eli Roth made for the Grindhouse films that he keeps threatening to actually make
Also — Blood Harvest is all about a girl that comes home from college to find her parents gone and her friends getting killed. While it’s never explicitly stated that it’s Thanksgiving, why else would she be home from college? Also — I just want more people to watch this insane movie, which features an astounding non-performance from Tiny Tim.
Mother’s Day: Not to be obvious, but Mother’s Day and its 2010 remake are the easiest ones to watch on mom’s big day. That’s all I can think of, although I think a tender script about a developmentally challenged boy and his hysterical mother would make a lot of money and perhaps even lead to several sequels. Don’t ask why — I just have a feeling.
New Year’s Eve (and Day): Again, go with the obvious: New Year’s Evil is a late in the game slasher that will start your next 365 days off on the right — or wrong — foot. Then there’s 1933’s Mystery In the Wax Museum, which takes place over the year change-over and inspired plenty of waxy slashers like House of Wax and The Wax Mask.
But there are plenty more! How can we forget Jamie Lee Curtis’ third slasher film Terror Train, which starts at an ill-fated December 31st party and then takes us on a David Copperfield-riding train through the winter wonderland between 1980 and 1981? There’s also…
- 2008’s The Children
- Bloody New Year
Saint Patrick’s Day: Despite all of the films starring a leprechaun, only the second Leprechaun films specifically takes place on this holiday (thanks for the heads up to Paul Andolina). But they aren’t the only movies willing to kiss the blarney stone. There’s also:
- Maniac Cop
- Red Clover
Easter: While this holiday celebrates the death and rebirth of Jesus Christ, its traditional elements — egg hunting and the Easter Bunny — are celebrated in the secular world too.
1983’s The Being was the first Easter-timed slasher I could think of, which befits its status as a truly strange movie. There’s also the 1999 serial killer movie Resurrection, which implicitly relies on the story of Christ to present a killer trying to make a new body for the Son of Man.
As of late, numerous films have infused the slasher spirit into the time of candy, bunnies and Holy Days. They are:
- Angel of Death
- Beaster Day: Here Comes Peter Cottonhell
- Easter Bunny Bloodbath
- Easter Bunny, Kill! Kill!
- Easter Casket
- Easter Sunday
- The Night Before Easter
- On the Third Day
- Serial Rabbit
- Serial Rabbit 3: Splitting Hares (Obviously following the ThanksKilling naming convention of skipping the sequel)
Christmas: Take a seat. Our Letterboxd Christmas list is awash in blood and gore. And every year, it seems like more slasher Santas appear. Certainly, we’ll miss something here, but if you have to watch any of these, our top recommendations would be:
- Black Christmas: A true classic of the slasher genre that predates even Halloween, this one is worth watching all year long. You can also check out the remake, which, of course, is getting remade again.
- Christmas Evil: You owe it to yourself to watch this film every holiday season, if only to watch John Waters’ favorite Christmas movie.
- Silent Night, Deadly Night: Santa takes on nuns in the only film of this series worth taking seriously.
- Sint: The true story of Santa is that he’s a demon named Sinterklaas who must return and kill every so many holidays.
- 3615 code Père Noël: A bizarre Home Alone before that movie was even made, where a French child and his grandfather face off with a knife-wielding maniac.
You can also watch:
- All Through the House
- Better Watch Out
- Deadly Little Christmas
- Don’t Open Till Christmas
- The Gingerdead Man
- Gingerdead Man 2: Passion of the Crust
- Gingerdead Man 3: Saturday Night Cleaver
- Gingerdead Man vs. Evil Bong
- Jack Frost
- Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Mutant Killer Snowman
- Last Stop on the Night Train
- Santa’s Slay
- Silent Night, Bloody Night
- The other four Silent Night, Deadly Night films and the remake Silent Night
- To All a Goodnight: Directed by Last House on the Left star David Hess!
Honestly, I’ve probably missed a hundred Santa-based slashers that people are going to give me grief about. Feel free to do that in the comments below. And for even more movies ready to upset the entire family on this blessed night, may we recommend our 10 Movies That Ruin Christmas list?
The granddaddy of all movies where birthdays are a reason for murder? Friday the 13th. Just remember Pamela Vorhees’ great line: “You see, Jason was my son, and today is his birthday.” In case you wondered, Jason’s actual birthday is June 13, 1946.
There’s also a birthday element to the magically bonkers slasher Madhouse, AKA There Was a Little Girl that echoes plenty of the ending of the aforementioned Canuxploitation film Happy Birthday To Me. However, the surprise birthday party at the end of this film isn’t one that you’d ever want to attend.
- American Gothic: Fanny’s birthday party is a big part of this slice of homespun stalk and slash.
- The Banana Splits Movie: A birthday party gone wrong, a TV show canceled and beloved animal characters gone murderously viral.
- Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker: Billy’s seventeenth birthday is the catalyst for his aunt’s growing mania and increased willingness to kill.
- Child’s Play: Chucky is was, after all, a birthday gift for Alex.
- Drive-Thru: The demonic mascot of Hella-Burger, Horny the Clown, becomes real and hacks his way through customers. You know those people that throw fast food birthday parties for their kids? Here’s where they pay.
- Fear No Evil: On the 18th birthday of this film’s antagonist, his evil powers finally arrive, paralyzing his mother and turning his father into a drunk.
- Leprechaun 2: This one is all about the Leprechaun’s 1000th birthday.
- The Mutilator: A birthday gift — cleaning dad’s guns — goes wrong, leading to the creation of the slasher in this film.
- My Soul to Take: A serial killer comes home and stalks the seven kids who were born on the day that he died.
- My Super Psycho Sweet 16: MTV made an entire series of these movies.
- Red Velvet: A killer attends a birthday party.
- Spookies: While not really a slasher, I honestly have no idea what this movie is. That’s probably why I love it so much. It also has a birthday party that goes absolutely nowhere, which means I had to include it on this list.
- Stitches: A clown is killed at a birthday party and returns for revenge.
- Sweet Sixteen: As Melissa Morgan’s sixteenth birthday comes closer, so does more death for everyone around her.
Of course, if we were discussing birthday parties in horror films, we’d have to get into the strange annual celebrations in The Visitor, Amityville II: The Possession and — perhaps the worst birthday party of all — The Omen.
And for a bit of trivia, the top secret codename title for Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood was Birthday Bash.
Important Personal Anniversaries: As Large Marge would say in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, “On this very night, ten years ago, along this same stretch of road in a dense fog just like this…”
Plenty of slashers are based on anniversaries and things coming back to haunt people. The best example that I can think of is The Prowler, a movie whose titular killer waits for the anniversary of when a Dear John letter sent a WW II soldier into a pitchfork stabbing meltdown. This is different than just a holiday — this is a set day that has vast personal meaning to that person.
Yet at their heart, aren’t most slashers about a moment in time and in a certain place that the killer must protect or go back to? Why does the Shape come home on Halloween night? Why does Jason prowl the woods year after year? Why does a Prom Night always end with blood, murder and sometimes, fire (to say nothing of school-based slashers like Horror High, Return to Horror High, Graduation Day, Detention, The Loved Ones, Student Bodies, Cutting Class, Tragedy Girls…I could go on and probably will).
What are the raison d’être for these masked killing machines, these scarred men and women that can only be sated by wiping out everyone in their path? There are several reasons, reasons which may only make sense to the killers themselves.
I’ve taken the 538 slasher films — so far, we’re adding more every day — that we’ve covered so far and broken them down to some very simple motives, classified by the killer’s name. Certainly, we can’t cover them all here, but this shortlist will give you a flavor of how we can break down the motivations behind the malice.
Michael Meyers (RETURNING TO HOME, MENTAL ISSUES, POSSESSION, MURDERS BASED AROUND A CALENDAR DATE): The Shape — the man with the darkest eyes — is either a normal killer (the first movie), an unstoppable force of nature (almost all the others) or a pawn in the schemes of a cult of powerful people (the infinitely strange and somewhat fascinating sixth installment). Alternatively, he’s the guy who Buster Rhymes spin kicked, but we shall never discuss that in these parts again.
As Michael evolves across the myriad of movies and retcons in his screen career, the one thing that holds true is that he was once a normal six-year-old who was compelled to kill his teenage sister Judith. After more than a decade in Smith’s Grove Sanitarium — and despite the best efforts of Dr. Sam Loomis — he would return to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois to try to repeat that crime with his sister. Nevermind that this wasn’t even an idea when the first film was made. That’s what makes the original so frightening — all of these weapons, hours and motives are pointless. The Shape exists merely to destroy for no reason. That’s perhaps the most frightening thing of all.
Jason Vorhees (REVENGE, PROTECTING HIS TERRITORY): While Jason’s killing spree begins as a need for revenge — both for the death of his mother and his own negligent drowning death — by the last films in the cycle, Jason is mainly a territorial slasher — much like killers in Just Before Dawn and Madman. Stay off his lawn, kids!
That said — some of Jason’s idea of protecting his land falls into killing anyone who has sex in his woods or takes any substances, whether that’s drinking or drugs, within them. You could say that this endorses a puritanical worldview, but my theory has always been that Mr. Vorhees lives in a state of suspended pre-puberty, realizing that he’ll never have a true sexual awakening or get to experience the life that these partying campers are enjoying, so he must snuff it out.
Freddy Krueger (REVENGE, SHOW OFF, I JUST LOVE TO KILL KIDS): Freddy’s original hack and slash through the Dream World began to gain revenge on the children of the parents who burned him alive for being the Springwood Slasher, ie the sin that creates this serial monster that menaces the casts of numerous films. Again, by the time the movies grew bigger and wider in scope, it seemed as if Freddy’s primary need was to gain the approval of the audience, tossing Roger Moore-like one-liners and using his dream abilities to cause all manner of increasingly ridiculous death sequences.
Leatherface (SURVIVAL, CONFUSION): Leatherface’s way of life is changing, as parts of Texas move away from the rural South and become metropolitan cities. Whereas once the meat was necessary for sustenance and even commerce — see also Farmer Vincent in Motel Hell — now this killer is slowly becoming a stranger in a strange land. Also, he’s continually at odds with his identity, using the various skin masks that he creates to show his mood to the uncaring world.
These are some of the more well-known killers in slasher films. But what if we go a little deeper and discover a character that didn’t appear in numerous films? What if they were in a proto-slasher, crafted before the genre had locked itself into rigid conventions?
Billy in Black Christmas (HATRED OF WOMEN, CHAOS): Whereas I’ve played off the misogyny inherent in slashers before, Billy’s killing is totally focused on killing women. The original remake — what a term! — may have shown us that his mother was the reason behind all of this. But the first film doesn’t have time for the why, all Billy is about is sowing chaos, from making sorority sisters disappear and sending worried fathers into the cold Canadian night to obscene phone calls that can no longer just be laughed off.
REVENGE is often the biggest motivator for a slasher villain. Mall developers destroy Eric’s home and think they kill him, but he rises from the ashes and wipes them all out in Phantom of the Mall: Eric’s Revenge. In Uncle Sam — much like Bill Lustig’s Maniac Cop films — a servant of the established order that may have taken things too far is destroyed by the very society that he has served for so long, so he must rise from his grave — nay, break right out of the coffin in the cases of Master Sergeant Sam Harper and Officer Matthew Cordell.
I WANT YOU BACK is another intriguing slasher reason to be. For example, in the sadly neglected Bad Dreams, Harris simply wants Cynthia to have burned along with the rest of the believers in the Unity Fields cult. If he has to wipe out everyone close to her to make that happen, so be it.
There’s also the BUT I HELPED YOU trope. That’s where a hapless reject has turned to the dark side and suddenly realizes that everything has spun out of control. The best example I can think of is Sammi Curr in Trick or Treat, who returns from the dead thanks to backmasking and the occult, proving every televangelist correct. Curr helps the hero, Ragman, in his quest to defeat the bullies and get the girl, but our protagonist’s sin that releases the monster is that he relied on something much more sinister and smarter than himself to do so. For another example, Christine allows Arnie Cunningham to stand up to the nerds and win over his dream girl, Leigh. But it costs him everything to do so. It’s very similar to a pact with the devil.
I’m continually developing new slasher motives, from I HAD A MESSED UP CHILDHOOD which informs Pieces to EVERYTHING YOU KNEW WAS A LIE which translates to the fact that Santa Claus could be a killing machine, as shown to us in movies like Santa’s Slay and Sint.
There’s also the motives that are in itself necessary of a spoiler warning: THE BIG BAD FAMILY SECRET and I’M NOT WHO YOU THINK I AM.
Both of these motives directly unite the slasher with their Italian cousin, the giallo. The endings of giallo like Deep Red and The Bloodstained Shadow are the result of a long-withheld or forgotten family secret. Slashers that follow that formula include Happy Birthday to Me and Madhouse and even the original Prom Night.
When it comes to mistaken identity — including gender identity — look no further than Sleepaway Camp. It’s not a far jump from the mistaken theory of who the killer is at the open of The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, where surely the killer must be a man, to a movie where surely the killer can’t be a sweet and innocent girl — who perhaps may not even be a girl at all.
I’m constantly coming up with new names for these conventions and discovering that they tie together numerous genre films. For example, I HAVE HAD ENOUGH OF THIS covers movies as diverse as Carrie, Fade to Black, Evilspeak and The Toxic Avenger. They invite us to empathize with their protagonists and even become complicit in their crimes as they rise up and become monsters. This is different than the REVENGE subgenre, as we actually see the sins of the true bad guys being visited upon the hero and hope that they fight back.
A close relative of this would be YOU KIDS HAVE IT COMING. In so many slashers, this is the Scooby-Doo like reason why the killer is who they are. Again, this is a reason that spoils a movie like Nightmare Beach, as well as the original Friday the 13th.
Thanks for making it through all nearly 5,000 words of this. I find this exercise endlessly fascinating and I hope you do too. If you have some weapons, hours and motives I haven’t mentioned, send them my way in the style of Clue! I’m excited to see if folks play along, so here’s an example: