And lo it came to pass, that the slasher did migrate to the small screen. Well, what we used to call the small screen. But the home viewing experience isn’t what it was in 1988. Nowadays, the image-quality and sound are practically theater, right? But that’s not the reason for the move, I don’t think. My first suspicion as to why the slasher would find a home in our living rooms, it’s that everybody keeps saying we’re in a golden age of television. So, the slasher, needing eyes as it does, goes to where those eyes already are. Except that’s too easy an explanation. Could it be that the networks and their prudishness aren’t controlling the game anymore? The Walking Dead has made gore a family-friendly experience, and Hannibal’s seeded some real darkness all through the nightly schedule, to say nothing of all the Dexters out there on the harder cable. But I don’t quite accept that as the prime reason the slasher’s gone tv. Relaxed standards might be a part of it, but not the main part. What I really think it might be, it’s just that the nature of the slasher has always been ready-made for television adaptation—for serial viewing. The beats of the slasher are pretty much “body/body/body/body/body . . . reveal-then-twist,” right? With a lot of suspense sequences stringing it all together. Lots of stalking, lots of slasher-cam, lots of red herrings, and maybe an ill-advised party or three, to get everyone in the same room, mix things up all over again. The slasher’s a lot like an episode of Columbo, just, with an axe and a higher bodycount.
That’s a pretty good pitch for a season of tv, isn’t it? Body/body/reveal-twist? Every episode, another surprising person is dispatched in grand fashion, and everybody suspects everybody, and then in the season finale, the mask(s) come off, the final battle is waged, and order is restored . . . or is it? Depends on the numbers—depends on if a second season’s been bought or not. What we always want with the slasher, it’s for order to be restored temporarily. Just because this masked slasher, she or he (or them) needs time to recoup, heal, scheme, whatever. Now there’s not just the initial prank to get justice for (in the disproportionate justice slashers subscribe to: not an eye for an eye, but a graduating class for an eye), there’s also the ignominy of this latest shaming as well.
And so things snowball, wonderfully, bloodily, screeching higher and higher until we realize that it’s us screaming.
Ever since about Leslie Vernon, I’ve been waiting for another slasher boom to happen, like what followed Scream in the late nineties: slashers fighting tooth and chainsaw at the box office for tickets, each trying to out-escalate the last, having to innovate faster and faster and with less and less foresight, until something magical and perfect happens and we get another Freddy Krueger. Until we get another lumbering mama’s boy filching a hockey mask up from an effects kit. And there’s been some amazing stuff at the cineplex these last few years, don’t get me wrong. Cabin in the Woods, You’re Next, It Follows, Unfriended, all wonderful variations/ extensions/ interrogations/ distillations of the slasher. Scream even came back for a fourth installment, right? And the VOD market’s been absolutely bursting with slasher fare, from Madison County to Some Kind of Hate. Lifetime TV even got involved, with a serious contribution to the genre, Kristy, and let’s not forget basic quality slasher fare like the Cold Prey imports, and good old franchise fun like Saw and Final Destination, and torture-porn’s even insinuated its jagged DNA into the slasher.
It’s been a good time to be a slasher fan, I’m saying. If you look, you find. But, all the same, it’s never felt quite golden-agey, has it? Not like that wonderful glut of slashers we got after Halloween and Friday the 13th (which wound down around 86, 88, I’d say, with Popcorn maybe the very-very tail-end of all that—not the thing that actually ended it, though. That honor goes to Silence of the Lambs, which stole our slasher conventions and ported them out, made them legit). And, what I could never figure out was why? Why wasn’t another boom starting? Was the audience not ready to believe in closed cycles of justice, which are pretty much the backbone of the slasher? Was the slasher too antique and conservative and ‘safe’ and Scooby-Doo-ey for this world of terrorism and school shootings? Had the slasher become a parody of itself? Was it so encumbered with tropes that not even Tucker & Dale could cut down to the beating heart?
What I would never in a hundred years have suspected was going to happen—what I’m still right now surprised by—was that that slasher boom would happen in my living room. In my iTunes account. As for the why of that . . . I guess it could very well be that the studio system for the moment, it’s rigged itself such that only pre-existing intellectual property gets the green light, makes it to distribution, shows up on the marquee. You can remake Halloween and Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street, but you can’t try to make one from scratch anymore. Even Cabin the the Woods—arguably the most game-changing of what we’ve had, the last few years—it passed through the theater fairly quickly, seemed to be there more for the die-hard fans than for the uninitiated. The latest critical darling, It Follows, as wonderful as it was, it was still here and gone, pretty much. It definitely populated the dead space behind us, but it doesn’t seem to have incited a whole flock of clones to stand up from behind cabin #6 , either. And we desperately need those clones. Every Final Destination needs a Soul Survivor (or is it that every Sole Survivor needs a Final Destination?). Without a sea of imitators to carve through, rise above, how can any single slasher distinguish itself anymore? To say it from another part of the room: when the slasher only has to distinguish itself from other horror fare, then it doesn’t have to push its own form. It doesn’t have to tippy-toe, come up with a kill or a killer we’d never dreamed of. But, when every third movie’s tippy-toe’ing, then, then we can have some fun. Think of it like those Overlook elevator doors opening, to paint the town red. That’s an elevator slasher fans will line up to ride, all the way to the top.
Except that of course society’s gatekeepers always insist that that elevator, it’s actually going down. That fascination with the slasher is emblematic (‘redolent’) of this, that, whatever. But remember, these are the same gatekeepers who decry D&D and KISS. And remember too that Dee Snyder already Mr. Smith’d his way to Washington, to fight for us all. Yes, Rogert Ebert was smart, and, yes, he couldn’t say enough bad things about Friday the 13th‘s ilk, or, as he called them (yes?), “gimp movies.” But it wasn’t for him, was it? It’s always easy to call names from across the fence. And the world, man, it’s just lined with fences.
Still, I worry about these bad characterizations, but that’s just because I’m overprotective, both of the form and of the audience. I care too much, I defend even when the slasher’s wrong, I come up with grand theories that put the slasher up on a pedestal, such that we’re all living in its shadow. I believe in the structure and the nuance and the excess of the slasher above all else, and often at the cost of all else. I know. And I’ll keep on keeping on, too. Also? And kind of wonderfully? I’ve maybe been setting up my defenses at the the wrong screen all along. Instead of standing in line down at my stripmall’s box office, I should have just been finally buying cable, so I could cue up the real revolution, happening just opposite my couch.
The slasher, man, it was born for serialization. On television, the slasher isn’t just with us for an hour and a half, but for a whole season. And what tv brings, what television allows, it’s what’s poison at the box office: a bunch of superunknowns. Whereas studios need a legit star to pull wallets to the theater, television skates by so much better without that imbalance. Scream aside, picking the final girl in a slasher generally doesn’t require even watching the slasher. You just tally up who’s bringing the star power. Whoever that is, that celebrity cachet, it brings with it unkillability. And that’s a suspense killer right there. On the small screen, though, you’ve got all this untried talent, these unproven acting chops, these new and very killable faces. The final girl could be anybody, and so could the killer. And that’s just the way we like it. Remember in the eighties, when slashers were a dime a dozen, and all these actors fresh off the bus were getting hauled out to the woods for the effects crew to slather in blood? Those unwitting campers, they were anonymous enough to have been us. Sure, they’d grow up into the Kevin Bacons of the world, into the George Clooneys and Tom Hankses and Jason Alexanders and Jamie Lee Curtises and Daryl Hannahs. But they weren’t then. And, on the slashers happening right now in our television sets, there’s no Clooneys, there’s no George Costanzas. As far as we know. But if they scream right, if they die right, who knows.
However, if these tv slashers didn’t know their business, their genre, then there wouldn’t even be any reason to talk about them, of course. As it turns out, though, this current crop of tv slashers, they’re pretty amazing, and amazingly informed. 1980 would be proud. What’s especially cool with them is that they’re not just striking a single note. They’re all over the board. They’re popping up at every window. For years and years, the slasher you got on tv was a single-episode spoof. And there was some good stuff, don’t get me wrong (Psych‘s “Tuesday the 17th,” anybody?). But still, it was just an hour’s worth—and that’s with commercials. Right now, though, right now we’re getting whole seasons of slasher happiness. Only way I could grin wider was if I’d caught a machete to the mouth. And maybe I have.
Here’s my thoughts on what we’ve got so far:
This is where it starts, right? The slasher’s first stab at going legit, going PG-13, going small-screen. The grandfather of the current crop. And, for my money? About as good as the serial slasher gets. I’ve watched through this limited series twice now, and will be watching again. It’s just such a solid set-up: a wedding on a remote island, a group of friends gathering for that wedding, and somebody picking them off one by one. The slasher works best when you can keep it simple. It doesn’t get any more simple than this. And of course there’s a storm moving in, to isolate. And of course there’s layers of soap-opera intrigue complicating everything (this is a series, after all, and all series inhere the soap opera). What Harper’s Island gifts the tv slashers we’re enjoying now, though, it’s what it ported ahead from a lot of the golden age slashers: the proposition that there was this bad killer X years ago—who was dealt with, who’s gone, right? Wrong. A generation later, the killings are starting up again. It’s a good model, as it allows a lot of campfire-taley exposition, and it lets the audience kind of relax into nostalgia: ah, the killers we know and love from yesteryear, look, whence do they return? For whom does the axe fall? It falls for you, friend. And you and you and you also.
After MTV’s Teen Wolf caught on, the masterplotters there must have kind of cast around, asked what else could they mine and repackage? So was born Scream—without Wes Craven, and, really, not in that franchise at all. You can’t copyright a title, after all, and the mask is just different enough. But who cares about all that. What matters here? It’s the over-the-top kills. It’s the simple, necessary fact that we cannot figure out who’s doing all these killings. Seriously. I’m pretty intimate with all the ins and outs of identifying who’s got their fingers wrapped around the handle of the machete for this go-round, but, here, I only got halfway to the real solution. And, no worries, Scream doesn’t pull a cheat-y fun reveal like Happy Birthday to Me or April Fool’s. But, what really works with this tv slasher, it’s the dynamics at the high school. All the stock characters coming alive at last, as they never had time to with a feature-length production. Across a whole season, though, man. You get to know them. And you hurt when they catch a blade to the face. And the stalking sequences here—really? Watch the first ten or fifteen minutes of this series, with that girl and the pool, and all the blood. If that doesn’t hook you, then maybe this isn’t the slasher for you. Note too that, where Harper’s Island did use cell phones—horror has to acknowledge them, if only to dismiss them—MTV’s Scream uses social media and cyberbullying and that whole suite of possibilities, but never in a didactic way. Always and only to jack up the tension. Slashers aren’t into those kind of messages. The kind of message the slasher believes in? It’s the “I’m in the house with you”-kind. Scream knows this very well.
This is the tv slasher that had Wes Craven kind of attached. And the creative forces behind American Horror Story. And the star-power of Jamie Lee Curtis, bringing not just Halloween to the proceedings, but some Psycho lineage as well. And, where the 1996 Scream and then Cabin in the Woods brought a certain . . . call it either genre awareness or genre fatigue to the slasher—or, brought it to the fore, anyway—Scream Queens, it parades that right through the middle of every single scene, and then throws confetti and blows a trumpet over it, in case you might have missed it. What’s safe to say? If you like the amusement-park ride feel of AHS, where there’s always something exploding up into your face to make you scream, then Scream Queens is for you. I don’t mean to go mealy-mouthed, though: for the first four episodes, Scream Queens was decidedly not for me. I was arguing that horror needs a baseline of ‘real’ in order for us to recognize the spike of a horror intrusion. I had all kinds of arguments, really, trying to explain away my resistance. But then episode five came. That’s where Boone ‘comes back’ as a ghost, and explains to Chad the rules of the ghostworld, and Chad, impossible-perfect-wonderful Chad, he digests this for a moment, then nods with it, and the story moves on. After that, I was sold on every stray eyebrow that show lifted my way. I was hanging on every word, I was thrilling with every in-joke, every golden age reference. Seriously, Scream Queens is a new kind of fun. Is it horror? I’m not sure. And I’m not sure, finally, if I really care. And, if you find you can’t swallow the bombastic delivery, then at least cue up the little mini-movies at the front of most of the episodes. These little self-contained non-stories that, were I paying better attention early on, completely set the mood. You’ll scream with Scream Queens, yes. And you’ll laugh, and you’ll feel terrible for laughing, and then you’ll probably laugh some more.
Where Scream Queens brought Jamie Lee Curtis forward to kind of establish some slasher cred, Chiller’s Slasher pulls Brandon Jay McLaren in, for some Harper’s Island linkage. And it works. And, that opening sequence, with the executioner mask? If anybody argues with you that the real slasher writers are saving their good stuff for the big screen, then show them this. Really, it doesn’t get any better than this trick ‘r treat door-answer not just going bad, but getting worse and worse. And life in this small town, man, it’s cheap, just like slasher fans like it. Buit, the set-up: years ago there was this terrible killing, all forgotten now. Except now an original victim is moving back to town to make a go of it. Surely the killings won’t start again, right? RIGHT? What sets Slasher apart from the rest of these, though, it’s the age-group. Traditionally, the slasher targets the teen-set, even when we stretch ‘teen’ to cover what we now call New Adults. Happy campers soon to have their adjective stripped away, right? Along with their skin. That’s the basic formula. Not this time. This time there’s homeowners, there’s job-holders, there’s married people. Is the slasher growing up right before our eyes? I mean, it’s done it before, with Fatal Attraction, with Lakeview Terrace. But note the mask here. Note the blades. Note the stalking. I’m not worried that the slasher’s going to start taking itself too seriously, no. I’m not worried at all, actually. Slasher is taking the slasher into slightly unfamiliar territory, where it’s going to have to feel its way through—feel its way through with something sharp and gleaming. Slasher is the slasher innovating, trying on new masks. Slasher is proof that the slasher is alive and well. No matter how hard you knock it down, it’s getting right back up again, and it could be crawling out your television set, too.
We can only hope. Or, maybe that hope’s already coming true. There’s word that Halloween‘s headed for television, isn’t there? Freddy and Jason have already been there—not really as themselves, but in name, anyway. But never Michael. And, the second season of Scream Queens is already cast, and MTV’s Scream is here shortly, and who knows, maybe Cassie Hack’ll even find her way into our living rooms for some bloody fare. Coming from comic books, her bloody saga’s already serial’d up into issues and arcs—episodes and seasons. And, who knows, this might even get to be real:
With what I would call the surprise success of all these slashers on the small screen, there’s got to be other studios and stations and creators getting dollar bills in their eyes, right? We always want to say it’s art that drives the slasher, that it’s paying back into a genre that’s given you so much, but, at the most basic, fundamental level, it’s about money. And the simple fact is that the slasher looks to be becoming lucrative again. And that’s good news for the audience. Our money’s going to go somewhere, I mean. It might as well be into this current cycle of slashers. Please let it be into this current cycle of slashers. If my dollar bills can be the thing that invigorates the genre, then take them all. Turn them into your particular kind of magic, slasher. As long as you keep standing there in the shadows, I’ll keep throwing money at you.