As of 2015, the slasher is in no place to write home about, but it was never a genre to cherish in the first place. It was more like a genre to hope for, and to run from. The first true slasher, John Carpenter’s Halloween, is a godsend and one of the great films of the modern era, a cruel and damaged work of American New Wave spirit married to a quintessentially European flair for the fantastique and the otherworldly.
But it opened a floodgate of taciturn moralists with knives having their way with teenage men and (mostly) women for imbibing in the carnal pleasures of life, making the slasher not only one of the most conservative genres of all time, but one of the most artistically inept.
There are, of course, worthwhile slashers, and the form admittedly invites quality at some level. The purity of it – person stalks other people – has a certain pure cinema quality that allows directors, editors, and cinematographers to lose themselves to the flair of the moment and dramatize an uncanny hell on earth with all their lively nightmares unleashed onto the celluloid of their imagination.
However, it is perhaps not surprising that most of the best slashers aren’t really slashers at all, but proto-slashers that bear some of the hallmarks of the genre broadly without slumming to its limits. Prior to 1980, the genre was an avenue for artistic adventure and experimentation married to cheap thrills, rather than merely the latter. Filmmakers, of course, knew how to make a quick buck with no effort before 1980, but something about the slasher galvanized the 1980s in incompetence.
Beforehand, when the genre was in its wild years and horror cinema could be anything and everything, there was room not only to explore but to the redefine the horror genre to your choosing. Many filmmakers took to the task of unleashing their inner hells on the screen, and the results are matched in their majesty only by their variety; the idea of “a figure running around killing people” was a prism for individual artists to pursue their interests and their craft. In honor of these pre-1978 works that, if not slashers themselves, at least influenced the genre, here are 18 of the best proto-slasher films.
18. Alice, Sweet Alice (Alfred Sole, 1976)
No sub-genre marked the onset of slasher-dom more pressingly than the Italian giallo works of the 60s and 70s, just about the purest and most untempered translation of the Grand Guignol theatrical tradition to the cinematic form. In the giallo, the masked killer was a staple, but the connections grew deeper with a focus on psycho-sexual trauma and the utilization of color and space to deconstruct the mundane and institute the uncanny in its place.
Of the early English language films to draw on the rise of giallo cinema, Alice, Sweet Alice stands tallest on its blood-red pillar (for the sake of argument, Don’t Look Now is a superior English language film and as indebted to giallo, but it is not much of a proto-slasher).
One of the early cinematic perversions of the innocent, Alice plays on the id inherent to the human child to create a disconcerting, challenging effort with a particularly nasty sound design that crawls right up into your soul.
The traumatic, gliding giallo camera is in full effect, and there’s a greasy, sickly quality to the textured film stock that sells the elusive immediacy of the material and ensures that the work feels less like a constructed film than a discovery from an unearthed tomb. Even the questionable acting is transformed into a positive, enhancing the theatrical mystique of the piece.
17. The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927)
It is a foregone conclusion that Hitch godfathered the slasher genre, but his earlier roots in horror are not normally recognized with as much frankness. Hitch was laying down the Expressionist unease decades before Psycho with his silent film The Lodger.
Adapting the Jack the Ripper tale was an almost monthly excursion in silent cinema (even GW Pabst got in on the action in the otherwise non-horror film Pandora’s Box, highlighted by the luminous Louise Brooks). But it was from forth the fatal loins of Hitch himself that the great silent version of the tale came about.
It isn’t sublime Hitch by any means, but it shows the man in his infancy already grappling with what cinema had been and what it could become. Especially when he indulges in some absolutely intoxicating, luxuriant silent cinema fog (the finest of all film fogs, mind you), The Lodger allures with a misty, unspoken quality that entrances to this day.
16. The Cat and the Canary (Paul Leni, 1927)
Paul Leni is one of the great cinematic question marks. An early transplant to the United States in the Weimar era and a master of the German Expressionist form, Leni staked his claim, like FW Munrau, Fritz Lang, and many others, on his ability to translate that quintessentially German form of hyper-stylized shadow-play and nightmarish chiaroscuro to the Hollywood machine.
But he was a filmmaker with a difference; his interests were more perplexed and colorful than Lang or Murnau, who preferred, respectively, to elevate caustic, diabolical horrors to perfection and to elevate great trauma and human tragedy to the level of a grand dream. Leni had a lighter touch, an appreciation for the less perturbed variant of twitchy comedy that those other hard-nosed directors saw as a little bit genteel and superfluous.
Yet it is exactly that fluffy treatment of the nether realms of the underworld that make Leni’s works so special today. His lithe, frantic oddball humor is lively today when so many more dour efforts from this time period have faded into the background; his air for sly comedy slides more naturally into the overzealous theatricality of the time period. Leni’s adaptation of The Cat and the Canary is the best of both worlds: as dryly mocking as Keaton and as deconstructive and brutal in its spiny imagery as Lang.
The “old dark house” genre of men and women gathered in, well, an old dark house like lambs to the slaughter is the original cinematic progenitor to the slasher genre, and this film literally goes further back to its pre-cineamtic roots by adapting the play of the same name. The genre was perfected by James Whale a few years later in a work that doesn’t resemble a slasher in execution at all (although it is important to the development of the form nonetheless), so The Cat and the Canary gets points for actually commencing with the slashing and for having a smirk on its face while at it.
It bears similarities to the 1926 film The Bat, also a film about people getting bumped off by things that go bump in the night, but Leni’s film has the magic touch. Had he not died a few years later (like Murnau at that), cinema as we know it may have emerged a much different, more excitable, and more exciting beast altogether.
15. Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, 1964)
After releasing the deliciously evil Black Sunday, which sees Hammer’s pomp-horror and raised them its own foggy, bone-curdling mist and extravagantly chilly set-work, Italian genre maestro Mario Bava got to work on taking on another reigning British master of the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock.
After making a pit-stop in the burgeoning trend of omnibus anthology films with his Black Sabbath (and arguably perfecting the form in doing so, especially with its third segment, “The Drop of the Water”, probably the most unnerving, disquieting thing Bava ever filmed), the director put aside his interest in the fantastique for some old-school thrillers.
His The Girl Who Knew Too Much is sometimes credited with constructing the broad sketch of the giallo argument – serial killer detective story, foreigner in a strange land, deliberately confusing narratives. But that was sketch-work; Blood and Black Lace fills in the form with the cinematic details that would evolve over the next decade and a half.
Frayed editing, tricky and perspective-hopping camerawork, opaque storytelling that plays more like a nightmare of tone than a narrative of events. It isn’t great giallo – there is a tad too much story the film can’t quite keep up with for its own good – but when it’s in the key of something this diabolically moody, the Hitch references are well earned.
14. House of Wax (Andre de Toth, 1953)
A remake of the 1933 pre-Code minor quasi-horror masterpiece The Mystery of the Wax Museum, this archly-gimmicky 50s variant is not as artistically iron-clad nor as experimental (the popping modern color here doesn’t hold a candle to the tricky, devious two-strip in the original). But darn it if it doesn’t entice and perplex all the same, if, admittedly, in a more moderate way.
This version, like the original, dances around a wax museum proprietor who’s body had been heavily damaged in a fire, before he turns to murdering unsuspecting street-goers in order to coat their bodies in wax for his museum. You know, the life-like flesh just gives them that pulse, that, as they say, je ne sais quoi.
Either way, Vincent Price is the heavy this time out and he just coats the messy, lazy-day accidental success of the film in a thick slathering of pomp and circumstance, and he proves a most cheeky slasher villain with his posturing and preening and general enjoyment to just have a camera pointed at him.
Add to this some fantastic lighting that sets up the wax museum and the slithering 1910s version of New York with plenty of pageantry and zesty theatricality, and you’ve got a real ham-bone winner warts and all. The old “Andre de Toth only had one eye and thus couldn’t see in three dimensions” joke appears in just about every piece ever written on this film, but it doesn’t need to. House of Wax, foppish tendencies and all, stands on its own.
13. The Town That Dreaded Sundown (Charles B. Pierce, 1976)
Released right on the edge of the cinematic vortex that was the slasher, The Town that Dreaded Sundown is one of the most explicit links to the genre, but this only elucidates its differences all the more. For one, this is a soft-spoken horror film, and for another, it is a curious amalgamation of styles that, even if they do not mold easily in the conventional sense, undeniably remain perplexing to this day as the showpiece style of one of the most abnormal, and even quixotic, of all horror filmmakers: Charles B. Pierce.
For Pierce, cinema was a means to expose the rural nightmares of his beloved Texarkana region of the US, the sort of place most of us tend to forget exists. Pierce utilizes that darkened Americana mystique as a toolbox for his melding of 70s-styled crimson trauma and 40s-styled high-contrast melodrama, giving an homage to classical Hollywood and small town American dreams even as he is playing with their admitted artifice in an almost self-knowing way.
The should-be-awful narration attains a cryptic, self-critical temper as it plays up its everyday, functional, boring qualities in ways that comment on the classical Hollywood technique of utilizing exactly this style of narration to lazily tell a story rather than visually show it.
Only here, the narration fits Pierce’s deliberately non-realist film like a glove, exposing some of the ways that the adults in the town don’t care as much about the killer as they ought to, and commenting on the nature of the storytelling.
It is Pierce telling an Americana myth in the storytelling style of an moralistic Americana news report, revealing its false qualities and over-exposing the manufactured dialogue to hint at the way this is, in the end, just a Southern spook, a Down South Phantom, a murder filtered through storytelling designed to frighten and scare off the youth.
Pierce’s film is not perfect, but it has an elusive, passionate, perfectly imperfect quality that cinema seldom sees anymore. The old Herzog line about the “voodoo of location” has seldom been more appropriate for anything.