It’s the classic tale of girl meets boy; boy slaughters girls violently with some type of sharp or pointy object. Yes, it’s the ever popular serial killer or more commonly referred to as the slasher genre. It is believed to have had its peak during the 1970’s and 1980’s, when immensely successful low budget horror films did huge box office numbers and spawned loads of sequels.
This includes Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974 and the Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Chucky, and Hellraiser films which have had many sequels and reboots. Most of these franchises have each had close to 10 pictures made and some even more than that.
This subgenre of psychopathic killers can be traced all the way back to the silent era and early talkie films such as The Lunatics (1912), The Bat (1926), M (1931) and Thirteen Women (1932). The 1940’s saw various films featuring serial killers including The Leopard Man (1943), The Scarlet Claw (1944), and The Spiral Staircase (1946). Several popular motion pictures were released in the 1960’s such as Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960) involving serial killers; their popularity resulted in a series of British and Italian Giallo productions through the 1960’s and 1970’s.
The success of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, and other exploitative films from the 1970’s opened up the flood gates for an eventual explosion in the popularity and success of the slasher film. The golden era of the slasher genre is considered to be from around 1978 to 1984, with the successful releases of John Carpenters Halloween in 1978 and Friday the 13th in 1980.
Both of these and the booming video rental services brought the potential for low budget horror films to make huge money in box office revenue and rental sales, leading to imitators trying to bank off of the success of these pictures.
This list contains ten cult serial killer/slasher films that were mostly released during, and slightly before and after this golden era of slasher filmmaking. It is a mix of movies that were made in America, Canada, and Italy.
[Author’s Note: This list is not meant to be an all inclusive list or a best of list; it is simply ten cult movies that may be worth your time.]
1. Bay of Blood AKA Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971)
“Diabolical! Fiendish! Savage… YOU MAY NOT WALK AWAY FROM THIS ONE!” .A series of characters commit gruesome murderous acts as they are trying to remove any individuals that would prevent them from receiving a large inheritance. By far Italian director Mario Bava’s bloodiest and most graphic film, as he had been known for his gothic masterpieces that used a mix of atmosphere, sound, gore, and gothic surroundings to create a creepy horror picture.
With a high body count and creative death sequences, this is considered to be one of the precursors to the whole slasher subgenre and quite possibly his most influential movie.
It is considered the director’s most controversial motion picture and has received mixed receptions. Critic Gary Johnson stated that it “is made for people who derive pleasure from seeing other people killed…The resulting movie is guaranteed to make audiences squirm, but the violence is near pornographic.
In the same way that pornographic movies reduce human interactions to the workings of genitals, Twitch of the Death Nerve reduces cinematic thrills to little more than knives slicing through flesh” .
Director Joe Dante expressed satisfaction with it, stating that it “features enough violence and gore to satisfy the most rabid mayhem fans and benefits from the inimitably stylish direction of horror specialist Mario Bava (Black Sunday). Assembled with a striking visual assurance that never ceases to amuse, this is typical Bava material, simply one ghastly murder after another—13 in all—surrounded by what must be one of the most preposterous and confusing plots ever put on film” .
2. Deranged (1974)
“Pretty Sally Mae died a very unnatural death! … But the worst hasn’t happened to her yet! DERANGED … confessions of a necrophile” . This was a low budget horror film released in the same year as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, with both being somewhat based on the true life of Ed Gein.
This one is more closely based on his story and is further character driven than strictly slasher based, which is why it probably did not get the same notoriety as the other movie. This is also presented in a documentary style, with a reporter randomly stepping in to narrate the tale.
What truly stands out in this is the outstanding performance by Roberts Blossom as the main character; who goes through a range of emotions as we witness his progression from handling his mother’s corpse and digging up bodies, to murdering random women.
Blossom was a character actor known for usually portraying unusual people, but this one truly stands out and is absolutely brilliant. He is equal parts Norman Bates and Leatherface in this. He also had memorable appearances in Escape from Alcatraz, Slaughterhouse Five, and Home Alone.
The score is utterly perfect. It is church hymnal music that plays throughout and serves as a constant reminder of what his mother taught him, that all women are sluts and whores who carry STD’s.
Arrow Video released a Blu-ray version exclusively for the United Kingdom in 2013. Kino Lorber released a US version in 2015, which is supposed to be the fully uncut version.
3. Alice Sweet Alice AKA Communion (1976)
“If You Survive This Night… Nothing Will Scare You Again” . Alice is a weird and socially withdrawn 12 year old who doesn’t receive the same attention as her younger Sister Karen (Brooke Shields). When Karen is murdered and set on fire in church before her first communion, the suspicion is geared towards Alice. As more murders begin to pile up by a killer wearing a yellow rain coat and Halloween mask, Alice ends up the most likely suspect. Is she really the killer, or could there be another suspect?
This is amazing film that was highly influenced by British films and the directors Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Roeg. The yellow rain jacket was specifically taken from Roeg’s film Don’t Look Know. It’s an American film that has a European look and could be considered the most Giallo of any American movie, even though it wasn’t directly inspired by them.
It was filmed in Patterson, New Jersey and there is such amazing style and composition in the exteriors and interiors of these buildings. The director was from the area and had worked on rehabbing a lot of these building, so he had been scouting out these locations way before the actually filming had begun.
It features a great cast of characters, mostly consisting of veteran New York stage actors. Mildred Clinton, Linda Miller, and Paula Shephard are all excellent in their respective roles.
These great performances along with excellent direction, shot placement, nice close ups, superb editing, a creepy killer outfit, and an amazing Hitchcock inspired score make this more than just the typical slasher picture. It is a great mystery as we try to discover the truth about if Alice is truly the killer. Without spoiling anything, the killer’s reveal and murder sequence is truly the best moment in the movie and easily rivals any of the Hitchcock motion pictures.
The film went through a sort of distribution hell. It was picked up by Columbia Pictures at first and then dropped over a dispute from the lawyers that owned the rights. It then went to Allied Pictures who changed the title from Communion to Alice Sweet Alice because test audiences thought that the title made them think that it was a religious picture.
The lawyers also forgot to copyright it so it went through the same issues as Night of the Living Dead, with various versions being released by different companies over the years. It was also rereleased multiple times with alternate titles whenever Brooke Shields had something popular released.
This really should be considered a masterpiece of horror that didn’t get a proper release despite positive reviews from critics.
4. Terror Train (1980)
“The boys and girls of Sigma Phi. Some will live. Some will die” . This is a Canuxploitation film about six college students that were involved in a sick prank with a new recruit that ends up sending him to a mental asylum. Three years later, its graduation time and they have decided to celebrate by taking a train trip and having a big costume party. Unbeknownst to them, a killer has climbed on board for the trip and is killing off the ones involved in the prank and using their costumes as disguises.
There are several things that make this film memorable and great; they include the various costumes and masks that the killer wears, performances by Ben Johnson and Jamie Lee Curtis, the appearance and performance of magician David Copperfield, and also knowing that the killer is on board with the fraternity members but not being able to identify him amongst the other train riders.
The masks that were chosen are as creepy and weird as ones that have been used in other successful horror movies and include Groucho Marx, a Lizard, and an old man.
The Groucho mask is the best and most memorable of the three, but the great thing about the masks is that they become even more terrifying within the setting of the horror film. They wouldn’t really be scary unless the situation involved someone murdering other people. Johnson and Curtis are both superb in their roles; Johnson as the train conductor and Curtis as the final girl who was intimately involved in the prank.
Johnson is probably best known for appearing in the Wild Bunch, but also had major roles in Dillinger and The Town that Dreaded Sundown. Curtis by this time had become known as the horror scream queen, appearing in Halloween, The Fog, and Prom Night.
The appearance of Copperfield may be what puts this picture over the top, with him performing multiple tricks and being an important part of the story once they are on the train. By this time he had begun to slowly become noticed, doing television performances on both ABC and a contracted series for CBS.
The deaths in this motion picture are not overly gruesome and there is only one real instance of gore, it does get intense in the end with a chase sequence between the killer and Curtis’s character. The music isn’t as good as Halloween or Friday the 13th but is adequate enough for a horror picture. The lighting is very effective and the trains were actually rewired with dimmers to control it in a fast and efficient way and also used medical pen lights to light the actor’s faces .
5. Maniac (1980)
“You can lock your windows and doors…But you can’t lock the madman out of your mind” . Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) lives in New York City and has some mother issues, don’t they all. His mother died several years ago but he misses her and pictures her in the women that he kills, taking their scalps and putting them on mannequins in his apartment. He meets a photographer and pursues her, can he change or will she just become another victim?
For some this is the all time top slasher film, ranking above the likes of Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Voorhees. Part of that appeal is the others are monsters behind masks, where as Zito is an everyman in New York. Just like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, that thing that makes him so scary is that he is real and could be anyone that you know, work with, or run into in your daily lives.
This is most likely Spinell’s best performance, playing a troubled and deranged psychopath with multiple personalities. It also features the great special effects of Tom Savini; which includes multiple scalpings, a shotgun blast through a car that explodes a man’s head, and Spinell being ripped apart at the end of the movie.
It’s a beautifully demented movie that must be seen if you are a true fan of the genre.