Back in the 1950s, horror seemed so genteel: there were mad scientists working out of crumbling castles in some vaguely European locale, flying hubcaps from space that arrived on Earth to reanimate the recent dead and vampires whose good looks were as disarming as their manners.
If a movie took place in the modern day at all, it was usually a black and white affair with a jolly good chap showing the forces of darkness what for when he wasn’t delivering jargon-heavy speeches to his superiors. In short, horror movies back then had little to do with everyday life as we know it.
All of that changed when filmmakers latched onto the idea of using cold, calculating killers as their antagonists. Eschewing supernatural explanations (at least at first), these films pitted seemingly unstoppable assailants against young women from ordinary backgrounds, and took place in a town that looked just like your own.
Such was the success of slasher films that by the 1980s there seemed to be a new one in theaters every other week. In 1981 alone, viewers could choose between The Burning, Halloween II, Graduation Day, Happy Birthday To Me and My Bloody Valentine, among many others.
Among the countless sequels and clones are twenty movies that shaped the slasher genre and provide an overview from its inception to its ultimate descent into self-parody. If you’re looking for decent horror films for Halloween, you could do worse.
20. The House On Sorority Row (1983)
One of the more entertaining 80s slashers, Mark Rosman’s The House On Sorority Row is your typical story of sorority sisters who kill their landlady when a prank backfires and are then stalked by her psychotic son.
If you can suspend your disbelief for 90 minutes, then there’s lots of trashy fun to be had as a bunch of bad actors attempt to connect the dots. The movie has a cult following and must’ve appealed to someone in Hollywood – it was remade (as Sorority Row) in 2009.
Bigger and slicker, yet somehow just as mindlessly trashy, the remake plays more like I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, with another group of sorority sisters who accidentally kill one of their own and are killed off one by one after disposing of the body. Throwing out the original’s straightforward plot, it builds to a Scooby Doo ending where the killer is unmasked and gives a long speech.
19. Silent Night (2012)
Back in the VHS era, a movie called Silent Night Deadly Night was picketed by groups that took issue with the film’s villain, who stalked and slashed the youthful supporting cast while wearing a Santa costume. Rebooted as Silent Night in 2012, this modern version is arguably more depraved yet failed to invoke the ire of moral watchdogs.
Given the weapons in the killer’s arsenal, that comes as something of a surprise. As well as using fairy lights to strangle (and electrocute) two victims, Santa has at his disposal a sickle, an axe, a flamethrower and various knives. He has no problem cutting off a priest’s fingers before stabbing him repeatedly and doesn’t balk at thrusting a poker through a girl’s head.
The only death anyone remembers from the original is Linnea Quigley being impaled on moose antlers which is faithfully recreated here, but it’s trumped by a sequence where Santa chases a topless starlet with an axe, chopping off her foot before feeding her to a wood chipper.
18. Pieces (1982)
In the hands of Juan Piquer Simon, the Spanish auteur who gave us flesh eating molluscs in Slugs, what should’ve been a simple Friday The 13th knock-off becomes an outrageous bloodbath where heads and arms are lopped off and a woman is cut in half by a chainsaw.
Pieces begins the way most movies do, with a boy taking an axe to his mother before cutting up the body and hiding in a closet as the police arrive. Forty years later, a black-garbed maniac carves up the female students on a Boston campus, using the body parts to create a human jigsaw. Could they be the same person?
Legendary among hardcore horror fans for its bad acting, absurd storyline and over the top direction, Pieces is a masterpiece of so-bad-it’s-good cinema. After nobody witnesses a student being decapitated on the front lawn in broad daylight, the Dean declares it an “unfortunate accident” and decides against closing down the campus. This leads to several more murders, most amusingly when a victim steps into an elevator with the killer, who she doesn’t realize is carrying a chainsaw until he revs it up.
17. My Bloody Valentine (2009)
Here’s a Fangoria-approved gorefest where eyeballs pop out, heads are split in two and, because it was shot in 3D, pickaxes are thrown at the viewer. Even by horror movie standards, though, My Bloody Valentine has one of the longest displays of gratuitous nudity as Betsy Rue (also a victim in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II) attempts to outrun the killer wearing only her birthday suit, so if you’re looking for a trashy good time, look no further.
The plot involves a crazed miner on the rampage on a small town, but it’s better if you disengage your brain and sit back and enjoy the gory shenanigans. Hearts are torn out, jaws are ripped off and in the hands of this movie’s killer, the humble pickaxe becomes a ninja throwing star, capable of taking out an opponent several hundred yards away.
The director is Patrick Lussier, who graduated from editing Wes Craven’s films to making his own horror pictures, and he’s clearly learnt well from the master. Despite the low budget, Lussier gives the movie a terrific look and pace, and it’s considerably more entertaining than Friday The 13th, 2009’s “other” slasher remake starring an actor from Supernatural.
16. Cold Prey: Resurrection (2008)
Norway’s answer to the 80s slasher movies, Cold Prey (2006) followed five snowboarders who took refuge in an abandoned hotel that closed in 1975 when the owner’s son disappeared. Faster than you could say “Jason Voorhees”, a pickaxe-wielding psycho began chasing them through the snow.
In the tradition of Halloween II, Cold Prey: Resurrection offers “more of the same, only set in a hospital.” Having survived being stabbed with a pickaxe and thrown into a crevasse, the killer’s back and once he gets his hands on some medical instruments, he goes on the rampage down the dark hospital corridors. Victims include The Rookie Cop, The Young Nurse and The Sympathetic Doctor, but at least the film comes up with an explanation for why the hospital seems deserted – like Precinct 13, it’s being shut down.
Directed by Mats Stenberg, Norway’s answer to Rick Rosenthal, Resurrection is bloodier, more violent and more conventional than its predecessor, punctuating endless scenes of victims wandering around with it-was-only-a-dream false scares. Though derivative in the extreme, it’s still more fun than Rob Zombie’s Halloween II.
15. Severance (2006)
Christopher Smith made his directing debut with 2005’s Creep, but he really put himself on the map with this outrageous horror comedy. The plot involves a bunch of wishy washy corporate employees, in Eastern Europe on a team-building weekend, who encounter a group of bloodthirsty maniacs armed with machine guns, machetes and flamethrowers, but this is no stand-issue slasher movie.
Like all the best horror comedies, Severance works on several levels – the gags are funny, the action is crisp and the tension is never compromised by throwaway jokes or stupid supporting characters. Also, the film deserves credit for doing something considered hitherto impossible and putting Danny Dyer in a good movie.
Smith has great fun mocking conventional slasher movies, in one scene even resorting to black and white and title cards to explain the backstory. Just because it’s a comedy, though, doesn’t mean it skimps on the bloodletting – characters are decapitated, doused with gasoline and set on fire and, courtesy of an abandoned minefield, blown to pieces.