6. Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975)
It is no surprise that Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 masterclass in festering fantastique, sent a married couple to a grotesque, garish slantwise Venice that served as a physical manifestation of their fractured identities; Italian giallo was a prime influence to most horror in the 70s, and certainly to the onset of the slasher genre proper late in the decade.
Most of the films also followed suit with a narrative that utilized Westerners in more arcane, eldritch locations that felt more connected to spectral portals and bleeding-together dimensions, typically found in the old-school Catholic safe-haven of intersecting good and evil, Italy. The physical translation of location, for instance of a pianist teaching in a Roman conservatory in Deep Red, worked as a literal manifestation of the perpetual dread of the slippery slope from the mundane world to the uncanny.
Dario Argento arguably pursued the giallo with more lust than anybody. His masterpiece, Suspiria, is too abstract and oblique for even the standards of the giallo to truly qualify as a proto-slasher (it’s more akin to a deranged ballet piece with murders as the grand, fluorescent pirouettes).
His prior release, Deep Red, is a more streamlined affair, although not nearly as transformative or transgressive (if Deep Red is the intersection of low and high art, Suspiria out and out demolishes the distinction entirely). Deep Red does, however, benefit from a surprisingly understated storyline of murder, trauma, and revenge, making it more accessible to mainstream audiences without sacrificing the twitchy editing and disorganized narrative that made the structural elements of giallo so satisfyingly abnormal and off-kilter.
The real stars, as always for the genre, are the set-piece kills that function like ecstatic guitar solos to the main narrative’s creeping dread-riffs. Argento utilized color as well as any filmmaker ever has, and his dense framing, coupled with contrasting splotches of space and anti-space on the screen, force the eye to dance around the kills and become implicated in the action.
It is his unchained, vertiginous camera that really ties it all together though, bleeding together murders and roller coasters in moments that sparkle with pure visual energy. Deep Red is a tone poem to the kinetic capabilities of camerawork and the lingering haunt of a location that, no matter how mundane on the surface, you can never truly call home.
5. Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960)
Michael Powell practically reinvented the use of color in cinema with every film he released during his heyday of the 1940s, which makes it all the more worrisome that one of his greatest experiments in color, 1960’s Peeping Tom, practically killed his career. Viewed today, this deeply naughty film about a troubled child who grows up to unleash his torment onto outside society asks us to understand, if not sympathize with, the horrors of a man who’s actions are almost unthinkable.
Even beyond that, it is just about the most implicating critique of voyeurism and cinema ever released, using the main stalker’s technique of filming his victims as he stabs them with his camera tripod to caustically indict film directors for their oppressive power-gambits and to critique audience members for their passive lust for death and destruction witnessed in a camera frame.
Add to this all the queasy greens and deeply grotesque, sickly reds of the film and you have a film that is forward-thinking in color and space as well as theme. The color gives it both a pulsing flair and an icy, nervous, even robotic chill, making it is the rare work that seems both lascivious and undersexed simultaneously.
At the risk of hyperbole, this film, released during the same year as Hitchcock’s own Psycho, is every bit the visual equal of that most famous of modern films. Plus, while Hitch’s film is somewhat mired by its uncritical descent into the depths of outdated Freudian tropes, Powell’s film is actually critical of psychoanalysis and the way experimentation imprints itself on the human psyche.
Perhaps it is because Powell married his formally radical filmmaking to an equally radical social treatise on human weakness and social condition, where-as Hitch welded pristine, challenging filmmaking to a relatively acceptable viewpoint on the human condition, that Powell’s film fell out of favor in its early days. It is perhaps for the same reason that it seems so splendid, demented, and thoroughly provocative today.
4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
We know what a slasher movie is “supposed” to be. A bunch of kids running around, having sex, doing drugs, and getting killed, and a Reaganite killer with a moralist streak seeking revenge on the kids who, either directly or by-proxy, have done him/ her wrong. Slashers, in general, work like products of our reality, staking a claim on the invasion of the uncanny into the mundane and playing with the laws of reality to induce fear.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, although it is considered the parent figure of the genre in more ways than one, has no moralist streak in its entire body, nor does it strive on the invasion of the uncanny into the mundane. Instead, it is a work about the uncanny itself as the mundane, ripping it to pieces and asserting itself onto the everyday lives of Americans with a brutish, hurtful lack of diligence.
Tobe Hooper’s primal, primordial Southern stew is an intimidating film that makes play with a startling force expected of the genre, here curdled into out-right nihilism. What is unexpected is the way Hooper makes use of the power of suggestion, playing with off-screen space and implementing almost subliminal cuts in the interstitial regions of the film that evoke and hint more than they outright insist.
With grisly, washed-out cinematography in tact with sickly immediacy, the film is almost unspoken for in its perpetual menace and disobedient anger. It doesn’t seem to follow the rules of any style of film, slasher or otherwise. It just bruises, pressing on the wounds of a nation that was, in 1974, most unready for any sort of hope.
It was a good thing, this inability to cope with niceties or goodness, for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre wasn’t about to give it to them. It throws us into the dank nether realms of the American 70s, exposing the mirthless despair and hopeless worldview of a nation and a time and finding these emotions in the dark heart of American rural lore.
More than any proper 80s slasher, the sense of unending horror existing just off the side of the road, just out of view, and always present is the core of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It isn’t horror with a purpose or with reason, but horror that approaches us, has its way with us, and exists as unexplainable fact.
3. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)
Charles Laughton will forever be a story of unfinished business. A popular actor (usually playing the heavy) in the Hollywood heyday of the 1930s and 40s, he fell out of favor with the natural influx of old age, but the mid 50s saw a much more startling talent emerging from within him.
His sole directorial contribution, adapted from a screenplay by James Agee (novel writer, movie critic, and offhand writer for the screen) is one of the most experimental and frighteningly perfect films of its decade. Orson Welles excepted, it is perhaps the most inspired, challenging debut by an English language director ever released.
Clearly, years of lust and loss drove Laughton’s attachment to Agee’s screenplay about two children pursued on an odyssey by a con-man masquerading as a preacher (which itself bears a connection to Agee losing his father at an early age). Specifically, the film takes these children down the river of the American imagination by way of steamy, swampy poverty and garish grotesques straight out of O’Connor or Faulkner.
To express the magical and darkly surreal aspects of the harsh menagerie of the American South in the literary imagination (and the imagination of children and dreamers everywhere), Laughton turned to his own youth and the expressive, luminous heights and cavernous depths of the German Expressionist tradition, becoming popular in the US in the 1920s when he was just beginning his career as an actor.
With sinewy shadows and distorted, troubled landscapes beckoning the children forth away from the devil of the preacher and toward a new eternal, mystical, romantic hope on the other side of the river, Laughton found the perfect way to retain the elusive literary tradition of the American Southern Gothic while also transferring it to a distinctly, passionately, unapologetically cinematic visual form.
Night of the Hunter is rightfully remembered for Robert Mitchum’s oily, malevolent variation on the avuncular preacher figure; his work is one of the most fiendish, wicked portrayals ever captured by a movie camera, but without Laughton at the helm it would be a lone bright spot propping up a dearth of imagination.
Hunter would afford Mithcum other similar proto-slasher roles in the seedy Southern backwoods, such as in the more famous Cape Fear. But the rest of the film damned Laughton to disagreement and abandonment for the rest of his years (he died within the next decade). What he could have unleashed onto the world next no one knows, but we will always have Night of the Hunter to haunt us when we look over our shoulders at night.
2. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
The horror class of 1960 is possibly the most cut-throat year ever to grace the form. Peeping Tom, Eyes Without a Face, Black Sunday, Jigoku, House of Usher. Picking a victor is a Sisyphean task, but Psycho is always there daring us, begging us, taunting us, and scaring us.
It is enough, admittedly, that it is one of the most formally perfect works not only in the genre but in all of the medium, winding around us and crawling up to our throats with perfectly-placed edits and a script that gives away only the bare minimum amount of information necessary to commence with the macabre.
It is enough that, even in the quiet scenes, Hitch skulks around in the background inducing the dread early and laying it on thick and sticky. It is enough that every camera placement in the entire film is the best version of itself.
But Hitch had to go and be devious, didn’t he? Ever the playful, monomaniacal trickster, Hitch was a man who derived power from subverting audience expectations and then bashing that audience over the head with those expectations. He couldn’t just make something perfect, could he? He had to change all of cinema.
In the way he casually exploits our understanding of casting by utilizing Janet Leigh and then decimates us with our understanding of her screen presence, he not only creates something perfect, but something revolutionary. In the way he bifurcates his film, cutting it in two with the jagged knives that articulate Bernard Hermann’s lust in an all-time devil of a cinematic score, he isn’t merely creating something perfect, but changing the idea of cinema from the ground-up, practically ruining the idea of Old Hollywood editing in the process.
Psycho is Hitch at his most challenging and his most direct, and even when he was trying to hide his fun under the fact that his definition of fun was particularly worrisome, this is filmmaking with the cheekiest grin in the world.
It would be enough, too, if Psycho was just an Alfred Hitchcock-advancing-film-technique delivery mechanism, but that the film around this forward-thinking cinema and experimentation is so tight, so diabolical, so dementedly perfect? A film lover could not ask for more.
1. M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
Was there any director more suited to a proto-slasher than Fritz Lang? Beyond the fact that he remains one of the foremost experimentalists of the medium, his personal fixations are part and parcel for a politicized variant of the genre.
Lang was above all fascinated with order and anarchy and the dissolution of social identity at the hands of an unseen, all-seeing force of evil, which is perhaps why it remains so elusive that his first sound masterpiece, and likely the first sound masterpiece in all cinema, rests so heavily on implicating the audience in the evil of its slasher – a pudgy, queasily naïve child killer played with an anxious key by Peter Lorre – and then daring the audience to question the truth of his evil in the first place.
What emerges is a shockingly insurrectionist treatment of social dislocation and audience-critique, using the visual medium to pull audiences toward their assumed morality (“child killers must be murdered themselves at any cost for they are evil”) and then deftly, defiantly begging what this revenge-fueled interpretation of justice says of a society that breeds such killers to begin with. Lang treats the theme with the sort of candor we seldom see. The confidence he displays in asking us to empathize with a murderer is sublime.
Even if you take the textual density out of the equation, it is impossible to resist the intoxicating blend of limbo-like physical space and cavernous mise en scene that Lang concocts here, showing once and for all that sound cinema did not have to over-power the primacy of film as a brash, visual medium.
Even better, in the way Lang utilizes sound accompaniments to delineate character identities and to express the power of off-screen space (such as when we know Lorre’s presence not by his on-screen presence but his whistle), he makes the ultimate statement to the transformative power of the aural in perfect harmony with the visual.
Author Bio: Jake Walters is a recent graduate of Amherst College and an aspiring film-writer/ist. He shares his thoughts on film at his website, thelongtake.net and is particularly interested in film in relation to society, race, class, and gender, He writes frequently on horror films and looks to Werner Herzog, Michel Foucault, and John Shaft for life advice. You can find him on Twitter@long_take.