1984: The Death and Resurrection of the Slasher
By Brian Keiper
A strong case can be made for 1984 being the greatest year in the history of filmed horror. The list of notable movies in the genre from that year is extensive; from mainstream blockbusters like Ghostbusters and Gremlins to independent gems and cult classics like Night of the Comet, Silent Night, Deadly Night, and The Toxic Avenger. Even several non-genre films are shot with horror elements. The black magic ritual and dinner sequences of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom come immediately to mind. And though The Terminator positions itself as a “Science Fiction Action” film, it is in many ways a straight-up slasher movie. But even with these and many, many more films to cite, the year would still be among the greatest ever for horror for two reasons: the “death” of one horror icon and the birth of another.
By 1984, many movie-goers assumed, and most critics prayed, that the slasher boom began by Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th, and Prom Night (both 1980) had run its course. Frank Mancuso Jr., who had produced Friday the 13th Parts 2 (1981) and 3 (1982), was ready to put the nail in the coffin of the trend with one last bang. In Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984), Jason would finally die, and he would most definitely not be returning. As Mancuso told Peter M. Bracke for Crystal Lake Memories, the definitive book on the Friday the 13th series, “There was a moment in time where I hated the Friday the 13th movies because that’s all everybody ever affixed me to. With the fourth one — which I entitled The Final Chapter for a reason — I really wanted it to be done and walk away.”
Director of the second and the third films of the franchise, Steve Miner, was also ready to move on from the series, so directing duties were passed along to Joseph Zito, who had previously directed one of the better first wave slashers, The Prowler (1981). Because they had worked together on that film, Zito was also able to lure back Tom Savini, the make-up effects artist from the original Friday the 13th, to give Jason a proper send-off. Although The Final Chapter generally follows the classic slasher formula, it also places more emphasis on important film-making elements often lacking in traditional slashers such as character development, dialogue, mood, and atmosphere. Essentially, it took the familiar tropes, made them the best they could be, and delivered what is, to many fans, the best film in the entire series.
The critical backlash that arose in wake of The Final Chapter’s huge success was typical of slashers in general (and Friday the 13th movies in particular) up to that point. Roger Ebert called it “an immoral and reprehensible piece of trash.” Gene Siskel (who hated the original film so much that he called upon readers to write and chastise Betsy Palmer for her involvement in the film) and Ebert did a special episode of their television show Sneak Previews devoted to excoriating the slasher sub-genre. Protests by parent groups had arisen against these movies as well, most notoriously against the holiday-themed shocker Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) and its ad campaign featuring a homicidal Santa Claus, which resulted in Tri-Star Pictures pulling the ads from television, from newspapers and, eventually, the film from theaters.
Beyond this, fans of the genre had begun to grow weary of the endless, almost weekly stream of low-budget and high-gore, but also high-predictability slasher films they had been seeing for nearly three solid years. There were high points and low points, but most fell into the same familiar formula: the masked killer with the traumatic backstory stalking and picking off an unsuspecting group of promiscuous and drug-addled teenagers until one final girl is left to dispatch the killer in a final showdown. Audiences were ready for something different. Something that gave them the scares and gore they craved, but also the sophistication that so many of the first wave of slashers lacked.
For these reasons and more, 1984 appeared to be the end of an era: the death of the slasher film. But in November of that year, something seismic happened. Though it didn’t seem like much at the time, the world of horror was about to be changed forever by a filmmaker who had been all but completely written off.
Wes Craven had two giant successes with Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977) followed by two commercial failures with Deadly Blessing (1981) and Swamp Thing (1982). He’d shopped his new script about a dream stalker around to every studio inside and outside of Hollywood without any success. When Robert Shaye and New Line Cinema agreed to make the film, it was for a budget far below what Craven wanted to make it for, but he also had very few options. He joked that he would have been willing to make anything, even “Godzilla goes to Paris.” Instead, he resorted to making a sequel to The Hills Have Eyes (which was shelved) and a moderately successful television film called Invitation to Hell (1984) starring Susan Lucci. Craven was at the end of his rope and willing to try anything to get A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) made.
The resulting film was wholly revolutionary, which is one reason why Craven had so much trouble getting it made. First phase slashers were human, often able to withstand remarkable punishment, but still essentially human and killable. Freddy Krueger was a different kind of slasher: a supernatural killer that could bend the reality surrounding his victims to his will. Before, the majority of slashers bore expressionless masks; Freddy wore a “mask” of burn scars but was far from expressionless. In fact, Freddy was a slasher with a remarkable amount of personality, something severely lacking in previous, generally mute monsters.
However, Nightmare does hearken back to an early slasher in one major way. Like Halloween, the emphasis was not on the body count, but on suspense and terror. There is a “toying” with the victim before final dispatch which Nightmare took to new levels with the imaginative supernatural abilities and intelligence of its villain. We never find out in the first or early films how Freddy Krueger obtained the ability to invade dreams to take his revenge, but we do understand that somehow, through the force of his hatred, evil and intelligence, he managed to figure it all out.
The success of A Nightmare on Elm Street and its first three sequels, each grossing more than its predecessor — an all but unheard-of occurrence — opened the floodgates for a new wave of slasher films. Many of these were sequels to existing properties including Prom Night, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Slumber Party Massacre, and Silent Night, Deadly Night. After the disastrous initial reaction to a Michael Myers-less Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), producer Mustapha Akkad decided to resurrect the killer who had been incinerated at the end of Halloween II (1981). Michael Myers returns in the appropriately titled, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988). Eventually, after another sequel failed to include its main villain, Jason Voorhees was literally brought back from the dead for Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986). This new wave of sequel heavy slashers also ran out of steam by the 1990s and culminated with the deaths of both Jason and Freddy. The slasher sub-genre was comfortably in the grave until Wes Craven once again resurrected it, along with writer Kevin Williamson, for another horror revolution: Scream (1996).
Even though the slasher genre goes dormant from time to time, a new revival always seems to be right around the corner. The wave of remakes in the 2000s certainly included its fair share of slashers, including Jason and Freddy, but now, in the 2010s and beyond, the success of Blumhouse and director David Gordon Green’s sequel/reboot of Halloween (2018) proves another stream of slashers may be on their way. 🩸
Bracke, Peter M., Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th (Sparkplug Press, 2005 & 2012) electronic edition loc 4089
Ebert, Roger on At the Movies (Tribune Entertainment) April 7, 1984
Siskel, Gene “Friday the 13th’: More Bad Luck” (Chicago Tribue) June 1980
McQeen, Jeff Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (Starz Entertainment, THINKfilm) 2006
Wooley, John Wes Craven: The Man and His Nightmares (John Wiley & Sons) 2011, pp. 92–101
Brian Keiper is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Brian’s also written for Bloody Disgusting, Dread Central, F This Movie!, Ghastly Grinning, and others. Follow him on Twitter @BrianDKeiper.
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