Sunday, April 1, 2018

Slasher Tropes and Slaughter High (1986)

Slasher films are one of the most accessible of horror subgenres because everyone knows what they’re getting when they go into them.  The formula is the same in most slasher movies and the small changes that are made to differentiate one from another don’t change the overall structure.  Halloween, Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp, Scream, and I Know What You Did Last Summer all share basic story similarities.  That’s just the surface of the slasher movie subgenre, though.  There are many more, lesser known slasher movies that tell the same story that aren’t as well known.

A few slasher movies have come through the Sunday “Bad” Movies.  There have been two Friday the 13th movies and a Halloween movie.  There has been the entire Sleepaway Camp franchise.  Going deeper, though, there have been movies like April Fools, The Gingerdead Man, Elves, Leprechaun in the Hood, and Jack Frost that have tread on the slasher ground.  Each had their own things that made them unique, but they all kept close to the slasher structure that has led to many cult classics.

The most recent addition to the Sunday “Bad” Movies slasher film repertoire was a movie called Slaughter High.  It told the story of a group of high school friends who reunited at their former high school ten years after graduating.  While there, they were murdered one by one on April Fools Day (that’s today!) as revenge for a tragic series of pranks they had played on the high school nerd a decade before.

Like every other slasher movie that was mentioned above, Slaughter High did its own thing while sticking to a formula that many other movies had helped create.  Without that blueprint, a slasher would not necessarily be a slasher.  It would be something else.  Slaughter High stuck hard to that structure.  It neither hurt nor elevated the movie.  It was what it was.  It was a slasher movie through and through.

There are certain beats and details that slasher movies share, which make them the movies that they are.  Slaughter High was a good example of these qualities, and as such, is a good way to dive into what makes slashers.  Here’s a look at what makes it similar to other slasher flicks, and the minor things that make it different.
The Past Returns
In many cases, the murderer in slasher horror has their inspiration seeded in a past event.  Something that happened days, weeks, months, or even years before connects to what they are doing in the present day.  Sometimes the other characters are connected to the past.  Other times, it’s only the killer who is turned by this moment in the past, to become the maniacal serial murderer that the audience watches.  Whatever the case, the past usually plays into the present.  It isn’t a story that starts when the main characters start their journey.  It begins before them.

Slaughter High had the main characters and the killer connected through a past event.  The characters who were picked off throughout the runtime played a prank on the school nerd when they were teenagers.  The prank caused the nerd to be injured in a science lab experiment, and set the school on fire.  Ten years after the event, someone lured them back to the school to kill them.  The killer was also connected to those events.  He was the nerd who had been tormented and injured.  His inspiration to kill the other characters was seeded in the pranks they pulled on him on April Fools Day, the pranks that caused his disfigurement.  He wanted revenge.

The past crept into many other slasher movies over the years.  Halloween set up the present day events by showing the child Michael Myers of the past killing his sister.  Friday the 13th set up the events by having Jason Voorhees drown when the camp counselors paid no attention to his cries for help.  Child’s Play backed up their evil doll story with the death of a serial killer whose soul went into the doll.  The past horrific events led to the present horrific events, showing that there were always future repercussions when something bad happened.  Sequels would only solidify that more.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.  Black Christmas, the 1974 original (directed by Sunday “Bad” Movies alum Bob Clark), was about a group of sorority sisters being killed by a murderer hiding in their attic during the holiday season.  The story began with the murderer sneaking into the sorority house and ended without a reveal about who the killer was.  No backstory was given to the murderer, leaving the entire thing shrouded in mystery.  Most slasher movies give some sort of backstory to justify the murders.  Whether it was that the killer was deranged from a young age, that the killer was getting revenge, or that a violent serial killer with a history of being a violent serial killer was now in the characters’ presence, there’s usually a history.  That was not the case in Black Christmas.
Memorable Killer
If looks could kill, slasher movie villains would have a leg up on everyone else.  There’s something to having a killer with an iconic look that makes a slasher flick that much more entertaining.  The killer needs to be as much of a character as the victims.  Sometimes, the killer is even more of a character than the majority of the people being murdered.  The staying power of a slasher movie is frequently a result of how much people remember the looks and acts of the killer.

The killer in Slaughter High was the high school nerd trying to exact revenge on the people who had tortured him as a teen.  But he didn’t do it as his disfigured face self, though that face was revealed near the end of the movie.  He wore a mask.  Much like the reasoning behind the killings, the mask was introduced in the early, past-set portion of Slaughter High.  One of the characters inflicting the torture was wearing a jester mask.  The nerd wore this same mask as he stalked and killed his victims.  He would pick up the jester mask when it was on the ground.  He would kill people while looking at them through the mask.  It was the mask that made the killer stand out among the other slasher murderers.  The movie might not be iconic.  The mask was a standout though.

Most of the well-known slasher movies have memorable looking serial killers behind the murder spree.  The Leprechaun series featured Warwick Davis donning a full leprechaun getup to get his gold back.  Anyone who saw anything regarding the series remembers how he looked.  Scream had the Ghostface mask.  When the television show premiered, there was a different mask for a new killer.  They’ve since gone back on that and the rebooted third season will be using the iconic mask from the film series.  Even a lesser known slasher like Most Likely to Die had an iconic looking killer.  The person behind the murders was dressed in a graduation gown with a melted plastic looking mask that had the word “Die” on the forehead.  A killer with a unique look elevates what might otherwise be a throwaway slasher movie.

The exception to this rule can be seen in Sleepaway Camp.  The movie, though memorable for who the killer was revealed to be at the end, didn’t focus on the look of the killer.  It was about what murders were committed and figuring out which of the people at a summer camp was killing others.  The murders were shown from the point of view of the killer.  That might be considered the look of the killer, but it really wasn’t much of a visual.  The most that was seen was a pair of hands, which did the killing.  Sleepaway Camp still gained a cult following.  What the killer looked like just wasn’t part of the appeal.  Until the end, that is, when the killer was revealed.
Horned up teenagers have been a staple in horror movies since the 1970s.  Many movies are about promiscuous teens getting murdered while or right after getting some.  Stories are crafted around that.  Think back to any slasher movie and there was probably a sex scene in it.  Whether or not the nudity was preent, the scenes were there.  It’s something that happened because the audiences that saw the slashers of the late 1970s and the 1980s were mostly horned up teens themselves.  Some mutilation and some titillation.  That was what audiences got.

That was no different in Slaughter High.  The characters weren’t teenagers through most of the movie.  They were trying to visit their ten year reunion.  There was sex, though.  There was nudity.  It was a slasher movie, so that sort of thing had to happen.  The first bit of nudity was when one of the characters decided to take a bath in an abandoned school for some reason.  It made no sense, but it happened.  Then there was a full sex scene later on.  Two of the reunited adults got it on in the abandoned school before being murdered.  Boobies flip-flopping, man ass, a squeaky metal bedframe… It was a sex scene to match other sex scenes.

There’s a history of sex in slasher movies up to the point that the meta ones of the past two decades since the release of Scream have referenced its vitality to the horror subgenre.  Halloween, though toned down when compared to other slasher movies that would follow, featured two characters having sex only to both get murdered quickly after the act.  The Final Girls made reference to these types of scenes.  Characters from an audience ended up in a slasher movie they were watching and tried to prevent the characters of the movie from having sex because they knew it would bring the killer down on them.  They knew sexualisation led to murder in slasher movies, and they didn’t want to fall victim to the murderous rampage of the Jason Voorhees homage character.

This trope of slasher flicks is one of the toughest to find an exception to.  Alien comes to mind.  Though the creatures that were all over the movie (the xenomorph and the face huggers) had sexual undertones, there was no actual sex scene with the human characters.  They didn’t get freaky under the sheets.  They did their jobs, then they started getting picked off by the alien killer.  Ripley still ended up being the final girl of the movie, but there was no sex that led to people being murdered.  They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time and lost their lives because of it.
Violent Deaths, Attempting to Be Unique
Though the tropes above are part of the charm of seeing slasher flicks, it’s undeniable that people go to see the movies for the kills.  They want to see people get maimed, tortured, and murdered in exceedingly ludicrous ways.  Finding an absurd kill, an over-the-top death, or an innovative murder brings audiences back to the slasher genre time and time again.  Repetitive knife stabs would get boring pretty quickly.  Something new must come to make things exciting again.

There were two standout deaths in Slaughter High that kept it from being as mundane as it could have been.  One was when a guy was fixing a tractor, and the killer turned it on so that he would be killed by the lawnmower blades.  The death wasn’t shown to its full extent, though, which took away some of the effect that it could have had.  The bigger, better death was the sex scene death.  When the two consenting adults were having sex on the squeaky metal bedframe that everyone else could hear, the woman started screaming “I’m cumming!”  As her screams of ecstasy rang out, the killer electrified the bedframe.  Her screams of pleasure became screams of agony and the two lovers were fried to death.  It was the highlight of the movie.

Nearly every slasher movie tries to outdo the other slasher films coming out around the same time so it can be seen as the superior slasher.  That usually comes in the form of the kills.  This is especially true with franchises that don’t only need to go above and beyond other movies, but above and beyond themselves.  Friday the 13th would eventually get to a point where Jason punched the head off of one of his victims in a boxing match.  How can that even be topped?  Oh, A Nightmare on Elm Street was a franchise that was always ahead of the game with creative kills.  The dream setting of the movies let creativity blossom, with people’s hearing aids growing claws, or a motorcycle attacking the rider.  The standout of the franchise was Freddy using a characters veins and arteries to control them like a marionette.  Innovation leads to innovation.  Heightened kills lead to heightened kills which lead to creativity.  The kills are the lifeblood of slasher movies.

Yet, some movies are scary enough without that same level of creativity in the kills.  Simplicity can be as effective as insanity.  I Know What You Did Last Summer was pretty close to lacking the creativity, while still being effective.  Most of the murders were simple hook stabbings.  It was the situation around them that brought the horror.  One character witnessed another being murdered.  A character was close to getting help, but was stopped a mere few steps from safety.   Moments like those built the terror, making what could have been simplistic attempts at horror into something more.
These were only four of the major tropes apparent in slasher movies.  There are more that could be touched upon.  The final girl, the unlikeable characters, drugs, bad decisions, and all that sort of stuff.  That will come in a later post.  Four is enough for this week.

Slaughter High played into those four tropes in a big way.  It tried to be the most stereotypical slasher movie out there, and was fairly successful at that.  It subverted the formula at the end with an unexpected twist to the final girl trope, but outside of that, it was the blueprint to a T.  It was a good example of everything that gets done time and time again through the slasher subgenre, and gave insight into those various elements.

The most accessible type of horror is the slasher movie because audiences know exactly what they’re going to get.  There will be sex, murder, interesting looking killers, and a past that comes back to haunt the characters.  Exceptions can be made, but for the most part, those are the essential elements to any slasher.  Slaughter High had those elements.  The Halloween franchise had those elements.  The Friday the 13th movies had those elements.  They go through the whole slasher world, to different degrees for each movie.  There’s always some form of each, though, which helps to keep slasher movies fun.
These notes might be fun:

  • Slaughter High featured actress Caroline Munro, who was the star of the first ever Sunday “Bad” Movie, Starcrash (week 1).
  • Throughout this post, I mentioned April Fools (week 18), The Gingerdead Man (week 69), Elves (week 106), Sleepaway Camp (week 150), and Jack Frost (week 54).  I also mentioned Halloween (I watched Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (week 48)) and Friday the 13th (I watched Friday the 13th V: A New Beginning (week 46) and Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (week 85)).
  • Bob Clark was mentioned in this post.  He directed Baby Geniuses and Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 (week 50).
  • Have you seen Slaughter High?  What slashers have you seen?  What tropes didn’t I mention that I should at some point?  Let me know in the comments.
  • The comments can also be used to let me know about the movies I should be checking out for the Sunday “Bad” Movies.  There or Twitter.  I’m always keeping an eye out for movies I might not have known about.
  • Here’s my snapchat (jurassicgriffin) in case anyone’s interested in seeing what I have to share there.
  • Next week is one of those weeks where I check out more than one movie.  What franchise will I be checking out this time?  I’m diving back into video game movies as I check out Street Fighter and Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, which are not direct sequels, but are both based on the same video game series.  Come back in a week to see what I’ve got to say about them.  See you soon.

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