The fan base for the “slasher movie,” the carnage-heavy subgenre of the horror world, is made up of two kinds of people: the outspoken, shameless aficionados, and the quieter, keep-it-to-themselves faction.
About the latter, we can’t necessarily blame them. There’s something inherently off about a person who voluntarily, and very enthusiastically, watches film after film in which a homicidal maniac stalks attractive youngsters and then slaughters them in grotesquely creative ways. But those who swear by movies with titles like Silent Night, Deadly Night, Splatter University, and The Slayer know the deal: There are very few movie-viewing experiences more fun than taking in a slasher flick, whether it’s good (see: John Carpenter’s original Halloween) or bad (see: 1981’s Student Bodies).
A proud, lifelong slasher movie fanatic, England native J.A. Kerswell, 43, has made it his personal, and now professional, mission to spread the joys of his beloved horror film type. Since 1998, Kerswell has presided over the all-slasher website Hysteria Lives!, on which he reviews all that the subgenre has to offer and also provides history lessons, interviews, and audio podcasts.
In 2010, he took the big leap into published books, writing the in-depth and fun analytical tome Teenage Wasteland. Now, after that first incarnation’s success in the U.K., Kerswell’s 200-page dissection of prey-and-kill cinema has arrived stateside, with a new title, The Slasher Movie Book, but with the same insight and vast array of old movie posters and in-theater lobby cards. Nowadays, it’s rare to come across a new piece of cinematic sales art that’s memorable, let alone worth collecting, yet, back in the 1970s and ’80s, slasher movies were guaranteed to have ornate posters, oftentimes ones that were better than the films themselves. And by “ornate,” we mean adorned with images of sexy women shrieking in terror as oversize knives and other weaponry point at their chests. Oh, the good old days!
Having read, and thoroughly enjoyed, The Slasher Movie Book, we’ve been compelled to revisit underrated gems like The Burning and Torso, as well as subject ourselves once again to the hilarious ineptitude on display in the 1982 oddity Pieces. Clearly, Kerswell’s efforts with the book were a success. Complex recently chatted with the author to discuss what makes slasher movies so irresistible, why critics can’t seem to give them a break, their unacknowledged origins, and why inferior ones are actually superior.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
The Slasher Movie Book has an insane amount of old movie posters and lobby cards. How’d you go about obtaining such an impressive collection?
Yeah, it was a fun book to put together, and I’ve sort of been collecting artwork for about 15 years or so. A lot of the artwork I actually picked up rather cheaply on eBay, before it got all crazy. It was quite a few years ago when some people collected artwork like that but not as many people outside of that were interested in these kinds of movies, so I was able to get quite a lot of it for cheap prices. A lot of the Mexican stuff, especially, you can pick it up for about $5 or $6 on eBay still; a lot of people seem to be collecting the old Hammer stuff, so that’s a bit more expensive, but the lesser known stuff is out there pretty cheaply.
I’d built up a bit of collection, and I wanted to share the collection, I guess, so this seemed like a good way to do that. The artwork that’s in the book, if you look at it against what’s seen these days, it’s a lot more fun compared to the pretty generic, boring movie artwork that’s being done today.
Did you visit eBay with specific posters in mind, or was it more of a random search approach to see what was out there and readily available?
Not everything was obtained through eBay, actually; a lot of it, I got through other means and through other collectors. I’d say about two-thirds of the artwork in the book is actually mine, and the rest I borrowed from other people. It’s a lot more difficult now to collect movie posters, and I’m actually surprised that these kinds of movies are still popular with so many people, even though many of them are over 30 years old now. Those kind of movie posters are going for quite big bucks now.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Alamo Drafthouse, out in Texas…
I was there for the first time in March, actually, for the SXSW Film Festival. It’s like movie nerd heaven.
Oh, excellent. It really is. They have all of these retro screen prints of movie posters, and when I was there I picked one up for The Burning. Those are incredibly popular, so they sell out quickly and go for hundreds of dollars.
It’s surprising to me that a lot of teenagers and people in their 20s, who weren’t even born when those films came out, have a lot of love for these old slasher films, too.
And it’s interesting how many people who seek these kinds of movie posters out may not even like the movies themselves, or have even seen them. It’s often more for the love of the artwork.
Yeah, absolutely. A lot of the other books on this subject have been rather dry, and very text-based, and for such a visceral movie genre, when I wrote it, I really wanted the book to reflect that. I love the movies—not all of them, but I love a lot of them. The movie posters are the things that really do it for me, though. But I think you’re right—it’s a coffee table book.
I’ve talked to many people who’ve picked the book up but have no interest in the genre, but they’re fascinated by these kinds of posters. That time is really gone now; if you look back at all of the Scream-era films, for instance, all of the movie posters were just these pretty young TV stars staring out of the poster, and all of the really colorful, gory, and gaudy movie artwork had gone to the wayside. And the same now, where we’ve got all of this Photoshopped stuff, and some of it is well-done, but it’s really all the same. I think there’s a hankering for that old era where the posters were much more colorful and gorier.
I was talking about it to someone the other day. It’s interesting to talk about films in which people are being stalked, killed, and murdered and use the word “innocence." In these films, especially the early ’80s films, which at the time were really hated by critics, there was a kind of innocence and naiveté about them, which I think people find appealing. It’s the opposite of what’s going on these days, like with all of the remakes.
The Friday the 13th remake is one where it’s populated by pretty much all unlikeable characters, and I can never really understand why you’d make a horror movie that requires some likeable characters for us to care about and just make them all annoying assholes—that seems strange to me. Whereas the films back then, while they did have their annoying characters, but they were most made up of people you liked and identified with.