Interview: "The Slasher Movie Book" Author J.A. Kerswell Talks The Joys & Misconceptions Of The Horror Subgenre

Interview: "The Slasher Movie Book" Author J.A. Kerswell Talks The Joys & Misconceptions Of The Horror Subgenre
Is that what made you first identify with the genre as a whole, when you first started watching slasher movies as a kid?
Well, the first one that I saw was Halloween II; I’d first heard about it back in 1982 or 1983, when I was in school, and I think I’d always been a sort of natural horror movie fan. I always seemed to have an interest in it, and I always wanted to stay up late and watch horror movies. Back when I was growing up, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the only things we had on TV were really bad early ’70s TV movies, the Hammer films, and adverts on TV.

 
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.
 

I remember as a kid going to see a Disney film with my parents—I can’t remember which one it was, but I do remember one of the trailers that played before it, and it was the trailer for Visiting Hours, from 1982, the hospital-set slasher film. I just remember being about 12 or 13 years old and saying to myself, “I really, really need to see this.” So it was almost built into me, I think. And when I saw Halloween II, Friday the 13th, and all those films for the first time, they didn’t disappoint, and that stayed with me, I guess. I’ve always been looking to replicate that thrill.

The first film that I saw in the cinema was the original A Nightmare on Elm Street, when I was about 15; in the U.K., it’s not like the R-rated system in the States, where you can be taken by a parent or guardian. You have to be over 18 to see them, and they were X-rated, though not like the porn films. [Laughs.] A friend of mine was an usher, and he smuggled a whole bunch of us in, and I just remember watching it and feeling the sort of electricity in the movie theater. It was quite infectious, and I’ve always loved those kinds of popcorn horror movies. I don’t think you can have a better time in a movie theater rather than when you’re with a group of people who are screaming and shouting through a horror movie—I just think it’s really good fun.

It’s interesting that the first one you saw in a theater was the original Elm Street, because that opened in theaters in 1984, right at the tail-end of the “Golden Age” you wrote about in the book (1978–1984). So you didn’t even have the chance to see all of those “Golden Age” films in the theater, then?
No, no, because in 1978 I was only 9 years old, so I couldn’t watch these kinds of movies in the cinema. I wrote this a little bit in the book, about how the school bus used to drive past the cinema, and each morning there seemed to be—and this must have been about 1980, or 1982—just a succession of horror movie posters. Every week, it’d be another Friday the 13th movie, or Happy Birthday to Me, or Terror Train; back then, there always seemed to be a horror movie playing. And this was before the days of multiplexes, as well, so you maybe had like one or two screens.

My introduction, really, before Elm Street, was via video, and this was the days of beta-max and VHS. In the U.K., this was during the time of the “Video Nasties” hysteria, where a lot of videos did get banned for quite a while, but for a few years there were no regulations; it was almost like the Wild West. In the U.K., it was lawless, so you had all of these great films being released on video, and you could hide them, pretty much, because they didn’t have certificates, they’d bypassed the censors. So that’s how I was able to see films like Friday the 13th, Happy Birthday to Me, and The Prowler.

The bad thing was, though, that, since I wasn’t able to see any horror films in the cinema before A Nightmare on Elm Street, the “Golden Age” had gone, and it was pretty shallow pickings for the next decade. [Laughs.] It was kind of strange when Scream came out, because I’d gone about 10 years trying to get people to watch slasher movies, and sometimes with great success, but sometimes with no success. I don’t know if you remember Lucio Fulci, the Italian director…

Of course, yeah. He was brilliant when it came to gore.
Exactly, yeah. I used to go down to the video shop and choose movies, and one time I made my entire family, grandmother included, watch Fulci’s Zombie, and it didn’t go over quite well. [Laughs.] So I stopped doing that for quite a while, and it was interesting how much easier it became for me to show friends my favorite old slasher films after Scream came out and ended the streak of really bad ones.

Before writing The Slasher Movie Book, you covered the genre on your all-slasher-movie website, Hysteria Lives. Was it that lack of friends who shared the same interest as you that made you start writing about slasher movies in the first place?
Well, it was kind of a weird time. Before Scream came out… This was before the explosion of the Internet, really, when people everywhere started getting Internet connections in their homes. Slasher movies and those kinds of movies from the early ’80s didn’t really seem to get talked about anywhere, and so it was almost starting to feel a bit lonely being a slasher movie fan. [Laughs.] I wanted to teach myself HTML and how to design a website, so I thought, Well, what better way to do that than by writing about something that interests me?

So I started that, and grew and grew and grew, and I started getting emails from around the world, especially from the States. And that’s how I knew that… Before it was released in the States, as you know, The Slasher Movie Book was released in the U.K. as Teenage Wasteland, in 2010. I remember saying to the publishers in the U.K. that the natural home for the book was in America, because, although I do cover lots of different countries, I think the slasher movie resonates best in the United States, and that’s where I’ve always wanted the book to come out.

With the website, I was getting emails from people in the States who were going, “None of my friends like slasher movies, so it’s great to see someone who not only likes them but also likes to be critical about them without taking it too seriously, and appreciating the cheesiness of it, as well.” I do like the serious-minded slasher movies, but, as I said before, I like nothing better than watching a fun slasher movie in a room full of people appreciating it.

What I love about slasher movies, as well, is that they do have the power to shock. I saw the original Friday the 13th at a screening, probably about 10 years ago, and everyone was laughing quite a bit at all of the cheesy moments until the axe fell, so to speak, and the gore started, and people started to shut up then. They were actually shocked by it. There’s also this kind of dangerous quality to these films, where you don’t know what’s going to happen, and sometimes they really go off the road map and do something outlandish, which, again, in these generic times we live, doesn’t happen anymore.

Tags: horror, the-slasher-movie-book-ja-kerswell, england, slasher-movies, friday-the-13th, halloween
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