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
Was one of the book’s main objectives, then, to school people on how different slasher movies were back in the day?
Sure, yeah. I love going back to talking to people who made those older films, too, and finding out about the genesis of it all. But sometimes it felt like it’d be easier to unearth Egyptian hieroglyphics than trying to find out some information about a slasher movie that was made 20 or 30 years ago. [Laughs.] Sometimes there’s little or no information at all about the films.

One of the main things I wanted to do with the film is talk about some of the films that don’t get as much attention, because they interest me, in some ways, more than the big franchise films, like Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Halloween, which have probably been dissected to death over the years. Although I didn’t get the chance to go into as much detail as I would’ve like to about some of the lesser-known films in the book, there are a lot of those films which I think are really good.

Were there any lesser-known ones that you were particularly excited to write about?
Yeah, there’s quite a few. Something like The House on Sorority Row, which is one of the later ones, 1983; I’ve always liked that one, it has a sort of Brian De Palma quality to it. I’ve always thought that was a very stylish and scary movie that also works as a teen slasher movie.

I’ve always really loved many of the second-tier films, something like My Bloody Valentine, which has always been a personal favorite. But at the time it came out, it did really bomb at the box office, and I think part of that was because it did get cut-down so badly for the censors. At the time, you had lots of independents making these kinds of movies, but you also had the big studios, like Paramount and Warner Bros., wanting a slice of the slasher movie pie, so they were pumping up money, and you had these slasher movies with some actual money behind them, which was interesting.

I like how the books starts out with films like The Old Dark House (1932) and The Cat and the Canary (1927), films from the silent era that in many ways started the slasher movie genre. Some people tend to think that the slasher genre started with Psycho.
Yeah, I found it really good fun to piece the history back. Essentially, the slasher movie is a cat-and-mouse game with some theatrics—it’s people being chased, and it’s a roller-coaster ride. I can remember seeing The Old Dark House, which isn’t technically a slasher movie but there are elements in it which informed later movies. And that’s the thing: A lot of times, people seem to think that slasher movies were created in a vacuum, by either Halloween or, like you said, Psycho.

The people who made these classic slasher films, like John Carpenter and Sean Cunningham, grew up on these sorts of films. And, of course, with Psycho, [Alfred] Hitchcock based that on a pulpy book, but before that there were tons of pulpy books, and there were other films like The Screaming Mimi (1958), which has a scene where a woman is menaced by an escapee from a lunatic asylum, who watches her have a shower while holding a knife, and that was made several years before Psycho. So I was very interested in piecing all of that together, and giving people these building blocks, to help them realize that, yes, this subgenre didn’t suddenly just burst into life with Psycho or Halloween or Friday the 13th; it was very much an amalgamation.

To my mind, a film like Halloween is a crystallization of the slasher movie—it’s everything that the slasher movie is. Everything that’s good about it comes together in Halloween, but it doesn’t erase all those things that have come before. I find it really good fun to watch films that came out before Psycho and see where people may have taken elements from. Certainly with The Cat and the Canary, when you think about it, the “cat” and the “canary” is sort of the perfect metaphor of what the slasher movie is about, of the hunter and the hunted.

What might surprise people about those older films, and Psycho and Halloween for the uninitiated, is that there’s no gore whatsoever. When many people think of the term “slasher movie,” things like excessive gore and bloody violence come to mind, but it didn’t start out that way.
Absolutely. I’ve been doing some research recently, and on my Facebook page I’ve been uploading a lot of old reviews of films from the ’80s, and, as I said before, they were really, really hated, and I think a lot of people forget that. In my mind, that’s called the “Golden Age,” but it’s the golden age for fans of the subgenre. Even back then, people were writing in magazines like Fangoria about how awful these films were, and the mainstream critics, whether men or women, hated them even more. And, of course, they were identifying things like the extreme gore, but the irony is that now you watch a film from back and, although the gore in a film like Friday the 13th is fairly explicit, it’s nothing like what you’d see in Piranha 3DD today.

You might look back at a film like King Kong, the original with Fay Wray, from 1933, and that was given an X-certificate, like pretty much all horror movies, in the U.K., and now it’d get something like a PG-certificate. But, yes, I agree that it’s interesting to look at those older films and see how important restraint was to the filmmakers, although films like the Italian giallo films did get increasingly gory, and I think it’s part of the cycle of one person doing it, a producer seeing it and then saying, “OK, how can we top that?” To be honest, I think the slasher movies in the States in the 1980s would have gotten gorier and gorier, but the MPAA really cracked down after Friday the 13th, so the producers had to cut out a lot of the gorier bits.

Of course, today, when you’ve got Blu-ray and special editions of films, those producers are probably kicking themselves for not keeping all of the extra bits that were censored out. [Laughs.] My Bloody Valentine, famously, the producer kept all of the cut-out bits in a safe, in his office, which allowed for the Special Edition DVD that came out a couple of years back, which was great.

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