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.
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.
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.
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.
In the book, you write that slasher movies were the “bottom-of-the-barrel whipping boys” of the movie world, in terms of how critics treated them. Why do you think there was so much hate? It had to be more than just the gore. A film like John Carpenter’s Halloween is regarded as genius today, but it was bashed by critics when it was first released. Were critics just no used to that level of darkness in horror movies?
It’s a good question, really. With Halloween, it had a weird start. Famously, John Carpenter showed the first cut of the film to a female studio executive who said that it wasn’t scary, but then he added the now-famous music into it and that really made the film. But also with Halloween, it got fairly mediocre to awful reviews when it came out; even a film like Black Christmas, which Variety described as “old hat,” but that’s another film that’s seen as being one of the forefathers of the slasher movie subgenre, but in 1974 they were saying that having the killer in the house was “old hat.”
It’s a weird thing, really. Sometimes, when one critic says that “this is a masterpiece,” people suddenly go, “Oh, what have I missed?” and they go have another look at it. In this case, Halloween is indeed a masterpiece, but it wasn’t until a few influential critics started comparing it to Psycho that it got re-evaluated and then became this runaway hit.
I’ve been going back and reading some of these reviews, and it’s strange. Famously, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel reviewed Friday the 13th and gave it such a scathing review that it got to a point where there was a feeling of disgust toward Betsy Palmer, who played Mrs. Voorhees in the film, for taking part in a film like that, and also attacking Paramount for stooping so low to release a film like Friday the 13th. The funny thing is, though, is that now it’s a sort of feel-good movie. [Laughs.] People look back at it with warm nostalgia, but I think we sort of forget how dangerous these movies were.
I think part of the reason why they were so hated was that critics were completely impotent when it came to stopping them—they were critic-proof, essentially. Even though Friday the 13th was roundly criticized when it came out, it made a huge amount of movie. The subsequent films were made for relatively small budgets, and that’s why they made so many of them, because they made a huge financial return. You had no stars, or very few stars, and very few sets. You could make a slasher movie for very little movie and turn a sizable profit.
And they were so many coming out all at once. Some of these critics who would’ve rather been reviewing the new Woody Allen movie weren’t particularly pleased to have go see another Friday the 13th sequel after watching Alone in the Dark (1982) and whatever else, week after week after week. [Laughs.] There was also a lot of unfair criticism being leveled at slasher movies, one of them being that they’re all “misogynistic”; I think there are certain films that have that kind of edge to them, but one of the things that gets forgotten is that half of the audiences for those films were comprised of women, and they’ve got very strong female representations in them.
And you also had the weird political thing in America, as well, where you had Tipper Gore and those kinds of people who were very anti-violence-in-movies, and they were worried that the movies were going to turn a whole generation into psychos. But the irony about that is that the slasher movie was, in fact, a very Republican or kind of right-wing movie, because you’re punishing sex with death, and drugs with death. It’s almost like an authority figure coming in and sorting out the youngsters; they were almost like the “scare films” from the 1930s.
That’s another thing about the book, though: I didn’t want it to turn into another dry, academic look at slasher movies. They’re too much fun for that, though I do think there is room for looking at them more deeply, but at the end of the day they are mostly fun, popcorn movies with a killer chasing some teenagers around a summer camp. The slasher movie shouldn’t be too psychoanalyzed—it should be enjoyed on a more primal level.
That’s what always been so interesting to me about slasher movies, in general—they seem to be one of the only kinds of movies where it’s preferable to watch the really bad ones. Fans of slasher movies love revisiting the cheesiest ones, but you won’t always see people revisit really bad comedies with the same level of excitement. The slasher movie format lends itself quite well to being bad, if that makes sense.
Absolutely, it makes perfect sense. Yeah, some of these films are pretty awful; even the worst ones, though, now have about 20 to 30 years of cheesiness on them, so that makes them quite lovable. A film like Pieces (1982), which I hated when I first saw it, now I can watch it endlessly—it’s incredibly entertaining. When I first saw it, I was kind of used to the polished thrills of films like Friday the 13th, and I wasn’t used to loads of bad acting. I just thought, What the hell is this? [Laughs.] But then, I revisited it years later and realized that it’s actually quite trash-tastic—it just improves with age.
When you voluntarily watch a bad slasher movie, it’s not watching it in a cruel way; it’s just endlessly entertaining, I think. The famous bad performance, for me, is the blonde girl in House on Sorority Row, who is one of the worst actresses ever, but whenever she speaks the movie becomes an absolute howler, but it’s not in a cruel way.
One of the things that I found interesting while researching is that a lot of horror movie fans hated slasher movies, and they still do. They still see them as the lower-par films of the genre, and I’ve never really understood that. It could just be an age thing, but I look back at the old Hammer films and they just don’t really do it for me—they’re just remaking the same thing over and over again. It always puzzled me that the James Bond films, which all basically do the same thing over and over again, don’t get the same kind of criticism that the slasher movie gets. I think it's unfair.
But I suppose that’s part of the joy about slasher movies, as well: They’re the underdog. Enjoying them brings about a certain kind of thrill—you know you’re doing something bad.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)