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)