Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Summer of Slash: Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film

Here's an interesting and entertaining documentary that is ultimately unsatisfying because it omits important slashers like Black Christmas or the imports from Italy. However, the film does includes great interviews with other important slasher figures besides Craven and Carpenter and Savini, which makes it a tad more interesting than I was anticipating. You get to hear from the people who created The Prowler and The Slumber Party Massacre and My Bloody Valentine and Graduation Day, and many others. And that is what makes it an engaging documentary: we actually get to hear from the people who cashed in on the success of the Craven's and Sean Cunningham's (who is a hack that got lucky…and he kind of admits that in the film). One of the things that is annoying about the documentary, though, is that the interviews are rarely stationary as the interviewees walk around talking about the genre and the camera is constantly moving with them (even if they do stop for a second). I don't need to be "entertained" during an interview…what the people are saying is interesting enough, but the makers of this documentary failed to understand that.

Throughout the documentary though there are interesting and amusing anecdotes about the making of seminal slashers like Halloween and Friday the 13th – my favorite being the latter where director Sean Cunningham explains that he came up with the newspaper ad for the film before he even had a script, and that ad forced him to seriously get moving on his idea for his exploitation film. The film then moves from those two seminal American slashers (read: the first two to make money of the "silly" subgenre) to all of the copycats and money-grabs that came after. It's amazing to think about the success and the impact of Firday the 13th, a film so bad that it still boggles my mind why people in the documentary really don't properly cite Bob Clark's wonderful Black Christmas (which gets no mention at all) or Bava's equally masterful Bay of Blood (briefly mentioned) as the templates that American slahers uses to make their money and popularized horror films which then got the studios involved in bidding wars for these films.

The always entertaining Tom Savini's is interviewed throughout (since he was really more responsible for Friday the 13th's success than Cunningham was) and he shares an amusing piece of advice he got from George Romero when working on Dawn of the Dead about how you begin thinking about a film: Romero's advice was to think of ways to kill people first, then you have your film. As mentioned earlier the chronology of the rise of the slasher film appropriately begins with Halloween, but I can't reiterate enough how disappointing and frustrating the film is in how it refuses to acknowledge the influence and importance of Black Christmas, instead giving all of the credit to the commercially successful examples like Halloween and Friday the 13th.

After spending a good chunk of the film on the importance of Carpenter and Cunningham's films, the documentary then begins to turn into nothing more than a TV special (it reminded me of those awful countdowns Bravo use to do) as it moves too quickly through important slasher subjects like the Final Girl (perhaps because they couldn't get interviews with any of the actresses), but it would have been interesting to hear about those roles affected their lives and careers (something Craven broached in his New Nightmare) , especially actresses like Amy Steel (my favorite, and the most bad ass, Final Girl from Friday the 13th: Part 2) or Heather Langenkamp (again, her plight is well documented and fictionalized in Craven's New Nightmare). The documentary only briefly discuss the influence of Italian and Canadian slasher films. My Bloody Valentine (Canada) and Bay of Blood (Italy) rightfully get a lot of the attention, but what about oddities like Visiting Hours or Stagefright, from Canada and Italy respectively? It's interesting how they talk about the reaction to people from other countries cashing in on the American subgenre, but what's ironic is that those American slashers would have never been profitable had it not been for some of these films that they cribbed from.

Silly slashers like Happy Birthday to Me and He Knows You're Alone and April Fool's Day are mentioned. Also The Prowler – which is one of the most flawed slashers, but amazing to look at (both in set design and gore effects), gets some mention before they delve back into the The Friday the 13thfranchise and how Paramount wanted to kill off Jason thanks to the backlash against the slasher genre (which is funny, because Friday the 13th: Part 3 is one of the goofiest and least violent slashers), and then the birth of the "sophisticated" slasher A Nightmare on Elm Street (which of course devolved into one of the silliest franchises ever, further destroying the already decaying and over saturated subgenre) – a film I still think holds up exceptionally well.

Other tidbits I enjoyed, even though they only received a passing mention: The importance of the biggest "Holy Shit" moment in the subgenre from Sleepaway Camp, as one interviewee states his hypothesis that Neil Jordan saw that film and decided to rip it off for The Crying Game. The "dorm killer" spoof The Slumber Party Massacre and how its feminist writer and director actually thought the film wasn't perpetuating the female stereotypes often found in slasher movies. All of this is punctuated nicely with an interesting clip shown from an old Siskel and Ebert show where they accost the genre for its treatment of women (Siskel attributes it to the growth of the woman's movement). This is the most interesting part of the documentary as people involved in the genre talk about its biggest critics just not understanding what they're doing. I do agree with Siskel and Ebert on some of their arguments – especially in the hack-directed/starred, exploitative films – but I do think they stack the deck a bit as in the clips from the show we them discussing advertisements for low rent slashers like The Bogeyman and Don't Answer the Phone, rather than focusing on some of the better made slashers.

The film then moves on to the big controversy surrounding the rather terrible and banal slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night in which a psycho in a Santa suit rapes and kills a woman. This caused a grassroots campaign by oversensitive mothers to get the film removed from theaters. Really, the film had little effect because it was such a lousy movie, but the marketing guys were geniuses covering up the blemishes of their movie with a great ad campaign that made the movie seem a lot nastier than it really was. The film concludes with the mention of Scream, and how Craven is a genius, and then moves on to mentioning some of the new voices of the slasher genre like Rob Zombie and Greg McLean.

It's an interesting documentary for any fan of the genre, and if you're a die-hard fan then you'll be able to fill in the obvious pot holes in the film's chronology of the slasher film and its most important films. For novices of the genre it does a decent job of showing how the slasher film became so popular, what films were primarily responsible for its meteoric rise, and how the glut of slashers released from 1981 – 1985 killed the genre for good. Huge omissions aside, it's a fun and entertaining, if not disappointingly short, documentary.


  1. I'll agree with you -- it's a fun documentary that just is too short to fully delve into the genre. I think your comparing it to one of those Bravo "Best of" shows is dead on.

    Maybe we need to make our own version...

    I did see that this is the book that it seems to be derived from. You can read it online: Falling to Pieces by Adam Rockoff

  2. Troy:

    I'm reading it right now. I'm taking it to Vegas with me. I also have "Nightmare USA", but that big is so damn big (about the size of your Horror Encyclopedia) that it's not even worth taking it with me for a brief vacation....Sunriver on the other hand...hehe. "Nightmare USA" is a really impressive collection of tidbits and poster art from the exploitation era.

  3. Oh, didn't know you had those. Cool -- I definitely want to take a look at "Nightmare USA" at some point. I currently just have a scan of it as a PDF on my computer.

  4. great post here, and the Bravo comparison is really dead on.

    I think searching 'slasher film' on wikipedia would be more fruitful for someone looking to seriously get into the genre.

    I was always irked at the lack of non-USA entries. Two of my favorite slashers, both from Spain, 'Pieces' and 'Curtain' are no where in sight. Even if you want to talk only USA slashers where is 'Black Christmas' (as you note) or the good trash like 'Motel Hell', 'Slaughterhouse', 'Invader' ect.

    A fun book on the subject (I've just read a long article on it, not the book as a whole) is 'Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film' by Carol Clover.

  5. Jamie:

    I haven't seen Pieces, but it's another one that's in my queue. I agree with you that the film breezes too quickly through the subgenre, and really if people want to find out about the slasher and read some literature on it, then they should just get the book, which is a terrific read (I'll be formally reviewing it later this summer).

    I haven't read the book by Clover, but the author of Going to Pieces quotes her in his introduction to the I'll have to check it out.