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What horror film drew first blood in the slasher genre? It’s the question that has caused much consternation within the terror tribes. Many claimed that Italian maestro Mario Bava’s A Bay Of Blood aka Twitch Of The Death Nerve, a quirky but surprisingly gory Agatha Christie style whodunnit, had the first stab in 1971. Others declare that Bob Clark’s 1974 yuletide chiller Black Christmas, a major influence on John Carpenter’s seminal shocker Halloween, opened the blood gates. For true gore-soaked body count believers, however, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday The 13th, released in 1980, was the film that truly spawned the eighties slasher explosion.
There’s no denying the importance, and success, of Carpenter’s relatively-bloodless serial killer thriller, but it was Friday The 13th and its Grand Guignol chills that filmmakers instantly began to mimic. The film set-up many of the staples of the genre that would be literally be used to death. Slasher films cannot exist without the wild proclamations of a “Crazy Ralph” type character warning kids not to go to the camp, or the camp counselor sitting around a roaring fire telling his newly arrived students a scary story about a young boy who drowned while two of his counselors are off doing the wild thing. The “have sex, will die” motif became a mainstay of the slasher film and an obvious excuse for the filmmakers to display naked female flesh. And then there was the blood. Lots of blood. And once audiences began to delight in this heady concoction of sex and violence, they wanted more.
Latex legend Tom Savini is the man who must take much of the blame for the bloodier side of the deal. The man who gave George Romero’s Martin (1978) and Dawn Of the Dead (1978) guts, was also responsible for a series of gory and devilishly ingenious death scenes in such murderous delights as the 1981 terror trio of The Prowler aka Rosemary’s Killer, Eyes Of A Stranger and The Burning along with Friday The 13th Parts 1 and 4 and Bill Lustig’s incredibly nasty Maniac.
Through these 80s horrors and more, Savini has stabbed and impaled victims with garden implements, dismembered limbs and decapitated heads galore and splashed claret all over the screen. In Friday The 13th he stabbed Kevin Bacon through the neck, in The Burning he chopped off fingers with shears (see below!) and in Maniac he helped Joe Spinell scalp his victims in graphic details. Maniac was also the film where Savini blew off his own head with a shotgun!
It was the second Friday The 13th that really started the franchise mayhem. Taking its template from Mario Bava’s aforementioned proto slasher, Part 2 was the first Friday to feature Jason Voorhees as the killer. In the first film, he was the youngster who “died” in the lake while his teachers had sex, provoking his mother Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) to go on a killing rampage. Part 3 (the film where Jason first put on a hockey mask) was filmed as a 3D gimmick, while Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter (a misnomer if there ever was one) marked the return of Savini (who slid Jason’s face down a machete in gruesome detail). The Final Chapter starred Cory Feldman and most definitely wasn’t the end of Jason's story.
From there Jason still had a new beginning, went to hell and Manhattan, had a duel with A Nightmare On Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, and, in a franchise’s low point, went to space in Jason X.
The Friday The 13th series was the first of several attempts at a long-running franchise. Paul Lynch’s Prom Night (1980) starred Halloween’s Jamie Lee Curtis and Leslie Nielsen, telling the story of a group of high school seniors being terrorised by a mysterious masked killer in revenge for their culpability in the accidental death of a young girl six years earlier. Giving De Palma’s Carrie a run for its money in the glitzy and garish prom stakes, the first Prom Night film kicked off the series with a stylish slasher but the sequels quickly went off the rails with Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II which follows a high school student who becomes possessed by Mary Lou Maloney, the student who died at the 1957 high school prom in the first film.
The Sleepaway Camp series also proved itself to be a vital part of the slasher film explosion. The first film, directed by Robert Hiltzik in 1983, has become a cult classic, much like many of the films mentioned. The graphic and disturbing scares of the 80s soon became seen as camp and kitsch by a new generation of teenage cinema goers. The much-vaunted shocking denouement of Sleepaway Camp, as the killer reveals his/her true nature, now comes across as quirky and goofy. The trilogy still managed its fair share of scares, holding its head high amongst the murderous myriad of horrors that was swamping cinemas at the time.
Audiences, flocked to the cinemas, and local video stores, to view “classics” like Don't Answer the Phone! (1980), Madman (1981), Don’t Go in The Woods (1981), Happy Birthday To Me (1981), The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), and The House On Sorority Row (1983) as studios looked for the next gore soaked cash cow. As the films became more popular at the box office, Hollywood began to take notice and the market was quickly over-saturated.
The big studios craved the financial rewards but few had the guts to release a full-bloodied slasher. Films like My Bloody Valentine and the bulk of the Friday The 13th sequels were cut by the studios and then often censored further by film classification boards. As they became bloodless, the slasher films lost their appeal. With no bodies to count, what was left?
Many may see this catalogue of carnage and wonder why audiences flocked to see these films in the early eighties. What was the draw card? Was a good decapitation really a selling point for a film? The young easy-on-the-eye casts and the promise of salacious shenanigans certainly would have helped, but it was the thrill of the chase while sitting in a packed auditorium that did it. People loved being scared. The fact that the death scenes were bloody and graphic added a visceral thrill. Audiences watched through clenched fingers as Jason, Michael Myers, Cropsy or Madman Marx raised their axe to reduce a movies cast list. When watched today, the effects are often hokey, CGI was a mere glint in James Cameron’s eye, but it didn’t matter. The cathartic communal thrill of the kill was all that audiences wanted. They bayed for blood and filmmakers listened. For a brief time in history, the slasher film was a cut above the rest.
Friday The 13th airs on um, Sunday the 6th at 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND. Unfortunately the movie will not be available for catch-up viewing at SBS On Demand after broadcast.