Look who’s stalking: how the slasher movie screamed its way back

·11 min read

Like the bloody, bullet-strewn killer at the end of a frenzied high body count climax making one medically impossible last-gasp attempt to kill the final girl, the slasher movie is lurching its way back to life with a dramatic jolt. The easily maligned subgenre had shown brief flashes of reanimation in recent years but we’re now in the thick of a full resurgence and this time it’s taking over both the big and small screen. There’s nowhere to hide.

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Earlier this year, Netflix unspooled its ambitious Fear Street trilogy (acquired from Fox during the pandemic), adaptations of RL Stine’s teen novels about a town gripped by a killer curse and earlier this month, it also released There’s Someone Inside Your House, a tale of high schoolers targeted by someone who knows their darkest secrets. Friday saw the launch of David Gordon Green’s Halloween Kills, the second in his new retconned trilogy which made a whopping $50m in the US over the weekend, the same week that Amazon kicked off its Gen-Z remake of I Know What You Did Last Summer, the 1997 slasher now transformed into an eight-part series, and SyFy launched a new sequel series to Child’s Play called Chucky as well as an update of Roger Corman’s Slumber Party Massacre. We’ve also just seen the first trailer for January’s return of Scream, back after an 11-year absence with the original trio onboard, released months before a reboot of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on Netflix, A24’s “socially subversive” Bodies Bodies Bodies, written by the Cat Person author Kristen Roupenian, pandemic slasher 18 & Over and then, of course, Halloween Ends. There’s also a “social media remake” planned of 90s schlocker Urban Legend, a new take on the evil Santa horror Silent Night, Deadly Night and Charlize Theron is producing a HBO Max series based on self-referential summer novel The Final Girls Support Group which will compete with Universal’s adaptation of the similarly themed Final Girls.

After a few measly drops, this is something of a tidal wave, the most bullish slate the slasher has had since the years after the original Scream, which turns 25 this December. That was the film that reignited the subgenre that had been so dominant in the late 70s and throughout the 80s with Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers enthusiastically chopping teens to bits before it all turned into unintentional self-parody by the 90s, something Kevin Williamson capitalised on with his wink-wink smash hit, poking fun at the cliches we had grown to resent. That in turn led to a slightly more knowing reinvention until of course it didn’t and the formula grew tired once more, exhausting critics but, more importantly, boring audiences who had already moved on to J-horror remakes and torture porn.

Maya Hawke in Fear Street Part 1: 1994
Maya Hawke in Fear Street Part 1: 1994. Photograph: AP

The underwhelming box office of 2011’s fourth Scream film, after the Sorority Row remake and Wes Craven’s My Soul to Take both tanked, bashed the final nail in the coffin, burying the stalk-and-slash-em-ups for almost a decade. In the following years, horror became bigger than ever, franchises upon franchises, subgenres upon subgenres, hits upon hits, overserving a previously underserved audience, saturation point in the rearview.

It was 2017’s Happy Death Day, which spliced the masked killer v beautiful young woman A-plot with the time-loop comedy B-plot, that showed signs of life for the slasher, brashly turning Scream into Groundhog Day, an ingenious PG-13 gambit that paid off handsomely – a $4.8m budget cashing out with a $125m worldwide gross. The following year, the arthouse film-maker turned stoner comedy director David Gordon Green and his sometime collaborator Danny McBride brought Halloween’s Laurie Strode back from the dead in the start of a new trilogy that rewrote the history of the franchise, erasing all other sequels (including, criminally, 1998’s excellent Halloween H20), a bolshy tactic that turned it into the biggest slasher movie of all time, silencing Scream with a mammoth $255m global take.

Related: Horror king Jason Blum: ‘You have to find new ways to get under people’s skin’

The writing was then on the wall, in blood of course, that the slasher would return with gory gusto and ever since, execs have been scouring campgrounds, slumber parties and prom nights once again for the next big franchise while also, predictably, plundering old IP to see who else can be brought back from the beyond.

What marked out the success of both Happy Death Day and Halloween was something that’s become increasingly key to the horror genre: a considerable profit margin. The films were produced by Jason Blum and his hit-making company Blumhouse, also behind the Paranormal Activity series and the Purge films, on relatively shoestring budgets that recalled the original stripped-back slasher boom of the 70s and 80s. Films like Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were made for less than $500,000 each and as the slasher went from indie experiment to studio product, budgets rose. Remakes of A Nightmare on Elm Street and House of Wax cost $35m and $40m respectively (sequels failed to follow) with Scream 4 also priced at $40m. All films were indicative of an era where the line between studio and indie films was that much more pronounced, a commercially untenable system, before streaming changed the game.

The phenomenal success of Paranormal Activity (relaunching on Paramount+ later this month because of course) served as a well-timed reminder of the historically low-budget, high-reward nature of horror, briefly restarting the found footage subgenre and cluing in Blumhouse on a new business model. The company’s insistence that films would cost between $5 and $10m meant that even modest successes were deemed major hits and it paved the way for the slasher to return, cheaply made without the need to rely on pricey star power to pull ’em in.

But, budgets aside, the new class have also had to adapt to a new culture, both inside and outside of the horror genre. Historically, the base ingredients of a slasher – dumb, mostly white, usually naked, entirely heterosexual teens performing overwhelmingly gendered roles before getting hacked to bits – have invited great ridicule and at times great offence. There has of course been a separate school of thought that’s found praise for the power awarded to strong-willed female characters, the so-called final girls, who have used their underestimated might to take on invasive men but the framework as a whole was still in need of a refresh.

Ever since Get Out effortlessly reminded film-makers that, yes, the horror genre has a long lineage of combining scares with social commentary, there have been multiple attempts to make genre films that are actually about something as well, for better or, most often, worse.

In 2019, Blumhouse’s Black Christmas remake, written and directed by women, tried to subvert the original’s sorority stalker narrative, created by men, into some sort of theoretically intriguing commentary on consent, toxic masculinity and campus culture. But it was less smart horror and more dumb thesis, confusing buzzwords with an actual coherent script and served as an early warning of how not to do a contemporary slasher. There were similar, if less glaring, problems with Netflix’s There’s Someone Inside Your House earlier this month which wasted a refreshingly diverse cast on a script that tried and failed to say something about privilege and cancel culture. This year’s updated Slumber Party Massacre managed it slightly better, switching up Roger Corman’s lurid exploitation blueprint and passing control back to the ogled women with a nifty midpoint twist (some ogling of shirtless men also helped redress the balance). While the ongoing Halloween trilogy isn’t really trying to do anything other than find new ways for a man in a mask to bash people’s heads in, star Jamie Lee Curtis has now indulged in two press tours where she has doggedly tried to convince us all that the films are actually about generational trauma and #MeToo, comparing her character to Christine Blasey Ford and Michael Myers to Larry Nassar, among others (Rich Juzwiak’s hilarious Jezebel supercut shows this in its full, embarrassing splendour).

It’s by no means an impossible feat, to make a slasher film that’s about something more substantial than sex and stabbing (ironically, Halloween H20 had more to say about PTSD than Halloween 2018 while the Scream films have had plenty to say about plenty of things) but clumsily imposing bulkier issues on films that can’t usually handle the weight is serving no one. Instead, a more effective, and often more casual, update has been in the makeup of the characters themselves, no longer quite so straight and quite so white. The past summer’s Fear Street trilogy centered an interracial lesbian couple without the need to smugly congratulate itself (its epic, three-film theme of the long-term resilience of gay love was particularly effective), there was also an interracial gay male couple in Amazon’s I Know What You Did Last Summer, Child’s Play series Chucky was led by a gay teen, There’s Someone Inside Your House included a non-binary character in its main group of racially diverse teens while last year’s Freaky deftly explored gender and sexual fluidity while never allowing its ebullient Freaky Friday v Friday the 13th mash-up energy to relent. Alternately, the inclusion of a gay couple in Halloween Kills was on the more regressive end of the scale, childishly mocking absurdist characters known as Big and Little John before gleefully slaughtering them.

As inevitable as this shift in slasher diversity yet nowhere near as welcome is a shift in slasher format. The transition of Lois Duncan’s mystery novel I Know What You Did Last Summer from 100-minute movie to an almost seven-hour TV series, days after Child’s Play ballooned into Chucky, showed that like all other genres, the slasher is being shrunk to the small screen while also being expanded beyond its limits (MTV tried the same thing with Scream back in 2015 before a reboot in 2019, neither catching fire). In an age of more, it’s what might test audiences’ appetite the most; the choice to invest weeks into a thinly etched story usually told well under two hours is one that only hardcore fans might opt for (Chucky was met with underwhelming ratings for its premiere episode).

It’s unclear exactly what to expect from the sight unseen slashers leaping out of the darkness and into our cinemas and living rooms over the next year, cards and killers being kept understandably close to chests. The fifth Scream film, out at the start of the year with the duo behind Ready or Not pulling the strings, is shrouded in secrecy as every Scream film should be, with suggestions that even the rather perfunctory first trailer might in fact be a devious tool of misdirection. The buzz surrounding the latest chapter has easily eclipsed that of the fourth (the trailer became a top trending topic within minutes last week), a younger audience now that much more aware of the franchise thanks to the easy access allowed by streaming. It’s part of the reason why the new Halloween films have done so well, attracting a younger audience who might have otherwise been less familiar with the origins of Michael Myers and Laurie Strode, film history a mere click away (even with inflation, H20 made around half of Halloween 2018’s domestic take). Rumours persist that Jason is on his way back next, with Friday the 13th super-fan Lebron James expressing interest in producing and a recent landmark legal case handing the rights to the franchise back to the original screenwriter Victor Miller.

The popularity of genres used to be seen as cyclical, from the western to the romcom to the musical, an industry strictly dictated by box office trends but with the ever-expanding entertainment landscape as it currently is, there’s that much more room for everything to just always be and the rediscovered low-stakes cheapness of slashers means that a gruesome death is nowhere on the horizon. They always come back but maybe this time they’ll actually survive.

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