While slasher films may have their roots in the 1970s with such fare as Bay of Blood, Black Christmas, The Town That Dreaded Sundown and Halloween, the sub-genre was at its prolific height in the 1980s. If you ask most folk about slasher films from that era most of the responses will focus on the two titans of terror that are Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees and Nightmare On Elm Street’s Freddy Kruger. And possibly the terror of mediocrity that was some of the sequels to these original gems ( Personal Rant Sidebar Alert: while Halloween 3 – Season of the Witch as managed to become somewhat of a cult classic, despite the lack of Michael Myers, the same will never be said of Friday the 13th Part 5 – A New Beginning.). But what about other teenagers in peril films that the decade came up with? Don’t they deserve their time in the sun as well? Here are, in no particular order, 5 Semi Obscure Slasher films that I think are worth anyone’s time checking out… (Spoilers ahead, even though these films are all 30 plus years old internet etiquette doth demand it!)
5) April Fool’s Day
April Fool’s Day (1986), directed by Fred Walton is a film that seems to divide viewers straight down the middle into ‘Loved It’ or ‘Hated It’ camps. Essentially a retelling of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians but with hot American teenagers it tells of the tale of a group of friends going to a remote island for an end of college celebration but one by one they fall victim to an invisible killer. Or do they? Well, no actually. In this case the clue really is in the title of the film. No one dies. The killings were set up by their host Muffy (Deborah Foreman) as a test run for a Murder Mystery night she wants to set up. Many horror fans were angered by the ending, branding it a cheat (which doesn’t do wonders for the reputation of horror fans as blood thirsty ghouls who just want to see maiming and tits). However, I think if it weren’t for this angle the film would not be remembered at all. In the original ending of the film a real killer did show up pick the characters off. This ending wouldn’t be nearly so effective in my opinion. The acting is decent, it features genre favourites Amy Steel (Ginny from Friday the 13 Part 2) and Thomas S Wilson (Biff from the Back to the Future films) and while it may not have many scares, the script is punchy and pacey, the characters are for the most part likeable and it holds up to multiple viewings, long after you know ‘the twist’. In fact, if you do feel ‘cheated’ after watching this film you can blame the marketing department as it was sold to audiences in such a way to piggy back off the success of other ‘holiday’ based horror films of the time such as Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, Graduation Day, Happy Birthday to Me, Silent Night Deadly Night and so on. If it doesn’t work as a by the book slice and dice slasher that’s because it isn’t one really. If looked as a dark comedy/mystery/slasher it actually works on all of these levels. Whether it is a ‘pure’ slasher’ is something that can be debated on internet message boards until the cows come home, and it will be, because this is the internet after all! It’s inclusion on this list is somewhat of a wild card, but I feel it’s earned it place. It did something different and unexpected with a genre that was starting to feel a bit stale by the mid-1980s, so I definitely give it points for that.
4) Sleepaway Camp
Sometimes known as ‘Nightmare Vacation’ in the UK, Sleepaway Camp (1983) also has a surprise ending. I won’t spoil this one, because it’s one you really have to experience for yourself. Angela Baker (Felissa Rose), an incredibly shy and awkward girl who lost her parents at a young age, is sent to summer camp with her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). Once there, a series of brutal killings terrorize the camp. Sounds very standard slasher doesn’t it? But suspenseful direction from Robert Hiltzik and some inventive kills (the nastiest of which has to be death by curling iron in a place a curling iron has absolutely no business being) rise above standard. Felissa Rose is very effective as the painfully quiet Angela, you really feel for her as the other campers make her life hell. This is one of the those slashers were the unlikeable characters get it bad (I admit the term ‘unlikable’ is fairly tame when one of the characters in question in a paedophile chef) The occasional lacklustre acting from the rest of the cast is more than made up for with Angela’s unhinged Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould), who seems to have wandered in from a John Waters film by mistake. This is a film, like April Fool’s Day in fact, that you really need to introduce someone who hasn’t seen it so you can watch their reaction to the ending. Whether you find it creepy as all hell or slightly laughable, it will stay with you. There are a number of sequels to Sleepaway Camp, which stray into more macabre comedy territory (the first two certainly) which are also worth checking out, but I remain loyal to the original on this one. Creepy, creative and with plenty of nasty bits to make you squirm, (if curling iron death doesn’t do it for you, there’s also scalding water and bees. Not at the same time, I hasten to add), Sleepaway Camp is definitely high on the list of best slashers of the 1980s for me.
P.S – Worth a watch for the hilarious 1980s fashion on display alone. If the film doesn’t appeal you can always play ‘count the bulge’ given the number of tiny shorts and crop tops on display, all worn by men. And you are very welcome for that tip, Ladies.
3) The Funhouse
Directed by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper, The Funhouse is a grim little affair. And I mean that as a compliment. A group of teenagers go to a travelling carnival and decide it would be japes to spend the night in the Funhouse. It is not a spoiler to say that they are wrong about this impulsive decision. They are attacked and killed by the Funhouse operator’s son, a mentally deficient, deformed man child who wears a Frankenstein mask and isn’t a sort of rip off of Jason Voorhees at all. (Ahem). This kind of works for the film though, as it has many references to other horror films. Psycho and Halloween are both referenced in the first five minutes. The special effects makeup is courtesy of the maestro Rick Baker (best known for his jaw dropping and still totally amazing to this day work on An American Werewolf in London) and hold up very well. When you see the villain unmasked it truly is a dreadful sight, if slightly reminiscent of Sloth from The Goonies. The quartet of idiots, sorry, intrepid heroes who venture into The Funhouse are just about likeable enough that you don’t want them to meet the business end of horrible, gruesome death. The acting is a little shaky, but very passable by slasher standards. The setting of a carnival is a great place for a horror film, with all the flashing lights, whirling rides and weird sideshow characters adding a surreal atmosphere to proceedings. Like Jason Voorhees the villain has a certain amount of sympathy to him, an unfortunate freak of nature who has been laughed at and abused all his life. While this is nowhere near the league of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper ‘s direction builds up a decent amount of tension, using the eeriness and darkness inside the closed Funhouse in contrast to the bright nights and noise outside it to great effect. He very capably brings The Funhouse to life (and then various deaths).
I have discussed this film at length in another post I made but I still think this is one is overlooked so am adding it to this list. The Mutilator (1985) is a rarity in the slasher cannon in that the killer is known from the beginning of the film. It centres on a group of college kid spending their Fall Break (is that even a thing? It’s even the alternate title for the film) at the beach house of one of their fathers. Unfortunately, said one accidentally killed his Mother years before on his Father’s birthday and now Dad has gone, for want of a better term, utterly deranged. (As in, runs people over with his speedboat and then keeps a framed picture of his victim in his house, that sort of deranged). He then proceeds to pick them off one by one. This is actually, quite a fun little film. While not by any means a classic, it seems odd that this film is relegated to obscurity while many other films from the period are held in much higher regard. The characters are actually not complete dickheads down to a man. This is a group of people you could actually believe were friends. In modern horror films, the group of delectable young things are usually such utter bastards, mostly to each other, and you just could not conceive of these people being mates. Or even having any friends at all. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was devastated beyond all belief when any of them died, I wasn’t actively cheering the villain on. The effects are pretty good, and I believe this film had some of the gorier scenes cut before release, which is a shame. Not because I’m a gore hound, but because you would expect a high level of blood and guts from such a film, and I think this time it would have added to the film. There is a lack of suspense that you would inevitably feel when the killer is known from the very beginning, there’s no mystery there, so the film makers need to use other tactics to hold the audience’s collective interest, which it does with a fast pace, likable characters and inventive kills (special mention going to the notorious ‘fish hook’ scene. Both genders will cross their legs protectively with that one) Jack Chatman, who plays the insane dad, gives a good performance just the right side of full blown ham, and he stalks the screen menacingly enough. The script, while slightly clunky, is decent, as is the directing by Buddy Cooper.
P.S – It also has a weirdly catchy theme song, called (what else?) ‘Fall Break’ The song is great in that 1980s tragic way, like someone heard Van Morrison’s ‘Bright Side Of The Road’ and tried to meld it with some Bruce Springsteen. I make that sound awesome actually; the song is not as good as that.
The Burning (1981) is perhaps best known as being the first film produced by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, and for the early appearances of future stars Holly Hunter and Jason Alexander. Or for being caught up in the Video Nasty debacle of the early 1980s. Or maybe some people just know it as Friday the 13th rip off with no merits. Well, it definitely has merits, and as much as it follows the well-worn path of slashers before it, it does come up with a couple of new ideas of its own. Based on an urban legend that originated in New Jersey, The Burning tells the tale of an unpopular summer camp caretaker who is brutally burned when a prank played on him by some campers go awry. Five years later, the caretaker, Cropsy, returns to get revenge on the campers. Although not on the kids who accidentally set him on fire. Or at the camp where it actually happened. But I think we can assume an angry crispy fried dude wielding garden shears probably isn’t of sound mind. One of major aces in The Burning’s hand is Tom Savini, who turned down Friday the 13th Part 2 to work on the special effects for this film. Savini’s work is universally loved by horror fans, and for good reason, he clearly adores what he does and he does it incredibly well. His effects (for the most part) always stand the test of time, and if they haven’t there’s still something very charming about the hokey ‘spotting the strings’ way they were executed, and…I can feel myself about to dive head first into a rant about practical effects vs CGI so I shall shift back to talking about The Burning. Unlike other slashers that get straight into the killing The Burning is more of a slow burner (pun intended!) After the initial act of violence against the unfortunate Cropsy there are no kills until about the 40 minute mark, which is unusual for such a film. This means until then the film has to rely on character development and tension build up as Cropsy stalks the campground. Except for the usual smattering of unlikeable, bullying cretins that populate these films the characters are a likeable and well executed bunch (way nicer than the crew of little Hitlers that went to Sleepaway Camp), especially Jason Alexander’s Dave and Brian Matthew’s Todd. Once the gore does start flowing it is really flows, especially during the infamous raft scene. Also interesting is the fact that the climatic duel at the end is with two boys against the villain, instead of the unusual ‘Final Girl’ trope. I find this quite refreshing; as it lends a different dynamic to the end of the film and helps it start out against other slashers of the era. And hey, if The Burning hadn’t been made and kick-started Miramax, we never would have had such cinematic classics as She’s All That and Highlander: End Game. So, er, thanks for that The Burning.