Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Genre Run-Through: Slasher Films, Part II

All right, now it’s time to do part two of this series, and for a quick refresher course on what’s going on, this one is going to answer in detail another question I posted in part 1, which for those just joining in I listed off here but is specifically this question among the various ones I offered:

What was the first slasher film?

Now, this is an important question to answer and one that really deserves more explanation. While it’s almost impossible to please anyone with a solid choice, there’s a way to have a series of suitable candidates that emerge from the dust, and therefore I’m going to maneuver my way through a timeline of the films to shed some light on the subject.

But, again, where do we start? The answer is simple, and that’s to do what always happens when you’re stuck with the who-influenced-who question: The Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock and his classic Psycho.

This is definitely a film where we can start the discussion, not only due to the historical release date but for a variety of factors. Among the main factors here is the fact that this is one of the first cases ever in the genre where it showcases all the required elements usually outlined in the previous set-up (there’s a human killer who kills off at least two people without using a firearm or explosive as the main weapon) but there are other bits of criteria involved in the film that does spring up and should be explored.

An elementary by-product of by a slasher film is the very notion of the slashing scenes themselves, which feature some very important characteristic elements that find themselves repeated in the genre. Not necessarily being requirements for the genre but rather repeated tropes brought about by the introduction of familiar plot points in telling that particular story, this one starts off with the inclusion of stalking scenes specifically set in the killers’ viewpoint that’s done in conjunction with keeping the identity a secret while offering up the aura of suspense by making it obvious an attack will happen yet are unsure when it will occur. That’s an important element carried forward in the genre, as the film’s two central set-pieces are done through this manner and really sets out one of the genre’s most influential practices.

Another big deal introduced here that’s important to be discussed is an element that’s hardly ever mentioned yet equally deserving of mentioning, the psychotherapy-laden explanation for the killer’s motives. There are no spoilers about what it actually is, but the film certainly works with the idea of the killer in question having mentally snapped beyond the normal psychosis that governs rational thought as the reason for the killing spree. There’s quite a lot more to it than just that, but obviously not spoiling the matter nothing more is going to be said but the issue, in general, is an important part that gets carried on in the genre where dozens upon dozens of films utilize the concept of a killer who’s suffering from a psychopathic trauma that brings about the main killing spree at the heart of the film. This isn’t much of a concern for the US films to come about, but it does become an important issue to deal with in the near-future.

However, to deal with that in time, we still have one more important film to mention before we leave the year, Peeping Tom. The film is certainly worthy of mentioning here, as it does feature not only the same guidelines mentioned, which are quite capably rendered in this context. The film’s main selling point here in this regard is the ability to generate the sense of fear from placing the audience directly in the viewpoint of the killer, expanding upon that idea founded in Psycho where it’s stalking scenes are conducted through the point-of-view of the killer to an ever-greater degree than Psycho. However, whereas Psycho succeeds in that elements which Peeping Tom stumbles on is that the tactic is regarded more for keeping the killers’ identity secret as that’s a major part of Psycho. Peeping Tom instead is very aware of giving away the killer and manages to fulfill it’s stalking scenes rather routinely because of that factor, so while it’s got a higher body-count and a much more useful attempt to utilize the tactic it’s not an essential in this regard. However, not mentioning it is a huge disservice in this regard and therefore due diligence has been paid.

So, moving on from 1960, we come the very next year for the next stop on this trip, a stop-over in West Germany of all places to highlight a specific company known as Rialto. They are a company that produced all manner of films but the most important factor in this discussion is a series of films which have become known as Krimi (the German word for ‘crime’) and were mostly notable as being influenced by the works of writer Edgar Wallace and his son Bryan Edgar Wallace. Now, while the series is believed to have been started with Face of the Frog in 1959, this one in particular has little to do with the genre here as it follows through on the initial exploits of the series in being a crime/thriller rather than an out-and-out slasher or even much of a horror film. Still, it signals the start of the rest of the series’ interest which concerns a change into incidental horror-style fare built upon those crime/thriller elements.

While there’s no specific film in question that deserves mention here, in general, you can point to a select few films that can be talked about. With the series specializing in thrillers, one of the more important switch-overs is the film Dead Eyes of London (1961), about a crime ring targeted rich men under orders of a mysterious cult leader.  Not a true slasher in the strictest sense, for it follows one of the key components of these Rialto crime/thrillers that became a prominent aspect in that the slashing scenes aren’t made a priority for the film as a whole, and considering they’re based on crime novels that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The film is centered more around the concept of the police inspector trying to solve the crimes, it only just happens to be a crime-wave based on killing that’s occurring. The deaths are merely the trigger to start the investigation, not the point of the story which is the main difference in these, and that we’ll soon see becomes an important factor later on.

However, it’s the start of the series and would be carried out through a series of films by the company in the following years, including such efforts as The Strange Countess (1961) and The Inn on the River (1962), which are still heavily influenced by these crime/thriller stories but are drawing more and more from the burgeoning slasher trend. Another rather sharp rising trend at the time, the Gothic horror brought about by the arrival of Roger Corman’s classic Edgar Allan Poe/Vincent Price adaptation The Fall of the House of Usher, the combination of Krimi and Gothic horrors began slowly working their way through the Rialto line with Die Tür mit den 7 Schlössern/The Door with 7 Locks (1962), about a woman arriving in London for an inheritance during the middle of a crime spree revolving around a madman killing for a specific set of keys that require opening a secret vault in a majestic castle, the very one she’s just inherited. It’s a skillful mix of the criminal investigation while out in the city and the Gothic chills during the castle sequences and serves as a fine crossover even if the investigation scenes and cobweb-riddled Gothic castle don’t parlay much in terms of slasher elements.

With this one serving it’s purpose and kickstarting the Gothic/Krimi mixture, the continuation of that Rialto line of films brought about more films in that style with Der Zinker/The Squeaker (1963) and The Black Abbot (1963); however, it also brought about three important lines of films that had a profound influence on the genre as a whole. Firstly, the enormous success of this initial wave of Rialto Krimis started the expected wave of films influenced by their ideas which came from fellow West German efforts The Carpet of Horror (1962) and The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle (1963) which followed the current formula of injecting a Gothic setting into a traditional Krimi plotline. However, keep that last film in mind but not for the reason you expect, as it’s the year rather than the film itself for the other two plotlines in the slasher wave begin to emerge that same year in 1963 which proves it to be the most important year in the development of the genre.

Among these two strands, the first is back in the United States which started pumping out a few influential titles. The most prominent of these films is Dementia 13 (1963), a low-budget effort about a woman fearing that her hidden personalities are coming out in murderous fashion while staying at a family-owned castle for a get-together remembering the anniversary of a daughter's death. This one is quite clearly influenced by those Gothic Krimis with the entire affair taking place in the grounds of a twisting, turning castle (or at least as much as the budget dictates it to be, it is a Roger Corman production, after all) while still holding true to the concept of introducing the killer knocking people off one-by-one. Its influences in the murder scenes are numerous throughout the genre, including the little-seen-but-no-less-influential The Curse of the Living Corpse (1964) that has far more in league with the German films than even the previous film, concerning a family gathering together to lay their patriarch to rest but finding themselves stalked in their ancestral mansion by a curse coming to pass in the form of a masked killer killing them off. There’s one last film worth bringing up in this discussion, the Herschell Gordon Lewis gorefest Blood Feast (1963), which is still somewhat influential in the adaptation of the brutal, unique killing to the table which becomes another big repeated factor later on.

Still, the second important strand in the development of the slasher film requires another trip back to Europe, only this time the stop-off is Italy. Again heavily inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho and dropping the Gothic/Krimi factor, director Mario Bava created the first of a new wave of films with the celebrated The Girl Who Knew Too Much/The Evil Eye (1963), effectively establishing the Giallo genre with this very film. More detail on the genre will be forthcoming, but this genre brings the Krimi out of the past and into more recent times by mixing together the need for investigating a crime spree occurring while delving deeper into the concept of maximizing the stalking and actual kill scenes. This one still carries the investigation angle but changes it around into a much more commonplace trope with the crime being investigated by a citizen rather than the police which changes it around slightly from the Krimi line being produced at that time and still introduces several elements found in Hitchcock’s seminal film.

Now, as important as this one is, there’s another more important film that must be mentioned in this context, another film by Bava called Blood and Black Lace released the following year which is very much considered one of the founding fathers of the genre. Staying closer to its Krimi influences with its Gothic architecture and landscapes, the criminal investigation and outpouring of sadistic kills that intermingle nicely with the psychosis related to the killers’ revelations, the film is certainly deserving of its classic status on its own even before the films’ influences and legacy is taken into account since there’s a clear-cut influence taken straight from this film into the Rialto line. Whereas at first, the line was those clear-cut crime/thrillers with incidental slasher elements that we discussed earlier, it becomes clear after the release of Blood and Black Lace that the Krimi started to adapt that shift into their own work and kickstarted the next line of films on the road to the slasher. While the Giallo would continue on around that time period, we’ll get back to those at a later time both in this write-up and in the blog.

Back to Rialto and Western Germany, the Black Lace influences came to the forefront in their films from that period which started with The Sinister Monk (1965), The Hunchback of Soho (1966) and Creature with the Blue Hand (1967). While all of these films can still indisputably be called Krimis, there’s a much more prominent and profound sense of the Giallo working it’s way into the films with a much more pronounced shot of influence through an enhanced emphasis on the stalking and slashing in those scenes. While still conveying true to the previous generation of Krimis, this far more explicit and sadistic tone can certainly be noticed even more in the remaining Rialto films in the decade as efforts The College Girl Murders (1967), The Hand of Power (1968) and The Monster of Blackwood Castle (1968) also deserve mention here in regards to the burgeoning Giallo trend into the Krimi line as all of these titles can certainly be traced back in line to the release of Black Lace in Germany.

In a nice twist of fate, the influenced became the influencer as the 60s drew to a close and the Rialto Krimi line began to struggle at the box office. While the later films were certainly in line with the slasher trend, they weren’t all that impressive at the box-office and so they turned back to Italy for help and marketed several releases that were straightforward and indisputable Giallos in Germany as Krimis, the most notable at the time was Riccardo Freda’s Double Face. Managing to further the box-office decline, it nevertheless provided the start for what became the most important and influential element in the Italian market in Dario Argento’s seminal Giallo The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). The masterwork is a grand combination of all the previous influences before it, working the previous Giallos and the late-era Krimis together into a solid whole as the stalking scenes are given much more of a pronounced edge that comes from well-timed shocks, the investigation is handled with exceptional verve and there’s even an interest in adding a touch of blood and gore to the murders, echoing the Bloodfeast connection mentioned earlier. The combined success of all this one, not just in Italy but really all around the world, inspired a wave of imitators in the Giallo genre that emerged like a flood out of Italian cinemas in the following years. More on that to come later on in the blog’s history, however.

So, where does that leave the initial question posed, what was the first slasher? We really can’t count any of the ones we’ve covered yet, but we still need a solid candidate and where we find that is a familiar name in the field: Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood/Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971). An unconventional Giallo, the film revolves around a sordid cast of characters attempting to get their greedy hands on a piece of picturesque lake-side property only to find themselves falling prey to a series of savage murders.

Without giving away what’s coming to pass in the future with the Giallo write-up, the film portrays both leanings of classic Giallo tropes as well as shifting away from that set-up with plenty of off-shoot elements that find themselves working their way into the slasher trend to come. One of these key elements is a shift away from the Giallo-laden trope of urban environments out into the countryside, away from help or rescue, and to place such an emphasis on the film’s kills that very little else matters other than the final kill-shot, becoming such widespread tropes that the film is notable not just for inspiring those later Giallos as well as becoming an important influence in the slasher genre spawned in the US later on. A trip into the woods became a commonplace trope, the kill scenes are not only imitated for years to come they were even ripped-off wholesale in the first two Friday the 13th films, and its slew of sleaze-riddled characters became a staple of the genre. It is one of the most important titles to be found in the genre.

Before we call this, though, one last title needs to be brought up in the course of this discussion which rivals the above-mentioned film in terms of influence, Sergio Martino’s Torso (1973). This is another important Giallo that follows a group of schoolgirls who are plagued by a strange murderer and decide to take a weekend getaway in the country to forget their troubles, only to find the killer has followed them looking to continue his rampage, which carries plenty of strong elements within that are carried through and ripped off throughout the genre to an even greater extent that Bay of Blood in terms of how the stalking and slashing is carried out. The final half-hour is especially important in this context, setting the stage for the to-come de-rigeur final girl vs the killer set-up that’s become a staple of the genre to come in a way that showcases the confrontation at a fever-pitch that’s copied in numerous films to come. Other elements from the film, including the killer and his method of dispatch, come into play here and make this a serious contender in the sweepstakes to be called the first slasher film.

So in the end, what’s the official call? Strangely, it all depends more on your personal preference. While Torso is oddly more of a bigger name in terms of how much actually gets homaged and ripped off, Bay of Blood is still a heavily homaged film and is a few years older so in the end either one is a suitable candidate. You’re not wrong choosing either, so I say it’s your choice: the earlier film or the more directly-homaged effort to be the first slasher film ever made.