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Modern slasher flicks

Why horror movies make a box office killing, and why they just don’t make them like they used to

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Modern slasher flicks

A week or so ago, on Friday the 13th, roughly 2 million Americans plunked down their money to see a movie that consists almost entirely of a masked, wordless psychopath with no discernible personality burying his machete in people’s heads. Two days later, Friday the 13th broke the record for the most money made by a horror film in its opening weekend. It’s a tally that comes into even more impressive focus when you consider that fewer people will likely see Milk, The Reader, or Frost/Nixon — three out of five of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture — in their entire domestic runs than saw Friday the 13th in just three days.

The new Friday the 13th has been billed as a ”remake” of the original 1980 summer-camp gore-athon, as if the last three decades’ worth of retreads were all bold departures from the faster-psychopath-kill!-kill! formula. Throw in the Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequels, the Freddy and Pinhead movies, and all the anonymous grimy knockoffs of those series that have clogged megaplexes, pay-cable channels, and video-store shelves, and it’s no exaggeration to say that hundreds upon thousands of blood slashings have fed the entertainment maw of several generations of moviegoers.

Like comedy, terror depends on surprise. But there is, by design, an almost rigorous lack of surprise, a been-there-gouged-that sameness, to virtually every one of these films. With no more mystery than a fast-food burger (and about as much ketchup), slasher films have become so repetitive that they now do little more than create, and quench, a Big Mac Attack of ersatz terror.

How did we get here? It all began with one film, and with one mythical sequence of bloody murder — the shower scene in Psycho (1960), which slashed a violent line not just through Hollywood, but through 20th-century consciousness. By killing off the main character of a thriller midway through, and by doing it with such out-of-nowhere shrieking madness, Alfred Hitchcock said that the rules of fate no longer applied — that not even God would be there to protect his heroine, or (by extension) you.

Every murder in every slasher film is, in essence, a restaging of the Psycho shower scene, a stab at reviving its indelible insanity. The single greatest horror movie since, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), was literally structured as a remake of Psycho, only in this case Norman Bates, now morphed into Leatherface, disguised himself not in his mother’s clothes but in a mask of human skin. Chainsaw, with its merging of primitive rage and power-tool technology, was a poem of grind-house dread for the post-counterculture era. And, like Psycho, it has cast its shadow over horror films ever since. In 1978, Halloween was hailed as a new ”classic,” but it was really just Chainsaw reduced to a grimly mechanized formula. When the body of Michael Myers — a Leatherface with less craziness but a user-friendly backstory — vanished at the end, the junkiness of the genre was sealed: His disappearance made no sense at all (it was a bogus corporate plot twist, driven only by the need for sequels). But from that point on anything, regardless of how arbitrary, could happen in a slasher film. All that mattered was that the movie put a new spin on that eternal knife-slashing moment.

By trotting out Jason Voorhees in his goalie mask, along with all those bone-severing splatterific killings that arrive like the money shots in porn, the Friday the 13th series did to Halloween what Halloween did to Chainsaw, reducing the genre to garishly predictable, patterned, market-tested ritual. By the time the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise was launched, in 1984, slasher movies had become surreal comedies of gore, with Freddy Krueger emerging as the ringmaster of mayhem. Yet the repetition of it all had a telling effect: The killers, in their very familiarity, had ceased to be ”the other.” They were now, in essence, the heroes, with horror fans invited to root for the slaughter. And that explicit sadism — the audience as ringmaster of mayhem — is what paved the way for the Saw and Hostel series, with their gleeful torture games. It’s hardly an accident that the trash-calorie horror of Friday the 13th, a movie that pretends to be dangerous, even cool, now comes off as safe. The film wants us to have our fear and eat it, too.