Imagine you’re standing in the center of a messy bedroom. I mean, trashed. Hurricane Katrina just tore through here, and it’s up to you to clean it up. It doesn’t have to be spotless by the time you’re done, just better than how you found it.
You start by making the bed. You pick up the clothes and shoes and candy wrappers off the floor. Maybe you push the cabinet neatly back against the wall. “So much better!” you say, and it’s the truth. Exhilarating, isn’t it? Making such drastic improvements with just a few well-informed actions?
The slasher genre is the most clichéd of all film genres. More than the romantic-comedy, more than the come-from-behind sports film. The messiest bedroom of them all. We’ve seen it a billion ways, all using the same mechanics that don’t work – and haven’t worked since John Carpenter invented the genre with 1970’s Halloween. Now, here’s what I think: it could work, if somebody just knew what the hell they were doing.
But I hate waiting. And if you want something done right, do it yourself. So here it is, my guidelines for a better psycho-with-a-machete movie. Heed these, and thou shalt produce a worthwhile film.
1. Never show the killer! Follow in the wake of Jaws: what scares us most is what we cannot see. Alfred Hitchcock said that the most frightening thing anyone could ever put on film is a closed door. We’d push our most horrifying nightmares onto that blank canvas. The Blair Witch Project gets it. We never see the titular terrorizer, and much of the suspense stems from the innumerable horrors of the unknown. The villain of my slasher film would never fully materialize onscreen. That way, the viewer can never attach this unknown evil to some physical manifestation – and therefore, it becomes terrifying.
Most slasher movies start out with some suspense, as the first few victims are picked off, but then lose all tension once the villain becomes ubiquitous. The perfect slasher film would sustain tension throughout, not dissolve into an action movie at the two-thirds mark.
2. No more “bathroom mirror” scenes. She’s doing her make-up, she’s opening the cabinet to get something, she closes it, and OH SHIT the killer is right behind her and the soundtrack explodes. It’s a tiny cliché, but one we are all tired of. Subvert it by shattering the mirror during the opening credits. It would be a wink to an intelligent audience, instead of a soft-pitch set-up for a cheap scream.
3. Use fresh protagonists. Slashers are created with a teenage audience in mind, so it’s unsurprising that teenagers serve as the ill-fated heroes in the majority of them. But we don’t care about that, because we’re setting out to make the perfect slasher film, one that all will find thrilling. My proposed protagonist: an elderly woman. This would force audiences to watch the film in a different way. During the usual bad slasher film, we begin to despise the teenage victims, with all their stupidity and cleavage, and root for the killer. With an elderly woman as the focus, no way that’s happening. That’s our grandma up there!
3.5. Even better, that’s our deaf grandma up there! How effective the tension if our hero cannot hear the footsteps behind her…
4. Place the killer and victims in an original location.Suburbia can only hold so many psychopaths. The mere setting of slasher films often leaves gaping holes in the plot. Why don’t they just call the cops? Why are the cops so inadequate? Why do her parents never believe her? If you’re like me, these questions nag your brain and prevent you from enjoying a film.
A perfect alternative: have it all take place on a train. There’s no escape on a train. You can’t call 911. That claustrophobic setting would do wonders for screams. Picture it: it’s midnight, most of the passengers are asleep, the conductor mumbles something over the intercom every hour or so. Maybe the train’s taking our protagonist to some unknown location that only becomes relevant at the very end. Maybe the train becomes symbolic of the killer’s unstoppable ruthlessness. This is a vast improvement over the standard bedroom-roof-lawn-house-basement routine that plagues slashers.
5. Kill the villain with a decapitation. I don’t want a sequel – I want this baby to stand on it’s own two legs. So this villain needs to be killed dead. None of that “he looks dead but HIS EYES JUST OPENED AND HE’S ACTUALLY ALIVE” nonsense. My slasher film would end with a satisfying feeling of completion. Nothing affirms expiration like a big ol’ gap between neck and head. When done right, the decapitation of a villain inspires applause among audiences.
Now, that doesn’t mean the movie should leave the viewer with nothing to think about. There are other ways to conjure the dread that maybe “The End” should appear onscreen followed by a question mark. For instance, maybe the killer was not who you thought it was this whole time… maybe there was more than one killer all along…
Adhere to these rules alone, and I think you’ve avoided schlock. And even if this lowbrow genre can create only schlock, it’ll be masterful schlock – schlock that’ll scare hell out of people. Just by avoiding being bad. That room is so easy to clean up: it just takes some creativity and intelligence. At least enough to make a hockey mask, a machete, and a dark hallway scary again.