New Decade, New Rules: The Slasher Villains of the 2020s

In early 2022, a reoccurring, annoying discourse was circulating Horror Twitter: “There are no original horror icons anymore.” In particular, these people were discussing slashers, and how bored they were of the just-about-to-be-released Scream and Ghostface, as well as Michael Myers, off the heels of Halloween Kills, released a few months prior. Fast forward to just over a year later, and this writer is hoping those Tweeters have since eaten their words.  

According to the elementary description for slasher movies spoken by Samara Weaving’s doomed Film Studies-teaching character in Scream VI, slashers are indicative of the era in which they are made, which is also true of any horror subgenre, to be fair. The Golden Age of Slashers of the ’80s are a product of its Reagan-era conservative values to which they either mocked or preached. The jaded, postmodern slashers of the late ’90s knew they needed a bit more substance to stay relevant after Scream exploded. And the neo-slashers of the aughts and early 2010s were typically either remade ideas (Black Xmas) or criminally underrated originals (The Hills Run Red) in a dying market in which audiences were seemingly tiring of them. 

And now? We’ve officially entered the “post”-Covid slasher boom of the 2020s, where everything from the franchise mainstays to the freshly innovative to the weird cash-grabby have gotten us in a Myers-like chokehold, as everybody from him to Ghostface to Art the Clown have dominated box office numbers and audience attention spans. And why? It could be for a plethora of reasons– sure, it could be the simple fact that, like fashion, every horror subgenre trend is cyclical. Or, it could mean more than that. Back in 2020, this writer even argued that slashers would come back again because living through the pandemic and the pandemic safety rules felt weirdly paralleled to what life was like in the slasher-dominant decade of the ’80s, in which another epidemic was also handled poorly. Perhaps we’ve grown so frustrated by the last few years of isolation that we’ve collectively become more feral, and slasher movies mirror our desire for inane levels of filmic violence, depravity, and, ultimately, release– more so than other subgenres.  

Hell Priest

Alas, if you’re going to start building the next era of iconic slasher movies, you need iconic slasher villains, which we’ve been spoiled with (to varying degrees) as of late. The inventive: the wildly audacious-looking Gabriel, in the equally, wildly audacious Malignant (2021). The forgotten: The Mask, which is possessed by a heart-ripping spirit named Anhanga in Skull: The Mask (2020). The cash-grabs: the titular bear in Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey (2023). As Mindy Meeks-Martin would say, the familiar but updated “legacy requels”: the growing Candy(men) hive in Candyman (2021) and a new Pinhead portrayal by trans actress Jamie Clayton in Hellraiser (2022), whose movie may be too vanilla for how alluring her Pinhead is. The old man killers with inhuman strength: Michael Myers in the Blumhouse trilogy (2018-2022) and the differently-faced Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022). And, of course, the five (err, technically seven) new iterations of Ghostface within Scream (2022) and last month’s Scream VI, which we’ll dive into later. 

Halloween Kills couldn’t have been more standard of a 12th iteration of a slasher franchise, with Michael sharing the same superhuman strength just to kill, kill, kill– which is perhaps why it seemed to bore a portion of the fanbase. Halloween Ends, however, tries something completely out of left field to either infuriate hardcore Myers fans or excite them. Focusing on John Carpenter’s original idea of Haddonfield being the macro source of evil instead of just another Michael-stabs-everyone-proto-slasher, for the first time, The Shape shares the stage with newbie Corey Cunningham, who dons a (lesser cool, but still cool) mask and slices up his own share of bodies. Unlike our cold-from-six-years-old enigma Michael, Corey has somewhat of a soul, which makes his arc all the more tragic, as we first meet him as an ostracized young man after a horrible, unintentional accident who morphs into a morally confused spree murderer whom maybe still possesses a conscience and romantic feelings for Allyson. They both pay for their actions, though. And unlike Michael’s movie “deaths” of the past, he feels definitively stoppable (for now), as his body ain’t coming out of that grinder anytime soon. 

And Michael hasn’t been the only slasher villain to newly gain a buddy– a fresh take that hasn’t been done super often outside of the Scream franchise with Billy and Stu’s debut. While the mainstream was too caught up in Pennywise fanaticism back in the 2010s to take much notice to far-more-brutal Art the Clown in All Hallows’ Eve and Terrifier, sequel Terrifier 2 turned Art into a (moderate) household name, who maimed, beheaded, and stomped on his victims with a silent mime laugh and a pitiless smile on his face. But, Art has evolved since the last time you saw him in Terrifier. In T2, he stumbles upon his protege The Little Pale Girl, with whom he shares a similar ensemble, grin, and dark (albeit silent) sense of humor. Hell, (pun intended) Art even takes a backseat this time around as a secondary character to final girl Sienna, too– unlike his previous iteration in which he’s the star of the show after killing, basically, everyone. Like Mikey in regards to Ends, you might’ve come for Art, but you received bonus characters to love, as well, with either the villains’ companions or their foes. 

Something the new Candyman touched on and Terrifier 2– along with its future sequel(s)– aims to further explore, is the explanation of how exactly their villains became supernatural, instead of just expecting the audience to accept that killers never truly die. According to a recent Monster Mania Convention panel, Terrifier mastermind Damien Leone has an arc for Art that he will be gradually unleashing to viewers over time, beginning with the origin of the titular “the Terrifier” ride that serves as Art’s layer of Hell, as seen in T2. Unlike other superhuman slasher villains that came before him, Art’s mystical capabilities will be explained to a much deeper extent, as Leone wishes to explore how, and, more importantly, *why* his particular villain became supernatural versus simply the trope of the boogeyman being brought back to life without any merit. 

While Art may have gotten a little lady as a companion, another recent slasher is putting in the work (primarily) by herself: Miss Pearl in Ti West’s X and Pearl. X gave us something we had never quite seen before within the subgenre: hagsploitation-meets-new-age-slasher in the form of sexually-frustrated, geriatric killer Pearl, who kills because she’s horny, sad, and envious of the younger folks’ youth and sexual advantages. Pearl can be ruthless, yet her motive is poignant and tragic, as any woman who’s ever felt undesirable or ignored in the world’s fetishization of youth and beauty reigns dominant over growing age, wrinkling, and regret. In Pearl, her subtle, yet maniacal chase sequence with an axe, reminiscent of Bubba Sawyer, is one of the few times we’ve seen a female slasher villain doing that very thing on-screen, all while looking prim, proper, and feminine in a flowing, red prairie dress and girly bows in her hair. Pearl is on her way to giving Pamela Voorhees a run for her money in icon status, (and even she will be returning soon for the upcoming Crystal Lake series.)  

Since Pearl is as dead as a doornail in X, it’s doubtful she’ll make an appearance in the third part of the trilogy, the soon-to-be MaXXXine, but the possibility of final girl Maxine becoming her own slasher icon is exciting to think about, as she could be slicing up her own share of bodies of porn industry folks who do her dirty, especially that evangelical preacher daddy of hers, too. How’s that for a subversive take on conservative slasher movies? 

M3GAN Blu-ray

And this era of fresh lady slasher villains isn’t stopping at Pearl. Before she even hit theaters, Model 3 Generative Android aka M3GAN was the toast of the horror community, with her TikTok dance-friendly marketing campaigns and smartass quips that earned her a spot right alongside the horror dolls/androids that came before her, (including slasher legend Chucky, who “she” occasionally has gotten into hilarious Twitter clashes with.) As Chucky’s legendary status continues going strong thanks to the Syfy series, the newly created M3gan has now given the youngins another icon to grow up with and love, as Blumhouse smartly cut her film debut to a PG-13 rating. And for those of us a little older, she shines right through her unrated version digs, i.e. “I’ll rip your head off your fucking neck.” Her appeal has crossed varying ages and generations of slasher fans, even if we wouldn’t mind seeing her more ruthless in the sequel.

In a nice surprise, even the silly, gory romp Cocaine Bear’s titular killer bear is a mama bear, as characters comically correct others when they assume and misgender her as “him.” At first glance, CB could’ve been categorized as just another animal attack movie, however, with its creative kills– ripping up intestines, blowing brains, and hanging upside down getting eaten,  most of which are performed by the ravenous CGI bear herself– accompanied by an ’80s synthy score and chase scenes (that ambulance sequence), Miss Cocaine Bear is a full-on slayer. And, like so many other slashers, she serves as an allegory for punishing dim-witted characters’ own stupid mistakes, and she’s prime for a sequel– granted she doesn’t get ditched for “Adderall Alligator.” 

The Black Phone’s The Grabber, however, embodies a more traditional approach to a slasher killer. In fact, he’s about as prototypical of an actual ’70s serial killer that you can get– middle-aged, cis, white man– who targets young men, not dissimilar to John Wayne Gacey and Randy Steven Kraft. With his ominous black balloons and devil horned mask, he’s already become a regular cosplay fixture at cons, as the character allures his victims with magic tricks and his falsetto-voiced charm. While final boy Finney makes it out alive, The Grabber’s previous victims appear as ghostly apparitions, giving The Black Phone a paranormal and less grounded approach– unique to many other slasher movies, as some may not even consider it one at all. Regardless, even if The Grabber’s antics may often occur off-screen, his sneaky bludgeoning axe murder of his brother is total, classic slasher fodder.  

Warning: Scream VI spoilers ahead.

Speaking of middle-aged white guys…

As the marketing for Scream VI promised a Ghostface who is “something different,” it delivers– in a few ways. For the first time ever, VI gave us not only Ghostface v. Ghostface attacks, but also a GF unmasking within the first few moments, as the grand opening sequence features one GF hunting down two film bros that almost beat him to the punch– the punch being killing the Carpenter sisters first. As we find out later, we technically have five Ghostfaces in this latest iteration, but their motives differ. While the two Argento film bro Ghostfaces idolize Richie and wish to “finish” his movie– a reocurring Scream motif of crazed movie fan killers that most closely aligns with Mickey from 2 and Charlie from Scream 4– the GF killing them rhetorically asks out loud, “Who gives a fuck about the movies?!”     

Well, the son that you’re avenging did. As we see, Detective Bailey and his kids Quinn and Ethan, aka Richie’s family, are the eventual killer reveals in Act 3. Their motive? Good ol’ fashioned revenge– another nod to Scream 2. Witnessing actor Dermot Mulroney– who we know and love from rom-coms like My Best Friend’s Wedding and easy peasy sitcoms like Friends slip in the black robe and combat boots as the latest Ghostface mastermind is a delight. While the older, cis white guy may be in line for killers like The Grabber, those same cliches aren’t exactly common for a Scream villain, who, in the past, have been mostly younger and have not held such authoritative positions. It’s a blast to witness Mulroney channel his inner Mrs. Loomis and visibly have a great time in the role.

Even Quinn and Ethan, as young and familiarly psychotic as they both are, also slightly differ from the killer tropes we’re used to seeing in the Scream movies. While the “slutty girl” has often been the first to die in slasher movies, we’ve never directly had one serve as the villain before in this franchise, as she outsmarts everyone with pulling off her own fake death and comes very close to ending the lives of some key characters. Unlike his sister, Ethan lives, kills, and ultimately dies a virgin (opposing Randy’s rules!), but his jackhammering knifing technique is unique to previous Ghostfaces that slowly, deliberately, and agonizingly twist the knife into their victims’ insides. 

All three of the Richie fam Ghostfaces are unrelentingly brutal, arguably to a franchise-high level– even if they seem to miss every vital organ for many of the folks they stab that survive. Bailey received (and betrayed) the most amount of trust from the Core Four, and he must’ve been the one to chillingly shoot up the bodega. He orchestrates his two kids to simultaneously stab poor Chad at the same time. Quinn’s work includes Gale’s sprawling apartment chase sequence and Mindy’s very public subway near-death. Her unmasking is slick and menacing as she swiftly spits out her own broken, bloodied teeth with no hesitation. Ethan was likely in charge of the apartment/ladder attacks and gives off bitter Roman vibes in the finale, as he charges towards Sam screaming, “Fuck you!” 

Whether they’re redundant, subversive, or fall somewhere in between, this new dawn of slasher villains could shape up to be some of the best yet. Here’s hoping Scream VII is cognizant enough to comment on it.  

Scream VI is available now on Digital and Paramount+.

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