Slasher Renaissance? A Closer Look at the Sub-Genre That Never Went Away

This holiday season’s release of Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving is cause for celebration amongst slasher fans. It’s been a hot minute since mainstream horror audiences have been able to watch a wide-release slasher that feels gruesomely throwback *and* is based on a wholly original concept. Thanksgiving is a contemporary reinterpretation of cheesy 80s midnighters about masked killers and juicy, rubbery effects that hoists holiday horror back into the limelight. It’s also fair to speculate how Thanksgiving signals a possible shift in overall genre trends, but labeling Thanksgiving as the rebirth of the slasher subgenre is a bit misleading. Roth’s ooey-gooey ode to holiday horror with all the trimmings certainly sticks out in today’s horror landscape, but that’s only on surface-level evaluations.

Heck, it wasn’t even the only holiday-themed slasher in theaters this season.

Academics consider 1978-1984 the “Golden Age” of slashers, built on the backs of Black Christmas, Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and others. Bloody Disgusting’s queen of the beat Meagan Navarro wrote a comprehensive guide to the Golden Age of Slashers for those who want to learn more (that starts here). Franchises introduced in this heralded era would dominate the coming years when slashers and their sequels veered into the sillier direct-to-video era, then titillation and sleaze began to cheapen the product as imitators learned the wrong lessons from superior titles. These entries would become more obscure and degrade the subgenre until Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson ushered in a new wave of post-modern slashers.

Studios were hungry to duplicate the success of Scream, but the movement’s supremacy was short-lived. I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend followed suit, yet it wasn’t long before the often-derided remake boom began in the early 2000s, and producers traded originality for reusable fanbases. Hollywood was invested in the art of resurrection, not reinvention. Critics, audiences, and everyone in between drove conversations that scolded Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy without acknowledging of the types of films being made, many of which were still slashers (some of which were also very good, but that’s an argument for my “Revenge of the Remakes” column).

Platinum Dunes alone was responsible for slasher remakes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Others include but are not limited to Halloween (the Rob Zombie ones), The Toolbox Murders, House of Wax, Black Christmas (the first one), Prom Night, April Fool’s Day, Sorority Row, My Bloody Valentine — slashers were not in short order as the remake avalanche cascaded alongside James Wan’s introduction into the “Torture Porn” era. Saw and Roth’s Hostel diverted attention to gross-out mutilation games that coincided with the imported popularity of ultra-violent New French Extremity shockers, but the remakes never ceased. Neither did noteworthy slasher remakes.

I recall 2012 as the year the American slasher “died” (merely faded out of favor for a few years). Particularly with Steven C. Miller’s decked-out Silent Night remake, the last real nasty slasher to keep aughts vibes alive with wood chipper deaths and slaughtered brats. The same year, Franck Khalfoun wondered aloud, “What if I remake Maniac, but it’s more Peeping Tom?”

Audiences weren’t as enthusiastic about these massacre sprees anymore, though, with both films only earning a limited release from smaller distribution companies. Extreme violence wasn’t in demand anymore, which James Wan would prove a year later when The Conjuring kickstarted the next Horrorwood fad that’d have filmmakers scrambling to copycat Wan’s supernatural overnight success.

Thanksgiving Eli Roth - killer pov


The thing is, slasher films didn’t retreat to the sewers after this point. Mainstream trends may dictate what’s most talked about in popular culture, but horror is not restricted to auditorium seating and $20 ticket stubs. “Slasher Cinema” might have become a black sheep during the Conjurverse takeover, followed by A24’s ushering in of the “Trauma Horror” years, but never disappeared. Filmmakers found ways to reinvent the slasher prototype while remakes and Saw-driven bloodlust hogged all the attention, the same way 1983’s The Final Terror wasted no time rewriting the forever influential Friday the 13th blueprint.

International horror filmmakers aren’t beholden to American trendsetters. When domestic pundits were complaining about how local offerings were just feeble redesigns of “untouchable” classics, Norwegian filmmaker Roar Uthaug was upping the slasher game with Cold Prey (2006), followed by Mats Stenberg’s even more impressive Cold Prey 2: Resurrection (we don’t have to talk about Cold Prey 3). The very essence of Halloween hits snow-capped mountains for a frigid slasher trilogy that succeeds as an original property. It’s an homage to the North American slasher (itself influenced by Italian giallos), able to exist outside the rigidity of audience demand that drives our theater-packing horror movements.

Foreign popular culture doesn’t always mimic our American tastes in tandem. The impact of, say, American fashion on outside markets can operate on a delay the same way international territories might not get US movie releases until well after their domestic window. Where American studios had moved on from the slasher format 80s gorehounds know and love, international audiences and filmmakers still kept their appetite. Movies like Friday the 13th or Halloween had been riffed to death by American filmmakers, but we must remember that’s a uniquely U-S problem. For filmmakers in other countries, the slasher format was still begging for new remixes.

Whenever I hear comments about how “they don’t make ‘em like they used to,” I immediately offer up foreign language slashers like 2018’s Party Hard, Die Young (which hit Shudder in 2019). In a year headlined by buzzier marquee titles like It Chapter 2, Annabelle Comes Home and Us, Dominik Hartl’s vacation massacre keeps alive the simplest of slasher expectations: booze, sex, drugs, death. Sure, it’s formulaic, but that’s the point. You’ve got a masked killer, irresponsible young adults, and flashy practical effects — but even better? An investment in slasher filmmaking that’s given the proper attention. Party Hard, Die Young is pretty to look at and solidly acted, which hilariously feels above and beyond in subgenre comparisons.

It’s slightly insulting to claim the slasher subgenre hasn’t had value in years when these general swipes only regard American theatrical qualifications. Taneli Mustonen’s Lake Bodom (2016) takes inspiration from real 1960s murders and executes a clever slasher tale with brutal twists.

Armando Fonseca and Kapel Furman’s Skull (2020) is pure B-movie mayhem as a possessed mask turns its wearer into a slaughter-happy vessel spilling gallons of fake blood. Bartosz M. Kowalski’s Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight (2020) drags old-school slasher mentalities into the digital age with plenty of love shown to American hack-em-ups like Wrong Turn 2. These are movies filled with deep knife wounds, bone shards repurposed as daggers, and pustulating antagonists that exist outside what American studio influence deems profitable at the time, very much keeping the supposedly “dead” slasher subgenre alive.

International slashers on Streaming- lake bodom

‘Lake Bodom’

Platforms like Shudder and Netflix have become a home for these ugly ducklings because streaming’s metrics for success aren’t ticket sales and box office grosses. Streamers face the challenge of subscriber retention, which means they value variety as much as or even above popularity (well, they should). Imagine if Shudder only catered to the mainstream horror demographic that dictates what plays in theaters with their wallets — you’d get bored of an entire year of new releases that were all Conjurverse replicas, wouldn’t you? That’s why Lake Bodom and Skull ended up on Shudder, and Netflix nabbed Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight.

Thanksgiving might be getting all the credit for being an original IP slasher, but Netflix released two overseas slashers as competition. Why aren’t we discussing Patrik Eklund’s The Conference, a brutal Worksploitation slasher à la Severance where coworkers on a retreat start getting the axe? Or Carlos Alonso-Ojea’s Spanish Killer Book Club, a stylish meta slasher about a social media killer that wants so desperately to be Scream? Let alone recent releases from past years like A Classic Horror Story, Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight II or Girls With Balls?

Then there’s the domestic independent component of it all, which is an entirely separate beast.

When studios abandoned original slasher concepts and leaned on the built-in fanbases of proven slasher properties, indie filmmakers took over. Adam Green released New Orleans-based slasher Hatchet in 2007, and the legend of Victor Crowley was born. Kane Hodder plays the deformed Louisiana brute who mutilates haunted tour victims like a throwback 80s chop-’em-up flick. Green’s “Hatchet Army” showed up for three more films until 2017’s Victor Crowley, all adhering to the beloved slasher formula of hunt, kill, repeat. Major studios were taking the sure bets, but that didn’t mean mavericks like Green weren’t trying to write their own legends. The Hatchet franchise is the closest we’d get in the 2000s and 2010s to seeing a new slasher icon rise to prominence like in the Golden Era, although Victor Crowley wasn’t alone.

Others tried to replicate slasher models as we used to know them with even tighter means. Robert Green Hall channeled his special effects background as director of 2009’s Laid to Rest, a scrappy and sleazier retro slasher where Nick Principe plays serial killer ChromeSkull (in the sequel as well). Or maybe a hamburger chain mascot is more your style of slasher villain, in which case 2007’s Drive-Thru is more your flavor. Even better, what if Ronald Regan was a slasher killer who took the phrase “drugs kill” literally and massacred a bunch of no-good hippies at a knockoff Woodstock? Then you should go watch David Arquette’s The Tripper (2006), which is, as sold, quite a trip. These types of slashers raged against the Hollywood machine and provided an antidote to forced contemporary trends, all seeking their audience outside the spotlight.

While I’m not insisting every example is a five star film, how many of those baffling 80s slasher productions were met with instantaneous enthusiasm? Something like The Mutilator is remembered as a cult classic — “So bad it’s good,” as they say. The Golden Era was losing its shine by then, yet we rewatch movies like Pledge Night with a smile. I hope what’s overlooked now will resurface thanks to archivists years down the road, when someone digs into the fossilized remains of horror history that tell a different story. Maybe one chapter can be about boutique labels ringing David Arquette to find missing reels/files/whatever of The Tripper like it’s some aughts-bred oddity.

‘Tragedy Girls’

Perhaps when someone states that “slashers died,” or any similar turn of phrase, they mean the brand of slasher that objectified beautiful women, where dialogue didn’t matter and deaths would bust open mannequins packed with rotten fruit. That would make sense, because as the times changed, slashers could either evolve or actually die. Scream opened the door to a type of slasher storytelling that poked fun at the free-wheeling 80s and goofy slasher tropes, eventually taking aim at poor representation and blatant misogyny in those naughtier titles that were dragging the subgenre into the early 90s.

In the 2000s, slashers went above and beyond to showcase how the subgenre could grow. We can all agree that Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006) is an A+ example of metatextual slasher storytelling that is both a cheeky satire and a thrilling slasher. Jonathan Levine’s All the Boys Love Mandy Lane premiered as part of 2006’s Toronto International Film Festival before a seven-year shelving (distributor issues) and subverted the final girl formula with a sharp bite. Then you’ve got the “flipped script” slashers like Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil (2010) or Tragedy Girls (2017) that found unique ways to focus on the killers instead of victims (“killers” in quotes for the former), playing by their own rules to reset presumptions.

Just because it’s different doesn’t mean the subgenre is dead. As audience demand changes, so must horror storytelling norms. Just because a slasher movie doesn’t behave in the same way your late-night faves like Gynecology Massacre 27 once did doesn’t mean the subgenre is cooked. Dude Bro Party Massacre III (2015) and Slumber Party Massacre (2021) are exceptionally subversive takes on sorority house and sleepover slashers where the helpless co-eds die sexily one by one under the male gaze. These are slashers of a modern era, caught up with societal awareness more relevant to today’s viewers. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a condemnation of what exists — you cannot judge past art on current terms — but more an acknowledgment that slashers can wear many masks (pun intended). They’re still all slashers, just with different motivations.

There are plenty of examples of these more rejuvenated slashers. Blumhouse has its Happy Death Day duo along with Freaky and M3GAN, Shudder just dropped It’s a Wonderful Knife, and Netflix has its Fear Street trilogy in addition to There’s Someone Inside Your House. You’ve also got underdogs like Joseph Kahn’s Detention (2011) and John Berardo’s Initiation (2020) that take very different approaches to school-focused slashers in vastly opposing tones. We easily recognize these slashers in structure (except Detention, that’s just bonkers fun). While they aren’t the gruesome, toothsome after-dark indulgences of yesteryear, they’re still successful slashers despite updated methods.

Terrifier 2 commentary

‘Terrifier 2’

How can we also not recognize how Art the Clown and Terrifier set the stage for primitive slashers to regain momentum? Y’all are the ones with Art tattoos, apparel, shrines — the works. “You could never make an 80s slasher today.” Oh really? The first Terrifier is the most stripped-down slasher structure imaginable, while Terrifier 2 is a no-holds-barred sequel that flies off the rails. Oh, and they’re manically repulsive. We sometimes retain memories like goldfish, because Art the Clown showcased his knife cuts well before John Carver (Roth’s stabby version). Terrifier helped make the slasher space unsafe again, like Williamson’s newest COVID-19 slasher Sick.

Wading deeper still, an entire contingency of silly-billy filmmakers are having their way with the public domain and random objects. What if Winnie the Pooh and Piglet were slasher killers? Boom, Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey. The Grinch? Here’s The Mean One! A sorority house mascot sloth? You’d dare enter the Slotherhouse? A reclining chair possessed by the soul of a pervy occultist connected to a string of deaths? You better believe Killer Sofa exists! I’ve seen some of the 70s and 80s slashers you all rave about, and don’t pretend like today’s trash is any worse. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not happening — the schlock and awe are still around, even sneaking into multiplexes with the help of Fathom events.

Then there’s the double-down on slasher remakes … again. Halloween gets another reboot (David Gordon Green’s direct sequel to John Carpenter’s original). Sophia Takal’s second-take Black Christmas remake and Lars Klevberg’s malfunction of a Child’s Play reboot hit in 2019. Nia DaCosta heard her name called five times to remake Candyman in 2021. David Blue Garcia’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Radio Silence’s Scream V both sought their respective releases in 2022. History repeats itself just like fads come back into prominence because no matter how adventurous or expeditious we claim we are, humans, at their core, crave comfort.

Thanksgiving is a kickass slasher flick in a long line of kickass slasher flicks. The subgenre has refused to forfeit, and while it might have vacated theater chains for a spell, thrived elsewhere. Claiming that Thanksgiving hits the restart button for slashers erases all the international and indie siblings that have kept the subgenre alive, devaluing their contributions. Hell, Ti West’s X took the horror world by storm only last year (and Pearl, by extension). Thanksgiving is a crucial slasher footnote regarding domestic releases, but is just one voice in a sea of many as long as you open your ears.

Much like its villains, the slasher subgenre will never, ever die. As Chucky reminds us, “I’ll be back, I always come back — but dying is such a bitch.”

Radio Silence Scream 7

‘Scream VI’

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