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  • Writer's pictureGabe Powers

Proto-Slashers: A Brief History

Welcome to the first-ever companion piece essay to the first-ever Genre Grinder podcast. I’m sure I’ll give these a cute nickname eventually, but, for the time being, we’ll just call it an essay. The goal here is to fill in the gaps that we’ll inevitably leave in the podcast itself, namely the most popular entries, historical context, lasting relevance, and thematic patterns.

We’re beginning with proto-slashers – that broad subset of horror movies and thrillers that predated and informed the easier to define slasher genre. Distilling the vital elements of slasher movies into less well-defined subcategories has proven especially difficult, because those elements date back to the earliest decades of cinema. If we consider the “official” inception point of slashers to have occurred somewhere between John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), leaves nearly 80 years of horror and suspense movies to whittle down. In fact, if we go by the genre definitions established by experts/critics – traumatized killers seeking vengeance, themed murder weapons, emphasis on gory special effects, isolated locations, et cetera – the roots of slashers extend back to an era before moving pictures, when grand guignol theater, gory magic tricks, pulp thrillers, and authors like Mary Roberts Rinehart, Agatha Christie, and Arthur Conan Doyle ruled entertainment.

In the Beginning...: The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Leopard Man (1943), and The Spiral Staircase (1946)

Referring to any one thing as the first of its kind is taking a chance that some more educated, more pedantic person than yourself will correct this assumption with some truly obscure artifact from the annals of history. That said, German Expressionist turned Universal Studios hit-maker Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary is a quintessential silent horror film, one that can be safely referred to as one of earliest horror comedies, perhaps the first haunted house feature, and essentially the first dinner theater murder mystery (or drawing room mystery) put to film. The story was based on the 1922 stage play by John Willard and adapted to film by Alfred A. Cohn & Robert F. Hill. It is a familiar one: the surviving relatives of an eccentric millionaire gather in a remote, supposedly haunted mansion on the 20th anniversary of his death. In his will, he leaves his entire fortune to his niece with the stipulation that she must be deemed ‘sane’ by an accredited doctor. She and the rest of the would-be heirs are then forced to spend the night in his spooky mansion. The Cat and the Canary’s connections to blood ‘n guts slashers are tentative, I admit, especially given that Willard’s play was practically the template for everything from William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1959) to multiple episodes of Scooby Doo (it was officially remade five times – twice in 1930, in 1939, 1961, and 1978). Still, Leni undoubtedly established a kind of cinematic shorthand that grew into the conventions of slasher cinema, especially as the night wears on and a mysterious, masked attacker begins skulking through hallways, snatching people up, and activating hidden doors and secret compartments.

The Cat and The Canary (1927)

The Leopard Man was based on Black Alibi, a 1942 novel by Cornell Woolrich, and was the final of three spooky, ‘elevated’ B-movies that director Jacques Tourneur made with producer Val Lewton, following Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). In the film, a leopard is brought to a nightclub as a publicity stunt and, predictably, it escapes. That night, the cat mauls a teen girl, provoking fear among the townsfolk, and prompting a sly serial killer to exploit the situation in order to cover up his crimes. While the concept of serial killers had been introduced to motion pictures by Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of London Fog (1926), Fritz Lang’s M (1931), and others, The Leopard Man is perhaps the earliest example of a movie putting as much emphasis on the stalking sequences as the character development and plotting (credit is due to M for setting something of a standard during its opening sequence). The additional emphasis on the mystery of the killer’s identity is owed to Woolrich’s novel (Woolrich was a contemporary of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler), but it’s treated in a fashion similar to what would become the norm for non-franchise slashers. In addition, upon being found out, the killer reveals that he was “inspired” to act upon his murderous urges when he heard about the young lady being mauled. This type of psychological break became especially common throughout Italy’s pre-slasher gialli, particularly those that followed Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970).

Speaking of gialli, Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase, based on the novel Some Must Watch (pub: 1933) by Ethel Lina White, is an often unsung influence on those oh-so-Italian pre-slasher thrillers. Giallo godfather Mario Bava found endless inspiration in its moody photography and eagle-eyed Argento fans can count no fewer than three stolen shots within the first couple of minutes of its runtime. Mel Dinelli’s script concerns a demure young maid-servant, Helen (Dorothy McGuire), who has been rendered mute by some unknown trauma. While caring for the ailing matriarch of a sprawling New England mansion, she finds herself embroiled in familial quarrels and stalked by an unknown killer. Though perhaps dated in terms of its stagey melodrama, visually speaking, Siodmak’s film is a grand achievement in spooky atmosphere. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca had worked on various Val Lewton productions leading up to Spiral Staircase, including Tourneur’s Cat People, and brought a modern, romantic quality to the horror and film noir inspired imagery. Besides practically perfecting the ‘long-necked, doe-eyed women slinking through an old dark house’ aesthetic, The Spiral Staircase offered the other proto-slashers a template for visualizing voyeurism on film. Nestled between surprisingly Halloween-esque tracking shots and spine-tingling point-of-view shots are striking close-ups of the murderer’s sinister eyes, his cowering prey reflected back in the glow of his iris.

The Spiral Staircase (1946)

The Cat and the Canary is available on barebones DVD from Kino Video and Image Entertainment, and is streaming on Amazon Prime and YouTube. The Leopard Man is available on DVD as a double feature with Mark Robson’s The Ghost Ship (1943) and The Val Lewton Collection, alongside Ghost Ship, Cat People (1942), The Seventh Victim (1943), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), Isle of the Dead (1945), The Body Snatcher (1945), Bedlam (1946), and Martin Scorsese’s documentary, Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (2007). It is comig to Blu-ray from Scream Factory in July, 2019. The Spiral Staircase is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber and DVD from MGM. You can find it on YouTube, but I’m pretty sure it ain’t legal.

Please note that I wrote the Spiral Staircase section before Patrick and I decided to talk about it, but didn’t want to trash the paragraph. Apologies for the overlap.

1960 and Developing the Modern Slasher Character: Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960)

Throughout the entirety of this (hopefully) ongoing series of articles, reviews, and podcasts, I’ll probably continue coming back to the idea that 1960 was a transformative year in the history of horror movies on a global scale. As traditional Gothic horrors continued to prove popular throughout the United States and Europe, two of the most influential British filmmakers – Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell – each approached homicidal activity from a grounded and sympathetic viewpoint. Both films are wildly clinically inaccurate when viewed through modern eyes (or even 50 year old eyes, really), but were quite innovative for even attempting pseudo-realistic depictions of mental illness in a thriller context.

Psycho (1960)

Hitchcock’s slasher influence stretches to the silent era via The Lodger: A Story of London Fog, but Psycho became his trademark. The film began as Hitchcock’s reaction to the gritty, low budget productions that were rivaling his own movies at the box office. It was purposefully pulpy, ironically scandalous, and brought mainstream attention to the artistic side of murder. The key to its lasting success as an influence on burgeoning body-count subgenres, including serial German krimi movies, Italian gialli, and American splatter movies was really its pristinely technical approach to its set-pieces, while its influence on slashers in particular is perhaps more greatly tied to the fragility of its nebbish killer, Norman Bates.

The most popular slasher franchises are based around mindless and/or entirely evil antagonists, but the longer tradition is that of tortured killers driven by revenge, psychotic compulsion, and/or painful childhoods. Anthony Perkins’ likable portrayal of the neurotic loner who takes on the personality of his abusive mother after her death became the bedrock of every knife-packing pathetic loser in slasher movie history. Even the mute, unstoppable tank known as Jason Voorhees was cursed by the demands of his dead mother. Unfortunately, Norman’s cross-dressing – a side effect of his dissociative identity – also led to an ongoing and inexcusable connection between transgenderism and murderous derangement in slashers that has only recently been acknowledged and subverted.

Peeping Tom’s exploration of psychosis and compulsion was even more outrageous than Psycho, which, controversy aside, still functioned as a suspense vehicle. Writer Leo Marks’ screenplay concentrates on an introverted pin-up photographer, Mark (Carl Boehm), who moonlights as a voyeuristic killer and amateur filmmaker. Haunted by memories of his father’s psychological experiments, he records his murders in order to capture his victim’s fear on film. Powell had spent almost his entire career previous to Peeping Tom co-directing movies alongside Emeric Pressburger and didn’t quite have the same reputation for pushing his audience’s buttons that Hitchcock had. He and his film were rebuked by critics, censors, and moral guardians in a manner that didn’t befall Psycho – or at least in a manner that wasn’t as brilliantly exploited.

Peeping Tom (1960)

The similarities between the two movies have been the subject of discussion, academic papers, and at least one documentary (the killers have comparable personalities, were abused as children, et cetera), as are the connections between Hitchcock and Powell (Powell had even worked on the sets of some of Hitchcock’s movies), but Peeping Tom earns a distinct connection to slashers, because it puts a fine point on the killer’s connection to a final female victim that he cannot bring himself to kill. In this case, the ‘Final Girl,’ another Helen, portrayed by Anna Massey, defeats the killer with her innocence and unconditional (possibly platonic?) love, rather than her wily spirit or fortitude. It’s also arguable that the police just show up at the right time. Either way, even if love didn’t stay his hand, the film does firmly establish Mark’s distaste for/fascination with what he views as ‘sinful’ behavior. It’s a more nuanced take on the relationship Jason has with his Final Girls in the Friday the 13th sequels. Additionally, Powell’s film draws comparisons to other proto-slashers and proto-slasher adjacent films, including Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967), Sergio Martino’s Torso (Italian: I corpi presentano tracce di violenza carnale, lit: The Bodies Presented Traces of Carnal Violence, 1973), and The Spiral Staircase by featuring an important sequence in which the killer menaces a handicapped person (in this case a blind woman).

Psycho is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal. Peeping Tom is available on UK RB Blu-ray from Optimum Releasing and OOP DVD from Criterion. It’s currently streaming on Tubi.

Herschell Gordon Lewis and the Birth of the Splatter Movie: Blood Feast (1963), Color Me Blood Red (1965), and The Gore Gore Girls (1972)

Herschell Gordon Lewis, aka: H.G. Lewis and The Godfather of Gore (June 15, 1926 – September 26, 2016) might be the most important bad filmmaker in the history of the medium. He was best-known for his groundbreaking gore films, which bent censorship laws and laid the groundwork for hyper-violent movies of all genres. He was also a one-time advertising executive, author, English professor, and studio director who has compared his movies to Walt Whitman poems – “They’re no good, but they were the first of their kind.”

Blood Feast (1963)

Lewis plugged along making innocuous ‘nudie cutie’ sex comedies and pioneered a less innocent form of exploitation known as ‘roughies’ (a sometimes shockingly misogynistic subgenre, despite its usual lack of nudity and graphic violence), before making his foray into horror, where his legend was born. 1963’s Blood Feast was the tale of a caterer, Fuad Ramses (Mal Arnold), who brutalizes women and removes their body parts to serve as a blood offering to an ancient Egyptian goddess. It exemplified his burgeoning splatter movie formula – stiff performances from amateur actors, a bare minimum plot (the original script was reportedly only 14 pages long), eye-rolling attempts at comedy, nearly-naked women, and the best gore effects/production design that $24,500 could buy. Obviously, movies about mad men murdering scantily-clad girls wasn’t anything new (Blood Feast opens with a bathtub murder in homage to Psycho), but the focus on full color violence was unique enough to spawn a series of similarly cheap, similarly colorful gore comedies, at least two of which fit the proto-slasher mold.

Color Me Blood Red was the final movie in a loosely-knit Blood Trilogy (the centerpiece was 1964’s not particularly slasher-y, hicksploitation opus Two Thousand Maniacs!) and the last movie that Lewis made with David F. Friedman until the two reconnected for Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat in 2002. It appears to have been made in response to Roger Corman’s non-splattery A Bucket of Blood (1959), in which a struggling artist begins murdering people, encasing their bodies in plaster, and pawning them off as original sculptures. Lewis’ version exchanges the sculpture for a painter, Adam Sorg (Gordon Oas-Heim), who kills local beach bums & bunnies and uses their blood for paint. Color Me Blood Red upped the ante in the violence department and is better made, comparatively speaking, though its self-consciousness (it makes jokes at the expense of the filmmakers and their audience), decent performances, and comedio-tragic tone makes it nominally less entertaining than Blood Feast.

Color Me Blood Red (1965)

1972’s The Gore Gore Girls was Lewis’ final film until he made a brief comeback with the aforementioned Blood Feast 2, The Uh-Oh! Show (2009), and the incomplete Herschell Gordon Lewis' BloodMania (he died during post-production in 2016). It is also his most clear-cut proto-slasher. A dry-witted private detective (think poorman’s Nick Charles, played by Frank Kress) is hired by a local newspaper reporter to investigate the murder of a popular go-go girl, under the assumption that he will give her an exclusive when he cracks the case. Between bad jokes and strip teases, the P.I. uncovers the larger crimes of a brutal serial killer. By 1972, he no longer had the splatter market cornered and special makeup effects had made huge technical leaps since Blood Feast. As a result, The Gore Gore Girls couldn’t really compete with its more vicious and expertly-crafted counterparts, so Lewis opted to double-down on his own original model, putting camp and comedy first and gore extravaganza second. Still, he had clearly been paying attention to the likes of other late-’60s proto-slashers, given his emphasis on mystery and the killer’s giallo-esque black leather coat and gloves.

Blood Feast, Color Me Blood Red, and The Gore Gore Girls are available on Blu-ray from Arrow Films. Blood Feast is *currently* the only one released as a solo disc, while the others are part of a bigger Herschell Gordon Lewis Feast box set. Blood Feast and Color Me Blood Red are also part of a Blood Trilogy Blu-ray and Gore Gore Girls is part of a double-feature Blu-ray with The Wizard of Gore (1970), both from Image Entertainment/Something Weird Video. All three are on DVD from the same companies. Blood Feast is currently streaming on Shudder, Fandor, and Midnight Pulp.

Hammer Horror’s Ripper Movies: Hands of the Ripper (1971) and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

The legend of Jack the Ripper played a big part in the proto-slasher and proper slasher models. The Jack the Ripper category is actually broad enough to entail its own subgenre exploration at some point, beginning with Hitchcock’s The Lodger and continuing through Hugo Fregonese’s Man in the Attic (1953), Robert S. Baker & Monty Berman’s Jack the Ripper (1959), Edwin Zbonek’s The Monster of London City (German: Das Ungeheuer von London City, 1964), and culminating somewhat with Jess Franco’s very nearly full-on slasher-esque Jack the Ripper (1972). Two of the very best entries in the ‘70s Ripper lottery came from Britain’s Hammer Film Productions. Following more than a decade of dominating UK horror with their brand of period piece Gothic, Hammer found themselves frightfully irrelevant as late ‘60s counterculture took hold of pop entertainment. In an effort to reinvent themselves, the studio attempted to appeal to modern teens, while still (mostly) hanging on to their costume drama roots with the sapphic bloodsuckers of Roy Ward Baker’s The Vampire Lovers (1970), the psychedelia of Robert Young’s Vampire Circus (1972), the hippie antagonists of Alan Gibson’s Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), the gender-bending mischief of Baker’s Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, and the unique perspective of Peter Sasdy’s Hands of the Ripper.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde was Hammer’s third stab (so to speak) at Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (pub. 1886), following Lance Comfort’s comedic version, The Ugly Duckling (1959), and Terence Fisher’s more to-the-letter and melodramatic take, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960). This time, we find the eponymous doctor (Ralph Bates) is weary of curing diseases one by one, opting instead to cure aging in general. Noticing that women tend to live longer than men, he develops a serum using hormones culled from murdered women. Like his novella counterpart, he tests the concoction on himself and transforms into a woman, dubbed Mrs. Hyde (Martine Beswick). But the effect doesn’t last and Jekyll soon finds himself on the street in search of more hormones. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is perhaps the most dynamic syntheses of Hammer’s classic and counterculture-baiting periods, combining the colorful, Victorian mad scientist trappings of the Frankenstein series (he even appears to have reused some of the props) with splatter movie concepts and funny editing gags.

The technical/tonal quality of the kill scenes is only one connection to slashers, however. At the top of the list is the fact that the title character(s) make literal the psychological dual male/female personalities of Psycho. Seen through 21st century eyes, there’s a lot of ‘woke’ subtext to the the gender change dynamic, such as the not-so-subtle indication that Jekyll is so much happier living as a sexually liberated woman that he’s (she’s?) willing to kill and harvest female hormones. It seems unlikely that Baker and screenwriter Brian Clemens connected these dots by accident, especially given the film’s tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of its silly premise. In addition, perhaps in deference to Psycho and the inspiration Hitchcock (as well as screenwriter Joseph Stefano and novelist Robert Bloch) drew from real-life serial killer Ed Gein, Clemens name-drops both Jack the Ripper and historical murdering duo Burke & Hare (William Burke and William Hare). Burke & Hare were referenced in a number of other films, including arguable proto-slashers Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher (195) and Vernon Sewell’s Burke & Hare (1972).

Hands of the Ripper is an early entry in a strangely specific subgenre of movies about poor wretches being possessed by the spirit of Jack the Ripper, followed by E. W. Swackhamer’s Terror at London Bridge (aka: Bridge Across Time, 1985), Rowdy Herrington’s Jack’s Back (1988), and others. It follows the young adult daughter of the Ripper (Angharad Rees), who begins to follow in her father’s footsteps when a botched séance and even more botched Freudian psychoanalysis jog memories of her mother’s murder. Like Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (and Gerard Kikoine’s 1989 Anthony Perkins vehicle, Edge of Sanity) it combines aspects of the Ripper and Jekyll stories to explore the dueling personalities of a sympathetic murderer. Unlike Baker’s film, the personality split is triggered by a traumatic event and a psychotic break, further linking it to the tormented psychopaths that populated so many slashers to come.

Hands of the Ripper (1971)

Sasdy’s directing choices are the real connective thread to the body-count movies of the 1980s. L.W. Davidson & Edward Spencer Shew’s screenplay maintains a tinge of mystery during the first act and forcing Sasdy to find innovative solutions to disguise the killer’s identity, some of which he borrowed from Psycho, that film’s direct descendants, and the earliest gialli. The gore levels are pretty shocking by era standards, the murders are creatively conceived, and the stylish energy and swooping camerawork really stands out against the bulk of Hammer’s colorful, but still dynamically stodgy ‘70s output. Peter Sykes’ Demons of the Mind (1972) doesn’t feature references to Jack the Ripper and rarely feels like a proto-slasher, but its unethical psychological experiments and concepts of inherited evil make it something of a conceptual sequel to Hands of the Ripper. Note that Edgar G. Ulmer’s non-splattery Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957) is suspiciously similar to Sasdy’s film. It also features a young woman who is unaware of her kinship to an infamous killer who develops a murderous split personality.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is available on UK/German RB Blu-ray from Studio Canal and OOP DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment. Hands of the Ripper is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Synapse Films. It is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

The Final Proper Proto-Slashers: Black Christmas (1974) and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

The final two movies I’m going to discuss here are the two most commonly associated with proper slashers, to a degree that I’m assume many readers think that they should be considered as such. But there was still time for the slasher genre to percolate and develop its defining traits (honestly, if you gave me a few more weeks to obsess over the subject, I might scoot Halloween into the proto category). Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre was and remains a categorically singular experience that had an almost unprecedented influence on everything from the hicksploitation and survival horror genres to Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel’s loosely-knit plot – surrounding the misadventures of a group of 20-somethings running afoul of redneck cannibals when they stumble onto their private property – was thinly veiled vehicle to serve (ongoing) social themes and the dreadful tone, yet the specific events of their story pop up continuously in the context of slashers. Bob Clark’s Black Christmas is less famous, but still quite well-known. It centers on the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house, where the girls prepare for Christmas vacation and deal with a rash of obscene phone calls. Eventually, mere annoyance graduates to murder, prompting a police wire tap that reveals that the calls are coming from within the house!

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Created in more or less the same timeframe, on opposite ends of North America, and released only months apart, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Black Christmas combine to fulfill almost every ‘requirement’ on the slasher movie checklist. Both take place in isolated locations, both line up a smörgåsbord of college-age victims who die after engaging in typically college-age vices, both feature subjective tracking shots (though Black Christmas takes it further to make the tracking shot represent the killer’s point of view), and both end with a Final Girl combating the killer(s) and surviving the ordeal (though Black Christmas does tag on a post-finale twist). Alone, Texas Chainsaw Massacre fulfills the masked killer trope (the chainsaw massacre-er, Leatherface, is also, arguably, a cross-dresser), while featured police whose ineptitude spurs the victims to solve their own problem. The only thing missing from each film was gory kills, since almost all of the graphic violence occurs either off-screen or just out of frame.

Besides setting the precedent for a holiday backdrop (a tradition more firmly established after Halloween became a massive hit), Black Christmas’ most unique contribution to the slasher formula was the incorporation of an urban legend; in this case the oft-told tale of a creep making abusive/threatening phone calls from within the victim’s house (or at least the building that they’re currently occupying). The same story became the entire basis for Fred Walton’s non-slasher When a Stranger Calls (1979, followed by a made-for-TV sequel and a 2006 remake) and a cell phone variation on the trope became the inciting event of Wes Craven’s Scream series (1996, 1997, 2000, 2011). Halloween hints that local children are sharing schoolyard rumors of Michael Myers, but the Friday the 13th series really hammered home the concept, especially in Steve Miner’s Friday the 13 Part 2 (1981), where the counselors tell literal campfire stories about Jason before the audience even meets him. Other more obvious examples include the Nightmare on Elm Street movies (Freddy Krueger is essentially powered by his own legend), Tony Maylam’s The Burning (1981), Tom DeSimone’s Hell Night (1981), and George Mihalka’s My Bloody Valentine (1981).

Black Christmas (1974)

Texas Chainsaw Massacre is available on Blu-ray & DVD from Dark Sky Films, and 4K UHD from German company Turbine Media. It is currently streaming on Shudder. Black Christmas has been released and re-released by many companies, but I highly recommend the remastered Blu-ray from Scream Factory. It’s not perfect, but a sizable improvement. It is currently streaming on Shudder and Shout Factory TV.

Further viewing/reading:

  • A Very British Psycho (1997) directed by Chris Rodley. Available on Criterion’s Peeping Tom DVD release

  • A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer by Denis Meikle (Scarecrow Press, revised edition 2008)

  • Splatter Movies: Breaking the Last Taboo by John McCarty (FantaCo Enterprises, 1981/St Martins, 1984)

  • The Godfather of Gore Speaks: Herschell Gordon Lewis Discusses His Films by H.G. Lewis & Andrew J. Rausch (BearManor Media, 2012)

  • Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film by Adam Rockoff (McFarland, 2002)

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