Horror films have been popular with audiences since the early days of film. As much as people like to laugh and cry, sometimes they like to be scared, too. Like any other genre, horror films changed and evolved, and by the '70s and '80s, the slasher film became the dominant representation of horror. When this genre was first introduced, people were lining up on opening night to be the first to see these gruesome tales brought to life. As time progressed, and more and more formulaic movies were made, the genre started to parody itself and people lost interest. These terrifying films became a joke and a laughing stock.
According to Paste, a slasher film is defined by specific parameters that set it apart from movies involving similar themes. The killer has to be a human being (not just an alien or animal), they have to be aware that their actions are evil, and they have to leave a significant body count in their wake. These rules still apply, even if they only follow one person throughout the film. This feels like an apt description, as most of the fun of watching a true slasher film comes from watching the bad guy kill a group of people in amazingly creative ways.
But did every one of these films follow the same formula? Was every one of them exactly like the other? The answer, in short, is no. While many did, there were several films that offered viewers social commentary, compelling imagery, and even a few deliberate laughs.
When director John Carpenter and his writing partner Debra Hill decided to make a horror movie, they wanted a film that everyone could identify with. From that concept, one of the most successful horror films of the 20th century was born. The movie also kick-started the slasher wave of the 1980s, making Michael Myers the proverbial father of every horror paragon that followed.
The plot of the movie is pretty simple: a group of teenagers is picked off one by one by an escaped lunatic in the same town where he killed his sister decades before on Halloween night. As critic Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, none of the characters really stand out. Rather, they're just a bunch of everyday people.
However, visually and thematically speaking, the movie rises above its relatively simplistic premise. Carpenter uses foreground shots to up the fear ante in several scenes. As the character on screen performs some normal task, like talking on the phone, Michael frequently moves silently into and out of the foreground shots, letting the audience know that the possibility of violence is ever-present. The tension is further increased as the viewer is forced to watch the ignorant character walk toward the exact spot where Michael was standing just a moment before.
The opening sequence of Halloween is monumental by itself. Utilizing the steady cam technique, Carpenter uses the first few minutes of the film to put you in Michael's shoes. In an almost single continuous shot, you become him as he spies on his sister and her boyfriend - and ultimately ends his sister's life. This sense of voyeurism continues throughout the film, situating the audience uncomfortably close to Michael's point of view.
A Nightmare On Elm Street stood out among its slasher brethren as one of the few films with a supernatural killer, albeit one who was once a human monster: the dream-invading, claw-handed Freddy Krueger. The popularity of this 1984 Wes Craven film launched a juggernaut horror franchise, though every subsequent entry into the series offered diminishing returns, so much so that by the release of Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare in 1991, Freddy was a parody of himself - no longer a scary character, but a wise-cracking one.
The studio and fans recognized that a proper end to the franchise was in order, and thus, Wes Craven's New Nightmare was born. Bringing the original film's creator back into the fold (Craven had not been involved in any of the sequels, save for writing the first treatment for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors), New Nightmare poses the question, what if Freddy jumped from the realm of fiction into actual reality? Heather Langenkamp, who played Nancy Thompson in the first and third films, also returned to the series, this time playing a fictional version of herself. Craven also appeared as himself, as did Robert Englund, who once again donned Freddy's tattered fedora and striped sweater.
Predating Scream, another self-aware horror film directed by Craven, New Nightmare is not only an effective meta-film - a difficult task in its own right - but it also makes some interesting points about rabid fandom and the dilemmas faced by creators when developing a horror franchise.
On the surface, Hush might seem like any other horror film: it involves a woman trapped in a country house, tormented by a masked stranger. But writer/director Mike Flanagan, alongside co-writer and star Kate Siegel, takes this simple premise and turns it into one of the most compelling 21st-century entries into the subgenre. For one, the aforementioned woman, Maddie, is deaf, causing her would-be killer to believe executing her will be easy - but Maddie's deafness is one of her strengths. As for the villain, Flanagan and Siegel manage to humanize him just enough to set him apart from the average masked nightmare. They're able to accomplish this while still keeping his motivations hidden, thus making his actions all the more terrifying.
On top of everything else, Hush is a well-executed thriller. Its strongest point is its characters, making the bloody action of the film all the more terrifying, since we actually care about their fates.
Long before Scream and Wes Craven's New Nightmare revitalized the slasher genre, writer/director Tom McLoughlin created a meta-horror film within an established franchise, the Friday the 13th series. With this sixth installment, subtitled Jason Lives, McLoughlin turned to gothic sensibilities and inside jokes to jolt new life into the series, bringing back the hockey-masked killer in a fresh and inventive way.
As Jason moves closer to his old stomping grounds at Camp Crystal Lake, his kills become so over-the-top they're practically slapstick. Meanwhile, the councilors all demonstrate a near-self-awareness that they are mere characters in a slasher film, quipping about genre tropes before meeting their grisly demises. Jason Lives not only delivers the requisite violence of an '80s horror film, it stands as one of the best examples of elevated popcorn filmmaking out there.