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Serious Slasher Cinema

November 11, 2011

by John Farr

Follow-up this week’s suspenseful Reel 13 Classic, Dressed to Kill, with three of the greatest slasher films ever made.

Psycho (1960)

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) wants to make a new life for herself, and flees hometown Phoenix with a stolen bag of cash from her employer. She then makes a fateful stop at the Bates Motel, run by one Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a nervous, awkward but seemingly innocuous man. Marion learns too late he is anything but, and soon her sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Marion’s lover Sam Loomis (Gavin) have teamed up to discover what happened to her.

Made at the peak of his career in 1960, “Psycho” was suspense master Hitchcock’s last and most famous black-and-white picture-and a film that inaugurated the sub-genre of slasher movie. By the standards of today’s gore-fests, it’s a fairly restrained murder mystery, but disturbing nonetheless, achieving its chills more by what is withheld than shown. Hitchcock knows just how to heighten our dread of who or what might be at the top of the stairs, or beyond that shower curtain. The terrifying “Psycho” stands above most any psychological thriller made since.

Black Christmas (1974)

As their Pi Kappa Sigma peers begin to leave for the Christmas break, sorority sisters Jessica (Olivia Hussey) and bawdy Barbie (Margot Kidder) stay behind for a Yuletide party. The cheerful mood is marred, however, by a series of frighteningly obscene phone calls. The girls get nervous enough when their friend Clare (Lynne Griffin) fails to meet her dad for the ride home, and then a teenage girl is found murdered in a local park, prompting a concerned visit by police lieutenant Kenneth Fuller (John Saxon). Is a psychopath loose, or could this be more personal?

Three years before the release of John Carpenter’s “Halloween” brought the term “slasher film” into our movie lexicon, Bob Clark (the director of “Porky’s”!) helmed this Canadian-made psycho thriller starring Hussey, Kidder, and ubiquitous ’70s character actor John Saxon, playing a detective who suspects Jessica’s jilted boyfriend (Dullea) is a killer. With its menacing atmosphere and see-less-scare-more dictum, “Christmas” avoids all the clich├ęs that were to follow in gorier films to come. When the shrill ring of a telephone makes your nerves jump, you know Clark’s dread-and-distress horror film has gotten under your skin.

Halloween (1978)

Michael Myers, who butchered his sister when he was six, has escaped from an asylum and returned to his small Illinois hometown just in time to wreak more carnage and mayhem on Halloween. Baby-sitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is unlucky enough to fall in Michael’s path, which interferes with her trick-or-treating. Meanwhile, Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), Michael’s psychiatrist, is frantically tracking his patient, but how much blood will get spilled before he finds him?

John Carpenter’s first and best entry in a long series, this movie gives the slasher pic a good name (that is, until you sit through all those pale re-treads). This lean feature works because it’s both original and daringly basic: Laurie is a young teenage girl up against a monster, with only her wits and her two feet to protect her from the wrong end of a large butcher knife. Will Laurie and her young charges make it to Thanksgiving? You’ll remain on the edge of your seat finding out.

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