Wednesday, October 06, 2010
The Great Slasher Research Project of '10: ANTSS needs your help.
In The Onion A.V. Club's "Gateway to Geekery" series, there's an entry on gateways into the slasher horror subgenre. I don't bring up this article to defend its choice of the film to start with - writer Zack Handlen chooses the ironic, post-golden age Scream as the threshold flick - but to point out his definition of what a slasher film is. From the article:
Plus, just what the hell is a slasher? Even seasoned horror junkies have a hard time agreeing on a definition. Much as “torture porn” resists easy classification (although it seems to be, for whoever’s using the term, “violent movies I don’t like”), a slasher film can only be defined by general terms and personal taste. For the purposes of this article, supernatural killers are out, which means no Nightmare On Elm Street. (Also no Leprechaun, Child’s Play, or Friday The 13th movies from part 6 on.) There’s a killer, or a pair of killers, and they’re bumping off people, until a lone survivor (a.k.a., the Final Girl, a virginal young woman who’s probably a bit smarter than her friends) stumbles across the bodies the killer has carefully planted for her to find; a cat-and-mouse game ensues, the Final Girl turns the tables on the killer, and then there’s one final scare before the end credits.
Definitions are always a sticking point - I think most slasher fans count Freddy's films in their canon - but the problem with this particular formula is that not even Handlen follows it. For example, there's no "Final Girl" in Sleepaway Camp, a film he cites as an example of the genre. Nor is Sidney the lone survivor of the killers' murderous spree in Scream.
This isn't to pick on Handlen's definition, but to point to something that's been nagging me lately: I'm not certain that there is a "slasher" formula. From high-minded criticism (see Women and Chainsaw's, the book that spawned the "final girl" trope) to genre in-jokes (see Scream), there's an long-running assumption that there is a widely recognized, essential "formula" of genre conventions inherent to the slasher film. Some of the elements of this alleged formula can be found in Handlen's fomulation: the final girl, the lone killer, the last jump scare, etc. Others get suggested from time to time: nudity; a punitive attitude towards sin; the presence of a signature weapon; a predictable victim-order that requires minorities and sybarites go before the good, white kids; useless adults and authority figures; and so on.
The problem is, when I start talking cases, most of the films I'd consider slashers omit most of the elements people would put on their list. I'm coming to the conclusion that the slasher "formula" is mostly a critical crutch, a convenient catch-all that lumps together the horror films of a certain era, that has become a fan shibboleth.
But instead of just speculating, I want to put this idea to the test. And that's where you come in.
I need some research assistants for what I'm calling The Great Slasher Research Project of '10. This project will have two parts: First we cook up a working definition of a slasher flick, then we watch a bunch of movies to see if the definition holds. We're going to start that first step today.
Part 1: Create a Definition
When I wrote about the characteristics typical of torture porn flicks, I was fairly called to task for defining the genre in a tautological way: to prove torture porn flicks exhibited certain characteristics, I defined films with those characteristics as torture porn. While that certainly makes arguing one's case easier, it's acting in bad faith as a critic. To avoid this, we're going to crowd-source our definition of the slasher flick. Here's how it will work: from now until the 20th, leave a comment on this post that details elements you believe define the slasher subgenre. To keep things simple, use a standard, list like format. Here's a non-slasher example:
I think the elements common to all chocolate chip cookie are:
1. chocolate chips
That's all you've got to do. Don't worry about other people's responses - in fact, don't even look at the other responses before creating your own - just write out the elements that come to mind when you think "slasher." On the 20th, I'll compile the answers, find a subset of broadly agreed upon elements, eliminate outliers, and we'll have a definition reflects the consensus rather than an individual's point of view.
We'll take that definition and use it to complete step 2.
But that's later! Right now, I want to hear from you. Leave a comment. Tell friends to leave comments. The more data, the better. Comment like the wind, my friend!