The Teenage Slasher Movie Book (2nd revised and expanded ed.)
J. A. Kerswell | 224 pages | Companion | October 2018 | ISBN: 978-1620083079 | $24.99
Horror fans have sliced and diced the genre into innumerable subgenres—if you will forgive the terrible pun. It is now possible to be a fan exclusively of Korean zombie movies, or films about people trapped in overly complex torture devices, or even movies about creepy strangers posing menacingly outside of young adults’ windows. It is both an astonishing time to be alive, and also kind of uncomfortable to have Hollywood feeding so much of the same that the most obscure horrors are no longer isolated gems cherished for their own sake but are instead copied and pasted until the original no longer stands out. There is a certain degree of homogenization in horror, and the homages, copycats, and riders of coattails end up retroactively detracting from the true originals.
This has always been the case, of course. Universal Pictures drove its own monsters into an untimely grave through too many inferior sequels in the 1940s, from which they have never entirely recovered. The inferior slasher films of the 1980s and 1990s make it hard to remember just how powerful the original Halloween was upon its release forty years ago. Unless you are the author of the book under consideration today, for whom those copycat cutups are the very apex of the horror genre.
In 2010, British author J. A. Kerswell of The Hysteria Continues podcast published Teenage Wasteland: The Slasher Movie Uncut, also released in the U.S. in 2012 as The Slasher Movie Book, which outlined the history of teen slasher movies. Now, just in time for Halloween 2018, Kerswell has a revised and expanded second edition of the text, covering recent developments down to about the end of 2016. I have not read the first edition, but the New York Times reported in 2012 that it was a book of movie posters, so the new edition must lean more heavily toward text.
The Teenage Slasher Movie Book is one of a dozen or so entries in the growing genre of slasher studies, and its major selling point is the high production values from Companion House books, which lavishly illustrated the volume and designed it sumptuously in the manner of a grindhouse movie poster. The book looks beautiful, though I have found it difficult to read at times, especially at night, because many of the pages are printed in dark colors—blood read, royal blue—and the black text does not stand out well enough except with massive amounts of bright light. And let’s face it: Reading this book on a dark fall night is sort of the whole point.
Kerswell is a savvy guide through the thickets of slasher films, but he is also one with a heavy bias. Kerswell fell in love with slasher movies after watching Halloween II in 1982—a fact he repeats many times in the book—and has a very strong personal identification with his adolescent favorites. This love of the 1980s biases the book in an unfortunate way. Of the book’s 200 pages, 170 pages cover the period before 1995, with 86 given over to the years 1978-1984 alone. To his credit, though, Kerswell is open about this in his introduction, admitting that the book “concentrates on the era that I (and many other fans) consider the Golden Age of the slasher movie—the period from 1978 to 1984.” This may truly be the best of times for the genre, or it may not. Kerswell feels it emotionally because of his age, and I do not, because of mine. Being more than a decade younger than Kerswell, the products of that period have a certain distance from me. I can admire their construction, but they were not part of the emotional landscape of my adolescence.
Our author traces the slasher movie to an unusual source, the French Grand Guignol theater, whose bloody plays he sees as precedent for violent horror movies. That is certainly true to an extent. But the influence is rather distant, and one might as well trace the Grand Guignol’s influences back to the sensational horrors of the Gothic plays that preceded it, or even Shakespeare’s savage Titus Andronicus. Horror, in some form, has always been a part of the arts. Ask the Greeks, way back at the dawn of theater. Blood and guts were even then part of their stock in trade.
In keeping his focus squarely on the slasher part of the title, he tends to elide the more important word: teenage. Why, one might ask, did the slasher genre settle on adolescents as its primary victims as it took shape in the 1970s and 1980s. The earlier precedents Kerswell cites (with a few notable exceptions, such as the Texas Chain Saw Massacre) involved adults. The mad killer films of the 1930s and 1940s almost all involved adult men and women in their late 20s, 30s, or 40s. (Sometimes it’s hard to tell since people aged so badly back then—I’ve been shocked a few times to find that a seemingly middle-aged actor was actually 35.) In the 1950s, one of the biggest stars of slasher-style movies was Vincent Price, who was born in 1911. Psycho, often cited as a founding film in the genre, claimed Janet Leigh as its main victim, and she was 33 in 1960.
Kerswell only indifferently probes around the edges of the issue, but over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, society changed, and with it, our image of childhood and young adulthood did, too. The rise of the concept of the teenager as both a social construct and a desirable marketing segment for advertisers and media producers is too complex to cover here, but the teenage slasher movie would not have been possible without the creation of a teenage market to consume them, and visual mass media to spread images of teenage heartthrobs to their adoring young fans.
By the 1960s, a whole subgenre of teen horror movies had grown from—of all things—teen beach party movies, a surprisingly popular genre of its own in the 1960s (presumably due to the lack of internet porn). It was a weird, but not unexpected, result of the 1960s “monster culture” popular among teens and centering on a revival of the Universal monsters. This was the period of the Addams Family and the Munsters, reruns of Universal films on afternoon television and novelty songs like “The Monster Mash.” Movie producers took their teen stars and placed them into horror movies to capitalize on the trend. Thus we saw films like The Horror of Party Beach (1964), probably the purest—though most incompetent—combination of beach party and horror; The Beach Girl and the Monster (1965), basically the same movie; and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966), with Boris Karloff wedged uncomfortably into a film with AIP’s Beach Party cast. Frankie Avalon made an extremely interesting failure, The Haunted House of Horror (1969) (playing a decade younger than his age), that served as a template for teen slasher films to come. Kerswell gives the movie only a couple of sentences, but it was much more important than that, despite the studio’s meddling that rendered parts incoherent, and its uneasy sexual undertones were an important precedent.
I could go on. There were many teen horror films that grew out of this trend, and over time the comedic elements of the earlier movies gave way to purer horror. Haunted House of Horror was intended as pure horror, and Tower of Evil (1974), a similar film with sex, teens, and a slasher, was closer still. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre cemented the connection, but it should not disguise the fact that the specifically teenage aspects of the movie genre are neither incidental nor coincidental. The studios, incidentally, tried to do the same thing with other genres, but it didn’t work so well. The teen (well, young adult) spy spoof—Frankie Avalon did the entertaining Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) while Fabian took over for the execrable Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bomb (1966)—failed to launch a genre. The horror comedy Western, combining Universal-style monsters with the wildly popular horse operas of the time was an even bigger flop. Do not watch Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966) or Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966), among the laziest atrocities committed to film. The Blaxploitation combination of horror and African American themes, launched by Blacula (1972), was a surprisingly successful combination of genres, even if the individual films were not always good.
But I am getting off topic.
It’s weird to think that we owe slasher movies to teen beach party flicks, but they contributed at least as much as the Grand Guignol, and probably more.
So, read The Teenage Slasher Movie Book for what it is, an interesting love letter to some of the best and worst of slasher films of the 1980s, with a much more cursory discussion of what came before and after. The art is gorgeously reproduced, but the text tends more toward listing and summary than critical analysis. The author wears his bias on his sleeve, and like many horror fans, his narrow interest leads him to miss some of the parts of the story that spread beyond the confines of the subgenre. But, overall, this is a worthy discussion of what has grown to become the iconic representation of horror in the public mind, surpassing the Universal Horror monsters as the face of terror in modern times.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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