Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film
Edited by Wickham Clayton
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015
Hardcover. xiv+254 p. ISBN 978-1137496461. £63
Reviewed by Andrew L. Grunzke
Mercer University (Georgia)
Wickham Clayton’s edited volume Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher is an important work in the burgeoning scholarship of horror film. Scholarship of the slasher film sub-genre has been typically proportionally more sparse than horror’s other branches. The quality books that have appeared, like Richard Nowell’s Blood Money : A History of the First Teen Slasher Film Cycle (2010) and Adam Rockoff’s oft-cited Going to Pieces : The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986 (2002), have tended to focus on production considerations and content analyses. Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher fills a major hole in the scholarship, providing a variety of formalist examinations of a number of slasher films and providing an opening for more serious considerations of the slasher film.
The book begins with a solid introduction and an insightful chapter that discusses formalistic elements of camera work as they relate to the killer’s gaze in Eyes of a Stranger (1980) and When a Stranger Calls (1979). The chapter does a superb job delineating the ways that slashers employ unstable points of view in the form of “potential point of view” shots that ambiguously conceal the killer’s location, represent the victim’s limited point of view, or anticipate the killer’s next move. David Roche’s piece uses incredibly detailed film analysis to build a convincing and compelling argument regarding the slasher film as a cinematic form.
That first chapter is followed by a delightful essay that attempts defend the often maligned fifth entry in the Friday the 13th sequence. Defending Friday the 13th Part V : A New Beginning (1985) from its detractors is a seemingly Herculean task. Clayton attributed much of the animosity toward the film to genre fans whose expectations were frustrated, arguing that the “whodunit” motif in the film favors the new viewer over the franchise (or even genre) enthusiast. This, he argues, “frustrates easy reception while adhering to most broad generic tropes” . In other words, those most familiar with the tropes become less likely to appreciate the film. Clayton goes on to argue that the “whodunit” form also adds a layer of emotional complexity to the murder scenes, which makes the film more “weighty and complex”  than most frequent viewers of the genre have been willing to express. This particular viewer, while not wholly willing to admit that Friday the 13th Part V is an unequivocally great film, was given pause to reconsider his reception of the work. As such, what might have seemed, at first glance, like a tongue-in-cheek piece turned out to be surprisingly effective.
Having included a discussion of a Friday the 13th film, the book moves along to a chapter on the functional aesthetics of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Karra Shimbukuro’s discussion of aesthetics ultimately serves to examine the way that narrative is built across the series and, in the end, provides what could be used as an excellent model for looking at the formation of an aesthetic across many film series. As viewers of the Elm Street films, we are presented with a relatively unique aesthetic: we see no difference in these films between the aesthetics of reality and the dream world. This, Shimbukuro argues, reinforces the idea that there is little actual difference between those two. While this particular aesthetic choice is maintained throughout the series, other aesthetic considerations change over the course of the series. This is, in no small part, a result of the way that Nightmare moves from being Wes Craven’s auteur text to a studio one. This chapter serves as a formalist call to re-examine the sequel from the perspective of functional aesthetics. Looking at how aesthetic elements function across a franchise sheds light on both aesthetic developments in the genre, but also on how the texts in the film series themselves develop their own aesthetic over the same period.
One of the central purposes of horror film, according to Stacey Abbott’s contribution to the volume, is aesthetic excess. Slashers, she argues, are rarely examined in discussions of the Gothic. She also encourages, and rightly so, a look into the role that Grand Guignol played in the development of the slasher sub-genre. The chapter further suggests that films like Candyman (1992) and Saw (2004) function as Gothic texts filtered through the isolation of the urban ghetto or the industrial wasteland. While the chapter does contain some good discussion of camera techniques and editing in the chosen set of films, the strength of the chapter is the marvelous equation it makes between urban slashers to the works of Charles Dickens (with their depictions of urban spaces devoid of humanity) and linking the modern urban landscape to the notion of the Gothic “Terrible Place” many scholars have explored in the past. It is an idea that lends itself very nicely to these particular slasher texts.
Much has already been made in horror film scholarship of the Scream films and their running commentary on slasher film conventions. Andrew Patrick Nelson’s chapter wisely chooses to focus on the more subtle intertextuality Halloween : H20 (1998). This film distinguishes its intertextuality from the discursive intertextuality of Scream (1996). In H20, Protagonist Laurie does not repeat the mistakes that she made in past entries into the Halloween film series. The reason, though, is her own personal history wrestling with these same conditions in her own past. Her survival does not, however, depend on her knowledge of the horror genre (as it does in Scream or, although it is not mentioned in the book, Zombieland (2009)). In those films, external analyses of the genre become internal properties of the genre. Franchise legacy becomes, for Nelson, a way to create a deeper understanding of the slasher film and the diverse ways that intertextuality functions within it.
The tenth chapter of the book returns to the concept of intertextuality, delving into the more frequently discussed idea of intertextuality as an overt discursive act in slasher films. More conventional in its approach, Fran Pheasant-Kelly’s chapter on Scream still does a nice job articulating the way that intertextual references in Scream call attention to the cultural shift from authorial perspective to source material in slasher movies. Scream is not a parody, Pheasant-Kelly argues; it is simulacrum. Slightly misplaced in the volume (the chapter would seem to work better as a precursor or immediate follow-up to Nelson’s work), the two chapters seem to build on each other and develop a more comprehensive notion of the function of intertextuality in the slasher.
Instead, Mark Richard Adams contributes the sixth chapter of the book and focuses on stylistic elements in Valentine (2001), arguing for a consideration of the notion of pragmatic aesthetics when it comes to the analysis of slasher films. Pragmatic aesthetics is the idea that form and style are influenced by practical forces outside simple authorial vision. Among these influences are budgets; the low budget of horror films influences their aesthetics in a positive way. Using everyday spaces, marred by weathering and experience, often dirty or dusty or unkempt, with filmmakers facing problems lighting those spaces, result in shadowy or dim lighting, creates an aesthetic that feels simultaneously threatening, yet everyday. Valentine stands in contrast to this and is presented here as a film that “revels in its own stylistic excess” , lending credence to the idea that it deserves stronger consideration in the scholarship.
In a somewhat related way, Ian Conrich begins his chapter with a discussion of another criminally under-examined film, Cube (1997). He uses this film, along with the Saw and Final Destination franchises, to build on Vera Dika’s work and Carol Clovers’s “Her Body, Himself.” The chapter makes the not-entirely-original-but-still-important observation that the slasher films, like the Universal Pictures monster movies before them, die with comedy. If the Abbott and Costello / Universal monster crossover films signaled the end of that filmic era, so, too, do black comedic slashers like April Fool’s Day (1986) (Conrich’s example) or the fifth Nightmare on Elm Street (1989) film (my own example) signal the end of the slasher era. The chapter smartly avoids retreading the proto-slasher or pre-slasher (to use Conrich’s terminology), in favor of spending more time on the less-examined post-slashers. In so doing, the chapter argues that scholarly analysis of early 21st century horror film, epitomized by the Final Destination films (in which death itself takes the place of the stalking killer of the slasher films), benefits from interpretation as inheritors of the legacy of the slasher picture.
In his discussion of the Saw films, Matthew Freeman asks us to see the franchise as engaging in complex storytelling, essentially as a series of puzzle films that are non-linear in structure and include devices like time loops, ellipses, unreliable narrators, and multiple timelines that are designed to fragment spatiotemporal reality and conceal key plot elements to force audiences to discover them over the course of the film series. As such, Freeman characterizes the Saw films as “a collage of severed, fragmented parts of distorted, multiple memories” , encouraging us to re-examine the films in a new light.
Gary Bettison attempts to inspire a similar reconsideration of the Carrie (1976) and its remake (2013), arguing that Peirce’s remake of De Palma’s Carrie pushes forward the slasher elements of the narrative. In so doing, the chapter argues, the remake cleaves closer to the roots of the story in Psycho (1960), while De Palma’s film, on the other hand, was playing against Psycho, actively removing references to Hitchcock’s film and amplifying the proto-slasher elements. This is, perhaps, not the most radical argument, but it does, in its way, invite the reader to look afresh at Peirce’s film.
The argument in Jessica Balanzategui’s chapter on the supernatural slasher is a clever one: films featuring a supernatural killer who is able to invade the subjectivities of the other characters disrupt the dichotomies in the traditional slasher narrative. When the killer is able to invade the minds of the victim, the killer / victim dichotomy collapses. Anyone could be either victim or killer, and the act of becoming a killer becomes another form of victimization. Slasher films have long featured supernatural killers. At times, this supernaturalness was subtle (e.g., the relentless return of the killer, despite death). At other times it was overt (Freddy from Nightmare on Elm Street and Chucky from Child’s Play (1988) were explicitly supernatural). One of the major contributions of this particular chapter, though, was the application of these ideas to typically ignored texts. In Fallen (1998), the ability of the murderous demon to travel from one living being to another means the killer could literally be anyone, and the typical whodunit aspect of the horror film (in which the characters struggle to figure out the killer’s identity) is upset. In Frailty (2001), the line between the killer and the Final Boy, likewise, collapses. In the end, the addition of supernatural elements to the traditional slasher film often fundamentally change the form and function of those films, and this chapter does a wonderful job of providing some tools for the analysis of those texts within this context.
If this book does one thing very well, it is bringing many frequently under- or unexamined films under the scholarly microscope. Darren Elliot-Smith’s use of queer theory to look at Marcus Nispel’s 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre correctly observes that, because its stylistic deviation from the original, the remake alters the film’s ideological significance. The sharpest tool Elliot-Smith uses to develop this idea is the challenge to the idea of the male gaze or, more specifically, the assumption that the male spectator of a film is a heterosexual male. Ultimately, this leads to a compelling queer argument for the pathos of Leatherface: he has a skin disease and wears faces over his own to cover his own disfigurement out of a desire to be normal; we develop sympathy as he is unmasked.
The book concludes with two chapters that seek to expand the theoretical base for analyses of horror film. One applies the concept of neopostmodernism to post-9/11 'found footage' American horror films and the sense of alienation in a society of constant surveillance. The book’s final chapter mines the concept of the anti-denouement to describe the way that the serial slasher film killers like Freddy Krueguer, Jason Vorhees, and Michael Myers (meant both in the sense that the commit multiple killings per film and that they belong to long film series) resist their final death at the end of each of their films. Both chapters are effective at crafting their theses, but it is the tables in Janet Staigers’s concluding chapter with their detailed information cataloguing information about the number and attributes of the victims and the motivations and vital statistics of the killers in several dozen slasher films that, I think, will prove the most useful to people interested in doing further scholarship on slashers.
Taken together, this collection of essays does something truly remarkable. Each of the chapters sheds new light on a dark set of film texts. Serious scholarship of the slasher film has been thin, and this volume goes a long way toward remedying that problem. It opens new questions for further scholarship and provides new impetus for re-considering (or, in some cases, considering for the first time) the formalistic aspects of films in a prominent (if academically under-appreciated) sub-genre.
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