15 Slasher Movies That Are Smarter Than You Think

15 Slasher Movies That Are Smarter Than You Think
Screenshot: Blood and Black Lace/Trailer, Fair Use
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In the spirit of the latest Halloween reboot, a new straight-to-Netflix Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie dropped in February that, like the 2018 Michael Myers movie, ignores all of the intervening films and re-introduces the original’s lead (in Massacre’s case, that involves recasting Sally Hardesty — as Marilyn Burns sadly died in 2014).

The initial buzz seemed to be…not great. But that’s not unheard of for a slasher franchise, and it’ll be up to fans rather than critics to decide whether or not it was worth a trip back to Texas.

Often seen as the lowest of low-rent sub-genres, there’s nothing inherently wrong with slasher movies. The original Massacre was an impressive bit of nasty cinéma vérité-style filmmaking. Black Christmas, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street were all conceived as actual movies, made by real filmmakers, and not merely the cheap cash-grabs that came to give the genre its low-rent reputation. Imitators dominated the ‘80s and ‘90s, but more recent waves of slasher movies have been about subverting expectations and deconstructing the genre in really smart ways.

Some slasher movies are easy to identify, but where it gets tricky I’ve stuck to two criteria: The killer ought to be human, or at least human-esque); and there needs to be a reasonably large body count. (It’s 2022, and a measly murder or two isn’t even going to make the papers.) Motive is all well and good, but the truest slashers enjoy their work, and they want you to enjoy it too.

Halloween (1978)

For better and for worse, Halloween is the front from which all modern slashers spring. It’s not that it was the first, but it was the most overwhelmingly popular of its era (earning $US70 ($97) million dollars on a $US300,000 ($416,460) budget), and managed to bring a bit of cultural cache to the burgeoning, but much-maligned, slasher genre.

Following its release, it was so widely imitated that some of its innovations became rote, but few (even its own sequels) seem to grasp why it works. The key, often-forgotten fact about Halloween is that it was a collaboration between John Carpenter and writer/producer Debra Hill. Hill who wrote most of the dialogue, creating reasonably believable teenage characters who happened to have sex — without their inevitable deaths being the conservative moral statement of later movies.

Carpenter’s understated camerawork and the blank-slate, force-of-nature, William Shatner-lookin’ killer meld into a perfect adversary for Jamie Lee Curtis’ level-headed Laurie Strode, representing the dangers of teenage angst or, really, whatever you care to project onto that white mask.

Where to stream: Stan

Dream Home (2010)

Cheng Lai-sheung (actor and producer Josie Ho) is working two jobs and still can barely save up enough money for a down-payment on a condo in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, a particularly tough area for real estate in a city with some of the world’s highest property values. Just when she thinks she’s got it, the price goes up and she’s shoved out of the market again. Any hope that she is able to eke out is quickly dashed: because of a technicality, her father’s medical insurance proves insufficient, and her married boyfriend is no help. Not that I’d ever recommend Sheung’s methods, but she does hit on a sure-fire way to drive prices down in the building — after all, who’s going to pay top prices when everyone’s getting murdered?

Sure, on a conceptual level, the idea of murdering innocent people in order to score yourself an apartment is…not great. But the movie makes enough of Sheung’s frustration that the whole thing is oddly satisfying if you don’t get too bogged down in the details. The murders are impressively, sometimes excessively conceived, but the real horror is big-city housing prices — and, for North American viewers, the movie doesn’t let us or our banks off the hook for exacerbating the problem globally.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Happy Death Day (2017)

The actual body count here is low, but the number of death scenes would likely put it near the top of any slasher’s kill count — so I’m going to say it counts. Happy Death Day reimagines Groundhog Day as a murder mystery, in which mean girl Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is killed on her birthday by someone wearing the outfit of her school’s ultra-creepy baby mascot…only to wake up on the same day and get murdered all over again.

Conjecturing that she can break the cycle by solving (and thus preventing) her murder, Tree spends her days developing the skills she’ll need to survive, and revealing there’s more to her than the snide, one-dimensional sorority girl who meet at the outset. It’s more funny than scary, and a bit more of a sci-fi murder mystery than a traditional slasher, but it excels at blending disparate genre elements.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Triangle (2009)

Without giving too much away, Triangle covers some of the same territory as Happy Death Day, but without the comedy, and in a setting far more complex, filled with time travel and alternate timelines and a slasher traversing them all. It’s the kind of trippy, confusing sci-fi horror movie that won’t be to every taste — but it’s the kind of thing I love (think Timecrimes or Primer). For fans of this type of thing, it works on just about every level.

Where to stream: ABC iView

Knife+Heart (2018)

There are layers upon layers in director Yann Gonzalez’s slick and stylish slasher set in the world of ‘70s gay porn. Anne Parèze (Vanessa Paradis) runs a production company that makes the exploitation movies Knife + Heart centres on, but the series of murders that occurs on set barely draws the attention of the local police, who aren’t terribly torn up about the deaths of gay porn actors.

Anne decides that her next film will be about the murders themselves, unfolding a movie-within-a-movie that only draws the attention of the killer (and his spiked dildo). The movie celebrates giallo, and classic sleaze more generally, but with a look and feel that’s unlike nothing else, and for a movie involving a killer dildo that harkens back to the exploitation films of the past, it has a surprisingly big heart — and an appropriately killer score from French synthpop band M83.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994)

Hitting higher highs than some of our other beloved slasher franchises, a couple of Nightmare on Elm Street movies could fit the bill here; while the series wasn’t always brilliant, it was at least ambitious. None are quite as mind-bending as We Craven’s late-in-the-game return to the world of Freddy and Nancy with New Nightmare, a cerebral take on the iconic killer, merchandising, and slasher movies in general that presaged Scream and decades of meta-narratives since. Starring Heather Langenkamp as herself rather than Nancy Thompson, the film imagines Freddy Krueger as a sort-of demon from our collective unconscious, the kind of evil that we keep under control via exactly the kinds of horror stories and movies that people have told for thousands of years. It’s Craven’s definitive statement on the good, bad, and terrible in the slasher genre.

Where to stream: Netflix

Candyman (2021)

The original Candyman was very smart in its own right, but the recent sequel/reboot wins pride of place for going a bit deeper, and, more importantly, for telling the story of cinema’s primary Black slasher from a Black point of view, broadening and deepening the surrounding mythology without feeling the need to hold the hands of white audiences. With a less-is-more visual style, director Nia DaCosta goes hard in examining the price to be paid for generations of brutality against Black bodies and souls, offering up an ending that genuinely gives no fucks.

Where to stream: Prime Video

Scream 4 (2011)

The original Scream probably warrants this spot, but the fourth in the meta-slasher series deserves more love than it got on its initial release — Wes Craven’s final film having been, characteristically, a bit ahead of its time. The decade following Scream 4 would see a nearly endless stream of legacy sequels the likes of Star Wars, Jurassic World, Ghostbusters, Terminator, Independence Day, etc., with no end in sight — a phenomenon that Scream 4 picked apart before it really got started, foreseeing the ugly turns that fandom would take when faced with new movies about beloved characters. T

he original surviving trio of Sydney, Gale, and Dewey all reluctantly return to Woodsboro to hand things over to a new generation, just in time for an impressive final-act twist that turns all that on its head. It also boasts one of the series’ cleverest openings, poking fun at its own reputation for going meta with a movie within a movie. Within a movie. …within a movie, I think?

Where to stream: Stan

You’re Next (2011)

As is very often the case in these movies, smarter characters make for smarter movies — the traditional array of dumb teenagers tends to be relatively easy to dispatch, and therefore don’t demand much from filmmakers in terms of creativity.

You’re Next has as its lead Erin (Sharni Vinson), an unusually resourceful potential victim, and cleverly builds itself around a scenario that’s at least as horrifying as any slasher attack: She is meeting her boyfriend’s family for the first time at a family reunion in rural Missouri. I’m horrified before the murders ever start. Director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett have teamed up on several different occasions (including 2014’s The Guest), and are doing their most impressive work here.

Where to stream: ABC iView

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

In the universe of this mockumentary, all the famous movie slashers are real, historical figures who have real-life followings, as does the title character, Leslie Vernon, who claims to be the resurrected subject of a local legend about a boy who murdered his parents before being killed by the locals. What’s clear is that he’s a killer fanboy who plans to emulate his heroes, and the movie is presented from the point of view of the film crew following him on his journey to slasher greatness. It’s a deconstructionist take, which we’ve seen before, but it digs a bit deeper and has a bit more fun than most of other movies that followed in the wake of Scream. There’s also a solidly constructed story-within-the-story about the precarious position that the film crew has placed itself in, providing the structure that holds everything together.

Where to stream: Prime Video

Freaky (2020)

Not unlike Happy Death Day, Freaky succeeds not by being a particularly brutal slasher film, but instead by doing something new with the genre. Well, new-ish — the movie freshens things up by blending disparate genres. Here, it’s the slasher movie and the body-swap comedy, where the switch involves a teenage girl and a male serial killer. There are nicely designed murdery bits, but the movie has the most fun with the idea of the Vince Vaughan trading places with the rather smaller Kathryn Newton, and plays with expectations about the type of person that we should fear in life, or at the movies.

Where to stream: Binge

The Leopard Man (1943)

We’re too early in film history to classify this one as a true slasher, but it’s worth taking a moment to look at a movie that was central to the development of the idea of a serial killer as something distinct from an Agatha Christie-type murderer.

The Leopard Man introduces a killer who kills because he enjoys it — even deriving a bit of sexual satisfaction from the act — as opposed to earlier screen killers who generally required a more straightforward motive. That’s a common, probably essential ingredient in later slasher movies — the killer likes the job. In a quiet New Mexico town, a nightclub owner buys a leopard for his girlfriend and lead performer to make use of in her act, the leopard then becoming a convenient cover for the string of killings.

Director Jacques Tourneur and producer Val Lewton were masters at making smart, stylish classics on a budget, and this one is among their creepy best.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Peeping Tom (1960)

There’s a thin line between a serial killer and a slasher, with the main difference being the latter is a bit more lurid. Regardless, Peeping Tom stands as a formative film among both sub-genres, with many now-familiar tropes appearing here for the first time.

Though it was condemned at the time for its graphic nature (“graphic” by the mainstream standards of 1960, anyway), it stands apart from many of the films it inspired. For one thing, director Michael Powell, who alongside Emeric Pressburger directed some of the most stunningly intelligent and beautiful films from Britain’s golden age, is hardly known for schlock.

The story, about a serial killer obsessed with the dying expressions of his victims and films then with a point-of-view camera, has many of the dark thrills that we’ve come to expect from slasher movies, but also works as a commentary on our own voyeuristic interest in death and murder.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

As another truly foundational slasher movie, Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace doesn’t wear its intelligence on its sleeve as many of these other films do — it’s not deconstructing anything, or trying to subvert any tropes, because they didn’t yet exist.

The plot revolves around bunch of conventionally attractive female models being stalked and murdered by a masked killer — nothing groundbreaking, but the film’s intelligence is in its lurid, colourful, pop-art style. It’s a gleefully decadent bit of pulp, and few slasher movies have displayed quite so impressive a cinematic and visual style as this, one of the earliest.

Where to stream: Digital rental

Deep Red (1975)

Dario Argento in his prime was the undisputed master of Italian giallo style — a descriptor ostensibly denoting a type of mystery movie, but more associated (thanks to filmmakers like Argento) with a bright, over-the-top visual style that, at its best, sits somewhere between pulp and high art.

Deep Red is among the genre’s most impressive feats, not only for its carefully choreographed deaths, but in its willingness to challenge viewers. The murders are big and brutal, and Argento centres the pain inflicted on the film’s victims, making space for empathy even as we’re seeing things through a killer’s eyes. As it examines the psychology of the murderer, it forces us to examine our own interests in violent death. Does the emphasis on the victim’s pain lend the film some heart? Or make it that much uglier and more brutal? There are no easy answers.

Where to stream: Digital rental

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