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The Slasher Film Is Not Dead

The massive opening weekend for ‘Halloween’ is big news for a horror subgenre that’s been dormant for years

Universal Pictures/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s a good time to be a horror buff. The Conjuring franchise is one of the most successful cinematic universes this side of Marvel; Get Out won an Oscar; seemingly every Stephen King novel is being adapted; even television is beginning to embrace the horror. But despite the genre garnering the most respect its had since The Silence of the Lambs won Best Picture in 1992, one subgenre has lagged behind in the renaissance.

You’re probably familiar with the slasher film. The violent killers tearing through a group of teens; the Final Girls; the hockey masks, chainsaws, leather faces, and hipster sweaters; the many, many sequels; the two movie-obsessed teens using voice modulators to send up all the serial killers who came before them. After films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and John Carpenter’s original Halloween brought the slasher genre cultural relevance and box office breakouts in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the subgenre fell out of favor as more and more sequels spawned fewer commercials hits by the turn of the millennia. Wes Craven’s metatextual spin with the Scream franchise notwithstanding, the slasher genre has flailed while other genre work—Japanese horror remakes (The Ring, The Grudge), zombie flicks (28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead), and found footage films (The Blair Witch Project, the Paranormal Activity franchise)—has gained notoriety.

But the slasher film was resuscitated in a big way this weekend, as the 2018 remake of Halloween had a domestic debut of $77.5 million, according to Box Office Mojo. It’s the second highest opening weekend in the month of October, trailing only Venom’s $80 million debut from earlier this month. Among R-rated horror movies, Halloween also had the second-strongest opening weekend of all time, behind the debut of Stephen King’s It ($123.4 million) in September 2017. On a meager $10 million production budget, the movie is already a huge financial win for Universal Pictures and Blumhouse.

At the very least, the success of the new Halloween ensures that Carpenter’s decades-old franchise still has plenty of life in 2018, and that another sequel is probably imminent. (Helping matters is the ambiguous nature of the film’s ending.) But the massive box opening could also mean future success for the slasher subgenre. One commercial breakthrough doesn’t make a trend, but after this weekend, slashers are more alive than they’ve been since the late ’90s. Whether more slasher films can break through in the same way will depend on how well they’re able to recapture the subgenre’s occasional highmarks and avoid the lows of the late ’90s and early-to-mid-2000s.

Slasher films reached their peak in the late ’70s and ’80s, an era defined by the commercial success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), Prom Night (1980), My Bloody Valentine (1981), and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Carpenter’s Halloween was the absolute apex, grossing $70 million worldwide off a budget of just $325,000. But the genre’s cold spell was primarily the result of a familiar Hollywood trend in 2018: An overabundance of sequels. By 1995, there were nine installments in the Friday the 13th franchise, seven in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, and six in the Halloween franchise. Few of these sequels brought anything staggeringly different to the table—aside from Friday the 13th Part 2’s introduction of a swole, adult Jason Voorhees as the franchise’s primary antagonist in place of his murderous mother—and in kind, the movies continued to haul in less and less money at the box office. Granted, it helped studios that most slasher films were cheap to make—none of the first nine Friday the 13th films cost more than $5 million to produce—but the worldwide grosses continued to lag until slashers were hardly turning a profit.

As ’90s progressed, the slasher film experienced a sort of revival thanks to something that made these movies captivating in the first place: an original conceit. Wes Craven’s Scream was a slasher film created for people who watched those golden age slashers and got used to the subgenre’s conventions, and then flipped them on its head. The film’s biggest star, Drew Barrymore? Yeah, she’s gonna die in the opening sequence. Dumb, hot teens foolishly falling victim to a killer? Well, they’re still hot, and some of them will die, but they’re cinematically literate and can list all the slasher tropes they’re totally going to avoid. Scream was a “bravura, provocative sendup of horror pictures” and made more than $170 million worldwide on a $14 million budget.

Scream’s impact was felt the following year, when the film’s screenwriter, Kevin Williamson, wrote the screenplay for I Know What You Did Last Summer, which coasted on another original slasher premise and a quartet of young stars (Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Freddie Prinze Jr., and Ryan Phillippe) en route to a $125 million box office breakout worldwide. Jamie Blanks’s Urban Legend followed in 1998, and while the film’s metanarrative—in which the deaths of college students on a New England campus were modeled after famous urban legends like The Hookman—was panned by critics, the movie still grossed more than $70 million worldwide off another $14 million budget.

But then—and stop me if you’re heard this before—came more sequels. Scream 2 premiered in 1997; 1998 saw the premieres of Halloween H20: 20 Years Later and my favorite titled sequel I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (still?! Good to know!); in 2001 came Jason X, in which, no joke, Jason goes to space. All told, there are four Scream films, and an anthology series on MTV that’ll release its third season later this year.

The cyclical nature of the slasher subgenre—in which an original concept garners buzz before the idea is milked for a series of increasingly unsuccessful and critically panned sequels—reached an inevitable next step around the 2010s: the slasher franchise remake. In 2009 alone, there were remakes of My Bloody Valentine (in 3D), Friday the 13th, Sorority Row, and a sequel to Rob Zombie’s 2007 Halloween remake—plus, a revised Nightmare on Elm Street the following year. What did all these remakes have in common? They were bad. Of the aforementioned films, only My Bloody Valentine’s 3D remake has a Rotten Tomatoes rating above 50 percent.

The prevailing issue with the majority of these slasher remakes, as Keith Phipps noted earlier this month for The Ringer in a retrospective on 21st century horror remakes, is that the horror genre and its core scares lend themselves to the era they are set in. Essentially, what works in the 1980s won’t necessarily work in the 2010s. “Horror is … less transportable across the years than other sorts of films,” Phipps writes. “These stories are born of the anxieties of a particular time and place. A remake has to double as a reinterpretation, offering not just a contemporary update on a film’s style but a reworking of its central themes.”

So what makes the 2018 Halloween a notable outlier to the failure of recent slasher remakes, and a current box office sensation? For starters, the film doesn’t entirely depend on nostalgia and old thrills. It pays enough deference to Carpenter’s original while modernizing it for the era it exists in—consider its scathing take of true-crime podcasting. But more importantly, the film’s narrative tension feels rooted in 2018; the way it reaches a cathartic end for Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode by confronting Michael Myers, the man responsible for the characters’ decades of trauma. Curtis has said that the new Halloween is representative of the #MeToo movement—it’s strong reviews and early box office gains intimate this is something moviegoers were craving in 2018, if only to make sense of the swirling chaos around them. “The world is a particularly scary place,” Halloween producer and Blumhouse Pictures founder Jason Blum told CNN. “It’s nice to go somewhere to see something that’s scary, that’s not real.”

And Halloween isn’t the only slasher film of the last two years to make a killing at the box office. Last year, Blumhouse and Universal Pictures also released Happy Death Day, a Groundhog Day-slasher hybrid that made over $120 million worldwide on a sub-$5-million budget. Shockingly, a sequel is already in the works, Happy Death Day 2U (not a joke), set to arrive in February 2019.

Two recent successes doesn’t necessarily bear a trend, but the warm response to the new Halloween has the potential to open the floodgates. Any additions to the Friday the 13th franchise were recently stalled because of an ongoing lawsuit over the rights to the original script between the film’s production company Horror, Inc and director Sean Cunningham and screenwriter Victor Miller. However, Miller won the case against Cunningham and the producers last month—and as long as an appeal isn’t made, Miller will retain the rights to the Friday the 13th name, as well as the original characters and setting from the film. There’s potential for more extensions to the franchise, if Miller is so inclined. Most importantly, though, the success of Halloween may make studios more open to slashers with original conceits, the kind of movies that the subgenre was founded on.

History hasn’t been kind to the slasher film—since its peak in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it has reemerged and captured the zeitgeist only in fits and starts. But Halloween and, to a lesser extent, Happy Death Day, have energized the long-dormant subgenre, and provided a template for future success. Interestingly enough, the slasher film may be as unkillable as Michael Myers.