Saturday, March 28, 2015

Why There are So Few Strangler Films

The slasher-film is one of the most successful genres ever. 

According to the web site Box Office Mojo, from the period 1978 to 2013, slasher-films grossed (in real 2015 dollars) US$4.28 billon in theatres – and this figure apparently excludes profits from rentals and purchases for home-viewing. The web page has, however, the following note: “Many slasher movies from the '70s and '80s have no box office records, and, hence, do not appear on this chart.” It is quite likely, in other words, that slasher-filmmaking has been more profitable even than the four-and-a-quarter billion figure. It is entirely possible, of course, that at least some of the slasher-movies for which there are no box-office records, flopped or were otherwise unsuccessful theatrically, thus skewering the total figures upward. 

Wouldn't hurt a fly.

But this is unlikely, because slasher-films have been very cheap to produce. The original Friday the 13th cost, for example, $560,000 in 1980 (according to Wikipedia, all figures in U.S. dollars). Indexed for inflation, this is close to $1.6 million in today’s currency: many independent movies of the contemporary era (which typically include no make-up or other special effects at all) are far more costly. The 2013 indie Nebraska, for example, had a budget of $12 million, even when it was entirely filmed on location in the U.S. Midwest, in black-and-white, and using digital cameras (in order words, the production was about as cheap as is possible). 

Nebraska went on to generate $24 million in theatrical revenues, about double its production costs. For its part, Friday the 13th went on to generate almost $60 million in box-office revenues (which is about double the equivalent in 2015 currency). 

Halloween, the 1978 John Carpenter film that is often credited with touching off the slasher-film craze of the years that followed, had a budget of (at most) $360,000. This is $1.2 million in 2015 dollars. It was even more successful than the first Friday the 13th, taking in $70 million at the box-office (this is nearly $170 million in current U.S. dollars). 

The box-office profitability for Halloween was, in other words, almost 150 times its production cost. For Friday the 13th, the profit-margin was 8,100% of the filming budget (and this doesn't even include the revenues from home-rental and purchase). It is no wonder, then, that so many slasher-films were produced during the 1980s; and why they have continued to be made, if not as commonly now as thirty years ago, then often enough (in spite of the criticism that has been directed toward them by moralists, film critics and feminists). 


It is clear that enough people have a morbid fascination for witnessing the commission of murder by homicidal maniacs, to pay money to see what is essentially the same story, over and over again. The structure of the typical slasher-film has been analyzed (as it were) to death. 

But I'm not sure anyone has looked at the reason why the maniac in these films has almost always used a knife or some kind of edge weapon to commit his crimes: hence the appellation, slasher film. 

Slasher films dramatize a real phenomenon of modern society: the serial killer. In fact, the earliest of the genre, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (from 1960), and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (filmed thirteen years later on a budget of $300,000, it made one-hundred times that amount at the box office), were both (loosely) based on the story of Ed Gein. 

However, the psycho in the slasher flick departed from the real serial-killer exactly in his choice of weapon. Real psychopaths, especially sexually-driven killers such as Ted Bundy, seem to prefer murder with no weapon at all — manual asphyxiation. It makes sense, given the sensual aspect of the deed, not to mention its relative cleanliness — no blood is spilled. 

Serial murderers have less preference for knifes, even in favour of blunt instruments, such as hammers or clubs (or in Bundy’s case, a tree-branch used on the victims of the infamous “sorority sister” murders in Florida in 1978). 

And again, slashing is less common to serial murders than is the use of firearms, as with the Zodiac killings in San Francisco in the late ‘60s, or the “son of Sam”, David Berkowitz, who terrorized New York city in the late 1970s by picking off couples making out in parked cars. The most infamous of modern serial-killers, the Whitechapel Killer (or “Jack the Ripper”) was a genuine slasher-murderer. But the rarity of the use of knives by serial-killers, does make sense from a strictly operational standpoint. Blades are, after all, very messy means of dispatch. Blood is a very incriminating piece of evidence, and it was even before the invention of DNA-detecting technology.

Blade-attacks are not only messy, but mucky, with blood liable to stick to clothes and skin, and easily mistaken for other things, except to the forensic eye. More than that, though, knife crime is risky: it is as terrifying as a bluff, as it is in execution (knife-psychos have no intention of bluffing, of course). Confrontation with a knife can easily result in injury to the attacker. For, unless a vital organ is cut in the struggle, someone injured with a knife is able to fight back for a far longer period than, say, a gunshot victim. 

Perhaps it is that the real methods typically deployed by serial-killers, are not as inherently cinematic as murder by edge-weapon, which is spectacular by virtue of causing so much blood to spill. 

On the other hand, few would say that the gunshot-death scene of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway at the conclusion of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), was not both spectacular and bloody; the slow-motion gunshot effect was used in most subsequent films by Sam Peckinpah, for example. 

Strangulation, when depicted cinematically, is just as horrifying, as Alfred Hitchcock showed in Frenzy, his second-last film from 1972. Shot in London, the serial-killer was in that feature more realistic for being a necktie strangler. 

Yet, Frenzy didn’t spawn a trend for “strangle” films (by contrast, Psycho is arguably the granddaddy of all slasher films, and it should be noted that Ed Gein, who inspired the original novel by Robert Bloch and movie adaptation, killed his two known victims by gunshot, rather than by knife or other edge weapon). 

There is something about the phenomenon of knife-murder, which makes it an unquestioned modus operandi for almost all popular movies which depict serial-killers. 

It is significant, I think, that the term “money shot” was coined not in reference to the literal climax of the porno film. It was, instead, used to describe shocking and graphic scenes in horror films, such as a person’s body being cut by a knife. 

The phallic-symbolism of the knife cannot be thus be denied. Explicitly, implicitly, unconsciously, but inevitably, the slasher-flick has as its theme a sexually-frustrated psychotic taking his “revenge” on the pretty people who have always done him wrong; nearly always, the perpetrator is a male (here at least, the movies reflect reality). From the first — the famous shower-scene in Psycho — knife-violence has been linked to vicarious sexuality. 

In the later slasher films, Freddy or Jason dispatched his (usually female) victims in one state or another of undress. It is interesting, in this regard, that it was an early slasher film, released in 1975, that gave rise to the myth of the “snuff” film, wherein people are actually killed, allegedly while having sex, or by sexually-sadistic means. 

The film was in fact called Snuff, and it has a peculiar history. The bulk of the movie was filmed in Argentina and released there years earlier. It was just a conventional horror flick, not especially (or believably) violent, in which victims were killed by a Manson-like cult. In the mid-1970s, some exploitation-movie producer purchased the Stateside rights to the film. However, the original ending was altered, with the new scenes staged so it appears that the performers were actually being killed on-camera (apparently, look-a-likes to the original actors were used for this end), this taking place during or after an orgy. Then, one of the killers turns to the camera, saying, “Did you get all that?” or some such, and the movie abruptly ends. 

The producer then put out “rumours” that the killings depicted in the movie were actual killings (he even reportedly paid actors to protest outside a New York theatre where the film was being exhibited); gullible press picked up the story, and a legend was born, never to die (ultimately, theatres playing Snuff were picketed by real anti-porn feminists). 

Controversy over snuff-films persists, just because (courtesy the slasher genre), special make-up effects have advanced to such a degree, that it is impossible to tell if someone is really being killed on screen. The actor Charlie Sheen once handed over to police a video he’d rented, which he believed depicted a woman being murdered while having sex. Authorities investigated, finding that the “snuff” film was produced in Japan. 

No Slasher.
© Corbis.  All Rights Reserved.

It turned out that the “murder” was staged, but done in such a cunningly realistic fashion, so that even a professional movie-star with experience in manufactured gore (appearing in the Vietnam flick Platoon) could not tell the difference (apparently, faux-snuff films are a thriving sub-genre in Japan). Most movie-goers, on the other hand, having neither witnessed a real murder, nor yet knowing how this is simulated by make-up effects, have little power to discern visually a real murder from a fake one. 

In any case, the sexual-sadism inherent in all slasher films, was made explicit due to the advent in the twenty-first century of “torture-porn” film, such as Saw and its sequels, and Hostel (which also had two sequels). 

While computer-effects have allowed the makers of these movies to go beyond mere knife-murder, the killings in Saw and Hostel are almost all committed with edge-weapons of one type or another (now, however, they are electrified saws or drills). In the case both of porno- or slasher-films, it is clear that the (human) male obsession with fugging (in its true semantic) is being exploited for profit.

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