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The Nostalgic Attic: My Top Ten slasher films (that aren't Halloween or Friday the 13th)

2 October 2014

My Top Ten slasher films (that aren't Halloween or Friday the 13th)

It's that time of the year again: the weather has taken a turn for the colder, the evenings are getting shorter and the trees are looking that little bit barer. Yup, October has finally rolled around, and so our horror-hungry eyes look towards Halloween. I'm a big slasher fan, and this is usually my favourite month to re-visit some classic (and lesser appreciated) titles. So in putting together this list, I decided to leave out the usual heavy-hitters; no Carpenter's Halloween or the much loved Friday the 13th series, I'll even go as far as omitting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and A Nightmare on Elm Street films. Why? Well, I kinda figured that nearly everyone (casual and hardcore horror fans alike) has seen these titles already; we all know they're awesome, and are the obvious choices for not just slasher lists, but 'Top Ten' horrors in general. I've also left off the more serial killer-orientated entries (such as Maniac, Nightmare in a Damaged Brain, etc) just to keep things a little bit more traditional. So, lets get stuck in!

10 - Madman (1982)

Following in the footsteps of the 'summer camp slasher' template set out by Friday the 13th, Madman sees us at the end of the summer season, with camp winding down for another year. After recounting the spooky tale of the madman in the woods, unsurprisingly, camp counsellors start to get picked off one-by-one in bloody fashion. It's up to Betsy (Gaylen Ross) to save the few remaining kids and herself before the sun comes up and the maniac finishes them all off...

When I first saw Madman, I hated it. It felt cheap, poorly staged and poorly acted. For some reason I seem to have mellowed on this title over the years, and things that used to annoy me are things that I now find enjoyable. The casio-keyboard synths, the less-than-stellar performances and the low lighting give it a bit more charm than many might expect from such a low budget film. What it does have is a truckload of atmosphere, and the night time photography lends it a gritty and gloomy vibe that is missing from most brightly-lit modern horror films. It also has a great lead villain - Madman Marz - gruesome deaths and a wonderfully downbeat ending. 

9 - The Prowler (1981)

A killer seems hellbent on reliving the murders committed 35 years ago during the annual spring dance. Pretty young Pam (Vicky Dawson) finds her friends and dance dates getting sliced up one-by-one, and the race is on to figure out who the killer is before it's too late...

Director Joseph Zito's second best slasher film (the title of best goes to Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter) usually features up quite high on many horror fans lists, and with good reason. Firstly, it has a certain Tom Savini in charge of blasting heads off and shoving knives through skulls - so you know it's going to be bloody. The kills are truly excellent, with some of the best from the classic slasher era featured here. They have a brutality to them that is often missing from the cheaper entries, such as when the lady gets her throat cut in the swimming pool - you really can 'feel' the blade sawing through her flesh. Secondly, the film looks great; they really did a great job with filming it, and the cast is solid too. It's not without its flaws, however: I feel the editor could have shaved ten minutes out of it (there's just one-too-many scenes of the lead actress wandering around empty hallways, and the scene involving the hotel clerk on the phone is excruciating), but it isn't enough to detract from an overall great experience.

8 - Alone in the Dark (1982)

During a power blackout, 4 murderous psychopaths escape from the mental hospital and lay seige on their doctors house, terrorising him and his family. Lead by the charismatic Frank (Jack Palance) and the creepy Precher (Martin Landau), they want nothing but to see him and his family dead...

Alone in the Dark might feel a bit tame compared to the other blood-soaked entries in the sub genre, but what it lacks in grue it more than makes up with great filmaking. Directed by the talented Jack Sholder, the film is stylish and has excellent pacing, with a genuinely intense climax and a few great jump scares littered throughout. As you can see from above, the cast is also great, with Palance and Landau joining slasher veteran Donald Pleasance to bring a touch of class to the film. If you need something that breaks away from the typical 'summer camp' slasher and has a bit more polish, then this one'll do nicely. 

7 - Sleepaway Camp (1983)

 Eight years after a freak boating accident leaves young Angela without a father and brother, she finds herself in the summer camp from hell. Bullies and paedophiles lurk behind every corner, and that's before the killer even shows up... Just who is knocking off the kids and counsellors of Sleepaway Camp?

I reviewed this one just a few months back (here), so I'll be brief - Sleepaway Camp is often looked at as goofy trash, but I feel it's undeserving of this reputation. Sure, some of the acting isn't excellent, but the performances from a genuinely young cast are reasonable for the most part. The kills are quite different too, we don't get the usual knifes and other stabby things; instead most deaths are shown to be 'almost' accidental. The ending is a knock out, but I won't spoil anything here, as many still haven't seen this one. Do yourself a favour and watch it on your own, without the drunk crowd adding their own commentary to it. 

6 - Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

After surviving an accident and brain surgery, Virginia (Melissa Sue Anderson) returns to a private school where she belongs to the 'Top Ten' - a clique of wealthy, smart students - but finds that her friends are being picked off in bloody ways by an unseen killer. Will she or any of her friends make it to her 18th birthday?

Happy Birthday to Me is actually quite a well made film, and was produced by Columbia in the wake of the slasher craze. It has quite a few things going for it, including the recognisable name of J. Lee Thompson on the director chair. The kills are all quite inventive (hence the tag line, "Six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see") though some of the more gruesome moments were trimmed in the editing suite. As it is though, you probably won't feel like you are missing too much, as the deaths are still quite effective. Less effective perhaps is the truly bonkers/silly finale, in which the killer is revealed. It's the kind of thing that will set most audiences to laughter, but it feels like a fitting end for such a fun film.

5 - Hell Night (1981)

During pledge night, four students (including the delightful Linda Blair) are forced to spend a night in an old mansion. With the gates locked behind them, they soon find themselves victim to a killer who seems to be the sole survivor of a massacre that happened decades before. Will anyone survive the horror of Hell Night?

Probably best remembered as the slasher featuring Linda Blair in a corset for its running time, Hell Night is actually quite an atmospheric little film. Lit by plenty of moonlight and candles, the film hasn't looked all that great on home video, and really could do with a decent scan and Blu Ray release. I've a feeling there could be a gorgeous film under those murky blacks. Either way, the film still has oodles of fun to sell it, and it really is one of those great 'October' films for me. It may be lacking in gore, but it has enough assets to keep slasher fans happy.

4 - The Burning (1981)

Looking for revenge on the camp kids who nearly burned him to death in a prank gone wrong years ago, Cropsey heads back to to the summer camp, garden shears in hand, looking for bloody payback. Will any of the kids make it home to mama?

The Burning was part of the explosion of 'summer camp' slashers that popped up in the wake of Friday the 13th cutting its way to the top of the box office. Tom Savini turned down Friday the 13th: Part 2 to work on this, and I'm glad he did. Savini brings his trademark brutality to the film, with the kills being heavily censored in most prints for decades. In its uncut glory, though, the film is bloody great. Directed by Tony Maylem and based on a story by Harvey Weinstein, it was the first time independent distributors Miramax logo appeared on a film. We also get some recognisable faces in front of the camera: Fisher Stevens, Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter all make appearances, and the score is provided by Rick Wakeman. At this point, the film has a pretty solid slasher reputation, and it is deserving of it - it has some genuinely tense moments, heaps of nudity and an unusual final 'guy' instead of a girl. What more could you want?

3 - Terror Train (1980)

After a prank goes horribly wrong, three years later the students responsible are attending a New years eve party on board a moving train. As it's a costume party, the killer is able to move through the guests un-noticed, picking off his victims at his leisure. But just who is the killer? And will anyone make it off the train alive?

Terror Train feels closer in spirit to Halloween than the nastier edged slashers that followed after Friday the 13th. Firstly, it also stars Jamie Lee Curtis, who gives another excellent performance here in the lead role. It has a unique enough concept in terms of the train and the killer switching masks, meaning the audience is constantly kept on the edge throughout. The kills are effective though not overly gory, but they still pack a punch. The final showdown between the killer and the final girl is great, with the character really getting some punishing violence thrown at her. Though the reveal feels a tad silly, the reasons for the killers motive is probably the best in any slasher - I would probably do the same! For me, the only weak aspect is the bizarre inclusion of illusionist David Copperfield, though it is good for a laugh in an otherwise serious film. 

2 - House on Sorority Row (1983)

After a prank against their strict house mother goes horribly wrong, the sorority sisters find themselves getting murdered one-by-one as they attempt to have a final graduation party. But just who is killing them? And how is the killer getting away with it?

Despite the bizarre poster artwork (look at it, it looks and reads more like a rape/revenge film than a slasher), The House on Sorority Row is a tense and brutal film, with a seriously creepy climax.  I first saw this in one of those cheap 'Hollywood DVD' releases, and they never did the film any justice in just how great it looks. The kills are effective, though not overly gruesome, and the leading ladies are great, with plenty of moments involving underwear. It's my second favourite sorority slasher (only behind Black Christmas, which I felt was too classy for this list) and one you should definitely seek out if you haven't seen it already.

1 - My Bloody Valentine (1981)

In a small mining town haunted by a 'Valentines Day massacre', things take a turn for the bloody when the young folk decide it's time to have a traditional Valentines Day dance. Unsurprisingly, the killer makes good use of his mining pick, taking the teenagers out piece by piece...

It's never easy picking a top film for these lists, but I just had to go with My Bloody Valentine. Up until the mid 2000's I only ever found the film so-so; it did a lot of things right, like having some good scares and good characters, but the film had been hacked up so badly for censorship reasons that it really made the film hard to watch in parts. Thankfully the film got an uncut restoration in 2009, and since then, it has become one of my favourites. The added footage definitely makes a huge difference to the violent tone of the film; the kills no longer feel muted, and one of the most graphic moments (involving a rope and a head) now actually makes sense. Apart from the kills, the film has terrific atmosphere, and has some scenes of genuine fright (such as the one involving the empty miner suits) to go with the violence. The remake for this one was a lot of fun, but I still go to the original every time. Highly recommended. 

So there you go! Anything you feel I should have added or left off? And yup, having Prom Night poster art in the opening paragraph was there to throw you off my trail, muhahahaha!  

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At 2 October 2014 at 20:35 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

What a fantastic list! I'm pleased to say I've seen all of the films here - including that Prom Night red herring you threw in - clever, sir, clever! I had the same reaction to Madman originally - and came around in subsequent viewings the same as you! The Prowler is a little slow in the middle as you said - and the killer's identity is telegraphed so hard a guy in a little red cap actually shows up when you watch it - but in the end it is well worth a watch. Savini's effects are incredible - and that swimming pool throat gag was so realistic I was glad they included behind the scenes footage of it on the disc - just so I know it's not a snuff flick! THANK YOU for including Alone in the Dark - a fantastic horror flick that no one seems to remember. With that cast - including Dwight Schultz from The A-Team - and a genuinely scary and suspenseful feel throughout - to that ending - later completely ripped off for a major studio horror flick from the 2000's...LOVE THIS MOVIE. Sleepaway Camp - excellently weird movie - as we previously discussed. Happy Birthday to Me - long movie - pushing two hours, but another interesting cast - including a slumming Glenn Ford and the studio gloss make it well worth watching. That ending was apparently tacked on at the last minute, which explains why it seems so disconnected and batcrap crazy. The real ending was apparently just what the whole movie seemed to be setting up. Hell Night - can't call it a great movie, but Linda Blair in that sexy outfit - and the general nostalgia of watching it at a pal's house on HBO a thousand years ago make me log it with loads of affectionate memory. The Burning - another summer camp movie - and so hard to see for so long - makes me thrilled to have it now, even if I would make a few changes along the way. Savini strikes again, though! Terror Train is another nostalgic fave - JLC is always enough to make a movie worth watching - but more great cast members - including Ben Johnson, probably wishing his Oscar would have kept him from movies like this - but always great to see him. I do give them points off for being too tame with the gore - even one of the murders - beefed up with some red stuff - would make me a little happier. But still really like it - and the ending actually surprised me - although knowing it now I do wonder how much coffee the killer must have drunk to keep his energy up moving about the train, maintaining his disguise, changing costumes, killing people... I have only seen House on Sorority Row once - but I did really enjoy it and want to see it again. And My Bloody Valentine - a solid slasher even slashed itself - but an absolute revelation with the gore scenes reinstated. I also like the remake - but the original is a gem of a movie.

Sorry for the mega comment - but you make me want to pop a beer and chat about these with you one day!

At 3 October 2014 at 00:34 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks Craig! Sometimes a mega post calls for a mega comment! There's just something really great about this period of slasher film. Many had reasonable budgets, and didn't ever seem as 'cheap' as many people made them out to be later on. As we can see from this list, there was actually some solid talent working in many of these films which really helps with the production values. And there is something here that many 'new' slasher films seem to miss completely: atmosphere and genuine tension. Instead these days they just focus on obnoxious characters, boobs and gore, which is fine, but not the sole reasons to watch a horror film.

Anyways, yes, glad you are as big a fan of these as I am. Fully agreed on The Prowler and your remarks about the throat cut - those bubbles coming from her neck (while an accident) really do convince you she is trying to breath and the air is leaving her lungs via her neck! Excellent on Alone in the Dark, it really is an under appreciated gem. Great cast, real suspense... I can't remember what film ripped it off in the 2000's, but lets not post any spoilers just in case! Yeah, I remember reading ages ago that the ending was changed at the last minute in Happy Birthday to Me, were they afraid it was going to leak out what the twist is or something? I think you should give both Hell Night and House on Sorority Row another viewing, the DVD of the latter released by Scorpion is really nice looking if you don't have it in the vault already!

I could chat about these kind of films all day - we might need a six pack!

At 3 October 2014 at 08:38 , Blogger Wes M said...

Oh Jesus Christ, I am mortified... I've seen only three of the entries on the list which is humiliating for someone who claims to be a lifelong Horror fan ! I still have to get the Sleepaway Camp Blu which I absolutely will... I must check out House on Sorority Row as well, I've always heard great things about this one... To reclaim some credibility I hastily scribbled down my list and then tore it up again as half the list was made up of stuff like Bay of Blood and Italian Giallos - excluding the Halloween and Friday the 13th films, I had little from the Golden Age and even then I was starting to have little nagging doubts over what was left, thinking, "How come John didn't include Maniac ?" I need to dust off my DVD of Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film for further clarification !

At 3 October 2014 at 09:13 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

I wouldn't worry, Wes, even by many die-hard horror fans' standards slashers are considered below par... but I think you might enjoy a few on this list. I'm a big Giallo fan, but they feel so different from American slashers that they just don't fit here at all. The reason I left out Maniac and the likes are just simply that, although they are slashers, they tend to be from the killers point of view, and if I include Maniac, then I'd probably have to include the likes of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, etc too. So I tend to put Maniac, Deranged, Don't Go in the House, etc into the serial killer sub genre. It's just my preference, many might not agree with me, but oh well!

Be careful watching Going to Pieces again, because if you plan on watching some of these titles, you'll find that documentary RIDDLED with spoilers!


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