Historical movements are usually hard to pinpoint to a single originating incident, but in the case of the cinema, it’s actually very easy: modern filmmaking began in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho when Marion Crane was killed in the shower.
It’s not that it was the first avant-garde piece of audience baiting; the French had been doing that for half a decade. But for a major American movie by a major Hollywood director to come out and subvert so utterly the bedrock of narrativity that had until that point been the only game in town is a watershed moment, pure and simple. The false first act and false protagonist, the middle twenty minutes which lack a protagonist entirely; these were bold, world-changing choices in 1960. Even the film’s final moments, the notoriously awful “let me explain the whole plot in little words” denouement, can’t change that.
One could spend a full life exploring all of the ways that filmmaking changed after Psycho, but I’m only going to talk about one single thread today, the realm of horror. Hitchcock certainly didn’t invent the horror film ballyhoo, that ancient technique of selling a film on the promise that a tidal wave of violence was waiting in the wings. That predated the sound era.
But Hitch and his team had the good fortune to stand upon a cliff’s edge; the 1960s were the decade that Everything Changed in American filmmaking, and Psycho led the way to a new generation of explicit horror films. Prior to 1960, the unspeakable terrors that pulled audiences into dark theaters were chaste, child-friendly make-up effects and unconvincing corpses. But now, suddenly, there was blood! there were sharp knives! Psycho, for all its modesty to the modern eye, was America’s first gore picture.
It was fantastically successful as well. Which means of course that it was in short order copied by filmmakers across America and the UK, launching a short but extremely prolific burst of explicitly violent (as much as the censors would permit) psycho killer films in both of those countries.
Meanwhile, in Italy, a new cinematic genre was coming into place. Inspired by the popular crime novels known as gialli in that country (after their distinctive yellow covers, giallo being Italian for “yellow”), these films were murder mysteries about masked serial killers mowing their way through a sizable cast of expendable characters. The earliest cinematic giallo, Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, was released in 1964, and was followed by several similar stories in a mode best regarded as hyper-violent Agatha Christie stories.
The relationship between the anglophone psycho movies and the Italian gialli is not one that I have the personal knowledge to expound upon at greater length; both are united by then-extreme amounts of blood, but while the Hollywood films tended to center around insane killers, their Italian counterparts were mysteries in which the final reel revealed the killer to be a fairly normal albeit vicious thief/lover/revenge-seeker. That, and the Italian films were far more stylistically aggressive, some of them functioning as straight-up art films; by and large, they were also narratively incoherent.
In 1971 came Bava’s Reazione a catena, a film of seemingly infinite English-language titles, none of which are its actual, literal meaning, Chain Reaction (the most common, and most suggestive of the English titles is Twitch of the Death Nerve). In addition to being the widely-regarded masterpiece of the gialli, it was also a watershed film for its baroque gore effects.
Twitch of the Death Nerve proved to be the most influential of all gialli in the United States, although that influence would not be completely felt for nearly a decade. Meanwhile, the American cinema, freed from the constraints of the Production Code by the implementation of the MPAA’s ratings system in 1968, began to push every envelope it could get its hands on. Famously in 1969, Sam Peckinpah broke any number of taboos against violence in his poetically vicious The Wild Bunch, but it was the prior year’s Night of the Living Dead, by George A. Romero, that encouraged independent horror and exploitation filmmakers to start getting really damn nasty.
Without recapping every single horror film to come out in a six year period, let us skip to October, 1974, when two films were released, one in Canada and one in the United States: Black Christmas and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. These two films are really only similar in hindsight – their chief differences being that one was a mystery while the other was not, and that Black Christmas had infinitely greater character development – but they both show structural elements that, five years down the road, would prove to be the basic template for all slasher films: in the first act a a group of teenagers gather, in the second act they are hunted by a deranged killer who whittles their numbers down one by one, until only a final girl (and it is a girl nearly 100% of the time) remains to fight back in the third act, which ranged anywhere from a few minutes to nearly half an hour. Together, these are the first pure slasher films in the history of the cinema, although they are very tentative in that respect: Texas Chainsaw Massacre lacks any hint of psychosexual rage in the killer’s attacks, and neither film has any real amount of blood or gore effects (although the sheer nihilistic brutality of the American film often leads people to believe otherwise).
A few years later, after a handful of continued examples of the general form “group of people killed piecemeal in sharp, bloody ways,” the slasher genre had its greatest hour, in John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween. Despite its reputation, this film is not the first of anything, unless it be the perfectly accidental way that it showed a heroine who was a (reluctant) virgin surrounded by hapless victims who all happened to be killed right after having sex; nor did it start the ’80s slasher boom. It is, however, the greatest slasher of all time by nearly universal consent, due almost entirely to three people: writer/director/composer Carpenter, and the actors Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence. The first brought to the table an unprecedented control of mood and pacing, the latter two created full human characters out of reasonably well-crafted roles, bringing the genre its fullest human protagonists, past or future. Halloween is not merely a great slasher, it is a great movie, full stop.
More importantly, it was for 21 years the most profitable film in history, returning nearly $50 million on a budget somwhere below $400,000. Yet it did not immediately inspire any imitators, for reasons unknown, although I have a theory that I’m holding onto for the moment.
That said, it would only be a short year until Sean S. Cunningham, a producer of quick, cheap exploitation films best known for his brief partnership with Wes Craven, decided to try for a bit of that Carpenter magic, and so he sank a tiny sum of money into a screenplay about a half-dozen horny teenagers caught in a cursed summer camp. That film was titled Friday the 13th.
(This essay relies in no small part on the significant body of work describing the style and development of the slasher and gialli of El Santo at 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting).