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October 2001

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In this issue:    Spooks, shocks, Satan, and the Return of the Living Eeyore! .
 
 
The Syndicated Slasher
Ash

 
As a self-professed horror film historian, there are a lot of questions I get asked about the genre. Usually, these questions come somewhere around the middle of Friday the 13th VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and run along the lines of 'why are you making me watch this?' or 'what's wrong with you?', but every once in a while I get one that I can answer with something other than a string of expletives. The most recent query I received concerned the late 90's Jennifer Love Hewitt epic I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, and took the form of a rather panicked phone call demanding an explanation for the film's existence. While I don't claim to understand the motive behind the film's creation, although the name Osama Bin Laden does spring to mind, I do understand the movie's place in the rich tapestry that is horror movie history. The reason this film exists is the same reason that we're still watching thinly disguised versions of Porky's 20 years later, namely tradition. We can't get enough of a good thing, even if, as in the case of Porky's, the good thing is really, really bad. Once the formula is established, we can't let go, endlessly consuming hour upon hour of Revenge of the Nerds movies and American Pie clones until we can no longer distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, and end up paying ten dollars to see Jason Biggs mate with the repulsively misshapen Mena Suvari in Loser regardless of the consequences. The tradition in question in the case of I Still Know What You Did Last Summer is the slasher film, a hybrid of the Hitchcockian thriller and, well, Porky's. The ingredients are as familiar as a Scooby Doo episode, the masked killer, the busty, amorally promiscuous teens, the house party, and more recently, the irritatingly self-referential dialogue, which seems to exist solely to prove that the screenwriter knows he's a hack. Although many scholars place the beginnings of the slasher sub-genre as far back as 1960's Psycho, I instead choose to mark John Carpenter's 1978 classic Halloween as the starting point of the genre as it exists today. Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, crowned the original Scream Queen despite her mysterious resemblance to David Bowie, Halloween introduced many of the familiar elements associated with the genre. Introducing an unstoppable, boogeyman-like killer stalking babysitters in the town of Haddonfield, Halloween preyed upon our deepest, darkest fears, like being babysat by the strangely androgynous Curtis, and getting bored to death by a movie in which nothing happens for the first 70 minutes. Nevertheless, Halloween was a huge success, and catapulted Jamie Lee Curtis to stardom, which she seemed to interpret as license to make both Prom Night and Terror Train in the same year, two unfortunate films that focused on the tried and true slasher premise of a kid wronged in childhood who returns to slaughter his tormentors in high school. The function of this premise is two-fold, in that it serves to provide bullied children with a sense of karma, as well as to remind us normal people that if there's a weird kid in our grade four gym class, it's probably in our best interests to just bludgeon him with a rock and bury him in a field instead of going through the tedious process of teasing him into insanity, then growing into adolescence only to be picked off by the scrawny little runt in a stupid Halloween mask. In that sense, it has often been noted that slasher films functions mainly as a cautionary tales, similar to urban legends, that remind teenagers not to do stupid things like drink, have pre-marital sex, or be Jamie Lee Curtis if they don't want to get carved up like Nicole Brown Simpson taking a bath in a blender.

The success of Halloween also spawned a slurry of imitators, most notably the Friday The 13th series. The series started off in 1980 with at least a weak attempt at originality, replacing the masked, unstoppable killer with a middle aged, mannish woman whose sole defining characteristic was a particularly ugly wool sweater. However, by 1984, the films had reverted to Halloween clones, with Jason's decidedly unterrifying hockey mask replacing Michael Myers' blank white face as the most recognizable trademark of the slasher genre. Unfortunately, Jason's choice in mask-wear, which included the unfortunate use of a burlap sack in Part II, set a new precedent in idiotic disguises for the genre. Producers, desperate for a distinctive trademark, have tried nearly everything to provide faceless killers with creepy, unpleasant visages, including fencing masks, parkas, Cupid faces, and David Boreanaz. None of them, with the exception of Boreanaz's strikingly unpleasant mug, managed to frighten anybody but RL Stine fans. By the mid-eighties, the genre had descended into ridiculously self-parody, with a gobs of young girls getting drilled to death by power tools at slumber parties, sleep-away camps, and, in the case of Wings' Crystal Bernhard, sorority houses. For some bizarre reason, the public became tired of phallic, brutally misogynistic Black and Decker commercials, and the late eighties and early nineties were almost devoid of any slasher movies of interest, with the notable exception of Cutting Class, Brad Pitt's debut feature. The drought that deservedly followed that film was broken in 1996 by Wes Craven's Scream, which borrowed heavily from Halloween and broke the traditional mold by featuring not one masked idiot killing off floosies, but two, stunning slasher purists and wowing audiences incapable of simple addition. The beauty of Scream is that it functions mainly as an elaborate two hour joke, ridiculing itself, the genre, and, through its endless comments on media and spectatorship, the audience. Unfortunately, nobody got it, and the slasher genre was revived anew, production companies scrambling to see who could make the most abysmally stupid picture and still sell movie tickets to as many NSYNC fans as possible. The producers of Urban Legend took an early lead, by creating a film based upon the principal that people would watch anything as long as it has at least one cast member of Dawson's Creek in it, but the current winner is I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, which starts off with a ridiculously incongruous title and goes downhill from there. Fortunately, on the way downhill we encounter Jennifer Love Hewitt's double black diamonds, which, to answer the question that got this whole thing started, is as good of a reason for the movie's existence as any.





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