Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006)

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Remember, when you’re listening to the people in this documentary pontificate about the socially useful things that slasher films do, or their artistic merits, that they’re a bunch of worthless bottom-of-the-ladder Hollywood slimeballs who would make literally any sort of film if they thought it’d turn a quick profit. Also, that this doc is from 2006, but most of the modern franchises are at least mentioned (Saw, Paranormal Activity).

After a bit of a preamble, we’re right in with a discussion of “Halloween”, and the style of the film becomes immediately apparent. It’s a series of talking head interviews combined with footage from the films in question, onscreen information about box office takings, and a voiceover. But the style of the interviews is annoying and offputting – John Carpenter is filmed walking through a cemetery, as is Amy Holden Jones, and an exec from New Line Cinema is filmed walking through what looks like a back alley. I guess it’s an attempt to make it a bit visual? I don’t know.

Really, the film is in three sections. Firstly, it’s “Halloween” to 1983. Then it’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to the 90s; and finally, “Scream” and beyond. The first section is clearly the most interesting, because really most of the slasher films you know and remember are from that era- plenty of people are interviewed, my favourite being Tom Savini, the special effects mastermind who’s made a lot of terrible films at least look okay.

I don’t think you really need me to review this documentary on its technical merits – it’s cheaply made and you’re only really going to find it or track it down if you have at least a passing interest in the genre, so I can get into some of the more meaty stuff. For what it’s worth, I think they do a good job of breaking down the tropes of slasher films and recapping most of the history.

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It’s the position the film takes on certain issues that’s the biggest problem. We see film reviewing legend Roger Ebert in the first few minutes, but it’s not in his role as one of the earliest champions of “Halloween”, when most other reviewers had dismissed it as garbage (in fact, they credit its early success with a positive review from elsewhere). It’s from his exceedingly negative TV review of “Silent Night, Deadly Night”, and the enormous furore that built up around it on its release, from parents who were upset that Christmas was ruined because their kids thought Santa was a serial killer. The really annoying thing is this film is absolutely right about the furore – parents should have talked to their kids about what fiction is, rather than going onto the street to demand censorship. I always thought Siskel and Ebert were wrong to be so offended, going as far as putting up the companies that had funded it on their show for people to complain to, even if it was a miserable, depressing slice of horror; but what they were absolutely right about was the genre’s treatment of women.

This film goes out of its way to tell us, over and over again, that these films did not treat women badly (the footage over the end credits is an uninterrupted stream of women at horror conventions telling us how empowering they are). Amy Holden Jones wrote and directed “Sorority House Massacre” in 1983, and she calls herself a feminist. But it’s the idea that because one feminist created one film where women have stronger roles, the entire genre, with its hundreds of killers murdering and sexually threatening women, should be given a free pass, that is ridiculous. That there’s a five minute section at the end of the average slasher film where the woman, who’s spent the whole movie screaming and running away while all her friends die, displays some competence and “kills” the slasher, does not excuse the genre. There have been plenty of studies done on it, but they’re handily summarized here. It’s not as simple as “well, the Final Girl is a thing in horror movies” and anyone trying to tell you it is has something to sell.

If you’re a big fan of the genre, you’ll be a bit puzzled by some of the choices they make. The film essentially starts with “Halloween”, even though you could make a decent case for “Black Christmas” both predating it and being important to the evolution of horror. They show the sequels to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” without mentioning the original too, which is a bit strange.

The enormous majority of slasher films are cheap, badly acted pieces of garbage and while this doc at least attempts to address this, by showing posters for the long-forgotten ones inbetween the sections on the more famous films, you could be forgiven for leaving this film with a skewed vision of what the slasher movie was. The increasing gore as we go along isn’t a statement about Reagan’s 80s, it’s because they were trying to one-up the awful film that was released the week before, or generate publicity by angering some Moral Majority group into protesting them (which finally happened with “Silent Night, Deadly Night”).

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I don’t hate slasher movies, particularly. I unapologetically love all the “A Nightmare On Elm Street” movies, think the first two “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” films are both great, and at least enjoy plenty of others. But to pretend it was anything other than a bunch of scumbags trying to bleed teenagers of their money by any means necessary is disingenuous nonsense.

Maybe my favourite of all of them is “April Fools’ Day”. The doc mentions it, saying that because it’s mainly a comedy, advertising it as a slasher film was a pretty rotten trick – but to their credit they do produce a dissenting voice saying it was a work of genius. The strange thing is, by the time the film made it to the UK, they’d decided to change tack, as I never saw it billed as anything other than a comedy, and it remains a shining light among films lumped into the “slasher genre”. However, don’t watch this documentary before the film as it gives away the ending (as it does with quite a few others, oddly).

Ultimately, this is a documentary for fans. The footage of conventions isn’t an accident, and the smartest interviewee of all, “Sleepaway Camp” girl with something extra Angela, better known as actress Felissa Rose, gives a long speech about how wonderful the convention crowds are. That some could see them as an echo chamber enforcing all that’s worst about modern horror is, for some reason, never mentioned. Anyway, it’s absolutely worth watching if you’re a fan of the genre, but be prepared to fact-check pretty much everything that most of the interviewees say.

Rating: thumbs up

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One thought on “Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006)

  1. Pingback: April Fool’s Day (1986) |

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