Let’s see. I’ve done an alien movie, a pair of b-movie, a couple of horror-comedies, some monster movies, and a bunch of thrillers which mostly have serial killers. But I haven’t listed the slasher movie, because there’s always at least one.
I’ve seen dozens of these stupid things, mainly because of their habitual long-running franchises: Texas Chainsaw Massacres, Nightmares on Elm Street, Friday the Thirteenths, Halloweens, all three Child’s Plays (yes, all three, because those were bad enough), Final Destinations, I Know What You Did Last Summers, and Screams.
There are a lot of great slasher movies out there, and I think they’re worth noting. Nightmare on Elm Street is a fantastic entry, a fine Wes Craven film that launched a series. Unlike most other slashers, it’s got a lot going on under the hood: the amazing dream/reality setup, the underlying sexual tension and loss of innocence themes… heck, the movie can be read as an analogue for adolescent trauma. Friday the 13th was one of the first slashers, and it did well to define the genre, though it wasn’t until Friday the 13th Part III that all the pieces showed up: the hockey mask, the stereotypical victims (the jokester, the person who thinks the killer is the practical jokester, drugs and sex leading to quick deaths), the killer popping up for one final strike after their apparent death. But I have to go with Halloween here. (I’m really not a John Carpenter fanboy, I swear.)
Best moment: when the dad pulls Micheal’s mask off and you see he’s just a child. Raise your hand if that blew your mind, either for the trailer or watching the film.
I consider Halloween the best slasher for a number of reasons. Most of those are reasons why it’s scary: the pacing, the atmosphere, the sense of dread that it builds. Halloween fell on the dividing line, being in part a homage to the Hitchcockian psychological horror and proto-slasher serial killer scares of Psycho, and partly the influence for the entire slasher genre. The parts that the genre took were just the basics—more were lifted from Friday the 13th—meaning it existed outside of the formulas and tropes that have since defined the genre.
Why is it scary?
Most slashers follow a rigid formula of cliches and stereotypes, relying on jump scares, loud noises, and plenty of slasher victim stereotypes to lounge around smoking pot and screwing. Halloween, though, exists outside the tropes and formulas, instead relying on tension and suspense. There are a number of deaths, and creepy occurrences, and some “stuff happens when you don’t expect it” jump scares, but what I love about it is the pacing and atmosphere (plus, again, Carpenter’s score). With a serial killer on the loose, the expectation of impending death is more frightening than the actual killer.
Speaking of said killer, he started a trend in slasher films of hiding the slasher’s face behind a mask. The mask Michael Myers wears is frightening because of how much a blank slate it makes him: emotionless and unknown. We don’t know what’s under there, and it makes him scary; without Myers’ mask, or Jason’s hockey mask, it’d just be some dude, which could have been laughable if the actor wasn’t perfectly chosen. We can assign things to a person’s face: we can create a backstory or guess at his character by how somebody looks and acts, their facial expressions and mannerisms. Masks, by their nature, are impersonal, and shrouds the slasher with the unknown.
Also, I think the “killer PoV” camera shots were pretty slick. It’s something that I’ve seen occur more in earlier films than subsequent ones, and I think it’s a shame: it’s a unique twist that is really cool when it’s done right.
You could say the ambient darkness was just reflecting Carpenter’s nonexistent budget and indie filmmaker style, but I think it adds a lot of atmosphere to the film. Seeing glimpses of … something, and a masked something at that, from the ambient moonlight just adds to the creepy factor.
All that said, I think Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th have the better franchises. In an ironic twist, I don’t think the first film in those series’ was necessarily the best compared with later entries, though with Halloween, each subsequent film was half as good as its predecessor (at best). Good Halloween films follow the rule of good Highlander films: there can be only one.