Casual Fridays: Slasher Cinema's Brutal Basics
Jason's hockey mask.
Harry Warden's gas mask.
The Shape's fairly familiar white face.
Whether they were blessed with a million sequels or forced to live out their days in one-and-done stalker infamy, most of these guys (and the occasional lady - that's a very nice motorcycle helmet, Ms. Night School !) had a memorable costume to wear during their murder sprees. The main motivator was usually one of necessity, as several of these films were whodunit types. For example: it’d ruin a lot of the fun of say, Scream (1996), if it were just Stu and Billy waving shiny knives around for 120 minutes without anything identifiable to hide their true identities.
Granted the guises of some of these iconic slayers were surely the result of savvy producers. There was no real need for Jason Voorhees to don a hockey mask (or burlap sack, respect) as he hacked his way through Crystal Lake. After all, was mama’s special boy actually afraid of scaring his victims with his deformed face prior to killing them? Yet the moneymen knew that if they wanted to keep cashing in with sequels every year during the ‘80s slasher “boom”, their respective pictures required a killer who owned an instantly recognizable calling card.
But what about the ones who...well...let's just say no one’s making any model kits out of them?
The most blatantly lazy film of the bunch is easily Final Exam (1981), the collegiate slasher where the victims are more memorable than the bowl-cutted bozo killing them off. This movie gives us Wildman, an oft-drunk jock (and, presumably, future Axe body spray spokesman) who screams just about every line he’s gifted before liberally applying spray-on deodorant (not to mention swallowing some for good measure). Then there’s Radish: a nerdy "nice guy" type who instantly thinks of Watergate when he sees a door left ajar. Or Lisa, who is having an affair with one of her professors, but doesn't seem to mind anyone finding out since she has a framed photo of him in her dorm room. Certainly a film with such outlandish flesh suits would have an equally memorable killer, right?
Nope. Our stalker’s name is simply...Killer (per the credits), and his attire consists of a plain t-shirt and jeans, as if they forgot to hire anyone to play the role and quickly cast the key grip on day three of shooting. The novelization (!) offers a little insight into his backstory, with occasional"from his POV" scenes that suggest he hates the ladies after being routinely rejected (real incel energy here). Still, in the film he offs more men than women anyway, so that extratextual origin doesn't quite track. In a year that gave us Harry Warden, Jason Voorhees, Madman Marz, Cropsey, and The Prowler, you have to wonder if they though they were being daring by going in the complete opposite direction, or if the production was so rushed that the creative team simply neglected to dream up an appropriately vicious visage.
Timothy L. Raynoris is also pretty dull in his performance as Killer, going for a silent/slow-walking Myers type, which doesn't quite work when you look like a gas station attendant. Luckily, many of his un-costumed brethren at least made up for their lack of disguise with insane facial expressions and delirious laughing bouts. If you're a child of the '80s, you may remember the "Body by Jake" exercise videos or sitcom Big Brother Jake (1990 - 1994), both of which starred Jake Steinfeld. But to me, Steinfeld he will always be Jay Jones, the PCP-addicted killer of Home Sweet Home (1981), a sadly hard-to-find slasher that finds the escaped mental patient targeting a random family on Thanksgiving.
Jay giggles his way through most of his murders, many of which play on his bodybuilder prowess. One victim, leaning under a car hood while attempting to perform a repair, is killed when Jake flies in out of nowhere and body slams the hood shut. Later, a guitar-shredding mime (don’t ask) is hoisted on his own annoying six-string petard with one hand while being electrocuted with the other. So, even though he has no mask or recognizable get up (the loony bin didn’t even fit him for fresh greens it’d seem) he has enough personality to make up for it.
I guess we can label this dressed down fashion trend a "Thanksgiving tradition", since the murderous Terry (or is it Todd?) from Blood Rage (1987) also slays then, and he, like Jay before him, doesn't bother with any kind of disguise. Though, in his case there's an excuse: he's trying to frame his twin brother for the murders anyway, so being out in the open is only helping his case. Unlike the others, he also gets to speak, so while the film operates under usual slasher guidelines, the lack of any kind of memorable ensemble doesn't feel like an oversight or missed opportunity.
This is the opposite reaction one may have to The Mutilator (1984), which is, oddly enough, sometimes mistaken as Thanksgiving-set body count picture. The killer in Buddy Cooper's movie is hidden from view for the majority of the runtime, only to be rather nonchalantly revealed as the only person we thought it might be anyway (the protag's dad, for reasons too insane to explain here). Our hero even says "It's my DAD!" at one point, as if he just realized this, several minutes after the two wrestled, which had me thinking perhaps there WAS supposed to be some kind of disguise in the script that never made its way into the actual production.
It is perhaps the obscurity of these films that had any and all ‘90s slashers be sure to have a proper costume. Dr. Giggles (1992), for example, probably could have gotten away with just the inimitable Larry Drake and his titular laugh, but he's dressed in doctor's scrubs for the entire movie (though let's be real: no one will ever mistake a screenshot of Evan Rendell as Robert Durant). Scream's insane success led to many wannabe slashers, though their makers opted for shadowy costumes instead of easily identifiable masks. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) just had a fisherman with a hook, while an oversized ski parka was all Urban Legend's (1998) killer got.
Things quickly improved, as Urban Legends: Final Cut (2000) gave its murderer a fencing mask (sure, why not?), and Valentine (2001) offered up an all-timer with its creepy Cupid mask, however these films arrived too late to save that fading slasher revival. The wave of remakes in the later part of the '00s brought along the expected costumes for the likes of Myers and Voorhees, but not all of them bothered. Prom Night's update didn't stick with the ski mask from its already low-key original (not a whodunit this time to be fair, but still) and Sorority Row (2009) ditched the original's Jester mask in favor of a Ghostface-style cloak and a face kept in shadow. Sure, whatever.
Then there are any number of entries that avoided having to design anything by simply not showing the killer at all outside of an outstretched arm holding a weapon, or perhaps their feet as they stalked their prey. This was the technique favored by most of the Italo gialli films that inspired the slasher in the first place, not to mention Black Christmas (1974), which confined the one "good" shot of Billy to the shadows. This method would continue to be employed for the original Friday the 13th (1980), Sleepaway Camp (1983), and several other whodunits, allowing the character to make their way around the campground/woods/whatever without drawing as much attention as a masked person would. Sure, it’s a nice workaround/excuse, but kind of feels like a cheat, especially when the character is never given a proper introduction, making their reveal anticlimactic on top of it (i.e. Mrs. Voorhees).
That said, at least the films were finding workarounds for their lack of a striking design instead of just shrugging and letting some rando walk around the frame. Given that the majority of such films were unsuccessful and only find champions among die-hard slasher aficionados (in fact, even among such folks, I'm one of few who will defend Final Exam), I can't help but wonder if the blandness of their killers is to blame more than anything else.
Terror Train (1980) isn't exactly a five-star entry in the subgenre, but the Groucho mask poster/VHS art has seared its way into the permanent memory of any number of horror fans. Killer Party's (1986) bizarre deep-sea scuba gear getup is a memorable image in a film with any number of curious choices, also helping it stay alive in our memories, same as its fellow April Fool’s Day themed Slaughter High (also 1986) and its Jester costume. With the MPAA mangling the kills more often than not, and the actors not always ascending to better gigs, sometimes the image of the killer, specifically decked out with a mask and/or distinctive outfit, can be the only thing that comes to mind when the title is mentioned.
It also doesn't help the criticism that these films are lazy and pandering to the lowest common denominator. Even something as seemingly simple as the Myers mask (NOT originally a Captain Kirk mask, as is often reported, but Shatner's character from Kingdom of the Spiders ) took some creative thinking and reworking to make it into the face that has terrorized audiences for over forty years (not to mention become a major sticking point for certain sequels where the mask wasn't considered up to par), so you can't accuse them of half-assing it. When contrasted with Offerings (1989), which was a pretty blatant Halloween knockoff (even the score was similar), the killer had no costume whatsoever, as if the guy in charge of making sure they copied everything from John Carpenter forgot to write "mask/coveralls" down on his list. Would a killer design have saved the film? Probably not, but at least it'd be easy enough to point to something and say "hey - they were trying in this one department!"
Ultimately, while certainly not mandatory, it seems like a good idea to give your maniac something identifiable (preferably not just the weapon; Leatherface's chainsaw was imposing, but it was the mask of human skin that made him an icon) for horror fans to doodle in their notebooks, dress up as for Halloween, or even get tattooed on their body as a permanent reminder/tribute of the terror they invoked. If you're making a slasher film, at some point you should daydream of NECA or Fright Rags wanting to license your villain for a toy or shirt - they ain't gonna be interested if he's just some guy. Do it for the merch!
Brian Collins is an author and horror historian who has been published at Fangoria, Birth.Movies.Death., and his own exhaustive blog Horror Movie A Day.