In researching the slasher genre, I was once under the impression that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) were the first two blueprints that created what we know today as the slasher film. They certainly left their mark on all horror to come, but there are films before Psycho and Peeping Tom that dealt with very human killers.
The definition of a slasher is broad and ever-changing. We know that the killers begin as human. They have also suffered some injustice in the past and due to this, the victims they choose are a form of revenge. Most notably, there is a serialization of murder. These killers normally wear masks, but when they don’t, their identity is a mystery. Prior to 1960, there were a handful of films that helped to invent these narrative elements that we associate with slasher films.
The following films are ‘proto-slashers’ (prototypes of slasher films) in chronological order:
The Student Of Prague (1913)
This German film features a Faustian deal that goes bad. A pauper’s reflection is unleashed from a mirror to create havok and kill. This is cinema’s first instance of a doppelganger or split personality – like Norman Bates.
Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Another German release, this one created the German Expressionism movement – stark contrast of black and white, tilted camera angles, and every aspect of the mise-en-scene is a straight angle. Cesare is a somnambulist and created as part zombie and part serial killer. His wicked costume and exaggerated face paint influenced most of horror cinema.
The Lodger (1927)
This was Hitchcock’s third film and it was conceived as a variation on Jack The Ripper. In the film a serial killer known as ‘The Avenger’ causes mass hysteria when he targets all young blonds.
Peter Lorrie stars as a murderer of children. He also causes mass hysteria. M is the first instance of a leitmotif in cinema. When the killer is on the prowl he whistles “In The Hall Of The Mountain King.” This would influence all horror films that feature a score that precedes a kill.
Thirteen Women (1932)
Here is the first example of an injustice in the past causing a future revenge. Myma Loy is forced to leave university life due to the bullying from her peers. They look down at her for having a mixed heritage. Years later she devises a plot to get back at them all. She manipulates a psychic and uses him to send the women false predictions. Through the power of suggestion she drives the women to suicide, murder, and madness. In the end, there is only one woman left – the ‘final girl’ – to defeat her.
Before I Hang (1940)
Boris Karloff injects himself with a murderers blood. When he gets angry, he slips into unconsciousness and kills. Here is another variation of the split personality plot point that would be found in later slashers.
And Then There Were None (1945)
Eight strangers meet on an isolated island and soon each one is found dead. We find out that each of them had a hand in a separate murder and the host of the party wants their confession and justice served. Again, a series of deaths occur due to the characters past actions.
Hitchcock’s adaptation of this play is a technical masterpiece. Rope looks as though it was shot in one take and because of this, the film builds tension. Rope is based on the murder committed by two lovers and University of Chicago students – Leopold and Loeb. While the film only has one murder that occurs at the very beginning, it is the philosophy and psychology of the film’s killers that create a blueprint for future horror villains.
House Of Wax (1953)
Vincent Price is burned by his business partner – literally. When he survives the attack, he vows revenge on the partner and anyone else who gets in his way. This may be the closest in relation to the future slasher. Price has a body count and a tragic event that shaped his murderous ways.
Bucket Of Blood (1959)
Roger Corman’s flawed horror satire pokes fun at the beatnik culture while showcasing the evolution of Dick Miller’s character. Miller plays Walter, a busboy without artistic talent. All he wants in life is to be accepted by the beatniks and when fate hands him a dead cat, he encases it in plaster. His dead cat sculpture becomes his invite into the ‘elite’ crowd. His audience wishes to see more of his macabre art, so Walter evolves into a serial killer for artistic expression.
These 10 pieces of early cinema helped to influence all of modern and post-modern horror. Without Rope, there would be no Funny Games. Without And Then There Were None and Thirteen Women, the serialization of murder may not be present in the later slasher formula. Without M, there would be no “ch…ch…ch…ah…ah…ah..” Jason warning. Before I Hang and Student Of Prague have a hand in creating the unconscious killer.
Each of these films were released during an era where horror cinema focused mainly on external threats. Universal Studios and later Hammer Films all featured creatures that represented the ‘other.’ They were feared, but at the same time, there is enough distance between us and the other to keep them from being utterly terrifying. Later, our fears of communism, the space program, advances in science, and atomic annihilation were represented with invasion films and giant monsters. These few films eked out and revealed that we should also be afraid of ourselves. The greatest threat to life as we know it, is human nature.
I would love to open this up for discussion. Let me know if there are any other early films before 1960 that may have helped in creating the slasher film, or if you feel that only Halloween (1978) gave birth to the slasher let me know. Any comments are welcome, they will help in my research.