Action Films of the 1980s and The Slasher Paradigm

Body count films of many forms found success in the 1980s. Slasher pictures dominated the horror market, generating major margins of profit on miniscule budgets (Parmount Pictures shuddered with eye-winking embarrassment when releasing the numbers on their senses-assaulting splatter flick, Friday the 13th). 

At the same time, major studios were redefining action movies for modern audiences. Hollywood had gone corporate. The social climate of the 1960s and 1970s had passed and was replaced by a more escapist form of entertainment. Instead of willfully challenging the political structure in America, Hollywood aimed to produce event pictures with wide popular appeal. 

Large-scale actioners offered adrenaline-filled thrill rides replete with dangerously exciting inclines and gratuitously violent plunges while echoing the structural framework and narrative tone of the slasher film. While the two genres may seem dissimilar, their themes and essential features bear scrutiny. 

Below are examples of three major action films of the ’80s and their contextual connection with the slasher paradigm.

FIRST BLOOD (1982)
Arriving on screen two years after Mrs. Voorhees sliced and diced her way through a group of promiscuous camp counselors in Friday the 13th, First Blood offers a new spin on the psycho in the woods genre. While the sequels were stifled by unbridled machismo and visual gimmickry, First Blood utilizes the genre to explore disaffection in society.

John J. Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), an ex-Green Beret Vietnam vet, wanders into the small town of Hope, Washington where he is detained by the fanatical Sheriff William Teasel (Brian Dennehy). Teasel and his men torture and abuse Rambo forcing him to take action.

Based on the novel of the same name, the picture utilizes action to mask a disturbing subtext about soldiers who find themselves ostracized by friends and family upon returning home from war. Rambo, with his tangled mess of hair and ill-fitting overcoat is a stain on the curtain of refinement the people of Hope have hung around themselves.

Slasher films have a history of speaking to disenfranchised audiences. They force viewers to form psychological identifications with the characters on screen while addressing the value of difference.

In 1982, splatter films featured awkward characters fighting to be normal. Pitted against the ultimate evil, they were pushed to the brink and beyond. Movies like The Slayer and The Slumber Party Massacre exploited the ways adolescence is as frightening as a knife-toting madman. Young viewers struggling with horrors of their own recognized parts of themselves in their favorite protagonists. 

Likewise, spectators sympathize with Rambo. Like the best slasher movies of the period, director Ted Kotcheff’s anti-establishment thriller forces viewers to question their own capacity for violence. Similar to the youth in movies like My Bloody Valentine and The House on Sorority Row, Rambo kicks back against authority. When he finally breaks and begins wreaking bloody revenge, he has the full support of the audience.

The most satisfying scene in the movie sees Rambo using elaborate booby traps to take down his pursuers. It is a testosterone-driven trip of stress and release depicted with cathartic enthusiasm.

THE TERMINATOR (1984)
The 1980s spawned several heart-pounding, sweat churning celluloid monsters. Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger all encroached upon the nightmares of young movie brats during the decade of decadence. Sometimes forgotten among the more frightening villains stalking and slashing their way across movie screens in the early 80s is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg assassin, the Terminator.

Sent from the year 2029, the terminator will not be diverted away from his mission to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), a young woman whose future son will save civilization from insurgent machines. Sarah’s only hope for salvation lies with a human resistance fighter (Michael Biehn) charged with her protection.

Director James Cameron has stated in interviews that the catalyst for the film came in the form of a dream about a mangled automaton worming its way across a battered kitchen. Drawing inspiration from personal experience is not unusual, but in listening to Cameron’s anecdote I was reminded of a similar account shared by Wes Craven about the creation of his seminal slasher film, A Nightmare on Elm Street. As a child, Craven recounted being pulled from sleep by a drunk man lumbering down the sidewalk below his bedroom window.

Cameron’s sci-fi masterpiece shares more than backstory with the celebrated splatter flick. Released at the tail-end of the genre’s golden age, The Terminator dips into the slasher playbook, utilizing established narrative rules and practices and stock characters.

The archetypal slasher killer adopts a trademark outfit: Remember how Myers preyed on the youth of Haddonfield in navy blue coveralls and a stark white mask?  No one forgets Krueger stalking the dreamscapes of Elm Street’s young ones in a threadbare, red and green sweater and steel-tipped glove. Jason’s hockey mask, anyone?

Casting the former Mr. Universe in the role of the terminator was an outstanding decision. He is a frightening specimen. Swelling muscles fight with other muscles against his charcoal jacket; the blackness of his tinted glasses allowing him to hunt without being noticed, his commanding bone structure and expressionless face portraying no sense of humanity. Like the slasher killers who preceded him, he is nearly impossible to kill.

Villains in slasher films typically act in response to a transgression that has occurred in the past. The miner in My Bloody Valentine seeks to avenge the death of his father, the murders in Happy Birthday to Me are committed to exact revenge for a discovered affair. The terminator is unique in that its monster is responding to events that have taken place before the film proper has commenced, while at the same time, trying to prevent the same occurrences from taking place.

Audience sympathy remains with Sarah throughout the picture. Like the female protagonists in Black Christmas and A Nightmare on Elm Street, she grows stronger as the story unfolds. When we meet her, she is an inept waitress who spends her Friday nights alone at the movies. By film’s end, she is an ass-kicking, robot-smashing enemy of evil.

At a time when the slasher film was losing favor with audiences, The Terminator exploited the genre’s familiar framework to create a mega hit.

DIE HARD (1988)
Die Hard is the perfect example of an 80s action flick: over the top violence and bloodshed, death-defying stunts and enough zany one-liners to fill a five-star notebook. Its paper-thin plot functions as a device to bridge its blood-soaked action sequences. Trapped in a high-rise at Christmas, NYPD cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) fights back against a pack of high-end thieves who’ve taken his wife and her co-workers captive. Armed with machine guns and explosives, he makes a virtue of destroying the building and massacring bad guys in adrenaline-pulsing ways.

Censorship groups and critics attacked the picture upon release for its gratuitous violence calling it, “disgusting and silly, a mindless depiction of carnage on an epic scale” (Kevin Thomas). I’d argue that a huge number of adolescent boys have closed their eyes and transcended into a world of make-believe where they are a wise-cracking, ass-kicking hero akin to John McClane. Teen audiences in the 1980s were responding to the same political turmoil and social injustice that prompted punk rock, kutten vests, and slasher movies.

Around the time John McClane was dropping the hammer on swanky villains, a crazed serial slasher was using a possessed doll to claim new victims in Child’s Play.  

The slasher genre has rarely gained the favor of main-stream critics. In his review of Child’s Play, Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “[Child’s Play] would probably be sickening if it weren’t so relentlessly stupid.” Admittedly, many slasher films were produced to capitalize on the financial assurance of the genre and can no way be called good movies. The better ones embody the concerns of their audience and offer dangerously cathartic viewing experiences (Halloween, Candyman, Alice Sweet Alice). Their willingness to be excessive is what makes them so fun. They were born out of the savage cinema period, during a time when filmmakers were stretching the limits of on-screen violence. They are gory and hair-raising, even if a bit campy. 

Likewise, Die Hard has a winking sensibility to it. Its hyper-stylized action sequences, outrageous dialogue and comic book villains are so over-the-top that you can’t help but love them. Director John McTiernan’s amusement of the material can be felt in every preposterous set piece. McClane pulls from half-burnt cigarettes and quips, “Yippee ki yay mother fucker,” while dispatching evil goons, and he does it all without shoes.

Relentlessly paced, slickly directed and excessively fun, Die Hard fetishizes violence as energetically as it mocks it. Its cheeky display of brutality and carnage ensures that it will live on as a classic.

The simple narrative tone of the slasher film provided a framework for the larger scale action films of the 1980s.  While Hollywood was at once incorporating new advances in visual effects and the means to draw newer and younger audiences, the slasher film was getting its firm footing. It sure looks like Child’s Play and Die Hard might come from different places, but they’re neighbors nonetheless.

Ernie Rockelman

Ernie loves movies. He's not so great talking about them, but he's pretty okay writing about them. He worked as a critic for the Press of AC for a number of years. Now he teaches film to high school kids and occasionally makes movies that nobody sees.

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2 thoughts on “Action Films of the 1980s and The Slasher Paradigm

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    September 19, 2019 at 10:37 am
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    This one was a real eye-opener. I never saw the obvious connection between my favorite slashers and their action brethren. I have always looked at Terminator as a horror film (sci-fi/horror) and could easily get my head around those similarities – like how Alien is a monster movie in space. But your section on First Blood was super interesting and made me actually appreciate the film more. It is one of the few slasher films (if I may) in which you understand and even root for the killer. That is hard to pull off! I would love to see a slasher film done in the same vein. We kinda root for Jason, but we aren’t actually happy to see these campers die. In First Blood, we still know that Rambo is wrong but we sympathize with his killing spree way more. Great article!!!

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