Celebrating Slasher’s Coup De Grace

The first ten minutes of a film establish a tone that plays a role in ensuring the work makes a lasting impression (Chrissie Watkins being sucked under water by an unseen predator in Jaws is forever seared into the minds of horror fans). Good openings produce emotional connections between the audience and the characters in the story. They compel onlookers to substitutionally endure the trials and tribulations of the protagonists on screen. If done well, the first ten minutes of a picture have the power to propel it toward success.

Consequently, the final moments of a movie carry even more weight than those that open the film. Brody and Hooper paddling back to shore after obliterating the great white in Jaws has given satisfaction to generations of audiences. After accompanying the hero through turbulent realms and observing their rises and falls of fortune with breathless rapture, audiences are either rewarded for their time or left feeling disappointed. Even if a movie has all the other essential elements of a good story, the impression it leaves is at the mercy of its ending. 

This is especially true of slasher films, most of which employ the same blueprint, the same narrative structure, and a similar cast of characters. Identifying the motivation of the killer, exonerating red herrings, and navigating the handiwork of the murderous madman alongside the resilient final girl are all part of the fun of watching a “dead teenager” movie. The most exhilarating aspect of the experience often comes during the film’s tail end when the psychotic killer gets his comeuppance via the business end of a sharp-edged instrument.

After stalking and killing his way through the supporting players, the vile maniac is offed in a moment of gleefully bloody violence. Occasionally, films in the slasher cannon transcend the expectations of fans, presenting finishing blows that cause the audience to howl in shock and awe. While many have provided viewers with laughs and chills, the following are a few that stand head and shoulders above the rest.

FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) –  Halloween was the film that established the rules for slasher films, but Friday the 13th was the movie that set them in stone. 

Commencing in 1958, the picture witnesses a pair of counselors at Camp Crystal Lake sneaking off to have sex before being murdered by an unseen assailant. Twenty-one years later, Alice Hardy (Adrienne King) and friends make renovations to the newly reopened camp as a thunderstorm approaches in the distance. Unaware the killer has returned, the group take refuge within the camp’s cabins where they smoke weed and fool around.

Slasher films often protract suspense by hiding the identity of the killer until their closing moments. In most cases, the slayer is revealed to be a man. In Friday the 13th, we are shown bits of rough hands and boots and assume the movie will follow suit. When it is revealed the killer is a middle-aged woman, audience expectations are shattered and apprehension grows thick.

Alice and Mrs. Voorhees have a prolonged fight that culminates on the beach of the lake. Alice gains the upper hand. We watch in slow-motion as Alice uses a machete to separate Mrs. Voorhees’s head from the rest of her body. Bodily fluid surges from Mrs. Voorhees’s severed flesh, and her hands clench at the air one last time before she falls to the ground.

Drained of strength and energy, Alice climbs into a canoe and pushes off from shore. The next morning, the nascent rays of the rising sun pour warmly upon Alice’s cheek. With body at rest, she drags her hand peacefully along the surface of the cool water. There is a softness to the imagery that paired with the soothing notes of the soundtrack lends everything a sense of safety just before Jason’s decomposing body springs from the lake and attacks Alice offering the audience one last jolt of fear.

The 2000s have seen a number of strong female characters in horror movies and Friday the 13th marked a positive step in that direction. Despite the tragedy that befell Mrs. Voorhees, audience sympathy remains with Alice. She grows stronger throughout the movie, transforming from victim to survivor.  

MANIAC (1980) – Frank Zito (Joe Spinell) is a fat, greasy man who converses with mannequins in his dingy New York apartment in Maniac. Driven by a severe hatred of his mother, he takes to the streets of New York where he slays young women in grotesque fashion before taking their scalps as trophies.

An effectively chilling portrait of mental illness, Maniac is shockingly disturbing thanks to Spinell’s devotion to his sleazy character. He is emotionally divorced from the rest of society but has managed to keep his cruel nature from being discovered.

In one particularly compelling sequence he takes an attractive photographer named Anna (Caroline Munroe) on a date. She lays a kiss upon his cheek, her lips plush and red. Frank is refreshingly appreciative. He asks to stop at a cemetery to lay a wreath on the grave of his mother.

Frank’s eyes well with suppressed anger, every glance at the headstone fueling the animosity brewing within him. He attacks. Anna fends him off with a shovel, the blade making an unpleasant gurgle as it slices through his dirty flesh. Frank imagines his mother rising from her grave, her sallow skin and empty eyes moving ever closer. He flees to his apartment.

Frank collapses onto the bed, desolate tears streaking his grimy face. Sweat beads on his forehead and soaks into the collar of his shirt. Cold mannequins stare with mounting menace from the dark recesses of the room. Their comatose limbs begin to take life. Frank stares with disbelief as they move in for the kill. Utilizing the same instruments of death he used on his victims, the mannequins mutilate Frank’s body. Pain fluctuates on his face, crimson liquid pops from his wounds, severed limbs splatter the floor. It is heinous and wretchedly disgusting, yet effectively redeeming.

Frank is driven by madness. He is enslaved by a desire to kill brought on by childhood trauma. Despite the hideousness of his murders, he gains our sympathy. Still, his horrifying actions can’t go unpunished. It is fitting that he meets his end at the hands of his grisly creations.

THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1982) – Entertaining variation on the now familiar slasher formula, The Slumber Party Massacre is notable for being one of the few splatter films written and directed by women. Set in free-spirited Venice Beach, California, the picture witnesses a group of plucky high school girls being menaced by an escaped mental patient called Russ (Michael Villella). His weapon of choice?  An over-sized power drill.

The movie brings together all the tropes and devices associated with slasher films, but its feminist ideology allows it to transcend the limits of the genre.

The film reaches its revisionist crescendo when the buxom beauties take up arms and fight back against their assailant. After their boyfriends are easily dispatched by the crazed killer, Trish (Michelle Michaels), Courtney (Jennifer Meyers), and Valerie (Robin Stille) attack with deadly efficiency.

Trish drives a butcher knife into Russ’s back at a downward angle, the sounds of severed tissue and muscle reverberating over the soundtrack. Russ brushes off the damage and raises his pointed weapon to the sky, his threatening eyes as dark as the blood pouring from his back. “You know you want it.”

Before he can levy revenge, Valerie rushes in and lops off his elongated drill bit. She demasculinizes him before penetrating him herself with the sharp edge of her blade. The knife slices through the meat of his left wrist, his screams rushing toward the horizon; blood that once flowed through his veins speckling the ground. All three girls scream with menace as they wrestle Russ to the floor where Valerie twists the blade of her machete through the pudgy part of his abdomen. Thick blood pours freely from his mouth before he slumps over like a butchered animal.

The female characters ward off the lethal attacks of their male aggressor, skewing the gender-based rivalry for power found in other slasher movies of the period.

JUST BEFORE DAWN (1981) – After Halloween torched the box office in 1978, it didn’t take long for slasher movies to saturate the market. The genre’s golden age reached its zenith in 1981. Sandwiched between a series of highly advertised efforts like My Bloody Valentine and The Burning was an offbeat indie flick called Just Before Dawn. The third effort from cult filmmaker Jeff Lieberman, the picture follows a collective of college-age campers vacationing in the mountains of Oregon who are tormented by a pair or inbred hillbillies.

Just Before Dawn is unique in that it has one hand in the savage cinema period of the 1970s. The slasher framework is intact from the backwoods milieu to the young cast of characters engaged in deviant behavior, but an air of cruelty looms over the proceedings that sets the picture apart from its brethren. Similar to savage titles like The Hills Have Eyes and The Last House on the Left, Just Before Dawn creates a very clear divide between the good guys and the bad. Sensible persons are forced to reassess their codes of behavior before yielding to the animalistic part of themselves. Constance (Deborah Benson) laments the death of a deer at the start of the film before killing her attackers in grotesque fashion in the movie’s closing moments.

Alone and defenseless, Constance scales a tree to escape one of the psycho bumpkins. With his mind set on death, the yokel begins chopping at the tree with a machete, its edge worn from severing skulls. As he prepares to sink his blade into Constance’s soft flesh, he is shot dead by a local forest ranger (George Kennedy).

Before Constance can take air, crazed hick number two stumbles from the woods and stabs her boyfriend, Warren (Gregg Henry). Dull metal pulls against broken skin. The machete wines as it slides through the meat and muscle of Warren’s stomach. Inarticulate moans pass through his lips as he struggles to push dead tissue back into his body.

The hick’s eyes flick to Constance, his face blank with malice. He seizes Constance in a bear hug, his cruel grunts tight against her ear. She struggles against him, her legs beginning to weaken. Bruised and breathless, she shoots her right fist into the mouth of her assailant. Her arm sinks deeper and deeper into his gullet. He cries out, discordant roars mixed with animalistic howls. They both stumble to the ground, the dying hillbilly trembling like a netted animal as his lungs scream for breath. His limbs slow, the chaotic sounds of his struggle quiet. Warren looks on in frightened disbelief.

There is something darkly sexual in Constance’s transformation from “babe in the woods” to resourceful survivor. At the start of the movie, the killer uses his machete to pierce the crotch of his first victim. Slasher movies often depict females struggling to avoid penetration by a killer’s phallic weapon before snuffing out their male attackers with their own sharp instrument. Just Before Dawn carries the concept out to extremes.

SCREAM (1996) – A ghost face killer stalks teens in a small California town. Deputy Dewey (David Arquette) and his fellow law enforcement officers are powerless in their attempts to thwart the slayer. Meanwhile, teenager Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) discovers the killings are connected to the murder of her mother some years earlier.

Wes Craven’s brazenly revisionist slasher exhibits all the hackneyed plot elements that were introduced in films like Halloween and Friday the 13th before flipping them on their head. At the movie’s conclusion, after the final girl has conquered the knife-toting maniac, her nerdy sidekick (Jamie Kennedy) cautions, “Careful, this is the moment when the supposedly dead killer comes back to life for one last scare.” Before the killer can spring back to life, the heroine fires a bullet through his forehead.

“Not in my movie,” Sidney says.

Blood flows thick and scarlet from the limp body, the idyllic home marred by the carnage. Sidney and friends exhale in unison, their collective sigh catching the wind like a leaf hung by rain. Their eyes remain fixed on the body of the slain executioner. Tension lifts. The mass of fear clotting the chest of the audience dissipates.

Sidney’s father (Lawrence Hecht) bursts beaten and bloodied from the closet. The audience draws air, the shock forging a permanent mark on their lungs.

Slasher movies often squeeze one last scare in before bidding goodbye, many times utilizing this final twist to set the ground for a sequel. After informing audiences that Michael Myers is still alive in the final moments of Halloween for instance, the preeminent splatter film cuts to a series of shots showing the empty rooms of the house. Michael is nowhere to be found. Evil has survived to attack another day.

In Scream however, evil is vanquished. Sidney embraces her father. All is safe.

Right?

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.

Avatar

One thought on “Celebrating Slasher’s Coup De Grace

  • Avatar
    July 14, 2019 at 7:40 pm
    Permalink

    Another solid article. My favorite “coup de grace” moment is probably A Nightmare on Elm Street when all seems like it was a dream in the end (so perfect for this film) and then the car’s convertible roof closes, exposing it is the color of Freddy’s sweater. The mom is suddenly pulled through the front door window by Freddy’s claw as she waves goodbye to the kids driving away. I love how fake the mom’s legs look. Hilarious 😂!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *