Defining Slasher or Five Films You Did Not Know Were Slashers

Before getting into this article, one definition must be clarified. Specifically: what is a “slasher” movie? What are the criteria, what makes them different from regular horror films? There are variations on the definition. This is the Wikipedia definition:

“A slasher film is a subgenre of thriller and horror film, typically involving a psychopathic killer stalking and murdering a sequence of victims in a graphically violent manner, often with a bladed tool such as a knife, machete, axe, scythe, or chainsaw.”

It is not a terrible definition, but personally I do not feel it covers the entire genre. Here is another from Urban Dictionary:

“A horror movie usually with one central homicidal maniac who usually uses cutlery to systematically slaughter his victims.”

Closer but I am still not on board with it. I guess my complaints at “slasher” definition come from the fact that the poor movies seem to have defined the genre. Critic Roger Ebert used to refer to slasher films as simply “dead teenager movies.” However, I feel to let the low-quality define is to do a disservice to the genre. It would be akin to defining dramatic films as “movies featuring multiple emotional breakthroughs, often done in an over-the-top, cathartic manner.” Are there more bad slasher films than good: absolutely. The ratio is probably similar to the amount of Spartans vs. Persians at the battle of Thermopylae. Still, let’s expand this definition a little.

In my mind, I have never considered the choice of weapon relevant to the “slasher” definition. “Slashing” simply refers to the high body count these movies typically have. This does not mean that many people have to die, just that a high portion of the cast is no longer present by film’s end – due solely to the actions of that film’s “slasher.” Hmm, actually – all this use of the word slasher is getting confusing. Maybe there is a better way to explain my point. Below are five films I feel are slashers – which are left off using the standard definition.

5. Predator

There ain’t no teenagers in this movie. Released in 1987, Predator stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and follows the struggle of a team of special forces against an alien with super-powered technology. This alien stalks the team one-by-one as they try to make their way through a savage and isolated jungle. There is no sex, no real drug use beyond tobacco, and no nudity to speak of. Yet, boiled down: Predator is a killer hunting people in the forest. It is not a stretch to label this film a slasher, even if it is in the realm of science fiction.

Oh look at that, he's even wearing a mask!
Oh look at that, he’s even wearing a mask!

4. The Terminator

More Schwarzenegger, only this time he is the unstoppable superhuman killer. Arnold plays the terminator – a robot sent back in time to kill a young woman. The Terminator is perhaps the best example of a slasher movie embracing the “indestructible” nature of the killer. In the more traditional slasher films, the police are always seen as a source of safety. Once they arrive, it is all over. Later slasher movies would shatter this illusion of strength but none so effectively as The Terminator.

This is the most famous example of a killer walking into a police station and just demolishing it.
This is the most famous example of a killer walking into a police station and just demolishing it.

He does not ever use a knife, yet that metallic arm that reaches for Linda Hamilton‘s character at the end can be seen as an equivalent weapon, at least in terms of its threatening presence.

3. Alien

Well, if Predator was a slasher…

I have actually already talked about this movie at length in an article I wrote some time ago. To recap: Alien uses the isolation of space to put a superhuman antagonist against a group of unsuspecting people. Notice that this ‘superhuman’ nature of the killer is a definite recurring theme in all of these movies, as is the setting’s feeling of isolation.

The scorpion-like tail can be seen as the alien's slasher weapon.
The scorpion-like tail can be seen as the alien’s slasher weapon.

2. JAWS

Made in 1975, Jaws predates Halloween by three years. The plot of Jaws is simple: a shark terrorizes an island and the local authorities have to respond. Yet it does appear to be a regular shark, made superhuman only by the fact that it is a great white in water. The true superhuman element comes from Spielberg’s directing. The shark is presented as both an animal and a thinking opponent. There is an intelligence to it that emerges in the second half of the film. The shark may not have a ton of actual screen time, but John Williams’ score makes it a presence throughout the movie. This is no simply shark, it is a slasher.

He's either very smart or very dumb.
He’s either very smart or very dumb.

1. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

So odds are, this is the one you’ve been waiting to read about. How could Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory be a slasher? It’s a family film, with wonderful heart-warming sequences like:

Yeah, this movie is terrifying. Willy Wonka is a superhuman individual who picks children off in his chocolate factory. The kids vanish, never to be seen again. Sure, Wonka says they are all right (and they probably are) but it does not matter. For all intents and purposes, he is murdering those kids in really over-the-top style. Willy Wonka is never clearly described as a good guy and actually, plot-wise, he functions as an antagonist of the film. Charlie must survive his challenges and pass his test.

"I knew that from then on the audience wouldn't know if I was lying or telling the truth," - Gene Wilder on Willy Wonka's old and feeble introduction
I knew that from then on the audience wouldn’t know if I was lying or telling the truth,”
– Gene Wilder on Willy Wonka’s old and feeble introduction.

Made in 1971, this is the first slasher (that I know of).

So what is a slasher? Does it even have to be a horror film or is it just a set of guidelines?

Here, let me make right now the official Red Rings of Redemption definition of a slasher movie:

“A slasher film is any movie, usually set in an isolated area, that focuses on a superhuman antagonist who preys on a comparatively high number of victims.”

There we go. I might refine that as time goes on but for now – let it stand.

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