Thursday, December 27, 2012

Slasher horror vs. survival horror


    Yesterday, I had a lengthy conversation with one of my oldest friends about the difference between Slasher horror and survival horror. Basically, we were both discussing the fact we weren't terribly fond of the classic horror franchises A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the Thirteenth.

    Both of us agreed that the two franchises have intriguing premises with their Dream Demon and Unstoppable Juggernaut stars. However, neither of us particularly cared for the way the stories particularly progressed. Likewise, we were both fans of the original Halloween and Scream.

    It occurred to me this wasn't just a matter of taste, though it mostly was. I'm not going to tell you there's anything wrong with the FT13 or NOES franchises other than the occasional bit of bad storytelling. That's your business and tastes may vary. I will say, though, that the two of agreed the primary problem boiled down to a difference of audience expectations.

    The primary appeal of these two horror franchises is watching Freddy and Jason massacre their victims in increasingly outlandish ways. Freddy killed a young Johnny Depp a spectacularly surreal method which has to be seen to be believed. Likewise, there's something gut-bustingly hilarious about watching Jason beat someone to death by swinging their sleeping bag against a tree repeatedly.

    However, I can't say that particularly appeals to me. Furthermore, my favorite of the two franchises revolve less around Freddy and Jason than Kristen Parker, Laurie Holden, Tommy Jarvis, and Tina Shepard. If you go "who?" you probably aren't alone but they're the protagonists of the franchise who put up the best fight against our unpleasant gatekeepers to the world of slasherdom. The fates of at least two of these individuals turned me off these franchises even though I had been forewarned they are not the stars.

    I'll spare you a discussion of the other side of the coin with Laurie Strode and Sidney Prescott who are every bit as much the stars of their movies as their antagonists. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of course, was built on the mold of the Final Girl without the disposability factor which some of the aforementioned characters above. [Digression: Seriously, I know it's wrong to be pissed off about 30 year old movies but some of the sequels treatment of them still bother me.]

    Which brings me to my point there is a difference between survival horror and slasher horror. Survival horror is exemplified by the typical zombie movie, where a group of people are slowly widdled down to a much smaller number by the relentless horde of monsters, but the audience's sympathy is with the survivors. We want at least one or more of them to survive as the story is about them and their struggles.

    Slasher movies move the emphasis of the storytelling from the heroes to the monster. They're not alone in this respects, look at Phantasm for example, but the general emphasis is on the audience witnessing the bad guys slaughter versus the heroes' triumph. The nadir of this particular philosophy is the torture-porn ideal where we actively desire the destruction of our leads in the most perverse manner possible.

    The Cabin in the Woods made this point significantly earlier than I did. Basically, that we lose something essential in horror if we de-emphasize the protagonists to the point their survival no longer matters. I won't spoil the movie for you but the basic gist of it is that making people into interchangeable archetypes so they can serve as meat for the grinder is about the lowest form of entertainment possible.

    Yet, I actually think there is merit to the Slasher movie approach as well. People want their villains to be spectacular and the individualization of evil in them results in a more personable menace than a generic zombie apocalypse. You don't need the entire world to be overrun with the hungry dead if you're faced with a figure like Jason Voorhees. The first A Nightmare on Elm Street is staggeringly effective because there's nothing more personal than your dreams and that's where Freddy lives.

    Back during my tabletop RPG days, I actually ran a couple of adventures which incorporated both monsters. The difference in our game, of course, was the PCs weren't running from either but attempting to stop their massacres. The stories were significantly lower key but worked well because both monsters were individually well-realized. In short, Slashers tend to produce very good villains because you don't diminish the threat of your opponent.

     The trick is balancing the two and developing a kind of symbiosis between victim and villain. Psycho, which predates all slasher movies, manages to throw the audience for a loop by fully developing its victim before disposing of her.  Likewise, Norman Bates is equally realized, becoming the heart of all future guys wielding a knife. You don't need a dozen people who exist to die when Janet Leigh's character is capable of handling it all by herself. Hard to believe as it is now, her death was genuinely shocking at the time and changed the nature of horror for decades to come.

    My definition of a Slasher movie also applies to something you normally wouldn't think of as one in Jaws. The star of Jaws is undoubtedly the shark and the entirety of the story builds up to our heroes putting it down. Nevertheless, it's looming presence is the heart of the film. We don't even need its victims tremendously developed because the little time we spend with them shows it could be someone just like us. It's one of the reasons I loathe the, "Bad Girls Get Punished" meme that Scream discredited. The villains aren't morally justified in what they do to people, that's why they're villains.

    I think my ideal horror movie is a Survival Horror movie with Slasher elements or a Slasher film with a stronger emphasis on Survival Horror. No one is going to complain is you are upset at losing your spectacular kills but the heart should be all of the potential victims are people you'd like to survive. It should be a tragedy and a surprise when each of them dies as only rarely do movies have the nerve to do so. Likewise, the villains should be fully realized when they're not a natural disaster like zombies or demon hordes or whatever.

    My .02.   

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