The Slasher Movie Book offers an in-depth dissection of film’s goriest genre

by Mark Burger

The title says it all: The Slasher Movie Book (Chicago Review Press, $24.95 retail) is a comprehensive examination of the genre that author JA Kerswell calls “the whipping boy of horror.”

The British-born Kerswell, longtime film reviewer and historian, and the mastermind behind one of the best horror-film websites (, took time from his schedule promoting the book, which was released in June, to do an exclusive — and extensive — interview with YES! Weekly.

(Like Kerswell, yours truly came of age during the ’80s slasher era, resulting in a lively conversation that stretched nearly 90 minutes.)

The Slasher Movie Book, which was released in the UK as Teenage Wasteland, has already received accolades in such publications as Fangoria (America’s premiere horror magazine) and the New York Times. “I’m really pleased with how it turned out,” Kerswell said of the book, adding that the most difficult part was cutting nearly 30,000 words from the original text.

If the book succeeds enough to warrant a follow-up, “I have a pretty good head start,” he quipped.

Although some of the seminal slasher films covered in the book are obvious (Halloween, Friday the 13th , A Nightmare on Elm Street, et al), Kerswell also focuses on earlier films that could well qualify for slasher status, including the silent classic The Cat and the Canary (1927), James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) and House of Wax (1953). Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was as much a trendsetter in 1960 as Halloween was nearly 20 years later.

The book covers them all: The good, the bad and the obscure. Some articles have stated that Kerswell loves all slasher films, which he disputed with a laugh. “I love the genre but I don’t love every one of them,” he said. With the book, “I wanted to treat the genre with respect and not just as disreputable junk.”

Kerswell first grooved to slasher films when just a teenager, at a time when they aroused considerable controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. In England, a number of horror films were labeled “video nasties” and banned, making it illegal to rent or sell them. Concurrently, similar complaints were made in the US of the ’80s, when record-labeling became commonplace and convenience stores were protested or boycotted for selling such magazine as Playboy.

“It was a strange time,” Kerswell recalled.

“The furor had kind of died down. It hadn’t gone away, but the films had — and I desperately wanted to see these films.”

The ’80s truly marked the slasher heyday, yet the films best remembered were those that came early and not the myriad of knock-offs and sequels that followed. “The more boobs and blood, the more bang for your buck — but it’s not going to outdo Halloween,” he said.

In recent years, several slasher classics have been remade: Halloween and Halloween II (both directed by Rob Zombie), Friday the 13th , A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, Sorority Row (a remake of The House on Sorority Row), Prom Night, When a Stranger Calls and more. Some have made money but most were critically reviled, serving only to enhance the reputations of the earlier films. In many cases, the filmmakers expressed their affection for the original films, yet couldn’t come close to equaling them.

“Sometimes fans are the worst people to make movies,” Kerswell said.

He thought the 3-D remake of My Bloody Valentine was among the better ones, and was relieved when a proposed remake of one of his favorites, Terror Train, ended up morphing into Train, with little narrative ties to the original except the train setting. The first wave of slasher films peaked in the early 1980s and was on a downward slide when Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street added enough twists to the formula to become a sensation. Then as now, big studios got into the act, and there were even made-for-TV slasher films (Deadly Lessons, Are You in the House Alone?). The market simply became oversaturated.

Craven’s Scream and its $100 million-plus domestic gross ushered in a new era of slasher films in the mid-’90s that continues, particularly on home video, to this day. “Scream reminded me how much fun it was seeing a slasher film in a cinema with a crowd.”

Although horror films are still big business — lately, the “found-footage” shockers have taken hold — it’s not unlike that period of time before Scream rejuvenated the genre.

“It’s an ‘in-between’ time,” Kerswell said.

“What, actually, is the horror movie of today saying? And I don’t know… but I’m always on the hunt for the latest pearl.”

Kerswell recently enjoyed The Cabin in the Woods, although confessed he preferred the early emphasis on slasher-movie trappings than the surprise plot twist that changes the entire complexion of the story.

Slasher films “will never die,” Kerswell said.

“There will always be an audience of teens who want to watch their peers getting killed onscreen.”

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