"Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Film Cycle" Book Review
Written by Richard Nowell
2011, 287 pages, Non-Fiction
Released on December 23rd, 2010
In his book Blood Money: A History of the First Teen Slasher Film, author Richard Nowell counters the notion that slasher films exist primarily for teen boys by revealing how studios actually target the female audience rather than the male, thus insuring date-appeal, which would double the numbers of asses in theater seats.
Nowell goes on to examine how independent film companies follow the guidelines of MPAA member studio distribution regulations in order to guarantee a theatrical release. The formula is essentially a “monkey see, monkey do – it worked for them” scenario in which something special is created by one camp and immediately copied by another group before being bled of all color and taste by a pack of opportunistic jackals.
Slasher films have the reputation of being misogynistic examples of entertainment’s lowest common denominator, created simply to satisfy the lustful cravings of teenage boys who love to see girls getting chopped up. This sub-genre of the horror movie first appeared in the mid-to-late 1970s and reached a high-water mark in 1981 with the release of eleven similarly-themed films (the “group of 11”), averaging one theatrical release every six weeks.
Focusing on the original wave of the slasher film, Nowell limits his study to the films released between 1974 and 1981, a time period that introduced the formula and saw it burn out of audience favor in a relatively short time. Horror continued to appear at the box office for the next three decades with a feast or famine level of success. Two examples of films that started contemporary cycles are Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) that introduced a series of hip, self-aware imitators, and James Wan’s Saw (2004) that unleashed a torrent of “torture porn” on a wide scale.
Blood Money is divided into five chapters and each reinforces the trajectory of the cycle established within the prologue. The pattern suggests that when a movie breaks from the pack and establishes a new market, what follows is the creation of a calculated effort utilizing the strongest elements of this predecessor, which by doing so has a greater chance of finding success. Nowell identifies the stages with the following terms, a “pioneer production” influences the “speculator production” that in turn encourages the “prospector productions” which open the gates for what he terms the “carpetbagger cash-in productions.” By focusing on the economically-driven decision-making strategies within the industry, Nowell reveals an arc that is traced by almost every genre formula coming out of the Hollywood studio system as well as by films from around the world.
For example, the Canadian film Black Christmas (1974) set the stage for the holiday-themed horror film with an unknown villain stalking co-eds and achieved moderate box office success. The US release of Halloween (1978) followed the same outline and became successful (qualifying it as a “trailblazer hit’), then other film prospectors attempted similar knock-off approaches like Friday the 13th and Prom Night (both 1980). Once these films became successful at the box office (“reinforcing hits,”) this encouraged a glut of carpetbagger cash-in titles to be released, in this case My Bloody Valentine, Friday the 13th Part 2, Graduation Day, The Burning, Madman, Happy Birthday to Me, Final Exam, Hell Night, The Dorm That Dripped Blood, The Prowler and Just Before Dawn (all 1981).
John Carpenter’s Halloween opens the scenario to small town America and emphasizes the relationships of the female leads. Although Halloween failed to revolutionize the genre overnight, Friday the 13th opted to gamble on the formula and was the only US film to do so. Canadian filmmakers were making the same decision with Prom Night and Terror Train and all were successful by focusing the antics around a series of likeable youths in a location traditionally equated with positive sentiments (i.e. summer camp or a school dance) before tweaking the outcome through a series of events that lead to a horrific climax with audiences rooting for the lone survivor (aka the “final girl”) who must ultimately fight the villain responsible for the mayhem.
Modeling films on successful releases like the wave of gang films, roller disco movies, and evil children tales is an example of how a cycle can extend its presence, but this endless chase of popularity in the market inevitably turns audiences away to look for the film that is willing to offer something new and appealing by simply being different than all the rest.
Blood Money reads like Nowell’s student thesis project and is just as full of footnotes and annotations. It is laser-focused to a very specific time frame of modern cinema (1974–1981). The book’s academic structure is a bit repellent until the scholastic brain-broom kicks in and the information path becomes visible. I highly recommend this book to film historians and devout lovers of the slasher film in need of a logical argument to defend the indefensible.