"Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986" Book Review
Written by ZigZag
Published by McFarland
Written by Adam Rockoff
2002, 214 pages, Reference
Book released on October 21st, 2011
The slasher film is an offshoot of the horror genre made popular in the wake of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), a low-budget effort that became the most successful independent movie at the time. Studios were eager to copy the windfall and began scooping up countless efforts from aspiring filmmakers everywhere. Primarily a US product, the slasher was also popular in Canada, England and Italy. By the mid-1980s there was a glut of content, including a plethora of sequels, and the formula had grown stale. This book traces the trajectory of the slasher from its origins through its lucrative heyday to its ultimate decline.
Author Adam Rockoff’s Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978 – 1986 begins with a definition of what makes a slasher film by breaking down the key elements into a simple checklist presentation. The Killer, the Weapon of Choice, the Setting and the Final Girl are just a few touchstones of the genre and each is thoroughly explored as to how they fit into making the whole. The overview of this type of movie must include public reaction and Rockoff discusses the film critics’ response. Coinciding with the rise of the slasher was the introduction of the home-video format. Many titles that stalled in theaters flourished on VHS and cable television. This led to the creation of the British Obscene Publications Act, which gave birth to the “Video Nasties” list of forbidden titles too shocking for the public’s eyes.
Rockoff offers an overview of horror entertainment in the years leading up to the slasher. Tracing its roots from the Grand Guignol theatre (1897-1962) in France with its penchant for graphic violence throughout the first half of the 20th century, the slasher became a logical extension of entertainment in the extreme. Films like Psycho and Peeping Tom (both 1960) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Black Christmas (both 1974) contributed to the formula, as well as the works of H.G. Lewis (Blood Feast, 1963), but it was Halloween that successfully combined all the elements into one terrifying package.
An entire chapter is dedicated to the Halloween phenomenon and studies how exactly it came to pass. Featured interviews include director John Carpenter and producer Irwin Yablans; both are insightful and revealing. In the wake of its success came the inevitable imitators, most notably Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), an independent production that followed the blueprint of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, in which a group of teenagers are stalked by an unseen killer and murdered one by one, with the action relocated to a summer camp in the woods. Added into the formula this time were some groundbreaking special effects designed by the legendary artist Tom Savini that upped the shock value with inventive bloodshed.
When a Stranger Calls, Prom Night, He Knows You’re Alone, The Funhouse and Terror Train are just a sample of what followed Halloween. Each takes a thread and runs it in a new direction whether it’s babysitters in peril or soon-to-be brides being stalked by an unseen killer. Rockoff dissects these pictures and reveals all the machinations of the budding subgenre. The next wave of titles zeroed in on specific holidays, including My Bloody Valentine, New Year’s Evil and Mother’s Day. Not all of these movies were equally successful, but none of them lost money either.
By 1984, there was no shortage of product and studios encouraged a wave of popular sequels, particularly in the Friday the 13th franchise. The formula was quickly wearing out its welcome, however, and profits were not always a certainty. Rockoff is quick to decimate lesser entries in the genre, at times unfairly, as some titles are mentioned only to be derided. His comments are not always off the mark but are occasionally mean-spirited. Everything changed when Wes Craven stepped up to the plate with his home-run effort A Nightmare on Elm Street. This film introduced rubber reality to the slasher and dream killer Freddy Krueger became an overnight sensation. The film went on to enjoy six sequels over the next decade and Freddy’s fame grew with each installment. Elm Street aside, the slasher genre was on its way out as audiences turned their attention and their wallets elsewhere.
The decline of the slasher was short-lived as Craven once again breathed fresh life into the genre with his game-changing entry Scream (1996). The film was an unexpected smash grossing over $100 million at the box office and ushering in a wave of slick new studio-produced horrors. Rockoff shines a light on some of the more influential titles here too, embracing the resurgence of the old fad. Titles like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend are explored along with the Scream sequels in a study of how everything old is new again.
The book ends on an optimistic note looking toward the future with films in production at the time of publication. Rockoff is very thorough in covering all aspects of the subgenre from birth, to death, to rebirth. His opinions are generally well-researched and presented in a thoughtful manner, though with some occasional snark. In 2006, the documentary Going to Pieces was created featuring Rockoff and many of the filmmakers responsible for the genre. The film is very well made and makes a wonderful counterpart to the book. Going to Pieces is well-written and highly detailed in its approach to the material and fans will definitely want to pick this title up for their home libraries.