In the last great renaissance of horror movies, roughly 1978 to 1888, we saw the emergence of a new kind of monster: the masked maniac, and they were legion. Inspired largely by the movies on this list, a horde of second, third, and fourth tier quickie, no-budget films literally spewed out of Hollywood like a Tom Savini neck wound, muddying the waters and diluting the quality, and incidentally, setting the bar for horror for a generation of people. Sympathetic monsters, like Frankenstein and poor Larry Talbot, were right out. In its place was the mute, force of nature, hulking menace wielding gardening implements straight out of the Sears and Roebuck catalog.
At the time, there was an emerging body of scholarship devoted to these films, and I readily tracked down whatever I could. Most of the popular opinion regarding the newfound fascination with horror was divided between the appeal of the Grand Guignol, or theater of blood, from Victorian France, and a resurgence of the kind of morality play that was performed during the Reformation and eventually transmogrified into fairie tales, proverbs, and in the 20th century, urban myths. Essentially, the gist of the story was this: good girls are spared, and bad girls get punished. The good are spared, and the wicked get what’s coming to them. An eye for an eye, literally.
All of this was gleefully, if not consciously, sublimated into films like The Driller Killer, Prowler, Maniac, Pieces, and one of the all-time cult classics, Sleepaway Camp, a film that almost made my top 5 list. It was the age of Fangoria, and these movies were meat and potatoes for the masses.
Then came the sequels...and oh god, the sequels...and no, really, the terrible, awful sequels...were any of them good? Not in terms of the larger story, but as movies? My short answer is no, no they were not. I know you probably have a favorite, and you watched all of the series, but they weren’t scary, and moreover, that became a moot point. It was hard to take any of them seriously because of that unkillable nature these maniacs all exhibited. So, without considering the success or failure of what has become the new horror franchises, here’s my top five list based on jump scares, tension and quality filmmaking, and overall effectiveness of the first time we are introduced to the murderous maniac in question.
5. Scream (1996)
Wes Craven’s return to horror, an all-star cast (or, at least, they would go on to be an all-star cast), and a post-modern deconstruction of the genre he helped to invent make Scream one of the most successful movie maniac horror franchises of all time. There are so many nods, winks, and asides in this film that you really need a score card to keep them all straight. But Jamie Kennedy’s recitation of “The Rules” takes the film into meta-movie territory, as it’s the first time a horror movie actually played with its own tropes in the narrative.
For example, Drew Barrymore's bait and switch role was a perfect way to open the film. We're not going to follow the innocent-looking blonde around. Instead, we're going to end up rooting for the not-so-innocent brunette. Scream also subverts the genre in taking the seemingly supernatural and unkillable masked maniac to task with a Scooby Doo style solution. The film is equal parts slasher flick and murder mystery, and Craven mines the subject matter deeply. When we find out who’s actually doing it, we don’t stop to think that we’ve crossed over into Creepy Kid territory.
Scream certainly belongs in the masked maniac genre, but in fact, it really isn’t that kind of movie. Granted, it plays with all of those conventions and yet is also almost a fair play mystery element to the plot, something none of the masked maniac movies ever successfully tried to do. Ghost Face is no Michael Myers, but that was the whole point; he was never supposed to be in the first place.
4. Friday the 13th (1980)
This low budget slasher quickie really kicked off the Teen Slasher craze. Everything is great out at Camp Crystal Lake, except for those persistent rumors about the one kid that died, all those years ago... but don’t let that deter you group of kids, with your partying and carrying on. I’m sure it won’t piss off the person who’d most like to kill a bunch of irresponsible teenagers. The first movie is also noteworthy in that the series character that followed, one Jason Voorhees, isn’t actually the killer. Not yet, sorta. Kinda. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching.
Granted, the deaths are gruesome and the movie is certainly informed if not influenced by the earlier Halloween (see below), but that doesn’t keep it from being an effective (and gory, thanks to special effects wizard Tom Savini) opening salvo for this particular brand of horror film.
3. Halloween (1978)
John Carpenter created a modern suspense-filled masterpiece with the first Halloween film. Take a creepy kid, straight out of the genre, complete with a clown suit (who does that to a child, anyway) and that thousand-yard stare, and lock him up for twelve or thirteen years. Call him the living embodiment of evil, too, because that’s just good therapy. Then have him get out on the eve of the anniversary of his horrific murder, and add a teenage Jamie Lee Curtis. Movie magic ensues.
Expertly shot with a minimum of gore, never mind what you think you remember, Halloween ratchets up the suspense and jump scares like a good roller coaster ride, with just a hint of the macabre and the supernatural provided by veteran British actor Donald Pleasance. I love Rob Zombie to death, but this is a movie that didn’t need to be remade.
2. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven was already a known commodity when he created Fred Krueger, the child molester and murderer who was burned alive by the parents of his victims. But Krueger didn’t die, as you well know, and he’s haunting the dreams of the children in the neighborhood. Moreover, he’s doing it with real style and panache. Freddy knows what he is, and he revels in his super powers. Robert Englund really put everything into this role, and the popularity and success of the franchise can rest squarely on his shoulders. It’s too bad that his co-star, Heather Langenkamp was a block of wood. A beautiful, empty shell of an actress.
Inventive special effects, nutty dream logic, crazy visuals, quotable scenes (“I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy!”) and best of all, a compelling reason for the maniac to be unkillable (how do you snuff a dream, anyway?) made A Nightmare on Elm Street an overnight sensation. A baby-faced Johnny Depp didn’t hurt, either, but the performances in the movie takes a distant second place to Freddy and his dreamworld.
1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Long before Michael Myers and Jason and even Freddy Krueger, there was Leatherface. Tobe Hooper shot this low-budget horror film in Texas in 1973, based very loosely on the Ed Gein murders in Wisconsin in the 1950s, and kids in small Texas towns have been swearing that the “actual murders” took place just down the road ever since.
Maybe it was lightning in a bottle, but the movie really struck a nerve with the viewing public. It was lionized and pilloried in equal parts for its graphic violence and nighmare imagery, but those reviews don’t give director Tobe Hooper his due credit. Believe it or not, there is a kind of subtlety underneath the screaming and the revving of the chainsaw. It’s a more clever movie, technically, than most people think it is.
But in the end, it is a movie about a cannibal family, and there’s something gleefully unhinged about Leatherface that is hard to pinpoint. Freddy is certainly clever as a nightmare tormentor, and while Michael and Jason don’t say anything, they take on the roles of silent “forces of nature” in stride. But Leatherface’s inarticulate bellows and his childlike glee reveal a kind of animal cunning that is truly unsettling. Anyone who is a fan of these kinds of movies cannot pass the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre up. Now, the sequels, on the other hand...