Sunday, 11 February 2007

Legacy of Blood: A Comprehensive Guide to Slasher Movies

This 2005 release from cult specialists Headpress, published under their Critical Vision imprint, seeks, as its subtitle indicates, to provide a Comprehensive Guide to Slasher Movies.

Author Jim Harper begins by establishing where he is coming from: that he first and foremost a fan of the form, happy to recognise its good, bad and ugly examples rather than just acknowledging the odd critically respectable exceptions. He likewise establishes what is missing, crucially arguing that gialli would really warrant a book in their own right but also unfortunately not providing the reader with any pointers in that direction.

Part I of the book, running 22 pages, provides a brisk history of the genre from its origins in the likes of Hitchcock's Psycho and Bava's Blood and Black Lace and Twitch of the Death Nerve as “Slasher Bloodlines,” through Halloween and Friday the 13th (“Genesis”) onto A Nightmare on Elm Street (“The nightmare ends?”) before concluding (“Too young to die”) with the emergence of Scream and company in all their pomo ironic glory.

In other words, all the major bases are covered, though the giallo enthusiast might also note the omission of the likes of Martino's Torso, which also featured a co-eds in peril plot and did good business on the US drive-in circuit in the mid-70s, or indeed that films like The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Tenebre were doing the self-reflexive thing decades before their American counterparts.

Part II, running 30 pages, focusses on the key themes and motifs of the slasher film, in the form of “the heroine”, “the killer”, “location”, and “parents and authority figures” and was, for me, the best part of the book. Not only summarising the academic commentaries on the genre from the likes of Carol J. Clover, Harper also responds to their assertions. Using a broader sample of films and genre knowledge, distinct from the sometimes over-enthusiastically applied theory, he demonstrates that some of the by now well established dogmas, such as the “have sex and you die” notion, are nowhere near as definitive as many have assumed. Perhaps more importantly, to continue to repeat them and to fail to acknowledge the changes that have taken place in the genre, not just post-Scream – in the 2000 film Cherry Falls, for instance, the killer targets virgins – but also through the course of the 1980s – with a shift to more nudity and less gore as the decade wore on – runs the risk of reifying a continually developing form.

Part III, the largest at over 120 pages, provides reviews of some 190 slasher films, ranging from the well known franchises and series to some genuine obscurities, including a smattering of foreign language entries. Typically combining exposition, critique and background detail, these make for lively reading and give a good idea of whether an individual film will suit the reader's tastes. For example, on Wynorski's Sorority House Massacre II: “To be honest the last half of the film is fairly atmospheric and the ending is pretty cool. Even so, the only real reason to watch it is the excessive nudity – even when they're not naked the cast are running round in their underwear. If you're after a T&A slasher film, then [this] is about the best you can do. You get the added bonus of watching Gail Harris trying to keep up an American accent, before giving up halfway through and slipping into her native Yorkshire lilt.”

On the downside, there are again a few noteworthy omissions: Argento's Trauma, for instance, was made stateside in a bid to break into the American marketplace, with the result that its exclusion when Italian-made slasher imitations like Soavi's Stagefright and Deodato's Body Count are present seems odd.

Likewise, there is also the occasional failure to make a trivia connection, as when in the aforementioned Sorority House Massacre II review Harper notes that Wynorski originally had himself credited as Arch Stanton and that Ennio Morricone's theme music for The Good, The Bad and the Ugly plays over the film's end credits but without recognise that Arch Stanton is the name on the grave next to the one containing the gold in Leone's film.

Still, again the good outweighs the bad here, with the reader likely to pick up some new trivia and a shopping list of obscure slashers to check out.

Part IV contains what are really four appendices: “banned films,” on slashers that fell foul of the Department of Public Prosecutions in the UK's “video nasties” scare of the 80s; “before they were famous,” detailing the slasher film exploits of various A- and B-list actors including George Clooney and Tom Hanks; and brief notes on “international slashers” and “seasonal slashers”; all doing little more than compiling together and highlight material present within the other sections but worth inclusion for this selfsame reason.

A few minor misgivings aside, Legacy of Blood is a worthwhile read for slasher fans, though whether there is enough in it to really warrant going for it in preference to the cheaper Movie Essentials volume is harder to say.

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