In this book Richard Nowell challenges some of the dominant understandings of the slasher film, while providing a model for charting the rise and fall of a film cycle.
Nowell argues that Carol J Clover's position in Men, Women and Chainsaws is less satisfactory than Vera Dika's. This is becase Clover's reading is based upon selective readings of a comparatively small sample and somewhat inchoate films.
Contra Clover, Nowell contends that slasher films had a broader audience than young males, with filmmakers and advertising targetting both genders.
To help show this Nowell performs a content analysis of key texts such Halloween and Friday the 13th. In addition to simply counting the number of deaths, he charts various features – the victim's gender, whether there was a scene of stalking, whether the death was protracted, etc.
Nowell also suggests that the influence of Halloween in the development of the slasher film was less than that of Friday the 13th. The difference between the two films stems from how they were distributed: Halloween was distributed independently, Friday the 13th by major studios, Paramount in the US and Warners internatiolly. The advantages of being distributed by a major were their ability to strike a greater number of prints to distribute to theatres and a larger advertising budget – indeed with many slashers the amount of money spent on advertising by the studio would outweigh the cost of film to make and acquire.
While selling a film to a major studio as a negative pickup meant backers would get a return on their investment in short order, it also meant that profits went to the studio.
This raises questions in relation to the different contexts of other national cinemas. In the case of Italy, for instance, there would appear to have been a similar situation in terms of production. For, as Christopher Wagstaff indicates, the industry was based around a large number of small scale producers, with production companies sometimes being established to make a single film or relying on the profits from one film to finance the next. What was different, however, was the relative absence of anything comparable to the Hollywood studio system – this despite the efforts of Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti.
The most important aspect of Nowell's study is, however, his emphasis upon the film cycle. A film cycle starts and ends when production of a particular film type – slasher, western, animal comedy, etc. – rises above what Nowell terms “base level”. Here we might consider the numbers of spaghetti westerns made in 1964 compared to 1965, or the number of gialli made in 1969 compared to 1970.
Nowell's model of the film cycle draws upon the American west for its terminology and conceptualisation. Simultaneously, however, he also emphasises the disproportionate importance of Canadian productions to the slasher cycle.
The first of Nowell's concepts is the “pioneer production”, exemplified by the (Canadian) Black Christmas. The film, however, was not particularly successful commercially and so failed to provide the “trailblazer hit” required to inaugurate a cycle. Halloween, a “prospector production” was a trailblazer hit, albeit one whose impact was reduced on account of its independent release. Friday the 13th was a “prospector production” and the wake of imitators following in its wake were “carpentbagger cash-ins”. This increase in base level production was unsustainable, resulting in the end of the cycle.
Applying these idea to the giallo we might consider Blood and Black Lace as a pioneer production which failed to become a trailblazing hit. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage provided the trailblazer hit, with subsequent films with animals in their titles (The Bloodstained Butterfly, Lizard in a Woman's Skin etc.) prospector productions. The era of carpetbagger productions appeas to coincide with the rise of the poliziotto in 1973-75. Here we might consider the emergence of hybrid thriller/cop films like like What Have You Done to Your Daughters and Suspicious Death of a Minor, with their professional rather than amateur detectives. Another indicator of the shift is the work of Umberto Lenzi, with his shift from the thriller to the crime film, and the presumably poor box-office of Eyeball (another animal referencing title in the original Italian – Gatti rossi in un labirinto di vetro).