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Everyone knows that slasher films are a dime a dozen. When they first exploded in popularity back in the 1980s, they were a great way to get your fear fix and get your gore on. It didn’t take too long before the formula of badly behaving teenagers getting their “comeuppance” in thinly veiled Christian allegories (don’t have premarital sex and party hard, or you’ll get murdered!) soon descended into mindless fodder. There are so many dumb slasher movies that you almost wonder what’s even left for Scream or Scary Movie to parody. But there have been a number of slasher films over the years that have broken from conventions and offered something original and different.
For this list, we’ve decided not to include entries from major franchises like Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Halloween. Those have been written about ad nauseam, even some of the lesser-known chapters in those series. Let's freshen things up with these eight smart slasher movies you need to see.
01. Blood and Black Lace (1964)
Director Mario Bava was certainly ahead of the curve both for the American slasher film and the Italian giallo, that sometimes Hitchcock-flavored subgenre that married the psychological thriller with bloody action. His 1964 film Blood and Black Lace, about murders occurring within the world of a Roman fashion house, marries luscious colors, moody cinematography, and unsettling violence. It was not a big success upon its release, but had a notable influence on the gialli that came after — including some work by Dario Argento, director of Suspiria and several other iconic horror movies. The film still works today because it sustains an atmosphere of dread and also looks bloody gorgeous. Plus it’s always fun to watch vintage Italian movies like this because their sense of fashion style and decor was captivatingly different.
02. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
Featuring a young Brooke Shields during its first 15 minutes, Alice, Sweet Alice is one of those films that found more attention years later on the home video shelves of the 1980s. While Halloween gets pegged for being the slasher classic that opened the floodgates for the genre, this film from Alfred Sole was part of an original wave of slashers including Tower Of Evil, Black Christmas, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The suspenseful story swirls around a suspected child killer (as in a young girl) who may have been pushed over the edge by the preferential treatment of her adored sister (Shields) who gets bumped off at the start of the story. But as the body count mounts, other characters, like the lecherous downstairs neighbor, emerge as likely suspects. Alice, Sweet Alice integrates themes of religious oppression and moral hypocrisy into the mix, with its climactic violence taking place within the walls of a church, implying that Catholicism may not offer the safety and salvation being preached.
03. Tenebrae (1982)
Dario Argento's Tenebrae, which at one point was called Unsane for its originally censored home video release in the States, chronicles the journey of American horror novelist Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) to Italy. His trip is shadowed by a murderer who is killing people in ways inspired by Peter's violent works, making this the most unpleasant press trip ever. The film features dazzling cinematography, gruesome deaths, and a great score from former members of frequent Argento composers Goblin. The intense climax is certainly unexpected and makes this one of the best giallo/slasher films out there. There are also references made to the mystery literature of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mickey Spillane, and Agatha Christie. And a scene where the camera goes around and over a house during a double murder sequence is impressive and probably influenced a like-minded shot in Assassination Nation. While Argento is best known for the supernatural terror of Suspiria, he also crafted excellent gialli too.
04. April Fool's Day (1986)
By the time April Fool's Day emerged in the mid-1980s, the slasher film had already been showing signs of wear. But this seemingly happy-go-lucky story of a group of college friends heading for a weekend of island debauchery and pranks (yes, around April Fool's Day) soon turns grim, although it is not nearly as graphic as some of its brethren. It's also a film that you don't want to spoil the ending for because it is different from any other from the time. There is a 2008 remake, but stick with the original, which was directed by Fred Walton (When A Stranger Calls) and includes cast members Amy Steel (Friday the 13th Part 2) and Deborah Foreman (Waxwork, Sundown: The Vampire In Retreat). April Fool's Day is one of the most fun entries in the '80s slasher movement — no foolin'.
05. Candyman (1992)
Early in his career, director Bernard Rose loved to explore dreams and dream states. In his highly underrated film Paperhouse, a young girl draws pictures that beget nightly dreams that turn into nightmares as she copes with quarreling parents. His next movie, Chicago Joe and the Showgirl, starred Emily Lloyd and Kiefer Sutherland as a young couple who fancy themselves as noir gangsters and go on an ill-advised crime spree. But, Rose deserves a place in horror history for his cinematic adaptation of Clive Barker's Candyman, a visually arresting, thought-provoking tale that also features a beguiling score by Philip Glass. It is a truly fantastic urban horror movie about a graduate student (Virginia Madsen) digging deep into the urban legend of a killer in Chicago's infamous Cabrini-Green housing project. She gets way more than she bargained for. As the titular supernatural villain, Tony Todd is a standout both in terms of his presence and his amazing voice. After watching Candyman, will you be able to say his name five times as you gaze into a mirror? Betcha can't.
06. Final Destination (2000)
Although the Final Destination franchise produced five films along with novel and comic book tie-ins, it often doesn't get the same attention as Freddy, Jason, Jigsaw, or Michael Myers — probably because its main killer is invisible. Hey, it's Death, and you can't easily market or even make an action figure from someone who is not seen. It begins with quarreling teenagers getting kicked off of a flight to France, narrowly avoiding certain death when the plane explodes after takeoff, killing everyone who remained aboard. But Death gradually begins to reclaim the victims it should have had. James Wong's movie is actually a devious game of cat and mouse in which the remaining teens desperately seek to stave off the inevitable. Subsequent installments proved to be popular; the race car bloodbath opening up the fourth film is pretty insane. But the original still stands out. It's not a traditional slasher at all, but should appeal to fans of the genre. By the way, one of the initial survivors is named Val Lewton, who in real life was an iconic horror director from the 1940s who specialized in terror that was not always shown graphically on screen. Also, Candyman's Tony Todd plays a sinister mortician who re-emerges in three of the sequels.
07. Hush (2016)
A more recent entry in the slasher/home invasion realm is Hush, which was co-written by its star, Kate Siegel, and co-written and directed by Mike Flanagan. Hush has a low body count but high levels of suspense as it follows a deaf-mute author who must fend off a masked attacker hunting her in her isolated country home. She is unable to hear him coming, and the nocturnal siege becomes a brutal game of survival that is terrifying as she uses her resourcefulness and quick-witted thinking to fend off her would-be killer and bides her time until help arrives. If it will at all. The concept isn’t new, but Siegel’s great performance will keep you riveted and rooting for her. Plenty of slashers suffer from bad acting, but not Hush.
08. Happy Death Day (2017)
Sending up the slasher film by injecting a Groundhog Day-style time loop into the mix, Happy Death Day certainly gets points for its sense of humor and the effervescent performance by its star, Jessica Rothe. Her mean girl is initially not especially likable, but you develop sympathy for her as she ends up being murdered day after day, and must find a way to get out of this horrible cycle and figure out who the killer is. And who helps her? A nice guy who wouldn’t normally appear on her radar. This movie is way more fun than it should be, and the significant development of her disagreeable character is unusual for the genre. The sci-fi-leaning sequel offered a couple of new twists, but an intended larger franchise has not emerged since its box office performance failed to equal what the original did, although a third chapter is reportedly in active development. But sometimes it's best to just be happy with a couple of solid movies. Why flog a dead groundhog?