DVD: Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006)

December 30, 2014 | By


GoingtoPiecesFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: n/a

Label: Velocity / THINKFilm

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  March 20, 2007

Genre:  Documentary / Horror / Film History

Synopsis: Detailed and visually graphic chronicle of the slasher genre.

Special Features:  Filmmaker Commentary / A Message from Author Adam Rockoff / Bonus Interviews / Trivia Game / Trailers




Based on Adam Rockoff’s book, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006), this feature-length documentary is a fairly entertaining chronicle of a genre that was largely reviled (if not held in contempt) by seventies and eighties critics for the nasty, violent, sometimes misogynistic content that, according to some, had no socially redeeming aspects, and portrayed the world as a crappy place to live.

And yet, while the doc’s title may infer the genre’s failure in the global market, the slasher film isn’t just alive and well today; it’s a staple food for fans of all ages and all walks of life – something no one would’ve guessed in the eighties when the last batch of imitative films failed to make the massive cash of the genre’s iconic blockbuster, John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s Halloween (1978).

Of course, that wasn’t the first slasher film, and although the doc cites Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom as pioneering works for assembling some of the core principles of the genre, it was really Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (1971) that codified the marriage of gore and a rapid succession of tongue-in-cheek deaths.

Bava and his Italian torch bearers (notably Dario Argento) are given short-shrift in the doc, as is Bob Clark and his influential Black Christmas (1974), but the Italian stream of violent thrillers is really a distinct genre known as the giallo – a native blend of police procedural, whodunit mystery, absurdism, and a sleazy, stylized mix of sex and death.

Bava’s contributions notwithstanding, it’s perhaps fair to say that the slasher genre, certainly during the seventies and eighties, was a uniquely North American genre that focused on the stalking and killing of youths, vulnerable women, and those hungry for sex.

Were the films escapist fodder that allowed repressed audiences a wet and wild cathartic experience from the conservative/puritan behaviour throughout North America? None of the interviewed subjects goes there, and most of the personal opinions in the doc has directors and makeup artists admitting they just had a keen interest in the bizarre, the cruel, and simple fears that scare the heck out of us. No grand plan to speak of.

If Bava at least can be credited for basically showing us gory deaths by a mysterious killer, then Bob Clark’s Black Christmas codified what the killer should be in a slasher film. Unlike the giallo, where some ludicrous explanation about childhood trauma or a massive mental snap explains why people are dying fast and furiously, in a slasher, the killer’s past is kept murky (‘he went bonkers’) or very simple (‘he was teased too much’), because it’s the suspense of the hunt, the stalking, and the kill that propels the film and is gave audiences their thrills.

In Halloween, Carpenter milked that formula with elegantly mounted, bloodless montages, whereas in Friday the 13th (1980), Sean S. Cunningham went for the gore, and it was the gore and prolonged torment that became the slasher’s signature focus, and inevitably progressed to nastier material (much like the giallo) until every imitation and sequel had nothing new to offer and the genre started to weaken. Unlike the giallo, though, which hasn’t really come back as much as fans have hoped, the slasher went into stasis until one of its pioneers, Wes Craven (Last House on the Left), directed Kevin Williamson’s satirical script, Scream, and rekindled a repressed fondness for watching people die, but with a sense of humour and the absurd (death by garage door, for example).

The rise and fizzling of the slasher is essentially ground Going to Pieces covers, and it’s well-done with interviews from the usual majors – directors Craven, Carpenter, and Cunningham; makeup artists Tom Savini and Stan Winston; producer Bob Shaye (A Nightmare on Elm Street) – as well as lesser-known directors whose careers waned as the genre disappeared from theatre screens.

Actress Felissa Rose (Sleepaway Camp) chimes in quite strongly against the genre’s vilification by ‘mad mothers against blood splattering,’ particularly the grass roots group that successfully convinced Columbia TriStar to dump Silent Night, Deadly Night because its prime time ads showed the film’s killer to unsuspecting children: Santa, with a bloodied ax.

Director Amy Holden Jones (Slumber Party Massacre) also disputes claims made by critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert where the genre’s sole focus is the destruction of independent-minded women; according to Jones, the greatest trauma is often inflicted upon men than women.

The Siskel-Ebert observations aren’t inarticulate rants, though; they’re a reaction (and outrage) to a genre that basically went from a handful of indie flicks to studio-released waves, but what’s perhaps surprising among their taped discussion (excerpted from the duo’s ‘special edition’ of their At the Movies show) is how they completely forgot the age-old pattern of what happens when something is hot, and profitable: after a massive proliferation of imitations and sequels, a genre goes into hibernation, or just dies.

Going to Pieces has one surprising chapter on Paramount’s heavy involvement with the genre, particularly the films shot in Canada, referred to by one subject as ‘slasher central.’ Producer John Dunning (My Bloody Valentine) provides more candid views on Hollywood’s uncomfortable relationship with slasher films, as well as “Canadian carpetbaggers” – producers who were making cheap movies within the lucrative tax shelters offered at the time.

Paramount made a lot of money from its slasher product, but those films have often been regarded by the studio with a sense of embarrassment, and that’s probably why theFriday the 13th franchise – including the TV series, which had nothing in common with the films except in name only – took so long to arrive on DVD, whereas Halloween has been around since the format’s debut, as well as Blu-Ray.

The most amusing aspects of the doc occur in the final wrap-up, and concern the ’return’ of the slasher, with new directors forging ahead, and of gore limits being exceeded yet again.

Going to Pieces was made in 2006, just as the torture porn genre (SawHostel) and remake waves (Texas Chainsaw MassacreThe Hills Have Eyes) were starting up by the major studios, and we’re arguably in the middle of that wave now: torture porn has been relegated to formulaic sequels and indie productions aimed at niche home video markets, and the remakes / sequels / prequels / reboots / re-imaginings (When a Stranger CallsAmityville Horror,Black Christmas, The Hills Have Eyes 2), while coming fast furious, mostly stink.

Horror is still regarded as an easy way to enter a film career, if not make money. The challenge is making a good movie, and one that doesn’t insult fans. The differences between the eighties and new millennium shockers, though, are rather profound: while we’re still imitating and trying to top the most extreme aspects of prior films, audience appeal of the slasher now spans several generations, and more sub-genres.

Whereas home video in the eighties made it possible for kids and teens to see t R-rated forbidden fruit at home, it’s easier than ever for teens to see more violent and sadistic films on disc and online, so there has been a progression into more vicious terrain. That progression, and our desensitization towards scenes of torment are worth examining in a follow-up film, but for those intrigued by the makers and popularity of slashers, Going to Pieces offers just the right balance of history and plenty of juicy clips that will motivate newcomers to hunt down these genre classics.



© 2009 Mark R. Hasan



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