Horror movie geeks, by and large, tend to possess at least some degree of fondness for the slasher genre. You can’t deny the likes of Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street, nor the lasting psychological impact they had on a generation of 1970s and 1980s moviegoers. Even today we’re awash in sequels to some of these franchises—there are, after all, still two more upcoming Halloween films, more than 40 years after John Carpenter unleashed the definitive American slasher on unsuspecting audiences. The idea of this genre has proven as unkillable as its most famous villains, even after periods of dormancy and reinvention. Somehow, the slasher film always returns.
And yet, when you discuss “slasher movies” in the horror community, it quickly becomes apparent that many viewers have very different ideas of what that means. There are those who act, rather simplistically, as if the genre doesn’t officially exist until Halloween in 1978, giving Carpenter the lion’s share of credit. On the other extreme, there are those who claim that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho or Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom were full-on slasher films 18 years earlier. The question, then: What is the first true, undeniable example of a slasher movie?
Much as we love Michael Myers, things don’t start here.
We dabbled in this territory when writing our list of the 50 best slasher movies of all time, ultimately opting to include proto-slashers like Psycho due to their huge status in the development of the genre. But at the end of the day, when I think of Psycho, do I categorize it in my head as a slasher movie, the same as I would Friday the 13th? It’s safe to say that the answer is “no”—I’ve always seen it as a psychological horror drama of sorts, although scenes like the infamous shower stabbing no doubt inspired plenty of later slasher killings. The film I’ve typically cited as the first full-on “slasher,” instead, is Bob Clark’s 1974 Black Christmas (a fairly popular answer to this question among horror geeks as well).
I wanted a more definitive answer, though: One that wouldn’t be based on just my own gut reaction, but adherence to a workable definition for the genre. I asked myself, If I create a detailed, concrete definition of what constitutes a slasher film, one that is significantly more detailed than any definition I’ve considered before, what will be the earliest film to satisfy that definition? Will it be Black Christmas, or something else?
Spoiler alert: It’s something else.
But before we start disqualifying the many proto-slashers of the 1960s and 1970s, we need grounds to do so. And that means we need a comprehensive definition of slasher movies and the tropes to which we expect them to adhere.
Let’s face it: This definition will likely never be perfect, regardless of how many times it’s amended, but we’ll do our best to provide a broad, detailed definition that we can then use to analyze various films of the 1960s or 1970s as to their full-on slasher categorization.
1. First of all, it should be noted that slasher villains are human beings, or were human beings at some point. A giant bug is not a slasher, nor is the shark in Jaws. The behavior of a beast can be forgiven, as it’s only performing as nature designed it. Slasher villains are human killers whose actions are objectively “evil,” because they’re meant to be bound by human morality. That’s part of the fear that the genre is meant to prey upon, the idea that killers walk among us. To put us in the killer’s shoes, slasher movies often feature sequences from the killer’s POV, as made famous in sequences like the opening of Halloween.
Alien is sometimes referred to as a “slasher in space,” but you can’t assign human morality to a non-human killer.
2. Slasher killers choose to kill or are compelled to kill for the thrill, or for revenge, but mostly because they’re just filled with indiscriminate evil. Some are rational, many are completely psychotic, but they’re all monsters. They don’t tend to be sympathetic, or behave with empathy or logic. Importantly, their killings aren’t inspired by drives that are easy for the audience to understand, such as greed, personal advancement, or to protect someone else. This is all to say, slasher killers don’t have realistically human motives. They don’t kill a dozen people because they’re trying to find a diamond, or win an inheritance—they kill because they want to kill, or feel compelled to kill, and anyone could become a victim. This is an important distinction that will separate some crime and giallo films from slasher films.
3. Slasher films have a body count. Slasher villains need at least a modest group of potential victims, and they often need to rack up a few early kills to establish both their modus operandi and threatening credibility. A slasher villain may primarily stalk a single protagonist through the course of a film, but he cuts a path through others in order to get there. One or two kills is not enough—you need more than that to qualify as a slasher.
4. Slasher films tend to have a “final girl,” or a stand-in, who is a paragon of virtue to balance out the pure evil of the antagonist. Sometimes that role of final girl is arguably split between multiple characters, as in a film like The Slumber Party Massacre. Rarely, the final girl is a boy, as in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, but the rest of the same rules apply. The core victim pool, meanwhile, is classically made up of younger people or teens, who are “behaving badly” in some way that flouts the rules of polite society, often by indulging in sex, drug use or hedonistic living. The final girl stands out in this group by behaving more virtuously, responsibly or tentatively than her friends.
5. Slasher films are structured around graphic killings, the only real reasons for purchasing a ticket. Those killings tend to take place over short periods of time, often (but not always) in remote locales that are far from help. Many of the killings tend to happen in secret—individual characters are bumped off or start disappearing, and the protagonist/final girl doesn’t know that these people have died until near the end of the film. This acts as a “starting gun” of sorts, after which a killer that has operated in the shadows finally reveals themself and becomes much more directly confrontational, leading to a show-down with the final girl and her authority figure allies. Something like the reveal of Mrs. Voorhees in Friday the 13th is a classic example.
6. Because the killings tend to happen over short periods, in secret, we rarely follow police or detective investigations in true slasher movies. This is another aspect that will help differentiate many Italian giallo films from slashers, as these crime thrillers often join inspectors or detectives on cases, examining bodies or questioning witnesses. Giallo protagonists, meanwhile, are often wrongly accused in relation to these crimes, and may be trying to clear their names, especially when the murders in these movies are highly publicized, with media frenzies chronicling a killer still at large. This is rare for slasher villains. Slasher movies are far more intimate than that.
With all that said, let’s examine early films that pre-date Black Christmas to determine if they should be cited as “slasher movies” according to these criteria:
The granddaddy of the proto-slashers, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho may still get cited as a slasher movie, but it’s really more of a combination of psychological thriller and drama. On the most basic of levels, it contains only two murders and lacks a true “body count.” Nor are the killings themselves really the central draw of the film (other than in the iconic shower scene).
Psycho is instead concerned with the character and personality of the likes of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and Lila Crane (Vera Miles). It has much more sympathy for Norman in particular than is typical of “slasher” villains—we are meant to empathize with him and his clearly abusive upbringing in order to throw the audience off the trail of who is committing the killings. In general, Psycho is simply more cerebral and character-focused than the slasher films that will come later—you won’t find a genuine slasher movie with a 10-minute, emotionally forthcoming parlor conversation between victim and killer, I can assure you of that.
Released the same year as Psycho but buried after controversy in the U.K., Peeping Tom is invariably compared to Hitchcock’s more famous work. Indeed, like Psycho, Peeping Tom more correctly deserves to be filed as a psychological thriller and drama. It can lay claim to a bigger body count than Hitchcock’s film, but its deaths aren’t very slasher-like in the sense that we never see the dead bodies afterward, nor do we really see the killings themselves—although we do see the faces of the victims as they happen.
More importantly, though, the character of Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm) is perhaps even more sympathetic than Norman Bates, as the suffering he endured under his cruel father—combined with the fact that he’s often the film’s viewpoint character—serves to make Lewis the de facto protagonist, even though he’s also a killer. This just doesn’t fit in the slasher mold, as you won’t find a slasher villain striking up a potential romance with a woman in his apartment building or reminiscing about his childhood. You could make a slasher film with a character like Mark, but it would probably require a different protagonist. Even the trailer literally intones, “Fear him! But pity him, also.”
Herschell Gordon Lewis, the “godfather of gore,” was the leading pioneer of the American torture/“splatter” sub-genre of horror movies, so it’s likely no surprise that his films would seem analogous to slashers from a pure violence standpoint—they have more blood and guts than anything else you’ll be able to find from the time period. Blood Feast is the first of the splatter films, about a crazed chef who kills people to be served in a cannibalistic feast to an ancient goddess. However, in terms of structure, Blood Feast is less slasher and more like an American extension of Italy’s giallo genre, albeit gorier and under an exploitation mindset. The story has no final girl, and largely follows the police as they look for the killer, giving it more of a “crime film” vibe, with the added titillation of over-the-top viscera and nudity. This classification extends to many of Gordon’s other works as well, such as 1972’s The Gore Gore Girls, which follows a reporter and investigator looking into a series of killings. The presentation of the deaths is significantly more slasher-like than in the likes of Psycho, but outside of the deaths, none of the connective tissue fits the genre. The end result is nasty and crude, but it’s no slasher.
Psycho was a significant cultural milestone, and not the sort of thing that many directors were willing to try ripping off in the years that immediately followed … but William Castle wasn’t “most directors.” The shameless king of horror gimmickry couldn’t resist trying to put his own spin on Hitchcock, which resulted in this Joan Crawford-starring film, combining the psychological identity themes of Psycho with the expectations of the emerging “psycho-biddy” genre following 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Throw in a series of axe-murders, and it’s fair to question if this would qualify as a slasher movie.
Ultimately, this is one of those cases where the killer’s motivation is very un-slasher-like, as the crimes eventually lead to a desire to frame someone for personal reasons, with the killer murdering people in order to arrange her own marriage, if you can believe that. Likewise, Strait-Jacket’s killings are spaced out and well publicized, with a corresponding police investigation, which we’ve already established isn’t common for the genre. Strait-Jacket is ultimately just a collection of whatever elements Castle thought would work at the moment.
One of the most influential gialli ever made, Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace is a sumptuous-looking film that initially plays very much like a slasher. It has a cast of nubile young ladies, all of whom are stalked by a shadowy, masked figure. It has long, drawn-out sequences of pursuit and killing that would fit right in with later slashers. The film, however, has no final girl, because it more or less kills off all of its protagonists by the time we reach the third act.
This is because Blood and Black Lace eventually shifts its focus onto the killers themselves, revealing that their motivations are quite concrete and logical: They kill for money, for love and due to personal betrayal. Likewise, the killers eventually turn against each other, leaving us without a traditional protagonist. This movie remains a classic of the genre, and the style in which its killings are shot can be considered major slasher influences, but it ultimately falls well short of the “slasher” designation.
That said, Blood and Black Lace also seems to suggest that it’s possible for a giallo movie to simultaneously qualify as a slasher, which will eventually pay dividends later on.
More of a thriller than it is a genuine horror film, this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1939 detective novel of the same name bears mentioning for a convention that is very common to slashers: bringing a bunch of people together in a remote locale, where they’re killed one by one. 10 Little Indians, though, has more in common with an Old Dark House or “mastermind revenge” movie, in the mold of 1939’s The Man They Could Not Hang, in that the killings are to some degree justified by the fact that the “victims” are revealed to be criminals themselves. So too are the death methods very unlike those in slasher films, as you won’t find a slasher killer using poison (or guns) to hunt their quarry. (Slasher killings are considerably more intimate and personal than simply shooting someone in the head.)
The U.K. film Fright is an interesting case, given that it contains several elements that will be echoed by two of the earliest and most important slashers. The fact that it follows a babysitter character can’t help but evoke Halloween, while the threatening calls received by the heroine pre-date Black Christmas while drawing from the same source material of the “babysitter and the man upstairs” urban legend. It’s certainly a horror film, but it stops short of “slasher,” notably because it has no body count and only a single killing. Still, it wouldn’t take many changes to make this one fit our criteria—the babysitter (Susan George) is close to being a final girl, even if she eventually defeats the killer by shooting him. Add in a cast of supporting characters to be murdered, and you’d be most of the way there. As is, it’s closer to an early version of When a Stranger Calls than it is Halloween.
Now we’re getting to really interesting territory: Mario Bava pushed the boundaries of gore and violence in the giallo genre forward in a big way via A Bay of Blood (we’re only seven years past his Blood and Black Lace), with the kills getting way more gruesome than in that film, looking like they would be right at home in any golden age 1980s slasher. (In fact, they were, as 1981’s Friday the 13th Part 2 blatantly copies not one but two of these kills—first the machete to the face, and then the instantly iconic impalement of two lovers mid-coitus.) If you’re scoring the kills alone, then A Bay of Blood is totally a slasher film.
But once you take a look at the wider plot, A Bay of Blood starts to disqualify itself. There is no real final girl—as in Blood and Black Lace, it ends up being a film about a bunch of self-destructive, greedy people without a true protagonist. The killings are also committed for financial gain and inheritance, which is just about the least valid slasher villain motivation there is. Although the film has kills that would eventually go on to get copied exactly in the slasher genre, a group of people fighting to inherit a bay does not a slasher film make.
Hitchcock’s second-to-last feature has many of his hallmarks, including a wrongfully accused protagonist—except this time around the crime is serial murder. The great director definitely took some cues from the popularity of giallo at the time, and Frenzy plays very much like a British version of the genre. It has no final girl, as its protagonist is a man framed by the killer—who also happens to be his friend! There honestly isn’t a ton here to make a case for Frenzy being a slasher; it’s much easier to describe it as a crime thriller about a grudge between friends.
Another interesting selection, one that comes quite close to meeting all of our slasher criteria, Home For the Holidays is an obscure TV horror movie which revolves around a family patriarch (Walter Brennan) who believes his second wife is plotting to kill him. He summons his daughters (including Sally Field and Jessica Walter) to the family mansion, but when they arrive, people start dying, one by one, attacked by a mystery figure in a yellow rain slicker.
The disguised killer has a particularly “slasher” feel, possessing the sort of unique look essential for the genre, but the motivations for the killings are eventually revealed to primarily stem from family drama and greed, rather than from a typically psychotic slasher origin point. Nor do the killings themselves really possess the flair that is typical for the genre, though it’s the film’s unconventional ending that ultimately pushes it further from the slasher camp and into the realm of psychological thriller. Still, we’re getting pretty close at this point. Maybe 90% of the way there?
Now, are we finally ready to pay off this entire exercise?
According to our research, the earliest, full-on “slasher movie” is:
Finally, we’ve arrived: the first film to adequately meet all of our slasher criteria, thereby qualifying as the undeniably “first” slasher movie—at least as far as our six-point definition is concerned. It’s not a work by Carpenter, or Hitchcock, or even Bob Clark. It’s a giallo, and not a well-known entry from Bava, Argento or Fulci. No, it’s Sergio Martino by a nose!
This is Torso, a gritty 1973 feature that fills in the slasher blanks that Bava’s A Bay of Blood couldn’t quite complete. It contains so many slasher bonafides that we simply can’t withhold the title from it.
Torso takes place in central Italy, where a spate of killings at a college campus lead to a group of risque, sexually promiscuous young women sequestering themselves in a remote country mansion until the crimes blow over. Little do they know, they’ve been followed into the countryside by the masked killer, who proceeds to stalk one girl in particular, Jane (Suzy Kendall), trapping her in the home with all her friends as they’re murdered and dismembered.
Torso has all the little flourishes you expect in a genuine slasher: killer’s POV shots; extremely graphic killings; a secluded location; constant themes of voyeurism; a masked killer; an actual final girl; and, finally, you have a killer whose initial crimes are revealed to have been for logical—if deeply misogynistic—reasons, but who then develops a taste for murder and goes totally crazy, killing for pleasure. This isn’t a guy seeking a payoff, or an inheritance. He feels more like a supernatural spectre or silhouette, one that evokes the outline of both Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers.
On its own merits, Torso is an impressive and attractively shot film, brimming with disturbed personality and featuring some lovely location shooting in the Italian countryside. Its first half leans towards traditional giallo mystery, but things then take a turn for full-on slasher, culminating in the kind of cat-and-mouse game between killer and final girl you expect for the genre, as the killer toys with a young woman by allowing her to think that perhaps he hasn’t detected her presence. As the tagline goes: “TORSO! It saturates the screen with terror!”
Torso is by no means a masterpiece, nor is it a gold standard for slasher tropes—the final girl, for instance, doesn’t participate much in the killer’s defeat, but even Laurie Strode was saved by Dr. Loomis in Halloween. It’s a true slasher and a giallo all at once, much as Michele Soavi’s Stage Fright would be in 1987. If you consider yourself a student of slasher history, Torso is a film to immediately place on your to-do list.
Think you’ve got another, earlier film that qualifies by our slasher criteria? Shoot me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident Tolkien geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more film writing.