Horror Drive-In: Holiday Slasher-Thon

banner reading Horror Drive-In and Mark Sieber and Cemetery Dance

Sometimes I bring up slasher movies to people of my age group. I’m talking fifties and early sixties. I often see a glint in their eyes. A recognition of something magical. A recollection of a time of youthful fun and rebelliousness. When our hearts were still untamed. Before the soul-crippling drudgery of work. When our bodies were young and strong, our minds and hearts untamed.

I see traces of mournful regret. Regret about growing old and predictable. Sadness about obsession with politics. Disappointment at falling into the comfort zone of mediocrity. Superheroes, Star Wars, the latest streaming trends.

Many young people loved the slasher movies of the early eighties, but few loved them as much as I did. I saw as many as I could. In walk-in movie houses and in the glorious outdoor splendor of the drive-ins. My best friend and I were huge fans. He’s gone now, and I miss him as much as I miss the bloody innocence of the time.

Eli Roth has finally released his Thanksgiving slasher movie. It’s the full-length extension of the faux trailer he did for Grindhouse. Was that really sixteen years ago?

In honor of the auspicious occasion, I had my own little Slasher marathon week. A classic slasher a day, usually in the very wee hours of the morning. My work schedule has me getting up at a ghastly hour every morning, and while I am off all week, habits are hard to break.

Prowler posterFirst up is The Prowler, one of the most highly-regarded slashers of the era.

The Prowler was never a personal favorite of mine, despite Joseph Zito’s above-average direction and Tom Savini’s gruesome makeup effects. Savini was still in the special makeup field at the time, and his work here is stellar. A shotgun blast at the end is particularly effective.

The Prowler is a dark movie. Dark in tone and as well as the actual lighting employed in the production. It’s a grim affair, with few laughs and little to actually cheer about. It’s your basic plot about a past tragedy and new murders popping up.

A good film, with competent performances and camerawork, but little heart. The Prowler is an important title in the genre’s history, but it’s not one I can visit again and again, like My Bloody Valentine or The Burning.

Return to Horror High posterI somehow never saw Return to Horror High before this week. I read a negative review, and I was a bit weary of slasher comedies by 1987. Horror was in a different place by then, and I simply never rented the movie.

Truffaut does a meta-slasher-horror-comedy-satire? Well, this isn’t quite Day For Night, but Return to Horror High is a lot of fun. It’s a film-within-a-film, with a nonlinear storyline done well before Tarantino made that sort of thing acceptable.

It’s all incredibly sophomoric, but I laughed here and there. The hits are pretty good, but the misses are off by miles. Alex Rocco is hilarious as a sleazebag producer. Maureen McCormick, AKA: Marsha Marsha Marsha, is a remarkably unfunny deputy. Lori Lethin is very good in multi-character performances, and George Clooney in an early role is rightfully the first victim. If you saw his hair you’d want to kill him too.

Return to Horror High has fun mocking stereotypes of these kind of movies, like obligatory nudity and copious bloodshed. It’s a forerunner to self-referential films like Scream and Scary Movie that came much later.

I can’t recommend Return to Horror High to the slasher novice, but those who’ve endured a lot of the films will probably get their money’s worth.

Psycho 2 posterPsycho 2 isn’t really a slasher movie. I can see the purists howling at the very idea of it. However, this movie is directly inspired by the tropes of slasher cinema.

Speaking of purists, some might want to skin me alive, but I prefer Psycho 2 to Alfred Hitchcock’s original.

I could see Brian DePalma being hired to direct Psycho 2, and he would undoubtedly have delivered a fine motion picture. However, DePalma was so deeply entrenched in the Hollywood system. I’m glad they brought in a wild card. Richard Franklin drew comparisons to Hitchcock for his 1981 Ozploitation classic, Road Games. He was the perfect choice for the project.

Psycho 2 looks astonishingly good. Dean Cundy’s cinematic eye was never sharper or more focused. Jerry Goldsmith’s music score is perfect, and Anthony Perkins is better than ever as poor, confused Norman Bates.

Many of the best movie monsters are pitiable victims. Bates is no exception. Perkins performance is deeply unsettling and absolutely heartbreaking.

Robert Bloch was denied the opportunity to adapt his Psycho novel for Hitchock’s movie, and the producers were uninterested in his involvement in the sequel. So he wrote his own sequel as a novel and got it in stores before Psycho 2 was released. Bloch’s Psycho 2 is partially a satire about the soullessness of Tinseltown.

I saw Psycho 2 along with Carpenter’s The Thing at a local drive-in. Such days are gone and never to return.

Prom Night poster

Prom Night was my next choice. Like the others it’s been a long time since I’d seen the film. While never a favorite, I always liked Prom Night. Jamie Leigh Curtis solidified herself as the scream queen du jour with this one. Some say Prom Night defied the cliches, but there were no cliches when it was made.

I watched Prom Night on a cheapshit VHS-quality DVD. Below average VHS, I might add. It really does make a difference. I should have sprung for the Synapse edition.

It’s a good movie, but the scariest thing about Prom Night is the gratuitous disco dancing.

poster for Urban LegendWes Craven and Kevin Williamson ushered in new era of slasher movies in 1996 with their hugely successful Scream. Imitators were quick to follow. My favorite of the pack is Urban Legend.

Urban Legend is a product of the late nineties. The music, the dialect, the styles all scream of the era. Danielle Harris plays a repugnant Goth girl, Jared Leto is a smarmy journalist-in-training, Robert Englund is a nutty prof, and Baron Munchhausen himself, John Neville, is the dean in denial. Alicia Witt carries the movie as the nice girl who brings sympathy to the story.

A classic whodunnit slasher, Urban Legend features a killer who offs victims by methods handed down as social myths. It’s a clever concept, well executed.

Australian director Jamie Blanks also made Valentine, Storm Warning, and the Long Weekend remake.

Roger Corman rarely missed an opportunity to exploit a cinematic trend. I’m a little surprised he didn’t do more slasher movies, but I don’t think they were really his cup of tea.

Leave it to Roger, always ahead of his time, to take a subgenre that was generally regarded as misogynistic and put a feminist slant on it. The Slumber Party Massacre was largely made by women. Amy Holden Jones directed from a script by feminist writer-turned Kozy Kat Kollaborator Rita Mae Brown.

The Slumber Party Massacre posterOstensibly a parody of the slasher genre, The Slumber Party Massacre is really one of the meanest and most crude movies in history. It’s an ugly, artless exercise in gratuity. I think it was intended as a statement about masculine violence against women, but maybe the females should have been given better personalities and more integrity.

I saw The Slumber Party Massacre when it was new. A friend and I walked into a drive-in without paying, carrying a case of beer, and watched the movie. Any indication of satire was lost on my young mind. I see a little more now, but I think despite good intentions the film fails to have any social justice significance. Not that I feel slasher movies ought to serve uptight, polite society.

I do appreciate The Slumber Party Massacre for its place in the canon of slasher film history, but it is about as low as they get. I did enjoy seeing Brinke Stevens in the picture. It was nice to see footage from Hollywood Boulevard on a TV at the slumber party. Those are about the best things I can say about it.

He Knows You're Alone poster

He Knows You’re Alone was a much better movie to re-experience. Its claim to fame is Tom Hanks in his first screen appearance. He’s only in the film for a few brief scenes, but you can see the star power already at work.

Owing as much to seventies police procedural pictures as to horror movies, He Knows You’re Alone is a taut, well-acted and very suspenseful film. It has one of the best opening acts in the field. Kevin Williamson kifed it for the beginning of Scream 2.

Caitlin O’Heaney stars as a bride-to-be being stalked by a killer. She’s good and her performance elicits considerable empathy. Viewers may remember O’Hearney as the teacher in the most memoiable scene from the teen classic Three O’Clock High. She was also in a few Woody Allen movies.

Armand Mastroianni directed He Knows You’re Alone, as well as a couple other good genre films. He should have had a bigger career.


Thanksgiving Day. My wife and I maintained our tradition of an early morning beach walk, then a taco breakfast. Later that day our neighbor invited us for after-dinner dessert. We love her and treasure her presence in our lives, but it wasn’t the greatest experience.

Food was pressed upon us. These are the kind of people who put cheese in everything. Cheese in the mashed potatoes, with pasty, bland gravy on top. I took one bite and I will regret it for the rest of my life.

Then it was TV time. The Hallmark Channel was on. Our neighbor said she knows no one will be killed in these shows. I neglected to inform her I’d been watching slasher movies all week.

So I sat there, stone-faced, watching kindly gruff old Ed Asner bestow wisdom and advice to a hapless young suitor.

One show ended and another started right up. More schmaltz. We finally made our break and staggered home. I stumbled into the house, and with tears drying on my face, hugged my Anchor Bay Sleepaway Camp DVD.

Sleepaway Camp posterAngela never became a household name like Jason or Freddy, but to fans she is iconic. Sleepaway Camp was well ahead of its time with its transgressive theme. It was one of the first slasher films to deal with homosexuality and transsexualism in a serious way. The movie also touches on pedophilia and child abuse.

It’s another summer camp with kids and adults getting offed in more or less creative ways. The deaths aren’t the strongest points of Sleepaway Camp. Felissa Rose’s eerie performance and the uncomfortable tone are what make the movie so memorable. Ignored and dismissed by most upon its release, Sleepaway Camp is now regarded as one of the most important movies in the strange history of slasher movies.

It should be noted that Sleepaway Camp was the final film of veteran character actor Mike Kellin. Kellin’s familiar face and voice graced such productions as God Told Me To, Just Before Dawn, The Boston Strangler, Freebie and the Bean, and of course The Maltese Bippy. Kellin died from lung cancer shortly after the release of Sleepaway Camp. He’s sucking on a cigar in most of his scenes.

The Burning posterThe Burning is rightly considered one of the finest slasher films of all time. Sadly it was the very first Miramax picture. Harvey Weinstein was responsible for the story and he gets an odd “Created By” credit. Brother Bob co-wrote the screenplay.

The Weinsteins are many things and not all are good. However they were shrewd movie markers and distributors. They were smart to hire Tom Savini for the effects and Prog legend Rick Wakeman for the score.

The Burning is a fast-paced story, with better-than-average characters, and some truly righteous kill scenes. It has a comfortable, time-honored summer camp setting. Pretty much everything works in the film. It’s too damned bad about the Weinstein taint.

I wouldn’t let that prevent anyone from watching The Burning. If we avoid all Miramax movies we’d miss many of the best and most important films of the ’90s.

I made it out to see Thanksgiving a week late, but man did I love it. Finally a new slasher movie for a new generation. “HallowGreen” and the recent Scream sequels are popular, but this one is original while staying true to the history of the field.

Thanksgiving opens with one of the most stunningly effective scenes in horror history. It’s a Black Friday store riot, and it’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen in a movie. From there it moves on to time-honored slasher clichés. Like Roth or not, no one can deny that he is a true devotee of horror.

Despite some very funny scenes, Thanksgiving isn’t a comedy. It’s the best slasher movie since Craven and Williamson shook up the field with Scream.

I loved Thanksgiving, and audience I saw it with laughed and screamed in all the right places. I hope fans can put aside their Eli Roth misgivings and give it a taste.

The slasher cycle began with trick or treating. It ended, as far as I am concerned, with a playful bit of trickery called April Fool’s Day.

I remember it all too well. A brisk early Spring evening. A couple of friends at the old Cinema City Drive-In. It was the last in our area, and that night, enjoyable as it was, felt like an ending.

April Fool's Day posterApril Fool’s Day is a fun little quasi-slasher. It’s all one big prank, and it seemed to me at the time that the slashers were just about over. Genre historians, many of whom weren’t even there for the bloody ride, generally cite the first slasher cycle to end in 1984. I say it concluded in 1986 with April Fool’s Day.

There were some decent slashers after April Fool’s Day, like The Sleepaway Camp sequels and Intruder, but most were flatulent comedies which brought little to the field. Jason, Freddy, Michael, and Chucky stumbled on with diminishing results. It wasn’t until a decade later when Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson revitalized the genre with Scream.

April Fool’s Day has some familiar faces: Deborah Foreman, the Valley Girl herself. Friday the 13th Part 2 final girl Amy Steel. Back to the Future’s Biff, Tom Wilson. And Ken Olandt, the male dancing student from Summer School.

Other winds of change were in the air on that beautiful night. Slashers were basically over, and home video was coming on strong. There was talk about the drive-in closing down. It would be gone in less than a year.

My youth was mostly behind me as well. I was a man, and like it or not (I didn’t) I had to face adulthood. Horror movies are for kids, right? Well, my body aged, and I was forced into some semblance of responsibility, but I never gave up my love of horror. Not merely my favorite genre, but the defining quotient of my life.

The end of the legendary slasher era, the fall of the drive-ins, the passing of my childhood, and now the end of my week-long Thanksgiving vacation.

CUT! Print! That’s a wrap! Let’s put this baby to bed…

Eleven slasher movies in nine days. Even for an old gorehound like me, that’s a lot. I always mixed up my movie viewing with various genres.

Some might find it strange that I celebrated Thanksgiving with slasher movies. It doesn’t to me. I am eternally grateful that I was around to witness the evolution of horror as it progressed from black and white movies on television, the exploitation cycle, slasher movies, horror comedy, and on to the present. I had a front seat for it all.

I’m also deeply grateful for everything I have today. I am blissfully married to the best woman I’ve ever known, I live in a wonderful house on a magical piece of property, and I’m a published author.

These movies aren’t for everyone, but neither is the Hallmark Channel. At least slashers tell the truth, unlike the bogus sentimental pap you’ll see elsewhere.

Time is the ultimater slasher. It will catch up with us all. We scurry through life, chasing usless goals, while Time slowly, methodically, ceaselessly, pursues us. Just as any masked killer does in the movies.

For some of us, the devoted fans of slasher cinema, the films do not celebrate death. They help us embrace life. Death can come at any time, and they older we get, the more we sense His presence. Slasher movies remind us that every moment counts.

I leave you with a quote from The Burning:

They never found his body, but they say his spirit lives in the forest. This forest. A maniac, a thing no longer human. They say he lives on whatever he can catch. Eats them raw, alive maybe. And every year he picks on a summer camp and seeks his revenge for the terrible things those kids did to him. Every year he kills. Right now he’s out there. Watching. Waiting. So don’t look; he’ll see you. Don’t breathe; he’ll hear you. Don’t move; you’re dead!

 Dedicated to Jack Valenti, Harlan Ellison, Gene Siskel, and Roger Ebert.

Photo of Mark Sieber with a cat on his shoulder
Mark Sieber and friend

Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of TerrorSir Graves Ghastly PresentsThe Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon LoverThe Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. Cemetery Dance has published his nonfiction collections He Who Types Between the Rows: A Decade of Horror Drive-In and He Who Types Between the Rows 2: Horror Drive-In Will Never Die. He can be reached at [email protected], and at www.horrordrive-in.com.

1 thought on “Horror Drive-In: Holiday Slasher-Thon”

Leave a Reply