And then there were four. Having cut through the competition in rounds one, two, and three, two pairs of franchises remain in our five-day effort to decide the best slasher movie series of all time. It’s come down to two match-ups: Can Halloween fend off a challenge from its most sardonic offspring, the Scream movies? And can The Texas Chain Saw cannibal clan survive a nightmare on Elm Street?
Tomorrow is the championship round, where the winners of today’s bouts move on to square off for the title of Ultimate Slasher Franchise. Come back then for the grand finale. And in the meantime, scroll down to vote in the readers poll, and decide who will advance to the fan’s finals.
Most of the franchises in this tournament wouldn’t exist without Halloween. Scream, its hippest offspring, is no exception. Wes Craven’s 1996 original acknowledged as much, building a set piece around actual footage from Halloween (directed by Craven’s ’70s master-of-horror contemporary, John Carpenter) and later hiding Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott in a closet just like the one Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) cowered in during her first evasion of Michael Myers. Yet for all Ghostface owes to the other, older killer in a white mask, the Scream series also laid some runway for the Halloweens that followed, reviving the slasher movie for a savvy new audience. Hell, Scream’s screenwriter, Kevin Williamson, even worked on Halloween H20, a legacy sequel released before that term was coined.
What we have here is a true generational clash: old school versus new, classic versus postmodern, reigning institution versus whip-smart deconstruction. Scream is undoubtedly more clever, building meta commentary into its return engagements, allowing its characters to meditate on the mechanics of sequelizing, garbled continuity, trend-chasing, and cliché. And unless one counts an unfortunate residency on MTV, the Scream series has never hit the rock-bottom lows of Halloween’s worst; on a whole, the former’s four current entries probably average out better, thanks to Craven’s steady hand behind the camera and a second film that comes closer than any Halloween sequel to matching the quality of the revered original.
Yet what the Halloween franchise lacks in consistency it makes up for in surprising variety. While the formula may be largely static—with one notable exception, every movie involves Mike taking the knife to a new gaggle of victims on the eponymous holiday—the execution has allowed for some genuine stylistic deviation. Halloween remains one of the only slasher franchises to accommodate multiple big-name auteurs; whatever one thinks of their contributions, Rob Zombie and David Gordon Green truly put their mark on the material, making films that deliver the obligatory slayings while also working in their own idiosyncratic preoccupations. The series has also reckoned with its own history in arguably deeper ways than Sidney’s serialized arc of ongoing misfortune, affording Curtis the opportunity to terrifically play two very different traumatized, aging versions of Laurie.
What the younger franchise has going for it is witty self-awareness: All its characters seem to know they’re in lesser sequels, and keep bringing up the fact. But does simply acknowledging that horror series tend to decline compensate for succumbing to that decline? In the end, Scream has followed a rather typical downward slope of diminishing returns, each new movie a little worse than the last. Halloween, for all its single-minded repetition of premise, has zigged and zagged, sometimes skidding off the road with an abominable resurrection (or Resurrection) but also taking some eccentric turns along the way.
Both franchises have stubbornly soldiered on, putting their Final Girl heroines through another round of hide-and-shriek for the sake of another box office windfall. But only one of them has found a Season Of The Witch in that ongoing cycle of cash-grab continuations. This is one game, in other words, that the smart-aleck killers of Scream must lose. [A.A. Dowd]
Winner: A Nightmare On Elm Street
On the scare front, this is a rather even match between two long-running sequel machines born from classics of the genre. Although the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre has a feverish, feral quality that stays with the viewer long after the movie ends, never discount Wes Craven when it comes to creating viscerally upsetting sequences. Both series kicked off with shocks for the record books: The death scene early in A Nightmare On Elm Street where a screaming teenager is thrown around the ceiling of her bedroom is an all-timer, on par with Leatherface impaling one hapless victim on a meat hook and smashing another in the head with a hammer. That the two franchises have respective roots in reality, with conceits based on true stories, only enhances the fear factor: Chain Saw creator Tobe Hooper was inspired by the horrific crimes of necrophilic serial killer Ed Gein, while Craven got the idea for Elm Street from a newspaper story about a Cambodian refugee who died in his sleep after complaining of a monster chasing him in his dreams.
Looking at this Final Four contest from the comic-shop perspective of “Who would win in a fight” yields no easy result either, given Leatherface’s sheer size and animal bloodlust. But the Sawyer family butcher also has a childlike mind that leaves him open to emotional manipulation, which the clever Freddy Krueger could finesse without too much effort. (We’ve already seen the games he played with another hulking opponent’s fragile psyche.)
That brings us around to the legacy and progression of each series, an area where Elm Street has an edge over virtually every other slasher franchise. Whereas most experience a continuous drop-off in quality after the first or second installment, the Nightmare movies actually stayed—and sometimes got even more—imaginative as they went along. And while there’s certainly a dip in the middle (Freddy’s Dead damn near made good on its title), Craven’s return entry New Nightmare brought it back to heights of creativity and intelligence practically unheard of so late in the franchise game.
Texas Chain Saw, meanwhile, only had its tongue intermittently planted in cheek, and the series descends into trend chasing, fan service, and prequel psychologizing in its hapless latter days. As far as remakes go, Leatherface’s Platinum Dunes makeover is, by most estimations, better than Freddy’s. But it also further convoluted the Massacre mythology, obscuring any real advantage even there. And so with apologies to America’s family, the Sawyers, we must usher Elm Street into a primetime slot… bitch. [Katie Rife]
The A.V. Club and our readers continued to see eye to (gouged out) eye yesterday, as our two parallel brackets overlapped via identical results. Halloween and A Nightmare On Em Street—a.k.a. the two franchises advancing to the finals in the main tournament—annihilated here, too, sending poor Norman Bates to the bottom of the lake and foul-mouthed Chucky back to the factory. The other two contests were closer, with Hellraiser fending off a blow-out (but not a loss) in its battle with the Chain Saw boys, while Friday The 13th got within a couple-hundred votes of winner Scream.
So who’s going to the finals of the reader poll? Cast your vote for the semi-finals below, or by clicking here.