No slasher-movie killer ever really dies. Just ask the unlucky teens of Elm Street, Haddonfield, or Camp Crystal Lake. So long as a monster stays in the black and keeps making the green, it will return to spill the red. Even when these fiends outlive their profitability, the door to their crypt stays open a crack; they can always be brought back to terrorize a new generation in a belated sequel, prequel, remake, or reboot. (Michael Myers, for example, is currently enjoying an umpteenth resurrection in Halloween Kills. And he’ll be back next year with Halloween Ends, a film destined to join The Final Nightmare and The Final Chapter in false advertising hell.)
The slasher movie, that disreputable cycle of masked maniacs making mincemeat out of the randy (and Randy), has itself proven rather impossible to kill. Nearly as impossible as saying when, exactly, the craze started. Does it go back to Psycho and Peeping Tom, twin 1960 progenitors of voyeuristic terror? To Herschell Gordon Lewis or the Italian giallo? To that ’70s trifecta of body-count horror, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Black Christmas, and Halloween? Opinions vary wildly on the subject. Regardless, there’s no denying that the subgenre hit peak saturation in the 1980s, drumming up reliable box office and the outrage of Moral Majority types incensed by the sight of, say, a bloodthirsty lunatic in a Santa Claus costume.
The slasher went the way of hair metal at the onset of the ’90s. But it keeps coming back through self-referential revivals, torture-porn variations, and streaming, zoomer-courting nostalgia trips. What’s really kept the trend alive, though, is franchising—the relentless attempt to squeeze every last penny out of every escaped monstrosity or madman.
Which got us thinking. It’s pretty self-evident what the best slasher movies are. (See that ’70s trifecta above, along with some gloved, hooked, and hooded descendents from the years after.) But what about the best slasher series? Put another way: Which iconic hellspawn of the VHS era and beyond has the best track record, the best run, the best batting/macheting/axing/sawing average?
That’s what we set out to decide with the Ultimate Slasher Franchise Tournament, a five-round, single-elimination battle royale. Over the next five days, 32 franchises—properly seeded by popularity, acclaim, and a general, unscientific sense of just how crappy they get in the later sequels—will duke it out for the title of the best slasher-movie series of them all. Each day, the crop of contenders is halved, until only two franchises remain at the end. We’ll crown a winner on Friday—not the 13th, alas, but just two days removed from Halloween. Take a look at our March Madness-style bracket below.
Some ground rules were naturally laid. For a series to qualify, it had to contain at least two entries. (The Burning is a cult classic, but without any encore killing sprees, one-and-done Cropsey has to sit this reaping out.) We did allow remakes and reboots for consideration, and even took into some account migrations to the small screen, though most of those nightmares in TV land could really only hurt a series. And we stayed fairly conservative on the definition of slasher, give or take a pack of S&M demons and a villain who doesn’t so much stalk his prey as drop them into elaborate death traps. In the end, it came down to: Is there a killer, human or supernatural? And do they knock off a bunch of people, one by one?
Today, we cull the herd as ruthlessly as a vengeful phantom loosed on a summer camp of promiscuous counselors. Tomorrow, we move on to the sweet 16; Wednesday to the elite eight; Thursday to the final four; and Friday to the championship match.
But, hey, what the hell do we know? In acknowledgement that one person’s fear street is another’s boredom boulevard—and also that critics have, historically, been a little tough on the lowly slasher—we’re giving you the opportunity to decide the winners in a parallel readers’ poll; scroll down to the bottom of each day’s post to vote for your own favorites and see how the two brackets diverge.
As for the losers, the franchises that don’t move on today, don’t cry too hard for them. They’re slashers. They always come back.
Every slasher movie requires some cannon fodder, and placed up against the granddaddy of them all, Urban Legend is as doomed as a cheerleader running screaming through the woods. The original Urban Legend does have a certain coarse charm, typical of the nü-metal-inflected wave of neo-slashers that emerged in the late ’90s. But the premise wore itself out quickly—a charge you could also level against Halloween and its uneven sequels. Now we’re back at the beginning, and when it comes to craft, suspense, characters, and staying power, Urban Legend simply cannot keep up with John Carpenter’s genre-defining original. [Katie Rife]
Winner: Happy Death Day
This year’s Fear Street was a decent summer slasher trilogy for genre fans, but Happy Death Day takes the cake in a battle between these recent, teen-targeted franchises. The first Happy is a fun, self-aware thriller that gets a surprising amount of mileage out of the premise “What if Scream happened within Groundhog Day?” If the idea of a victim reliving the day of her murder across multiple movies seems repetitive, Happy Death Day 2U dispels the notion by fleshing out the characters and adding some new sci-fi wrinkles to the conceit. Meanwhile, Fear Street, based on the bestselling teen-lit novels by R.L. Stine, isn’t concerned with much more than paying homage to slashers of the past. So this one goes to Tree and Co., even if Babyface (or whatever the killer’s named) is no Ghostface. [Saloni Gajjar]
Winner: Sleepaway Camp
If these noteworthy slasher franchises share any DNA, it’s of the parental variety—namely, through the conclusion that a bad nurturer can be an absolute disaster. In Sleepaway Camp, a disturbed aunt helps create a teenage killer, whereas The Stepfather combines bad parenting and homicidal impulses into the same person, belying the old adage that father knows best. The two franchises follow similar paths: an impressive first installment, followed by two increasingly dull-witted sequels, before finally sputtering out with a nearly 20-years-later revival/reboot. But while The Stepfather contains an iconic performance from Terry O’Quinn’s titular menace (as well as a sly takedown of Reaganism), we have to give the win to the younger killer; at least those gonzo movies are aware the whole thing is ridiculous. [Alex McLevy]
William Lustig and Larry Cohen’s Maniac Cop will need all of its title character’s superhuman strength to tackle a cultural touchstone like Psycho. He looks scrawny, but Anthony Perkins’ unassuming Norman Bates packs a punch, going four rounds in a mostly okay-to-good series of sequels, with Psycho II passing for one of the classier imitators of Hitchcock’s original. When Perkins leaves, things slow down considerably—though Gus Van Sant’s remake and the Bates Motel series have their fans. Poor Maniac Cop, though. Maniac Cop 2 is a stylish masterpiece and a surprisingly relevant take on policing, with stunts by legendary choreographer Spiro Razatos. The film is a surprise underdog but still no match for, ahem, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. [Matt Schimkowitz]
Winner: Friday The 13th
Is it fair to pit amateurs against professionals? Improbable quantity, not quality, earned Camp Blood an eighth seed: Since its very inauspicious start in 1999 as a laughably threadbare direct-to-video “horror movie” (scare quotes necessary to indicate the total absence of scares), this killer-clown franchise has just kept trucking for two decades, last year reaching an unlikely eleventh installment—in other words, one fewer than the series it’s ineptly ripping off, Friday The 13th. Say what you will about the fluctuating dopiness of Jason’s rampages, but the worst of them look downright Hitchcockian compared to every bargain-basement chapter in the Camp Blood saga; these films are so poorly shot, acted, and written that they should be shown in college classrooms to make freshman film students feel better about their own projects. [A.A. Dowd]
Winner: Silent Night, Deadly Night
Putting the original films side by side, there’s no competition in this battle of the yuletide slashers: Bob Clark’s seminal, influential Black Christmas is downright classy, with nuanced characters and a classical sense of suspense. By contrast, Silent Night, Deadly Night has Linnea Quigley being impaled on a deer head by a guy in a Santa Claus suit. In the end, however, Silent Night, Deadly Night is a proper franchise, while Black Christmas—which amounts to the formative original plus two remakes, one outrageously trashy and the other more thoughtful and inventive—is not. Add the “Garbage Day” clip from the accidentally hilarious Part 2, plus the fact that Mickey Rooney starred in Silent Night, Deadly Night 5 after saying that the producers of the original “should be run out of town,” and the kookier choice here must prevail. [Katie Rife]
Nothing short of a magic lamp could skew the results of this title fight between bogeymen of the ’90s—one created by Clive Barker, the other “presented” by Wes Craven, both summoned by feckless researchers and granted three sequels apiece. The velvet-voiced ladykiller in the mirror might win on pedigree alone: Philip Glass, Bill Condon, and Jordan Peele are among the Oscar royalty classing up his high-minded massacres. Meanwhile, the genie’s schlocky lessons in how not to word your pleas for a cooler job or sexier bod were banished swiftly to DTV hell, with no reboot in sight, unless one counts Wonder Woman 1984. Just don’t get cocky, Clive: The rematch is next round, when Craven returns with a slasher franchise he wasn’t ashamed to keep slapping his name on. [A.A. Dowd]
Kevin Williamson launched two slasher franchises in less than a year with his scripts for Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, both of which secured killer casts, spawned successful sequels, and inspired later TV adaptations. But while Scream reimagined slashers, taking influence from classics while giving the genre a modern spin that inspired horror’s next box office hits, Williamson’s adaptation of the Lois Duncan YA novel played its thrills straighter and more generically, and its whodunit was incidental, making it much easier to care who the next victim would be than who was knocking them off in nondescript fisherman garb.(Speaking of which: Is there a more recognizable slasher uniform in the last 30-plus years than the iconic Edvard Munch getup of Ghostface?) Scream kept us glued across multiple movies with the cat-and-mouse game between Sidney—one of the most likable Final Girls in all of horror—and whoever put on the hooded costume next. Summer’s two sequels didn’t measure up to the first of the trilogy, even with a pre-fame Jack Black in dreadlocks. [Tatiana Tenreyro]
Winner: A Nightmare On Elm Street
The phrase “not in your wildest dreams” feels appropriate for this matchup between A Nightmare On Elm Street and Charles Band’s The Gingerdead Man. Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger could bake a more threatening and entertaining confection than Gary Busey’s Millard Findlemeyer in his sleep. Freddy is already an accomplished pizza chef, after all. Film to film, few slashers are as creatively reliable or stylistically diverse as Nightmare. What other franchise includes a queer-studies classic, a postmodern deconstruction of horror movies, and a scene where a malevolent dream weaver guides a victim by the veins like a marionette? The Gingerdead Man movies, on the other hand, are almost always better ingested via YouTube compilation. Pair that with a hit from the Evil Bong, and you’ve got a knockout but not a winner. [Matt Schimkowitz]
Winner: Slumber Party Massacre
Wes Craven launched three separate franchises in this bracket (four, if you count his producer credit on Wishmaster), and for that we owe him respect. But one’s gotta go, and The Hills Have Eyes is the most expendable. There is an undercurrent of dark humor in Craven’s take on mutant cannibal clans run amok, but for those not already versed in exploitation sensibilities, the sexual violence in early Craven films (carried over into the Hills remake from the mid-2000s) can be rough. The satire in Slumber Party Massacre is much closer to the surface, taking a screenplay by feminist writer Rita Mae Brown and running it through the Roger Corman boobs ’n’ blood assembly line for a film full of tongue-in-cheek humor and phallic metaphors. It’s also the only classic slasher franchise to be written and directed entirely by women, giving it the edge over Craven’s third-best series. [Katie Rife]
In a straight fight of first films, Charles Band’s premiere moneymaker might actually have eked out a win over Jigsaw and his various descendants; certainly, there are no facial bear traps or pig masks in the first Saw movie capable of matching Puppet Master’s Leech Woman for sheer, visceral horror. But in the subsequent race of diminishing returns, Blade, Jester, et al., quickly rushed ahead, hitting rock bottom and then digging ever downward. For a pair of long-running, single-gimmick franchises like Saw and Puppet Master, it all comes down to how much fresh paint their endlessly rotating creative teams can slap on. Saw, to its credit, at least keeps the moralizing deathtraps relatively new, while the weirdly Nazi-obsessed Puppet Master films fall further and further down the direct-to-video hole (albeit with one obscene upgrade to theaters). [William Hughes]
Winner: Child’s Play
Most good slasher movies have a memorable villain. Hatchet’s Victor Crowley does not rank in this department. There’s a reason you don’t see a lot of masks of his deformed face at Halloween costume shops; there’s little beyond an unimaginative backstory distinguishing this hulking stalker from a dozen other Jason wannabes. Meanwhile, Chucky is the perfect horror icon. What could be better than a foul-mouthed, sex-crazed, overall-wearing evil doll? He’s stealthy and calculating—he’ll kill you in ways poor Victor could never think up. While the Chucky series got campier and funnier with each sequel (especially with the introduction of Chucky’s paramour, Tiffany Valentine, and their child, Glen/Glenda), the Hatchet series just drags on. For the Good Guy doll with the bad guy vocabulary, this round really is child’s play. [Tatiana Tenreyro]
Winner: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Wouldn’t it be hilarious if Evil Bong took this whole thing? As much as we’d enjoy messing with everyone, the fact is that one of these series is widely influential and viscerally terrifying, and the other is Evil Bong. Texas Chainsaw also took a turn for the comedic starting with the first sequel, but there’s a satirical edge to the goofier entries in the series that’s way beyond stale stoner humor. What really cashes Evil Bong’s bowl is that the one thing it has going for it—weed—isn’t even unique to the franchise: As original Leatherface Gunnar Hansen revealed in his autobiography, most of the cast and crew of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were baked out of their gourds on set. [Katie Rife]
Winner: Wolf Creek
Hillbilly horror experienced a revival in the 2000s, with two parallel don’t-leave-the-city franchises—one set in the wilderness of West Virginia, the other against the sprawl of the Australian outback. There’s more conceptual variety in the Wrong Turn movies, which slaughter different kinds of lamb (reality-TV contestants, prison inmates, Henry Rollins), before dipping into the backstory of their inbred cannibals. Wolf Creek, by contrast, repeats itself through a sequel that puts more unlucky tourists in the crosshairs of serial killer Mick Taylor, then inelegantly expands the premise for a so-so miniseries. Still, the returns diminish slower in Mick’s neck of the backwoods, and while the Wrong Turn films are certainly more superficially fun in their cartoon Hills Have Eyes evisceration of city slickers, none possess a fraction of the nasty dread John Jarratt provokes through his Down Under depravity. Do his deformed American challengers even have names? [A.A. Dowd]
Which is worse: having an awful personality or no perceptible personality at all? In the case of Leprechaun versus Jeepers Creepers, we have to favor the interesting irritation over the more visually impressive but far blander monster. Warwick Davis’ scampering magical asshole might be the very worst of Freddy Krueger’s wisecracking killer spawn, but there’s no denying the perverse appeal of a franchise that sometimes resembles a Disney Channel Halloween movie, right up until a guy gets tricked into motorboating a running lawnmower. Jeepers Creepers, meanwhile, is forced to labor under both the reality of writer-director Victor Salva’s sordid legal history and the fact that its one good trick—the reveal of its stalking Creeper’s actual nature—is functionally impossible to repeat. [William Hughes]
The underworld beings of Hellraiser are ideal candidates to watch these two franchises, because only creatures incapable of distinguishing pleasure from pain could enjoy every installment of either woefully spotty series. The first Prom Night’s Halloween-aping story was a success, which triggered a reworking of a pre-existing script into a sequel—which, like the three installments that followed, replaced Jamie Lee Curtis and a not-bad twist ending with supernatural schlock. Hellraiser had a killer launch: The first is great and the next two are fun, and though it progressively descends into unwatchability, the franchise has an iconic baddie for the ages in the aptly named Pinhead. Plus, with original creator Clive Barker returning to produce its next iteration, there’s almost no way the new Hellraiser could be as crappy as Prom Night’s 2008 reboot. [Alex McLevy]
Have we failed to see the secret genius of Wishmaster? Did we pick the wrong backwoods, post-millennial Chainsaw descendent? Should we have given the Maniac Cop an upset over cinema’s most famous maniac? Now’s your chance to right our wrongs by participating in the readers’ poll and maybe swinging this separate version of the bracket in a totally different direction. Vote for the winners in all sixteen match-ups below. (Or click here) And check back tomorrow for the results of the poll, along with a new set of face-offs to vote on.