The Best Slasher Films Ever Made

Horror has enjoyed such a ubiquity boost since the 2010s that the most humble of its niches, the slasher, went dormant for a few years at the start of the boom. This isn’t a bad thing. As the industry and filmmakers have gradually stopped treating horror as if it’s disposable and started maximizing it if not as art then at least as product, slashers, one of the best investments anyone can make in horror, have lost favor. The critical (and in some cases commercial) success of movies like “The Witch,” “Hereditary,” “Get Out,” “It Follows,” “The Babadook,” “A Quiet Place,” and “It,” plus the presence of movies less widely embraced by audiences but praised by journalists, like “Mandy,” “Daniel Isn’t Real,” “In Fabric,” and Mike Flanagan’s late-2010s filmography have shunted slashers aside. (This isn’t saying anything of lesser riffs on the flavor of the day, from atrocities like “Antebellum” to misfires like “The Lodge.”)

The range goes on and rightly highlights the depth of horror’s versatility. But for 1980s kids who grew up on a slasher diet before getting into the wider world of horror, the lack of slashers in this mix has been one long king bummer. Good news though! The slasher has been making a gradual comeback since around 2017, when fresh takes on the form, à la “Happy Death Day” and “Tragedy Girls,” reminded the market that there’s just something primally satisfying about blood, guts, and a pile of carcasses. Now, we’re just days away from David Gordon Green’s “Halloween Kills,” Patrick Brice’s latest film, “There’s Someone Inside Your House,” is up on Netflix right alongside the “Fear Street” trilogy, “Malignant” gave us the violent thrilled we craved and which “Candyman” didn’t give, and just like that, the slasher’s stock has risen.

Why? Julieann Stipidis lays it all out in a 2020 Bloody Disgusting piece, arguing that we’re all sick to death and then some of pandemic horror and need something else, even if “something else” isn’t “new,” per se. (This severely underrepresents the case she makes in her article, so try reading that.) Whatever the reason for the slasher’s return, we should all be thankful, and we should also take a moment during this, the spookiest time of the year, to recall the best of the best.

But before we start (per the always strict rules of horror aficionados):

What Even Is A Slasher?

  1. People Die: Slashers follow a fairly straightforward pattern: Characters go to the woods, characters stumble on a maniac in the woods, characters get dead. (Replace “woods” with whichever location the characters happen to visit, or happen to live in.) If slashers aren’t slashing, they’re out of work. Kills are central to the slasher niche. If these movies don’t have body counts, then we have very little reason to watch them. Bonus points go to the ones that find the sweet spot between creativity and excess depravity. 
  2. The Killer Is “Just A Man”: So says Robert Englund’s Ahab character in 2006’s very good mockumentary-slasher hybrid, “Behind the Mask: The Rise and Fall of Leslie Vernon,” and he’s right – slashers are human. They’re figurative monsters, not literal monsters. At the same time they’re more human than human, because otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a point and there certainly wouldn’t be franchises for the most storied slashers in the subgenre’s canon. Bottom line: The killer has to be a human being, and in some special cases, started as just a man or woman and morphed into something a bit more supernatural.
  3. There’s Usually A Mask: Not always, but usually. When we think of slashers we tend to think of iconography first: Jason’s hockey mask, for instance, is a pop culture fixture homaged and parodied in everything from “Eight Legged Freaks” to “The Simpsons.” Not every slasher covers their face, but sometimes just being plain old hideous works in a pinch.

What Isn’t A Slasher?

  1. A Giallo: Look, someone making their own list might argue that the two niches are one and the same and that a slasher list can, even should, include key entries from this Italian blend of crime thriller and horror. But as pinnipeds are to seals, gialli are to slashers, so for all the DNA they share in common they just aren’t the same. The influence movies like “Tenebrae” and “A Bay of Blood” had on the birth of the slasher is undeniable. They remain different breeds.
  2. A Home Invasion Movie, A Psycho Movie, Or A Gore Movie: You will note the absence of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” on this list, in part because it shares more in common with psycho films and gore films from the 1960s, and in part because slashers typically stalk their prey where they live; “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” inverts that dynamic. Like several entries on this list, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” one of the best horror movies ever made, informed slashers in their nascent stage, but if we’re going by strict definitions, it occupies its own territory. The same is true of Alfred Hitchcock‘s “Psycho.” Like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Psycho” functions as a template for slashers rather than a slasher unto itself, though there’s plenty of room to argue where exactly both films fit on the spectrum.

So, with the criteria out of the way, let’s get to the list:

Halloween” (1978)
The granddaddy of all slashers. The sire. The progenitor. The best. John Carpenter at his most wicked. Whatever. There’s no slasher ranking in the world that doesn’t have the original “Halloween” high on the ladder, and if there is, it’s wrong. “Halloween” remains a masterpiece: of slashers, of horror, of cinema period. The film makes sharp arguments about middle-class suburban life and American vulnerability; all of Haddonfield is a grid easily stalked by Michael Myers, silently striding from house to house without attracting the attention due a man of his size and creepiness. 

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives” (1986)
Every “Friday the 13th” fan is going to have their favorite film in the franchise, and they’ll probably be willing to throw down over it. But in the interest of science, let’s all agree Chapter 6, “Jason Lives,” reigns supreme among the rest. This is the “Friday the 13th” film that defines the series: It’s the birth of zombie Jason, the best leg of the Tommy Jarvis saga, the most well-developed in terms of characters and storytelling, and, shockingly enough, the first movie in the series since “Part 2” set at a summer camp. (It’s also the first since the original to have actual campers, which isn’t critical but feels worth mentioning.) “Jason Lives” created a new blueprint for the series in a time of dire need of a refresh, and over the years other slashers have borrowed from and added to that same blueprint, à la “Scream.” 

A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1987)
What’s most impressive about the big three in slasher canon – Michael, Jason, and Freddy Krueger – is that each of them has a distinct personality, though the line of scrimmage dividing Michael and Jason is arguably lean. Freddy is the true standout. At the end of that hallowed decade, Wes Craven had the long view, and thus the opportunity to not only learn what makes slashers work but to craft his own monster. Granted, Freddy is technically “not a man,” but a “dream demon.” Granted, also that he was a man before a mob of angry parents burned him alive for murdering their kids, and that if Zombie Jason Voorhees counts as a slasher, then so should Freddy. Freddy cuts a figure that strikes a stark contrast with the mute, lumbering brutes codified into the subgenre from the start. Freddy talks. And talks. He doesn’t crack wise with his victims in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” – that characteristic comes up later in the franchise – but it’s his preferred mode of killing that makes him unique. In theory, you can outrun Jason. (In theory.) You can’t get away from Freddy. You have to sleep sometime. Passing away in your sleep sounds nice, unless you’re passing away in your sleep at the business end of Freddy’s claws.

You’re Next” (2013)
If you’re looking for an argument over whether Adam Wingard’s best film counts as a slasher or instead occupies the “home invasion” niche, look somewhere else. If you’re comfy classifying “You’re Next” as a slasher, though: Congratulations! You’re not only 100% correct, but you also have good taste in horror movies. “You’re Next” opens on a standard slasher setup: Two people (Larry Fessenden and Kate Lynn Sheil) have sex and pay for it with their lives. From there the film does what most slashers do – jams its cast into a remote location and massacres them – but cleverly inverts the final girl trope via obsessive survivalism. Erin (Sharni Vinson) meets her beau Crispin’s (A.J. Bowen) family for the first time. Three black-garbed men wearing animal masks crash the party with crossbows and garrote wire. Erin, however, has them all buffaloed. She learned how to kill a man with a knife when she was a kid. It’s all muscle memory for her. Watching Erin’s instincts in action is a thrill, right until she rams a blender into one thug’s skull. Then it’s a party.

Stage Fright” (1987)
“Stage Fright” is one part Michele Soavi film and one part inter-niche reciprocation: As the gialli influenced slashers, so too did slashers in turn influence “Stage Fright.” The film has all the hallmarks of the latter – rampant gore, a masked killer, and lots of dead young people – with hallmarks of the former, like highly stylized mise-en-scène. “Stage Fright” comes from a time when horror movies put thought into set dressing, and given that this is a Soavi movie, the staging is dreamlike, even beautiful, in stark contrast with the stereotypical grime associated with slasher aesthetics. It looks great. It also pours on the carnage after a somewhat more deliberate start, which in other films might feel like a bug. Here, it’s a feature. Soavi takes his time, letting his viewers savor the craftsmanship before them until just the right moment arrives to soak it all in blood. 

The Burning” (1981)
Jason has his machete. Freddy has his glove. Michael has a big fucking knife. (Charlie Grimille has his noose, but we’re all better off forgetting “The Gallows” exists.) Cropsy, the murder-happy burn victim on a rampage in Tony Maylam’s “The Burning,” rocks a set of garden shears. Not every slasher gets a weapon that conveys menace, and besides: Beggars can’t be choosers. Lawn care implements are the symbol of Cropsy’s office, so at least there’s symbolic power behind every stab, every slash, and every butchered camp counselor, because of course “The Burning” is set at a summer camp, unimpeachably the archetypal slasher locale. Come for the mayhem, emblemized by one of the most savage kill sequences from early-’80s “Friday the 13th” riffs, and walk away with a few thoughts about how urban legends live forever.  

Scream” (1996)
No horror movie had as much influence on the genre throughout its release decade and beyond as much as Wes Craven’s collaboration with Kevin Williamson. Without question, “Scream” changed the way we watch horror movies, and not just slashers, either; try and imagine modern movies like “The Cabin in the Woods” existing without it. Horror has always been the genre that’s most in communication with itself, and “Scream” took that innate self-awareness to new places without getting all sniffy and snooty and dry. Craven made a horror movie, not an academic text, and he kicked it off with one of the greatest opening scenes in horror history: A terrifying cat-and-mouse sequence that ends on the murdered body of Drew Barrymore’s dead, deceased corpse.

Freaky” (2020)
Recency bias precludes a movie this young from being ranked this highly for most. The key to “Freaky’s” placement is simple: It’s really that good. Any slasher released in horror’s “elevated” era, when the movies horror fans watch horror for in the first place are deprioritized in favor of ponderous human dramas about trauma and grief, where subtext is only text, deserves a modicum of respect; if those slashers are any good, that respect is doubled. (That’s saying nothing about being released in a pandemic, too.) “Freaky” happens to be a better horror movie than many vaunted horror movies from the last few years; it’s gory and gruesome, and revels in both, certainly, but it’s heartfelt and kind, two things rarely associated with the subgenre. Thanks to Vince Vaughn, the film is often hilarious. Thanks to Kathryn Newton, it’s unnerving. Thanks to the total package, slashers have a new leg to stand on in the 2020s. 

Slumber Party Massacre” (1982)
Did Amy Holden Jones and Rita Mae Brown, the director-writer team behind 1982’s “Slumber Party Massacre,” intend on establishing the “slumber party” trope in the slasher’s yearling days? They certainly intended the film to have a sense of humor; Brown originally wrote it as a straight-up parody, before the decision was made to shoot it as a genuine horror picture. “Slumber Party Massacre” is still damn funny, of course, and damn violent, and one of the rare films made during the 1980s slasher boom that’s authored by women. The perspective singles out the production among other slashers on paper – “slasher by women” is a significant qualifier – but more importantly shapes the plot with bold distinctions from its peers: The humor, for one, plus multiple “final girl” candidates. That’s innovation for you.

Sleepaway Camp” (1983)
Is “Sleepaway Camp” as iconic as “Halloween” or the “Friday the 13th” films? Absolutely not. Is “Sleepaway Camp” as well-written and directed as “Scream?” Not even close. So, why does it have a place on this list? Simply put, Robert Hiltzik’s “Sleepaway Camp” is one of the most bonkers slashers to ever grace the big screen, taking the bones of the original “Friday the 13th” (masked killer hunting kids at a summer camp) and adding a large dose of what-the-fuck!?-infused mania that was never seen before and has never been seen again. If you haven’t seen “Sleepaway Camp,” do yourself a favor and watch it. But for your own sake, do not read spoilers. And as the final image of the film is forever burned into your eyeballs and your jaw is on the floor, you’ll be thanking us for the warning. -Charles Barfield

Black Christmas” (1974)
Appropriately, we bookend this list with the second major subgenre-defining slasher next to “Halloween”: Bob Clark’s “Black Christmas.” (And yes, that’s the same Bob Clark responsible for 1983’s “A Christmas Story.” Maybe he needed a palette cleanser or maybe he needed a payday.) “Black Christmas” predates “Halloween” by four years, which isn’t meaningful in and of itself; it’s the stylistic flourishes that relate these films to one another. Clark makes hay shooting through the killer’s perspective, lurking about the movie’s sorority house setting, scoping out the young women on his hit list. This is an effectively creepy tack made even creepier by the famous “the calls are coming from inside the house!” trope, appearing here for the first time in slasher history and arguably the best use of that trope in the decades since. We talk a lot about the function final girls serve in slasher films, and in those talks we ought to give “Black Christmas” credit as the movie that solidified the final girl as a character archetype in the first place. Jamie Lee Curtis is a legend, of course, but Olivia Hussey walked so she could run (and run and run and run).