Every year, the spooky decorations of Halloween put everyone (well, those brave enough) in the mood for a movie with the frights to match. You know, maybe something with a masked murderer, killing a bunch of teenagers with a big knife, until one girl is left standing.
These days, we take the conventions of slasher movies as givens, and now that the genre has fallen out of fashion in favor of the supernatural ghouls of movies like "The Conjuring," every play out of Michael Myers' book is considered a cliché.
But slasher films didn't just appear out of thin air. There's a long — and in many ways, unexpected — history, crossing mediums, that point to how Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger got their lust for teenage blood.
In the years between the World Wars, audiences in Paris couldn't get enough of bloody special effects on display at the Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. Most of the five or six plays that would run during a single night would end with a gruesome act, like a strangling or blinding a young woman with a pair of scissors. Attendance eventually dropped off after World War II and the theater closed in 1962, but theater proved beyond a doubt that even audiences back then understood the value of a good scare.
The time between the World Wars also saw the rise of silent film, and the medium quickly followed the examples set by Grand Guignol. Look at a movie like "The Bat," which was made before the Motion Picture Production Code enforced mortality-based censorship rules. It features a masked man murdering people one-by-one in a mansion, and you can already see the buds of the slasher movies to come.
"Psycho" and "Peeping Tom"
There were plenty of movies between the silent era and when these films by Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell debuted in 1960 that played roles in the foundation of the slasher genre, but the two English directors brought artful direction and a careful combination of macabre imagery and lurid themes to the party, forever altering the horror landscape and setting the stage for the mass murderers to come.
John Carpenter's 1978 horror classic didn't so much start a genre as launch a vast network of rip-offs. For the original story of Michael Myers, Carpenter combined elements for a variety of sources and different genres. The story bares a resemblance to "Black Christmas," but the unstoppable killing machine at the center owes a lot to Yul Benner in "Westworld."
But a lot of what we see in the genre after "Halloween" was right there in 1978, and while you might disagree, I think I side with Siskel and Ebert when I say that it never got much better than the original.