Is HATCHET a Slasher Film?

For a long time now, I’ve been asking myself this question: Where have all the slasher films gone? The genre came into its own in the 70s and 80s, had something of a mainstream revival in the 90s with Scream and the films that followed it, but seems to have declined ever since. Of course, there are plenty of good horror films being made right now, especially of the zombie and vampire varieties. And the Saw and Hostel franchises have, in my opinion, made horror interesting again. There have been some recent terrific slasher film remakes, notably Zombie’s Halloween, Marcus Nispel’s Texas Chainsaw, plus the forthcoming remake of Friday the 13th. And as terrific as Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is, I’m reluctant to give it full “slasher film” membership as it’s more about slasher films than it is one itself.But there seem virtually no original, honest-to-god, straight-up slashers films being made right now. And this is why I was especially excited about the release of Hatchet, which is billed as NOT a remake, or a sequel, but a return to old-fashioned American slasher films. This was to be the grand return of my favorite genre of horror, but after watching it, I was ultimately left a little disappointed because, while this film is certainly an enjoyable and often witty horror flick, I’m not certain it can be categorized as a true “slasher” film. On the surface, it appears to have all the prerequisites, but some vital ingredient is missing… an ingredient I didn’t even realize was necessary to qualify as a “slasher” film until someone made a film in which they removed it. But, in the interest of fairness, I came up with the following list of reasons why one could consider Hatchet a genu-INE slasher film.

Reason #1. The film follows a classic slasher plot.

Hatchet follows the relatively simple, straightforward plot of just about every slasher. A motley assortment of characters find themselves in strange surroundings and at the mercy of psychopathic killer. In this case, the group is led by best friends Ben and Marcus who take a tour of a Louisiana swamp as a respite from their Mardi Gras celebrations. It turns out the swamp is the home of Victor Crowley, a monstrous killer whose origins are typical of slasher films. He was born with his unfortunate deformities and was kept hidden by his loving, but overprotective father. One Halloween night, however, drunken teenagers accidentally set fire to the Crowley’s cabin with fireworks. Victor’s father accidentally wounded his son with a hatchet in an attempt to break down the cabin door. The father died of a broken heart, and his son became a vengeful spirit, killing all who enter his swamp. Ben, Marcus, and the rest of the tour group are all grusesomely killed one-by-one in typical slasher fashion. I very much enjoyed the film’s classic plot, and its special effects are often terrific, even if a little over-the-top.

Reason #2. The film has a group dynamic typically found in slasher films.

Slasher films typically invest in the tensions between personalities and group dynamics. All of my favorite classic slashers have their token personalities, which often include the nerd, the prankster, the vixen, the good girl, the tough guy, and so forth. Even though it’s usually cheap and superficial, the chemistry and antagonism between these types are part of slasher film’s appeal. Likewise, part of the charm of Hatchet is the friendship between the dopey, lovesick Ben and his best friend Marcus, the fun-loving, wise-cracking party boy. They’re incredibly fun to watch. The group they tour the swamp with also consists of diverse characters, including bubble-headed amateur porn-stars, their sleazy director, a demure mid-western couple, the Asian tour guide who’s badly faking his Cajun accent, and the beautiful, but mysterious Marybeth, who, as it turns out, knows far more about the swamp and its killer than she’s letting on.

Reason #3. Freddy Krueger AND Candyman are in the film.

Well, at least the actors who made them famous are in the film. Robert Englund appears in the film’s opening sequence as Sampson, a redneck fisherman who becomes Victor Crowley’s first victim. His gruesome death sets the tone for the rest of the film. Tony Todd has a terrific cameo appearance as Reverend Zombie, a mysterious voodoo priest who, sadly, cannot take Ben and Marcus on a swamp tour because he was recently sued for negligence after someone on his last tour slipped and bumped his head.

Reason #4. Jason is in the film.

Jason’s not literally in the film, but he’s virtually in it, as Kane Hodder (from Friday the 13th parts 7-10) plays the part of Victor Crowley. And, I think Jason’s spirit is in the film as well. Victor’s bulbous head and stringy hair bears a striking resemblance to Jason in Part 2. Victor also wears similar overalls and even lives in a little cabin. Plus, the final sequence of the film takes place on a rowboat in the middle of a lake. In fact, if you were to mix together all the best slashers—from Jason to Leatherface to Cropsy—you’d pretty much end up with Victor Crowley.

So, Hatchet has a lot going for it, and it’s a good film for all of the reasons I just mentioned. Still, even though it has almost all of the necessary ingredients, the most important one is missing — this film lacks the tone of a slasher film. It’s missing the unsettling realism and nervous tension of the films we remember from the early 80s and has replaced it with camp and wit. While the film attempts to elicit many emotions during its 84 minute running time, fear is never one of them. And if fear isn’t a necessary ingredient to the slasher film formula, I’m not sure what is. Of course, slasher films can be sardonic, in the way that Slumber Party Massacre is a tongue-in-cheek look at the male sex-drive. But that film creeps me out in a way that Hatchet never really did. Sure, there’s plenty of gore, but nothing that leaves you feeling unsettled in the way, say, the closet scene in the original Halloween does.

It’s as if Hatchet tries to please and wink to its audience a little too much, without ever risking anything truly subversive or creepy. For instance, I love the scene in which Marcus climbs up a tree and refuses to come down. When his friends tell him to at least tell them what he can see from his vantage, he tells them “I can see ain’t no dead elephant man coming to get me.” It’s a funny, clever line, but I don’t think an authentic slasher film would always go for such humor at the expense of genuine horror. Nor do I think an authentic slasher would invite its audience to “make Victor Crowley proud” by becoming part of the “Hatchet Army,” complete with T-shirts and merchandise as a way to promote the film’s release. The Prowler or Black Christmas couldn’t have possibly been marketed in that way. It would have been obscene. I know that all films are commercial ventures, but I still think real slasher films originate from the darker, stranger fringes of our culture where you probably wouldn’t want to buy a souvenir t-shirt even if you could. In our age of viral networking, perpetual news cycles, and ubiquitous commodification, maybe those places are becoming harder to find. And maybe the true slasher film genre that Hatchet wanted to revive was the product of a bygone era that can’t really be recaptured.

5 Responses to Is HATCHET a Slasher Film?

  1. A. Golaski says:

    What I liked most about Hatchet is that it embraced the supernatural–and this, I think, is something that differentiates it from the first Halloween and the first Friday the 13th. This difference is so significant, that I’m not sure I can call it a slasher film.

    Also, I agree that Hatchet lacks realism and doesn’t take itself seriously, which is why–I think–it’s never seriously scary AND points again to its not being a slasher film.

    What dissapointed me most about the remake of Halloween was that Zombie decided to make Michael Meyers a human being (tho at one point, the film became beauty and the beast). Making Meyers a serial killer who loves his sister strips away what is mythic about him–it diminishes his evil. I found The Devil’s Rejects similarly dissapointing. What I love about House of 1000 Corpses is that there’s something more to that family aside from insanity–there’s something living underground, that’s not entirely of this world.

    I don’t consider the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be a slasher film. Nor A Nightmare on Elm Street. The Texas remake, maybe (I found the remake to be uninspired at best).

    My hope for the Friday the 13th remake is that it will embrace Jason as a demon ghost–a being that kills because it is evil. Or, at the very least, will leave him unexplained, a shark. To make Friday the 13th interesting we don’t need loads of backstory (ala the Halloween remake). What we need are strong characters and an atmosphere steeped in legend. The campers must be real people, and the stories about camp blood must be well told…

    I have yet to see the Toolbox Murders–either version. Nor have I seen the original Sleepaway Camp. Should I?

  2. Wes Fierce says:

    So… What, exactly, was the “missing ingredient”? I agree with you, anyhow, I’m just curious as to what conclusion you came to. Or did I read past it?

    Anyway, I just wanted to point out that there are uncanny similarities between Hatchet and Madman. I went on a rant about it on Final Girl’s defunct forum, but it has since been shut down.

    I too was extremely disappointed with Hatchet. Especially after how over-hyped B-D made it.

    There might not be any truly genuine slashers in works, but I cant wait for Fritt Vilt 2, and I’ll probably crap my pants during the sheer awesomeness of My Bloody Valentine 3-D.

  3. Jon says:

    John: I agree with you. HATCHET is a good film that you can simply watch and enjoy. However, as a fan of horror who blogs about horror, I am intrigued by the fact that it claims to be something that it is NOT, and something it really CAN’T be: an authentic, “old school” slasher. Why this is the case is, in my humble opinion, something worth thinking about.

    Wes: In my opinion, the reason HATCHET isn’t what it claims to be is a specific matter of tone. Otherwise, it has all the prerequisites for a slasher. But it has absolutely nothing in it that is truly unsettling or subversive. And, again, I think it has to do with the tone. And I’m starting to wonder if our contemporary culture is ill-suited for creating slasher films: we have our share of sequels, prequels, and plenty of tributes to slashers, but not the real thing. I wonder if slasher films aren’t like sonnets? Sonnets written outside of the Renaissance risk being belated and artificial, just as slashers made outside of the 70s and 80s risk the same thing. But, I’m looking forward to those films you mention, too!

    Golaski: I haven’t seen the remake of the Toolbox Murders. Again, I’m fascinated by all the remakes, but nothing original to speak of, in the way of slashers. And I agree with you 100% about the Zombie remake. I’ve noticed that the current plethora of remakes all tend to explain and over-analyze the slashers. That’s a mistake, in my book. It leaves too little room for the uncanny. Last night I watched The Strangers, and while not a perfect film (the protagonist is way, way too calm), it has the right tone AND doesn’t fall into that trap of stripping away atmosphere in an attempt to over-rationalize everything. I do recommend Sleepaway Camp! It’s not as good as Slumber Party Massacre. But, then again, few slasher films are, in my opinion.

  4. A. Golaski says:

    remember the end of psycho–the psychologist explains norman bates’ condition? it deflates an otherwise intense experience. (still a great movie, but I consider that to be a minor flaw–a little bit of audience pandering, or, perhaps, an attempt to make a genre film legitimate.) the original texas chainsaw massacre never really explains itself (if I remember correctly), and I admire that.

    so, strangers… I’ve yet to see it. is it a remake of the french film “they” (or is it them?) in this TERRIFIC french film, a young couple are about to spend a weekend in their newly acquired home–quite a large house–in the countryside of a country not their own, and they are murdeously harrassed by a group of hooded children… who explain that they are “just playing a game” in the same matter-of-fact way I think “the strangers” say “you were home.”

    that may be our equivalent slasher. the completely meaningless torture of innocent people (these are not even people having sex of of wedlock, drinking, etc.). wolf creek, which I loved, falls into the same category, because even tho the kids in that story drink, party, etc., they are not stupid, incapable of self-criticism, etc.–there is no sense in wolf creek that having sex out of wedlock is _wrong_.

    I dunno.

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