Whatever happened to the serial killer? The hack ‘em-and-stack ‘em school of thriller-killer flick has fallen into neglect in recent years, with a marked decline in the number of psychotic murderers being chased by downtrodden and dissolute detectives. Have we lost our appetite for mindless slaughter and mild policework?
The genre itself has had a rather convoluted history ; the main tropes for legendary fiends and psychokillers was set in the heady, crime-obsessed ‘70s when the main chopper-horror franchises were established. These are a legendary set of films - ‘Halloween’, ‘Friday the 13th’, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ – all of which went on the foster dozens of sequels over the following decades. Add to that seminal pieces such as ‘Driller Killer’ and ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and that is the bulk of the serial killer canon right there. The activities of real-life serial killers, from Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Son of Sam in the USA to the Yorkshire Ripper over here simply increased the sense of anxiety and dread amongst moviegoers that the genre feasted on.
Of course, these franchises could not escape the hysteria prevalent throughout the ‘80s and they all got progressively sillier to the point of outright risibility. By the ‘90s moviegoers were ready for a new take on the serial killer, and that mould was well & truly set by ‘Seven’; this modern take would feature post- modern themes of doubt, pre-millennial angst, cod-spirituality and intellectual theorising and mesh them into a seemingly profound mush. Our serial killers were now eloquent, intelligent creeps driven by a combination of world-weary nihilism and unspecified sexual perversion, and their exploits were meant to show us something about the modern world. This formula was repeated incessantly throughout the decade, with ‘Along Came a Spider’, 'Kiss the Girls', ‘The Bone Collector’ and ‘Copycat’ being notably droll examples. Morgan Freeman became a very busy man indeed.
Arising from this was a nastier variety of serial killer, one where ingenious violence and torture were the order of the day. The blueprint for this was, of course, the ‘Saw’ franchise which took nihilistic nastiness to new heights and spawned a whole host of similarly media-savvy splatterfests with the by-now-obligatory nu-metal soundtrack. The internet and the whole morass of modern media was now a statutory tool in the armoury of the psychokiller; no self-respecting serial murderer would fail to film their killings and put them online, or use other piece of IT to advertise his or her work.
By this point we had entered the era of the reboot, and the cinemas were full of modern ‘twists’ on the old franchises. Jason in space? Michael Myers gatecrashing a mock-up of his own killings? All very post-modern, all very silly. The genre was now so ripe for satire that a whole new franchise – ‘Scream’ – was launched on the basis of knowing parodies or references to the entire box of bloodsplattered clichés in the slash-‘em-up canon.
Slowly, however, the level of general violence in these films reached a level where either through boredom or indifference moviegoers started to drift away. The debate around the ‘torture porn’ of the ‘Saw’ model of slasherflick was one symptom of this. Although the thrill-kill school of horror is still churning them out today it is undeniable that they are now failing to ignite the box office. Where is the next Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees or even Chucky coming from, to haunt the dreams of adolescents everywhere?
Maybe we have lost our appetite for cold-blooded murder in the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7, or maybe with the critical mass of modern media it is just too hard to unsettle people nowadays. Or it could simply be that there is indeed a maniac lurking in the trees, preparing to jump at gormless teenagers around a campfire, and he’s simply waiting for the next reboot of his franchise...