Teenage Wasteland

December 19th, 2010


You know you’re living in some kind of pop-cultural saturation point when you find yourself reviewing a coffee table Slasher book…



Teenage Wasteland: The Slasher Movie Uncut, by J A Kerswell,  is a paean to that disreputable, critically reviled genre in all it’s head-splitting, disembowelling g(l)ory. Thankfully it manages to be both a loving and critical overview of a film type that tends to be dismissed outright by serious-minded critics or uncritically enthused over by dumbed down post-ironists. Whilst this isn’t on the level of Carol Clover’s utterly seminal Men, Women and Chainsaws, it’s a thorough enough dissection of the genre but with enough lashings of black humour and irreverence to keep it from being too po-faced.

Kerswell, creator and curator of the excellent website Hysteria Lives, is a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide who doesn’t shy away from forwarding his own opinions and criticisms. Taking a whistlestop tour of the genre’s origins he covers the  more obvious precedents (Hitchcock’s Psycho, Giallo films) as well as some less expected ones (the German ‘krimi’ pulp books, and James Whales brilliant Old Dark House for example).


Like all good pop-culture historians, Kerswell identifies a golden age for the Slasher movie, in this case the period 1976-1983. Alongside such obvious classics such as Carpenter’s highly regarded Halloween, he singles out lesser known films such as My Bloody Valentine, the dream-like Tourist Trap and The House on Sorority Row for praise. What’s amazing is quite how well a lot of these films did theatrically. There was a point when the Slasher craze was at such a premium that films like Terror Train would garner whopping biox office returns. It’s not hard to see why the formula wouldn’t be such a hit, especially in the dazed and jaded 70′s.


Much is made of the simultaneous prurience and prudishness of these films, but the basic formula is a tried and tested one. Perfunctory storylines, salacious nudity and amoral fumblings, gory thrill kills and a supposedly moral tone. Instant Drive-In fodder and pure pulp entertainment. Only occasionally did a film like Maniac, William Lustig’s repellent but fascinating psycho character study verge into more raw territory. (And if you’ve never Joe Spinell’s bravura turn in that film then you need to).  For the most part these were cheap and cheery splatter fests that traded in pop-nihilism and ever more creative teen deaths. Unfortunately a glut of cheapo copycat filmmaking led to many tedious spam-in-a-cabin flicks that were neither thrilling nor taboo-busting. They might have had fantastic titles (Nightmares in a Damaged Brain!) and gloriously lurid cover art, but the reality was they were often dull, repteitious and devoid of originality. Occasional flashes of genius would rear their head, such as the truly unforgettably deranged Sleepaway Camp, but the genre was at a standstill by the mid-80′s, as icons like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers were reduced to harmless clowns, joyously dispatching insipid teens by the dozen.


Kerswell doesn’t leave it at that however, and spends a resectable chunk of the book taking about the 90′s renaissance ushered in by the clumsily post-modern, but still enjoyable Scream.

Kerswell is more generous to the post-modern Slasher movies than I would be, giving props to duffers like Urban Legend and I Stilll Know What you Did Last Summer. For me, the self-referentiality was a creative cul-de-sac. By the time Scream 3 rolled round the formula had become convoluted, confused and basically very dull. And self-referentiality in slasher moves wasn’t all that original. 1987′s Return to Horror High was a smart spoof that played with genre expectations for example. Wes Craven’s well-intentioned, but achingly ham-fisted and pretentious New Nightmare was post-modern as all heck. It just wasn’t very good.

I do still have a lot of affection for Cherry Falls, however, mainly because of it’s deliciously bad taste premise and gleeful trashiness.
Still, at least the 90′s slashers were more original than the depressingly predictable slew of remakes that have started pumping out of Hollywood recently. Typified by Rob Zombie’s awful remake of Halloween, which missed the point quite epically, replacing Carpenter’s restraint and skill with lunk-headed heavy metal carnage. (Proof that just beacuse you’re a fan doesn’t mean you understand how to make a good horror movie).

The more interesting nu-slasher movies are being made outside of America, which is duly acknowledged by the book. Films like Haute Tension, Inside and Calvert exhibit raw viscerality and originality. Even the UK has produced some interesting fare, such as the gruelling and unpleasant chav-fear flick Eden Lake.They may not be perfect, but they show that there’s still life in the twitching corpse yet.

I should also add that Teenage Wasteland looks great, packed with vivid, gloriously tasteless posters and video covers. The Mexican lobby cards in particular revel in lurid splattery carnage, unencumbered by notions of taste or decency. It’s put together with love and care and it looks fantastic. It’s a great package, written with heart and brains, and a genuine affection for a reprehensible genre. A perfect stocking filler for the discerning hack and slash fan.



3 Responses to “Teenage Wasteland”

  1. Tweets that mention Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Teenage Wasteland -- Topsy.com Says:

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  2. Comics Time: Dirk Deppey, Joe Casey, Tom Spurgeon, more « Attentiondeficitdisorderly by Sean T. Collins Says:

    [...] Ooh ooh, Teenage Wasteland: The Slasher Movie Uncut by J.A. Kerswell — a Portable Grindhouse/Destroy All Movies!-style book about slasher [...]

  3. Leia Says:

    It’s a shame this book harps on about overrated horror comedies like ‘Scream’ and ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ so much. I would’ve bought it if it had ignored them completely as the artwork is excellent. Note to J.A. Kerswell, do better next time you could get more sales.

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