Slasher films have been a constant in the horror genre since the late seventies when the success of John Carpenter's Halloween inspired everyone under the sun to take a stab at it (pun intended). Although they've come in and out of style over the years, they've always been around and probably always will be even if they enjoy varying degrees of success and popularity. Jeff McQueen's documentary, Going To Pieces: The Rise And Fall Of The Slasher Film (based on the book of the same name written by Adam Rockoff), is a nice, if fairly basic, look at some of the more popular slasher movies that have come out through the ages by way of plenty of archival clips and some newly recorded interviews with various people involved in the horror industry.
A brief introduction explains how the success of Hitchcock's Psycho and Michael Powell's controversial Peeping Tom broke new ground as far as onscreen violence was concerned which in turn resulted in John Carpenter's Halloween. The rest is history. Halloween was a huge box office success and when it pulled in the big bucks it was only a matter of time before the knock offs appeared. The film's success lead to a veritable onslaught of slasher films where a faceless killer would hunt down and kill promiscuous teenagers in exceedingly gruesome and creative fashion. The eighties were the hey day of the sub-genre, with franchise films like the Friday The 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street series being the best known entries. McQueen's film follows the slasher film's rise and fall through the eighties, tying it into the political climate of the time and acknowledging some of the controversy that arouse around the gratuitous violence inherent in the films and the supposed effect that they could have on the public. As we learn about lesser-known films such as The Prowler we also hear from those involved in classics like Prom Night, Sleepaway Camp, The Burning, My Bloody Valentine and Maniac. McQueen wraps it all up by proving to us that the slasher film is alive and well today, with more modern films like Rob Zombie's House Of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects being mentioned alongside other more modern gore films like Eli Roth's Hostel and Lion's Gate's Saw films.
Many of the 'big names' in slasher film history show up on camera for interviews. John Carpenter wanders around a cemetery while he tells us about how Halloween came together and Sean S. Cunningham tells us about Friday The 13th while sitting beside a pristine and tranquil lake. Wes Craven talks about the A Nightmare On Elm Street films as well as the success of his self-referential nineties hit, Scream and the way that name stars were used to bring in the box office numbers on that project. Tom Savini talks about how his time in Vietnam helped him develop an eye for detail when doing special effects work and how the demand has, over time, required that the effects get gorier and gorier to try and outdo what came before. Herb Freed talks about Graduation Day and ardent feminist Amy Holden Jones defends her film, Slumber Party Massacre and answers charges from the media that slasher films are misogynist. Henry Manfredini explains how he came up with the famous 'ki ki ki ma ma ma' score for the Friday The 13th films and Betsy Palmer talks about her role in the first film in that series. Felissa Rose talks about how unusual it is to be best known for playing 'a chick with a dick' in Sleepaway Camp and Anthony Timpone of Fangoria magazine talks about how the films all seemed to influence one another and how they rose to prominence. Stan Winston shows up briefly and Rob Zombie throws in his two cents now and again, alongside Joe Zito, who talks a little bit about The Prowler.
The end result is a fairly comprehensive examination of how these films came to be and why. Highlights include a look at the controversy surrounding the theatrical release of Silent Night, Deadly Night as well as Siskel and Ebert's tirade against the sexist slasher movies (ironic, considering Ebert wrote three films for Russ Meyer). Plenty of great clips are used throughout to illustrate various points and to add some visual flair to what would otherwise be little more than an interesting collection of talking heads. The film, however, is far from perfect. Although they do acknowledge that Mario Bava and Dario Argento had some influence on the American slasher movie, they don't really detail this at all and considering how blatantly some of the Friday The 13th movies rip off those seen in Bava's Twitch Of The Death Nerve the film probably deserved a little more screen time than it got. Likewise, Bob Clark's Black Christmas hit theaters a full four years before Carpenter's Halloween did, and there's nary a mention of it here aside from a very brief clip that goes by almost unnoticed. While Carpenter hardly ripped Clark off, it's unlikely that the earlier film had no influence on the later and it's odd that Black Christmas, one of the most influential and earliest slasher films, isn't given much credit here. To the filmmaker's credit, the film gets its due in the extra features, but it really should have been included in the final version of the documentary.
Aside from those complaints, however, Going To Pieces is a pretty good look at what makes the slasher film work. It's essentially a love letter to this often maligned sub-genre of horror films but it's well researched and well put together so that even those who already know the history of many of these films will still enjoy themselves. The clips are well used, the interviews are well thought out and interesting and there are plenty of great stories here. Horror movie buffs and slasher film aficionados will definitely get a kick out of this documentary and those who aren't necessarily enamored with these movies might come away with a bit more of an appreciation for some of the better made entries in the cannon of stalk and slash movies.
Despite the fact that the back of the packaging for this release touts a '16x9 anamorphic fullscreen presentation' the transfer is actually 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen. Quality is fine, though obviously it varies a fair bit when the various clips are spliced in. The footage that was shot specifically for this documentary, primarily the interview material, looks quite good however. Detail isn't mind blowing but it's not bad either and the black levels stay fairly strong. Color reproduction looks accurate enough and there aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or edge enhancement to whine about.
Audio is supplied in a nice Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track with optional subtitles available in Spanish only. Again, the quality of the presentation varies from clip to clip but the interview footage sounds just fine and you won't have any problems understanding the various interviewees as they speak. The score stays in the background and never overpowers anything and there are no problems with hiss or distortion to be concerned about.
First up, as far as the extra features go, is a commentary track with co-producers Rachel Belofsky and Rudy Scalese who are joined by the film's editor, Michael Bonusz. It's an active talk by three people who are obviously quite enamored with the slasher film and they keep the discussion moving at a decent pace. They talk about what it was like shooting the various interviewees in the locations they chose (Carpenter appears by a tombstone that appears in Halloween) and they relate their own personal experiences with slasher films to the production as it plays out. They cover the formula that was used in the sub-genre and how that lead to it taking a dive, and they talk about how they didn't have time to cover as much as they wanted to (Black Christmas is mentioned...). They point out strange phallic symbols and discuss how the horror genre keeps a lot of studios afloat, which is ironic because many of the studios seem to be embarrassed by their genre output.
From there, be sure to check out the Bonus Interviews section where you'll find segments with John Dunning (who talks about shooting in a mine, 4:51), Paul Lynch (who talks about how Prom Night was conceived, 2:58), Bob Clark (who talks about making Black Christmas! Why wasn't this included in the final cut? 5:30), Joseph Stefano (who talks about adapting Psycho for the big screen, 10:09), Fred Walton (here he covers working on When A Stranger Calls, 5:59) and finally Stan Winston (he talks about his view of his own work and how it relates to horror films as opposed to slasher films, 2:47).
Rounding out the extra features is the film's original trailer, a trailer gallery featuring promo spots for other THINKFilm DVD releases, an interactive trivia game, three text screens worth of written words from author Adam Rockoff, animated menus, and a chapter selection submenu.
It's unrealistic to expect a ninety minute documentary to cover every single film in the genre. If you keep that in mind and look at Going To Pieces as a nice overview of some of the slasher film's better known picture, it's effective. The documentary is well put together with a few enjoyable nods to what came before it, and the interviews are interesting and enjoyable even for those of us who are fairly well versed in the history of these films already. The DVD presentation tosses in a few worthy extra features and presents the movie in decent quality, making this one recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.