The Big 4 Ranked (Plus The Movie I’d Pick to Replace #4)

Done! Did it! I watched them all. Here are my rankings:

4. HALLOWEEN (1978)

This is not my favorite John Carpenter (Hello, 1980’s THE FOG). It was fun to see Jamie Lee Curtis in her earliest role as Laurie the Final Girl, but I was disappointed by how wimpy she is. I also got zero enjoyment out of the dialogue with her Mean Girl friends, who alternate between prude-shaming Laurie, and ignoring everything she says.

(c) HALLOWEEN 1978

On the bright side, Michael Myers’ breathing is appropriately creepy and Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) is downright delightful as the Homer to Myers’ Odysseus. The teaser, where we inhabit Myers’ POV while we watch him commit his first murder, only to reveal that he’s a little child is totally scary and shocking, as well. Between Loomis and the breathing there’s enough here to keep me interested, but ultimately I feel like this movie was a bit of a downhill journey from the intro.

Does it Pass?
  • Bechdel-Wallace Test: I think so? I’m pretty sure the babysitter’s club discusses homework before making fun of Laurie for being a probable virgin.
  • Sexy Lamp Test: Pass. Barely. Laurie gets a lot of credit by comparison with the TEXAS CHAINSAW’s delicate Sally (Marilyn Burns), but most of her fighting consists of blindly waving mildly sharp objects while cowering. She’s not quite a lamp…more like a beckoning cat statue with a letter-opener taped to it’s paw.
  • Willis Test: Fail.
  • Ko Test: Fail.
  • Roxane Gay Test: Fail. Every woman in this film has the inner life of a dating app.
  • Carie-Burns Test: Fail.

3. TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)

Directed by Tobe Hooper, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is the earliest offering on this list, and it was much scarier yet less gory than I remembered. I found the structure really impressive – the buildup is long and the first murder chillingly unceremonious. We spend an incredibly large chunk of the movie with Sally as the sole survivor of her friends, which seems potentially tedious (especially since all she does is run away, never fight back), but actually there’s a nice variation in where and how she’s running and who’s pursuing her. There’s also a proliferation of unnerving events, including possibly the first ever gas station harbinger (??) and a liberal use of an idyllic horror aesthetic that I deeply enjoyed.

Gas station harbinger aka Dad aka The Cook (played by Jim Seidow ) (c) TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 1974

I don’t quite get why people are so into Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) – he doesn’t have much of a personality, and I found him scarier as a member of the dysfunctional/enabling family unit than as the villain. I suppose since he’s the one with the chainsaw the movie is implicitly named after him, but I actually found both Dad (Jim Seidow) and the Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) a lot scarier. Still, a super enjoyable experience in terms of aesthetics, pacing, and writing. Would watch again any time.

Does it Pass?
  • Bechdel-Wallace Test: Pass.
  • Sexy Lamp Test: Pass, but to an even lesser degree than HALLOWEEN. Running away counts as doing something, but like…also a Roomba could do it?
  • Willis Test: Fail.
  • Ko Test: Fail.
  • Roxane Gay Test: Fail. This is an incredibly white and male world.
  • Carie-Burns Test: Fail.

2. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)

I was very torn between NIGHTMARE and FRIDAY THE 13th for the top spot, and we’ll get to why I picked FRIDAY as my #1 in a minute. First I need to take this time to say: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (written and directed by Wes Craven) is a masterpiece.

This film is campy and over-the-top disgusting. There’s a geyser of blood, tons of ooze and bugs where these things do not belong, and at one point our heroine Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) gets french kissed by a possessed telephone. What more could a girl wish for? I also loved that Nancy was so committed to fighting Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) that she devised booby traps all over her house. The twist that Krueger had been a real person murdered by her mother gives it a nice extra layer, as well – the generational trauma, as her mother’s trauma becomes “just” a nightmare, only for the nightmare to come to life, felt clever and surprisingly fresh for something 30+ years old!

Bonus: an incredibly young Johnny Depp as boyfriend Glen.

(c) A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 1984
Does it Pass?
  • Bechdel-Wallace Test: Yes.
  • Sexy Lamp Test: Definitely! Go Nancy!
  • Willis Test: Fail.
  • Ko Test: Fail.
  • Roxane Gay Test: Fail. There are a lot more women in this movie than most of the others, but it’s just so resolutely white.
  • Carie-Burns Test: Fail.

1. FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)

This movie is EPIC. Considering that Jason Voorhees is the supposed main villain of this franchise, it was a delightful surprise to discover that…

SPOILERS AHEAD

…his mother, Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), is the actual murderer in this film! Relative to the earlier slashers, FRIDAY THE 13TH (directed by Sean S. Cunningham) has more and more realistic gore and violence. It also makes use of the natural scariness of the woods, as well as offering this:

Steve (Peter Brouwer) shows off his lumberjack look to young counselor and soon-to-be Final Girl Alice (Adrienne King). (c) FRIDAY THE 13TH 1980

Most impressive are the tension and the two BIG twists. I liked that a bit more attention was paid to the “why” of the murders, as well as the moment that Alice saves herself by admirably decapitating a nice old lady. That’s gotta be an all-time best onscreen death for me.

On top of solid pacing, ample murder fun-times, and a couple good twists, FRIDAY THE 13TH ultimately won my top spot by being truly scary! I will certainly be revisiting this franchise in the future, so be prepared.

Does it Pass?
  • Bechdel-Wallace Test: Yes.
  • Sexy Lamp Test: Heck yes.
  • Willis Test: Fail.
  • Ko Test: Fail.
  • Roxane Gay Test: Fail. Yet again, every single person is white.
  • Carie-Burns Test: Fail. So many people die in these movies!

Motion to Replace HALLOWEEN With…

OK, before I get to this I have to confess that after a conversation with a Smart Friend, I did second guess my choice just a little. My friend posed a fundamental question: is the Big 4 really about the four biggest films that helped create a genre (the mainstream classic slasher), or is it about the four biggest villains to generate a franchise within that genre?

If the answer is villains, I can’t really argue with the inclusion of Michael Myers. There’s no debating that he spawned a long-lived franchise and has wide name-recognition. By contrast, the villain in my replacement pick has nowhere near the staying power.

But is the villain the most important part of a slasher?

What bothers me about HALLOWEEN is that it gets credit for spawning a slasher subgenre, the “teens home alone at night” variety, that it absolutely did not originate, and it’s execution is inferior to it’s predecessor. The only difference is a more memorable villain. Which re-raises the question I posed in my previous post about this subject:

Why are the memorable characters the villains and not the heroes (or more accurately, heroines)? What does that say about horror as a genre? And what does it reveal about the viewers (aka us)?

-Me, A Genius

Carol J. Clover points out in her book that, for the most part, even male viewers (who might have been supposed to identify with the male killer) mostly seem to actually identify with and root for the (female) victim. But if this is the case, why do villains have the staying power across lengthy franchises, rather than our ever-present (but oft-replaced) Final Girl?

Here’s my theory: sure, we’re invested in the delicious terror of the victim, but it can be any victim in terror of something specific. We (I’m using the we very loosely here) don’t care if that particular victim survives – We just need somebody to put up a good fight so the terror seems more truly threatening to us. Michael Myers, with his faceless impulse to kill, is still far more thoughtfully characterized than the blandly catty babysitters he murders. Which is why he has lasted through so many films, but also why I consider HALLOWEEN to be a significantly worse film than the one that came before, my pick for the reimagined Big 4:

BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)

It’s no secret that Carpenter was inspired by this film when making HALLOWEEN. In this interview, BLACK CHRISTMAS director Bob Clark recounts a conversation with Carpenter that he had around the time that HALLOWEEN was in development:

“He asked me if I was ever gonna do a sequel and I said no. I was through with horror, I didn’t come into the business to do just horror. He said, ‘Well what would you do if you did do a sequel?’ I said it would be the next year and the guy would have actually been caught, escape from a mental institution, go back to the house and they would start all over again. And I would call it Halloween. The truth is John didn’t copy Black Christmas, he wrote a script, directed the script, did the casting. Halloween is his movie and besides, the script came to him already titled anyway. He liked Black Christmas and may have been influenced by it, but in no way did John Carpenter copy the idea.”

Methinks the lady doth protest too much.

The truth is I’m sure Clark is right that Carpenter didn’t copy him directly, and certainly there’s no such thing as a “brand new idea” when it comes to art. But it’s also true that, in my dream world, Bob Clark would’ve written and directed HALLOWEEN instead. Maybe then Tommy would be the villain we all remember. Maybe not. But far more importantly, the victims might matter a little bit more.

I’ve already waxed poetic elsewhere about why I love BLACK CHRISTMAS, but the primary reason I find it to be a superior film to HALLOWEEN is that it scares me more. This is in large part because it feels a lot more cognizant of what’s scary to women specifically. The lewd gibberish phone calls feel far more actively threatening than a random man just…standing there and watching (I don’t know about you ladies, but if I were scared of every man that looked at me more than I wanted, I would be scared, you know, always). Plus the clever misdirection of the controlling boyfriend subplot is equally, if not more, horrifying because it feels so incredibly possible. I’ve certainly met that guy, but I’ve never met a Tommy or a Myers (that I know of). Most importantly, the film puts far more effort into giving each of the victims specificity and agency. People give Laurie a lot of credit for being the first Final Girl, but Jess (Olivia Hussey) existed 4 years earlier. The fact that she killed her own boyfriend, rather than the true killer, is incidental. She’s a badass.

Look at this sweet, innocent man-killer (C) BLACK CHRISTMAS 1974.

In a lot of ways HALLOWEEN feels like watching a man kill people whom I find mildly irritating (but do not hate) while BLACK CHRISTMAS feels like watching a bunch of my friends be murdered. Which of those things sounds scarier to you?

I will freely admit that HALLOWEEN is a decent movie, and that Michael Myers is a scary villain. I can see why the movie is part of the Big 4; it’s clearly had a major influence on the slasher genre. But what I will not admit is that this is a good thing!

Of course it’s a decent movie – it’s the unofficial sequel to a much better one. I would probably like it more if, in addition to premise and title, Carpenter had also “borrowed” the level of consideration that the earlier film had for its female characters. If BLACK CHRISTMAS, rather than HALLOWEEN, had had ten sequels, we all might’ve benefited from its influence on generations of horror to give us cleverer structure, more nuanced characterization of women, and (always most important) superior scares.

OK, I asked for it – tell me why I’m wrong in the comments!

Published by Brandy N. Carie

Playwright. Director. Producer. Dramaturg. I like coffee and Whisky and dogs and talking in person.

One thought on “The Big 4 Ranked (Plus The Movie I’d Pick to Replace #4)

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