If any subgenre of horror proves how the commercial always trumps the critical, it’s the slasher movie. They’ve been discriminated against by film critics from the very beginning – even Halloween got nasty reviews until a few savvy critics decided to champion it – but the audience was always there, in droves. Despite a glut of inferior product in each of the genre’s two major waves of production, the genre has produced several terror-tale evergreens that remain objects of obsession for a passionate and devoted fanbase.
Thus, it was inevitable that horror historians would turn their attention to this subgenre. Slasher movies are a regular feature in horror movie viewing guides and a select few books – Going To Pieces and Blood Money among them – have devoted themselves fully to the subgenre. Teenage Wasteland is a recent entry in the field, penned by J.A. Kerswell. He’s the longtime proprietor of Hysteria Lives!, a well-liked website devoted to stalk & slash fare. Fans of that site will be happy to know his book is tidy, smart and artfully designed from a graphics standpoint.
One of the nice things about Teenage Wasteland is its organization: Kerswell gives a carefully orchestrated history of the subgenre, going all the way back to the Grand Guignol theater and covering all the way up to the post-Scream wave of nuevo-slashers. The early chapters are reason enough for slasher buffs to buy this book, as Kerswell provides a detailed history of the many and sometimes surprising influences on the genre. Fans may already be aware of the influence Italy’s giallo and Germany’s krimi had on the genre but it’s nice to get a brisk primer on each – and the chapter on early 1920’s-1950’s influences is revelatory stuff that’ll have even veteran fans scribbling down must-find lists.
During the peak years of the cycle, roughly 1978 to 1984, each year gets a chapter of its own. Within these chapters, films are covered in a chronological fashion, with each title receiving a breakdown of its production, significant elements and release history. The latter element frequently includes a mention of the box office figures, as it is surprising to hear what did and didn’t do well. For example, fan favorite My Bloody Valentine (1981 version) fared poorly during its original release with a middling-at-best $5 million while the critically-reviled campfest The Seduction racked up an impressive $12 million. Key titles like Halloween and Friday The 13th get extra space while other titles get lesser amounts according to their interest level.
Some fans might take exception to Teenage Wasteland as it doesn’t go too deeply in any direction and Kerswell avoids the kind of obsessive detail or norm-challenging opinions that have become common in modern genre film writing (at least at the fan level). That said, one must remember that this is a primer on the slasher film, designed to be smart enough to appeal to fans while also remaining accessible enough to be inviting to neophytes. Kerswell pulls off that balance nicely, maintaining a reasonable, intelligent voice that savvy fans will appreciate but also adding in newbie-friendly touches like fun sidebars and an engaging set of appendices that offer capsule reviews for key titles and all manner of trivia.
Finally, it should be noted that the graphic design of Teenage Wasteland is fantastic. The design of the book is credited to one Paul Wright, who deserves a round of applause for making the book as entertaining to look at as it is to read. The design is full color with the exception of a few black-and-white newspaper ads and stills and the imagery shares space with the text on a 50/50 basis. It’s worth noting that a lot of foreign posters are used so even fans who are familiar with the domestic ad mats for these films will be taken by surprise by some of the stunning alternative-market graphic designs that turn up here.
In short, Teenage Wasteland is both a strong primer on the slasher film and a fun coffer table book for horror fans. Whatever your level of interest in this subgenre, it’s worth a look for anyone with a historical interest in modern horror trends.
(Note: this book was originally published in the U.K. It is due for an American reprint in June 2012 under a simpler new title, The Slasher Movie Book. U.S. slasher fans may want to wait for the reprint as it will be cheaper than picking up the UK edition.)