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.)