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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

When faceless horror came to Walnut Grove: 17 unexpected tributes to slasher films

Illustration for article titled When faceless horror came to Walnut Grove: 17 unexpected tributes to slasher films
Illustration for article titled When faceless horror came to Walnut Grove: 17 unexpected tributes to slasher films

1. “Sylvia,” Little House On The Prairie (1981)
Slasher movies have roots in many places—in films like Psycho and Repulsion, in grimy little horror indies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House On The Left, in Italian Giallo and other weird foreign treats—but since the genre broke through to the mainstream with 1978’s Halloween, the influence of the unstoppable killer stalking a bunch of hapless victims has been felt all over. Take, for instance, this pair of Little House On The Prairie episodes from 1981, in which Albert, the Ingalls’ adopted son, falls in love with a neighbor girl who’s never been mentioned before, but turns out to be his one and only. Then a rapist in a terrifying mime mask, who descends upon the two-parter out of nowhere, begins stalking her. The sequences without the mime rapist are typical Little House, without any real discussion of what happens to the episodes’ titular girl in peril. The sequences with the stalker descend into surprisingly effective terror. Making all of this even weirder: It was written and directed by Michael Landon, Pa Ingalls himself.

2. Nip/Tuck, season three (2005)
Had Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy seen “Sylvia?” Because the Carver, the serial killer villain that took over the plastic surgery-based soap’s third season bears suspicious visual similarities to Landon’s terrifying figure. The eventual reveal of the Carver’s identity, which had much to do with genitals—missing, reconstructed, and otherwise—proved a complete disappointment, as most of the show’s audience had guessed at least one aspect of it weeks earlier. But the buzz surrounding the strange villain and whom he or she might kill next resulted in the series’ highest-rated season, even if critics weren’t kind to how the show—which had once borne a slight connection to something like reality—descended into outright horror camp. Perhaps it was all intended as a warning sign for American Horror Storys to come.

3. Unfaithfully Yours (1948)
The roots of stalker cinema can also be found in a handful of far less likely places, such as Unfaithfully Yours, the most high style of the screwball comedies made in the 1940s by the great writer-director Preston Sturges. Rex Harrison plays a famous, supremely self-assured symphony conductor who is presented with evidence that his sumptuous young wife (Linda Darnell) has cuckolded him with his own assistant. With dark storm clouds brewing in his head, Harrison takes the stand to conduct Rossini’s Semiramide and has an elaborately detailed fantasy about murdering his wife and framing the assistant for the crime. Maybe because the scene is a fantasy, Sturges felt free to really let it rip, staging it with an unnerving degree of high-pitched, hysterical violence and sexual jealousy; the close-up of Harrison laughing maniacally while slashing away with a straight razor tops the shower scene in Psycho in its ability to make viewers imagine something much worse than what their seeing. The movie bombed, probably because movie audiences in the ’40s couldn’t deal with its extravagant swings in tone.

4. “Mystery Date,” Mad Men (2012)
One characteristic that has always distinguished Mad Men from the pack of 21st-century antihero dramas is its avoidance of physical violence. This isn’t a show with life-and-death stakes in the immediate sense. So it came as quite a surprise when season five stumbled into a horror movie, a literal nightmare in the wake of Richard Speck’s rape, torture, and murder of eight nurses in the summer of 1966 (itself the inspiration for a very Psycho-esque Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode). Early in the episode, Peggy’s colleagues are even excited by the tawdriness of graphic crime scene photos. Meanwhile Don falls ill and retreats home, only to lose his grip on reality. An old flame shows up at his door, and he sends her away, but then she slinks into his bedroom, a creepy psychodrama surprise. After sleeping with her, the guilt drives Don to choke her to death in a gruesome omen for a dark season. And then there’s one final tribute to great slasher movie tropes: It was all a dream. In this case it really was, but that hardly mitigates the horror.

5. “Nature Trail To Hell,” “Weird Al” Yankovic (1984)
Recorded during the time when 3-D horror movies were first trotted out at theaters, Weird Al’s musical tribute to slasher flicks takes inspiration from “Thriller” and “Stairway To Heaven” to detail the events of a fictional filmBeginning with a howling-werewolf opening cribbed from Michael Jackson’s hit, the song sets the stage for the bloodbath that follows when a group of Cub Scouts encounter a homicidal maniac in the woods. Nature Trail To Hell In 3-D puts audiences in the middle of the action, where they can experience “severed heads that almost fall right in your lap” and a “bloody hatchet coming right at you.” The lyrics are a characteristically irreverent critique of a society’s obsession with being immersed in terror, and “Weird Al” promotes the film as Christmas entertainment the entire family will love, especially if they get a kick out of the evening news. The silliness reaches its climax at the 3:40 mark, when Weird Al references Led Zeppelin’s backward Satanic message in “Stairway To Heaven” with his own hidden backward phrase: “Satan eats Cheez Whiz.”

6.“And Then There Was Shawn,” Boy Meets World (1998)
From another angle, the specifics of Boy Meets World read like those of a teen-splatter flick: fresh-faced cast, raging hormones, a sister who disappears for a year and comes back as a different person, a figure from the kids’ past who tracks them well into adulthood. Even so, the TGIF staple’s one-off slide into the horror realm is strange enough to have inspired at least one full-length oral history. The fifth season’s  “And Then There Was Shawn” was the very definition of a sweeps-period detour, taking advantage of slasher cinema’s post-Scream comeback to introduce some existential terror to the show’s de rigueur teen angst. Written by former film critic Jeff Menell and helmed by one-time Wes Craven actor Jeff McCracken, the episode strands Cory, Shawn, Topanga, and friends at a haunted-house version of John Adams High, where they cross paths with then reigning scream queen Jennifer Love Hewitt. It makes for the most wickedly funny episode of Boy Meets World’s run, as evidenced when one character bites it via the old “pencil through the skull” bit, only to have another character remark “We’ll always remember he was this tall.”

7. “The Scare,” Dawson’s Creek (1998)
Dawson’s Creek got on the air because it hailed from the pen of Kevin Williamson, the man who gave slasher flicks their irony-drenched second coming in the mid-’90s with his heavily praised script for Scream. The cleverness of that script’s “horror rules” conceit made him one of the few screenwriters in Hollywood to end up a semi-household name, and that meant every script he had even a passing interest in went into development. That included Dawson’s, which he took a heavy involvement in for at least its first couple of seasons. It makes sense, then, that a throwaway episode in the first season, “The Scare,” makes use of numerous slasher tropes, even if nobody dies. (Well, Jen almost stabs Grams, when scared by reports of a serial killer descending on Capeside.) There are fairly heavy lifts from Scream as well, perhaps because that’s what viewers would have expected from Williamson, even if it was a strange fit in the series’ hyper-earnest teenage milieu. The credited writer for the episode? Mike White, on one of his very first series writing gigs.

8. Blow Out (1981)
Brian De Palma’s 1980 film Dressed To Kill was widely attacked both by feminists who regarded its scenes of violence against female characters as misogynistic and some critics who regarded its parody-homage to Alfred Hitchcock as plagiaristic. A year later, De Palma came out with his political conspiracy thriller Blow Out that opens with a sequence designed to make the director’s critics proclaim that he had found his true level. It’s a Halloween-style killer’s-point-of-view sequence, with a lot of cheesy music, heavy breathing, and gratuitous nudity. Only when the psycho confronts a naked woman in a shower and she responds with the lamest-sounding scream in bad-movie history is it made plain that what we’re seeing is a deliberate parody of the kind of shitty slasher pictures that were then polluting the horror genre. The movie-within-the movie is the film that De Palma’s sound-technician hero (John Travolta) is, to his great misfortune, working on, and his need to find a better scream kick-starts the plot.


9. “Cape Feare,” The Simpsons (1993)
Genre parodies aren’t much of a surprise on The Simpsons, but the horror stories are usually reserved for the yearly “Treehouse Of Horror” anthologies. That’s not the case with the fifth season’s “Cape Feare,” an episode built around using horror tropes. Early on, before Sideshow Bob is revealed as the villain, Bart’s paranoia about threatening letters manifests in slasher visuals—Marge clipping coupons that say “DIE” from a Dutch angle or Flanders jumping out with his finger-razor hedge trimmers. That joke is repeated again later, just before Bob’s attack, with a point-of-view shot from someone holding a butcher knife entering Bart’s room (it’s Homer with brownies, naturally). But the slyest jokes based on slasher tropes come from the un-killable villain conceit: Sideshow Bob takes a monumental amount of physical punishment throughout the episode and keeps on coming. Perhaps Jason Voorhees could have survived being trapped under a car as it drives through cacti or an elephant stampede, but rakes? Only Sideshow Bob can survive the rakes.

10. “Smokin’ With Cigarettes,” The Boondocks (2010)
While The Boondocks has always parodied pop culture, few would have expected it to do a dead-on spoof of John Carpenter’s seminal slasher Halloween in the third season’s “Smokin’ With Cigarettes.” Lamilton Taeshawn is the show’s Michael Myers, a psychopathic 8-year-old who convinces Riley Freeman to join him in an increasingly dangerous life of crime. While the show never goes full-on slasher in terms of deaths (the only casualty at the end of the episode is a dog), it does ape the soundtrack and entire scenes from Halloween, most particularly the one where Dr. Loomis (name changed to Dr. Doomis) explains the evil that lurks behind Myers’ white William Shatner mask. The episode’s larger point about how white America treats black youth may have been overshadowed by how well The Boondocks retells Halloween inside its own world.

11. “I Am Not Afraid Of Any Ghost,” Childrens Hospital
There’s no setup for the Childrens Hospital Halloween episode, but the characters behave as if there’s already some reason to be spooked when they get a call from someone asking them to check on the kids. “The call is coming from inside the hospital!” the Chief discovers in a classic terrified rack-zoom. Turns out it’s just another doctor, but the Chief still acts like there’s a killer on the loose, and she wobbles as fast as she can to the right floor. When she gets there, it looks like a hospital after a zombie apocalypse, the lights flickering a sickly green. That’s when the killer appears, dressed like a cross between Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, in a grey jumpsuit and a hockey mask and walking ever so slowly toward the Chief. It turns out it’s just Chet, eager to show the Chief his sexy costume, as he keeps creepily muttering to himself. At the end, he even brings her to his serial-killer house festooned with a paranoid wall collage. A medical-soap parody isn’t the most conducive outlet for a slasher tribute, but the mess of tropes and frantic camerawork nail the weirdest Halloween II homage yet.


12. Harper’s Island (2009)
In 2009, CBS, of all networks, aired a grand, 13-episode tribute to slasher films with Harper’s Island, in which a giant cast of disposable characters gathered on the titular island to be picked off one by one; sometimes multiple cast members were even killed in a single episode. The idea was that if the show were a success, it would return the next season with a different cast. Despite boasting a cast that featured such then-up-and-coming stars as Christopher Gorham and Katie Cassidy, as well as well-known veterans like Jim Beaver, Richard Burgi, and Harry Hamlin, the show was always an uneasy fit on procedural-friendly CBS and was canceled after one season. However, the network allowed the whole run to play out—with every episode named after the onomatopoeia made by that episode’s main, grisly death. (Representative sample: “Whap,” “Bang,” and “Gurgle.”)

13. “Empok Nor,” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
The infinitely versatile Star Trek franchise has produced a number of slasher tributes, from a Jack The Ripper episode on the original series to a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde episode of Voyager. The most evocative is a Deep Space Nine outing that traps a few regulars and a healthy supply of redshirts on an abandoned sister station with a murderer or two with psychotropic drugs that encourage violence thrown into the mix. The titular station is part haunted house and part mad scientist’s lab—an unlit, booby-trapped Nostromo with two recently opened stasis tubes and another containing a corpse. Lit mostly by the roving diegetic lamps on the officers’ rifles or computer equipment, the shadowy playground has an eerie blue glow, the better for intense dread and surprise murders. Eventually the cast whittles down to pre-existing characters, but the big bad is “good guy” Garak under the influence of the murder drugs and surprisingly competent for a tailor. The episode starts as budget Alien, but complicates the premise: What if Ripley needs to capture the alien alive? The result is the creepiest Star Trek episode yet.

14. 2000 Nike commercial
As part of its slate of commercials designed to run during TV coverage of the 2000 Summer Olympics, Nike rolled out a pitch-perfect parody of a slasher movie, in which professional distance runner Suzy Favor Hamilton is menaced by a masked figure wielding a chainsaw in a Friday The 13th rural setting. A good case could be made that, by showing Hamilton besting the out-of-shape menace by simply outrunning him, the ad subverts the sadistic, misogynistic underpinnings of the slasher genre at its sleaziest, and achieves a degree of Buffy-style female empowerment. But the commercial was pulled off the air after the network received complaints from people who just saw it as Nike using a scantily-clad young woman in peril to sell shoes.

15-17. One Tree Hill, various episodes
One Tree Hill was generally a sincere, melodramatic show where teenagers worked out their problems via musical montage, but producing 187 episodes tends to give a series the leeway to step outside its self-imposed box periodically. When One Tree Hill decided to stray from this formula it almost inevitably meandered into the realm of murderers and psychos, with three separate stalkers haunting its characters over the course of the show’s run. In season four’s “You Call It Madness, But I Call It Love,” Peyton Sawyer’s prom night goes sour when her longtime stalker ties her and her best friend up in her basement instead. The sequence’s canted angles and over-the-top suspenseful score set up a pitch-perfect housebound horror scenario. Season six went one step further in “You Dug Your Own Grave, Now Lie in It” by having Stalker No. 2—an obsessed nanny—combine at least three horror-movie tropes (re-creating the kidnapping scenario from Misery, chasing a young child through a cornfield, and chopping through a car window with an ax, “Here’s Johnny!” style) all in the span of about five minutes. By the time season eight’s “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” rolled around, the show was almost out of movies to steal from, but it managed to pull off a fairly convincing Single White Female routine that ends with an epic confrontation in a darkened house. Aside from being psychotically obsessed stalkers, these three tormenters had one other thing in common: They always came back to life one last time to give the audience that final scare.

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