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4 Early Slasher Films That Shaped Horror As We Know It

Slash from the past.

still shot from the leopard man of woman standing in front of a mirror in a long black dress
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  • Photo Credit: Warner Brothers

The slasher movie killer is without a doubt one of the most recognizable tropes in the genre—and for good reason. After all, from Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street to Scream and beyond, many of our favorite horror movies are slashers.

That being said, where did this indelible figure come from? People always want to christen films like Halloween or even Psycho as the original slasher films, but the truth is that the subgenre has roots that run far deeper than that.

So for your bloodletting pleasure, here are four early slasher films that helped to define the slasher subgenre and all the wonderful, gory horror films that have come since.

Thirteen Women (1932)

The oldest film on this list, Thirteen Women was released way back in 1932 during the fantastic pre-Code era when films were at a daring apex.

Starring Myrna Loy and Irene Dunne, the story follows a group of former sorority sisters as they’re murdered, one by one.

 Unfortunately, much of this film’s running time has been lost to history; the original cut of the film was hacked to ribbons, so we’ll never know quite what could have been with Thirteen Women. But based on the cut that does exist, it’s an interesting foray into the genre.

Like many films of the era, it’s certainly dated in plenty of ways, but the overall sense of dread and how its structure preconfigures so much of the slasher genre makes it a must-see for horror fans everywhere.

It’s also notable as being actress Peg Entwistle’s only film credit before she tragically jumped off the Hollywood Sign to her death only a mere month before Thirteen Women’s release. A tragic end to a promising life and career.  

The Leopard Man (1943)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton, this 1943 film is often overlooked in lists of the era’s best horror, but without a doubt, The Leopard Man has some chilling moments, especially for fans of slasher films.

A publicity stunt in a nightclub ends with a leopard on the loose in a New Mexico town. Soon, young women start turning up dead, and the authorities keep blaming the escaped leopard.

However, there’s more than meets the eye, as evidenced by the fact that this film is sometimes described as one of the first to feature the exploits of a serial killer.

Needless to say, there are sequences in this movie that are utterly disturbing, so if you haven’t seen it yet, be sure to look for it on streaming along with Val Lewton’s other masterpieces of that era. They’re all absolutely worth your time.  

Peeping Tom (1960)

Released just a matter of months before Alfred Hitchcock’s renowned classic, Psycho, Michael Powell’s subversive Peeping Tom is not nearly as well loved or remembered, and that’s honestly a shame.

After an era of celebrated British films with his longtime collaborator Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell struck out on his own to make this voyeuristic film told from the perspective of a young photographer and cameraman who is obsessed with documenting people’s terror in the moment before they’re killed.

It’s a disturbing tale to be sure and one that will stick with you, in particular for how Powell manages to make the killer oddly sympathetic at points, not entirely dissimilar from Hitchcock’s depiction of Norman Bates. Like Psycho, Peeping Tom is also a quintessential slasher film that deserves its place among the genre pantheon.

So if you haven’t seen Peeping Tom, then put this one at the top of your list. It’s a rare Technicolor horror film, and it’s also one that’s sure to make your skin crawl.   

Black Christmas (1974)

If you’ve already seen any of the films on this list, then it’s probably this one. A 1974 classic, Black Christmas has more than left its mark on the horror genre as a whole and absolutely left an undeniable legacy in the field of slashers.

This also serves as a nice full circle for this article: Thirteen Women focuses on a group of sorority sisters getting stalked by a bloodthirsty killer, and so does Black Christmas.

However, while Thirteen Women follows the eponymous ladies after they’ve graduated school, Black Christmas is all about the female students as they’re preparing for the holiday break. When an escaped maniac takes up residence in their attic, things go predictably south for all involved.

Unlike the rest of the films on this list, Black Christmas has been given more credit for its influence on the genre. Even so, it’s one that’s worth revisiting, especially since the cast is absolutely top-notch. Margot Kidder, Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, and John Saxon all turn in truly fantastic performances, and the murders are among some of the most memorable and disturbing that the genre has to offer.

It’s a great horror pick for the holidays, but let’s face it: any of the films on this list are perfect year-round too. A slasher for all seasons.