Slasher films are a haven for some of the most iconic movie villains. There is a history in them as old and rich as movies themselves. If you ever sat alone at night plotting a hypothetical escape route from the wrath of a killer, these films have undoubtedly burrowed under your skin. It is therefore worth revisiting the inaugural boogeymen of production and distribution house, Compass International Pictures. Halloween, Tourist Trap, and Fade To Black were released by the company in succession of one another to waning box-office numbers. In fact, the latter two entries have mainly been salvaged through home media in some form or another. Regardless, this collection of scrappy features all rewired the horror lexicon and set the stage for an entire subgenre before it ever got off the ground.
In 1977, Irwin Yablans co-founded Compass International Pictures with the intent to produce talent usually overlooked by major studios. One of the filmmakers he took an interest in early on was John Carpenter, already established as a rogue auteur following the release of his second feature, Assault on Precinct 13. To Yablans, the young director fit perfectly in the schema of independent film production on which he’d gambled an entire career. Having left a sales manager position at Paramount, the producer faced a merciless Hollywood system. Unbeknownst to anyone on the scene, Yablans was prepared to meet the abyss in kind. His would be the next lucrative idea about the town. It continues to stalk cinemas going on over 40 years.
The original Halloween is a film which came together by alchemical means. Not a single cent of Syrian filmmaker Moustapha Akkad’s $300,000 went to waste. Knowing that crew members had to cover gaps with ingenuity, and that the finished product still contains goofs, is of no real consequence. Jamie Lee Curtis poetically carves a space for herself alongside her own mother in the pantheon of horror movie heroines. A defiled William Shatner mask demonstrates the cold, white menace in a sleepy midwestern suburb. The killer is sentenced to death by his own doctor only for his body to dissipate in an infamous reverse shot, tearing any sense of closure from an audience bricked by a tense climax. Laurie Strode (Curtis) asks Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasance) in a child-like state: “Was that the boogeyman?” The man answers defeatedly: “As a matter of fact, it was.”
Yablans conceived of Halloween as a piece of “theatre of the mind.” Growing up on radio programs such as Lights Out and Inner Sanctum Mysteries, the producer believed in the power of mental imagery. His impetus for making a horror film was also driven by The Exorcist, which gradually builds on abstract concepts like demonic possession via psychological impressions. Yablans was conscious of audience participation as well, feeling that the genre lent itself to a tacit breaching of the fourth wall. With a fleshed-out script by Carpenter and co-producer Debra Hill, the goal was to captivate and terrorize. The resulting film is less suggestive than a radio play. However, it cemented an inescapable monster to US audiences that existed both within and without the confines of rationality.
The horror of Halloween is a center of ambiguity calcified in blood. There has been much deliberation over who and what Michael Myers is over the years, but the character remains the most effective as a “shape” forged from darkness. The mask alienates us even though the stunned and corrupted 6-year-old of the film’s prologue doesn’t fade from memory. Perhaps more than any other horror film, Halloween established the look and movement of what would materialize in the slasher filmmaking boom just over the horizon. The silent killer with a tragic past and impenetrable visage who lurked just around the corner had arrived. However, it’s worth taking note of a critical element in the land before slashers that slipped under the radar: the supernatural.
David Schmoeller’s Tourist Trap is the only one of these three films not conceived of by anyone at Compass International Pictures. Its script was put together by Schmoelle and J. Larry Caroll after seeing Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. As fellow Texans, the film was a call to action for the writing pair and their script reflected similar points. In Tourist Trap, a group of kids on a road trip take a detour onto private property. They meet a seemingly innocuous stranger who later turns out to be a maniac running a wax museum with an aesthetic flare that would please Ed Gein. Hooper’s film immediately greets its audience with a kaleidoscopic attack on the senses. Schmoeller lulls them with a deceptively playful score by Pino Donaggio just prior to unleashing the arcane terror of the museum’s owner, Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors).
When Slausen takes victims, their deaths are bloodless. The killer wreaks havoc by using telekinesis to manipulate furniture and wax figures. As a result, Tourist Trap earned a PG rating which the filmmakers attribute to being part of what killed the project in cinemas. But this film doesn’t suffer an ounce for its restraint. Squeezing the wide Panavision frame for all it’s worth, Schmoller’s direction and Nicholas von Sternberg’s photography corner the young group one by one to a hellish degree. Pre-dating A Nightmare on Elm Street, the wax museum grounds make for atmospheric set-pieces that operate almost entirely on dream logic. Initially, the film functions as a whodunnit that leads to Slausen’s reveal as the killer masquerading as his own brother. But the story shifts once it abandons the flourishing horror conventions of its day.
The final girl, Molly (Jocelyn Jones), uncovers the mystery behind her attacker after unknowingly firing blanks at him. He feigns injury and rises to confront her. This is the point where we should expect a release of some kind, but Tourist Trap prolongs Molly’s disorientation. She is brought back into the house to bear witness to Slausen’s dance with a wax facsimile of his deceased wife. Here is where the wedge is driven between this film and other proto-slashers. As the figures come to life, no one is around to comfort Molly as she attempts to put together what it is her boogeyman is trying to accomplish. She is transfixed by him, as is the audience. We infer that many of these wax figures are collected victims who’ve made the unfortunate decision to stop at the near-rundown museum. We aren’t sure to what extent they are “alive” or how they came to be in the first place. Nor are we given proper answers before Molly swings an axe at Slausen, killing him in the process. She drives away with wax carvings of all her friends, exhausted and dazed. The finality of what she leaves behind is nonetheless haunting.
In his essay for the book Because Horror, Johnny Ray Huston lovingly refers to Tourist Trap as Halloween’s “spinster sister.” I’m inclined to agree with that statement because of what it suggests about the film itself. Lost in the pivot between Carpenter’s film and the gold rush that succeeded Friday the 13th, Tourist Trap is wistful and lonely. This sentiment is wholly embodied by Slausen. Connors gives an understated performance, making his villain more approachable than either Michael Myers or Leatherface. He presents the man earnestly as someone who has suffered immense personal loss and is on the verge of losing his livelihood. There is a pathos to him that is followed through to the film’s climax. Slausen is disturbed but the film’s bold articulation of his grief is undeniable. Schmoller and Caroll take the lumbering masked man and give him a heart. While it might seem counterintuitive, slashers accommodate sympathy quite well. The Burning’s Cropsy, My Bloody Valentine’s Harry Warden, and even Jason Voorhees (to name a few) all are rather vengeful in spirit. Slausen is a bit gentler, but his angst is no less pronounced.
Exploring the interior of a killer, Tourist Trap is much more tragic than it lets on. That Slausen insulates himself with the nostalgia of small screen heroes, and other relics from a bygone era, reminds audiences of today how malleable slashers can be. Going further, the subgenre has lived on to make poignant use of nostalgia for storytelling purposes. It is fitting, then, to end this unofficial trilogy with one of the most intense character studies ever put onto celluloid. In Fade to Black, Irwin Yablans returns as a major creative force. The process of bringing it to life, much like Halloween, relied heavily on collaboration. Yablans hand-picked writer/director Vernon Zimmerman for his experience in independent cinema, but also because he felt the filmmaker shared a spiritual kinship with the protagonist, Eric Binford. Regardless of the eerie comparison, Zimmerman understood the character so well he delivered a script good enough to shoot. One remaining factor which loomed over the production was the casting of the film’s lead. No actor was sought out harder for any role in the preceding films than Dennis Christopher.
‘Fade to Black’
Christopher proved as integral to the existence of Fade to Black as any of Yablans’ collaborators. When he finally accepted the role, his contributions pulled a demon out of the script. Through Eric, the diegetic manifestation of Old Hollywood villainy further dissolves the boundary between audience and subject matter. Fade to Black doesn’t prime its viewer with an avatar who ultimately survives the ensuing madness. They are instead dropped straight into the killer’s shoes. The film is dread-inducing and bleak without pause. The farther our protagonist spirals, the more the script tests one’s ability to empathize with him. In its more delusional moments, Eric becomes a god of his own mind and the photography reflects the haze of his fantasies. It is almost complicit in his crimes. Between Hopalong Cassidy, Dracula, and the Mummy, the killer never exhausts control. Shedding one persona after another, Eric jumps through genres to escape reality until meeting his end. By then, his spot in the limelight ironically comes in the form of a standoff with the police atop the mythical Chinese Theater. He is killed and falls to the ground with his eyes open, forever fixed to an imaginary screen.
While Fade to Black may seem far removed from the slasher, it is difficult to watch it and refrain from echoing Billy Loomis’ eternal line in Scream: “Movies don’t create psychos. Movies make psychos more creative!” The film engages on-screen violence through Eric’s obsessive relationship to the media he consumes. Characters bleed into his perception of the world around him as the film weaponizes cine-literacy to push its horror to an uncomfortable degree. The absence of a final girl makes it all the more disturbing and the authority figures who debate Eric’s condition are nothing short of impotent. One thing is clear however: horror movies indeed are not responsible for societal ills. Yablans and Christopher both claim their film does not fit in the horror genre, much less in a subgenre that is lambasted for a perceived lack of social value. I have to disagree. Fade to Black is a display of the power pastiche holds in confronting social anxieties on film. And the ‘90s teen horror cycle would create a direct lineage to the works that inspired them by recontextualizing famous monsters. Killers like Billy and Stu have a more rotten, cynical drive but they both eat at the table of Eric Binford.
In all of Compass International Pictures’ proto-slashers, the concept of “theater of the mind” was stretched to incorporate skeletal dread and emotional surrealism. What started out as an homage to the lean filmmaking style of Psycho had threatened to push the nascent subgenre forward two generations ahead. But thematic and aesthetic progression from Halloween to Fade to Black is not linear by any means. Carpenter’s film became the most successful and accessible of the bunch as its siblings were lost to time. I am glad that the latter films have been revived by physical retailers and truly believe they rise beyond the level of mere curiosity. Presented together, these films give perspective on the range that slashers are capable of.