Slashers and gentrification: a genre in need of an update

yahya abdul-mateen II in candyman
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The theme of gentrification has popped up in various modern slasher movies – could it reflect the subgenre’s own need for an update?.

In Netflix’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released last week, the young characters moving to a sleepy Texas town are immediately labelled “gentri-fuckers” by the townspeople. Moving to Harlow to open their own business and attract other like minded entrepreneurs, their plan ultimately leads to Leatherface putting his mask back on and re-equipping his chainsaw.

Reviving a poor area by attracting business and improving housing is known as gentrification, and it often comes at the expense of the current inhabitants. The theme isn’t just present in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it makes an appearance in Nia DaCosta’s Candyman and Netflix’s Fear Street trilogy, too.

Is the theme’s recent prevalence a coincidence, or, more likely, does it reflect a decades-old subgenre’s need to modernise?

The slasher first arrived in cinemas in the 1970s, with there being some debate over what exactly counts as the first one. One candidate is the original Black Christmas (1974), but John Carpenter’s Halloween really brought it into the public conscious in 1978. The building blocks of these movies are simple but effective. Combine an often-masked psychopath with a stabby weapon and a group of young people and you’re away. These fundamentals are easy to bring into the present day and appeal to a varied audience, but it’s the underlying themes that are the problem. Early slashers took delight in killing off sexually-active teens, often while they’re actively having sex. Given that classic slashers are now considered to be rooted in old-fashioned values, new films need updated stories and themes without compromising the basics of what the slasher is.

This is likely why gentrification itself is becoming a common theme. When the core of the subgenre relies on a very basic set of conventions that can’t be changed, the way to modernise is to draw attention to the modernisation itself. This is especially true for recent legacy sequels Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Candyman, as they have little room to make changes and rely on preexisting characters. Texas Chainsaw may be set in a derelict town, but there’s a scene on a bus where a party full of potential investors is taking place. When Leatherface interrupts, the guests assume he’s light entertainment and immediately start filming him on their phones. It comes off as a bit absurd and laughable, but it’s also one hell of an easy way to catapult Leatherface into 2022.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2022, still of Leatherface standing in a doorway.

Similarly to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the main draw for 2021’s Candyman is the return of the titular villain, and the grown-up Anthony played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Both films open with a sequence describing the events of their predecessor, showing that they’re striking a balance between honouring the original and updating it. A supporting character in Texas Chainsaw Massacre even says words to this effect. When Sarah Yarkin’s protagonist suggests that the town needs a fresh coat of paint, an investor disagrees as people “love the history”.

Candyman uses gentrification in a similar, but less superficial, way. In the original, Virginia Madsen’s Helen gets attacked in car parks and public toilets, and ventures into the neglected apartments of Cabrini-Green. Gentrification and inequality is a central theme, but the ‘improvement’ of the area is even more apparent in the sequel. In 2021 Anthony still lives in Chicago, but in a much fancier home. The targets of the attacks have also changed along with the area’s demographic. Candyman’s killings take place in art galleries and schools, and the victims are predominantly white for what the film suggests is the first time in the history of the Candyman legend.

The gentrification occurring within these films could definitely be taken as a reflection of how slashers are being updated for modern audiences. But does it add anything of value?

That depends. The examples I’ve given of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Candyman are opposite sides of a coin in terms of how well they’ve been received. With the former, it’s such a simple, gory outing that other themes seem almost inconsequential. The characters’ plan to gentrify the area is simply a means to an end – a plot device to get Leatherface murdering again.

Candyman and Netflix’s Fear Street films fair much better. In the latter, the gentrification of Sunnyvale is central to the plot, and the plot twist. More importantly the films actually have something to say about gentrification, specifically about the marginalisation and bigotry it can cause. Candyman director Nia DaCosta similarly uses gentrification and privilege to tell a story about racism, oppression, and police brutality.

New slashers may draw attention to their modern settings as a way to update themselves, but that means little in comparison to having something meaningful to say about the modern world.

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