The slasher subgenre was born in the blood-drenched home of notorious serial killer Ed Gein. There, police uncovered a treasure trove of grisly tokens that would inspire filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Tobe Hooper and Jonathan Demme to create seminal slashers that gave rise to subgenres rich in gore and horror. However, with the recent rise in awareness of the terrors of the Golden State Killer, a new brand of slasher has emerged in Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental.
To understand how the slasher subgenre is evolving, we must go back to its horrid origins in 1957 Plainfield, Wisconsin. There, a missing shopkeeper, a pool of blood and a handwritten receipt led police to the home of local farmer Ed Gein, who’d filled his lonely hours with horrific hobbies. The police not only discovered the body of Bernice Worden, broken down like a butchered deer, but also myriad human remains refashioned into clothing and home furnishings. Since the death of his mother years before, Gein had gotten into grave robbing: This led to deranged craft projects like making masks out of the faces flayed from skulls. It’s believed he killed the shopkeeper because she looked like his mother — he wanted to wear Worden’s face to feel close to the late matriarch once more.
For decades, Gein’s life and crimes have been cherry-picked by filmmakers eager to terrorize audiences. Three years after the discovery of the Plainfield Butcher’s house of horrors, Alfred Hitchcock released Psycho, an adaptation of the Robert Bloch novel inspired by Gein. Like the infamous killer, Psycho’s Norman Bates was a lonely man whose obsession with his dead mother drove him to dressing as her and murder. Rather than killing women who looked like his late mom, Bates killed a woman he felt she’d disapprove of.
Psycho was a monumental success, paving the way for more tales of depraved killers stalking and killing beautiful young women. Its iconic shower scene has been imitated countless times, turning the slaughter of a nude, attractive woman in a bathroom into a tawdry trope. Yet Psycho only scratched the surface of Gein’s gruesome acts. It’d take another 14 years for the slasher to come into its own with a true-crime-inspired tale of abject horror.
In 1974, the slasher subgenre began to solidify with Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The film follows a batch of hapless teenagers who accidentally stumble into the hunting ground of a clan of cannibalistic killers. Named for his mask made of human skin, Leatherface is a Gein doppelganger. Like the infamous butcher, he breaks down human bodies and turns their flesh and bone into clothing and household décor, making the family home into a nightmarish display. Leatherface sometimes wears women-coded apparel, like an apron and a “Pretty Woman” flesh mask, in an imitation of Gein.
The box office success of Texas Chainsaw Massacre sparked other horror movies about teens chased by a masked murderer, like Halloween (1978) and Friday The 13th (1980). A flood of sequels and imitators would follow, bleeding the genre dry of new ideas by the late 1980s. Next, the slasher went highbrow with a scandalous serial killer.
Based on the Thomas Harris novel, The Silence of the Lambs features a calculating cannibal, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. But while Gein allegedly ate human flesh, he is more closely tied to Buffalo Bill, the movie’s other killer, who abducts cisgender woman to create a suit of their skin. Gein had a skin suit of this sort, though he described it as an apron that lay heavy with breasts. He would wear it out in his farm at night to dance in the moonlight. Gein also confessed to cops that he would place one of the human vulvas he’d collected in front of his penis to regard himself in the mirror. Bill does something less NC-17 rated, tucking back their penis prior to dancing before a vanity.
All three films explore Gein’s cross-dressing in ways vaguely homophobic or blatantly transphobic, demonizing Bates’ potential queerness, Leatherface’s possible gender-fluidity and Buffalo Bill’s seeming transness. Return of the repressed is a rich theme in horror, but one that gets problematic when targeted at queer/trans representation through a straight/cis lens. Nonetheless, The Silence of the Lambs proved a blockbuster, and even scored five Academy Awards, a rarity in horror. It went on to inspire a slew of serial killer thrillers, the sultry cousin of the slasher. Since then, the slasher genre has percolated with re-interpretations that make killers of the genre’s fans or its signature survivor, The Final Girl. But no other notorious real-world killer has had as defining an impact on the subgenre as Gein, until perhaps now.
The Golden State Killer was a prolific perpetrator. Between 1974 and 1986, he stalked California, stumping police as he jumped jurisdictions to commit his cruel crimes that included 100 home burglaries, 50 rapes and 13 murders. He has been known as the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker, before being rechristened as The Golden State Killer by crime-writer Michelle McNamara in 2013, in an effort to draw fresh eyes to the decades-old cold case. Her quest to catch GSK is explored in her book and its now-airing doc-series, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark.
In 2018, the killer was finally unmasked as Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., who just last month pled guilty to multiple counts of murder and kidnapping. All of this has brought the true terror of this long-mysterious murderer back into the public’s imagination, spurring fresh discussion, TV specials and many, many podcast episodes. It’s not just the quantity of the violence and violation that haunts us; it’s the detail. Those are what Franco seems to explore in The Rental.
Warning, major spoilers ahead for The Rental.
Since Psycho, the slasher himself has been a main character in these movies. He has a name (Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger), a grim backstory (child who murdered, child who died tragically, child murderer), and he is a constant presence throughout the film. Sometimes the movie might start with a spectacular slaughter, revealing his signature look and weapon of choice (Scream). Sometimes he may not appear directly, but will offer unnerving audio to his captured victims (Saw). Regardless, the slasher traditionally gets a lot of attention in the film.
Yet The Rental rejects this convention. It centers on two couples that go to a remote cabin for a weekend getaway. Each will die at the hands of a slasher. Yet he will go unnamed. His backstory will remain unknown. He won’t taunt them with Krueger quips or Jigsaw puzzles. He won’t speak at all. He won’t even show up until deep in the second act. And in the end, we’ll never even see his face.
Early on, there are hints that someone else is in the rental house — a mysteriously locked door, a shoe print on a bedspread, a dog barking at some unknown threat. If you pay close attention, you might notice shots that seem as if they’re from the point-of-view of a hidden voyeur. But the bulk of the film isn’t about this unnamed killer; it’s about his doomed victims. A drama unfurls about betrayal and suspicion. Only then does a man in black crash in, wearing a strange silicon mask that looks like an old bald man. He will kill each swiftly, most with masterfully placed blows of a hammer to the head. This slasher doesn’t torture his victims with prolonged violence. The killing isn’t his chief interest, as the shocking final section reveals.
While the Golden State Killer was a prolific rapist, Franco and co-writers Joe Swanberg and Mike Demski spare us this literal interpretation. Instead, they focus on other haunting violations. When Mina (Sheila Vand) discovers a hidden camera in the shower, she suspects the surly caretaker Taylor (Toby Huss) and is disgusted by the thought of him “jerking off” to her body without her consent. Before he escalated to rape and murder, GSK was described as a “prowler” and “peeping Tom” who peeked in the bedrooms of young women and teenage girls. This was how he chose his victims: He spied to learn their routines, which doors they left unlocked and when they went to bed. It seems he relished watching, feeling a rush in the unknown intrusion. But that wasn’t enough.
Like the killer in The Rental, GSK would break into homes to stage them for an invasion. The fictional killer places hidden cameras and a spike track to prohibit escape by car. His real-life inspiration planted weapons, like a hammer tucked beneath the sofa. The invasion wasn’t just about violence but psychological torture. GSK attacked couples in their sleep. While he’d sexually assault the woman, he’d leave the man prone, tied up with a stack of glass dishes on his back. He’d warn that if those dishes rattled, he’d kill the wife. In The Rental, the killer murders only after torturing his victims by exposing a heart-shattering infidelity via surveillance video. He also emasculates Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Josh (Jeremy Allen White) by showing them how they’re incapable of protecting their partners from his violent designs.
Still, these murders aren’t the movie’s most chilling moments: That is saved for an eerie epilogue. After all the renters are dead, the killer lingers in the house, just as GSK would in the homes of his victims. He doesn’t run because he doesn’t fear capture. He’s a master at what he does. GSK would rummage in the fridge for a snack while his victims lay bound. The Rental’s killer unhurriedly removes his traps and cameras, then takes off his mask. However, Franco cuts away before we see the mystery man’s face.
Next, the film follows this dark-haired stranger to a new rental, where we helplessly witness him make a copy of the key and lay out cameras for a new round of horror. Then, we watch through his surveillance footage as random families live their lives with no idea someone is watching. They do yoga, make dinner, cuddle on a couch, try out facial masks, and all the time he is watching, just as GSK did.
The horror of this slasher isn’t that he’s a chaotic killer like Bates, Leatherface or Buffalo Bill. It’s not that he’s a vaguely supernatural slasher with an unnerving invincibility like Michael, Jason and Freddy. It’s that he’s a mild-mannered man who is a mystery, even in his own movie. Franco leaves his audience without answers to the who and why of it all. We will not know the killer’s identity or motivations. We can only know the ghoulish details of how, and that he will certainly kill again.
Where might this take the slasher genre?
The Rental could push horror makers to explore the psychological trauma and mental anguish brought on by violations of privacy, home and person. Perhaps the twisted glorification of slashers that makes them the champions of their gore-stained franchises might be abandoned for killers and motives more mysterious. The kills might move away from the splashy spectacle intended to thrill the audience with a dark glee. Instead, they could ground us in the tragedy of this violence, the loss it brings and the true-to-life horror that it could come from anywhere.