One constant that runs through countless horror films (especially in the slasher genre) is the oh-so-familiar shower scene (and its slight variant – the bathtub scene). Psycho’s iconic shower scene stands alone at the pinnacle, but there are legions of imitators – some good, some godawful. Today, we’re looking at them both.
Why the tendency of horror cinema to feature a shower scene so often? The easy answer is that it provides an opportunity for some nudity (generally a plus in the horror genre). However, when you take a moment to really look it, you’d be surprised how infrequent shower scene nudity actually is – easily less than half the time.
So, what the hell? I suppose this is when it’s time to make some unsubstantiated theories. Perhaps it’s because, in the shower, we are extremely vulnerable – trapped in a corner with no exit, and stark naked. Given that it almost exclusively happens to women, it may have even deeper meaning – the woman is becoming clean (i.e. virginal) and is now ready for sacrifice.
We’re getting off into the weeds here; it’s probably best to leave the root cause analysis to the armchair psychologists. While they’re busy debating, let’s get on with the list…
You could almost make a case that all horror movie shower scenes owe their existence to this one historic moment. Why is it so revered and imitated? Beside the fact that the direction is genius and expertly executed with an epic score, what was actually taking place gob smacked audiences. Killing a main character this far into a film was unheard of; not to mention onscreen violence had been kicked up to a level audiences weren’t used to. It all made for a cinematic bitch-slap that forever transformed the expectations of horror filmgoers for decades to come.
Dressed to Kill (1980)
Brian DePalma made a career out of homages to Hitchcock. Here, he takes a stab (pun intended) at Psycho. With masturbation and a nude Angie Dickenson (and body double), things are much more explicit than the original. MAD magazine (Issue #222, April 1981) made fun of the scene and DePalma’s choice to get graphic with Hitchock’s template….
[It’s interesting to note that DePalma would revisit the shower scene in Blow Out (1981) and had previously touched on it in Carrie (1976)].
Death Ship (1980)
Death Ship was released the same year as Dressed to Kill. Unlike the DePalma film which delivered exciting twists from beginning to end, Death Ship is excruciatingly dull and drags along painfully. At times, I expected the film to just stop and a narrator to tiredly admit that it just isn’t worth it. End of film.
That being said, there is one – I repeat, one – frightening scene. Those that have vague recollections of Death Ship always seem to remember the bloody shower scene. The water turns to blood in Lori’s (Victoria Burgoyne) shower, and she can’t get out. No matter how much Nick tries to open it, the shower door just won’t budge. It may sound fairly typical, but it’s actually executed well… or perhaps, surrounded by such dullness, this scene stood out all the more sharply.
Unfortunately, even this scene is undercut by ridiculously irrelevant scenes of the annoying Marshal kids (don’t ask). Thus, the one truly horrific scene in the entire movie was neutralized by pointless editing.
Director Frank Marshall gets pretty close to the Psycho template, but this time it’s with spiders instead of transsexual psychopaths… and with a refreshing comedic twist.
It’s important to note that fourteen years before Arachnophobia played the bug card in a shower scene, Patricia Pearcy was getting grossed out in the shower in Squirm. Let’s give credit where credit is due.
Killer Tomatoes Strike Back (1991)
As decades passed, the Psycho shower scene had been done to death (another intended pun). The sequel to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes has fun with the trope…
But not all shower scenes in horror films are Psycho rip-offs and homages…
Night of the Bloody Apes (1968)
Julio has been turned into a humanoid gorilla that apparently can’t get enough of the young ladies. Mild mannered Julio, now ape-man, spends the duration of this rather unpleasant film trying to rape Mexican women. In one scene, this rapey primate scales a building, pulls a chick out of the shower (played by Gina Morett in her first of 80+ films) and starts going to town on her, ultimately tearing her limb from limb. The scene is straight up shocking – not just because of its graphic nature, but because the rest of the movie (minus a surgery scene) could easily be rated G! It’s like watching an episode of Bewitched and suddenly Dr. Bombay starts murderously raping Samantha. It’s freaking horrifying.
It (1990, TV mini-series)
Tim Curry popping out of a shower drain in full clown costume is what nightmares are made of.
Deadly Blessing (1981) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Deadly Blessing is a Wes Craven film about normal people taking residence near a weird Amish-like cult who constantly blather on about an “Incubus”. As unremarkable as the film was, its bathroom scene is truly in a class by itself in terms of sheer volume of steam. Deadly Blessing wins the award by a landslide for the most steam in a bathroom – the Scottish moors have less mist than this bathroom.
The scene involves a black snake creeping into Martha’s (Maren Jensen) bathtub. It’s so poorly edited you can see the body double’s black panties/bikini bottoms. Horror fans will note that Craven would recreate this scene almost exactly in Nightmare on Elm Street (the scene where Freddy’s claws emerge from the tub) with much improvement. [Note: This scene would again be recreated in Slither (2006). Also note that the bathtub scene in Shivers (1975) predates all of these and perhaps trumps them all.]
The Toolbox Murders (1978)
I’ve always had problems with the bipolar nature of this film. The scenes with Weslie Eure (Land of the Lost) acting like a Hardy Boy sleuthing around seem like they’re right out of an After School Special. Yet, the murder scenes are exceedingly graphic; every bit as gritty and disturbing as the director’s (Tobe Hooper) previous film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The transition between benign and full-throttle horror can be jarring.
One such graphic moment is the bathtub scene. It begins with Dee Ann (Marianne Walter) in the tub with music that could be by Gordon Lightfoot. Then the killer arrives with nail gun and what follows is extremely uncomfortable and unsettling, yet effective. You, the viewer, will feel the need to take a bath yourself to wash away the memories.
By the 1980s, the slasher film had hit its stride and things got less nihilistic and gritty. While there was still plenty of violence to go around, it was all in the name of good, unclean fun. Here, the shower scene not only became commonplace, it was damn near a requirement….
The Funhouse (1981)
A slightly censored scene from a much underrated horror flick. It may not be the most original film to come out of the heyday of the slasher film; however, it definitely delivers the goods when it comes to scares. The shower scene takes from both Psycho (1960) and the intro scene in Halloween (1978) where Michael Myers kills his older sister. In some ways, The Funhouse version is creepier – what kind of messed up kid does this?
Also, the film’s shower scene breaks a cardinal rule of gratuitous nudity, showing the lead actress’ boobs within the first few minutes of the film, and then never venturing toward nudity again. Anyone familiar with the rules knows that you don’t set expectations of plentiful boobs and then not provide.
The Boogeyman (1980)
In which young Jane strips down to her undergarments in preparation for a shower…. And we all know that shower spells “dead” in a slasher film. Sometimes it’s a false scare (as in the previously mentioned intro shower scene in Funhouse); however, this time it’s the real deal, and poor Jane must kill herself with a pair of scissors. At least Jason did the dirty work himself.
The Friday the 13th Films
In Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) Sara (Barbara Howard) not only has sex (which is, as we’ve established, a huge no-no if you want to stay alive in a slasher film), but she does so in the shower – and we all know how homicidal maniacs feel about showers. In a slasher film, this is like jumping into a shark tank wearing a suit of Vienna sausages.
In the Friday the 13th Part 3 (1982), Debbie (Tracie Savage) commits a double whammy when she not only beds down with Andy, but then takes a shower. This chick must have had a death wish; a wish granted by Jason via a kitchen knife.
Slumber Party Massacre (1982)
As you can probably tell, the early Eighties were awash in shower scenes. This one in particular featured a brief part by Scream Queen Brinke Stevens who had this to say about shower scenes:
“I’ve probably done more shower scenes than any actress in history. I’ve done so many that I’m probably the cleanest actress in Hollywood.”
The Prowler (1981)
Like The Funhouse, The Prowler is a sinfully underrated slasher film. The shower scene in this film is done with admirable skill. In stark contrast are a couple really poor examples of the horror shower scene:
New Year’s Evil (1980): No scares, no nudity, and no consequence to the plot whatsoever. The shower scene at the start of this film has the bones of the Psycho template, but none of the meat.
The Burning (1981): Done for a cheap jump scare and gratuitous nudity. This outdoor shower scene in broad daylight is woefully lame but a nice segue to “for reasons of nudity only” category of horror shower scenes.
Yes, I’m afraid to say it, but some horror movies put shower scenes in for no other reason than to provide a little T&A with no bathroom scares whatsoever. This practice became common in the 1990s with notable perpetrators to include Sorority House Massacre II (1990), Luther the Geek (1991) and Pinocchio’s Revenge (1996).
And speaking of the 1990s…
Jack Frost (1997)
Shannon Elizabeth, naked in a shower, getting killed by a snowman FTW. The trope of the horror shower scene had finally reached its logical extreme. What started with a stroke of brilliance in 1960 has come to this in the 1990s. And while there are other worthy contributors to bathroom horror which haven’t been mentioned (Blood and Black lace, What Lies Beneath, The Tingler, Mirrors and The Shining to name a few) I think it’s best we stop here.