Friday, July 13, 2012

Casualty Fridays

Bear with me on this: I have an insane desire to make a Friday the 13th sequel. This may come as a surprise to some of the people who know me and know of my longstanding dislike of the Friday the 13th movies, but I have an idea and it's one that refuses to be flushed from the drain at the bottom of my hindbrain. It goes something like this: a reporter for a big city newspaper notices a pattern to the periodic massacres at Camp Crystal Lake, and comes to town to investigate. She's stonewalled by the locals, of course, except for the hotshot new sheriff, who has only lived there for a handful of years. He's not "one of them" yet, if you catch my drift. Small towns are insular, after all. In the course of digging through old newspapers at the library and through old case files at the sheriff's office, a pattern emerges that dates back much, much farther than Jason Voorhees's unfortunate swimming accident. Jason, it seems, was chosen for his role by something that lives in the lake. He's its herald. Meanwhile, the killings have begun again, and our intrepid heroes suspect that they're building to something, something awful. The stars are right. The thing in the lake is waking up, and Crystal lake disgorges its dead, to rampage as an army of unstoppable undead murderers. The lurker in the lake then rises to devour the sun. The end.

I realize, of course, that Jason's legion of fans would never forgive me, but let's be real, here: once Jason started appearing in monster team-ups and was projected into space, there's not really a lot of essential essence to the character that can really be violated.

I'm sure that this probably makes me a bad horror fan, but I really don't like slasher movies. I say that, knowing full well that there's nuance to this statement. It's odd, too, given that I was exactly the right age at exactly the right time to become a fan of slasher movies. Halloween came out when I was 12. The main wave of the slasher movie peaked when I was 15 or sixteen. I was the prime audience for them. But somehow, they never took hold of my affections. It's not like I wasn't a fan of violent movies at the time. Not at all. I LOVED the other horror movies that came out circa 1980. It was ground zero for the new horror masters like Carpenter, Cronenberg, and Romero, and I loved most of their movies. Hell, I probably loved all of their movies at the time, and I still love most them. But not the slashers.

I remember watching the first Friday the 13th (1980, directed by Sean S. Cunningham) on cable (the first of the Fridays I saw in the theater was part 3). I stayed up until two in the morning to see it. This was back when HBO was squeamish about showing hard R rated movies before 10 pm, and exploitation movies like this one showed even later as a rule. I don't remember watching it with my brothers (and I certainly wouldn't have watched it with my parents). I vaguely remember staying up even later than the movie to catch the feature afterwards, which I recall being Without Warning with Jack Palance and Cameron Mitchell. I liked that movie better than Friday the 13th. It had an alien big game hunter and nasty little parasites that it threw like shuriken. Friday the 13th had a bunch of dumb kids being bumped off one after another in a replay of Halloween, only without John Carpenter's sense of style and restraint. I remember the trailers for the film, too: they played all over independent television back then, and occasionally on the network stations after the networks were shut down for the night. The trailers made the film look fantastic (even if they had a Crown International feel to them rather than a big studio look). Part of my reaction to the movie may have some element of feeling cheated by the trailer. Exploitation trailers were masters of bait and switch.

I think I may have seen the film a second time in a party atmosphere sometime in 1983. My friends at the time were big into all night horror marathons, the video revolution still being somewhat novel. My family had a VCR by then, a top loader. I remember checking out of the film and dozing. It happened sometimes during these sessions. Over the years, my memory of the film has become a fractured thing. I remembered individual images, but not the movie as a whole. I remembered Kevin Bacon getting skewered from under the bed. I remembered the shock moment at the end. I remembered the creepy old man. Not much else.

So I sat down this morning--I'm writing this on Friday, July 13, 2012--to re-watch the movie with the the preconception that it's a rotten movie. I've been badmouthing the thing for years and I needed to see for myself if I'm talking out of my ass when I do this. My younger self is an unreliable witness sometimes, and I wanted to give the movie a fair shake. I really did...

...but, sometimes, my younger self was wise beyond her years. She wasn't wrong about Friday the 13th. It's crap. It's not unworthy of study, though.

The story is familiar by now, and I don't think I'm giving anything away when I tell you that Jason and his signature hockey mask aren't the main antagonist of this picture. After massacre-ing an entire camp full of counselors, the villain of Friday the 13th is shown to be Jason's mom, Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), who, after dispatching the cast in creative ways, spends twenty minutes trying to kill off poor doomed Alice (Adrienne King), while raving the film's backstory. She's the talking killer as exposition. This wasn't a particularly inspired plot even in 1980 (indeed, there are structural similarities to Mario Bava's Bay of Blood that are too close to be accidental). Why, then, was this a big hit when other films of similar lineage--The Burning, for example, or Silent Scream--have faded into obscurity? Friday the 13th certainly isn't any better than those movies. From my own perspective, the answer is two-fold.

First of all, Friday the 13th was picked up for distribution by Paramount Pictures. The film only cost $500,000 to make, so Paramount only needed to release the damned thing in an average big-studio distribution to make a profit, and boy, howdy, did it make a profit. Paramount timed it precisely: cashing in on the success of Halloween while remaining far enough in front of it. Theater owners that might not have booked the film in the past were willing to book the film now because they smelled blood in the water. This is a film that played the then new multiplex circuit when even four years earlier, it would have been consigned to drive-ins. So it had an infrastructural leg up.

Second, this is a film that benefits from a "greatest hits" phenomenon, and in doing so, it calcifies certain horror movie tropes in currency in the new horror films of the seventies into actual, by-golly cliches. For example: Ralph, the ranter in this movie, is a distillation of various sinister cassandras from other films. He's not performed well, nor even organic to the movie, but he's a familiar signpost. You also have a bit of narrative misdirection when it comes to establishing a protagonist. The first potential protagonist we meet is Annie, who is hitchhiking to Camp Crystal Lake. She's the I-guy when it comes to establishing the movie's universe as she wanders through the nearby town gathering the backstory necessary to establish the narrative. The movie then surprises us by killing her first. This is borrowed wholesale from Psycho, of course, as is the nature of the relationship between Mrs. Voorhees and her monstrous son (this is a nice inversion, actually, but it's derivative none the less). But the real progenitor of Friday the 13th is Halloween. Victor Miller, the film's screenwriter, is up front about this in interviews. It's pure cash-in. From Halloween, it borrows the convention of putting the audience behind the eyes of the killer in roving POV shots that detail the film's various murders. In Halloween, this was used to play with the audience's perceptions. That film also occasionally put us behind the eyes of Laurie Strode, thus putting us on her side. Friday the 13th has no such empathy. Friday the 13th's gaze makes the audience participants in the murders. There is a subtle difference in these approaches. Not content to ape Halloween, Friday the 13th also appropriates the ending of Carrie. In general, the film's set-pieces are second-hand, but that's kind of the point. It's a movie that's familiar. If you haven't read Joe Bob Briggs's review of Friday the 13th part III in relation to Halloween III: The Season of the Witch, I recommend it, because it details the exact mindset of Friday the 13th's makers: they made the same damned movie three times (and eventually nine times), while the makers of Halloween III are communists (his words) for departing from the formula so drastically. Hell, this started even before the series was an actual series. It's the horror movie as comfort food.

It's also the horror movie as red meat. This is among the first films tailored to the Fangoria crowd, in which the murder scenes are the object of the movie rather than the means by which it enacts a drama. Do you know what the structure of Friday the 13th reminds me of? It reminds me of a mid-period Godzilla movie, in which you while away the time between monster rampages or killings bored out of your skull waiting for something to happen. This movie doesn't use ordinary non-violent scenes as connective tissue so much as it uses them as spacers to pad the running time--those Tom Savini gags were the most expensive part of the movie, so they couldn't blow all their cash on them. It should be noted that Savini was in the habit of directing his own effects gags and there's a noticeable improvement in the way these scenes are directed compared with everything else in the movie. It bothers me that the producers couldn't see fit to spring for a fake snake for the scene early in the film when Alice finds one in her room. Instead, they kill a real snake--a rat snake from the looks of it, so not even dangerous--and that bothers me a lot. I like snakes more than I like this film's producers.

Why she wouldn't even harm a fly...

In putting the audience behind the killer's eyes and in providing gore for the audience the way a porn movie provides cum shots, the movie then needs to build a moral imperative to absolve the audience of guilt for grooving on such a thing. This, I think, is the origin of the moral universe of the slasher film, which is beginning to take shape in this movie even if it's not fully formed. While there's an element of punishment for moral transgressions right at the start, it's not consistent. There's no hint that Annie ever commits an act of moral turpitude according to the weird rules of the slasher movie, but that doesn't stop her from being killed at the outset of the movie. Still, Friday the 13th does invoke the virginal final girl in the end.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that even though Friday the 13th understands not a whit of what made Halloween tick, it does understand at least one thing: the value of its score. Even I'll admit that the signature "ki,ki,ki, ma, ma, ma" chanting on the soundtrack amid Bernard Herrmann-ish string arrangements is one of the GREAT horror movie scores, and I think this plays a large part in the film's outsized success. Harry Manfredini's score, after all, was front and center in those trailers I mentioned, and even in the context of the movie itself, it heightens a suspense quotient that might otherwise not even exist.

I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that I resent the slasher film as a subgenre. I'm aware of my prejudice in this regard, which makes me the wrong audience for Friday the 13th. This film's success is a big reason why the slasher film came to dominate the early 1980s, squeezing out other more interesting types of horror movies, or coopting them entirely. Strip away the reality games of A Nightmare on Elm Street, for instance, and you're left with a slasher movie. The same is true of the various Alien rip-offs. I was a monster kid, but I was never a gorehound for the sake of grooving on gore itself (though I was certainly sadistic enough in the right context). There seemed to me to be a difference in watching a monster movie and watching a slasher movie. Monsters were either so alien as to be inscrutable (i.e.: you can't sympathize with them) or they're tragic (i.e: there's a dramatic arc). Slashers, on the other hand, provide none of this. It seems to me that there's an ineffable element to the soul of really good horror movies that is lacking in slasher movies or absent all together. Take that element away, and it's all just meat on a slab.


Barry P. said...

Very thoughtful post about a (mostly) thoughtless sub-genre. I agree that the works of such directors as Cronenberg and Carpenter are far more compelling.

Oddly enough, I caught a rare 3D 35mm screening of Friday the 13th Part 3 at my local movie house today. I took note of the fact that these movies aren't designed to side with the victims, but the assailant, as you simply wait for the next inventive kill. Cheap thrills, indeed.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Barry. I know, right? This is one of the things that really bothers me about a movie like The House of a Thousand Corpses. The victims are snotty bourgeois douchebags that in the film's universe somehow deserve their fates and the degenerate murderers are lionized for leading them to slaughter. It's a seriously reprehensible worldview.

DeAnna said...

While you are making a sequel to Friday the 13th, I'll be making porn. After all of these years of watching so many movies of nearly every genre, I just recently had to frantically write down plot outlines to 2 films that I must make. They are both porn flicks. One is in the style of internet, amateur porn and the other is a pornographic nature documentary. I keep pondering this and at this rate, I'll be storyboarding them in my sleep tonight.

I have never liked the Friday the 13th movies. I always found amusement in Freddy Kruger, but never Jason. Although, I might like slasher films as I hate to admit that I liked Eli Roth's movies, which was totally unexpected.

Anonymous said...

Like you, I have no fondness for slasher films, nostalgia be damned. But I found your sequel concept intriguing because it promises a potentially rich Manichean view of things. The first "Friday the 13th" even hinted at such a view, albeit obliquely. There's a relatively early scene in which one of the female characters relates a troubling dream. This moment is followed by a rainstorm out of the Old Testament. Together, the two scenes suggest the killer has some religio-moral significance. So while your sequel idea would surely rile hardcore fans of the series, you'd be on defensible thematic ground.

Graveyard Shift Sisters said...

You make some seriously excellent points worth considering. I personally love the slasher genre as much as other horror subgenres but akin to your argument in opposition of them, I've managed to argue for their virtues, symbolic or otherwise.

It's reasonable to dissect the political economy of the slasher circa late 70s/early 80s.

The friday the 13th franchise is not one of my favorites but it is one I do own and have written about myself. I have to be somewhat considerate of what the later films ('89, '91 I believe) tried to do to brandish some sophistication.

But I'm just an eternal optimist.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Ashlee. Welcome.

I think I mentioned that my relationship with slasher films is nuanced. Your mention of the political economy of the slasher movie is well taken. I've found myself defending them on more than one occasion (usually from unreflected charges of misogyny).

I should mention that I kind of like Jason X. It's ridiculous, I admit, but I love watching David Cronenberg act in other people's movies and I love the scene with the big drill. I say this knowing full well that it's not a very good movie.

Anyway, thanks for commenting.

crow said...

I think you have devoted more time and insight into the film than most fans. I guess it is all about timing in regards to Friday's success. I watched it a few years ago and kind of liked some of the scenes where it started to rain, there's this kind of disquiet, and because only young adults occupy the grounds, the murderer has free reign to pick them off. I think there is a scene where Cunninghum shoots above the bed with Bacon (you might have to freshen my memory) where we see the goofy kid's neck slit, as a spit of lightning flashes to unveil his demise. Little scenes actually work better for me like that.