FRIGHT-Day: Friday the 13th and The Rise & Fall of Slashers

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How fortuitous that the second installment in The Open Man October FRIGHT-Day falls on Friday the 13th! That’s a Yahtzee for all horror movie buffs.

The month in which Halloween falls also having a Friday the 13th combines the two most famous entries into the slasher genre. For those unfamiliar with the nomenclature, the label slasher refers to a sub-section of horror film popularized in the late 1970s, with the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween, which erupted in popularity in the early 1980s. A deluge of copycats followed the success of Halloween, though none ever matched the cinematic qualities.

Carpenter’s original is a masterwork of horror, combining a brilliantly disturbing backstory with tension and a creepy aura. Though filmed in the neighborhoods around the Rose Bowl — a fact that, as a Pac-12 football reporter by trade, I never pass an opportunity to share — Halloween captures an Everytown feel in a manner that adds to the unsettling nature.

Judged on its merits as a film, Halloween is legitimately excellent. Judged as a horror film, it’s an all-time classic. The same can’t be said for much of the rest of the slasher genre. Movies like The Prowler opted for gore to invoke horror, rather than the atmospheric tension that defines Halloween.

No, nothing from the slasher genre ever matched the original in terms of quality — but Friday the 13th became the franchise more synonymous with the genre.

The original combined the shocking gore that came to define the wave of early ’80s slashers, courtesy of Tom Savini’s special effects genius, with hints of the intrigue that went into Halloween. The mystery that unfolds in the original Friday the 13th is actually somewhat innovative, in retrospect. Later entries in the series abandoned the whodunit quality, save one, to instead build the series around Jason Voorhees as a modern-day movie monster in the vein of Dracula, Wolf Man, or the Frankenstein Monster.

The irony of only one other Friday the 13th using mystery as a central point? It was the sleaziest entry in the franchise, Part V: A New Beginning. Corey Feldman “killed off” Jason in The Final Chapter, which set in motion a story arc that could have been interesting if executed properly. Feldman’s Tommy Jarvis character was left disturbed in Part V, driving further to the brink when an EMT uses Jason as a front for his own revenge killings.

Again, interesting concept — if executed properly. That it was directed by Danny Steinmann, whose only other quasi-legit credit is the ultra-sleazy grindhouse flick Savage Streets, speaks to the nature of Part V. The slasher genre in general is problematic when examined through a 21st Century lens; Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning makes you feel slimy after watching it.

By the late 1980s, audiences tired of the slasher formula in general. Recognizing this, Tom McLoughlin directed Part VI: Jason Lives, easily my favorite entry in the series.

McLoughlin made a film that wasn’t a slasher, but rather a full-fledged monster movie, turning Jason into a latter 20th Century Frankenstein Monster. Part VI also introduced a quality that lacks from almost every other slasher film ever produced: worthwhile lead characters.

A problem with the slasher genre in retrospect is that the “protagonists” are often two-dimensional, unlikable and exist solely to give the true attraction of the film — the monsters like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees — victims. Attempts to revitalize the genre in recent years, like Rob Zombie’s abominable Halloween reboot and the dreadful Platinum Dunes-produced Friday the 13th, simply don’t work in this day and age.

Unless you’re screening Wolf of Wall Street for a crowd of sociopaths, audiences today do not want to cheer on villains. And, since slashers lack the depth of films like Nightcrawler, which star the villain but do not portray them as protagonists, the monsters as the stars isn’t palatable today. Even in the slasher’s heyday, the classics like Halloween had Laurie Strode. A Nightmare on Elm Street had Nancy; I personally don’t consider it slasher, though others might disagree.

And that’s what made Part VI so entertaining: Jason is a super-sized movie monster, but Thom Mathews’ version of Tommy Jarvis and Jennifer Cooke as Megan are likable, charismatic, have great chemistry together and work well with the dark comedy tones.

Alas, Paramount never hired Mathews, Cooke or McLoughlin back. A promising story arc McLoughlin had in mind was scrapped for business as usual — which is a shame, and a recurring issue in the genre.

Halloween got away from the slasher concept after the first sequel, instead introducing a bizarre supernatural with comedic undertones. Audiences completely whiffed, which forced Michael Myers’ return and more than two decades of lousy sequels.