Slasher films are employments of subtraction and not, significantly, deduction. There’s seldom a mystery to solve, and the plots often concern those who are attempting, often futilely, to escape death. The killers are all enormous, even if unseen, presences, and their victims are often all defenseless teens. There’re lots of chase sequences, lots of screaming, and lots of blood, repeated over and over and over again, as reliable and humorless as an old joke. It is one of the most derivative subgenres in film, and is perhaps epitomized in the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises. In sum, they comprise 18 films that span over two decades, each varying little from the original formula.
The foundation for both is John Carpenter’s Halloween, which in 1978 grossed over one hundred and fifty times its production budget, becoming the most successful independent film ever made. Two years later came Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, an admitted and immensely successful attempt to capitalize on the success of Halloween. It cost less than a million dollars to produce, and grossed over fifty times that.
During this era, slasher films were becoming mainstays of suburban multiplexes, but the success of Friday the 13th remains unique. I would attribute this almost solely to makeup effects expert Tom Savini. However closely Friday the 13th emulates Halloween in tactics and narrative, it exceeds its predecessor in the brutality of its murders. In an early one, a girl is killed with an ax, and the camera lingers on her corpse’s gaping mouth, divided in two by the weapon lodged in her face. This is Savini’s work, and his ingenious deaths populate the film. People aren’t only bullied and frightened in this film, you get an impression of their pain, and the harm done to them.
Up until its final minutes, Friday the 13th is a fairly straightforward slasher exercise; the killer hasn’t been revealed yet, and there has been little attempt to identify him. Its final minutes introduce two aspects that would not only ensure its profit, but inspire its sequels: Pamela Voorhees, a middle aged woman, is revealed to be the killer, and the shocker ending in which her son, presumed dead, leaps out of a lake and claims the film’s final survivor.
By 1984 the utilitarian horror mechanics of Friday the 13th had been sustained in three sequels: parts II and III, and The Final Chapter. Later the same year Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street would debut, the flagship production under a fledgling New Line films; it cost under two million, and enjoyed a profit of twelve times that. A sequel was put into production almost immediately. Henceforth every remaining year in the 1980s saw the release of a sequel to either franchise, or sometimes both. And each was measurably profitable.
It is only in terms of profit, genre, and reiteration that the similarities between the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises remain apparent; a foolproof formula the engine driving each, they begin to veer in wildly different directions, before – to the delight of many fans – merging in 2002’s Freddy vs. Jason. One has as its routine slasher killer a durable, taciturn and deformed son, who forever seeks vengeance for not only his mother’s death, but his own. The other has a maniacal, effeminate, and outspoken child molester, burned alive at the hands of angry parents, and who vows to forever torment their children in their sleep. Each character has made for a great, even if critically derided, variety of scenarios, illustrating the very extent of a subgenre over the course of the past quarter-century.
Introduction by Rumsey Taylor
Friday the 13th borrows liberally from John Carpenter’s epochal Halloween, but in retrospect it seems less a theft than an employment of a set of requisite genre components: the opening flashback, the killer’s point-of-view, promiscuous and therefore vulnerable teenagers, primal weaponry, and almost identically repeated episodes of suspense. It’s prosaic in its employment of these components, an exemplar of utilitarian perfection.
Part 2 remains a domino in the middle of the chain, offering no added momentum, no closure, and no redirection. For what it is, however, it’s a strong slasher film, one burdened only in retrospect for having no ambitions other than to profit from the commercial momentum introduced in the first film.
Part III does not burden itself with the oft-confusing explanations as to Jason’s origins, and does not make clumsy attempts to tie up the plot threads of what has gone before. As a result, we can simply sit back and watch Jason coming into his own, handily and creatively dispatching the requisite prankster, pothead, jock, even an entire motorcycle gang—mindless fun surprisingly absent from several of the increasingly convoluted films that follow.
With Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, the legend of Jason Voorhees begins to acquire the grandiose dimensions with which it is now associated. For starters, at least a few of the souls involved here know who Jason is. Compared with the oblivious players of Part III, this is a substantial development, both in terms of the fear and helplessness Jason is able to inspire.
Where many Friday entries content themselves with the comfortable campers-by-the-lake scenario, and attempt to differentiate themselves by the originality of the death scenes, and the tackiness of the one-liners, A New Beginning is just that, an effort to take the saga in a new direction.
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives effectively distinguishes itself with cheeky humor that enlivens the fairly routine murders that occur in rapid frequency. However in the infamous tradition of the series, we can never be sure if it’s really over, as we glimpse Jason’s still roving eye underwater in the film’s final scene.
Its standard, yet effective approach in victimizing sexually active teens doesn’t entice any sympathy, as the teenage victims are as gullible and two-dimensional as ever, but certainly elicits a fair amount of eye covering and jumps from its audience as Jason stalks his victims with persistent efficiency.
The eighth installment of this, by now, creatively bankrupt series must have seemed like a good idea. Jason takes Manhattan? Okay, yes. Let’s get him off that campground and into a big city. Maybe the change of location will give us some new ideas. Unfortunately, the bulk of the movie takes place on a boat.
In a celebratory final shot – and one that announces New Line’s intention to finally intertwine the two series – Freddy Krueger’s bladed glove erupts from the ground and drags Jason’s mask into the soil.
Jason X is ridiculously bad. It sets up the question though, of how faithful fans are to a series such as Friday the 13th, that they will endure this special kind of dreadful filmmaking for a horror icon that has managed to survive two decades of sequels and bizarre reincarnations.
Toss in all the usual hang-ups about youth and suburban life — drugs, sex, and irresponsible, late-night behavior — and this cycle of films amounts to a critique of middle-class suburbia as arguably piquant as Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, exploiting the conservative jitters about animalistic urges lurking beneath the placid surface of the American Dream.
Coherence and internal logic are not notable attributes of the Elm Street series, and this is apparent from the first of the many sequels to Wes Craven’s original film. To be sure, this has much to do with Craven’s unfortunate departure, but this enables a series of wildly divergent interpretative shifts in the franchise, beginning with this film.
Were Chuck Russell’s film a masterfully told horror film in the mold of Craven’s prototype, the opening Poe quote would be appropriate. But considering this is Part 3, which hinges on the regurgitation of past storylines and revelations about Freddy Krueger’s conception and death, Poe’s ominous thoughts are merely an unnecessary façade.
Renny Harlin’s film is a seemingly bottomless grab-bag from the ‘80s televisual subconscious, riffing on everything from Jaws to The Karate Kid to the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, all with a palette of neon colors that even Joel Schumacher might think was in questionable taste.
While Krueger’s methods of torture are wonderfully repulsive and uniquely ironic, director Stephen Hopkins’ attempts at sustaining the franchise stumble along without any clear destination. Freddy Krueger’s intention to be “born back into the real world” is, to say the least, outlandish; viewed in conjunction with Freddy’s Dead, Part 5 marks the beginning of a large inconsistency.
Writer-director Rachel Talalay, rather than making a genuine film, has created a gimmick infused with minimal plot, bleak cinematography, and the indulgences of its creators. Any promise of tension and gravity is instantly and indifferently washed away by an opening throw-back to The Wizard of Oz and the overuse of Mussorgski’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”
Wes Craven’s initial efforts in post-modern horror remain rewarding. Scream is the undisputed highpoint, comic but still unsettling, a worthy father to bastard children. But before that came New Nightmare, Craven’s farewell to his most revered creation, and the first Freddy in a decade to warrant any kind of serious attention.
You don’t go into a versus movie expecting cinematic wonders, and you certainly don’t expect to be scared—what you want from a versus movie is two screen titans engaged in a fight to the finish. And impressively, on this score at least, Freddy vs. Jason delivers.