The original Friday The 13th, now celebrating its 35th anniversary, is no less fascinating a phenomenon today than it was in 1980. And that’s in spite of its subsequent brand’s reputation as horror’s most overplayed franchise, and the pop-culture ubiquity of hockey-masked, machete-wielding Jason Voorhees.
When Friday The 13th first opened, moviegoers would’ve had to seek out the films of Italian horror masters Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci to prepare themselves for its extreme gore and relentless brutality. North America’s previous slasher movies, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas and John Carpenter’s Halloween, were first-class exercises in subtlety, featuring hardly any blood, and earning their scares through artistic, calculated direction and misdirection. Sean Cunningham’s Friday The 13th, on the other hand, bombarded viewers’ senses and good taste. Visual-effects badass Tom Savini went heavy on the blood in his makeup work: a hatchet through a woman’s forehead, an arrow piercing Kevin Bacon’s throat from below. Most intriguing of all, however, was the runaway success of the $550,000 film. The first slasher movie backed by a major studio, Friday The 13th opened on nearly 1,200 screens, and hacked its way to a cool $60 million at the box office.
Ten sequels later, and with a second reboot in the works for 2016, Friday The 13th remains a cultural touchstone, a hack-and-slash trailblazer that spawned countless imitators throughout the 1980s, and stands as one of the most influential slashers of all time. But it’s also a rarity among its kind: a slasher that takes itself seriously. Screenwriter Victor Miller directly aped Carpenter’s Halloween, yet Friday The 13th doesn’t feel like a pastiche, mainly because so many filmmakers have shamelessly copied its rhythms, to the point where slasher movies degenerated into predictability midway through the 1980s.
Granted, the only way to remember Friday The 13th as a sneakily assaultive little creepshow, rather than a joke itself, is by re-watching it. This post-Scream generation of slasher-movie watchers understandably can’t separate the genre from the humor and wink-wink cheekiness inadvertently initiated by Friday The 13th’s inferior 1980s knockoffs, and knowingly subverted by Kevin Williamson’s brilliantly meta Scream script. Furthermore, the first Scream, released way back in 1996, is the last legitimately scary American-made slasher movie. The rest of this generation’s slice-and-dice flicks are unabashedly nostalgic, and steer away from frights with comedy (like Adam Green’s Hatchet series). Or they’re horror-comedies (like Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon). Or they were made with the one-note desire to elicit shallow, look-at-the-guts! cheers (The Hills Run Red, Laid To Rest). Or they’re reprehensibly misogynistic nightmares (Muck). And then there’s Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s 2014 remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, which is about 75 percent a great slasher movie, and 25 percent a frustrating climax that’s trying to be Scream.
Thirty-five years after Friday The 13th, slashers are now horror’s least-scary subgenre. But the original 13th aside, were they ever that scary to begin with? “You have to think about what ‘scary’ even is,” says Sam Zimmerman, managing editor of leading horror website ShockTillYouDrop.com. “Something that’s scary stays with you and keeps lingering in your thoughts, because there’s something mysterious and impenetrable about it, whereas the slasher films from Friday The 13th and on were so surface-value. Slashers are so much about what’s shown, with all their kills and gore, and real fear comes from what isn’t seen.”
Depending on your age, though, some slasher movies could, in fact, be scary—it’s all a matter of context. For younger people like Zimmerman, who’s 27, films like Scream have mapped out the rules so thoroughly, and with such biting humor, that it’s hard to look back on a Friday The 13th without that Ghostface-informed POV. Older fans, however, can remember seeing those movies in their intended setting: in the theater, and minus decades of hindsight and myth-making.
Born in 1972, horror fiction author Stephen Graham Jones, a slasher fanatic who wrote the 2012 Scream-esque novel The Last Final Girl, is one of those elder loyalists. “The power that older slashers like Friday The 13th had was directly connected to how they were made on shoestring budgets with low production values,” says Jones. “Back in the ’80s, you’d pay $3.25 to see a movie like Friday The 13th, and once you paid that money, you wanted to get your $3.25 worth in that theater, so you’d kind of lean forward out of your seat to look past the production values and really invest in the story, to allow it to scare you. When you’re in a vulnerable state like that, you can be easily scared. Today’s slashers, though, with their slick production values, let the audience sit back without having to do any of the work. They don’t need any convincing about whether the chainsaw is really cutting into flesh. It looks real enough.”
There’s a reason English horror critic Alan Jones called slasher movies “comfort horror”—they’re the epitome of cinematic predictability. Here’s the conceit: a group of kids, secluded away from adults, pay for the sins of someone else’s past and are offed one after another by a masked killer, until one virginal protagonist, normally a woman and dubbed the “final girl,” somehow defeats the seemingly unstoppable homicidal maniac. Filmmakers today, at their laziest, just follow that template to a T. “Nostalgia is a tricky thing,” says Ryan Turek, director of development for low-budget horror powerhouse Blumhouse Productions. “Obviously it’s exciting to make a love letter to the things you grew up with, but you can’t let that overshadow the creative process and the push to make something inventive. I say that to a lot of screenwriters and directors I talk to at seminars and in classes: ‘Yeah, I can totally see that you love slasher movies made from 1980 through 1984, but how do you want to up the game?’”
To up the game nowadays, filmmakers with slashers on their mind need to, for starters, forget everything they know about slasher movies. Unlike most other horror subgenres, it’s one where tradition has become a hindrance. Turek was initially turned on to these movies as a 10-year-old, when he saw Jason Lives: Friday The 13th Part VI for the first time. He’s long been a slasher-movie die-hard, which adds a pinch of sadness to his position at Blumhouse, the genre’s current leader in profitability and productivity. “It’s tough, every day I go into the office looking for that one slasher movie that sparks,” Turek says. “Honestly, I would love to make something at Blumhouse that’s not only reverent of the slasher genre, but adds to it. But I don’t think a straightforward slasher movie could work in today’s climate.”
In commercial terms, the old-school slasher’s blue-collar appeal is toxic, now more than ever. “Audiences need a reason to get out of the house and go to the theater,” says Turek, in response to the VOD and digital age. “That’s why we’re seeing Marvel hit big, and why we’re getting so many ‘event’ films. In order to do a slasher film, you really need to transcend the norms and come up with something that’s more than the familiar ‘set ’em up and knock ’em down’ formula, because people have seen that so many times. They don’t want to leave their house and spend money to see another typical masked killer.”
Still, fans of the vintage carnage seen in 1980s slasher high points like Just Before Dawn (1981, riding Friday The 13th’s bloody coattails), The Prowler (1981, again), and the Weinstein-brothers-produced The Burning (wouldn’t you know it, 1981!) have something to be excited about these days—they just need to look overseas. While most American directors are stuck in a slasher rut, international filmmakers have simultaneously been honoring their influences and bringing something new to the proverbial carving board.
Arguably the nastiest of the lot, the 2010 Hong Kong film Dream Home uses two atypical narrative elements, a female killer and satire rooted in the economic collapse, to give its insanely gruesome death scenes dramatic weight. Over in Norway, the underrated Cold Prey franchise uses the strengths of slasher gems like Scream (its attractive twentysomething casts) and Friday The 13th (humorless slaughter) to cleverly tell an old-fashioned slasher through a modern lens.
Belgium’s Cub, a 2014 film-festival darling that’ll hit DVD and Blu-ray Stateside this August, ups the ante considerably and with mean-spirited audacity: Its slasher is a backwoods-haunting feral kid, and many of its victims are the kid’s pre-teen peers. Cruel, relentless, and totally devoid of comic relief, Cub is the best purebred slasher in years, complete with a multiple-kid death sequence that rivals what’s debatably slasher cinema’s all-time greatest kill moment, The Burning’s infamous raft scene.
All those foreign films, particularly Cub, tap into the dangerousness of 1980s slashers, that kind of bold nihilism where the filmmakers didn’t give a damn about taboos or rocking viewers’ worlds. There’s a lot of the shock-and-awe attitude of the controversial 1984 film Silent Night, Deadly Night—which gave youngsters the image of Santa Claus hanging a victim on wall-mounted antlers—in the Dream Home sequence where an innocent pregnant woman gets asphyxiated with a vacuum, shortly after she’s beaten to the point of a miscarriage. It’s no wonder Dream Home’s U.S. reach was limited to IFC Films’ Video On-Demand services, and that it didn’t make it into any theaters that were easily accessible to impressionable young ticket-buyers.
Though could a movie as visually punishing as Dream Home elicit even half the public outrage evoked by the heaviest ’80s slashers? “In 1985, I was 9 years old, and horror movies were creating such a stir that parenting groups were getting involved,” recalls Turek. “Day Of The Dead was considered awful because of how gory it was, but the stuff that was causing a stir in 1985 is now broadcast on a weekly basis on AMC, with The Walking Dead. The gore in films like Friday The 13th and The Burning was almost considered punk rock and counterculture in the ’80s, but now that’s mainstream, and that makes you ask: What can slasher movies even do today to have that same impact? But also, how much further could we take it with our advancements in special effects? Imagine a movie like The Prowler today, with its pitchfork kill in the shower, and the guy getting stabbed in the head.”
In today’s numbed, event-film-driven market, it seems the only way slasher filmmakers can strike a nerve is by making films that barely resemble the likes of Friday The 13th. This year’s two most-talked-about horror movies so far, It Follows and Unfriended, don’t immediately look or feel like slashers, but their narrative DNA unmistakably comes from the subgenre. With It Follows, writer-director David Robert Mitchell reversed the curse: Instead of the unwritten slasher rule of “kids who have pre-marital sex will die at the hands of a hand-of-God killer,” sex is the weapon that kills. Unfriended’s slasher roots are even stronger. “Unfriended is a supernatural slasher/body-count movie where the inciting incident, the school bullying, feels like it’s right out of a classic ’80s slasher movie like Prom Night,” says Turek. “Unfriended proves that you can carry a tradition on while also having a perspective that’s fresh and updated.”
Looking ahead, the importance of this kind of innovation is only going to intensify. In the mainstream sense, the slasher subgenre is veering even further away from scariness this year. In June, MTV will première its teen-targeted Scream television series, a modernization of the Wes Craven film’s self-aware comedy and glossy horror. Three months later, Ryan Murphy is set to bring his American Horror Story-tested, tongue-in-cheek campiness to Fox with Scream Queens, which, in the ultimate meta move, will find none other than Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween, Prom Night, and Terror Train royalty) co-starring alongside teenybopper favorites Nick Jonas and Ariana Grande. And although there’s no confirmed release date yet, Sony Pictures’ recent SXSW-crowd-pleasing horror-comedy The Final Girls, with its cast of young and in-demand TV stars, including Taissa Farmiga (American Horror Story), Nina Dobrev (The Vampire Diaries), Adam DeVine (Workaholics), and Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley), seems custom-made for commercial viability.
None of this is necessarily bad for slasher cinema. If anything, the upcoming surge of lighthearted, Scream-minded projects could be just what slashers need in 2015: widespread enthusiasm with the power to inspire the next Sean Cunningham. “It’s great that the slasher genre is being embraced again and put under a microscope and analyzed again, and with a fun edge,” says Turek. “If things like Scream Queens and The Final Girls are successful and pulled off in great, fun ways, hopefully they’ll inspire people to look at this subgenre again and go, ‘Okay, how can I turn this on its head? How can I turn this inside out?’ It’s time for filmmakers to really try flexing their muscles again with slashers, and see what they can do with it.”