Friday, September 13, 2019

FTM Rewind: So Why FRIDAY THE 13th?

by Patrick Bromley
Maybe it's just nostalgia. Maybe it's something more.

I have spent so much time and energy on this site writing and talking about the Friday the 13th franchise that I'm sure you are all sick of it. I can't help it. It makes me happy. There are movies in pretty much every single other horror franchise that I love much more deeply and passionately than any individual entry in the Friday the 13th series (even you, A New Beginning), but taken as a whole there is no horror franchise I enjoy as much or revisit more often. Just a few days ago, we got the super-rare gift for horror fans of a Friday the 13th falling on the calendar in October, which means more people were marathoning their favorite entries in the series than on a typical Friday the 13th. And, sure, it's a fun way to celebrate the date and all, but there's more to it than that. It's not as though everyone marathons all of the Halloween movies every October 31st. No, there's a reason we are drawn back to the Friday films again and again and again, turning them into an institution in a way no other horror franchise really is.

This was a question posed on Twitter this past Friday the 13th by Vox.com journalist Dylan Scott, who writes across a series of tweets: "I’d read a good essay on why Friday the 13th has proven so resilient, when it seems obviously inferior to its horror peers. Lacks Halloween’s craftsmanship, Elm Street's imagination or Chainsaw’s inspired derangement and yet 13th is as persistent as those franchises. Jason Voorhees doesn’t give us anything that Michael Myers (silent masked killer) or Leatherface (***almost*** weirdly sympathetic) didn’t. There is no heroine in the 13th franchise who is anywhere near as memorable as Laurie Strode or, hell, even Nancy Thompson. And yet, Friday the 13th and Voorhees have become as iconic as these self-evidently superior competitors. It’s weird!" Knowing of my affection for the franchise, Dylan brought this "Why Friday?" question to my attention. And because I like both Dylan and the Friday films, I told him I would try to tackle it. So, sorry Dylan. You don't get to read a "good" essay, but you do get to read this one.
See, there's nothing Dylan points out in his Twitter thread that I disagree with. Like I said, there's no single movie in the Friday series that's as good as the best installment in every other long-running franchise, nor does the series manage to really distinguish itself in any way outside of its slavish devotion to formula. Hell, this was a series borne out of cynicism: producer Sean S. Cunningham saw the box office returns for Halloween and thought "How can I get in on that?" He came up with a title (based around a specific day, just like Halloween) and nothing more, putting an ad in the trades to generate interest. This is old-school Roger Corman-style exploitations shit: start with a title and make a movie built around it. He "borrowed" the slasher movie structure of Halloween and the fake-out opening of Psycho and the POV faceless killer of Italian giallo films and on and on. Harry Manfredini's score, which I like quite a bit, rips off Bernard Herrmann in a big way. Cunningham wanted to more or less remake the relatively chaste Halloween but really push the sex and violence as far as the MPAA would let him, but even extreme gore had already been done by Herschell Gordon Lewis almost 20 years prior. There's hardly anything original about the original Friday except that it was the first to crib from so many other influences in the same place. Sometimes being first counts.

I can't provide an official rationale to explain the longevity of the franchise, as I wouldn't dream of speaking for others as to why they've embraced it. But I do have some ideas as to why I've always enjoyed it and why I still enjoy it to this day. For starters, it's the ultimate campfire tale. Literally. As early as Part 2, the movies would show a group of campers and counselors gathered around a fire, sharing the tale of Jason Voorhees, the boy whose mother went on a mad murder spree and Camp Crystal Lake. The boy who is still out there, waiting to spring out and attack any one of us. Both Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger are more regularly -- and more accurately -- referred to as "the boogeyman," there's something about the oral tradition of Jason Voorhees that lends itself to the longevity that the franchise would enjoy. He's a story passed down from camper to camper, from sequel to sequel, from horror fan to horror fan.
While I'm sure that the simplicity lends itself to the series lasting power -- these are movies that demand little from us as audience members -- there is something about the formula that lends itself to coloring in the margins a little, giving each installment just enough of its own identity while still adhering closely to the original mission statement. It's not like the Nightmare movies in the way that it allows for each new filmmaker to exercise his or her own unique stylization, nor is it like Halloween in the way that it continues to (mostly) tell one long serialized story. Friday is more of a rinse-and-repeat franchise, which is what the fans have come to want; it's telling that several of the least-loved entries in the series are the ones that deviate furthest from the formula, whether it's A New Beginning's attempt to continue the series without Jason or Jason Goes To Hell's efforts to make Jason into an evil spirit that is passed along from person to person. The Friday series really is the McDonald's of horror in that we come back to it again and again because we know exactly what it's going to deliver and it rarely disappoints.

I would also make a case for the characters in the Friday series, even though I know that flies in the face of what almost every horror fan believes to be true about these movies. They aren't well-known for having three dimensional characters, and instead have the reputation for filling the films with fodder for Jason's machete -- the stereotype of the generic and interchangeable horny teens of the slasher genre is more or less borne out of the Friday films. But ask any of the series' fans who their favorite characters are and they'll immediately start rattling off names like Ginny and Shelly and Tommy and Terry (#HorrorsBestShorts) and Alice and Jimmy and, of course, Joey (#RIPJoey). I'll admit that the later installments got away from this quite a bit, presenting characters who were either forgettable or altogether unlikable, but the first five or six films are filled with charming young people in whose company I like to spend time. Obviously it's not true of them all; there are plenty of annoying characters (looking at you, Ned) and douchebags, but every time I revisit the earlier films I'm reminded of how much I like some of these actors. We remember them or get to know them over the course of watching the series again and again, recalling who they are based on their personalities and relationships instead of just a single character trait gimmick that leads to their murder (as in the lesser Nightmare movies). I like the Halloween movies, but I can't name many of those characters outside of the original. The same goes for most slasher movies. Yet when it comes to the Friday series, I know most of these characters as though they're my own friends.
Again, this is a chicken/egg scenario: do these movies endure because the characters are appealing or do I find the characters appealing because I've seen the movie so many times? At this point, it doesn't matter. It's worth noting, though, that it's the camp counselors that brought us back to the series again and again. Whereas we would return to the Nightmare films because Freddy had become a rock star -- funny, charismatic, the life of the party -- Jason Voorhees is basically a cypher. He's wordless and expressionless. Iconic, yes, but not especially interesting. That leaves the counselors, in whose small arcs we could invest before they die: is Jimmy a dead fuck? Will anyone ever like Shelly? Most fans would make the case that they watch these movies for the kills, which is the widespread appeal of most slasher films. The difference here is of focus and audience identification. In a Nightmare movie, we experience the film through Freddy; we watch to see how he'll kill his victims. We experience a Friday film through the counselors. We watch to see how they'll die. The distinction matters.

What it comes down to, ultimately, is that the Friday the 13th series was once like a Halloween party that got thrown every year and continues to feel that way today. The time of year would roll around and audiences would show up for a bit of irresponsible fun: there were some scares, some people looking sexy, some drinking or casual drug use and an overall good time. We would go back every year because we remembered having fun last time, and even though not every party was as good as some others, we wanted to see how everyone came dressed and who got into what kind of trouble. It became an institution -- a dependable good time. Now we keep the movies on our DVD shelves or in our streaming libraries, records of the parties should we ever want to experience them again. We don't need to watch them in sequence, as one rarely has anything to do with the rest. We can relive them in any order we want, skipping over those we didn't enjoy as much and just sticking with the ones in which the best memories were made.
I don't think I've done much of a job of explaining the franchise's enduring appeal, but at least the process of writing this piece has gotten me to examine what it is that makes it my favorite horror series. That's something I've never really questioned before, mostly because I've always just recognized that they're comfort food for me and we don't often reflect on comfort food. We focus on the end result, not the means by which it gets there, which is to say that we ask ourselves what kind of pizza we like best but hardly ever wonder why pizza is so popular. It's popular because it's fucking awesome. At this point, I suspect that Friday the 13th's longevity is a big part of its appeal -- there are 10 movies, a remake and a crossover as of this writing -- but how that longevity came to be is more difficult question to answer. The practical explanation is that audiences kept going back to these movies and they turned enough of a profit on their low budgets to justify making another installment. The real explanation is more elusive. I can speak only for myself when I say that revenge-seeking homicidal zombie aside, I love hanging out at Camp Crystal Lake. It's where my friends are. It's a fun place to visit. I might even want to live there.

3 comments:

  1. Despite not being able to defend or justify it, Ft13th is my favorite horror series. There are so many individual scary movies that I prefer, but the monolith that is Jason and his horny teen victims is what I return to the most. I think it's easily the most comfy horror series to watch, like a warm sleeping bag smashing against a virtual space tree.

    Had a blast watching Final Chapter and New Beginning yesterday after work. That 2-pack would be a strong contender for my favorite double feature in the series. Two of the stronger movies, good variety between the two, and they happen to be consecutive, which feels like it should be worth some points.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Here's 2 hot takes I don't think get enough attention.

    How awesome Jason's design is in jason X. Maybe I just dig cyborgs but he looks killer.

    The time spent on the boat in jason takes Manhattan is awesome. Friday part 8 delivers on everything we love about Friday 13th movies. The only knock against part 8 is the misleading title. Rename this to "Jason on a boat" and we have ourselves a banger

    ReplyDelete