The Series Project: Freddy & Jason (Part 1)
I have been shying away from the three great slasher franchises in The Series Project for some time now (the three being, of course, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and the granddaddy of them all, Halloween). I’ve covered Hellraiser before, also Child’s Play , and even a few lesser horror series like Children of the Corn. But I’ve been afraid to touch the obvious slasher staples that every American male child of a certain age seems to know implicitly. Why have I been so afraid? Well, for one thing, the films all have a vocal and vociferous cult of horror nuts and gorehounds surrounding them, and my input could only seem churlish in comparison to the gallons of ink that have been spilled in the pages of Fangoria Magazine. For another thing, as a horror fan, it seemed like such a daunting task. Actually detailing the way these things move would be like, well, it would be like trying to watch all the James Bond movies. It’s just such an enormous task. But I’ve actually done that now, and written about all 24 Bond films to date, so why not challenge myself again, and take on something larger?
To assure you, dear reader: I am a big fan of horror movies in general, and some of these franchises in particular. I love the Freddy movies, and I consider John Carpenter’s Halloween to be a horror classic on par with Psycho or any other horror classic. The Friday the 13th films, I am less familiar with, so I beg Jason fans to have patience as I muddle through most of that series for the first time.
So here’s how I’ve broken it down: Since the Friday the 13th series and the A Nightmare on Elm Street series shared a single crossover film (2003’s Freddy vs. Jason), we should consider the two series to exist in the same universe. That means the two franchises can be considered, at least for my purposes, one gigantic series. That means, between the two series, the one crossover film, and two remakes, I have 20 films to review. I’ll be covering four films a week for the next five weeks, leading up to Halloween (the holiday, not the film). I will be covering them fuzzy-chronologically, cleaving somewhat closely to the actual U.S. release dates of each, only fudging for editorial purposes; technically, the first four Friday movies were released before the first Nightmare, but I’ll be covering Nightmare this week nonetheless. I will also be making note of the number of kills in each film (that is, the people the monster kills, with no monster deaths, and no incidental deaths). I will take note of the best kill in each film and, just for fun, I will be tallying the number of bare breasts in each film. My rules on breasts have been made explicit in my Series Project articles on the L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies. I’m counting breasts because, well, slasher movies were often my only exposure to female nudity as a young teen.
I am going to see so much death and blood in this endeavor; I hope you forgive me if I’m found in a bathtub full of red Karo syrup in a few weeks’ time, humming the Nightmare theme to myself, declaring myself the next dream demon.
I should perhaps state right out the outset that the Friday movies and the Nightmare movies were considered rivals all throughout the 1980s. Although the setups are decidedly different, something about Jason and Freddy invited common fans, bitter conflicts, and endless debates as to which series was better, which monster was better, and, most fun and adolescent of them all, who would win in a fight. I will attempt to come to these decisions at the end of this edition of The Series Project, but for now I can only say that the two series are so different, and have such vastly different rules, that I’m kind of surprised – upon re-examination – that there was a rivalry at all. One is a cerebral series about nightmares and abstract horror imagery. The other is a basic slasher premise repeated numerous times, with the kills becoming more elaborate, and the mythology staying frustratingly simple. I know fans of both, but most horror people tend to have a favorite. I will be looking at both series as I go along, and, in addition to tracing the inter-film continuity, will be musing briefly on the rivalry, where it came from, and which series comes out the strongest in the end, if any.
SPOILER WARNING: I will be discussing these films openly, and without any guard as to the twist endings or surprises. I’m going to assume that you’ve seen them all, but if you haven’t, consider this sentence a blanket spoiler warning. I’m going to give everything away.
The setups, for anyone not yet familiar: The Friday the 13th movies (b. 1980) famously follow an undead mute zombie named Jason Voorhees, who lives in the wilds of New Jersey, specifically around a summer camp called Camp Crystal Lake. Jason once drowned (?) there, came back to life somehow, and has spent years stalking and killing the people who come there as a sort of spiritual retribution for either his own death, or the death of his mother (the first few films are a little vague). The action in each film typically takes place on the titular date. Jason is best known for his large frame, and his spooky hockey mask which he rarely removes, and will eventually bolt to his skull. The Nightmare on Elm Street movies (b. 1984) follow a monster named Fred Krueger (played by Robert Englund in all of the movies, except the remake), who was once a murderer in suburbia, USA. When he was killed by angry residents, he managed to manifest himself in the dreams of his killers’ children, able to harm and kill them in their sleep. Krueger can’t willfully enter the waking world, and can only do harm in dreams. Fred, or “Freddy,” is known by his grimy striped sweater, burned skin, fedora, and trademark glove with knives on the fingers.
Without further ado, it’s time to leap into the biggest project yet. Gird your loins, hide the sharp objects, send the pets to a friend’s house, lock yourself in, paste foil over the windows, and get a bunch of Glade Plug-Ins. We’re in for a long haul, my lovelies.
Friday the 13th
Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Release Date: 9th May, 1980
Body Count: 9*
Best Kill: A young man is stabbed through the neck by an arrow while lying on his back. The arrow pushes its way up from underneath him, the point emerging from his throat.
Number of Breasts: 2
*The body count warrants an asterisk, as Jason himself does none of the slayings. The kills in this first film were all committed by Mrs. Voorhees, Jason’s mother.
This was the face that launched a thousand ships, and I am astonished at how shabby it is. Seriously, the first Friday the 13th movie is badly plotted, not very well-written, and only succeeds, I think, by the virtue of its twist ending, and some pretty good sex scenes. Aside from that, I’m kind of surprised it warranted a single sequel, let alone ten. Halloween had already set the template for the slasher movie, and there’s nothing terribly remarkable about this retread that came two years later. Well, nothing remarkable other than the many films that followed it.
So the setup is as follows: The film opens with a flashback to 1958 (22 years ago), with a creepy POV shot following a pair of randy camp counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, NJ. The counselors sneak off to boink in an attic while the children rest in their cabins unattended. The POV shot sneaks up on the counselors and kills them. The campfire story begins that this was the ghost of a boy named Jason, perhaps 12 years old, who drowned in Camp Crystal Lake the previous year. He drowned because the counselors were off having sex and not looking after Jason (Ari Lehmann), who, in flashbacks, looks to be mutated and developmentally disabled.
Cut to the present, and a new batch of counselors has arrived to re-open the camp. The counselors are all teens or twentysomethings, and openly talk about sex and dope. They have a few days to party before camp begins in earnest, and party they do. They smoke, play strip Monopoly, have sex, and generally have a wild time. They are warned, of course, by a creepy old man named Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney), filling a part that has become something of a horror staple. I’m also very much not the first to notice the altruism behind most slasher movies (indeed, this was part of the dialogue in the 1996 classic Scream); the characters who die first are the ones who have sex and do drugs first. This makes sense in the case of Friday the 13th; it was recreational sex that led to Jason’s death, after all.
Stalking about is an unseen killer who murders a few people outside of camp (the killer kills a hitchhiker making her way in), and then moves into Camp Crystal Lake where, over the course of a single bloody night, they kill off all the counselors.
The characters aren’t all that interesting in this flick. Notable is a young, and rather hot, Kevin Bacon, as the victim of the aforementioned cool kill. He and his girlfriend Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) have a really realistic looking sex scene, which is actually kind of tender; this is not random porno fantasy. These two are in a relationship. I guess sex is bad in Mrs. Voorhees’ eyes. I mean Jason's. Up until this point, the assumption is that the killer is the ghost of Jason, seeking revenge.
It’s a common pattern of slasher films to whittle down the cast until the final victim is left to do the killer in. The final victim in this case is the relatively well-behaved Alice (Adrienne King), who survives by the mere virtue of not removing her shirt. She was going to remove it during that game of strip Monopoly, but the game was interrupted. Remember that ladies: a brassiere can stand between life and death. Alice, in a panic, attempts to flee the camp, but runs into Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), who, at first, seems like a kindly matron in a sweater, but very soon reveals herself to be the killer. In a very Psycho-like twist (and you have seen Psycho, right?), Mrs. Voorhees seems to have been driven mad by the death of her son, Jason, and is now enacting revenge, often speaking in his voice. There is a pretty damn wicked fight between Mrs. Voorhees and Alice, which lasts for a good long time. In recent years, films have slickened past the need for fights like this wherein people just pile on top of one another, bleeding and grunting.
Eventually, Alice takes up an axe and decapitates Mrs. Voorhees/Jason. Distraught, and the only person left alive, she gets into a boat, and floats out into Crystal Lake. In a final twist, Jason himself, perhaps a ghost, lurches up out of the water, coated in weeds and moss, and pulls Alice into the water. Alice awakens in a hospital, confused. Was Jason really there or a dream? Was he a ghost? The film itself, as with most of the Friday movies, ends on an ambiguous note, although Alice seems to think that Jason is alive.
This film is, as I say, sloppy. The killer is introduced so late in the proceedings; it feels less like a twist and more like a last-minute addition. There’s no rising tension, no sense of dread. Sure, the kills are bloody, and the cast is efficiently dispatched, but that’s really the best you can say for Friday the 13th: it’s efficient. Well, also it has a kinda cool villain. Mrs. Voorhees has a lot of fight in her, and seems crushed over the death of her boy. It’s also revealed that she was responsible for the fires and other deaths that had occurred at Crystal Lake in the last 22 years. That’s a long time to hold a grudge.
The relationship between Mrs. Voorhees and Jason will make utterly no sense as we roll around to the first sequel. Jason, it turns out, was alive this whole time, maybe. It’s vague. Let’s explore it in…
Friday the 13th Part 2
Director: Steve Miner
Release Date: 1st May, 1981
Body Count: 8, plus one dog
Best Kill: A pair of lovers, relaxing in post-coital bliss, are skewered together.
Number of Breasts: 2
So about that dynamic. In Friday the 13th, Mrs. Voorhees was supposedly murdering camp counselors out of revenge for the loss of her son. In Friday the 13th Part 2, it’s explained pretty early on that Jason is indeed alive, and that he’s indeed the killer. I don’t recall when that detail was made explicit, but it seems that there was no ambiguity on the matter. It’s also explained by a new camp counselor that Jason was now killing people because he witnessed his mother being decapitated in the last film, and has, in turn, been driven mad. So what came first? Mrs. Voorhees’ vengeance or Jason’s? Was Jason resurrected by his need to avenge his mother, who was already avenging for him? It’s already muddled. My guess is that Part 2 is attempting to establish a new killer, and expects us to ignore a lot of the first film.
This is fine by me, as Part 2 is essentially a good version of the first film. The premise is identical, and the pacing is pretty much the same as well. A group of camp counselors, at a neighboring camp to Crystal Lake, are gathering to prepare for the ensuing summer camp months. A stalker is prowling around killing people. The people who deign to have sex are killed off first, followed by others. Eventually we’re left with one brave, relatively virginal soul who dupes the killer and flees. This film also sets a pattern we’ll see in future: each sequel in the Friday series, at least to date, begins with a flashback of the previous film’s climax (very much akin to the Rocky sequels), and ends with someone or something lurching up out of Crystal Lake to drag someone out of a boat.
Part 2 begins with the murder of Alice (still Adrienne King) being murdered by a new killer. I think we all know right off the bat that it’s Jason (Warrington Gillette) back from the dead, or perhaps out from hiding. We also see the death of another returning cast member in the form of Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney), the creepy old guy from the last film, strangled by barbed wire. The action then shifts to the aforementioned summer camp, where most of the action will take place. The formula is in place; i.e., stalk ‘n’ kill according to vice, but there’s something richer about this film than the last. The dialogue is a bit wittier. The action takes its time. The characters are actually appealing and seem to have some personality. When characters sneak off to have sex, again, it’s not wild reckless hedonism. It’s couples having a good time. There’s even a romance between a stud in a wheelchair (Russell Todd) and a cutesy brunette (Lauren-Marie Taylor) who travels with sexy underpants.
The nudity is even better (which is, if I must remind you, and important consideration in a slasher flick). A minxy babe (Kirsten Baker) goes skinny dipping, and it’s the kind of gratuitous nudity that, well, you just don’t see anymore. God bless the child.
Jason himself is a hillbilly oaf who wears a bag over his head. We see why briefly: his face is misshapen and weird. He looks a bit like The Elephant Man, or Sloth from The Goonies. What’s more, he doesn’t seem capable of speech. For a while, I thought that the iconic Friday sound effect of someone whispering “Ch! Ch! Ch! Ha! Ha! Ha!” was something Jason was doing. It turns out it’s just a creepy sound effect used to add dread to a scene. The music in these films, by the way, is pretty excellent, as it invokes the all-strings score from Bernard Hermann’s Psycho.
What else? We also see the shed where Jason has been living. It ain’t exactly the cabin on Walden Pond. Dangerous retarded Wildman with a mommy complex. That’s your killer for you.
The climax involves the film’s intellectual/heroine Ginny (Amy Steel) sneaking into Jason’s sanctuary, and finding Mrs. Voorhees’ old sweater and – gulp – her rotten severed head. Since Ginny is a psychology student, she elects to put on the sweater and convince Jason to stop killing, posing as Mrs. Voorhees. Betsy Palmer returns for these scenes. Something about the heroines in these first movies: they’re not necessarily complicated. The kids may have personality, but they’re still not very rich characters. That said, Friday the 13th Part 2 is a good, solid slasher, and something of a minor classic in the Slasher Franchise genre.
The next film will take a sharp left turn away from scary territory, and land us in an unfortunate place, close to slapstick comedy. And… it’ll be in 3-D.
Friday the 13th Part 3 3-D
Directed by: Steve Miner
Release Date: 13th August 1982
Body Count: 10
Best Kill: It’s a tossup. One man, while walking on his hands, is sliced in half with a machete, crotch first. Another fellow has his head crushed in between Jason’s hands, forcing his eyeball to pop out at the audience, employing the 3-D effect.
Number of Breasts: 2
The last film was an earnest little slasher flick that actually went for scares and thrills and was largely successful. Friday the 13th Part 3 3-D, by contrast, is a tongue-in-cheek camp-fest that, while having some nice kills, is insufferable thanks to its goofy tone. I’m beginning to suspect that the Jason franchise is afflicted with the same curse as the Star Trek franchise; that is: the even-numbered ones are good, and the odd-numbered ones are bad.
This film is only notable for a few reasons. For one, it’s the first film to feature Jason in the hockey mask that he would continue to wear for the rest of the series and would, indeed, become his trademark. Second, the 3-D effects were pretty spectacular, and the filmmakers took every available opportunity to shove things out in your face, even if it was just a baseball bat or a broom or something, not involved in mayhem. This was long before studios started retrofitting films with 3-D effects to jack up ticket price, and adds 100% nothing to the aesthetic value of a movie. 3-D is a gimmick, dammit, and should be treated as such. Friday the 13th Part 3 3-D uses its gimmick well. It also has a markedly 1980s score, abandoning the Hermann-esque opening number for a more electronic rock version. Oh yeah, and there’s a scene wherein someone is reading Fangoria Magazine. I think every horror movie should have someone reading a Fangoria Magazine.
The body count is pretty high in this film, but it doesn’t feel any bloodier than the last film. Someone does get harpooned in the eye, and the two “best” kills are still awesome. But the tone is so weirdly comical that the gore and the mayhem don’t really sink in. Indeed, by this point in the series, even if you weren’t raised on slasher clichés like I was, you’ll start seeing some patterns. Like, you’ll know which characters will be killed as soon as they’re introduced. Hence, when we see the insufferable nerdy character (Larry Zerner) have a run-in with three biker toughs, we just have to bide our time until the biker toughs are lured into a barn and dispatched by Jason.
The big plot point in this film is that the heroine, Chris (Dana Kimmell) is returning to Camp Crystal Lake after she had a run-in with Jason a few years previous. Her trauma will be relived, dear reader. Her run-in with Jason wasn’t from either of the previous two films, however, and was just sort of a random encounter. Let’s see if I have the timeline correct: Jason drowned in 1957. I’m guessing he was about 12 at the time, making his birthday somewhere in 1945. He had his run-in with Chris, I’m guessing, sometime before Part 2, but after part 1. Part 2, by the way, may take place four or five years after part 1. By that thinking, Part 3 3-D takes place in 1985, when Jason turned 40. I’m still unclear as to when he died that set off his mother. We see more of Mrs. Voorhees in the future, by the way. Jason’s love for his mother is the driving force behind the whole series, so frequent mention will eventually be made of her.
I know a lot of Jason fans get really excited about this one, as it was the beginning of the hockey mask era (Jason stole the hockey mask idea from the nerdy guy, who liked to put on masks and scare people), but I have little to say about this film, and can’t get too worked up about it. It’s so corny and silly, I can’t get scared.
Oh wait. I figured it out. Friday the 13th Part 3 3-D was intended to be seen late at night, in 3-D on the big screen, with a bunch of rowdy peers, drunk on stolen beer, jeering openly in the theater. It was an attempt to use the Friday the 13th name and adapt it into a proper old-timey drive-in experience. Hence, the film is all about violent set pieces, creative visuals, etc. I suppose that is an important step in the life of a slasher franchise: the time when the series becomes more fun, and openly embraces its weird death scenes over any notion of mythology or story arcs. This happens to every long-running horror franchise. Name one that doesn’t.
Technically, the next film in both the Nightmare and Friday series was the fourth Friday film, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. It came out on 13th April, 1984. However, I only have one more film to write about this week, and I wanted to cover at least one a Nightmare film, so we’re going to forego The (Not at All) Final Chapter for the time being, and jump into the first of the Nightmare franchise. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you one of the best. I give you…
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Directed by: Wes Craven
Release Date: 16th November 1984
Body Count: 4
Best Kill: Another toss-up. Either the girl who was dragged across the ceiling or Johnny Depp who got sucked into the bed.
Number of Breasts: 1
So A Nightmare on Elm Street, while considered one of the crown jewels in the slasher crown, is actually much more ambitious, cerebral, and high-minded than a lot of other slasher films. The monster isn’t so much an unstoppable zombie as he is, well, a concept. Craven reportedly based this film on a real-life event of a young man who began to fear that if he fell asleep, a demon would appear in his dreams and kill him. A Nightmare on Elm Street is about that demon. I’ll reiterate the backstory up front: Fred Krueger (Robert Englund) was a child murderer in his suburban neighborhood, who, thanks to a clerical error, was released, despite his having murdered 20 children. The local parents, outraged, chased Krueger down to a boiler room and set him on fire. His ghost, however, now badly burned, and brandishing the finger claws that he would use on his child victims, managed to live on in the dreams of his killers’ children. He not only tormented and scared them, but could actually kill them in their dreams. Like if he slashed kids in their dreams, wounds would appear on their bodies in the waking world.
The body count is low in this film, as it seems way more focused on fear and surreal horror imagery than mere fist-pumping body count. When a character dies, at least with this first Freddy movie, it feels like a real brutal event, and not just eye candy. As a result, the film is more frightening. Yeah, there are some horny teens, and the more sexual ones get bumped off first, but it’s not as cheap here. Did I mention that I love this movie, and that I grew up watching it? Yeah, A Nightmare on Elm Street is, in my mind, something of an undisputed horror classic in its own right, and still scares me when I watch it today.
The heroine is Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) who is being stalked in her dream by Freddy. Oddly, her friends are also having the same dream about the same guy. It’s the finger knives they all remember. Nancy is the chaste one who rebuffs her boyfriend (Johnny Depp in his first film role). Tina (Amanda Wyss from Better Off Dead…) is the sexually active one. Rod (Nick Corri) is the Guido type. Freddy kills Tina in her dream, and Rod watches. Rod is accused of killing her. Rod goes to jail. Freddy hangs Rod in jail by possessing a bedsheet.
Freddy is not just interested in murder, and he doesn’t prowl around like a usual stalker. He is up front about being seen, and wants more to scare the kids. He doesn’t just want people dead out of a desperate and implacable need to kill. He wants to torment people, and torment them good. He wants to make sure the parents are suffering for killing him, and he wants to use his grimy tools and boiler room to lure more kids to their deaths. A serial killer who becomes immortal by transforming, essentially, into a killing idea. That’s kind of heady stuff for a slasher film intended for teenagers.
Eventually Nancy figures out that she can battle with Freddy and, in a really eerie scene, goes to a sleep study clinic and pulls Freddy’s hat out of her dream. Eventually mom (Ronee Blakley) comes clean about the whole backstory, and even reveals that she’s been hiding Krueger’s claw glove in her house this whole time. She proceeds to get drunk. After staying up for seven days straight, Nancy finally elects to confront Freddy and drag him into the waking world. But not before facing serious doubt from her police officer father, played by the excellent and reliable John Saxon.
Something else Nightmare does right: the nightmares themselves. I don’t know about you, but I’ve actually had dreams like the ones seen in this movie. Like how rooms seem to alter and stretch around you. Or desperate but unheard pleas from someone wrapped in plastic. As the films go on, the dreams will become increasingly unrealistic, but in this first film, the nightmares are pretty spot on.
Is there anything to criticize about this film? I suppose I could take exception to how vague Freddy’s origins are. Eventually they’ll be explained (and in stupid ways, as will be seen in a few weeks when I cover Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare), but for now, we don’t know how Freddy came to be a dreams-only monster. Just like the Jason movies, the monster starts his life as a mere ghost who hangs over past misdeeds. In Friday it was a campfire story. In Nightmare, it was more of an urban legend. A technical explanation is not needed, as we know what ghosts are. Freddy is a ghost. A mere wisp. Who can cut you up real good.
And that’s where we’ll leave it for this week, kiddos. But fear not (or fear much), as we have four more weeks to go in The Series Project: Freddy & Jason. Next week I’ll be covering the fourth through the sixth Friday films, and will be trying to reconcile why the fourth chapter in a 10-film series was called “The Final Chapter.” I’ll also be looking at the second Nightmare flick, which is the odd man out in the series. In short, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge is the really gay one.
There is so much more blood to shed. Be sure to join me.