Having recently (and finally) signed up for Netflix, I’ve been on a bit of a horror binge. So far, I’ve worked my way through Friday the 13th parts 1-7.
Let me explain. I have a fascination with horror that goes back a long way (and may in fact be in some small way related to the problems I have today). When I turned eight years old, I wanted a sleepover party with a few of my best friends. My little brother had been born only five days before, and I was a little jealous of the attention he was getting.
As a treat for the sleepover, my dad took us all to a video store to pick out a movie for us to watch. Being, of course, eight years old, I was looking for Star Wars or Indiana Jones or some other such adventure, and while most of my friends were of a similar mind, one in particular had a different idea. He’d heard about this thing called ‘Friday the 13th‘ from his older brother, who said it was awesome. The video cover certainly didn’t look awesome.
To cut a long story short, I to this day have images from that movie burned into my brain, and I had nightmares for the following two years. I still don’t understand why my dad let us rent it.
It was another eight years before I tried my stomach at horror again. And slowly, I acclimatized myself to their style. From The Relic to Alien to I Know What You Did Last Summer, I took them all in, and ultimately came to enjoy the darkness, the suspense, and the horror. (It’s also quite possible that this shift in taste came about as a result of my ever-increasing depression.)
However, I never returned to Friday the 13th, until now. And watching them in hindsight, I of course am able to laugh at them, for what at first I took for their cheesiness, their stereotyped killers, and the abundance of dumb teenagers.
But upon further inspection, I now realize the importance of these movies in the history of horror and slasher movies. There was already a history of gore and horror going as far back as the early 1960s, but it was Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) that really set the bar. A tale of two teenagers kidnapped, raped and murdered, it was relentless in its portrayal of some of the vilest human behavior ever committed to film. Its canon of visceral horror extends to forced sex, cold-blooded shootings, a manual evisceration, and of course, a chainsaw.
Soon following this was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), which arguably invented the masked killer motif. Upon arriving on a deserted farm, a group of teenagers is one-by-one savagely attacked by the terrifying Leatherface, a fathomless killer who covers his face with human skin. Two further key developments in this film is the now-standard group of teenagers who are sequentially murdered with only one escaping, and the apparently motive-less killer. We are never given any insight into Leatherface’s intentions, reasons or history. He simply is, and this makes him of course all the more terrifying.
Throughout the 1970s these experimental horror films continued to develop, until in 1980, a seminal new slasher was released, featuring unprecedented gore: Friday the 13th. This followed on the trend of the group of teenagers, and placed them in the setting of an innocent and innocuous summer camp, albeit with a dark past. Several aspects of this film have now become such standard memes that they are recognized worldwide, and form the plot of Wes Craven’s immensely popular Scream series.
Throughout all of the Friday the 13th movies (with the exception of Friday the 13th Part 4), we are never given a view of the killer’s face. Ingeniously, Sean S. Cunningham chose only to show the killer’s feet, leaving the viewer completely incapable of empathizing with the killer, and painting him in a terrifying, mysterious light. This is vitally important to the plot in the first film, and plays an important scare factor in the sequels.
A further theme throughout the films is that of sex. In ever Friday the 13th film there is at least one, if not several, sex scenes, typically graphic. In each, the couple in question are murdered either during, or shortly after, copulation. This gave rise to the memorable quote from Scream:
There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex.
Also present in most Friday the 13th films is the conclusion featuring a drawn-out chase between the killer and the sole remaining victim (usually a female). Often this involves the victim making their way into an inescapable position (for example going upstairs, where there are no exits), yet somehow escaping nonetheless.
Slasher films gradually faded from the mainstream after the 1980s, until Wes Craven (remember him? Last House on the Left – the one that started it all) rebooted the entire genre with Scream (1996). This led to a resurgence of imitators such as I Know What You Did Last Summer, and even the comedy spoof Scary Movie.
Of course, there have been many other styles of horror besides slasher films; Alien set the stage for graphically violent science-fiction horror, while Jaws, all the way back in 1975, rebooted the ‘Creature Feature’ genre of the 1950s and 1960s. However, there is arguably no genre that has spawned so great a canon of sequels (Friday the 13th has twelve – where’s the thirteenth?) and imitations, some classic (Halloween), some not so much (Cheerleader Camp). Even bizarre films such as Child’s Play followed suite from Friday the 13th, and in many ways, the past thirty years of horror owes its existence to these terrifying films.
And let’s not forget A Nightmare on Elm Street…