Is the slasher genre dead? Should we be mournful of Friday the 13th?
Friday the 13th is the flagship franchise of slashers. No other film series in the world has built the kind of rabid fanbase that these movies have. Giallo films from Italy and early exploitation pictures like The Last House on the Left paved the way for these fright flicks, but none of the predecessors hold a candle anywhere close to Jason in terms of popularity. Even 35 years later, that hockey mask is still iconic.
These kinds of films influence new waves of filmmakers with each passing generation. We as the audience watch directors take a stab at making a Jason flick every few years, but lately the demand seems to have all but gone away. Who wants to go see a new Friday the 13th movie other than hardcore fans these days? Here are our thoughts on just what has happened to this once great subgenre of schlock cinema, and whether or not the trend is over.
Breaking Down Franchise Themes
The original Friday the 13th is the story of how a group of camp counselors is unfairly slaughtered by a deranged killer. That sounds like every other movie in the franchise, but this first film bears a crucial difference. Jason’s mother Pamela has a tragic motivation: the negligence of past camp counselors played a role in her son’s drowning. But the first sequel negated her tragedy almost immediately when it revealed that Jason never died.
From that moment forward, the series began to lose its tragic revenge angle. Instead, it focused on the baser pleasures. It became formulaic to the point of self-parody, every entry adding to a feedback loop. That loop helped to create a stagnation in the slasher genre. You know — take a bunch of cavorting teenagers, isolate them, and kill them off. And audiences couldn’t help but notice that these kids were dying when they snuck off to get lucky or smoke a joint. Have fun, get murdered.
It’s a weird moral message, one that feels antithetical to what young audiences would want. Why should we take delight in the summary executions of kids just trying to have fun? It’s too cynical, too mean-spirited. Today, a decent slasher movie must have a solid tragic motivation for its actions, or attempt to deconstruct the genre. I think that’s why we don’t see as many mainstream slashers today — we’re still in the cultural process of breaking them down into pieces we can understand. [Travis Newton]
Nailing Down a Tone That Works
Slashers can’t seem to keep their momentum going. The American subgenre has a problem with dishing out heaps of violence while trying to balance it with goofiness. Trying to play both sides of the coin is what lead the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise to be looked back at as a joke. Wes Craven’s best efforts to resurrect Freddy in New Nightmare came too little too late after the nonsensical jokefest that was Freddy’s Dead. It takes a solid grasp on what makes audiences tick to find that medium, and sadly the Friday the 13th series has yet to get there.
When Jason chooses a victim, it’s the filmmaker and the production team saying, “This is the kind of person who deserves to have their ass handed to them.” While that may sound mean and potentially malicious, the intent is to shine a light on the worst habits of insufferable people. What makes a Jason movie satisfying for the outcast horror fan is seeing the common jerk get what’s coming to them. There’s always that element; it just has to reflect current zeitgeist to actually work.
Friday the 13th movies are popcorn for the brain. Some of them have fantastic moments that make audiences react wildly, but most of them are fun throwaways that are good for a laugh every now and again. A New Beginning is the Scooby Doo of the franchise and while most fans of the series hate it, the characters are ridiculous and many of the shock moments are absurdly entertaining. These films will always hang on their kill counts and death scenes, but what makes them truly great is the buildup to the payoff. That’s the hook and the reason why everyone knows, “Ch, ch, ch. Ah, ah, ah.” [Andrew Hawkins]
Cartoonish Violence and Gore Effects
Slasher flicks aren’t meant to be realistic in any way, and that’s a huge part of the fun. Slashers are able to slice and dice their victims in ways real killers can’t. Jason in particular is incredibly strong and resilient. He can cut heads clean off in one stroke and crush skulls with little effort. These superhuman abilities allow the special effects guys to go full-bore with the gore, to the delight of slasher fans.
Prior to our CGI-laden cinescape, gore effects required tremendous amounts of ingenuity. Trying to figure out exactly how they created the eye-popping technique in Friday the 13th: Part III or the woman getting cut in half in Jason Goes to Hell is a blast. There are countless “Best Jason Kills” lists out there, and that’s because they’re too cartoonish to really be disturbing.
It’s an adult version of the violence in old Looney Tunes gags – instead of a coyote getting blown up with dynamite, we see a superhuman monster take out his (usually foolish) victims. My favorite Jason kill? It’s in Jason X, (a.k.a. Jason in Space) and involves a vat of liquid nitrogen and a woman’s head shattering like glass. Special effects artist Tom Savini set the bar high with the very first Friday the 13th, and every film has been trying to out-gore him since. [Danielle Ryan]
It’s Just Plain Mean
Something weird happened along the way. The masochistic joy of plunking down money for a ticket to watch teenagers get slaughtered lost its fun. The pleasure of a Friday the 13th movie is the kills. Initially, the films served as a platform for Tom Savini and his ilk to unload really inventive “gags”. Fake neck appliances being punctured. Spears pushing eyeballs towards the camera lens. The series was a playground of gory ideas but as time wore on so did the effectiveness.
It should raise some flags when the performers are punished for being likable. Revisiting the films, it’s astonishing how much glee the Friday the 13th series (and slasher films in general) take in killing innocent people. As the horror industry becomes more sophisticated and “meta” the bloodshed needs to be balanced with repercussions for the violence. Otherwise, it becomes straight torture porn. Promiscuity and drug use are not grounds for a horrible death. As a result, Jason and his brethren have become artifacts from another time.
An unstoppable killing machine needs a lot more counterweight in 2017 than it did in 1987. It’s a testament to how media has to know the world around it and adjust accordingly. It’s how giant monster movies are in vogue again. After 9/11 audiences simply didn’t want to see monuments being destroyed. In a world where children’s lives are at risk every time they enter a classroom it’s just not kosher to have a masked vigilante wantonly dispatching them. The worm will turn but for now Jason may have to wait his turn. [Nick Nunziata]