From the Eunoia Archives: The Terror Test: Test Prep #8

Originally written for The Terror Test. Check out their new website. I am now writing Lost in Arhkam. Previous Test Prep essays

The following was originally written for a Friday the 13th, Part VII: The New Blood (1988) and Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993) episode.

Anti-Paraskevidekatriaphobia Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mom

“We notice that in ironic comedy that the demonic world is never far away.” ~ Northrop Frye

Potential spoilers for Friday the 13th (1980) and Psycho (1960).

As a young horror fan, I liked Italian gialli, considered proto-slashers, but was rarely excited by the American slasher film franchises. I wanted to be an FX artist and was more interested in technique and thrills than characters or story. Tom Savini, one of the heroes of my youth, called these effects “gags,” like jokes in comics and cartoons. My technical interest created a distance from the material, and besides, with relatively bad writing and acting, and budgets solely meant to maximize profits, there frequently wasn’t much else to like about slasher sequels.

Working with this podcast has lead me to revisiting these movies, and surprisingly, the original Friday the 13th (1980), is one I enjoy now more than I did as a kid. Is it great? In a word, no. Is it still fun and effective? Surprisingly, this was a yes for me. Somehow this viewing brought back the feeling of watching these films as a teen. As a bonus, it was nice to see Savini’s work again after all these years and so many insufferable CGI effects later.

The music was better than I remembered, though it owes a debt to Herrmann’s score to Psycho (1960), but then again, how many horror film scores owe a debt to Psycho’s music? Henry Manfredini’s iconic “ki…ki…ki…ma…ma…ma…” still sounds creepy and still produces tension. The film has few to none of the musically cued jump scares that the sequels seemed to stack on top of one another. The cues mostly come after the action onscreen.

The film works against gender expectations like Psycho, too. With the killer’s work boots and ease of moving dead bodies, the viewer expects the killer to be a man. Plus, that was the norm in ‘80s slasher films. We find out that it is Pamela Voorhees, Jason’s mother, just as in Psycho, we find out that Mother is actually Norman. And just as Mother speaks through Norman, Jason speaks through Mrs. Voorhees, too. Besides the still creepy, “Kill her, Mommy!” I found the line “ I am, Jason. I am” interesting. In her mind she responds to Jason calling her, but that line also sounds like “I am Jason.” And, well, she is the “Jason” of the first movie. Like Norman Bates, who seems to be inhabited by his mother, it’s suggesting a possession, or obsession, as well. However a killer’s motives are explained, the slasher films and their giallo predecessors (which often explained motive through pseudo-Freudian pop-psych) are not far removed from Scooby-Doo, with one paw in the Gothic and one in the and mystery/thrillers like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

The opening flashback sequence of Friday the 13th uses the traditional killer POV that was used in Black Christmas (1974) and Halloween (1978) among others.  What’s different in Friday the 13th is that Cunningham uses the POV style, a handheld, floating camera effect, to unsettle the viewer during the rest of the film. For example, when we see Annie, the new cook of Camp Crystal Lake, there are several moments of her walking that are filmed in POV, which leads a viewer to think the killer is watching her, but it’s broad daylight, which doesn’t feel right.  Later, once the counselors get to camp, Cunningham continues to use this technique to thwart viewer expectations, particularly in the scenes around the camp’s generator in which it feels like we are in killer POV, but we’re not. This camera effect combined with the lack of musical cues is more effective than the “scares” in the almost unwatchable Friday the 13th, Part VII, The New Blood (1988). I can say my own memory of the original has been tainted by the sequels.

For instance, not only did the amount of daylight in the film surprise me, but also the amount of  lush, green woodlands did, too. For around thirty minutes after the title sequence, the film happens in idyllic natural settings, until we get a storm and a repeat from the flashback sequence of clouds slicing the moon, similar to the setup of the infamous eyeball slicing of Un Chien Andalou (1929). Like in Shakespeare’s plays, the disturbance in the natural world goes with the disturbance in the social world. The natural setting also reminded me of the green world, an element featured in comedies of the Renaissance.

Taking the notions of special effects being “gags” and the possible connection to the green world together in Friday the 13th made me think of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, a book I had last dealt with in my undergraduate years and one I’m now eager to reread and hope to expand some of these thoughts and connections at a later date. It’s worth looking at a few of the ideas in brief.

In his third essay in the book, “Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths,” Frye analyzes the structural principles and character types of a variety of genres, including comedy. I kept noticing connections and ways of thinking about Friday the 13th. Towards the end of his discussion on comedy, particularly what he calls the phases of comedy, Frye writes:

At this point too comedy proper enters its final or sixth phase, the phase of the collapse or disintegration of the comic society. In this phase the social units of comedy become small and esoteric, or even confined to a single individual. Secret and sheltered places, forests in moonlight, secluded valleys, and happy islands become more prominent, as does the penseroso mood of romance, the love of the occult and the marvelous, the sense of individual detachment from routine existence. In this kind of comedy we have finally left the world of wit and the awakened critical intelligence for the opposite pole, an oracular solemnity which, if we surrender uncritically to it, will provide a delightful frisson. This is the world of ghost stories, thrillers, and Gothic romances. (185) 

While not part of this sixth phase, The Merchant of Venice, even with its pound of flesh, is classified as comedy. And as I mentioned earlier, slashers are not far from “the world of ghost stories” or “thrillers.”

This made sense to me in thinking about slasher films, though, considering that stage tragedy is often described as “the plays where everyone dies,” it seems counterintuitive. But slasher films just do not have the gravitas of tragedy. The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism states that “a comedy is a work in which the materials are selected and managed primarily in order to interest and amuse us: the characters and their discomfitures engage our delighted attention rather than our profound concern, we feel confident that no great disaster will occur” (25). Even if one is not a horror fan and watches one of these films, isn’t it out of some sort of amusement? And while we may be sorta concerned (I suppose we have to be for the movies to work.), are we ever profoundly concerned for our campers, dreamers, or babysitters? Whose names do we know when the movie’s over?

One of the projects I hope to continue is a filtering of the debates about whether or not slasher films are conservative or liberal through a closer analysis of Frye’s work on genre and comedy. At this point in my life, I didn’t expect to develop an interest in these movies. I thought I’d killed them off years ago. I haven’t even seen the remakes. In a way, it’s like Tina Shepard, “the new blood” of Part VII, who stares into Crystal Lake, and with her mind, brings Jason back. She was expecting to revive her father, but she got a monster. I’m still peering through the bubbles and blood to see what I will find, or maybe, what will find me.

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