Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Friday, July 13, 2007

Friday the 13th Killed my Childhood (+ Postscript: No it didn't!)

I was a kid in 1980 when the first Friday the 13th came out in theaters, and it was a tragic fuckin' time in cinematic history to be 13 years old and already a squeamish feminist. I grew up a horror fan, but more of the classic monsters variety, and frankly the whole murders for the sake of murdering thing scared me in a sort of pretentious "I fear for our common humanity" sort of way. I was a 70s guy. I dug the ladies, and here the ladies were getting chopped up, and the whole groovy yellow submarine was sinking.

If you too were a kid in the 1970’s then you likely remember how pervasive classic horror and science fiction was. Old movies were always on local UHF TV. There was no VHS or cable or TV, so if you missed a show, that was it, so shit like Famous Monsters of Filmland filled the gap. It was sold on every newsstand. CARRIE, THE OMEN and EXORCIST were the hot topics on the playground when being R-rated meant something truly terrifying and forbidden --we pretended we could understand the novelizations, but looked at the photo inserts (in the middle) when at the K-Mart or King's with out moms. UHF classic horror was a constant, like the radio, comforting. DRACULA immunized us to real fear, we'd laugh at the fakeness with our dads on a rainy Saturday afternoon. But if I was alone and a commercial for TORSO or SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT Came on, I felt really threatened. As kids we saw the adults do all sorts of fun weird stuff--drugs, swinging-- and none of it was considered "evil." Scary, yes... but in an exhilarating, life-affirming way. R rated films were ultimately outside our realm of true understanding, and therefore life-affirming. The first of the modern slashers, HALLOWEEN, was still that way, but its open ending left a never-healing wound. With its popularity, horror stopped being sexy-funny and started being ugly. The slasher wave crushed the sex wave underfoot, and sex’s mangled corpse washed up in the surf. Standing demurely atop that corpse, like Venus on the half-shell, was Jason Voorhees' crazy mother.

With the 13th opening the floodgates to the slasher cycle we were forced to see that true terror lay not in the supernatural of our UHF TV creature features but in its opposite... in the bland tedium of a world without "magical thinking." Not having access to free love anymore (due to AIDS panic and other factors like the dawning of pedophile sex ring hysteria) made people spiteful and anti-sex. What was Jason and his mom but an early and earthy version of Ken Starr? The 1970s swingers thought they had permanently killed off the knee-jerk repression of the 1950s, but here it was, back from the grave and stalking underclad women with a hacksaw. John Lennon was shot the same year FRIDAY came out it and free love froze in its tracks and slunk home, suddenly realizing they had left the kids in the microwave, manned by an LSD-addict babysitter. The neo-counterculture was born. People had failed the test (everyone else, not us) of freedom. "No" become the new yes. No to drugs, no to sex, no to drunk driving, yes only to survival in the most mundane sense.

To this day I have seen only a few slasher films, though I love almost all other horror sub-genres. I’m disturbed and a little depressed by the slasher cycle, to be honest, especially as I've been educated to see them all as misogynistic, foolishly thinking this would get me girls. Though as I write this I begin to see that my distrust of slasher films really a lot less to do with my hatred of misogyny and frat boys and more to do with the creepiness of the moment in time when they were all the rage in theaters and I was a depressed virgin. If I'd have gone with a date, or a pack of friends, maybe I could have figured it out, but just the way they talked about the murders of these girls made me want to never be friends with anyone at my school.

America was only beginning to homogenize itself at the time; the whimsical eccentricities of “Main Street” were just beginning to lose out to the pre-fab sterility of “The Mall” and I embraced the ensuing ennui and depression. The economy soon grew dependent on our newfound addictions, we drove long distances to malls rather than bike to 7-Eleven. There were no sidewalks anymore. If parents have to be hanging around us, we may as well get them to buy us comic books and Atari and then lock ourselves in our rooms and slowly gain weight and succumb to suicidal ideation.

Nowadays it's all but unthinkable, but In the 1970s kids of any age ran loose all over the neighborhood. If you were old enough to walk, say four or five years old, you were not only allowed to go off on your own and explore as far as you could walk (as long as you were in shouting earshot for dinner), you were often forced to do so so parents could catch a break. In the 1980s that freedom was removed thanks to hysteria over pedophiles and sundry other neighborhood menaces played up by news headlines and TV's America's Most Wanted. For some of us, it was the answer to our prayers, even though our prayers led us to become couch potato hysterics. Now we didn't have to play, no we could watch TV, and now we could tape our favorite shows, the VCR had come.

Along with the slashers, AIDS and the shooting of Lennon came the national furor over sexual molestations at day care centers, outrage over drunk drivers and just say no to drugs. Parents stopped going out. We barred the doors and windows. For us kids old enough to remember how cool things were just a few years earlier, the sense of despair was sudden and unrelenting; it arrived with all the force of a second national puberty. It felt right to be doing this, curtailing our liberty... it felt safer.  Jason Voorhees sprang from our forehead fully formed, not as a golem-like avenger of the unjustly persecuted but as a manifestation of the egoic infantile rage we'd been suppressing through the 70s in favor of groovy vibes and love and tolerance. Suddenly there he was, like Walter Pidgeon’s Monster of the Id in FORBIDDEN PLANET or the kids in THE BROOD. In our idle dread, we welcomed him.

Of course this rotten state of affairs didn't last. The story has a happy ending. The internet! Mac notebook computers! DVDs! It's a cool world! The slasher film now provides retro delights for fun, brilliant writers like Stacie Ponder at Final Girl. I became a rock star in 1987, sobered up in 1998 and now live happily ever, with a DVD library of at least 500 films. Time and Netflix heals all wounds! What goes around comes around, so can a second summer of love be lurking right around the corner? I believe it can. And if Richard Beymer was here, I'd ask him to sing "Who Knows?"

So what’s the future of horror? What new bloody thing can Jason do? I’d like to leave you with the idea of death coming full circle and horror movies going through the carwash of the abyss and coming out about the dawn of life instead of onset of death. Imagine FRIDAY THE 13TH PART XX: JASON THE MIDWIFE! Picture Jason delivering babies! Gore in reverse! A slew of baby-delivery horror films -- FX shots of placenta becoming a standard "money shot" for every horror film, along with cesarian sections, torn vaginal walls, umbilical cords covered in alien slime… Jason grabs his mighty garden shears and severs the umbilical connecting the newborn slacker from his cozy womb of nonexistence. Another kid born screaming into this world of garden tools and tooth decay.

POSTSCRIPT: 10/'14 -- I've changed my rabid anti-FRIDAY stance recently, when a random viewing on IFC made me realize how wrong I was -- that the first one at any rate is innovative with great use of darkness (no streetlights) and rain merging together to create a sense of isolation like the woods are swallowing people up, and the incessant water on canvas sound muffling any strange noises, etc. The camera work borrows all the right things from Carpenter's HALLOWEEN, and like that film, it takes its time building things up with tick-tock momentum!

More than the film it was the attitude of the other kids my age at the time, who all cheered the violent deaths of sluts like they were a bunch of puritan Neros. They were the problem, not the film. End.

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