How Cynicism is Killing Entertainment


"What a piece of shit! No one's gonna see this crap!" -- Actress Betsy Palmer who played Pamela Vorhees in the 1980 Friday the 13th and Friday the 13th Part II
The great critic, Roger Ebert, coined the phrase "Dead Teenager Movie" and we have stated several times that Jaws 2 arguably gets technical credit as the first one. While teenagers in peril was a long standing theme and used over and over again, it's the sequel to Spielberg's game changing shark movie that lined them up one after another for the monster to systematically pick off.
A teen smorgasbord awaits the Great White in Jaws 2
The original 1978 Halloween solidified the sub-genre as Michael Meyers (aka The Shape) stepped out of the shadows to maraud Haddonfield, Illinois and Jamie Lee Curtis. It was this John Carpenter independent film that showcased the Dead Teenager film and made it a winning formula for almost a decade. The political and social context of this film can't be ignored and will pave the way for the success for a number of ripoffs however it will be Friday the 13th that will become the front runner.

Young and beautiful and almost always female, the faces of the original Halloween will set the template by which so many copies will follow.


So when director Steve Miner and Producer Sean S. Cunnigham set out to make a quick rip off of Halloween they had no idea they would unleash the most successful horror franchise ever. Even its star and only real celebrity name, Betsy Palmer, dismissed the film as trash until its overwhelming success gave her more fame than all of her previous film and television work combined. Palmer took the role as the now iconic mother of Jason Vorhees because she needed money for a new car. It certainly wasn't because she believed in the material. Palmer also gets credit with the filmmakers for turning the genre a bit on its ear and making the killer a woman as well.


Actress Betsy Palmer then and then. From glamor girl to psycho killer...


The original film is an interesting crossbreed between Cynema and fun genre filmmaking. It counts as Cynema because its priority was profit and to blatantly ripoff Halloween. It entertained almost by accident. What saves it from being pure Cynema is that the film is well made. Despite its cheap budget, the effects delivered (and still do) and were used well by a creative director who understood the genre and didn't try to make the film into something more than what it was. In other words, there was a respect for the material, even though the material was a ripoff. It's an unusual situation.


Six little Indians at Camp Crystal Lake, including then not so famous Kevin Bacon (second from left)
The film gets away with a number of cheats and that's because of its clever manufacturing. To understand why the original did so well, and fans basically turned an indifferent shoulder to its much more expensive and slicker 2008 remake the horror viewer needs to look at the time surrounding the release of the film. It was 1980 and the liberal 70's and all its mess of Watergate, economic turmoil and Vietnam left a bad taste in everyone's mouths. It's no secret that horror films thrive during bad economic times. Jaws  capitalized on this concept. While not a horror film in the true sense of the genre, the shark movie is an economic film. The real villain is not the shark, but actually the mayor and his council cronies that want to keep the beaches open despite the dangers to bring in the almighty tourist dollars.

The real monster in 1975's Jaws, Mayor Larry Vaughn


Ronald Reagan was elected president, ushering in a new era of "American Renewal." The Jimmy Carter years saw depression, malaise, high fuel prices and the United States held by the balls in Iran. 52 American hostages languished in captivity for 444 days, and almost the entire last half of Carter's miserable term as president. Ronald Reagan came in announcing there was a new sheriff in town and the Russian and Middle Eastern baddies better take notice. Only an hour after Reagan was president, the hostages were released and Reagan kicked off a decade that will be defined by his presidency.


Reagan shaking Carter's hand before he kicked his ass in 1980


This is not a political article, however the political and social climate can't be denied. Americans wanted a change and they showed that in the voting booth and at the boxoffice. The heavy handed horror films of the 1970's would change into something that allowed it to weave through the new social climate Americans were craving. The late 70's and early 80's saw a revival in entertainment of all things 1950's. Our TV shows reflected this with Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley and number of sitcoms that were direct throwbacks to the 1950's family sitcom style. Family Ties was the new Leave It To Beaver and its breakout star, Michael J. Fox would achieve boxoffice stardom in a 1950's valentine, Back to the Future in 1985. Throw in Grease, The Wanderers, Hollywood Knights, Porky's and crapload of 1950's films you get the idea.


Ayyy! The Fonz and Richie remind us how much better it was in the 1950's


America went through the Love Decade of the 60's that gave us The Pill, women's liberation and sexual abandon. It's kinda hard to put the genie back in the bottle on something like that. Our music changed, our films changed and like it or not, sex had moved to the forefront after decades of repression and cinematic dick teasing since film first hit the screens. While Americans wanted a return to 1950's "family values" they also wanted their titillation but they didn't want to be open about it. It's kind of like a wedding. The parents of the bride are so happy to see their daughter so beautiful on "her day." What they don't want to think about is "her night." They know what's going to happen but they just don't want to openly talk about it. So everyone pretends and dresses up the wedding as really one big, expensive opening act for the romp that usually follows after the bride and groom say goodbye to the guests. This is the way horror weaved through the obstacle course of the 1980's.


Just the right balance of sex and blood brought in the "R" rating and droves of horny teenagers


Horror's worst enemy is the "X" rating. It's more deadly than any religious agenda. Religious zealots have no clue that studios love the press and actually drive more people to the film out of curiosity to see a film that most likely would have died in relative obscurity if not for their hypocritical antics. A perfect example is Silent Night, Deadly Night a total slasher ripoff that used the gimmick of a psycho in Santa Claus costume to drum up its business. Its not a good film but thanks to the pious religious right pawns, it became a success at the boxoffice and spawned several sequels. The film sucked and would have come and gone with hardly a blip on the boxoiffce radar if it had been left alone. I sometimes wonder if studios deliberately set these people up to be their own little marketing machines.


Kevin Bacon gets deepthroated but not in a good way and if you look at the throat slit to the right you will see those hands are not Betsy Palmer's or she needs to Nair those things fast.


The "X" rating spells certain doom for horror films. Many distributors will not carry a film to general theaters as the rating was reserved for porn and gave off a deadly context for a general release film. Today the "X" has been replaced by the much classier "NC-17" rating, but it's really the same thing. The "X" rating was so powerful that George A. Romero backed off his stance with 1979's Dawn of the Dead and made the necessary cuts to bring it down to an "R". The same was done for Dario Argento's Suspiria. The Exorcist and the original 1979 classic, Alien both made cuts to avoid the X rating, and are considered two of the most important films of the horror genre (Yes, Alien is more horror than science fiction).


Halloween got away with almost no blood and while the nudity by today's standards is nothing, it was considered just a tad racy at the time. Friday the 13th wanted to raise the bar, and gave what Halloween did not. While terror was its driving force, the filmmakers wanted to sex and blood up their movie because they felt that audiences were craving and demanding more. Their first smart move was to hire Make-Up Artist legend Tom Savini to render the effects and that alone allowed a home run.


Make-Up effects Legend, Tom Savini and Jason Vorhees onset of the 1980 Friday the 13th


Savini is an inventive artist with a wild imagination that set the standard for trauma and violent effects. His work on the original Dawn of the Dead is one studied to this day and he is one of the few artists, along with Rob Bottin and Rick Baker, whose work bears its own signature to the artist. Savini not only created all of the kill effects but also designed the iconic image of the young hydrocephalic Jason Vorhees.


Savini's work is a cut above the rest in the original Friday the 13th. axed for it.
The formula works and avoided the X-rating by embracing the genre and not trying to hide anything. The kills are almost designer label. Where Herschel Gordon Lewis and his gore films focused on entrails splayed everywhere, severe torture and rape (the precursor to the slick torture porn films of late) Friday the 13th gives you its violence in quick, slick flashes and never goes down the torture porn route. It also manages to embrace the conservative moral attitude toward sex in the 1980's: immorality will deliver bad things. So the theme becomes almost righteous in a way: have wild, uninhibited sex without marriage...die a gruesome and deserved death because its the Lord's way of sending you a message.
Have Sex and Die
This becomes the theme of every sequel afterward. The plot is almost always the same: a group of horny, most obnoxious teens gather in the woods, try to reopen Camp Crystal Lake or somehow cross paths with the film's eventual killer, Jason. They do drugs, drink, get naked, have sex and pay the price with a double coitus impaling or a machete to head. The formula tapped into the sexually frustrated subconscious of teen America and made it OK to explore that sexual appetite safely onscreen because there was that underlying of message that sex was bad.

Can you spot the virgin and thus the only eventual survivor at the end of the movie?

Wes Craven will run wild with this in his Scream series, taking all of the horror conventions (which mostly were established in the 1980's) and build his own franchise out of it. The 80's were a total contrast. The decade likes to be known for its wild, party atmosphere and yet at the same time the political right touts its fiscal and moral conservative values and a return to 1950's morality. So Friday the 13th works on a simple format: boobs and blood. Throw in a good killer people can get behind and you got yourself a franchise.
The problem was they killed off their killer at the end of the film. This clearly shows the filmmakers never intended a series of sequels. "Sequel" was still a dirty word at the movies and Jaws 2 again showed the power of what a part 2 could do. Yes, there have been sequels before, but creating a "franchise" was something new to Hollywood. How they got around the dead villain issue in Friday the 13th was both clever and cynical and actually made Tom Savini leave the film in disagreement over the new direction the film would take.

Mom and Son in a special embrace






















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