Horror Franchise Originals

by Kevin on October 14, 2011

I don’t care for slasher movies.

Granted, that’s probably going to seem like a lie in a few minutes, because I’m about to spend them glorifying the original slasher movies. These are movies that pride themselves on not only their total body counts but in the increasingly ridiculous and occasionally graphic ways in which their victims are killed. Over the run of these sequels, elements like “story” and “characters” have been thrown aside in favor of making an implausible entrance for our killer and letting him go nuts. That’s it.

And yet I still enjoy watching the first of these movies from time to time, and I think it’s because in many ways they transcend the genre they helped create and cement. The original Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street are fascinating because they’re blueprints for entire genres, but they’ve also stayed relevant through the monsters they brought us. Myers, Jason, and Freddy are still staples of the holiday, even though it’s probably been a while since you saw these movies.

So I wanted to take some time this week to explore what these movies are and what I think makes them great. Sure, not everything about them has aged well, but if you give them a watch this season I hope you get a hint at what makes them special, even if you’re like me and could care less about the body count. It’s all about the mood, the motives, and the story — and believe me, each of these movies accomplishes that and more.

Halloween

Released: October 25, 1978

What it is: John Carpenter’s teen slash-fest original Halloween introduces us to Michael Myers, the silent, hulking, masked marauder of pure evil, who escapes from an institution and returns to his hometown in quiet, suburban Illinois to pick up where he left off: hacking up immoral teenagers. Originally titled The Babysitter Murders and informed by classic mystery-horror films like The Exorcist, Black Christmas, and Suspiria, Halloween takes the concepts of a deranged killer and a haunted house and blows them wide open, creating an epochal villain and effectively inspiring the “slasher” genre.

Why it’s great: While Michael Myers is essentially the standard escaped lunatic of a billion or so horror movies, Halloween is notable for unleashing such supernatural evil and violence on the supposedly safe middle class America. It’s true that Myers is quick to dispatch teens engaging in illicit behavior like sex and drug and alcohol use, but he’s especially interested in Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), our beacon of innocence, and the nightmarish manner in which he stalks and eventually appears to her on Halloween night makes for exceptional horror.

And the score! Halloween is notable for its minimalism — there are very few killer-jumping-out-from-the-dark moments compared to other slasher films, replaced by a growing sense of unease and chilling scenes — and the simple, repeating piano melody composed by Carpenter reflects that. The music, like the movie, has become synonymous with Halloween and with being scared out of your seat.

Best moment: There are dozens. I love when the station wagon (driven by Myers) screeches to a halt in the middle of the street when Laurie’s friend Annie yells at him. I still jump when Annie is attacked in her car. And who would have thought that Meyers with a bed sheet over his head and a pair of his victim’s glasses could be terrifying? But hands down my favorite scene is when Myers, thought to be dead, slowly sits up and turns his head toward Laurie, who’s in focus in the foreground (see pic above). There’s no music, no cuts, just the hairs raising on the back of your neck.

What about the sequels? The original spawned an absurd 7 sequels, a remake from Rob Zombie, and a sequel to the remake, all of which attempt to make sense of and build upon the Michael Myers mythology (well, except for Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which is a confusing movie about evil masks). Over the years filmmakers have attempted to flesh out the villain, giving him additional motivations and obsessions that detract from the mysterious, pathological terror of the original. Zombie’s version makes evident his appreciation for the original, but piles on so much backstory that it’s unclear whether we’re still supposed to believe Meyers represents pure evil or if he’s just another abused child lashing out with violence.

Friday the 13th

Released: May 9, 1980

What it is: Friday the 13th takes plenty of cues from Halloween, particularly when it comes to dispatching teens who would rather smoke, drink, and screw than pay attention to their summer camp responsibilities. Director Sean S. Cunningham planned to create a movie that was genuinely scary while still making the audience laugh, and in that respect he succeeded. And remember: he never gave us to the hockey-masked killer above…

Why it’s great: Before the sequels introduced the undead Jason and turned him into an indestructible killing machine, the original killer was (SPOILER!) Jason’s mother, Pamela Voorhees, which is still a terrific twist that suddenly grounds Friday the 13th in reality. It’s also a revenge story with very clear motives and a sound structure … that is, right up until the end, when the water-logged corpse of Jason Voorhees attacks Alice in a dream, reigniting the supernatural fuel we thought was gone with Mrs. Voorhees.

Friday the 13th is also notable for weaving a revenge story into the slasher story. The deranged killers of B-movies in the ‘50s and ‘60s, played often by the likes of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, are often motivated by very human desires; Pamela Voorhees (and, to a lesser extent, Jason) are far more similar to these more sympathetic villains than the unwavering evil of Michael Meyers.

Best moment: Even though it’s my least favorite of the three, Friday the 13th does have some entertaining moments. Because Jason isn’t the killer in this film, we don’t see the killer with the hockey mask we’ve come to expect, so the slasher scenes have a frightening mystery to them. The movie is clever about the way it keeps the killer off-screen, with victims often dying off-screen to be discovered later. It’s a dated movie, but a few scares still hold up.

What about the sequels? Like all the movies on this list, the Friday the 13th franchise is filled with increasingly ridiculous movies and premises, including Jason Takes Manhattan (which doesn’t have nearly enough dancing) and Jason X, the obligatory “in space” sequel. The original sequels carried a more “episodic” feel to them, with some limited continuity in terms of characters and story. And let’s not forget Freddy vs. Jason (directed by Cunningham, who also directed the original film and the less entertaining Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday), which brings us to…

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Released: November 16, 1984

What it is: Master of camp horror Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is our introduction to perhaps one of the most memorable movie monsters of all time, Freddy Krueger. Freddy, played with gusto by Robert Englund, is a killer with a brown fedora, a striped sweater, and a leather glove with knife-like fingers, who returns to exact revenge on the townspeople who burned him alive for murdering children. His vengeance takes a more fantastical form than Michael Meyers and the Voorhees family, as Freddy claims his victims in their dreams, able to make his surreal murders manifest in the waking world.

Why it’s great: First off, Freddy Krueger is downright terrifying, even when he’s making bad puns. Freddy isn’t bound by the laws of physics because his body isn’t corporal, and his “if you die in a dream you die for real” superpower makes him more dangerous than either Meyers or Jason. Not to mention what this ability to enter dreams might suggest about the philosophical nature of consciousness and the true power of the brain. When Nancy brings Freddy’s hat with her “from the dream world,” a whole set of new questions about reality are opened up, which is a rich part of the Nightmare mythology I would have loved for the sequels to explore.

Of course, Nightmare is a far from perfect film. In the bewildering epilogue, Nancy and her friends pile into the Krueger-mobile and Nancy’s mother is pulled through the glass door (Are they in hell? Is it another dream? Why is Freddy a car?). But the characters are terrific, from Nancy’s alcoholic mother to a feather-haired Johnny Depp who sleeps with a portable television on his stomach. And like Halloween and Friday the 13th, Nightmare succeeds by pitting the youngsters against the adults, who only realize the true danger when it’s much, much too late.

Best moment: For every “best” moment, there’s at least one “worst,” like the gravity-defying fountain of “blood” from the middle of Johnny Depp’s bed. But the best, and perhaps most iconic, scene in the film is the image of Freddy’s glove slowly emerges from the water in the bathtub. Freddy is portrayed not just as a slasher but a sexual predator, and this scene underscores that note in a way far more sinister than anything else in the film.

What about the sequels? The sequels to A Nightmare on Elm Street fared a bit better than our previous films for two reasons: Englund’s enthusiastic performance as Freddy, and the endlessly inventive universe in which the movies operate. While later Nightmare movies would become increasingly ridiculous, there are a few excellent moments, like the supernatural twists of the third film, Dream Warriors. I also enjoyed the ambitious meta-movie Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which blends the fictional world of the films with the actual cast and crew who created them, bringing a new dimension to the franchise that hadn’t quite been done in horror before. And the aforementioned Freddy vs Jason carries on the extremely camp tradition of movie monsters duking it out, its tongue planted firmly in its cheek, until it is inevitably chopped off and hacked to bits.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim October 21, 2011 at 8:55 am

You know, the Michael Myers mask is actually a Captain Kirk Halloween mask. Fun bit of trivia – Thought Joe would have been all over that.

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Joe October 21, 2011 at 5:19 pm

I let the fans have all the fun

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