On May 13th, 2016, we will see the next entry into the Friday the 13th series, assuming it meets its projected production schedule. Of course there’s no script yet, though Hannibal writer Nick Antosca has been tapped to do the latest draft. That’s fairly encouraging, given the dark tone and generally high quality of the NBC series. Also, David Bruckner, who did the “Amateur Night” segment of V/H/S and is part of the team that directed The Signal (a movie I quite like), is on board to direct. Given his found footage-y background, and the latest article from The Hollywood Reporter indicating the next F13 entry will be in the same vein, producer Brad Fuller’s assertion that the film would not be found footage seems to be potentially misleading. Despite my fatigue with found footage movies, that’s not the news that gives me pause. THR went on to report that the film will explore unkillable killing machine Jason’s back story inasmuch as it will attempt to explain why Jason is unkillable. To that end, let me offer one suggestion – don’t.
The popularity of the Friday the 13th series has waxed and waned, but the box office returns on the remake were good enough to warrant a return to Camp Crystal Lake by Fuller and Platinum Dunes. There has been more than a little vacillation in storylines and approaches, which leaves me scratching my head a bit. Do they not understand what makes these movies work in the first place? Do they not have the beginning of a clue as to what made Friday the 13th so popular in the first place? Perhaps not, but I will do my best to explain the appeal as I see it.
The slasher film is essentially about death, particularly the death of the young. Seeing teenagers and young adults murdered in a myriad of ways is a means of exploring the notion of mortality, and the unblinking randomness of it. By seeing people our own age (if you’re a teenager watching these movies at a sleepover or in the theater) coming to a gruesome end, there is at least part of the brain that places us in that role. What if I died that young? What if I dies that badly? What if I didn’t deserve it, but I died anyway? These are the questions that allow us to come to terms with death in a real and mature manner. Couple that with the perverse glee of seeing someone killed before your eyes in a particularly nasty way, one of those real gruesome, sleeping-bag-against-the-tree deaths that makes you curl your legs beneath you and cover your mouth, and you have the perfect marriage of entertainment and a sub-textual discussion of mortality that makes these films work. If you happen to see some characters you like or relate to, so much the better, and the effect can be long-lasting.
My personal favorite in the slasher subgenre, no surprise here, is John Carpenter’s Halloween, which took the simple premise of babysitters stalked by a masked killer to dizzying heights. It was a primal film, with little discussion of Michael Myers as a character beyond his capacity and propensity for violent evil. Forgive me while I quote Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis:
I met him, fifteen years ago; I was told there was nothing left; no reason, no conscience, no understanding; and even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, of good or evil, right or wrong. I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes… the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.
Kind of harrowing, no? In this way Michael Myers, like Jason Voorhees, is a force of nature. Many of the Friday the 13th films even portray a storm rolling into Camp Crystal Lake when Jason’s killing spree begins, a not-so-subtle indication that the character is representative of a natural death. Death, we learn from these films, is a dumb and unrelenting thing, incapable of reason or hesitation. For me, and I believe for most fans of slashers – even if they do not register this on a conscious level – this is the appeal. Much like getting on the roller coaster, you are propelled through a terrifying experience, but walk away safely. You’ve borne witness to death, seen it wreak havoc on the young and beautiful, and then come away safely, if a little rattled.
Similarly, the appeal of the final girl is this representation of the survivor, someone we root for because someone has to make it, don’t they? And if it’s the person who most deserves to survive, that reinforces our own notions of death staved off by moral superiority or, in more modern films, the character who has suffered the most prior to the killer’s attack. The long-suffering outcast, like Sidney in Scream, has a right to survive in our eyes. Regardless of the reason, we feel a sense of relief when the character we have been trained to root for by the filmmakers overcomes a seemingly unstoppable opposing force.
So, that’s the formula, laid a bit more bare than many would like, I imagine. You can apply variations, twist one element here or there to keep viewers on their toes, but there’s no reason to toss it all out because it works. Where things tend to go off the rails in most series, and in particular in a slasher film series, is when the creators impose elaborate constructs. Halloween really lost it when the later filmmakers tied themselves in knots explaining why Michael Myers was evil, or giving him relatives who shared in some familial bond/curse. It was unnecessary and distracting to the primary goal of a slasher film – to frighten and entertain. You can argue all you like that the introduction of druids in Halloween 6 is a very stupid bridge too far, but I would argue that any explanation of Michael Myers’ origins is too much. Dr. Loomis said all I need to know about this character in the first film – “I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.” Note the words “purely” and “simply.” That is key to a slasher. Purity and simplicity.
So, to address Bruckner and Antosca directly… Please, gentlemen, make your movie. Make it scary and thrilling and violent. Give me characters I can root for and maybe one or two I can enjoy seeing perish for their failings. But do not try to explain the hows and whys of Jason Voorhees. To paraphrase another camp movie, “It just doesn’t matter!” Jason is, and should remain, purely and simply evil. He should be the storm that blows in on the shores of Camp Crystal Lake, and he should be unrelenting in his pursuit of chaos and murder. Let him wield machetes and spear guns and tent poles, let him swing teens in sleeping bags into trees and let him rip bodies in twain. But do not give him a history of possession or a family who once sacrificed their child to the devil… Forego the impulse to make sense of a story that is nonsense at heart and remain true to what made us all love this mask-shrouded character in the first place. He was unstoppable and he was coming for us. Any more than that, and you have missed the point. Don’t ruin it with a glut of mythology that drains the character of his menace. Tell me he is coming for me, and there is no magic whos-a-fudge to stop him. He has returned and will not stop until I am dead. Pure. Simple. Scary.