Friday, May 13, 2016

The Kids Are All Dead

Brenda (Laurie Bartram) at Camp Crystal Lake's archery range in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980).

That's it, I've had it. I had to shoot four or five hipsters today. And it's not just because I've had more than my fill of stupid hats and manufactured ennui. The term "hipster" did not always apply to such an odious breed of the human race. In the '50s, a hipster was someone who felt alienated from consumer-driven mainstream society, embraced the offbeat and drifted around on an existential quest. Hey, I can get behind that! Now a hipster is a sheltered, entitled "artiste" from an affluent suburban family armed with a self-absorbed arrogance disguised as irony who tries to dress like a homeless person. And being a poverty poseur in an economic recession is just downright rude.
While subcultures of past generations all believed in something, hipsters only believe in their own "coolness." Instead of rejecting the mainstream culture and creating their own fashion, music and art, all hipsters have to offer is a feigned superiority that only allows them to like things ironically. And while other subcultures from past generations were united by common beliefs, similar tastes in music and shared attitudes about the world, hipsters don't even like other hipsters. It's a crowd of one; a self-admiration society.
Is this really the best my generation could come up with? I guess that's what happens when parents instead of raising their kids to be self-reliant, to think for themselves, to go make mistakes and figure things out, produced a bunch of narcissistic whinemeisters who were taught that their feelings mattered more than accomplishment, had all of their time managed for them and were sheltered from anything too offensive or scary. HUNTER S. THOMPSON once wrote of The Generation of Swine. This is Generation of Wussies.
Lest you think hipsters are harmless, keep in mind these post-modern putzes invade every city and drive up the cost of rent for those who actually work for a living. They've infested Austin and New Orleans like a particularly obnoxious zombie apocalypse. And now I can't go to a midnight movie without a goon squad of these boho buttheads cackling like rabid hyenas after every single line to convey they only like the movie because it's "sooooo stuuuuuupid."
I won't stand for this skinny-jeans sporting skullduggery. I've got my machete handy and I'm heading out to every Whole Foods and coffee house in the country to send all these unnecessary headband-wearing wimps back to the ninth circle of hell where they came from.

And speaking of killing sprees, today's Friday the 13th! Thanks to the folks at Paramount Studios, the day will always be associated with Jason Voorhees, a drowned disabled boy turned unstoppable boogeyman killing machine who goes down only to rise again and again for vengeance, much like Otis Calhoun after too many tequila slammers at Crabs and Crabcakes Singles Night. But before all the sequels there was a low-budget popcorn movie attempting to cash in on the success of HALLOWEEN.  And before Jason, there was his devoted mama, Mrs. Voorhees. Today I'm talkin' about the movie that started it all and that's the one and only FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) directed by SEAN CUNNINGHAM, producer of the infamous LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and written by New Orleans-native VICTOR MILLER.

We all know the story: In 1958, a pair of counselors at Camp Crystal Lake are brutally murdered when they sneak off from the rest of the crowd to make the beast with two backs. 21 years later, Camp Crystal Lake is thought to be cursed by the locals, but that doesn't stop Steve Christy from buying the place and planning to open it back up. Despite the hostility from the DELIVERANCE-lite townspeople, a group of college-aged kids (one of which is a young KEVIN BACON) help Steve make renovations, prepare to be counselors and have some summertime fun out in the New Jersey woods. However, an unseen assailant is stalking and murdering them one by one. When a storm strands them at the camp without power or help, only final girl Alice Hardy (ADRIENNE KING) is left alive to face the killer.
And it's not Jason.
The culprit is Pamela Voorhees, Jason's mother. Seems twenty-one years ago, two hormone-crazed counselors abandoned their duties to go play whack the weasel off in the bushes and negligently allowed her disabled little boy drown.
There's nothing quite like a mother's love.
Or the agony of a mother's grief.

Betsy Palmer as Mrs. Voorhees in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980).

FRIDAY THE 13TH, while an unexpected box office hit, was lambasted by critics upon its release (my personal favorite critique declared it, "The cinematic equivalent of belching in art class") mostly for its (for the time) graphic violence and perceived puritanism. Sure, FRIDAY THE 13TH is kind of a pale imitator of MARIO BAVA's outstanding proto-slasher film BAY OF BLOOD, without really matching the style, wit or finesse of its forebearer. But it's hardly the blundering clunker that critics have made it out to be; the production is lean and competent. While slasher films (sometimes rightfully) draw derision for poor acting, the cast here does a good job and brings a lot of their enthusiasm to their roles. Seasoned pro BETSY PALMER gives a bravura performance as Mrs. Voorhees, perfectly illustrating the intense rage that would drive a grieving mother to mass murder. I can't imagine anyone else delivering the line, "Look what YOU DID TO HIM!" with as much delicious venom as she does.
SIDENOTE: ESTELLE PARSONS was at one point cast as Mrs. Voorhees. As much as I love BESTY PALMER in this movie, I would have loved to see what ESTELLE PARSONS would've brought to this part.
As for the puritanical aspect of the film, I'll discuss that more in a bit but the criticism leveled at the film that the virginal girl survives while all of her sexually active friends are mutilated is unfounded. From their interactions together, the viewer can easily draw the conclusion that Alice has been sleeping with Steve Christy. Then she throws him over to openly flirt with fellow counselor-to-be, Bill (HARRY CROSBY, son of BING CROSBY).
Virgin she is not.
Alice, like all final girls whether virginal or not, is drawn as an introspective observer (she's an artist) and resourceful enough to survive the night.
However, I may be alone in this, but I always wish that Brenda (LAURIE BARTRAM) had been the final girl. Though she sports some stylish turquoise jewelry, Alice just kind of bugs me, okay? Brenda's intelligent, sarcastic, reads for fun and is sassy enough to instigate a game of Strip Monopoly.
And I thought she and wise-cracking, BOGART-impersonating jokester Ned would've made a cute couple.
Oh, Brenda, though you did not survive the movie, you'll always be Final Girl in my heart.

Laurie Bartram as Brenda in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)

The violence in the film, thanks to relaxing censorship standards and rapidly improving special effects, was definitely more extreme for its time, but really not as extreme as its reputation suggests. Aside from a few "money shots," the film relies more on suspense generated by the film's craftsmanship (particularly the PSYCHO-inspired score by HARRY MANFREDINI and the killer's POV device borrowed from giallo films). The pioneering special effects by Wizard of Gore TOM SAVINI (fresh off DAWN OF THE DEAD) still pack a punch today, but the violence in the film is never mean-spirited or sadistic as it is in a lot of recent horror films. It has the quality of a haunted house at Halloween time: the filmmaker's want you to have fun being scared and to wonder how they were able to pull off such neat visual tricks.
The violence is stylized rather than realistic. If you've ever seen crime scene photos, people's hands and arms are completely battered from defensive wounds. There are some murder victims who don't even look human anymore.
But in FRIDAY THE 13TH no one fights for their life; these kids have zero survival instinct and two of the film's victims even stand completely still for the convenience of the killer. This is a pretty far cry from the agonizing violence of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Violence here is spectacle.
It's hard to see what critics back then were making such a fuss about, but then again old fuddy-duddies always have to have something to get upset about.

Alice (Adrienne King) finds Bill's (Harry Crosby) corpse in FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)

And speaking of old fuddy-duddies, generational conflict is at the heart of FRIDAY THE 13TH and part of the reason it resonated with young audience members. Mrs. Voorhees, judging by her age in the film, is a member of The Silent Generation: she grew up in The Great Depression, most likely experiencing a childhood of austerity and struggle. Not only having endured the worst economic crisis in American history (although the 2008 crash is trying to give it some serious competition) and World War II, her young adulthood lands her in the ultra-conservative, McCarthyist '50s where any rebellious behavior is labeled dangerous and anti-American. While it's the Silent Generation that brought us iconic screen rebels MARLON BRANDO, JAMES DEAN, PAUL NEWMAN, WARREN OATES, CLINT EASTWOOD and JACK NICHOLSON (to name only a few), conversely the Silent Generation was characterized by their reserve and keep-a-stiff-upper-lip-resilience. Decades of cultural storm had silenced their youthful expression.
On the other hand, the kids in FRIDAY THE 13TH came of age in the privileged '60s, matured following the cultural upheaval of the late '60s and '70s and entered young adulthood in the affluence and hedonism of the late '70s. Just as FRIDAY THE 13TH rose from relaxing censorship standards for sex and violence, the kids in the movie grew up following radically changing cultural attitudes regarding sex and gender roles.  While I'm sure members of Mrs. Voorhees' generation engaged in pre-marital sex and drug abuse, with the new generation it was taken out of shadows.
The kids in FRIDAY THE 13TH are pretty far from the entitled, instant-gratification seeking douchebags featured in later slasher movies (and some of the FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels): they've taken a summer job in the middle of nowhere working with children for crying out loud. After days of painting and fixing gutters, if they want to goof off a little, it's well-earned.
Besides, Marcie (JEANNINE TAYLOR) does KATHERINE HEPBURN impressions just to amuse herself. What's not to like?
However, Mrs. Voorhees, has embraced the conservative morality of the '50s and carries with her the stern values from her Depression-era childhood. She is emblematic of the older generation's hostility towards the new generation.
She probably reminded young audience members of all of the disapproving adults in their lives.

The cast of FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)

You've got to feel some sympathy for Mrs. Voorhees. After a hard-scrabble childhood, she's raising a disabled son all alone on a minimum-wage salary as Camp Crystal Lake's cook. And as a summer camp cook, it's got to be one in a series of temporary, intermittent jobs. There are not a lot of resources for disabled children now - especially on Mrs. Voorhees' limited income - and there were even fewer back then. One who has dedicated their life to hard work and caring for a disabled son does not usually have the opportunity to create an extended social network for support; when Mrs. Voorhees lost Jason, she lost everything. And worst yet, she lost him due to the irresponsibility and selfishness of people who were put in charge with his care.
And who wouldn't want to kill those two counselors?
Not only did they not get fired for allowing a little boy to drown because they couldn't keep their pants on, they're still making gooey eyes at one another without a shred of guilt!
I'm with Maw Voorhees on that one -- those self-absorbed jerk-olas were in need of a harpoonin'!

Mrs. Voorhees, though - like many of her cinematic sisters I've discussed on this blog - clings to her grief. She's unable to heal so her grief turns into intense rage. Camp Crystal Lake becomes the focus of her anger. Remember when the locals were saying there were mysterious fires at the place and one year the lake was even poisoned?
That was Mrs. Voorhees' way of saying "talk to the fist, 'cause the face is pissed."
Jason even speaks to her from beyond the grave.
"Kill her, Mommy!" she says to herself in a child's voice.
The current counselors have nothing to do with her son's death. And spunky Annie, the ill-fated would-be camp cook, who declares she wants to dedicate her life to working with children, would have only been attentive and kind to a child like Jason. However, it doesn't matter: Mrs. Voorhees just wants others to hurt as badly she's been hurt.

It's really hard to agree with those cranky ol' critics that thought FRIDAY THE 13TH represented the decline of Western civilization. Like all movies, it was a result of different things brewing in the culture at the time. And while critics decried the violence in the film, a fear of random acts of violence permeated the '70s. Already a turbulent decade of war and riots, Alice and her friends would have caught glimpses of news stories about the Manson Family murders, Charles Whitman and the Texas Tower shootings and the multi-state serial killing spree of Ted Bundy all before they graduated high school.
When the film was produced, being brutally butchered by a faceless assailant wasn't a horror trope: it was a real and terrifying possibility.

So there you have it: the film that launched a thousand sequels and the mayhem was all spawned from a mother's love. It's kind of interesting that Jason became the icon of the series, transformed from plot device/victim to superhuman murder machine powered by some unexplained supernatural phenomenon and the greed of the Paramount executives. But wouldn't it have been kind of great if Mrs. Voorhees had become the horror icon? I know, I know, she gets decapitated by Alice at the end of this one and it's kind of awkward to get around with no head. But, hey, Jason's been decapitated, burned, electrocuted and impaled and he always comes back, so why not Mrs. Voorhees? They could've figured out some creative way for her to get her head back. Or just not even bothered to explain it. It's not like the FRIDAY sequels are known for incorporating logic. I think an undead unhinged mama out for revenge would have made a helluva franchise. Instead of a faceless monster crushing heads, throwing people through windows, murdering people on toilets and stalking people performing nerdy '80s dances, it could have been a zombied-out BESTY PALMER!
What a missed opportunity!

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