Every Day is Friday the 13th

Posted in Uncategorized on May 14, 2011 by timfattig

Happy Halloween! What? It isn’t Halloween? I get these holidays mixed-up: even though Friday the 13th doesn’t have quite the same commercial appeal (or potential for alcohol sales) as Halloween, it’s the next best thing for horror fans around the world, as it typically represents the other day when we can convince non-horror fans to sit down and watch horror movies with us, one after the other. We might arrange the film festivals to reflect the best of the best, or the worst of the worst, or remakes, or slashers, or whatever– but we’re just happy to share our love for the genre with others, no matter what sub-genre we’re using to warp their fragile little minds.

But on Friday the 13th, it’s good to talk about…Friday the 13th.

Not the date, but the durable movie franchise that’s now in its fourth decade of convincing moviegoers to refrain from premarital sex, and/or smoking pot, while camping out. And to beware of hockey goalies encountered anywhere outside a sanctioned NHL event.

The basic outline of how Friday the 13th came to be is fairly well known to the genre faithful: producer Sean Cunningham, who had worked with Wes Craven on the classic (and controversial) film Last House on the Left in 1972, wanted to return to the horror genre in 1980, and after coming up with the Friday the 13th title, he placed an ad in Variety touting Friday as “the most terrifying film ever made”– simply to determine if the name had already been reserved by another production company, and before the script (such as it was at that point) had even been completed.

Although Cunningham would produce and direct the all-important debut entry in the Friday the 13th series, it was writer Victor Miller, an award-winning soap-opera writer, who conceived the twisted saga of Camp Crystal Lake and Pamela Voorhees and her doomed son, Jason. With Cunningham’s input, the script’s requisite sex and violence levels were quickly punched up and the film went into production.

Friday the 13th was released in 1980, seemingly just another blood-soaked entry in the crowded market of  indie horror movies, many of them low- and no-budget Halloween imitators: among the horror shows released that year were Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, Fulci’s City of the Living Dead, Carpenter’s The Fog, He Knows You’re Alone, Terror Train and Prom Night (both with Halloween star Jamie Lee Curtis), William Lustig’s Maniac, and Night of the Demon (not to be confused with Kevin Tenney’s classic haunted-house flick, Night of the Demons, from 1988).

Why, then, did Friday go on to become a hit, earning an estimated $60 million worldwide from a budget of just $500,000?

1. Taking “this piece of crap” seriously

Betsy Palmer as Mrs. Voorhees

Betsy Palmer as Mrs. Voorhees

The soap-opera roots of the movie are readily apparent in the character of Pamela Voorhees, from her anguished monologue near the end of the film to the over-the-top manner in which Mrs. V. takes revenge on her (and her son’s) numerous alleged tormentors. In the hands of any other actress, the part could have been too campy, too serious, too whatever— but actress Betsy Palmer, who took the role because she needed money to buy a new car, took the job seriously, and kept her work in Friday just grounded enough to make Pamela Voorhees plausible. Not somebody we’d like, necessarily, but someone we could, at the very least, understand. The movie was far more violent than she was told it would be, leading Palmer to brand the finished film a “piece of crap,” but in more recent years, as the Voorhees cult grew and the Friday film franchise raked in the GNP of a small European monarchy, Palmer has been more forgiving, attending horror-film conventions and participating in documentaries about horror films and the Friday franchise in particular. While early critics were hard on the first Friday film, and Palmer’s performance in particular, both have aged well, and her work in making Mrs. Voorhees more than the era’s poorly-defined horror heavy, has a lot to do with that. Like Cushing and Lee in their best work for Hammer Films years earlier, Betsy Palmer took the work seriously even when it was hard to take the script seriously.

2. The classic theme

Composer Harry Manfredini

Composer Harry Manfredini

Harry Manfredini had been writing film music since 1976, and worked on nearly a dozen motion pictures before Friday the 13th came along. His work was solid, workmanlike, and not especially memorable, appearing in films like Through the Looking Glass and Manny’s Orphans. When he was commissioned to write music for Friday the 13th, however, seizing on the weird pronunciation and heavy breathing of Betsy Palmer in the final scenes of the movie, Manfredini constructed one of the great horror-character themes. Although the signature theme of the Friday the 13th films is associated with the hockey-masked psycho Jason Voorhees, in fairness it should be regarded as Pamela Voorhees’ theme, first and foremost. Without her– or at least without Betsy Palmer’s iteration of the character– Manfredini might have written something entirely different. Manfredini has since scored more than 80 TV movies and theatrical releases, including other entries in the Friday the 13th series, Wishmaster, and House (the William Katt horror-comedy, not the Fox medical drama), but he will always be associated with what is probably the second most iconic horror theme of all time.

3. Bacon makes everything better

Kevin Bacon’s fifth film was Friday the 13th. He played one of the doomed camp counselors, Jack, with one of the more inventive deaths in the franchise’s storied history, an arrow through the throat (delivered without benefit of a crossbow or anything fancy). This wasn’t Bacon’s first performance, and certainly not his best, but it made the original Friday the 13th an integral component in any game of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”

4. The crazy guy from Pittsburgh

Tom Savini working on Jason (Ari Lehman)

Tom Savini working on Jason (Ari Lehman)

Visual F/X wizard Tom Savini, who had previously worked with George Romero on the films Martin and Dawn of the Dead (and also worked on another classic from 1980, Maniac), handled the blood, guts, and stabbings showcased in Friday the 13th. Savini’s work on the film extended beyond squibs and slash-marks: before going to work on Friday, he had seen Brian De Palma’s film version of the Stephen King novel Carrie, and he was taken by the “jolt” ending in which Carrie’s hand emerges from the grave, vowing revenge and suggesting a sequel. He urged Cunningham and Miller to add just such an ending to Friday, to give audiences one last big scare at the very end of the movie: juxtaposed with Harry Manfredini’s serene closing music and the placid visual of the lake, the shocking emergence of Jason Voorhees (portrayed by Ari Lehman) scared the hell out of audiences in 1980, and continues to do so today. If Savini’s contribution had been limited to making that one important suggestion, he would still be a big part of the movie’s success and the growth of the franchise.

After the success of the first Friday the 13th, sequels were assured, by other writers and other directors, a succession of actors and stunt performers lining up to play Jason Voorhees, his mother, and the by-now-endless parade of horny, stoned teenagers doomed to die by Jason’s hand in and around Camp Crystal Lake. (And in New York. And in outer space. And in Springwood. But I digress.) But of all the films in the series– and of all the horror films mass produced in the 1980s– it is Friday the 13th that holds up the best, and is the easiest to watch. Thanks to Cunningham, Miller, Savini and all the rest, for collaborating to make one of the great slashers and one of the great franchises in American horror history.

Walt Gorney as "Crazy Ralph"

Walt Gorney as "Crazy Ralph"

And remember: if a guy named Crazy Ralph warns you about a death curse…you should probably listen to him.

Zombie Awareness Month

Posted in zombies with tags , , , , , on May 1, 2011 by timfattig

We spend millions of dollars every year– billions, really– to inform and educate people about the risks they face every day, whether it’s from disease, automobile accidents, or too-hot coffee from McDonald’s. For every peril we might encounter, there’s a brochure on what to do about it, or a 30-second PSA featuring the disgusted-looking members of a once-popular and now reunited ’80s rock band. We are still at risk, but we are well informed about the many, many ways we might die before we get to the end of the brochure.

But there is a hole in our knowledge, and that is the risk we face, every single day, from the zombie pandemic.

Luckily for us, there is the Zombie Research Society (zombieresearch.org), which was organized in 2007 to educate the public about the likelihood of a zombie pandemic, and to have plans for such an eventuality that don’t consist of simply watching Army of Darkness thirty-five times in a row.

Zombie Awareness Month

The Z.R.S. has designated May as Zombie Awareness Month, and we join with them in urging you to think about what you would do– what you will do– when you realize the guy staggering down the street isn’t simply a drunk doing a bad Bill Hinzman impersonation, but is one of the reanimated dead. Think about it: until a few years ago, things like S.A.R.S., the Ebola virus, and B.S.E.  were nothing more than the stuff of bad Crichton-wannabe novels you read on an airplane, and now they are widely known and widely understood as some of the nastier ways to die. Whether we call them “zombies” or “plague victims” or “holy crap that guy’s bleeding out his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth and biting the head off that poodle,” we know fast-acting medical pandemics can happen, because they do. If, for the sake of argument, one of these pandemics resembled the first twenty minutes of the pilot episode of The Walking Dead, geeks would be excited about living in their favorite movies for about fifteen minutes…until some of those uber-kewl zombies decided to investigate the too-happy teenagers in the “Han Shot First” T-shirts.

As with most what-if scenarios, we are influenced, as consumers of past and current pop culture, by things we’ve seen on TV and in the movies: whether it’s Godzilla stomping Tokyo (or the Cloverfield creature taking down NYC) or the Joker and his goons robbing a bank with guns and a school bus, we see how things play out and make a mental note, “Well, I would have done X in this situation.” So of course we will look to our cinematic stand-ins for clues about dealing with a zombie pandemic without being the main course.

The best– that is, the most realistic– zombie-fighting characters are those who retain their core personality and limitations when it all goes to hell: Simon Pegg in Shaun of the Dead is perhaps the type specimen here, because when the movie ends he’s really just the same guy he was at the beginning, although he’s wrestled with a few personal demons and learned to love his zombified best bud. It’s one of the many cliches of the zombie movie that the protagonists, whoever they are and whatever their background, go from zero to badass in about ten minutes (with or without a musical montage to cue their sudden progression). When Tom Savini remade the classic Night of the Living Dead in 1990, he toughened up the character of Barbara (Judith O’Dea in the ’68 original, Patricia Tallman in the remake) but made a point of keeping her grounded and bewildered by Hell’s seeming arrival on Earth: when Tallman’s heroine shoots a zombie in the head, near the end of the film, she lets out a plaintive wail that reminds us she’s not Sarah Connor, she’s just a human being trying to get by. Those are the best characters in zombie films, and, unfortunately, the kind that are the most scarce.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with a badass zombie-killer character, if that character is defined as a badass at the very outset. The type specimen here is Michelle Rodriguez in Resident Evil: Her line “Bitch isn’t standing now,” is proof that her character is either a) a fully functioning psychotic who shot people before the zombie outbreak, or b) entirely aware she’s living in a video game.

And then there’s Ash (Bruce Campbell), the protagonist of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy (quartet may be the better description for the films, since the two versions of Army of Darkness that are in circulation are so radically different they may as well be thought of as two separate movies). People love Ash, or hate him; they love the Deadites, or wish they’d never been invented; they love the Necronomicon, or hate it because they have the actual Necronomicon and keep it in a steel box under their beds. But I digress. The jokey, comic-book tone of the films makes it impossible to hate Ash, although he is certainly the least realistic of all the major movie zombie-fighters: we wouldn’t mind facing the pandemic with a guy like Ash, but not because we think he’d actually live through it.

So, the zombies are here, this is real, and your equipment (and weapons) consists entirely of what’s readily available in your house, office, man-cave, or whatever you happen to be when the ish goes down.

Would you be a Shaun of the Dead zombie-killer, trusting your best friends, good luck, and occasionally sloppy screenwriting to get you from place to place? Or would you be a Romero-style zombie-killer, offering up chunks of clunky exposition about consumerism and post-modernism in between extended action set-pieces?

Look around, think about it, and leave a comment with your best-guess estimate of how well you’d fare against the undead hordes.

(And happy Zombie Awareness Month. Don’t forget your gray ribbon.)

Review: Scream 4 (2011)

Posted in slashers with tags , , , , , , on April 29, 2011 by timfattig

This is a difficult review to write, because I come not to praise Wes Craven, but to help bury him.

Wes Craven has always been two entirely different people to me: the maverick indie filmmaker of the late ’70s and early ’80s, who put a twisted brand on films like Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes— to this day when I’m out hiking or looking for ghost-town ruins in southern Arizona, I can imagine make a couple of wrong turns and winding up face to face with Pluto and the boys– and there’s the other Wes. Sad, sad Wes. The indifferent sell-out who made movies like Shocker and Vampire in Brooklyn. And Scream 4.

I didn’t fall in love with the Scream franchise when those films were new. The meta approach to the genre was interesting, but after a while all the in-jokes and winking to the camera just made Wes Craven look like one of those too-old-for-the-club dudes out on a Friday night, doing his best to fit in with the hipsters. After a while he couldn’t tell whether people were laughing with him or at him, and with the financial success of the trilogy, he probably didn’t care.

And then a funny thing happened: mainstream horror began to suck again. (Indie genre filmmakers would argue, with some merit, that mainstream horror has sucked for a while.) Everything was a remake, a prequel, a sequel, or a re-imagining. Whether it was the clumsy white-trash Halloween of Rob Zombie, or the cynical re-branding of iconic franchises by Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes, just about every tree in the horror forest was poised to fall. Craven and his Scream scribe, Kevin Williamson, must have realized a new Scream film was inevitable, with or without their participation, so they put together the fourth film in the series. I hope it was this sense of panic that prompted them to move Scream 4 into production, because if the movie is the result of their long and careful deliberation…well, that’s just first proof they need to go gently into that good night, pick up their lifetime-achievement awards, and leave us all the hell alone.

Because Scream 4 is bad. Bad, bad, bad. Not “so bad it’s good.” Not “delightfully incompetent.” Just…bad. Bad in a way that leaves you angry about your lost $7.50. Bad in a way that leaves you counting the minutes you’re never getting back. Bad in a way that makes you want to Mapquest directions to Craven’s house so you can quote Shannon Doherty’s line right back to him: “A monkey? Wes? Jesus, you’re not even trying anymore, are you?”

Scream 4 starts off with some meta-movie snark, and for the first few minutes the film-within-a-film approach actually clicks. (The blink-and-you-missed-it scene with Kristen Bell and Anna Paquin is probably the best thing in the whole movie.) But then we go back to Woodsboro, back to Gale and Dewey, and Sidney Prescott, and God everyone looks old and tired and like they would rather be in another movie. A better movie. Neve Campbell told the New York Post that Scream 4 “was not that challenging,” and unfortunately, she wasn’t lying: the movie feels like a remake pretending to be a sequel, with the original characters ghost-walking through the film as younger versions of themselves go through all the major horror-movie-checklist plot points. If you’re a Scream fan, you’ve seen it all done before, and done better. Scream 3 (the Jedi of the series) feels like Suspiria compared to this Ghostface regurgitation.

Poster for "Scream 4"
The younger cast members, being new to the franchise and unaware just how godawful the script is, seem to be having a good time.  Rory Culkin is good as one half of the Greek-chorus team that explains the “new rules” of 21st-century horror for the half-dozen or so audience members who might still be awake, and Hayden Panettiere is great in the underwritten role of Kirby, sidekick to Sidney II, sorry, Jill (Emma Roberts), who might have kicked off a whole new Scream trilogy if the filmmakers hadn’t opted for the finale they did. Craven has always been a sucker for drawn-out endings (The Serpent & the Rainbow, a wonderful, well-acted film, was nearly ruined because the director literally didn’t know when to stop), and Scream 4 piles them on like nobody’s business. By the time we find out who’s been talking through the voice changer this time out, we’ve been treated to three or four possibilities we are equally indifferent about. (Early on I was hoping Deputy Hicks, Marley Shelton’s character, would be involved in the killings, just because Shelton can act and the character was odd and interesting: the deputy’s brief staircase interaction with Sidney has more character and genuine weirdness than anything in the film’s last half-hour. But that theorizing came before I figured out Scream 4 was just Scream with a number after it.)

The Scream franchise worked, when it did work, because of the specific sensibility of the era it reflected: in the post-modern 1990s the only way mainstream horror could come across, at least with true mass appeal, was with thorough deconstruction. (Remember that Craven did the same thing with New Nightmare, a couple of years before the first Scream, in which he copped to the fairy-tale roots of every horror story, by literally, and quite unfortunately, turning Freddy Krueger into the witch who went after Hansel and Gretel.) In the 21st century, when many moviegoers are text-happy tweens who have never seen a vampire that didn’t sparkle, the job of selling horror to the masses is a lot harder than it was for Craven and Williamson the first time out. Scream 4 sticks to its guns but, unfortunately for all involved, the guns aren’t loaded with anything today’s audiences would find remotely scary.

It’s difficult to say where Scream will go from here: there’s been a lot of speculation within the industry that the franchise is done, after less-than-stellar earnings in the opening weeks of Scream 4‘s release. Maybe that’s true, and maybe that’s for the best. Sidney Prescott has seen better days, and perhaps we should remember her, and the town of Woodsboro, the way they were in 1996.

The Zed Word

Posted in walkingdead, zombies with tags , , on April 29, 2011 by timfattig

And by “zed word” we aren’t referring to the motorcycle-riding, Gimp-keeping rapist of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction: we’re talking about the by-now-inescapable invasion of pop culture by the Dawn of the Dead shuffling zombie, the 28 Days Later pinball zombie, and the dancing zombie of Thriller. Well, OK, that one has had only limited success with a comeback (in the Plants vs. Zombies game), but the other zombies are alive and well, so to speak, infiltrating everything from video-game add-ons (for Call of Duty: Black Ops and Red Dead Redemption, among others) to episodes of Glee.

Yes, Glee.

While some fans may see all this as a sign of oversaturation– meaning the end might be near for our recently-revived friends– there are some great zombie-centric productions out there, notably the Frank Darabont-helmed AMC series The Walking Dead.  Utilizing one of the better ensemble casts in recent memory, focusing on unknown and lesser-known actors (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer‘s Michael Rooker is the biggest “name” associated with the show so far, though that may change with the upcoming second season), the TV version of Robert Kirkman’s acclaimed comic-book series has engrossed genre fans and mainstream viewers alike.

Expect more Walking Dead news in the next few weeks, since production on season two begins in May, according to Frank Darabont himself. The new episodes won’t air till October 2011, just about one year since the zombie-TV phenomenon began. If AMC believes lightning will strike twice for the show…it probably will. But only time will tell whether The Walking Dead will evolve into something like Lost, or if it will attain cult-cable status, vigorous DVD sales, and an early cancellation (hey, True Blood fans, how you doin’ out there?). Sure, the respective adventures of Rick Grimes and Sookie Stackhouse enjoy very different target demographics, but their budgets aren’t too far apart, and they both demand comparable levels of viewership to keep the network suits– the most vicious creatures of all– at bay.

TV horror is nothing new, of course: The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits and One Step Beyond were outstanding shows in their own time and they hold up great today, and, more recently,  in the Golden Age of the 1980s we had Amazing Stories and Tales From the Crypt and Tales From the Darkside. Of these, only Crypt had any real staying power, because of the rotating lineup of directors and actors involved and because HBO was committed to redefining the boundaries for what could be shown on pay cable. In 2011 increasingly younger (and increasingly more jaded) audiences may not respond to shows like The Walking Dead as horror fans, or zombie fans, or fans of the actors– they may just follow it until something else (better or not) comes along.

If The Walking Dead enjoys respectable numbers in its second season, it may well lead to a revival of the horror genre on TV. While some fans would (rightly) complain about limitations imposed by the networks, or endless notes from showrunners great and small, it couldn’t be a whole lot worse than what we’re seeing at the multiplex, where once-reliable directors like John Carpenter and Wes Craven are turning out howlers like The Ward and Scream 4.

Then again, there are rumors of a Twilight TV series…

How do you feel about The Walking Dead and horror TV in general?

Welcome, campers!

Posted in admin on April 28, 2011 by timfattig

Welcome, campers! You’ve found Welcome to the Horror Show, one of approximately eleven million, six hundred and thirty three thousand horror-related blogs out there in the World Wide What, and while you have a choice in horror media and criticism, we at Welcome to the Horror Show want to thank you for choosing our page for one-one-hundredth of your daily horror requirements.

There’s no five-year plan for this blog, no mission statement, no core set of principles that we can get drunk and methodically violate. There’s really no agenda here other than to talk horror with other horror fans, promote worthy new releases or upcoming projects, and take an occasional stroll through horror history to review films a lot of us may not have seen. If you want to talk about horror novels, horror-themed music, or the scariest breakfast cereal you’ve ever eaten, that’s fine: but horror movies are where we begin and end. It ain’t called Welcome to the Horror Show for nothin’.

Horror is a lot of things, and all those things inspire debate. Whether we’re talking about silent horror films or when the 3-D craze is going to fall apart (again), the conversation has to be fresh and lively. You’ll find this is a no-holds-barred arena to talk about all the things we love– and hate– and our favorite movie genre. Keep your knives sharp and we’ll keep the fresh meat coming.

This inaugural blog entry will be kept short and sweet. Now that we have planted our virtual flag in the blogosphere, we want throw the floor open to you, the genre faithful, to see what you want to read here. Rants? Reviews? Interviews? Tell us. We’ll be unloading a lot of content on you over the next few days and weeks, but we want to know what you’re most interested in seeing here.

Finally, to close out our first post here, a dedication:

Jim Hendricks, aka "Commander USA"
Jim Hendricks as “Commander USA” in the mid-1980s

 Our earliest horror-movie memories involve a guy named USA. Commander USA. He was the unholy hybrid son of Clark Gable and The Comedian, Alan Moore’s answer to Captain America in the Watchmen graphic novel from around the same time. Portrayed by veteran actor Jim Hendricks, Commander USA was the host of “Commander USA’s Groovie Movies” on the USA Network throughout the mid-1980s. He introduced us, and a whole generation of under-40 horror fans, to actors like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, to films like The Devil Bat and The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy. He introduced us to the heavily edited versions of some classics of the decade, too, films like My Bloody Valentine and Friday the 13th. In a way we were introduced to the movies twice: the first time we saw them with Commander USA, and the second time when we watched them on home video, with all the sex and violence and gore put back in, as God intended.

This blog won’t have anything like the impact Commander USA had on a generation of young horror fans– if we’re lucky, it might have a comparable duration (the series lasted four years before USA began to move towards more standardized, syndicated fare). But if you’re wondering what we’re about– what the tone of Welcome to the Horror Show will be– just look back to where it all got started.

So thanks, Commander USA.

You showed us things our young eyes shouldn’t have seen.

And we cannot thank you enough.