Over the last year or so, I’ve been watching three series of horror films that are linked by fictional crossovers: Friday the 13th, The Evil Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The plan was to view every movie in the order in which they were released, jot down a few thoughts, and give each one a score out of 10. (I also sampled the pilot episodes of some TV spin-offs.)
At times it was a struggle to remain sane through 13 months, 24 movies and three TV episodes of violence, terror, murder, carnage, gratuitous nudity and an awful lot of dreadful acting. But there were surprises along the way too – and a few decent films.
Here’s the first part of my journey into darkness…
Spoiler warning: I’ve not blown every surprise or twist, but some of the more famous plot points are revealed.
1. Friday the 13th (1980, Sean S Cunningham)
The counsellors at New Jersey summer camp Crystal Lake are terrorised by a mysterious murderer…
Young, attractive people being persecuted by an unknown killer who first murdered years previously (as seen in the film’s prologue) and now strikes in barbaric and often theatrical ways? A shameless copy of John Carpenter’s 1978 hit Halloween, the slasher film Friday the 13th is as crass as anything. But it’s also fun in a low-budget, hammy-cast, shlock-horror kinda way. There are some differences from the Halloween format, however. There’s more nudity on show here – a well as having sex, these kids go swimming and play ‘strip Monopoly’! There’s also more gross-out gore, courtesy of visual-effects genius Tom Savini. Creepy locals, a shock twist concerning the killer (spoiler: it’s a middle-aged woman) and a bizarre dream-sequence ending give the film extra interest too.
Six rainstorms out of 10
2. Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981, Steve Miner)
Five years later: trainee camp counsellors at a site near to Crystal Lake are attacked by the not-dead-after-all Jason Voorhees.
There’s very little tension in this hastily knocked-together sequel, which repeats the same basic storyline as the first movie. This time, an even more moronic and less memorable batch of attractive young people are picked off one by one. Then for the second film running, after the killer has dispatched all the other victims with ninja-like stealth, a ‘final girl’ puts up a fight that takes quarter of an hour. Part 2’s biggest addition to the series – to horror cinema as a whole, actually – is the retconning of its main villain. In the first film, Jason Voorhees was a child who’d drowned 20 years earlier. Now we learn he actually survived and has been living rough in the nearby woods.
Four chainsaws out of 10
3. The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981)
Five friends rent an isolated house in the Tennessee woods, but on their first night they invoke an ancient, malevolent force…
We now switch focus to a different series… Not a slasher film in the vein of Friday the 13th, The Evil Dead is perhaps the blueprint cabin-in-the-woods movie. A group of pals drive deep into the forest to stay in a ramshackle house, but when they find a mysterious old book and an audio recording, they accidentally summon forth an evil spirit that attacks and possesses them one by one… Despite clearly being made on a limited budget, this movie succeeds thanks to a cast who are memorable enough to care about (including Bruce Campbell’s Ash Williams) and a remarkably inventive job of direction by Sam Raimi. It’s genuinely tense, with a spooky atmosphere and effective scares right from the start. The camerawork and editing are clever, stylish and innovative – especially the low-angle, prowling shots from the evil spirit’s point of view. The sound mix and incidental music add a great amount as well, and once the characters start to turn into grotesque, screeching zombies – and the film becomes a gleeful splatter-fest – the special effects and gory make-up are just wonderful. A love of horror cinema is imbued into every frame.
Nine collapsed bridges out of 10
4. Friday the 13th Part III (1982, Steve Miner)
Having evaded capture, Jason continues his killing spree – this time targeting some kids on holiday at a nearby cabin.
The action in this Friday the 13th film begins on the same day that Part 2 ended. Jason has escaped and moves on to butchering a group of young people holidaying in the area. The gang are another selection of poor actors, but maybe because they’re sketched in vivid strokes – the pregnant one, the fat one, the dopeheads, the hunk – they’re more likeable and watchable than their predecessors. The pick of the characters is Chris (Dana Kimmell, pictured), a glamorous beauty who had an encounter with Jason a couple of years previously. As a gimmick, the film was shot in 3D so there are lots of instances of characters holding objects close to the camera lens, and there are a few good gags such as a serial prankster not being believed while he’s bleeding to death. The film has far too many artificial scares to build any genuine tension, but it more or less keeps the interest. Note: this is the first film in the series where Jason dons his signature hockey mask.
Seven yo-yos out of 10
5. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984, Joseph Zito)
Having evaded capture (again), Jason continues his killing spree (again) – this time targeting a group of kids (again) on holiday at a nearby cabin (again)…
After a recap that neatly merges the first three Friday movies into one story, we’re into what was genuinely intended at the time as the last film in the series. The script is the usual guff – horny teenagers (one of whom is Back to the Future’s Crispin Glover) are on holiday in the woods and are killed by Jason Voorhees in violent, gruesome ways. A twist comes from the fact there’s also a local family involved, the son of which is a horror fan called Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman). As humdrum as all this sounds, the film is reasonably entertaining thanks to Joseph Zito, who directs with pace and a knowing sense of humour. Jason is barely seen, at least until the now-ubiquitous duel with a ‘final girl’ (Tommy’s boring sister). We then get a truly oddball ending which sees Tommy use his amateur horror-movie make-up skills.
Seven corkscrews out of 10
6. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, Wes Craven)
A group of young friends are haunted in their dreams by the same terrifying man…
We now cut to another rival series… In the town of Springwood, teenagers (including a young Johnny Depp) have all been dreaming of a scarred man with knives for fingers, and he has the ability to kill them in their nightmares. It’s a terrific concept for a horror film and writer/director Wes Craven builds a very effective story around it. The villain, Fred Krueger (Robert Englund), has less screentime than Jason Voorhees or Halloween’s Michael Myers, but he’s a much more flamboyant personality: all sarcastic quips and pointed menace. And the first time he murders someone is genuinely terrifying: while asleep, schoolgirl Tina (Amanda Wyss) is flung around her bedroom, defying gravity, and is ultimately hacked to death in a bloodbath. As well as this shock factor, the film’s most interesting feature is the way it cleverly meshes reality with dream sequences. There are flashes of subtle surrealism, but mostly the nightmares are solid, vivid and feel real, so you’re sometimes not quite sure where you are. This pretention to something psychologically deeper than a usual slasher movie means that A Nightmare on Elm Street is less schlocky than Friday the 13th or The Evil Dead. It also has a more compelling lead character than anyone seen so far in those series: the resourceful, smart, brave Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), who deliberately goes after Fred in the dreamworld, intent on destroying him.
Nine boiler rooms out of 10
7. Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985, Danny Steinmann)
A few years after his encounter with Jason Voorhees, Tommy Jarvis is sent to an offenders’ rehabilitation camp in the woods. But when people start dying, has Jason returned?
Back to the Friday the 13th series… Although only a year had passed since The Final Chapter’s release, this relaunch of the franchise is set several years later. Tommy (recast with John Shepherd) has been suffering since the previous film. He’s plagued by nightmares and is sent to a hippie-ish halfway house for troubled young people. But then locals begin to die and it seems that Jason is back… The storytelling is staggeringly slapdash. It feels like a compilation of scenes from different films and the plethora of characters – another cast of nobodies – aren’t worth any attention. Sadly, not much else is either. The tone is often going for goofy (comedy rednecks, stupid cops, a waitress who flashes her tits at herself in a mirror, diarrhea jokes) but it’s *never* funny. We then get a couple of ‘shock’ twists at the end, one of which is quite sly, one of which is just silly. (A fun side note: at one point Tommy dreams about when he was a child, so in the dream the character is played by original actor Corey Feldman. He shot his one scene on a day off from The Goonies.)
Two chocolate bars out of 10
8. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985, Jack Sholder)
Five years after Nancy Thompson’s encounter with Freddy Krueger, the killer returns to torment a new victim…
Teenager Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) has moved into Nancy Thompson’s old house, but is soon plagued by dreams of Fred Krueger (Robert Englund), who then starts to possess him and use him to kill people… This is a weirdly limp film; it relies on music, make-up and special effects for its impact, rather than writing, acting or dramatic staging. For example, the nightmare sequences are more ‘far-out’ than in the first Elm Street film and use more ‘movie-ish’ special effects – an opening scene involving Freddy driving a school bus ends up looking like something from a Terry Gilliam film. But there’s no oomph, no rising menace. As many people have spotted over the years, there’s also an undeniable thread of homoeroticism: Jesse is often seen topless and sweaty (sometimes in his Y-fronts); there are scenes in boys’ showers and a gay bar; and a sadistic PE teacher is stripped naked and towel-flicked on the arse before Jesse/Freddy kills him. You almost have to admire the movie for its sheer unusualness. Almost.
Four parakeets out of 10
9. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986, Tom McLoughlin)
Jason Voorhees is resurrected and continues his killing spree around Crystal Lake…
After his traumas in the last couple of Friday films, Tommy Jarvis (recast again, this time with a lively Thom Mathews) is determined to make sure that his nemesis is dead. So, during a thunderstorm at night, he digs up Jason Voorhees’s corpse. But a bolt of lightning resurrects the killer a la Frankenstein – d’oh! We then, um, cut to a spoof of the famous James Bond barrel-of-a-gun logo. That’s right: Part VI is essentially a comedy… and you know what? It’s a hoot. Some jokes, such as the many visual gags and witty cutaways, wouldn’t feel out of place in Airplane! (1980). In fact, this self-aware tone is pretty much a precursor of Wes Craven’s postmodern horror film Scream (1996). Upon encountering a machete-wielding Jason, for example, one character says she’s seen enough movies to know he’s bad news. Because of all this tomfoolery, the film doesn’t really generate any scares or tension. The gore levels are also noticeably reduced from previous Fridays. But it doesn’t especially matter. The plot might be hokum – Jason indiscriminately kills camp councillors, paintballers and yuppies, while Tommy tries to warn people – but the film has zip and is a lot of fun.
Eight crotch shots out of 10
Part two of my multi-series odyssey will be published on 20 September…