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October 4-10, 2006

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Cult Leader

Freaky Friday: One conversation about '13' things

By Steve Palopoli

IT ALL started in 1979, when Sean Cunningham had a marketable title without a movie. So he called up writer Victor Miller and said, "Halloween is making a lot of money at the box office. Why don't we rip it off?"

At least that's the way Miller recalls it in Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th. Peter M. Bracke's exhaustive oral history of the series has just been rereleased on the heels of the recent Friday the 13th DVD box set, which featured an entire disc's worth of documentation on the films. In fact, everything's coming up Jason lately: there's a sequel (some even say a remake of the original) planned for July 2007, and ... well, the 13th does fall on a Friday this month. You'd kind of hope someone would be showing the original film on that day, especially so close to Halloween, and indeed the Del Mar in Santa Cruz is doing just that.

I've been taking in all this Friday the 13th history, and I've come to one simple conclusion: these movies are way more interesting as a cultural phenomenon than they are as a body of work. Seriously, the sequels in this franchise are some of the worst movies ever made. Have you ever actually tried to sit through Friday the 13th Part III? It's an experience that can only be described as mind-numbing boredom with a twist of existential angst. It s-u-u-ucks, and really that's not even enough "u"s to accurately describe how much it sucks, but I've only got so much space here.

The movie that started it all is really the only one worth talking about, and even that's more interesting in a cultural context than anything else. Like, why the hell were people so worked up over this film? Have you ever watched the footage of Gene Siskel getting into a lather about it? Internet film nerds who are afraid of being uncool like to throw that guy's name around—as in, "Ha-hah, I only respect Kael and Siskel as critics, giving me a film-appreciation armor class of three!"—but the thing I remember most about him is his stupid campaign against horror movies, which began with this movie. He went so far as to publish the home address of Betsy Palmer, who played Jason's mother in the first film; people should go after her, he said, to punish her for being in such a dangerous movie. Incredibly, he even condoned flat-out censorship, rationalizing that "bullfights were outlawed, too."

Viewed today, Friday the 13th still has a couple of shocking moments (thanks to realistic gore effects by Tom Savini), but they're fleeting. It isn't 1/100th as violent as, say, Kill Bill; but then, nor is it 1/100th as good. Take out the gore, and it's basically an old-fashioned murder mystery—Ten Little Indians goes to summer camp.

In Bracke's book and on the box set's extras, Cunningham talks about how he was surprised to hear critics say that his movie had any kind of conservative message like "if you have sex or take drugs, you're going to get killed." He says he intended the film as a fairy tale, the outgrowth of a failed Hansel and Gretel project that he had been developing. At first, I wasn't buying it. But upon a repeat viewing, it occurred to me that considering how nonsensical the last third of the movie is, that's maybe the only explanation that works. Like:

    Q: How did the kid survive all these years to come out of the lake?

    A: Uh, well, it was a dream sequence.

    Q: OK, but then why, in the final scene in the hospital, does everyone look freaked out when the cop says they didn't find the boy that supposedly was only in a dream sequence anyway?

    A: Um ... er ... dude, chill out! It's just a fairy tale!

In any case, I can't help but think how ironic it is that critics who made this movie out to be what it wasn't may be partly responsible for setting in motion the themes they were railing against—themes which subsequent slasher films (and Friday the 13th sequels) then set about to recycle to death.

Friday the 13th will be shown at midnight on Friday, Oct. 13, at the Del Mar Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz. Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite summer camp film here.

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