Friday the 13th Part III: When Slasher Movies Attack

Part I. Part II. So what did I think? Was I entertained? Rarely. Startled? Sometimes. Titillated? Sure. Scared? No. In fact, my main reaction was one of boredom. Parts I, II, and IV are particularly slow. Little attempt is made to let us get to know any of the sexy teenagers before they’re slaughtered, most of them don’t even have names. There’s a distance between us and these characters rarely seen outside of an Antonioni movie. I suspect this is purposeful.

Where an art-house filmmaker uses slow pacing and non-starting plots to keep the audience from getting wrapped up in the artifice of the story, the Friday people use them to keep things from getting too intense. Normally, seeing a bunch of innocent people being brutally murdered would be traumatizing. Not here. If the kids are unlikable, or we never get to know them, we don’t feel so bad about all the killing.

Death being a universal (and potentially terrifying) part of life, you'd think it would be at the forefront of these movies. But no. The attacks in these films are typically brief- a loud noise, a machete slice, some blood. Early entries had a freeze frame on the wound and a fade to white. Often, the victim is gagging or in the midst of a fall when we cut to something else. The scare is the shock of Jason’s appearance and the gore effects- not that the character is dying. To me this feels like the films… flinch in a way.[ref] Yes, there have been some censorship issues where the violence has been deemed excessive. Still, if the filmmakers had had their way, the primary effect would have been to add more blood. Later entries have longer, bloodier attacks, as well. Gore is the scare, not death. [/ref]

Because we have no attachment to any of these non-characters, there’s no sense of loss when they drop dead. Movies are often very good at creating a sense of danger for characters we care about, and triggering sadness and mourning when they die. Consider the death of Bambi’s mother. And that was off screen, for crying out loud. Come to think of it, the average Disney movie is scarier than this bunch.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho[ref] The music for Friday, composed by Harry Manfredini, is an obvious rip off of Bernard Hermann’s score for Psycho. Guess which one is better. [/ref] is often cited as one of the first slasher movies, the predecessor to films like Friday the 13th. If so, the franchise seems to have learned all the wrong lessons from it. Everyone remembers the shock of the shower scene, but not the rest of the movie.

The beginning of Psycho introduces us to Marion Crane. She is the movie's star. She has her own plot- she's stolen $40,000 and is on the run. Then this central character, whom we've already connected with, is violently murdered. Afterward, there's a long sequence of Norman cleaning up after Mother, sinking Marion and her car into a lake.

Jason, however, is rarely seen moving bodies around. There might be a few Peek-a boo Corpse moments toward the end, but these are all surprises. Usually, a character is attacked, and then never seen or heard from again.

Suspense can help us connect even with minor characters- I remember a scene from Schindler's List where a group of women from Schindler's factory[ref] I don't believe there were any major characters in the group, but I could be wrong. [/ref] are put on a train to Auschwitz by mistake. They are promptly sent inside a small building for a "shower." It is perfectly clear to us and the workers exactly what this means. Much sobbing and desperation ensues, until- Surprise! It really is a shower! And they get put back on the train and returned to Schindler's factory.

Scenes like this, combined with the subject matter, made Schindler's List one of the most upsetting films I have ever seen. The scene above relies on carefully crafted suspense, which the Friday films use rarely. [ref] Mainly for fake-out scares. [/ref] Certainly, if these films used all the tricks they have at their disposal, like sympathetic characters and suspense, they would be very disturbing to see.

I'm sure people who aren't familiar with the genre or are naturally jumpy could find these movies frightening. And I don't think many people want their scary movies to turn into Schindler's List. Even so, I think a few simple suspenseful setups could improve things a lot. Check out Part IV to see how.