November 8, 2000
Contemporary Horror Classics: The Same or Different?
by Dustin Putman
In the late-1970s, the fad of more psychologically-based horror films, such as 1968's Rosemary's Baby, 1973's The Exorcist, and 1976's The Omen, made way for a new type of genre movie: the slasher film. One of the major motion pictures that began this fresh subgenre was 1978's Halloween, directed by John Carpenter. Less than two years later, 1980's Friday the 13th, director by Sean S. Cunningham, was released. Both films would not only be the start of long-lasting series' (to date, there have been six sequels for the former; nine for the latter), but they also became the general blueprints for the slasher movie rehashes that theater screens were bombarded with in the late-'70s/early-'80s. Despite being placed in the same genre, and equipped with several similarities, there are many differences between Halloween and Friday the 13th. Although at first glance, both films may be prematurely dismissed as being nearly one and the same, they are very much their own separate entities.
From a story viewpoint, Halloween and Friday the 13th have similar plot developments, but only because both films fulfill the widely-known slasher flick cliches. Opening fifteen years earlier, in 1963, Halloween opens with a masterful, unbroken three-minute steady-cam shot that begins at the front of a suburban house on Halloween night, and climaxes in the upstairs bedroom of a teenage girl as she is stabbed to death by an unseen person behind the camera. The viewer quickly learns that it is six-year-old Michael Myers, and once the movie moves to the present day of 1978, he is an emotionally unhinged twenty-one-year-old who escapes from a local mental institution to return to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois. Likewise, Friday the 13th begins twenty-two years in the past, in 1958, when a teenage couple at Camp Crystal Lake sneak into the upstairs of a cabin to make out, only to be interrupted by an unseen killer who attacks, and murders, them with a knife. Whereas, the audience sees both murder setpieces from the point-of-view of the villain, the outcome of the sequences are different. The prologue of Halloween reveals who the killer is, while Friday the 13th bases much of its suspense on who the killer might turn out to be. In other words, Halloween makes no bones about the fact that Michael Myers is a psychopath out to wreak havoc on the title holiday, circa 1978, while the makers of Friday the 13th want to keep you guessing who is murdering a group of new counselors out to reopen the summer camp, circa 1980, and why. The approach that both films take following the early scenes is similar, in that their aim is basically the same--introduce a group of characters and have them eventually all come into contact with the villain. Friday the 13th follows the slasher movie formula more closely, with the stalking and slashing of the killer fairly by-the-number, in terms of its false alarms and predictable suspense before a character gets dispatched of. The gore quotient is also reasonably high, with characters getting shot with arrows, axed in the head, and stabbed through the neck. Director Sean S. Cunningham has one clear goal in mind, and that is to satisfy audiences who have come to have a good time (for those whose idea of entertainment is to watch people being killed in a number of gruesome ways). While Halloween also lines up a set of characters, only to have them come face to face with death, it excels in the stylishness in which it is presented. Halloween has remained critically acclaimed over the years because it uses the tried and true formula (and arguably began the whole slasher movie craze), and then uses it as a way to truly frighten its audience through genuine suspense, rather than blood. Halloween is also just as much a "slice-of-life" picture as it is a so-called Dead Teenager Movie. By the time the film is over, there have only been three murders shown on-screen, with the majority of its 93-minute running time dedicated to creating a palpable sense of dread as we watch a group of carefree teenagers unknowingly stumbling into harm's way, despite living out a typical life for a 17-year-old. Director John Carpenter cleverly places Michael Myers, as well as other things, in the background and foreground of his shots, enriching the mood of the proceedings and aiding in getting the audience involved in the characters' plights. When all is said and done, Halloween is a far more rewarding experience, as it not only has the ability to truly scare, but also fulfills the wants of its typical audience. Friday the 13th, on the other hand, holds no bones about it being anything more than it is--a bloody, dark slasher movie, albeit one that is more memorable than most.
In slasher movies, the cast of characters, usually teenagers, are introduced and then, per the norm, are dispatched of in one grisly manner after the next until it comes down to the killer and the final remaining female heroine. Both Halloween and Friday the 13th markedly follow this rule, but their approaches differ. The main female character in "Halloween" is Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis in her film debut, while the prominent young woman in "Friday the 13th" is Alice, played by Adrienne King. Curtis' Laurie and King's Alice are both a certain type of teenager--virginal, but not completely innocent. In both films, there is one scene where they are depicted experimenting with marijuana, which one of their friends has provided. What differentiates Alice and Laurie, respectively, is in their internal power. When Alice realizes that all of her friends have been murdered and comes face to face with the killer, she physically fights for her life, while Laurie more meekly fights simply to shield herself and her babysitting charges from Michael Myers. Laurie is the weaker of the two heroines, but is actually more realistic, as the usual teenager put into such a jeopardizing situation would react similar to her--scared out of their life, but determined to survive. In Friday the 13th, its depiction of the supporting camp counselor characters is fairly stereotypical and by-the-numbers. No real attempt is made to develop any of them beyond their names and basic personalities, just as long as you recognize them when they meet their untimely fate later in the picture. As for Halloween, the supporting characters, headed by Laurie's two best friends, Lynda (P.J. Soles) and Annie (Nancy Loomis), feel like real people. They are reasonably average, but have just enough quirks to make them unforgettable protagonists. The feisty Lynda, for example, has a habit of overusing the word, "totally," to the point where it becomes all the more humorous because of its seeming authenticity. When Lynda and Annie inevitably are killed, there is a level of poignancy is seeing their lives cut short, wheras the murders in Friday the 13th are more exploitative.
Take a walk through the horror section of any video store in the world, and you will consistently see Friday the 13th and Halloween placed next to each other on the shelf. If you are in the mood for a horror movie, either one will suffice, but it is the level of craftsmanship that differs. The goals of Friday the 13th are notably low and typical, while Halloween stands out as being a seemingly ordinary slasher movie that exposes its masterful touches from the very first shot, and does not let up until the end credits roll. Ultimately, Friday the 13th and Halloween are slasher films, yes, but under close inspection, their true motives and separate rank in talent begins to shine through.