Friday the 13th (1980)

Friday the 13th (1980)

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October may be over, but my reviews of horror films are not! Next up is one of the seminal slasher films of the 1980s: Friday the 13th, the movie that introduced the world to Camp Crystal Lake and Jason Voorhees (kinda). Along with its fellow creep-outs Halloween and Nightmare on Elm StreetFriday the 13th (and its sequels) are responsible for setting the standard of slashers.

Friday the 13th opens with the murder of two camp counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, in 1958. Shot from the POV of the killer, the two counselors get caught in flagrante, naturally resulting in their bloody deaths. Fast forward many years and Camp Crystal Lake is about to be re-opened for the summer, with a whole new crop of nubile young people to violently slaughter. The group of counselors show up to help get the camp into shape – despite the dire warnings from townsfolk of a horrible curse – and bodies begin to pile up, as the shadowy killer dispatches our young heroes one by one.

The problem with Friday the 13th is that it’s just not a very good slasher film. The set-up itself is strong enough, and the murders appropriately gruesome. But the characters are too sparsely drawn to be interesting – they’re interchangeable faces that could be ranked by degrees of annoyance. The Final Girl (whose role you can guess pretty quickly) is laughably inept at escaping once the killer’s identity has been revealed.

While mulling over why the murders just didn’t up the tension at all, I came to realize that none of them are discovered until the last ten or fifteen minutes of the film. The surviving counselors don’t know they’re in danger at all, and so calmly wander around in the rain and the dark, unaware of an insane killer lurking in the shadows. And because no one else in the film is scared, the audience has no reason to be scared. We know that pretty much everyone is going to die; it’s just a question of how.

The same goes for the killer, whose backstory is never even touched on until an extensive exposition scene nearing the end. The local legend about the camp being cursed is introduced and then rapidly discarded, with nothing to flesh it out. While killers like Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers have fairly intricate backstories that draw out their monstrosity and give it life, the killer of Friday the 13th has no mystique at all. (And there’s little doubt that both Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween were directed by very talented horror maestros, while Friday the 13th…wasn’t).

I’ve been informed that the better Friday the 13th sequels wind up outweighing the original, but I admit I don’t much care. I’ve got this film under my belt, and I’m OK with letting it rest at that.

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Bloody October: Ringu (1998)

Ringu (1998)

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In movies as in life, look for originals. Rather than going for the American remake of The Ring, I decided to read some subtitles and watch the original Japanese Ringu first – mostly because the Japanese generally have a unique and profoundly disturbing outlook on ghosts, curses, and the trappings of horror. I must say that I was not disappointed.

Ringu begins with a surprisingly expositional sequence in which two teenage girls try to scare each other by talking about a mysterious videotape that, once watched, kills you a week later. When one of the girls dies and the other goes mad, it attracts the attention of a news organization and investigator Reiko (Nanako Matsushima), the aunt of Tomoko (Yuko Takeuchi), the girl who died. As Reiko delves into the origins of the curse story, she discovers that Tomoko and each of her friends who supposedly watched the tape died on the same day. This leads her finally to Izu and the cabin where Tomoko discovered the tape. When Reiko watches the strange video, she begins to believe in the curse, and seeks the help of her ex-husband Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada), a teacher with ESP, to discover a way to break the curse.

Due to its popularity in and out of Japan, Ringu bears many hallmarks and images that have become ingrained in world cinematic culture. It’s a testament to the film’s brilliance that it’s still scary, almost twenty years on. Although dependent on outmoded technology, the grainy nature of VHS, the ability to record long swathes of programming (or static) and keep it, have a bizarre and frightening quality to them. And Ringu keeps the visual horror to a minimum, relying instead on stories about spirits, whispered threats, vague rumors, and strange noises in the middle of the night to develop the tension. The “monster” of the film doesn’t appear until quite late, and then arrives with such a pop that it’s still impossible not to be frightened.

Japanese culture has a far different relationship to the spirit world than contemporary American culture – like its counterpart Ju-on (The Grudge), Ringu relies on complex concepts of ghosts and vengeful spirits that outstretch the modern period. The horror goes on, because it is based in betrayal or vengeance and not in demand for something that can be appeased. It can attach itself even to those who don’t deserve it, or who aren’t involved in the original violation, and will destroy them just as surely as the violators. That’s a terrifying notion.

Ringu definitely stands as my favorite (thus far) of the films I’ve seen this spooky season.