I think it’s safe to say without offending anyone that slashers aren’t exactly a subgenre known for their intelligence. That’s not me being an elitist—I love me a good slasher. You’ll find more than a few franchises represented in my video library, not to mention a couple of good standalones. Whenever I see that a film festival I’m attending or a nearby movie theater is showcasing an old 80s slasher I haven’t seen before, I make a beeline for the box office. But I can also recognize that they were never made to be thoughtful, meditative masterpieces that looked at important social issues through the lens of horror, or sought to unsettle the audience on a deeply personal level. Yes, there were some lofty ambitions in the beginning—Halloween and the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre are both something special that transcends the “blood, boobs, and bros” formula that was to follow—but, for the most part, they’re there for the horror fan who wants to turn his or her brain off for ninety minutes and just enjoy something cheap, exploitative, and fun. If “smart” films like Silence of the Lambs or The Shining can said to be the meat and veggies of the genre, then slashers are the candy: tasty, indulgent, and oh so bad for you in large doses. So it’s fascinating to me when a slasher shows some rare moment of intelligence or inspiration; when, by accident or design, a movie ostensibly made with the least amount of financial and intellectual investment possible does something that’s not just thought provoking, but unique from other horror films altogether.
It’s especially fascinating to me that one such scene occurs in a Friday the 13th movie.
Anyone who’s read the wonderful Crystal Lake Memories knows that the films were never artistic pursuits. It’s a series expressly built on titillation, made by people with the explicit intent of making tons of money on the absolute least investment possible (even the most expensive film in the Paramount series, Jason Takes Manhattan, had a smaller budget than Sixteen Candles, and way more people die in Sixteen Candles). The continuity is shoddy at best and the acting tends to range from “OK” to “cripplingly laughable.” But for Part VI—expressly written as a metafilm by Tom McLoughlin to differentiate it from the rest of the series—it’s not a franchise known for its deep ideas.
Then there’s Part IV.
It’s arguably damning it with faint praise to call Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter one of the best slasher films of the 80s; that’s an assessment for another article. Disregarding the rest of the movie, though, early in the film there’s a single shot that just might be one of the subtlest, most jarring, thought provoking and downright human moments in any slasher ever made. It’s a moment that stands out even among some more well-made horror movies.
The opening of the film finds Jason’s body being loaded into an ambulance following the events of Part III and transported to the county morgue. As the corpse is wheeled through the halls of the most 80s hospital ever committed to film, the camera briefly pauses to linger on a crying family in a waiting room. The passing body is briefly juxtaposed with the bereaved, and then the gurney is wheeled out of frame and we’re left alone with them for just a second more before we cut away. The implication is clear—these are family members of one of Jason’s victims from the previous film, and, oh Hell—those were people we saw die.
It’s easy to disassociate from the characters in a slasher, especially the victims who don’t survive to the final act. It’s not for nothing that they’re generally referred to as “the expendable meat” in reviews and analysis of the subgenre. They’re barely even caricatures of real human beings—they have just enough life in them that there’s something to be snuffed out in the inevitable creative death sequences, which are the real reason we’re watching these things. For one, brief, completely unexpected moment, though, we’re asked to make that identification. Most people have had a loved one end up in the hospital, either due to an accident, illness, or fatality. The experience of waiting, worrying, and even grieving in a hospital waiting room is one that many people have shared; and, by pushing Jason out of frame and leaving us alone with the family, we’re being asked to recall that experience and meditate on it. Suddenly, all those torn jaws and axed faces weren’t just walking tropes or archetypes—they were real kids with real lives that were brutally ended, and they left behind real families who’re now suffering with real loss and grief. While we were watching the kids in Part III get machetes to the crotch and gawking at the next gore set piece, the families of those kids from Part II were being notified that their children were dead. It completely shifts the paradigm not just of the victims but of Jason. Though he returns to form later in the film, donning the mask and slipping back into the safely unbelievable realm of zombie hillbilly, for those few seconds, the hokey, pop-friendly monster is suddenly a monster in the realest and most terrifying sense: the sort of cold-blooded psycho we see and fear on the six o’clock news.
It’s rare, even in a more thoughtful horror movie, for the film to actually consider the human value of its victims or the suffering of those they leave behind. Either the bad guy is defeated and the hero broods triumphantly over his or her victory, or the villain slaughters the lot of them and stalks off to kill another day. For any horror movie to contemplate the real-world implications of what it depicts onscreen is virtually unheard of; for a slasher—let alone a Friday the 13th—to do it is weirdly revelatory. It’s a strange glimpse at what might’ve been had more introspective minds been drawn to the format—and, perhaps, a look at what a revival of the subgenre might look like in our more thoughtful age.