Dangerous Curves Ahead: The Road to FRIDAY THE 13TH, Part 2

Sean S. Cunningham's FRIDAY THE 13th has proven so endlessly influential on the horror genre that it's sometimes difficult to remember that the modest body count thriller did not invent the stalk-and-slash sub-genre. In fact, it's far better to posit that FRIDAY is the culmination of a long history of psycho-film pregnancy. Once born and released into the world, of course, Mrs. Voorhees and her son Jason's saga  forever became the standard by which other films in the classification would be judged. But to understand that accomplishment it is necessary to retrace the cinema stepping stones that led up to those first commercial screenings on May 9th, 1980.

READ PART I: 1912-1930

PART II: The 1930's

For modern audiences, the early days of cinema may seem largely indistinguishable from the period that immediately followed, but contemporary moviegoers enjoyed a commercial art form evolving and improving at a breakneck pace. Just as short, silent films gave way to feature length talkies and even color-tinted exhibitions, technology paved the way for quicker movie-making innovations and much more complex and engaging movies. The thirties also saw the emergence of Hollywood's dominance of the art form and the ascension of the studios. Movies became American's favorite form of entertainment, a rare industry that not only weathered the Great Depression but actually thrived during it.

Horror quickly became a linchpin genre in each studio's output. Compared to the elaborate spectacles and large-scale musicals popular with audiences, “monster” movies could be produced quickly, relatively cheaply, and were all but guaranteed to make a profit. Not much has changed on that account.

The most reliable movie “monster” has always been the madman. Whether crafted as a mad scientist, a deranged stalker, or a psychotic master criminal, the '30s flooded movie screens with all sorts of insane killers. The first class of master horror thespians, building off the foundations erected by Lon Chaney and Conrad Veidt, gravitated towards these roles. Although Karloff, Lugosi, and Chaney, Jr are best remembered for the Frankenstein Monster, Count Dracula, and the Wolfman, each spent more of the decade portraying mentally disturbed villains and anti-heroes.

The decade began with an offbeat adaptation of a popular Broadway stage production, THE BAT WHISPERS (1930). Tongue planted firmly in cheek, this movie walks a fine line between straight psycho-thriller and parody, instigating a tradition of dark humor in what would ultimately become the slasher sub-genre. It's not hard to see echoes of this film in PYSCHO III and JASON LIVES: FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI.

Much more serious and infinitely grislier, 1931's DOCTOR X may not have aged gracefully, but it's hard to level any serious criticism against a film starring genre greats Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. In the movie's best scene, easily the equal to any of the SAW franchise's twists, Wray re-enacts the Doctor's crimes to help uncover his identity, which works, but also reveals that the man re-enacting the murders with her is also the villain.

Fredric March's take on another doctor in the same year's DR. JEKYLL AND MR HYDE (1931) is a wonder of impressionistic images. Here, March bypasses John Barrymore as the actor most easily associated with the role. Much more openly sexual in nature, this adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel provided the bedrock from which two of Anthony Perkins' most celebrated roles, Norman Bates in PSYCHO (1960) and his own take on Jekyll and Hyde in EDGE OF SANITY (1989), were constructed.

THE MASK OF FU-MANCHU (1932) is the fourth screen incarnation of the brilliant Chinese madman, here played by Boris Karloff, but it feels less like a sequel than what today we'd call a “reboot”. Later on, Christopher Lee would become the definitive Fu-Manchu, but for its time, Karloff's version was the definition of diabolic brilliance. More violent, sadistic, and openly xenophobic than previous interpretations, it's difficult not to see the DNA of the HOSTEL franchise here.

1932 also saw the release of MURDER IN THE RUE MORGUE, a Lugosi vehicle that retained very little of the source Poe story, but quickly became the prototype mad scientist film. Presenting Darwinian science as “mad”, the movie continues to influence filmmakers today, most recently in the “body horror” work of David Cronenberg and post-modern science fiction horrors like SPLICE.

Karloff's THE GHOUL (1933) boasts amazing turns by not only the star but also Cedic Hardwicke and Ernest Thesiger, but the film itself is terribly uneven. Attempts at slapstick fail horribly, though an argument could be made that this sort of experimentation would later pay off in ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1934) and EVIL DEAD 2 (1987).

Lionel Atwill's best- and most insane- performance of the decade, arguably, can be found in 1933's MURDERS IN THE ZOO. Any film that opens with the star sewing a prone man's lips together and leaving him to die in a poisonous-snake infested hellhole should certainly appeal to modern horror audience accustomed to the similar death-by-carnivorous boars finale of HANNIBAL (2001).

Lugosi and Karloff face off in the Satanism-themed THE BLACK CAT (1934). Neither seems sane, although Lugosi is nominally the protagonist here, albeit a “hero” in the spirit of Dennis Hopper's performance in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986). Despite its title, MANIAC (also 1934) is actually another mad doctor tale, a rare independent attempt to steal some of the horror thunder from Universal, Paramount, and Twentieth Century Fox. It's far below the production level of any of those studios, but does feature nudity, violence, and an instance of on-screen cannibalism that you won't find in the more respectable fare of the time.

Another mad doctor takes center stage for Republic Picture's THE CRIME OF DR. CRESPI (1935), this all but forgotten revenge fable clearly set the stage for the motivation behind the Jigsaw Killer in SAW IV.

Karloff and Lugosi re-teamed for 1935's THE RAVEN. This time Bela gets to take the lead bad guy role, starring as a mad surgeon (not scientist), but that's not saying much- Boris plays a murderer who wants the doctor to perform plastic surgery on him to hide his identity. The clash of the horror titans is worth the price of admission. If ever there was a spiritual ancestor to FREDDY VS. JASON, this is it.

A FACE IN THE FOG (1936) is an early example of slasher cinema, albeit one informed by the acceptable levels of sex and violence of the time. The plot can certainly be seen as revolutionary and a template for most giallo and stalk-and-slash films to come: a deformed hunchback stalks a playhouse, murdering the cast and crew one by one. In many ways, this movie is the most influential pro-slasher film to be made until PEEPING TOM (1960). It's more obvious offspring, though, are BLOOD AND LACE (1970), FRIDAY THE 13th PART II (1981), and THE BURNING (1980).

Similar in title, but only that, 1939's THE FACE AT THE WINDOW is a miss-mash of horror, thriller, and science fiction conventions that never really pays off. It can, however, lay claim to a setting the stage for later films that never quite find their focal points: POPCORN (1991), CHAIN LETTER (2010), and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER (1988) for example. Intriguing, but poorly executed and infuriatingly unsettled, THE FACE AT THE WINDOW remains a decidedly minor curiosity in the genre.

On the other hand, the same year's LA HERENCIA MACABRA, an obscure Mexican production from the same year, is one of the finest mad scientist films- and all the more memorable for it's Poe-inspired Gothic feel, which sets it apart from the other greats in the subcategory like DOCTOR X (1932) and its sequel. The film tells the story of a mad doctor who discovers that his wife is cheating on him. He injects the other man with a serum that transforms him into a feeble, disfigured invalid. When his wife attempts to intervene, the doctor subdues and lobotomizes her. Announcing her death to the public, he buries a wax statue and keeps her prisoner. With such a grisly plot, it's impossible not to see how this film inspired elements from later “torture porn” franchises.

TOWER ON LONDON (1939) bestowed Boris Karloff the role of an insane executioner in Richard III's England. While not truly a horror film, Karloff's bald, lumbering villain is easily identified as the physical model on which most slasher film's rely. And finally, Warner Bros.'s finest achievement in the horror genre of this period, THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X (also 1939), set the bar high for all sequels to come: like Universal's BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), this follow-up is superior to the original. Even without Karloff (unbelievable as it seems, Humphrey Bogart replaces him), RETURN hits all the right notes. The plot? The dead villain of the first film returns to life to continue his vengeance. Sound familiar?


READ PART 1: 1912-1930