Well, here we are, another of these “obligation” articles, where I don’t really have an angle or know what I can usefully say, but it feels like I ought to cover it all the same. Of course, because I put the article off so long, I don’t get to claim credit this time, since The CW’s new Friday the 13th TV series was announced months ago. But, of course, the newly announced series is going to be about Crystal Lake and the legend of Jason Voorhees. To which you’re probably thinking, “Well duh, obviously. What the hell else would a TV series called Friday the 13th be about?”
So there’s that. I don’t know if you remember, but when I introduced my series on War of the Worlds, I went on a little digression whose point was that you could be excused for thinking that the only reason there is a War of the Worlds TV series is because Sam and Greg Strangis wanted to do an Invasion of the Body Snatchers TV series but couldn’t get the rights. Well, sort of a similar implicit story here; Larry Williams and Frank Mancuso, jr. had this idea for a TV series based around hunting down cursed antiques, and they were thinking about calling it The 13th Hour. But then Mancuso suddenly realized that he had the rights to use the name of the popular horror film franchise he’d been working on for some years, and figured that would
trick some unsuspecting audiences into watching their ridiculous little show be a better name. So that’s what they called it.
Our old friend first-run syndication is really what rears its head here. See, for the first few decades of television, the networks pretty much had enough power to keep television in line. If your show wasn’t bland enough to appeal to a big ol’ swath of middle America, your show did not get made, because it wasn’t going to get aired.
But in the ’80s, things were changing. It wasn’t going to last long, to be sure, but technology was changing the economics of running an independent station. In 1986, News Corp bought Metromedia’s little collection of TV stations — the remains of the long-defunct DuMont network. These would form the basis of the FOX network. But of course, FOX took several years to spin all the way up to programming a full prime-time schedule. Paramount too was starting to position itself to build what would, though not until the middle of the next decade, eventually evolve into UPN.
There was a perception that network TV, in its march to pander to the lowest denominator it could find, was largely banal and inclined to play it safe. FOX, of course, from its early days tried to position itself as “edgier”, with the crude humor of Married… With Children, and later with the edgier humor of In Living Color. At the same time, there was increasing tension over the impact of violence in the media. That would come to a head when the decade rolled over, but just at the moment, here in the nexus, really the only limiting factors on violence in television were economic. I mean, the FCC would step in if you showed a boob other than Al Bundy, an ass that didn’t belong to Dennis Franz, or said one of George Carlin’s infamous seven words, but in terms of horror-movie gore, it was a lot more vague where the limits were. And this was the decade when cable television really exploded, which put the pressure on broadcast television to push the boundaries.
In reference to Mystery Science Theater, we talked about the tradition of the TV horror host. Now, that was a phenomenon that attached itself to syndicated airings of old horror movies, but there’s a related tradition of horror hosting from the world of comic books. And it’s that tradition that inspired the 1982 film Creepshow, written by Stephen King and directed by George Romero.
The success of Creepshow got TV-makers thinking about the possibility of doing the same sort of gore-heavy anthology horror for television. Of course, Sci-fi/horror anthologies had been a thing already. The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Science Fiction Theater, all those. But we had something new here, going into the eighties. So we take just a pinch of The Twilight Zone, and stir in some of that pre-Code comic book horror, and we do it with a very ’80s desire to push the limits of acceptability.
I’d say “It could only happen in the nexus,” but the truth is that it really started out way back in 1983 with Tales from the Darkside, itself pretty much a continuation of Creepshow. Its very name is meant to remind you of the old EC comics like Tales from the Crypt (Which would, of course, get its own direct adaptation, but not until 1989). For some reason, the one that always sticks in my head is a particularly cerebral one, though, “Going Native”, the story of an alien who comes to Earth as an observer, and slowly lapses into depression as she internalizes the human conditon. Tales from the Darkside ended its run in 1988 and its makers moved on to Monsters, which to a large extent was just a continuation of Darkside, though, as the name implies, it was more monster-oriented. Weirdly, I can’t remember a single episode of Monsters, though I remember watching it (I found the title sequence unpleasant to watch for some reason). And in 1988, Freddy’s Nightmares would see Jason Voorhees’s main ’80s slasher film rival Freddy Kreuger take a spin as an anthology horror host (I remember quite a lot of these. I always inexplicably freaked out at the Nightmare on Elm Street films, but for whatever reason, I rather liked the series). These shows would push the envelope for just how horrific and gruesome you could get on broadcast television.
But why am I talking about horror anthologies now? Well, mostly because I’m still struggling to find an angle for talking about Friday the 13th. Which isn’t an anthology.
Except that kinda sorta it almost is, but not quite. Friday the 13th the Series can’t really be properly called an anthology because it’s got the same characters from week to week in an ongoing storyline. But at the same time, it’s got a large guest cast, and there’s a lot of episodes where the regulars are really only sort of tangentially involved in the story, and every episode is, first and foremost, a self-contained horror story that’s connected to the rest of the series only at its periphery.
We’ve talked before about the concept of the series but I might as well spell it out here. Lewis Vendredi (The titular “Friday”, I guess), was an antiques dealer who sold his soul to Satan, as you do, gaining the power to magically curse antiques. Uncle Lewis and the hoofed man-beast had some sort of falling out, though, and Lewis breaks the deal, resulting in his death. Model, actress and singer (she had a minor Canadian hit with a dance cover of One Night in Bangkok that came out contemporaneously with Murray Head’s version) Louise Robey (credited as just “Robey”) and John D. LeMay play Micki Foster and Ryan Dallion, distant cousins who inherit the cursed antique shop, and sell off half the inventory before they find out what’s going on. They feel super bad about that.
Chris Wiggins plays Jack Marshak, an occult expert who’d spent years acquiring antiques for Vendredi, somehow not realizing what his old friend was up to. He becomes the de facto leader of the group, using his expertise and experience to help them reclaim an assortment of magical items which generally grant the user some magical boon when the necessary conditions are met, typically human sacrifice.
At the start of the third season, a run-in with Satanists transforms Ryan into a small child. Fortunately, his absentee mother just happens to have recently reentered his life and is happy to take another swing at childrearing. Yes, that does sound stupid. He’s replaced by Steve Monarque as Johnny Ventura, a freelance writer and sort of petty ne’er-do-well. He’s more or less playing the same character, except a little bit more naive and a little bit rougher. His more character-specific plots tend to involve him getting in trouble by yielding to temptation.
The guest cast is also full of familiar faces from the rest of our little wander through the nexus of TV shows produced in Toronto in the late ’80s. There’s a weird tendency to recycle actors as a new character who’s basically just a variation on the character they played previously. Denis Forest, for instance, turns up three times, always as a creepy weirdo. Jill Hennessey turns up three times. Colm Feore turns up twice as a brilliant, pretentious artiste — a choreographer once, and a novelist later. Colin Fox turns up three times, always playing a cunning, ruthless killer. Angelo Ricazos turns up three times, always as a guy who starts out trying not to be evil but who gets twisted by circumstance. Gwynyth Walsh turns up once, as do Catherine Disher, Belinda Metz, and Keram Maliki-Sanchez. Among the guests we haven’t run into yet are David Hewitt, Ray Walston, Enrico Colantoni, Sarah Polley, and Tia Carrere.
I’d hardly call the show formulaic, but there’s certainly a general pattern most episodes follow. The bulk of each episode tends to be devoted to watching the week’s guest star win fame, fortune and/or revenge using a cursed antique powered by human sacrifice. One of our regulars, usually Jack, finds evidence of the location of said antique, through either occult research or happening to read the newspaper on a day when “Bizarre and possibly comical human sacrifice victim found” makes the headlines. They try to acquire the antique, are briefly in danger of becoming the next sacrificial victim, and then take the antique back to the antique store vault after the owner runs afoul of the fine print in the curse’s licensing agreement and gets themself killed, dismembered, transformed into a goldfish, telefragged, or in extreme cases, dragged bodily to hell.
There are, of course, any number of variations you can do on it. The owner might be overtly evil, happy to murder for personal gain. Or they might be an otherwise good person in a desperate situation, such as in “What a Mother Wouldn’t Do”, wherein a desperate mother kills seven people, including herself, to invoke the power of a cursed cradle to save her dying child. Or they might be an otherwise good person who yields to temptation after discovering the curse by accident. They particularly enjoy the pathos of showing someone slowly undo themselves trying to do good with a cursed artifact, say, protecting their loved ones or bringing a villain to justice. A few of the antiques even display agency of their own and are able to manipulate their owners, such as a tombstone radio in “And Now the News” which even attempts to manipulate the heroes at the end, offering to help them safely retrieve the rest of the antiques.
Our heroes might just show up at the end to sweep up, or they might need to intervene to end the cycle: one common twist is that the heroes are able to trick, manipulate or restrain the owner from holding up their end of the deal, thus causing the curse to backfire. Or they get caught up intimately in events — Mickey has a bad habit of being chosen by murderous antique-owners as the next victim. Other times either owner or victim is someone close to them. Jack’s fiancée, Mickey’s friend, Ryan’s father.
There are a handful of episodes that focus on other elements of the series mythology. Uncle Lewis’s break with Satan turns out not to imply he’s turned face, as his vengeful ghost makes a handful of appearances trying to return to the living world. And there are suggestions of a wider supernatural world: Lewis is revealed as the former head of a powerful coven which continues in his absence to scheme at world domination. Vampires are also a thing that exist in this world, independent of Vendredi’s cursed antiques. And word on the street is that the aborted fourth season would have introduced a subculture of independent supernatural-fighters, and you can almost kinda see this show trying to evolve into some kind of proto-Buffy. Another persistent rumor — no one really knows where this falls on the spectrum of “Someone involved in the production might have kicked the idea around briefly” to “They totally wanted to do it eventually” — is that the original plan was to have the final episode send the gang to Crystal Lake to recover a cursed hockey mask, in order to close the loop on why the show had its comically misleading title.
But the show is frustratingly short on follow-through. Uncle Lewis stops appearing after the beginning of the second season. His coven, though built up as recurring villains, only turn up once. There are occasional hits of romance between Micki and Ryan (They’re only cousins by marriage) or Micki and Johnny, but it never goes anywhere. The third season introduces the notion of three “Books of Lucifer”, whose prophecies endanger the world, but only one ever turns up. At the end of season 2, Micki discovers she has latent magical powers, which she temporarily exhausts her first time using them. It never comes up again.
That’s what I was getting at with that digression about horror anthologies. I get the distinct impression watching Friday the 13th The Series that Frank Mancuso Jr. wasn’t all that interested in an ongoing storyline. What he’s really trying to make is more of a thematically linked horror anthology series about ironically cursed objects, the linkage between them being only a bit less tenuous than in Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders. And that might be the key to understanding what went wrong with his version of War of the Worlds. Because, just as Friday the 13th feels like it wants to be a horror anthology thematically linked by cursed antiques, War of the Worlds season 2 feels like it wants to be a horror anthology thematically linked by alien genocide plots. And just like Friday, most of the individual episode premises are pretty good ideas. It takes very little effort to imagine, say, “Breeding Ground” or “Terminal Rock” being adapted as an episode of ’90s reboot of The Outer Limits. But with War, Mancuso was working with an established, and, importantly, character-driven, series, and his approach isn’t as good a fit there.
It’s widely believed among War of the Worlds fans that their show got the short shrift when it was handed over to Mancuso — that at best, he spent his A-game on the other show, and at worst, he actively sabotaged War. But when you really compare the two shows on an episode-by-episode basis, what becomes clear to me is that Mancuso wasn’t giving War of the Worlds a raw deal. In fact, his approach on both shows was strikingly, remarkably similar. It’s just that War of the Worlds was the wrong show to do that way.
A sci-fi-horror genre anthology style just isn’t quite the right way to continue the story that the first season of War of the Worlds started. It makes about as much sense as doing a cover of a song from a musical about chess at the same time as the original version was still on the charts, without even rearranging the music or anything.
The ’80s were weird.
- Friday the 13th The Series is available on DVD from amazon.com