Old Men and Slashers: My Personal Journey With Horror (Swimming Upstream PART 6)

B. Harrison Smith continues his personal filmmaking retrospecive with SWIMMING UPSTREAM Part 6!

*Editor’s Note: B Harrison Smith is well known to horror fans as the writer/director of The Fields, Death House, and Camp Dread. He also directed The Special, released in 2020.

Related Article: Swimming Upstream: Filmmaker Harrison’s Smith Horror Journey (PART 1)

Related Article: Kid’s Horror Pushes Upstream: How ABBOTT AND COSTELLO & MAD MONSTER PARTY Made An Impact (PART 2)

Related Article: Horror’s Summer of ‘79; “Swimming Upstream: A Personal Horror Journey” (PART 3)

Related Article: Late Night in the Reagan Era: Swimming Upstream on A Personal Horror Journey (PART 4)

Related Article: Horror in Print: My Personal Journey With Horror (Swimming Upstream PART 5)

1981 was an odd year for horror. There was this big burst of horror, thanks to Stephen King and Amityville, and by 1980 we had a slew of some fun, off-the-wall entries. Corman was still at it with Humanoids From the Deep and Alien changed the entire game for horror and science fiction. The slasher movement was on the move and growing, and horror would become dominated by it.

It was also a year of change for me, personally. I left the safe middle cocoon where I made my first feature film (if that’s what you want to call it) and we were kicked out to the high school to start all over again.

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Me… fucking square dancing as a freshman in gym class.

The “film guy” was now at the bottom of the food chain. I was a freshman in a giant, sprawling complex, very different than the windowless circle that was the middle school. Learning areas were traded for separate classrooms all over the campus. Lunchtime was now with kids 3-4 years older and we were the shit freshmen on their shoe heels.

No one cared about my middle school movie. I continued to write my horror stories and craft my writing thanks to Stephen King. My ninth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Schneider encouraged my writing, gave detailed notes, and did what good teachers do: furthered growth and pushed to extend limits.

A new horror film opened at the mall, December 1981. I knew it was based on a best seller that wasn’t Stephen King’s. Some guy named Peter Straub wrote a book called Ghost Story and the weird, offbeat previews around Christmas. A horror movie out at Christmas time? Sounded fun. I had a friend who had read the book. We ventured to the mall after Christmas break, January 1982 to see what this was all about.

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It was the first horror movie, since watching Price, Cushing, and those guys that featured “old men” as the main characters. We were just starting down the slasher road…films that had casts of young, naked unknowns as their stars. Hopefully, none of the old people in Ghost Story would get naked and partake in wild sex.

Ghost Story jolted me. The New England, snowy setting. It would be the last film for almost every one of the old veteran legends. Dick Smith’s Eva Galli apparitions jolted me so hard at one point, my popcorn cup spilled in my hands. There was a lot of sex. Almost too much. I came to be scared to watch some soft-core porn.

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In the end, I loved the film, putting aside the very slow moments of the second act. You had Alice Krige as the vengeful ghost, long before she would become known as Star Trek’s Borg Queen. Craig Wasson did his perpetually confused and surprised burn throughout the film and John Houseman offered the gravitas needed.

It was a refreshing change from the slasher spew that had been coming steadily since Halloween in 1978. I went to see Halloween II in theaters earlier in the year and walked out feeling ripped off by the silly sibling plotline and lackluster direction. Halloween II¸ for me was the bad version of Halloween.

More on this later and hold off on your outrage.

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Friday the 13th gave us a bunch of slasher rip-offs from that Halloween rip-off. My eighth-grade year saw one slasher film after another come out, and it was now a sub-genre cottage industry. When Ghost Story came along, it looked like a nice change of pace. There really aren’t many modern films with old men as the main characters.

My friend left disappointed. She read the book and said the film barely had anything of what made the book so great. She started talking about Fred Astaire’s wife Stella, played by Patricia Neal in the film. In the book, Stella was an older female gigolo, hooking up with younger men, making a mockery of her marriage, and in the end finding redemption with her husband.

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I picked up the paperback at the mall’s Waldenbooks a few days after viewing the film to see what my friend was talking about. Peter Straub’s book was much like King’s Salem’s Lot. Unlike the film, it had a huge palette of small-town characters. Everyone had a role and Straub was able to handle this huge cast beautifully, much like King handled the residents of Salem’s Lot.

For example, the plow driver, Omar Norris, barely has two minutes of screen time in the film. In the novel, he is a major witness to the town’s dissembling. The entire town of Milburn, New York is damned—the target of an avenging and spiteful supernatural force that didn’t get a lot of press at that time.

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This villain in Straub’s book was different than King’s vampires. Both wanted their respective town’s souls, but we had a more playful and perhaps even more dangerous villain in Straub’s shape-shifting creatures. They played long-term games and hid under the guise of humanity and civility. They could walk the day and they could entrench themselves into human lives for years, even decades before springing their traps.

The vampires in Salem’s Lot were unrefined cretins compared to Straub’s Eva Galli, Florence DePeyser, and Gregory Bate.

Ghost Story gave me a new window and the novel quickly became my favorite. It did not supplant King as my favorite author, but Ghost Story was so different than the monsters of King’s works. It caught my attention and I found myself wanting to write something on the scale and gothic backdrop of Ghost Story.

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I was overreacting to the glut of really bad slashers rolling out. Halloween II did what Friday the 13th did. Both films personalized their killers. While the killer in Friday the 13th was Pamela Vorhees, giving us a female serial killer (until Felissa Rose would hop along in another few years), Pammy did it all for her little boy, Jason.

Jason. Michael. Simple names. Boys next door. The killers were in neighborhoods. The banal summer camp. The normal places where horror can emerge.

It would take Friday the 13th Part 2 to roll out and bring Jason to the lore as the main killer. Somehow, Jason miraculously revived or survived his drowning his mother told us all about in the first film. The afterlife or Hell must have a great gym because when we last saw Jason, he was a skinny, frail, mentally impaired boy leaping from the water for Adrienne King.

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Jason got fit for the sequel. One film ahead of the iconic hockey mask, he looked more like a crazed Elephant Man with his burlap sack stuck over his deformed cranium. The word is Tom Savini thought the whole idea of Jason returning as the killer was stupid at best, and he left the series for its next two installments.

Regardless, Jason was now our killer and…he was Jason. He was familiar to us. We knew his common name. We all knew a Jason. Let’s face it, few of us grew up knowing a Damian, despite the notoriety The Omen gave the name. However, almost everyone knew a Jason.

Just like everyone knew a Michael.

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Halloween II introduced the silly subplot of Michael and Laurie Strode inexplicably being siblings. So brother was now given a purpose. What made the original Halloween so fucking scary was the RANDOMNESS of the murders. Michael came home and picked his victims randomly, or at least to us they seemed random.

Michael Myers was like a tornado…he just touched down in Haddonfield. He could hit your house but leave your neighbor’s untouched. He was a force of nature and you had no way to predict anything he would do. Even good ‘ole Dr. Loomis, who knew Michael the best, was relegated to hoping the guy would return to his childhood home—a pattern in otherwise chaotic randomness.

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I have said over the years that Halloween II’s script was paper-thin. In fact, when I got to know Halloween III: Season of the Witch’s director, Tommy Lee Wallace, he told me he was given the first choice for the Halloween sequel. He said when he read the script, his heart fell. The script was everything they tried to avoid with the original 1978 classic.

The first film relied on terror, good directing, and storytelling to scare the audience. The sequel gave a hammer to the head, a hypodermic needle to the eye, and lots of blood. Tommy called it the “anti-Halloween.” However, for better or worse, times changed with the advent of the much bloodier rip-off, Friday the 13th and audiences demanded graphic violence, not just suspense.

I felt ripped off as a boy sitting in that theater watching the sequel roll out on the screen. I felt we all got hosed but not everyone thought so. Halloween II was like McDonald’s–people just wanted to shove more shit into their mouths.

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This film gets a very large free pass from blind fandom. Halloween II ’81 gets the because it’s the most loyal of the sequels. It takes place on the same night. Curtis, Pleasance and Cyphers return along with Michael. The problem is–the film isn’t really all that good.

It lacks the terror and suspense of Carpenter’s original and substitutes cheap jump scares and gore. It’s a flat, one-note film that does what it has to in paint by numbers routine.

“When the [ Halloween II ] script came in I thought it was…the anti-Halloween. All the things that Halloween did so well…had been tossed out the window…I understood that in the intervening time between the first movie and what was going to be the second movie that times had changed, audiences had changed…and maybe the dynamics of the movie and the amount of violence might be impacted by all that. I felt that John was betraying his own legacy. I held my breath and said “no.” A director really needs to believe deeply in the material.”  – Tommy Lee Wallace on turning down directing Halloween II

[U]pon being offered Halloween III, John [Carpenter] and Debra Hill told him [Wallace] that neither wanted to do the sequel as John hated Halloween II.

Halloween II is a sequel for sequel’s sake that duped its fan base into thinking it was getting something good for its devotion to the first film. As a kid, I knew this. It was one of the first times I remember consciously realizing I was being ripped off.

The Horror Master disavowed Halloween II, as did producer Debra Hill, but they knew there would be a sequel regardless of their feelings. As said, Tommy Lee Wallace declined the sequel even though all associated knew it would be a guaranteed box office success. When Wallace vocalized creative concerns while considering directing Halloween II, he was told by Carpenter, in essence, to back off.

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He was a gun for hire. The sequel would require no creativity. Fans would return regardless. The film would direct itself. Even the poster screamed of rip off: “All New! All New!”

Film critic James Bernardinellicorroborates Wallace and Carpenter in his scathing and dead-on review for Halloween II:

“The main problem is the film’s underlying motivation. Halloween was a labor of love, made by people committed to creating the most suspenseful and compelling motion picture they could. Halloween II was impelled by the desire to make money. It was a postscript—and not a very good one—slapped together because a box office success was guaranteed.”  – James Bernardinelli 

“The plot of Halloween II absolutely depends, of course, on our old friend the Idiot Plot, which requires that everyone in the movie behave at all times like an idiot. That’s necessary because if anyone were to use common sense, the problem would be solved and the movie would be over.”                            — Roger Ebert 

The silly subplot/twist of Michael and Laurie being siblings was a soap opera type move that tried to add some depth to a shallow script. Carpenter and Wallace both stated this was never intended to be part of the storyline. However, that’s what it turned into, so they went with it. Producers wanted more blood and gore and that was factored into the film as well.

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Halloween II was a financial success. There almost no way it couldn’t as a sequel to the then-most successful independent film of all time. I always said you could have just had Jamie Lee Curtis reciting the phone book for 90 minutes and called it Halloween II and people would’ve flocked to see it.

When I saw Friday the 13th I KNEW it was a Halloween rip-off. That was okay because no one tried to hide it. The filmmakers set out to take what Halloween gave us and run with it. They upped the blood. They upped the boobs and they gave us a lady killer.

We were now in the 1980s.

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Ronald Reagan was President and things were very, very different and odd all at the same time. You had this weird flux of both conservative and liberal in the 80s. We wanted to party, girls just wanted to have fun, but we also wanted it to be the 19850s again as TV illustrated with Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley and other 50s flavored fare.

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When Steve Miner and Sean S. Cunningham set out to make a quick rip-off of Halloween they had no idea they would unleash the most enduring horror franchises ever. Even its star and only real celebrity name, Betsy Palmer, dismissed the film as trash until its overwhelming success gave her more fame than all of her previous film and television work combined. Palmer took the role of the now-iconic mother of Jason Vorhees because she needed money for a new car. It wasn’t because she believed in the material. Palmer also gets credit with the filmmakers for turning the genre a bit on its ear and making the killer a woman as well.

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The film gets away with a number of cheats and that’s because of its clever manufacturing. To understand why the original did so well, and fans turned an indifferent shoulder to its much more expensive and slicker 2008 remake, the horror viewer needs to look at the time surrounding the release of the film.

It was 1980 and the liberal 70s and Watergate, economic turmoil and Vietnam left the country scarred and cynical. It’s no secret that horror films thrive during bad economic times. Jaws capitalized on this concept. While not a horror film in the true sense of the genre, the shark movie is an economic film. The real villain is not the shark, but the mayor and his council cronies that wanted to keep the beaches open despite the dangers to bring in the almighty tourist dollars. Jaws is an economic horror film. The town fears financial ruin over the shark.

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With slashers like Halloween and Friday the 13th, the fear is the killer. Sex is the fuel of the killing engine, but economics are non-existent in the themes of these films.

Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, ushering in a new era of “American Renewal.” The Jimmy Carter years saw depression, malaise, high fuel prices, and the United States held by the balls in Iran. 52 American hostages languished in captivity for 444 days, and the last half of Carter’s miserable term as president. Ronald Reagan was a new sheriff in town and the Russian and Middle Eastern baddies better take notice. Only an hour after Reagan was president, the hostages were released and Reagan kicked off a decade that will be defined by his presidency.

This will be ironic as conspiracy shadowed the “convenient” release of the Iranian Hostages. All things come full circle, and by the end of the 1990s, conspiracy permeated horror films again and the straightforward slasher would evolve into a more complex type of story.

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This is not a political article, but the political and social climate can’t be denied. Americans wanted a change at the start of the 80s and they showed that in the voting booth and at the box office. The heavy-handed horror films of the 1970s would change into something that allowed them to weave through the new social climate.

The late 70s and early 80s saw a revival in entertainment of all things 1950s. Our TV shows reflected this with Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and a number of sitcoms that were throwbacks to the 1950s family sitcom style. Family Ties was the new Leave It To Beaver and its breakout star, Michael J. Fox would achieve box-office stardom in a 1950s valentine, Back to the Future in 1985. Throw in Grease,  Animal House (okay, the early 60s), The Wanderers, Hollywood Knights, Porky’s, and a crapload of 1950s films you get the idea.

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In theaters it was the 1950s meet modern sex appeal. Imagine Laverne and Shirley with lots of boobs.

America went through the 60s Love Decade that gave us The Pill, women’s liberation, and sexual abandon. It’s futile to put the genie back in the bottle on something like that. Our music changed, our films changed, and like it or not, sex had moved to the forefront after decades of repression since film first hit the screens.

The 60s also gave us the “opposite reaction” to the 50s with the death of JFK, King, and Bobby. Add to it the Civil Rights issue that had been simmering since the first African slave was brought to American shores and you had quite a contrast. All of this would show in our popular culture.

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While Americans wanted a return to 1950s “family values” they also wanted their titillation but didn’t want to be open about it. It’s kind of like a wedding. The parents of the bride are so happy to see their daughter so beautiful on “her day.” What they don’t want to think about is “her night.” They know what’s going to happen but they just don’t want to talk about it. So everyone pretends and dresses up the wedding as really one big, expensive opening act for the romp that usually follows after the bride and groom say goodbye to the guests.

This is the way horror weaved through the obstacle course of the 1980s.

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One of horror’s worst enemies is the “X” rating. Religious zealots have no clue that studios love the press and boycotts drive more people to the film out of curiosity. A perfect example is Silent Night, Deadly Night, a total slasher rip-off that used the gimmick of a psycho in Santa costume to drum up its business. It’s not a good film but thanks to the pious religious right pawns, it became a success at the box office and spawned several sequels.

The film would have come and gone with nary a blip on the box-office radar if it had been left alone. I sometimes wonder if studios deliberately set these people up to be their own little marketing machines.

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Many distributors did not carry an “X” film to general theaters as the rating was reserved for porn and gave off a negative context for a general release film. Today the “X” has been replaced by the much classier “NC-17” rating, but it’s really the same thing. The “X” rating was so powerful that George A. Romero backed off his stance with 1979’s Dawn of the Dead and made the necessary cuts to bring it down to an “R”. The same was done for Dario Argento’s Suspiria. The Exorcist and the original 1979 classic, Alien. All made cuts to avoid the “X” rating, and are considered some of the most important films of the horror genre (Yes, Alien is more horror than science fiction).

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Halloween got away with almost no blood and while the nudity by today’s standards is nothing, it was considered just a tad racy at the time. Likely the original 1978 film would receive a PG-13 rating today. Friday the 13th wanted to give what Halloween did not. While terror was its driving force, the filmmakers wanted to sex and blood up their movie because they felt that audiences were craving and demanding more. Their first smart move was to hire Make-Up Artist legend Tom Savini to render the effects and that alone allowed a home run.

While I am going on about Savini, would someone just give him his Lifetime Achievement Oscar and get it over with? His mark on the horror genre and film industry is indisputable. He’s a modern-day Jack Pierce.

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Savini is an inventive artist with a wild imagination that set the standard for trauma and violent effects. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that he served in Vietnam and honed his craft there. The meat grinder war diminished “the good fight” mentality of the previous generation. Savini came from a generation caught fighting a war few could make any sense of. The cynicism that rose up from this time was already buoyed by the senseless deaths of JFK, MLK, and RFK.

Savini’s work on the original Dawn of the Dead is one studied to this day and he is one of the few artists, along with Rob Bottin and Rick Baker, whose work bears its own signature. Savini not only created all of the kill effects but designed the iconic image of the young hydrocephalic Jason Vorhees in the original Friday the 13th.

The formula worked and avoided the X-rating by embracing the genre. The kills are almost designer label. They’re a “Savini.” Where Herschel Gordon Lewis and other gore films focused on entrails splayed everywhere, severe torture and rape (the precursor to the slick torture porn films of late) Friday the 13th gives you its violence in quick, slick flashes and never goes down the torture porn route. It also manages to embrace the conservative moral attitude toward sex in the 1980s: immorality will deliver bad things. So the theme becomes almost righteous in a way: have wild, uninhibited sex without marriage…die a gruesome and deserved death because it’s the Lord’s way of sending you a message.

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The plot is almost always the same: a group of horny, mostly obnoxious teens gather in the woods, try to reopen Camp Crystal Lake and somehow cross paths with the film’s eventual killer. They do drugs, drink, get naked, have sex and pay the price with a double coitus impaling or a machete to head. The formula tapped into the sexually frustrated subconscious of teen America and made it okay to explore that sexual appetite safely onscreen because there was that underlying of message that sex was bad. There is almost invariably, a “final girl,” usually the virgin or socially awkward female of the group who is the lone survivor.

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The old “Hayes Code” before movie ratings that once banned such things in film.

The late Wes Craven will run wild in his Scream series, taking all of the horror conventions (which mostly were established in the 1980s) and build his own franchise. The 80s were a total contrast. The decade likes to be known for its wild, party atmosphere and yet at the same time the political right touted its fiscal and moral conservative values and a return to 1950s morality.

So Friday the 13th works on a simple format: boobs and blood with a moral message. Throw in a good killer people can get behind and you got yourself a franchise. It’s kind of like a fucked up Hay’s Code, the set of film standards before the present day rating system. You can show sex as long as the perverts get what’s coming to them…that kinda thing.

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The problem with the original Friday the 13th was that they killed off their killer at the end. This shows the filmmakers never intended a series of sequels. This was to be a “hit and run” ripoff. Make a few quick bucks and a decent return on investment.

“Sequel” was still a dirty word at the movies and Jaws 2 again showed the power of what a part 2 could do. Yes, there have been sequels before, but creating a “franchise” was something new to Hollywood. How they got around the dead villain issue in Friday the 13th was both clever and cynical and actually made Tom Savini leave the film in disagreement over the direction of the new series.

He would return for the final chapter as the slasher craze started to wane by 1983…however, there was still some life in it and the studios were going to be surprised. I would be a junior in high school to see the slasher gets some big-budget love.

The only thing that kills the monster is bad box office and Jason and Michael were going to prove it.