Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Best News Ever!

The instant winner for Best News Of The Week, if not Best News Ever, is the announcement that Friday the 13th: The Series will finally be debuting on DVD. I came across this happy news over at Dread Central and promptly placed my pre-order for Season One at Amazon. No release date has been confirmed, no specs have been reported, and no box art is available - but I have to have this set. I've been waiting patiently for this day for years, wondering why it was that so many inadequate genre series had seen a proper DVD release (I'm looking at you, Swamp Thing!) while the only way to own Friday the 13th: The Series was to shop the bootleg tables at horror conventions. The demand was there - so what was Paramount waiting for?

Well, I'm guessing that it was corporate apathy rather than taking the extra time to compile a host of special features honoring the show's contribution to the genre - I'll be stunned if this set includes anything other then the episodes themselves. But that's fine. I just want to be able to watch the series in a quality better than the shoddy dubs I've gotten accustomed to over the years. It's almost twenty years later and I'm still clinging to my VHS recordings from the original broadcasts, some slightly less crappy VHS recordings from the Sci-Fi Channel in the mid-to-late '90s and a dubbed disc set lifted from the Canadian horror channel ScreamTV so to see these episodes again in something even approaching a crisp transfer is going to seem stunning to me.

Not that the show itself really lent itself to being called "stunning" but the series is a long-standing favorite of mine, a staple of my college years, and while it can't stand in the same company as something like The X-Files or the original Outer Limits, I do think that it's a more accomplished show than its been given credit for over the years. It's by far the best of the spate of syndicated horror shows that made scare fare big on the small screen in the late '80s when shows like Tales from the Darkside, Monsters, Werewolf and War of the Worlds were vying for airtime.

Unlike The Night Stalker, which already strained credibility by its second TV movie by having reporter Carl Kolchack just happen to stumble across another supernatural story (an issue that the Night Stalker-influenced X-Files overcame by having its FBI agents specifically assigned to bizarre, unexplained cases), Friday the 13th: The Series had the perfect set-up with its antique store of cursed items.

As created by Frank Mancuso, Jr. and Larry B. Williams, Friday the 13th: The Series introduced viewers to the owner of Vendredi's Antiques, Lewis Vendredi (played by genre regular R.G. Armstrong), who made a deal with the devil to sell cursed antiques out of his shop. When he tired of being Hell's puppet and tried to break the deal, Satan claimed both Vendredi's life and his soul, leaving the store in the hands of Vendredi's niece and nephew, Micki Foster (Louise Robey, sporting an iconic '80s hair-do) and Ryan Dallion (John D. LeMay). The two cousins unwittingly began selling off the shop's inventory in an effort to unload their obligations to the store before being told by an old, globe-trotting associate of Vendredi's - occult expert Jack Marshak (Chris Wiggins) - that the items contained in the store were all cursed. The three then devote themselves to retrieving the sold items, returning each to a vault in the basement where their evil can be contained. They rechristen the store Curious Goods and as the show's opening narration concluded each week "...they must get everything back and the real terror begins!"

While never especially scary, Friday the 13th: The Series was an often grisly and fast-paced series with a level of violence exceeding anything else on TV at the time (much to the concern of the Religious Right, who pressured Paramount to pull the plug on the series) and the resolutions of each episode were frequently downbeat rather than celebratory. And as the series developed, Friday the 13th proved to be more cinematic and visually ambitious than its budget and rushed production schedule would suggest. One episode (the Dracula-themed "The Baron's Bride") was filmed primarily in moody black and white, for example, years before The X-Files would do the same to critical acclaim with its Frankenstein homage, "The Post-Modern Prometheus". And Tales of the Undead, the story of a cursed comic book aiding the revenge of a Jack Kirby-esque artist, featured crude but clever comic book transitions to depict that episode's curse in action.

Directors such as David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, William Fruet, Armand Mastroianni, Tom McLoughlin, and Rob Hedden all turned in solid work and many of the guest actors (including legends such as Ray Walston and Fritz Weaver) essayed memorable performances - in some cases actors would return to play unrelated roles in later episodes (such as the late Denis Forest, who would appear in four of Friday's best - "Cupid's Quiver", "Brain Drain", "My Wife As A Dog" and "Mesphisto's Ring" - and Storm of the Century's Colm Feor who was featured in two notable episodes, "The Maestro" and "Mightier Than the Sword"). And while the main cast may not have had the charisma of some of the show's guest stars, they brought a sense of camaraderie to the series with Micki as the beauty of the show, Ryan as the resident geek with his love of comic books, and Jack as the sage father figure who'd already seen much of life's darkness (a memorable episode, "The Butcher", harkened back to Jack's brutal days in WWII).

Sadly, this trio's natural chemistry was abruptly ended when LeMay left at the the end of Season Two and Steven Monarque joined the show in its third and final season to fill the role of a more traditionally handsome leading man as 'Johnny', a character more predisposed to brooding (and with more romantic potential) than John D. LeMay's departing Ryan but yet some of the best episodes of the series - "Crippled Inside" (penned by L.A. Confidential's Brian Helgeland), "The Long Road Home", "Hate On Your Dial", and "Stick It In Your Ear" - can be found in Friday's final season, which overall took a more intense, mature turn.

Many critics and viewers cite Cronenberg's "Faith Healer" as the series' finest installment but as good as that was (boasting a notable performance by Cronenberg regular Robert Silverman), Friday the 13th Part VI's Tom McLoughlin wrote and directed my own personal favorite - an episode called "The Playhouse". This poignant episode centered on two abused siblings who find refuge in the wonderland of a playhouse but only as long as they can provide the souls of children for the playhouse to feed on. This episode exemplified the macabre atmosphere of the series as well as its prevailing moralism and was as perfect an hour as Friday the 13th: The Series ever saw.

With its DVD release due to bring the show renewed attention, maybe Friday the 13th: The Series will come to be more widely recognized as the best horror program of the '80s. At the very least, thanks to Paramount finally heeding the demand for this still underrated show, it won't continue to be cursed by negligence.

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