Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Epitaph For A Third Season: An Appreciation of Friday the 13th: The Series' Final Year

The popularity of theatrical horror was waning in the late '80s and yet on television, the genre was thriving with original syndicated programming. The syndicated horror fare of the late '80s/early '90s - which included the likes of Tales from the Darkside, Monsters, Werewolf, Freddy's Nightmares, and Forever Knight - remains fondly remembered by fans today. But of all the shows of that era, the most intriguing and creatively successful was arguably Friday the 13th: The Series. A spin-off of the movie franchise in name only, Friday the 13th: The Series created its own separate mythology.

Starting in 1987, Friday the 13th: The Series told the story of sage occult expert Jack Marshak (Chris Wiggins) who was teamed with a pair of cousins - Micki Foster (Robey) and Ryan Dallion (John D. LeMay) - in a quest to retrieve cursed antiques and store them safely in the vault of their shop, Curious Goods. With an anthology series-style concept that lent almost endless leeway to the show's writers, Friday the 13th: The Series proved to have unusually long legs for a serialized horror show (compare its three-year run to that of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which had to limp its way through a handful of episodes before cancellation).

But even fans of the series routinely dismiss Friday the 13th: The Series' third and final season as a drop in quality. LeMay left the series and was replaced by Steven Monarque as the more conventionally heroic Johnny Ventura (even the character's name sounded like it belonged to an action hero) and with LeMay's departure, much of the chemistry of the show left as well. But with that third season arriving on DVD today, I'd like to cite ten exceptional episodes as evidence as to why Season Three should be reappraised for hosting the series' darkest and most mature round of stories.

10. Year of the Monkey (original air date: 1/15/90)
This episode boasted one of the most intriguing cursed objects of the series' run - a trio of small monkey statues, embodying the old adage of 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.' A wealthy Japanese industrialist on the brink of death uses these statues to test the honor of his three children and see who - if any - will be a fit heir to his empire. Tia Carrere plays the industrialist's only daughter and the only one of his children who may resist the temptation the monkeys offer. A climatic samurai sword fight caps this unusual entry.

9. My Wife As A Dog (original air date: 2/19/90)
A singular example of the show delving into dark comedy (with a script written by Jim Henshaw, who was the executive story consultant for most of the series' run), this episode featured the fourth and final F13 performance of the late character actor Denis Forest (who was to this show what Robert Culp was to The Outer Limits) as Aubrey Ross, a firefighter in the midst of a divorce and whose adored dog is dying. Thanks to the power of the leash, Aubrey discovers a solution to all his problems. Great woman-to-dog transformation at the end!

8. Mightier Than The Sword (original air date: 1/8/90)
This was the second of two Season 3 scripts penned by future L.A. Confidential screenwriter Brian Helgeland (who most recently scripted the upcoming film The Vampire's Assistant). Mightier Than the Sword starred Colm Feore (who had previously been seen in the Season Two episode The Maestro and who is best known to genre fans as the memorable villain of Stephen King's Storm of the Century). Here, Feore plays Alex Dent, a best-selling novelist, who has gained his success through a cursed fountain pen. This episode takes a twisted turn when Dent uses the power of the pen to write Micki as a murderess.

7. Repetition (original air date: 2/5/90)
This episode had nothing to do with the main cast (save for a brief appearance by Micki), exclusively focusing on the tale of Walter Cromwell (David Ferry), who we first see as an award-winning newspaper columnist. After Cromwell accidentally kills a young girl after falling asleep at the wheel of his car, the crime is unknown to anyone but the girl's spirit is trapped in a cameo locket and begs to be released. Although through further killing, Cromwell is able to restore the girl to life, each subsequent life he takes also begs to be brought back - driving Cromwell to insanity and ruin. This episode was written by David Lynch's daughter Jennifer and directed by F13 mainstay William Fruet (Spasms, Death Weekend, Funeral Home). Due to the absence of the main cast, many fans choose to ignore this episode but it's one of the most dramatically accomplished hours of the show's run.

6. Demon Hunter (original air date 10/2/89)
The series' only full-on creature feature, depicting the hunt for a hulking demon with the final showdown taking place inside Curious Goods itself. Using a real-time format and digital clock read-out in the lower right-hand corner of the screen (beating 24 to the punch by twelve years!), this had a much more action-orientated feel than the usual F13 episode (ably directed by He Knows You're Alone's Armand Mastroianni - the undisputed MVP of Season Three - who also directed this season's My Wife As A Dog, Mightier Than The Sword, The Charnel Pit, and Night Prey). Hardcore violence abounds in Demon Hunter, with a flashback scene of satanists getting machine-gunned to death ("You sick bastards!"). This episode also contains one of my favorite concluding Jack-isms, those wise final words delivered by Chris Wiggins which typically closed an episode: "If, of the many truths, you select one and follow it blindly - it will become a falsehood and you, a fanatic."

5. The Long Road Home (original air date: 2/12/90)
Shows like The X-Files and Supernatural offered their own takes on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre school of backwoods terror (in Home and The Benders respectively) but Friday the 13th got there first with this episode that found Micki and Johnny at the mercy of two crazed brothers with a talent for taxidermy. If not for a bizarre climax that inexplicably had a stuffed corpse coming to life to pursue Micki and Johnny (with a shotgun!), this Ed Gein-style shout-out would've ranked higher as one of Season Three's best. Besides the mostly real-world subject matter, this also broke from the show's usual structure in that it begins with Micki and Johnny at the end of a mission, having successfully retrieved an object (a Chinese charm depicting a yin/yang symbol) and then encountering this episode's malevolent brothers en route home in a random brush with a non-occult brand of evil. This also featured the most overt move of the season towards making Micki and Johnny into a romantic couple.

4. The Charnel Pit (original air date: 5/14/90)
Time travel was a staple of Friday the 13th: The Series (as seen in The Baron's Bride, Eye of Death, and Hate On Your Dial) and this episode featured a cursed painting that - when blood was spilled on it - could send people back to 18th century France and into the chateau of the infamous Marquis de Sade (Neil Munro). In the modern day, Webster Eby (Vlasta Vrana), a college professor, is killing in order to communicate through the painting with the Marquis to gain historical insight. Rather than coming across as broadly evil, the Marquis is philosophical about his deeds - putting his heinous crimes in context. As he tells a close confidant: "Our crimes are small in this world, Latour. They're merely picaresque." The last episode of the series, The Charnel Pit saw the vault close for the last time with Jack noting that men need no cursed objects to find the evil within themselves ("Thoughts don't cause pain, it's what people do with them. If people are looking for evil, they're going to find it."). A fitting final statement for a show that was ended prematurely due to accusations from the religious right that it fed into a culture of violence. As Eby says, "A society that looks at itself honestly is healthy; one that denies its own evil breeds death and decay. You tell me which one we're living in."

3. Epitaph for a Lonely Soul (original air date: 1/22/90)
This tale of a mortician who's able to raise the dead - and who does so solely in order to have a woman that'll be his mate - ranks as arguably the most ghoulish hour of the series. But the middle-aged mortician (Neil Munro) at the center of this episode isn't portrayed as a standard villain but instread as someone tragically reaching out for a last chance at companionship. By the conclusion, several lives are destroyed and the image of two resurrected girls choosing to perish again, embracing each other as they're consumed in the midst of a blazing inferno, is one of the most chilling images of the series. Director Allan Kroeker (who also helmed this season's The Long Road Home) is a still-active TV director, who - among his many credits - directed the best episode of Supernatural's first season (the Grim Reaper-themed tale Faith).

2. Crippled Inside (original air date: 10/9/89)
Scripted by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River), this episode put an early spotlight on Johnny and was one of the more morally complicated episodes in the series' run. A teenage girl (Stephanie Morgenstern) who was crippled during a gang rape is offered a way to escape a lifetime of confinement by means of a cursed wheelchair. As the wheelchair allows her to send herself in spirit form to murder her attackers, each death she causes brings her closer to the full use of her legs. The question Johnny must deal with is whether or not it's just to let this girl fulfill her revenge. In the end, Johnny is left with no comfort, futilely chopping at the wicker chair with an axe and not leaving a single mark on it. As a character who has benefited from the chair's satanic power knowingly tells him: "It doesn't matter, son. It'll still be here after you and I are gone."

1. Night Prey (original air date 11/13/89)
Opening with a morose Jack sitting alone on a park bench at dawn, musing about the hopelessly blurred lines between good and evil, Night Prey was as dark as Friday the 13th: The Series got. In the search for a cursed cross, Jack, Micki and Johnny find their hunt entangled with that of a man who's spent decades pursuing the vampire who snatched his true love from him years ago. Michael Burgess is perfectly cast as the obsessed lover, bringing a palatable sense of grief to the role. And with a brief bout of vampire slaying, Jack proves to look the part of a natural-born Van Helsing - although in an act of mercy he also shows that he has no appetite for that sort of blood-thirsty brutality. With its moody atmospherics and envelope-pushing (for its time) depictions of sex and violence, Night Prey was the crown jewel of director Armand Mastroianni's Season Three episodes and it also boasts one of the best scores from series composer Fred Mollin.

It's true that Friday the 13th: The Series lacks the kind of sophistication we've come to expect from television today but for its time, it was an earnest, often times thoughtful, attempt to make a scary, dramatic program. It's willingness to stretch and experiment in this third year proves that the show was not ready creatively to call it a day. It's a shame that pressure from religious groups (and Paramount's craven concession to that pressure) closed the door too soon on Curious Goods. Just as the store itself specialized in one of a kind items, so too was this show one of a kind. And, like many a precious antique, its value becomes more apparent as time goes on.


Wings1295 said...

Wow. Bravo! A great review of the show and the final season.

And as for your choice of episodes, I have to agree. Also, the season opening two-parter, "The Prophecies", was almost like a mini-movie. It is also our good-bye, in a bizarre fashion, to our hero Ryan.

Love this show, have since the first day it premeired back in '87. I, too, gave season 3 less love. But I plan on making my own ammends when I get my hands on the DVD set.

Wish it had gone on for more seasons. Ah well...

Curious George said...

What a thoughtful, honest review of the show's final season.

Jeff Allard said...

Wings, thanks for mentioning The Prophecies! I actually need to rewatch that one again - it's been awhile since I've seen it. I believe that two-parter was actually released to theaters in Europe as a feature so it really is a 'mini-movie' of sorts. As for what might've been had the series gone on, at least it didn't get run into the ground like some popular shows. As frustrating as it is to speculate on where further seasons could've gone, it's a show that left us wanting more and sometimes that's the best way for a series to end.

Hector, thanks for the kind words - glad you liked the review!

The Man-Cave said...

I loved this show as a kid and I really should re-visit them now that I am older and see how they hold up (to me). It has been so long that I don't even remember half of the episodes you reviewed, but it was enough that I will put them in my queue.

Jeff Allard said...

Hey Geof, I bet you'll get a kick out of the show if you watch it again. As for how it holds up, in my estimation it holds up just fine - although you'll never be able to forget that you're watching a low budget TV production from the late '80s. It's very much a show of its era. On the other hand, that's part of its charm for me.