By the time I was old enough to really fear anything, around age 4 or 5, the “Friday the 13th” (1980) and “Halloween” (1978) film series were puttering out. They left behind contemporary boogeymen that scared the hell out of me. Jason and Michael were characters as vivid as the superheroes I loved, with their own costumes and attributes and power sets. Silent, immortal, endlessly creative killers. Larger than life. I’ve never known them any other way.
But which, if either, did I like better? Moreover, which was scarier?
Obviously, “Halloween.” But the two of them are a lot of fun to watch together, to compare. They’re the bedrock of the slasher mythology, and encompassed in them are all the tropes and stylistic choices that have defined three decades of genre.
“Halloween” is a stalker-slasher serial killer movie. Michael Myers, “the Shape,” is a force of evil. He spends most of the film stalking Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends. Laurie looks out a window, and there he is. She looks again. He’s gone. Laurie is riding along with her friends, engaging in naughty teen drug abuse, and we can see his car pull up behind her. She looks out the rear-view mirror and he’s gone. The first hour of the film is the Shape getting closer, closer, closer, a specter of unavoidable death. The first murder happens an hour into the film. When it happens it becomes fast, nasty business.
“Friday the 13th” takes the last 30 minutes of “Halloween” and extends it over an entire film. It’s an immensely simplified film compared to its predecessor. It’s dumber, sexier, sluttier. More breasts, more blood. It has no story, just murder and a plot twist, as well as musical cues, ripped straight from “Psycho.” It isn’t creepy, it’s comfortable. There’s little suspense when every single character is cattle for the slaughter.
The films are of wildly different quality. “Halloween” is very clearly a John Carpenter film. I’m hugely fond of Carpenter. His films are careful, measured exploitation anchored by clever high concepts. In “Halloween,” he brings a serial killer to the suburbs. He wasn’t the first, and certainly not the last, to do that, but he hits on something perfect. I can’t tell you how many teens I’ve known, including myself, who grow up comfortable, without immediate danger, but develop intense interest in serial killers. Legends of people who break that security in memorable ways. “Halloween” capitalizes on that fear and prods it perfectly.
“Friday,” on the other hand, doesn’t do any heavy lifting to create its own identity and feels detached from its audience. Without a developed lead character, without a developed villain, even, all of its crassness and gore feel lazy. The idea of a serial killer murdering kids while they’re at camp is a potent one. The woods have always been a dark, insecure setting for any sort of horror. Instead, we’re served an oddly moralistic tale about an evil mother avenging the death of her son by killing sinful teenagers. It’s easy to believe certain viewers might side with Jason in this one.
Watching “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” back to back is watching legends grow in the telling. It wasn’t too odd to me that neither film features their classic villains in full glory; those obviously come later. Like superheroes, changing at the call of the almighty dollar. When it comes to the legacy of these two films, it’s clear which style won. Jason Voorhees, who does not appear in “Friday the 13th,” is easily a monster that is more than the quality of his films, propelled through popular culture on the key moralistic aspects of his methodology. Morality is something “Halloween” lacks. While the kids engage in sex and drugs, they’re only doing so because Carpenter wanted to depict them as authentically as possible, and who are we kidding? But who wants authenticity in their mythology? “Halloween” metamorphosed into a series with similar style to “Friday.” The Shape became a formless killer. He became morally motivated. For Michael Myers, the cost of immortality was a downgrade in complexity. But myths need morals to make them memorable. It’s no tragedy. It’s contemporary folklore.
Scary? Were either scary to me? No. Not especially. “Halloween” is definitely creepier, with its use of ambient music and heavy breathing to create presence. I loved it and will probably show it off, but never precluded with a self-satisfied “This will scare the shit out of you.” “Friday” had a few shocks, but nothing scary. Nothing that will sit with me when I get into bed tonight.