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The Evolution of Franchise Horror

by Dakota Drobnicki

Horror is a genre the public and the film community tend to have the biggest love/hate relationship with. Horror films typically rake in large sums of cash through word of mouth and viral marketing these days, but thanks to long-running public and critical stigmas against them, you usually aren’t going to see a movie like The Babadook or Hush get much love from prestigious awards no matter how good it is. The only horror film to ever win Best Picture from the Academy Awards was The Silence of the Lambs in 1991, with no further nominations in that category from the genre since.

When it comes to public longevity, however, very few film series have the staying power that horror franchises have—Godzilla, Zatoichi, Emmanuelle and James Bond being a few long-running exceptions. Friday the 13th for example, if you count all its resurrections and reboots, totals at a whopping 12 films now, while Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street are at 10 and nine respectively.

The questions for you to consider, as a horror fan, as a film lover, or as somebody just looking for scary stuff to watch this month, even, are as follows:

How is it that films like Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Child’s Play make it to seven, eight, nine follow-ups?

Does the evolution of their franchises follow a common thread? If so, what is it?

Would these films have the staying power they do without their long threads of follow-ups?

Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were among films that redefined horror for their generation, away from the gothic iconography of Hammer and Vincent Price, and Halloween especially laid the groundwork for the slasher film boom throughout the 1980s. However, this boom was truly kicked off by the massive box office success of Friday the 13th in 1980, a low-budget exploitation film directed by the producer of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left.

At this point in this article, it is important that you mentally separate Friday the 13th, the original film, from how the franchise it spawned has repainted its public perception. When the average person sees Friday the 13th imagery, they see its iconic villain Jason Voorhees—a tall Michael Myers-esque character who wears a hockey mask and swings around a machete at teenagers.

However, spoiler alert for a 37-year-old film here, Jason Voorhees is not the villain of the first film, and he doesn’t appear in it until the very last minute. He also doesn’t get his iconic hockey mask until the third film.
The original Friday the 13th copied the template of the “giallo”—an Italian genre of sleazy, exploitative murder mysteries usually peppered with black-gloved killers, enough point-of-view shots to make porn companies blush, and copious amounts of blood and sex—and shot fear into its audience by harnessing fears of the unknown in childhood summer camps.

The first few sequels with Jason took more influence from Halloween and Halloween II, but still adopted a grimier exploitation aesthetic in contrast to the more grandiose style of John Carpenter. (Halloween 4 and especially 5 would instead lean more towards the look of the Friday the 13th sequels from around the time they were made.)

Ultimately, the greatest common factor between Halloween, F13 and TCM is that they all made boatloads of money off sub-million budgets. Their massive returns are what got their sequels greenlit in the first place. When the VHS boom happened in the early 80s, these movies, the imitators they spawned, and their other horror contemporaries were massive fodder for video stores. Their success theatrically and at home meant these franchises would often get new installments every year.

However, very few, if any, of the original films were made with sequels in mind, typically already saying all they wanted to say about their central primal fears. Some struggled to find new directions, while others could quickly find their stride, yet one common thread does exist: most of them took stranger routes as they got further and further along.

In the second half of the Friday the 13th series, Jason was resurrected as a zombie, fought a girl with psychic powers, took a boat ride to (Vancouver, posing as) New York, and transferred his soul into other people after a morgue attendant bit into his heart. Elm Street took a bold route with its second film by filling itself with gay overtones, but by the sixth film Freddy was playing with Nintendo’s Power Glove, and its final confrontation with him was made to be shown in 3D.

They were made more to satiate the demands of Fangoria readers and franchise fans than to continue to strike fear into people’s hearts, particularly ones like Elm Street with a much heavier emphasis on effects work. The turn was a great thing for most dedicated horror fans like myself, who could watch Freddy Krueger slowly transform into a quippy, outlandish child murderer with a Coke and a smile. However, this move gradually lost a more general audience with each installment, which led all of these franchises to suffering diminishing returns as the 80s progressed.

In the late 80s, the MPAA movie ratings board was cracking down more than ever on the gore featured in movies coming through their system, leaving the final R-rated cut of Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, for example, as an obviously watered down product. With the move of independent horror into the video store, the slasher genre declined for years, save for the few remaining sequels in the early 90s to F13, Elm Street, TCM and others.

Then a movie called Scream hit in 1996 and changed the whole game again. It was yet another smart little comeback move for Wes Craven that featured a hot young cast and clever twists on slasher convention. Personally, I love the first Scream, but when it became the film to copy from, it turned horror films down a mostly really bad route for a while.

The worst victim was Freddy vs. Jason, the long-awaited F13 and Elm Street crossover that barely gave sufficient screentime for its two titular titans, instead focusing mostly on the kind of boring teenagers that post-Scream slashers were littered with.

However, a little franchise called Child’s Play, which originally petered out in 1993 after three installments, suddenly found a new life among the new backdrop of vaguely comedic slasher films with Bride of Chucky and Seed of Chucky. In the post-Scream era, we were also blessed with the Final Destination and Saw films.

The most recent mainstream horror movement was the boom of found footage movies led by 2007’s Paranormal Activity, which made a killing at the box office through viral marketing when Paramount re-released it in 2009. Paranormal Activity spawned five sequels which also got weirder as they went on—Paranormal Activity 4 is a glorified ad for the Xbox Kinect, while the sixth film The Ghost Dimension was… partially shot in 3D? What? However, not a single other sustaining franchise came out of the found footage boom.

Throughout the 21st century, beginning with TCM in 2003, many horror franchises were controversially subjected to the reboot/remake treatment, some great (Evil Dead 2013, both films in Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboot saga), quite a few mediocre (TCM, Friday the 13th), some outright atrocious (Nightmare On Elm Street). Friday the 13th and Elm Street are actually in talks to be rebooted again at the moment.

Whether us passionate horror fans like or not, these reboots are definitely keeping the films’ memories alive with younger generations, as anyone who knows people allergic to “old movies” can attest to. I believe the originals definitely have staying power, but it’s with more passionate film types of all generations–not modern casual audiences.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Tobe Hooper and George A. Romero.