Horror movie villains aren\'t supposed to die and neither, it would seem, are the films. Simon Foster looks at why it\'s hard to keep a good franchise down.
13 Mar 2009 - 9:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

Many blame the B-movie hunger of the booming home video market; some say it was Hollywood's way of reacting against the insidious nature of Reaganomics. Others refer to it as the decade in which Hollywood lost its innocence – when the newly-minted corporate heads of the old studios went for the lowest common denominator, to ensure instant shareholder satisfaction. It was the 1980s, and the horror movie ruled.

It is only now that we fully understand the impact that the slice-and-dice slasher pics of that decade would have on their audience – and the production slates of every major Hollywood studio for the next 30 years. The proof is up there on the screen today. Take a trip down a dark, foggy memory lane and check out what's playing: you may have missed the remakes of When A Stranger Calls (killer stalks babysitter), Prom Night (killer stalks prom-goers) or The Hitcher (killer stalks hitchhikers), or may not want to sit through new versions of My Bloody Valentine (in head-splitting 3-D, no less!) or the grand-daddy of all '80s axe-wielders, Friday The 13th. Don't worry, because you'll have lots more remakes/reworkings/reimaginings to choose from in the months ahead. Scanners, Evil Dead, Nightmare On Elm Street, It's Alive, Re-Animator 3-D, Motel Hell, Pirahna, Night Of The Demons and Poltergeist are all in the pipeline (to name just a few).

The horror, the horror…
The 1970s had provided the horror film with a modicum of respectability – William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) and Richard Donner's The Omen (1976) gave biblical weight to hoary old hokum. John Carpenter's Halloween (1978, and remade in 2007) created the template and the inspiration for the slasher films that followed. European directors like Dario Argento were creating visceral masterpieces – his Deep Red (1975), Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1979) were artistic, nightmarish triumphs.

By 1981 the 12 – 25 year-old male moviegoer was a powerful demographic, thanks to repeat-viewing phenomena like Star Wars and Jaws. Hollywood figured that these boys/men wanted to see on screen, the things they couldn't always get in real life: Sex and violence.

Both were provided for in a spectacularly overwrought fashion by Sean S. Cunningham's low-budget shocker Friday The 13th (1981). By placing nubile, sexually-energised teenagers in the familiar setting of a lakeside summer camp, Cunningham immediately connected with his audiences. And the violence? It took the form of what would become an iconic film figure – Jason Vorhees, the hulking, hacking, unstoppable force that rained havoc and horror down upon the kids at Camp Crystal Lake.

It's now 28 years later and Jason is back (again), under the direction of German-born Marcus Nispel. Nispel says that his main intent was to remain 'respectful' to the spirit of the Jason character, yet re-envision him for the modern audience.

“What you do when you make a movie like this is ask yourself, 'What is it about the mythology that makes people want to watch it over and over again?',” Nispel says. “Then you make sure you give them what they want, but not exactly what they expect. That's what makes it fun.”

And fun is as good a reason as any to remake these movies, it must be said. But why so many 1980s horror remakes, and why now? From a corporate point-of-view, it could be said that they are strong brand names that ensure a built-in familiarity factor with the target audience. The teenagers that giggled in their seats at every mutilation (and then again at home, while enjoying the films all over again on VHS) are now the Hollywood Suits. New technologies also offer fresh perspectives, and young directors want to embrace the characters that inspired them. Horror is hot again, now with a broader demographic. Who would have envisioned a time when the hideous gore of the Saw franchise now defines the 'date movie'?

Scary Times
With a teen market more disenfranchised than ever, cynical of a world power that is sending them off to fight a worthless war, in a world economy that will remain deep in recession as they grow older, and a global communication structure that allows them to interact with the injustices of the world – well, is it any wonder the scary-but-safe thrills that the horror genre offers are being recycled, repackaged, re-released to unprecedented success.

Referring to his lead character, Friday The 13th director Nispel says, “[The producers] would never refer to Jason as the monster or the villain. He is the anti-hero.” Being an anti-hero – even an axe-wielding, homicidal, maniacal one – is what every teenager longs to be. These films are a generation's dreams, not their nightmares.

With Hollywood happy to regularly fan the flames of these unstoppable psychopaths, Jason, Freddy and Leatherface's immortality seems assured.