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Toxic Horror #1Jason, Michael, and Freddy
Toxic Horror #1
By Berthe Roegger

When I first started writing about horror films ten years ago there was no Freddy Krueger, no Jason, and Michael Myers had  appeared in just one film. John Carpenter's Halloween. At that time, graphically violent horror film was still a disreputable genre. Magazine articles and television critics would occasionally throw a sop to George Romero for Night of the Living Dead, but Cronenberg, Craven, Dante, Carpenter, and others had yet to make "respectable" films, embraced by the mainstream opinion makers.

A lot of things have changed since then, for a lot of reasons.  Stephen King has become the worlds best-known, best-selling writer.  Horror anthologies are the second-largest genre in syndicated television after game shows. It seems that another Fangoria imitator reaches the news-stands every other month. And all the directors named above have it's only in retrospect, after having the same plots rerun umpteen times, that they seem formulaic.

But the producers of these films are not solely to blame for the formula; in fact, the makers of the Halloween and Friday The 13th movies even attempted to kill off their lead maniacs early on.  It was in response to fan demand that Jason and been absorbed by the mainstream.  While the M.P.A.A has gotten tougher than ever in its vigilance against breaches of good taste, horror itself has become a part of the mainstream.

So why do I miss the good old days?

When Fangoria was first launched, I remember how refreshing it was to find a magazine that did not go on endlessly about the superiority of the "classic" approach to horror.  I never could share Forry Ackerman's enthusiasm for Lugosi, Karloff and the rest of the moldering corpses of horror's past. An exploding head, grouting blood, cascades of dripping phlegm---thats what spoke to me, and it sill does. So you are not about to read a rant from me about how the "unseen" is more horrifically subtle then the graphic. No, what annoys me is that horror has become a franchise system.  Say the words "horror movie" nowadays, and they will think of Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers.

To see how this has come about think about the rise of "fast food" I live in Hoboken, New Jersey. Ten years ago, there were about 6 different lunch counters on the main drag where you could get a decent hamburger for under two dollars. Today, there is only McDonald's and Burger King. How did these two close six different independent businesses by offering an inferior, more expensive product? If you can answer that, you can probably tell me why Freddy, Jason and Michael rule the horror field today.

Fast food chains and mass market maniacs offer brand name recognition and predictability. A Big Mac tastes the same everywhere. Jason remains and inarticulate blugeoner, Michael a silent, singleminded stabber, Freddy an anarchistic wisecracking torturer.  The popular films that first gave birth to this trio, by Carpenter, Cunningham, and Craven, were far from predictable; Michael were returned to life and transformed into cash cows.

But there are fans and there are fans.  There's a big difference between the sort of fan I'm used to - the one who looks forward to the next Wes Craven or John Carpenter - and the fan that dominates horror today.  He's the guy that thinks Jason is neat, and avidly awaits his next slaughter outing.  Those fans were in minority ten years ago. Now they are the overwhelming majority. Why?

It used to be that horror films were given a slow, careful release; perhaps a dozen or so prints were initially struck, then more if success warranted it.  A film would open first in New York or Los Angeles, and slowly roll out to other major cities. Word of mouth was the most powerful sales tool, and if a film was no good, it was word of mouth that killed it, quickly, before too much harm had been done.

Nowadays, it's all or nothing.  It's a small release if only 300 prints are struck, and most horror films open nationwide, unless they go straight to video.  Word of mouth? Forget it.  TV ads get all the Jasonmaniacs' and Freddyphiles' mouths to watering, and the bulk of the film's money is made in the first opening weekend; even if word turns out to be bad, the investors' money has already been secured.  Financial security - sure money - is what sequelizing is all about.  Unfortunately for moviegoers, financial security and creative risks seldom mix.

Some would say that the horror sequel is the only way for horror to survive at all in today's market. There are less then 25,000 movie screens in this country; in a summer like the one just past, major releases like Indy Jones III, Batman, Ghostbusters II, Licence to Kill, and others occupied an overwhelming majority of those screens for most of the summer.  Without an identifiable figure like Freddy Krueger, how could a new, unknown horror film get booked into theaters at all, let alone make any kind of a dent in the market? The American moviegoer has been thoroughly trained to catch every "big" movie that they "must" see. For myself, and a lot of horror fans like me, it was the little movies that hardly anyone had seen that always had the most appeal. But Jason, Michael, and Freddy have changed all that.

Maybe you think I'm an old fogey, a stick-in-th-mud, someone who resents, out of jealousy, the amalgamation of greater and greater power in Hollywood. Maybe you have a point.  But it also occurs to me that one of the first people to raise a howl about these mass market was the man who started it all.  John Carpenter, the writer and director who devised the unkillable maniac in his picture Halloween, fought long and hard to prevent its sequelization; he found that it's very hard to stand between Hollywood sharks and money to be made. Today, the Halloween saga continues without Carpenter's participation, while he continues to make worthwhile horror films, particularly They Live! , which all by itself is worth all the Halloween sequals lumped in one basket.

If Carpenter could do it, so can you -- "Just say no" to junk food horror movies. Only when Jason, Freddy and Michael finally and thoroughly die can horror films start anew.

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