In the late 1980’s, Frank Mancuso Jr., then caretaker of the popular and profitable Friday the 13th series of films, decided to branch off into a television series but without the hockey mask-clad killer Jason, much like John Carpenter’s decision for Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) to not feature Michael Myers. Of course, we all know how well that went over with fans of that particular franchise so most were expecting history to repeat itself with the Friday the 13th show. After much publicized growing pains, the show hit its stride towards the end of the first season as it followed the adventures of a trio of antique store owners searching for cursed objects. It became the second highest rated first-run syndicated show for the much coveted male 18 to 49-year-old demographic, just behind Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show went on for two more season before being cancelled and now enjoys a dedicated cult following.
After their Uncle Lewis Vendredi (R.G. Armstrong) leaves them his antiques shop, distant cousins Ryan Dallion (John D. LeMay) and Micki Foster (Louise Robey) discover that it houses all kinds of supernatural-endowed objects. In the pilot episode, they attempt to sell off all the items in the store, not realizing their otherworldly properties. Pretty soon they meet Jack Marshak (Chris Wiggins), a friend of their recently deceased uncle and supplier of several of the items in the store. He informs them that the items they sold were cursed and together discover the store manifest. It turns out that Lewis made a pact with the Devil for some of the items in the store. And so, Jack, Micki and Ryan have to locate and retrieve each item before they do too much damage to their new owners.
First on the list is a possessed doll belonging to a spoiled brat of a girl (played by a very young, pre-The Adventures of Baron Munchausen Sarah Polley). Pretty soon the doll turns homicidal a la the killer toys in Stuart Gordon’s Dolls (1987). “The Baron’s Bride” features a cursed cape that transports a newly turned vampire as well as Ryan and Micki to Victorian England for striking sequences that are shot in black and white so as to evoke classic horror films with Bram Stoker featured as a prominent character. This is perhaps my favorite episode of this season and shows how the show’s producers were able to get a surprisingly atmospheric and cinematic look on a low budget.
“Faith Healer” was directed by none other than horror auteur David Cronenberg and features a smoke and mirrors miracle man by the name of Stewart Fishoff (Miguel Fernandez). In the opening scene, he’s exposed as a fraud by Jerry Scott (Cronenberg regular Robert Silverman), a friend of Jack’s. However, Fishoff discovers a magical glove that can transfer someone’s physical ailments to innocent people, killing them. Naturally, he abuses this ability for dubious personal gain, becoming famous on T.V. as a result. Jack happens to catch Fishoff’s theatrics on T.V. and discovers that the glove is a cursed item. Cronenberg’s trademark skepticism for power hungry public figures is channeled through the amoral Fishoff. This episode is anchored by a strong performance from Robert Silverman whose character, as it turns out, has his own agenda. He brings an eccentric style of acting that gives the episode emotional resonance, especially when he comes up against Jack and their friendship is put to the test.
“The Quilt of Hathor” is season one’s magnum opus, a two-parter about a cursed quilt that allows whoever sleeps under it to dream to death their enemies – Satan’s security blanket perhaps? However, it turns out that the quilt was created by Salem witches. Ryan and Micki travel to a village populated by Amish-like people. He even ends up falling in love with the preacher’s daughter in a forbidden romance a la Witness (1985), albeit with a supernatural angle.
Genre veteran Billy Drago stars in “Read My Lips” as Edgar, the owner of a supernatural ventriloquist’s dummy known as Oscar. The dummy forces Edgar to kill and before you can say Child’s Play (1988), their act has become a success. In an intriguing twist, Micki and Ryan discover that the dummy derives its powers from a cursed boutonniere that was actually used by Hitler in occult ceremonies. Edgar manages to break free from Oscar’s influence and the dummy latches onto a new owner, show biz wannabe Travis Plunkette (John Byner). Freed from playing one-note villains, Drago displays a refreshing amount of depth, imbuing Edgar with a twinge of tragedy.
“Scarlet Cinema” is an atmospheric homage to the classic Universal horror films with a geeky film student (Jonathan Wise) obsessed with The Wolf Man (1941), starring Lon Chaney Jr. and Claude Rains. He discovers a cursed movie camera, which allows him to realize his own lycanthropic aspirations and get revenge on some of his classmates. There are even clips from the actual film integrated into this episode in order to show how closely this guy identifies with it. Highlights include the footage that manifests itself within the cursed camera, shot in black and white just like The Wolf Man. The use of noirish lighting during the night time scenes on campus are excellent, enhancing the cinematic feel of this episode. The tense, final showdown between our heroes and the film student are juxtaposed with the actual film for quite an exciting finale.
John D. LeMay plays Ryan as an energetic goofball and a bit of a geek who is eager to believe in the supernatural, while Robey’s red-haired Micki is beautiful and the resident skeptic. In some respects they anticipate the dynamic between Mulder and Scully in The X-Files by a few years. Ryan and Micki’s relationship with Jack, the older wiser mentor and bookish type, also anticipates a similar one in Buffy the Vampire Slayer between Buffy, her friends and Giles, the school’s librarian. The Curious Goods antiques shop with its cursed objects that often fall into the wrong hands with disastrous consequences seems to evoke the one that all the stories revolve around in the classic British horror anthology film From Beyond the Grave (1974).
From its inception, Friday the 13th: The Series was never intended to have ties to the series of films of the same name and was intended to exist in its own world. It was originally called The 13th Hour among other titles but the show’s creators – Frank Mancuso Jr. and Larry B. Williams – soon realized that to survive in first-run syndication they needed a title that created awareness and curiosity. So, they took the title Friday the 13th from the popular horror film series and came up with a whole new idea around it. This was the first time that Mancuso had produced a T.V. show and he admitted that it went through some growing pains during the first season as “it took the first three or four episodes to figure out what we did and did now want to be doing.” He felt that it wasn’t as cinematic looking as he would’ve liked and they didn’t get the right mix of humor either. Mancuso candidly admitted that the show’s three protagonists were not fully developed and were often overshadowed by the flashy FX. However, he did feel that towards the end of the first season the show became more character-driven.
However, there was plenty turmoil behind the scenes as the show had a very rocky start. The budget for the FX was not very large and so screenplays featured 10-60 effects shots with only ten days of pre-production, forcing the crew to work fast and improvise when necessary. In addition, filming in Toronto, Canada forced the production to adhere to regulations of 50% Canadian talent. To make matters worse, a disgruntled former employee claimed that the story editors took control of the show, dictating the amount of special effects used leading to a breakdown in communication. Head of the FX department Michael (The Dead Zone) Lennick left the show after four episodes during the first season because of the long hours he worked for wages that did not reflect the time and energy he put it in. FX artist Al (Brain Damage) Magliochetti also left around the same time for similar reasons and cited the conflict between Mancuso, who wanted an effects-heavy show, versus producer Iain Patterson, who did not, and this resulted in confusion as to the direction the show should take.
Friday the 13th: The Series was the second highest rated syndicated series male 18 to 49-year-old demographic after Star Trek: The Next Generation. For its second season, the show moved from late-night to prime time going up against the likes of Freddy’s Nightmares and yet another incarnation of the Twilight Zone. Friday also enjoyed a significant increase in budget allowing for more elaborate sets and a wider variety of locations.
Despite some cheesy effects (check out the floating monk in “The Poison Pen”), the first season featured episodes directed by notable Canadian filmmakers like Atom Egoyan and the aforementioned Cronenberg. Along with genre shows like War of the Worlds and Freddy’s Nightmares, Friday the 13th: The Series pushed the envelope for what was known at the time as “acceptable content” with its depiction of violence, gore and sexuality on T.V. It was also part of an exciting mini-invasion of Canadian T.V. along with Diamonds, Night Heat and Degrassi Junior High. Its legacy continues on with shows like Warehouse 13, whose premise seems like a thinly-veiled copy of Friday the 13th: The Series with a goofy young man and sexy woman duo seeking cursed items with the help of an older mentor type. Regardless, Friday has endured with many episodes standing the test of time, featuring thought-provoking ideas, clever premises and a striking cinematic look that anticipated shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files. I think it’s safe to say that the show has finally gotten out from under the shadow of its more famous cinematic namesake and deserves to be regarded among some of the best genre T.V. that the 1980’s had to offer.
Note: Check out this fantastic fansite dedicated to the show.
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