DIRECTOR SEAN S. CUNNINGHAM!
So what's up, you have a good and gory Friday the 13th last week? I know I did. I went full-ham and clocked JASON GOES TO HELL, JASON X and FREDDY VS. JASON. What'd you watch? Anyway, you know who else probably had a good unofficial horror holiday, monetarily if in no other fashion? Sean S. Cunningham, that's who. That's right, the brain-trust behind the original FRIDAY THE 13TH. Sean Cunningham directed, produced and conceived the story for the flick that would go on to inspire what is, to this day, a juggernaut horror franchise. But as crowning an achievement as that is alone, that's not all Cunningham has done. Remember, he also co-produced his pal Wes Craven's LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, an early credit that would firmly establish Cunningham as a viable name in the horror realm...then and throughout his career. So, speaking of careers, let's delve deeper into the curious canon of one Mr. Cunningham in this week's Dissection!
FRIDAY THE 13TH is so very clearly Cunningham's finest hour, not just for the gargantuan footprint on the horror genre the film would go on to stamp, but simply on a technical and storytelling level, it's inarguably superior to anything else he's done. And he did so on a half a million dollar budget and a 28 day shooting schedule. Quite a feat indeed! It's also worth mentioning how Cunningham came up with the now iconic title himself, placing an ad in the trade papers with such a title before a script was even written (kind of like Carpenter having the title HALLOWEEN before making the movie). Well, obviously people were so intrigued that when it was finally made, this little exploitation horror joint would go on to not only spawn a formidable franchise, but also inspire countless sequels, vast imitators, spoofs, book adaptations, comic branch-offs, TV shows, and a whole ass-load of merchandising. Likely all from a title. A title that's been so celebrated that it's become apotheosized into an unofficial horror holiday of sorts.
There are innumerable reasons why FRIDAY THE 13TH works so damn well, none more important in my opinion than the slasher template employed and slick unforeseen twists of the third act. Think about it. Nowadays, setting up a gaggle of unsuspecting hedonistic teens out in the middle of nowhere, getting gorily knocked off one by one...it also seems so standard. So routine. So predictable. Thing is, the first time you see it, FRIDAY THE 13TH is anything but predictable. Not only is the murderous-mother revelation a giant jolt to the dome (Betsy Palmer is frightening!), how about that ending scene of a muddy mutant (Jason) leaping out of the lake and attacking Alice? F*cking bananas! By the way, it was FX maestro Tom Savini who allegedly came up with that ending sequence, I'm sure we're all glad he did.
While it's tempting to label his 2001 reality-TV-horror flick XCU: EXTREME CLOSE UP as Sean's worst directorial outing, I'm afraid too few people have seen it to do so. I mean, you can't even buy a copy of the flick on DVD or VHS...on Amazon or elsewhere. However, you could argue that the experience of making a "cutting edge" movie that failed so miserably is what made Cunningham retreat to the woods for good. After XCU, Cunningham only directed a single TV movie (TERMINAL INVASION, worthy of worst of status on its own) and the aforementioned TRAPPED ASHES segment. Moreover, the subject matter of XCU - meant to reflect the current trend of reality TV voyeurism - failed to resonate with an audience. Not only that, an arguably lesser known but superior movie MY LITTLE EYE would come out the following year basically bury XCU for good.
So instead, it feels right to call attention to the fun underwater alien flick DEEPSTAR SIX as Cunningham's "worst" genre effort. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the flick for the sheer cheese factor and laughable late-80s stylings, but it's an out-and-out B-movie if there ever was one. Come to think of it, it's the perfect B-side to the 1989 flick LEVIATHAN...also an inglorious ABYSS parrot. You know the setup: a crew of an experimental underwater nuclear base become viciously stalked and hunted by a race of alien monsters. The FX are cheap, the acting is suspect, the tone is campily redolent of a 60s monster movie...factors that all congeal to create a so-bad-its-good vibe. Put it this way, are you a fan of DEEP RISING? Well then, go see DEEPSTAR SIX...not because it's a good movie, because it's not...but because it's a consciously fun-filled bad movie.
Cunningham's most glaring trademark is found in his consistent subject matter: young people in peril. Starting with LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, perfectly crystallized in FRIDAY THE 13TH (no pun), on through A STRANGER IS WATCHING, THE NEW KIDS, etc...Cunningham is obviously gravitated to and understands the impact of, putting pre-teens, teens and post-teens dead in harm's way. Sure it's exploitative, but for the most part its worked out quite well for him. And us! A pretty strange gravitation though when considering Cunningham's famous quote: "I am not a fan of brutal, ugly horror films. I don't like them, don't enjoy them."
Still, to help create this consistency, another trademark of the director are the familiar crew members he frequently collaborates with. For instance, Barry Adams shot four of Cunningham's ten feature films, including FRIDAY THE 13TH and A STRANGER IS WATCHING. Not only that, Harry Manfredini was an early and often partner with Sean, having scored five of ten pictures, including the now infamous Ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma sound FX that have become synonymous with the mere phrase Friday the 13th. Loyalty's a good trademark to have!
As much as I'd love to tag Cunningham's 1973 sex-farce CASE OF THE FULL MOON MURDERS his hidden gem, I've sadly not seen it, so I cannot. I want to though...how can anyone resist a movie whose tagline is "The First Sex-Rated Whodunit"?! But I digress, and divert the attention to Cunningham's 1985 movie THE NEW KIDS instead (no, not a New Kids on the Block doc). If you've not seen it, THE NEW KIDS is a strange curio that blends elements of a kidnapping horror, a violent street-gang thriller, and a teenage coming of age tale.
The story sees a pair of siblings (a young Lori Laughlin yo!) who move in with their aunt and uncle in Florida after their parents die in a car accident. Aunt and Unc run a gas station and amusement park in the local area, and when the two kids assume responsibility of working such places, the deeper pulled into an underworld of adolescent terror they become. A young punk-ass James Spader, replete with a nasty peroxide blond do, shines as a bullying menace...one of many villainous roles he's mastered over the years.
Unfortunately, Sean might be done with the picture game. Dude hasn't directed anything since 2006, and even that was only a segment in the not so great horror anthology TRAPPED ASHES. Even more disturbing is how, after producing the remake of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, which I seem to recall doing decent business in relation to its budget, Cunningham has nary a producorial credit since. Nor has he one lined up, at least that we know about. Dude's in his 70s now, so you can't fault him if he's decided to hang it up. And if that's the case, Sean accrued 13 total directorial credits and 23 producer credits between the years of 1970-2009.
Among the latter are many 80s horror flicks, though you may be interested to know that after the original, Cunningham didn't produce a single F13 sequel until 1993's JASON GOES TO HELL. He continued to produce JASON X, FREDDY VS. JASON, and the 2009 New Line remake, but still, had nothing to do with the meat of the franchise that easily holds some of the better sequels. Manfredini on the other hand went on to score all of them except JASON TAKES MANHATTAN and FREDDY VS. JASON. Go figure.
No question, Sean S. Cunningham will always be inextricably linked with FRIDAY THE 13TH. It's his lasting legacy. But he should also be recognized as a guy who was at the forefront of modern American horror cinema, working with contemporaries (and pals) like Craven, Hooper, Carpenter etc. to help mold the oft-rebuked and reviled horror genre into a popular form of entertainment. Whether he was directing or producing, or doing both on the same project, Cunningham remained deeply steeped in the horror world (he produced the haunted house flicks HOUSE, HOUSE II & HOUSE IV, not to mention Jim Isaac's THE HORROR SHOW), never turning his back on the form that gave him his name. It's just unfortunate that it seems Cunningham has mounted the director's chair for the last time. His producer as well. And if that's the case, all we can say is thanks. Thanks for the flicks, Sean!