Saturday, July 21, 2018

The People vs Friday the 13th

This piece originally appeared in three parts on Dr. Terror's House of Horrors as part of Italia Horror Week 2015.  R.I.P. James "Doc Terror" Harris.

PART 1


Good morning Dr. Terror, your honor, this blog will plainly show the classic slasher franchise that now stands before you was caught blood-red handed stealing ideas, theft of an almost plagiaristic nature.  This will not do…

Call the Son of Celluloid!

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, it is an inarguable fact that the Friday the 13th films are some of the most influential in modern horror history.  Well, you could argue that fact, but you’d be an idiot.  Their success helped to usher in the 80’s slasher boom, which many consider to be the second “Golden Age of Horror.”  Without them we may never have seen the rise of what notorious hater-of-fun Roger Ebert likes to call “dead teenager movies”… or would we?
A little background is in order first.  While most horror fans point to Black Christmas (1974) and Halloween (1978) as the moments when the slasher flick recipe really came together, the ingredients were already prepared.  Elements of what would become the conventions and clich├ęs of the genre can be found in earlier flicks like 13 Women (1932), And Then There Were None (1945), Psycho (1960), Peeping Tom (1960), Violent Midnight (1963), The House that Screamed (1969), and others.  The Italian giallo flick is also a forbearer, if not the out and out progenitor, of the slasher flick.  It was one man, however, that took the giallo and added the body count, stalk and slash, teenagers in heat, mysterious killer, gore, and other factors to create the slasher formula.  That man was the Maestro of the Macabre himself, Mario Bava, and the films that changed the course of horror history forever were Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971).  Whereas Blood and Black Lace can be seen as the missing link between giallo and slasher, Twitch of the Death Nerve is, for all intents and purposes, the moment when the slasher formula gelled for the first time.
The flick has been released as Bay of Blood, Bloodbath, Reazione a catena (Chain Reaction), Antefatto (Before the Fact), Carnage, Ecologia del delitto (The Ecology of Murder), and, incredibly, Last House on the Left 2, but Twitch of the Death Nerve is a ridiculously badass title, so I will be referring to the film by that name from here on out.  Anyway, TOTDN is basically two stories in one, and the first part is the one we are mainly concerned with in this case.  After a particularly inspired murder scene involving a woman in a wheelchair, we meet a group of good-looking, horny young people headed out to the bay for a couple of days of fornication by the water.  As one skinny-dips, one breaks into the booze, and two head off to get it on, a mysterious killer watches silently before slaughtering them with various sharp objects. 
I’m going to assume we’ve all seen Friday the 13th 1 and 2, so I’m not going to do a detailed plot synopsis.  Besides, we’ll get into specifics later.  Basically, they involve a group of good-looking, horny young people headed out to the lake for a couple of days of fornication by the water.  As some skinny dip, some break into the booze, and some head off to get it on, a mysterious killer watches silently before slaughtering them with various sharp objects.  Sound familiar?
Yes, Twitch of the Death Nerve is the first time we see twenty-somethings being killed off in the woods by a body of water.  While this would later become the basis for countless imitators, the first 40 minutes of Bava’s film set the template.  We have the shots of the kids goofing around in the car on the way to their destination.  We have the amorous couple, slut, and awkward guy character archetypes.  Hell, the bay itself is a dead ringer for Crystal Lake.  Sean S Cunningham, director and primary creative force behind Friday the 13th 1, has said that the “summer camp in the woods by the lake” setting was born simply out of a desire to find an isolated setting inaccessible by the authorities, but it echoes the setting of TOTDN so closely that it certainly calls F13’s originality into question.
To be fair, Cunningham has said that he was heavily influenced by John Carpenter’s Halloween, and John Carpenter has repeatedly said that Bava was an influence on that movie, so some of the similarities could be a product of second-hand borrowing.  For example…
-          Oversexed young people being killed systematically.  While this technically wasn’t a new trope even at the time of TOTDN, Twitch was the first to use it so purely and blatantly.  Halloween used the same motif and spawned a slew of imitators, including F13, therefore the source of the influence is inconclusive.
-          Bodies being arranged with the intent that they would be found by other victims.  While this probably wasn’t new either, TOTDN is the earliest example I know of, and certainly the first example in conjunction with the afore mentioned “dead teenager” conceit.  Mrs. Voorhees did this by pinning Bill’s body to the cabin door with arrows, and it would become one of Jason’s trademarks throughout the series.  Since Michael Myers did it with Annie’s body and his sister’s tombstone, however, once again, it’s unclear whether this was a Bava or Carpenter influence.
-          Subjective camera shots of the victims from the killer’s point of view.  While the earliest example of this I know of is The Spiral Staircase (1946), the fusing of the camera’s gaze and that of the killer was taken to the point of following the POV of the killer through selecting a weapon, stalking their prey, sneaking up and startling them, and finally killing them for the first time in 1971.  Interestingly, it was in a film called Blood and Lace (not to be confused with Blood and Black Lace” and not TOTDN.  In fact, it’s so similar to the opening scene of Halloween that, though it’s never been explicitly stated by Carpenter, it’s almost unfathomable that he hadn’t seen it prior to Halloween.  TOTDN did receive American distribution before Blood and Lace did despite coming out 5 months later in Europe, however, and the shots of the killer watching the victims through the trees in TOTDN are so similar to those in F13 that it’s likely that the inspiration came from it rather than Blood and Lace or Halloween.  Once again, however, a direct correlation is hard to draw.
There are lots of other, smaller similarities that, while not really proving anything, are very interesting to note…
-          The avenging killer.  There are multiple killers in TOTDN, but the one who dispatches the kids is a son killing to avenge the wrongful death of his mother.  In F13, the killer who dispatches the kids is a mother killing to avenge the death of her son.  Ironically, for the rest of the Friday series the killer was Jason, a son killing to avenge the death of his mother.  Talk about coming full circle.
-          The doomsayer character.  Anna the fortune teller’s assertion that “There will be tears shed over the bay…The sickle of death is about to strike” isn’t far off from Crazy Ralph’s warning that Crystal Lake “has got a death curse.”
-          The boy gets the last laugh.  Both films end with a shock ending where the surviving character(s) are taken out at the last minute by a young boy.
-          The killer’s snazzy sweaters.  Here are two of the killers in TOTDN
Check out those sweaters.  They certainly look like they could have come from the same line as Betsey Palmer’s, don’t they?   Maybe they were just so itchy that they drove the wearers to homicide.


 As I said, aside from the simple fact the one movie that can be identified that predates Friday the 13th yet has almost the exact same setting was TOTDN, all of the other similarities between the two flicks are either circumstantial or hearsay evidence.  They’re like that Abraham Lincoln/JFK email everyone’s seen with all of the eerie yet unconvincing similarities. 
The prosecution would like to call its first witness, Sean S. Cunningham. On page 26 of the book Crystal Lake Memories, Mr. Cunningham states “I had, in fact, no notion of the tradition of the European body count movies or the gross out Grand Guignol type of thing.  I wasn’t a fan and I only found out about a lot of these things after the fact.  I never saw movies like Twitch of the Death Nerve or any of those other movies – the first time I ever heard the name Mario Bava was when I went to a film festival in 1986 or ’87.” 
So, if we are to believe Cunningham, the similarities between the two films are purely coincidental.  The only thing he could be convicted of is complete ignorance of the masters of the art form he was working in, which is inexcusable in and of itself.  I think Cunningham is telling the truth however.  The prosecution will show that the ripping off of Bava was the work of someone else, but I’m getting ahead of myself. In short, reasonable doubt exists that Friday the 13th directly apes Twitch of the Death nerve.  The same cannot be said, however, for Friday the 13th Part 2…

 PART 2



We’ve seen that, while it seems fairly obvious that the setting of the first Friday the 13th movie was inspired by Mario Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve, most of the other similarities could conceivably be coincidental.  Cunningham himself has denied knowledge of Bava’s work prior to making F13.  In Friday the 13th Part 2, most of the possibly coincidental similarities are there, however there are also some new, far more damning ones that make Part 2 as undeniably guilty as OJ, Casey Anthony, or Michael Jackson.  Hmmm…nope, I’m still going with that.  On a side note, I LOVE when sequels actually use the word “Part” as part of the title. Anyway, let’s look at some of the things that make it damn near impossible to deny that Friday the 13th Part 2 stole from Twitch of the Death Nerve.
-           Skinny Dipping = Death.  Check out those POV voyeur shots.  See the similarities?  Sure you do. While skinny-dipping had appeared in movies before, TOTDN was the first time it became an executable offense.  The second time someone got themselves deaded for swimming nekkid was, you guessed it, F13 Part 2.  Coincidence?  I think not.
-          Wheelchair = Death.  After searching high and low I could only find 2 wheelchair bound characters in horror history that had been murdered onscreen before F13 Part 2; Franklin in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Countess in TOTDN.  Since TCM’s influence on F13 Part 2 is negligible at best, and TOTDN’s influence is, well, pretty much irrefutable, it’s safe to assume that this was stolen from Bava.  In fact, just look at how he gets it…

-           Machete/Billhook to the face kill.  Look at those two pictures.  True, in TOTDN it’s a billhook and in F13 Part 2 it’s a machete, but now we’re splitting hairs instead of focusing on splitting faces.  That is an identical kill any way you look at it.  The blades are even at the same angles for the love of Hitchcock!  While Marcie’s axe to the forehead in Part 1 was somewhat similar, Mark’s face hack is exactly the same.  The only difference is that in TOTDN we get a lot more gory shots of the aftermath and the blade being pried out of the skull.  That crap wouldn’t fly with the MPAA, so F13 Part 2 got shafted.  Have I mentioned lately that I hate the MPAA?  Anyway, here’s the final straw…




-          The double mid-coital shish-ka-bob kill.  This is the most blatant rip off in the film, and one of the most blatant in horror history.  Just look at those stills folks.  It’s damn near a shot for shot copy, or at least it was before it was cut to get an R rating (the impalement pic from F13 Part 2 up there is actually a shot that was cut), but that’s a shameless carbon copy none the less.  Is there really any way of denying that?  That’s the smoking gun right there.  That’s the bloody glove.  The only difference is that we don’t get the just-before-impact “Oh shit!” shot in TOTDN because the female is on top.  I tell you, those Italian ladies are take charge kinda gals. I think they did that to make up for the fact that we, once again, don’t get to see as much of the blood and guts in the American flick.  Thanks a lot MPAA.  You know what MPAA?  You guys can suck it!
(Let the official court record reflect that, after the last sentence, the prosecutor performed a “DX style crotch chop” in the general direction of Hollywood, presumably directed at the MPAA.)
So, While the fact that the entire inspiration for the first Friday the 13th movie was taken directly from Twitch of the Death Nerve cannot be proven incontrovertibly (merely strongly inferred) I do believe that I have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that portions of Friday the 13th Part 2 were lifted whole cloth from Bava’s masterpiece.  Now, the question is, who is the responsible party?  The most obvious culprit would seem to be the director and/or screenwriter of Friday the 13th Part 2.  However, I intend to present both evidence and testimony that leads me to believe that the guilty party is none other than…

PART 3

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, now that we’ve established the fact that Friday the 13th Part 2 does indeed contain ideas, themes, and entire sequences that were at best appropriated and at worst straight up stolen from Mario Bava’s classic Twitch of the Death Nerve, who is the culprit?  Could it be Sean Cunningham, the man who created the riday the 13th series?  I say no.  While Friday the 13th contained a lot of strong similarities, including a location and basic plotline that is awfully suspicious, the out and out plagiarism didn’t start until Part 2, when Cunningham was out of the picture.  As the blatant theft began with Part Two, it would stand to reason that either the director or writer of that film was responsible.  Steve Miner, the associate producer of Part 1 and director of Part 2 was confronted with the issue in a December 2007 Myspace interview, and the following exchange took place…
“Interviewer: How do you respond to accusations that claim that Friday the 13th Part 2 plagiarised Mario Bava's Twitch of the Death Nerve? Some say that the scene where Jeff and Sandra are impaled whilst having sex is identical to a scene from Bava's movie?
Miner: I never saw the movie."
Ok, fair enough.  In the definitive tome on the Friday the 13th series, Crystal Lake Memories, screenwriter Ron Kurz also denied having seen Twitch of the Death Nerve prior to his hand in pillaging it.  These simple denials may not seem convincing, yet I believe them due to the fact that I have reason to believe that neither man is the culprit.  In fact, I believe that I have uncovered the true possessor of the sticky fingers.  The evidence I will now lay before you will show that the guilty party is none other than…
(Let the official court record reflect that at this point, the prosecutor, in tribute to Andy Griffith, performed the trademark “turn suddenly from the jury and dramatically point an accusatory finger at the true villain” Matlock move)

Phil Scuderi!

I can hear everyone in the courtroom asking the same question; who?  Honestly, I had never heard of this man before I began researching this case either.  Phil Scuderi is the man who bankrolled the first five Friday the 13th movies, and many people have stated that he wielded considerable creative control over the series, but will you find his name in the credits?  No.  Good luck finding an interview with him.  Good luck even finding a picture of him.  Phil Scuderi is a truly elusive figure.  He doesn’t even have an IMDB page.  Everyone has an IMDB page.  Hell, I have an IMDB page.  I did some good old fashioned detective work, however, and I’ve uncovered three key pieces of evidence that will prove that Phil Scuderi is the Bava Bandit.  Yeah, I know.  Catchy isn’t it?
Just a note before I nail Phil’s ass to the wall; he is now deceased.  While I’m not usually one to speak ill of the dead, this mystery has remained unexplained for far too long.  Then again, Hitler, Ghengis Kahn, Al Capone, and Captain Kangaroo are all dead, and their evil is still talked about.
I submit People’s Exhibit A: Phil Scuderi is the only person involved in the production of Friday the 13th Part 2 that has a provable connection to Twitch of the Death Nerve.  Let me tell you a little bit about Scuderi’s background.  Remember that story Sean Cunningham tells all the time about almost not taking the money to make the first movie because the producers, a group called Georgetown Productions (owned by Stephen Minasian, Philip Scuderi and Robert Barsamian) wanted creative control?  Well, Scuderi was the man behind that.  This was not the first time Cunningham had encountered Scuderi either.  Scuderi’s previous company, Hallmark Releasing, had put up the money to make Cunningham’s first film, Last House on the Left.  Remember that, it will be important in a minute.  Anyway, Hallmark Releasing, a distribution company run by Scuderi, was a subsidiary of Esquire Theaters of America, which was also partially owned by Scuderi.  When Esquire decided to form Hallmark, one of the first movies they acquired American distribution and exhibition rights to was, you guessed it, Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, which they re-titled Twitch of the Death Nerve.  A few years later they even re-released it under the title of, get ready for this one…Last House on the Left 2.  No, I’m not joking.  The films have no relation whatsoever.  So in addition to proving his connection and experience with both of the movies in question, that last juicy little tidbit shows him to be a huckster who was not opposed to using unscrupulous means to promote a film.
Would he steal from Mario Bava, however?  Well, according to People’s Exhibit B, he already had a history of doing so.  In the 70’s and early 80’s, the director of a film did not cut the trailer, the distribution company was responsible for that.  Scuderi was the head of the distribution company for Friday the 13th, so the trailer was in his hands.  First, I’d like you all to watch the trailer from Bava’s 1964 film Blood and Black Lace…




Now, watch the trailer for Friday the 13th





Do you see what I see?  Yep, a complete emulation of the trailer for a Bava film.  That doesn’t necessarily mean he was responsible for the TOTDN/F13 Part 2 plagiarism however.  To incontestably link him to that particular crime, we would need something more substantial.  Something concrete.  Something like eyewitness testimony.  Hey, that’s a great idea.  Meet People’s Exhibit C.
Your honor, the prosecution would like to call to the stand a long time associate of Scuderi, and the screenwriter of Friday the 13th Part 2, Ron Kurz.  Mr. Kurz, I remind you that when you took the stand, you swore on The Necronomicon to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you Cthulu. 
SOC - Could you please tell the court your impressions of Mr. Scuderi and if you think he would steal from a movie?
Kurz – “I had known of Phil Scuderi and Esquire since my days in the early 1970s as a theater manager in Baltimore.  I became aware of Phil because of some of his distribution tricks.  He was like William Castle- taking out insurance policies against dying of fright or having kids handing out logo imprinted toilet paper on downtown street corners.  Phil, who has since died, was quite a force in the schlock movie business.  Just picture a cross between Roger Corman and Michael Corleone; a trained lawyer, crude and suave at the same time, and full of street smarts.  And when he got into a movie production, he could rip off the latest box office hit and have something on screen in a matter of months.  I should know, I wrote a few of them.”(Crystal Lake Memories page 14)
SOC – So he had a history of idea theft huh?  I am going to ask you directly sir, whose idea was it to remake scenes from Twitch of the Death Nerve and use them in Friday the 13th Part 2 without giving Mario Bava credit?
Kurz - “Credit where credit is due- Part 2 was a true collaboration between Phil Scuderi and myself.  We worked extremely close together on it, meeting at his office or at lunch or dinner three or four times a week.  Phil was a creative force in his own right, often coming up with wild scenes, usually acted out in fancy Boston restaurants to the mortification of his secretary-cum-mistress, who would usually accompany us.  All the dialog, the character development, the pacing and shaping that any screenplay requires is mine, but Phil would come up with the most outrageous sequences, and from where they came I haven’t a clue.  A film has been mentioned as an inspiration to Part 2 called Twitch of the Death Nerve.  I’d never seen it nor heard of it.  Perhaps Phil Had.  He was not above lifting anything from anywhere.  In Part 2, the scene of Ginny urinating under the bed is his, as is the “sheshkebob” scene where Sandra and Jeff get speared to the bed, as well as the Mark character being disabled and in a wheelchair and meeting his end tumbling down the stairs.” (Crystal Lake Memories page 60)
So there we have it folks.  I have shown Phil Scuderi to be a “Silver Screen Swindler” who had no problem stealing from other movies.  I have proven that there is a direct connection between Scuderi and the two flicks in question.  From the trailers for Blood and Black Lace and the first Friday the 13th, we have seen that he has a history of aping Bava’s style.  We even have first hand testimony from one of his colleagues establishing him as an idea thief and stating clearly that the scenes he is accused of stealing were indeed his idea.  All of this evidence paints a picture of Phil Scuderi as the mastermind behind one of the biggest cinematic capers in horror history.  Find this man guilty of purloining gore sequences, which may I remind you is a crime punishable by death…wait a minute…dammit.  Fine, just find him guilty anyway.  Do it to clear the names of the others involved in the Friday the 13th franchise.  Do it for Jason Voorhees, so he finally knows why he does at least a couple of the things he does.  Most importantly, do it to bring Mario Bava, a true master of the art of filmmaking, justice after all of these years.  The prosecution rests your honor, and the defense can shut the hell up.

So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached a verdict?
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