Friday, July 13, 2012

ITALIAN HORROR WEEK: The People VS. Friday the 13th or... BAVA SHOT FIRST!!! (Part I of III)

DISCLAIMER:  Before I start, let it be known that this article will be full of spoilers for Twitch of the Death Nerve and Friday the 13th parts 1 and 2.  Yeah, I know that shouldn’t be an issue, but there are actually people out there who would bust my balls for giving away the ending of a movie that was released forty years ago and I want to cover Doc and my asses.

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…


NATHAN HAMILTON is the Son of Celluloid. He writes the mad musings of an unapologetic horror freak. The ultimate goal of his writing is to bring his take on horror to the masses.Stop by the SON OF CELLULOID NOW!!! Make sure to hit "like" on his FaceBook page and Follow his blog. He will be guest judging the HALLOWEEN HORROR MOVIE MARATHON MADNESS this October.


  1. I definitely can see it being happenstance in part 1, but part 2... no way.

  2. Two parts to go! Keep your brains peeled! The SOC is on a warpath!