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Friday the 13th: The Series Part Seven – Unhappy Homes

Welcome back to part seven of my weird exploration of that unsung classic Friday the 13th: The Series as we head into the second half of the second season. The show was a beloved mainstay of late-‘80s anthology horror TV, though I had never actually seen it before embarking on this journey that we are now taking together…

Many of the episodes that lead off the second season’s second half, when watched back-to-back as I have done, share a probably unintentional theme: that of abusive families and unhappy home lives, often with very little in the way of satisfactory solutions. While the good vs. evil shtick of the show is often fairly straightforward, many episodes – including several of these – deal with greater ambiguity when it comes to real life evil, rather than the machinations of the cursed objects that give the show its logline.

Following on the heels of the Emmy-nominated “13 O’Clock,” we get the comparatively unambitious “Night Hunger,” about an abused kid who uses an antique silver chain to turn a blank car key into a magic one to soup up any car it’s used in – only after it’s dipped in blood, of course.

The episode starts out with a black-and-white flashback and eventually gets into some real weird territory after the kid gets into a wreck and the key is embedded in his heart. Eventually, he has a confrontation with his abusive (and casually racist, though the episode never addresses it) dad in a fiery conflagration that is ostensibly meant to purify both of them.

If the key in the heart business got kinda weird, well, the next episode features vampire bees. Canadian actor Art Hindle (of Black Christmas, The Brood, and others) plays a beekeeper who uses an antique transport hive to give a new lease on life to terminally ill individuals – albeit with some sinister motives behind his “altruism.” For an episode about vampire bees, it’s surprisingly forgettable.

“The Playhouse,” on the other hand, features the triumphant return of writer/director Tom McLouhlin, who previously helmed “Master of Disguise” earlier this season. Like some others, this episode tackles fairly heavy issues, notably child abuse again. If the antagonist in “Night Hunger” was emotionally abused (and he was) then the kids in this episode are also neglected and physically abused.

Their only safe haven is a cursed playhouse that gives them anything they want while they’re inside, so long as they “feed” it other children, who become trapped within the house’s pocket dimension. It is in this dimension that McLoughlin gets to exercise his horror chops, creating a Joe Dante-like funhouse complete with one nightmare sequence where clowns, jugglers, and a person in a rabbit suit become (even more, depending on your feelings about clowns) horrific. It’s probably the only time we’ll see a clown with a chainsaw in this series, but who knows?

Courtesy of The Playhouse

Even while its subject matter is notably grim, “The Playhouse” is also significant as the only episode without a single death. When everything is finally wrapped up, the kids who were consumed by the house all make their reappearance.

The next two episodes share a similar titling convention, even while they have precious little else in common. “Eye of Death” is about a fellow antique “picker” who uses a Civil War-era magic lantern to travel back in time and loot the dead. Despite having one of the series’ better villains, in the form of Tom McCamus’ Atticus Rook – McCamus also played the vampire in season one’s “The Baron’s Bride” – this episode also contains one of the series’ worst missteps to date.

The episode’s portrayal of the Confederacy is, not to put too fine a point on it, tone deaf as hell – at best. Not only are the Confederate soldiers portrayed sympathetically, Robert E. Lee is shown to be a noble, uncompromising hero and, when Ryan is attempting to explain the time travel conceit to a Confederate widow, he says, of those who fought for the South, “In my time, nobody thinks badly of them.”

In a week when, at the time of this writing, the long-overdue dismantling of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond is making headlines, to call the episode’s sympathy for the Confederacy “cringey” is to engage in some serious understatement.

“Face of Evil,” on the other hand, digs into the past in a different way – in this case, excavating the history of the series itself to resurrect the killer compact from “Vanity’s Mirror,” all the way back in season one. Besides a highlight reel of that episode, it also brings back Gwendoline Pacey as Joanne Mackie, the survivor of those events, who is revealed to be the person who picked up the compact at the end of “Vanity’s Mirror.” She’s been holding onto it ever since, as a sort of grim memento of her sister and a way to keep it from harming anyone else.

Unfortunately, she’s also gotten into the makeup game, and she works for a fashion mag where an aging model swipes the compact and uses its powers to stay on top. There’s only one catch: the compact’s powers have changed.

This is a wrinkle that the show mostly glosses over with a halfhearted explanation that the compact is a “simple tool of revenge,” but it suggests something that has been hinted at – but never explored – elsewhere in the series: that the functions of the cursed items may, at least some of the time, lie partly in the hearts and minds of the people using them. It’s an interesting idea that will probably never get explored fully, and certainly doesn’t here.

It bears mentioning that Gwendoline Pacey is great in this, just as she was in “Vanity’s Mirror,” and this episode leaves her in a place that makes us – and our protagonists – wonder what will become of her. It’s a shame, then, that this is her last appearance on the show, and that she has only four credits on IMDb, mostly for guest roles like this in TV shows of the era.

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The next episode is the first to be directed by Armand Mastroianni (He Knows You’re Alone, Cameron’s Closet), who will go on to direct seven more before the series is over. Which is nice to know, because this one is pretty good, with some genuinely disturbing horror moments (and legitimately impressive stunts) making use of the rage zombie-like “hyper violence syndrome” made up for the episode.

Once again, Micki experiences frankly horrific trauma that, honestly, should take a lot more than some bedrest to recover from as she is experimented on by the “mad doctor” (played by Neil Munro, who will also play the Marquis de Sade, among others, in some later episodes) and watches him surgically murder her college roommate.

She’s fine by the next episode, though, just in time for us to watch Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man, with some occasional detours about a film student who wants to become a werewolf. Seriously, I wonder what kind of deal existed between CBS/Paramount and Universal that let them use so much of the footage from Wolf Man for this episode – it would be fully half as long without it.

Series regular Denis Forest comes back to play another villain in “The Mephisto Ring.” Forest previously appeared in both “Cupid’s Quiver” and “Brain Drain,” and here he once again plays an utter creep. In this case, he’s a gambling addict who gets hold of a cursed World Series ring that gives him betting tips after it knocks someone off by telekinetically throwing them around.

Last time, I mentioned that we would be getting to some fan favorite episodes, and one of those is where we’re wrapping up. “A Friend to the End” isn’t about Chucky – or even a creepy doll – but it does offer a couple of series firsts. This time around, we have not one but two cursed objects. One is the “Shard of Medusa,” which a sculptor is using to turn her victims into statues. The other a child’s coffin that brings a young boy who was murdered by his abusive father back to life – but he has to kill others in order to stay that way.

The other series first offered in this episode is that the villain gets away. Sure, the cursed artifact may have still been on the loose at the end of “Vanity’s Mirror,” but the person using it had bitten the dust. In this case, the sinister sculptor flees to Europe with the object, while Micki and Ryan divert to handle the other subplot, in which Micki’s nephew – neglected by his mother and dropped on their doorstep – has befriended the resurrected boy who lives in the local haunted house.

The episode is the only listed credit of co-writer/director David Morse – not to be confused, I gather, with the actor of the same name – and provides a nice capstone for our evening of episodes featuring abusive families, damaged children, and unhappy homes.

That’s it for tonight! Next time, will we dig into some less grim episodes? Who can say? What I can say is that we’ll be finishing up our coverage of season two, just in time for Halloween! And in the meantime, you can check out my full Friday the 13th: The Series coverage here.