Signal Horizon

See Beyond

Something Weird on TV-Friday the 13th: The Series Part Two-Cruel Miracles

Welcome back for part two of the weird exploration of that unsung classic Friday the 13th: The Series. 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 …

I love stage magicians, so naturally I enjoyed “The Great Montarro,” the sixth episode of Friday the 13th: The Series, which is all about them – this in spite of an unfortunate throwaway bit of late-80s transphobia right in the middle of the episode.

There’s some interest here even for those who aren’t as enthralled by the low-rent theatricality of the amateur magic set. “The Great Montarro” is directed by Richard Friedman, helmer of such B horror flicks as DarkWolf (2003), Phantom of the Mall (1989), and Scared Stiff (1987), and it features a guest turn by Lesleh Donaldson, who had previously appeared in a number of cult horror “classics” such as Funeral Home (1980), Happy Birthday to Me (’81), and Curtains (1983).

Friedman also directed the next episode, “Doctor Jack,” which features a cursed scalpel believed to have belonged to Jack the Ripper. The plot sees our protagonists going up against a devilish doctor played by Cliff Gorman, who had previously starred opposite James Brolin in the 1980 flick Night of the Juggler, which Wikipedia claims is a “neo-noir action crime drama exploitation thriller” – talk about a mouthful!

In the “it’s a small world” department, the B-plot of “Doctor Jack” concerns a mother out for revenge for her daughter’s murder, played by Elva Mai Hoover. Hoover is the real-life mother of horror writer Gemma Files, who wrote the introduction to my third collection.

For the first half-dozen or so episodes, the continuity that connects the series together has been virtually nonexistent. Besides a need to know the basic logline of the series, the earliest episodes could be watched in any order. That begins to change starting with episode eight, however slightly.

The eighth episode, called “Shadow Boxer,” features a pair of cursed boxing gloves that create a shadow doppelganger of their wearer that then proceeds to beat someone to death while the wearer is in the ring. While that may sound like a pretty laughable premise, “Shadow Boxer” might actually be the heaviest episode to date, featuring a genuinely vicious scene in which the episode’s villain threatens Micki with a knife.

“Shadow Boxer” also begins to tug together some threads that have been dangling since the series’ pilot. Specifically, the thread of Micki’s fiancé and her will-they-won’t-they sexual tension with Ryan. At least some of this comes to a head in the next episode, “Root of All Evil,” another surprisingly dark installment centered around a somewhat absurd item – in this case, a cursed mulcher that turns anyone ground up in it into cash.

The villain this time out is played by Veronica Mars’ dad, Enrico Colantoni, and the episode’s B-plot sees Micki’s fiancé showing up to check in on her. In the course of one episode, she decides to go home with him, Ryan guilt trips her about the cursed antiques, and her fiancé ultimately calls off the engagement. Both “Root of All Evil” and “Shadow Boxer” also begin to excavate a darker side of Ryan, who has heretofore been primarily a comedy relief character.

Since I’ve never watched the show before, I don’t know where Ryan’s arc takes him, so I don’t know how intentional this is, but in a series where toxic masculinity has already been the villain in more than one episode, Ryan’s seething anger – which we see in both of these segments – is more than a little chilling.

Episode ten, while returning to the “could happen in any order” format, puts Ryan front-and-center as he and Micki investigate a cursed comic book that turns the user into Ryan’s favorite comic character, an invincible robot. For some reason, this comic is called Tales of the Undead, which is also the name of the episode.

This is the first episode so far to not feature all three of our leads, as Jack is apparently out of town, leaving Ryan and Micki alone to try to solve the mystery of the unkillable machine-man and his crotchety creator, played by veteran character actor Ray Walston. While not as jokey as one might expect (it features one particularly bloody death, for instance) the episode does have some fun with its comic book premise, including comic art-style transformation sequences.

Jack’s absence continues in “Scarecrow,” a delightfully atmospheric yarn about, as you may have guessed, a killer scarecrow. The real draw for the uninitiated in this batch of episodes, however, is “Faith Healer,” the only installment of the series directed by David Cronenberg.

Photo courtesy of Frank Mancuso Productions

It should probably not come as a huge surprise that this episode is gooier and gloppier and more pulsating than any other episode to date. If the earlier stuff pushed the envelope of what was allowed on network TV in ’88, this episode goes absolutely barreling past the line.

The plot concerns a phony faith healer who gets a cursed glove that allows him to heal for real, except that the glove then stores and amplifies the ailment, passing it along to the next person he touches, with lethal (and gross) consequences.

While also unsurprising that “Faith Healer” is probably the best episode of the series so far, it’s interesting in that it largely eschews the main cast altogether. Instead, frequent Cronenberg collaborator Robert A. Silverman guest stars as Jerry, an old friend from Jack’s days in the merchant marine who now spends his time debunking fraudulent faith healers.

Thing is, Jerry’s interest in the subject has taken a more morbid turn as he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. When Jack comes to him for help in recovering the glove, Jerry’s desperation drives him to dangerous and violent acts, with suitably tragic results.

With no behind-the-scenes info, I have to assume that Cronenberg’s involvement has as much to do with the series being shot in Toronto (standing in for New York) as anything. What is perhaps just as interesting is that most of the same makeup and effects department who did the rest of the series up to this point also worked on this episode. They just really lean into Cronenberg’s body horror jawn (this would have been just a couple of years after The Fly), with suitably gloppy results.

That’s it for tonight. Next time, on my continued weird journey through Friday the 13th: The Series, we’ll discuss gimmick episodes and the stylistic links between Friday and Buffy. Find my full Friday the 13th: The Series coverage here.