As a child who was turning into a fan of horror films, one of the sweetest experiences was going to West Coast Video on Washington St on a Friday night and browsing the horror section. This was always a strange and magical experience for me. I’d look at the cover art and try to imagine what the movie was about, because the summary on the back was often little more than adjectives for “scary” and “gross” heaped on top of one another. I often judged a movie by its cover and title. Sometimes this was a miss (looking at you, Bergman, with your deceptively titled Serpent’s Egg) but other other times it was a grand slam (thank you Charles Band for the insane glory of Seed People). But a phenomenon that isn’t talked about, but I absolutely remembered is when a store would have random sequels to a film but not the original, or even any other entries besides part four or something. Case in point from my own childhood: watching Puppet Master IV without seeing any of the prior entries. Now, based on what I’d seen here and there, I had assumed the puppets in these movies were the bad guys. And if you remember, part 4 is where they’re actually the heroes of the movie, protecting the human characters from other evil puppets dispatched to earth by a sinister god (I think). Anyway, I had the same experience with Aliens and Alien. I remember watching Alien for the first time after seeing its sequel and thinking, “Wait they only have one alien? Where are the machines guns? Where are the power loaders? Where’s Bishop?!”
The point of all this is that there was a magic in that ability to just go to a video store, see a film like The Howling V, realize you hadn’t seen a Howling film since the first one, and just go “fuck it I’m in’”, and still have an absolute blast of a time. I’m not knocking sequels that have required viewing of the films proceeding them in order to understand what’s going on, but I do miss that time in cinema. Jay Burleson attempts to recreate that feeling with his The Third Saturday In October films. Having only created (purposefully) parts one and five, Burleson playfully invites us to go for a ride down memory lane not just in the way films from the late 70s/80s/early 90s were made (especially the seemingly endless sequels to classic slasher films) but also in that sense of taking a chance on a sequel that you didn’t know the set up for and having a blast doing so.
The plot of these films isn’t anything groundbreaking: a serial killer is caught and executed and then comes back from the dead to continue his killing spree. It is what it is. Honestly part one was a little too slickly made to emulate the feel of classic slasher films, in that the acting was often too good and spot on and the characters were often too sympathetic to be red shirts and really harken back to the heyday of the genre, but as a film that seeks to set the groundwork for a string of sequels it works perfectly. And while the acting might be too good for such films, the quality of the footage is eerily spot on; the film stock looks straight out of the late 70s. The Loomis analog on the film is a little too on the nose as to who he’s supposed to be, and all cards on the table is way more reasonable and believable than Donald Pleasance is in Halloween, but I’ll gladly take a film that swings big and misses in a good way versus a film that thinks it’s being funny and is really just a lazy attempt at satire that doesn’t want to put the work in. And trust me: Burleson does the work. There’s so much in the first film that plays like melodramatic police drama (why is a casket being brough directly to the execution chamber for the killer to be buried in right there?) and a lot of the weird decisions that lead characters to their deaths are highlighted (why would the surviving parents of the teenagers this guy killed want to go to the cemetery at night to see him buried?). We have a wonderful believable final girl, a tough but caring father figure who shows up just in time to put the bad guy down once and for all, and even the necessary reference in the title to a quasi-holiday/special date, in this case the annual showdown between Tennessee and Alabama in college football. And, of course, the classic open end for a sequel. Which we get four more of. But only one, part five, is available now.
Part five’s only real connection (that I noticed) to the first film is the same killer, and part of me thinks Burleson may have had better luck just using this as a standalone film, but that would defeat the point of his project. That being said, I think he succeeds in his mission of creating a sequel that is possible to watch and enjoy without seeing the prior three movies in the franchise (which I cannot stress enough do not exist). But, again, much like the first one, there are things that hold it back from being a believably hokey slasher sequel. The chemistry between our final girl Maggie and her firecracker sidekick PJ, a young elementary school student she’s babysitting, is so achingly adorable that I can’t believe it would ever exist in a low budget slasher sequel from the early ‘90s. The film also comes close to winking and nodding with how it satirizes the ridiculous kills of the films it emulates, but it’s done in such a way that it’s actually kind of funny. These films don’t really have a memorable villain at the heart of them, but honestly it doesn’t really need them for the experience to work. And, since part V was released before part I in the Chattanooga Film Festival programming, I can honestly say I didn’t have any burning questions about the killer that earlier films might clear up, and even if I did part I (which I watched later) didn’t offer any deeper insight into the nature of the killer. Which is fine.
These were films made to be fun but were made earnestly and with tons of heart. They were meant to be more of an experience than a narrative and Burleson knows exactly he’s doing. There’s no irony here, no belittlement of the genre, no attempt at being “it’s so bad it’s good” on purpose. They are not Sharknado style films that think they’re far more clever than they actually are. They’re love letters to a phenomenon I hadn’t thought about in almost thirty years, harkening back to an experience just about everyone has had, and honestly, I think they largely succeeded in what they set out to do. There’s something wonderful in that idea. They are, unlike cynical edgy bullshit like the Sharknado movies, inviting us to laugh with them instead of at them.