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TV’s Frightening Development

A man cuts off his fingers like pudgy sausages in a meat slicer while blood spurts over two teen-agers waiting in a cafeteria line.

Another man, touched by a cursed white glove, contorts and dies while the camera zooms in on his rotting, discolored, caved-in face, which looks like a cross between a globe of Jupiter and a slab of bacteria-ridden cheese.

No doubt about it: Horror has come to TV.

Yet despite sharing horrific titles, slash-and-gore baggage that they carry from the films that spawned them and creepy scenes such as those described above, “A Nightmare on Elm Street: Freddy’s Nightmares” and “Friday the 13th: The Series” took very different routes in translating their vision of horror to weekly television.

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Both syndicated series, for the purposes of marketing and celebrity, took their names directly from blockbuster films--"Friday” from the seven hit movies that feature a hockey-masked killer named Jason, and “Nightmare” from the four smash films that star the hideously scarred, razor-fingered, cult/horror icon Freddy Krueger.

And both, their producers contend, are much headier and more inventive than anything one might expect from this genre. Each employs big-name film directors such as David Cronenberg, Tobe Hooper and Tim Hunter to direct individual episodes, and both get a good deal of cinematic mileage out of a $550,000 per episode budget--about half of the cost of an average hour of network television.

But only one of the films’ psychopathic murderers survived the trip to TV.

Frank Mancuso Jr., the man behind the “Friday the 13th” movies and executive producer of the year-old television series, said he completely ignored the content of the films when he invented the concept for the television show. In fact, he said he initially balked at calling it “Friday the 13th” because he feared that such a direct association with the film would prove a handicap to drawing a broad audience.

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But his bosses at Paramount, who last year also resurrected a new version of “Star Trek” for syndication and this year have introduced a TV version of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds,” told Mancuso that while he could produce a show that had nothing to do with the movies, he was stuck with the title for marketing purposes.

“They said that since we’re entering this world of syndication,” Mancuso said, “we have to approach it by giving people dynamic and interesting titles that automatically give us a certain celebrity and make it more difficult to ignore.”

Mancuso agreed, left the maniacal Jason in the movies, and created an anthology centered around an antique store filled with items that had been cursed by the devil. The fun begins each week as the owners of the store--two attractive young cousins, one male, one female, and an older gentleman expert in matters of the occult and the supernatural--attempt to track down and retrieve one of the cursed items.

The series debuted in late-night time slots but proved so popular that it is now airing in prime time all over the country, including locally on KCOP-TV Channel 13, Saturdays at 7 p.m. (with a repeat at midnight).

Occasionally, the show does rely on some rather horrific effects, but the horror generally stems not from blood and guts but from what Mancuso calls “mini-Faustian dramas” that force people to confront the universal question: “How far are you willing to go to get what you think you want?”

“Some shows are darker than others,” Mancuso said. “But I don’t think this is horror as people have come to define horror from the ‘Friday’ movies or ‘Halloween,’ which tend to be more of a graphic exploitation of carnage as opposed to the original gothic idea of horror, like in ‘Frankenstein’ or ‘Dracula.’ You just can’t do the ‘Friday’ or ‘Freddy’ movies on a week-to-week basis. They have specific good guys and specific bad guys and if you did that every week, it would get farcical.

“And you can’t get away (on television) with what you can get away with in the movies anyway, so we’re not going to ever be able to satisfy people with a strong appetite for visceral carnage. So rather than try and fail, we decided to explore the gothic origins of the genre, without a consistent villain and without a lot of gore.”

While they downplay the carnage in their own series, the creators of the “Nightmare” TV program, which debuted last week and airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. on KHJ-TV Channel 9, took an entirely different tack. Figuring that Freddy Krueger--the character that drew more than $46 million worth of horror fans into theaters this summer for the fourth installment of the movie series--is their meal ticket, they designed a show in which he is the driving force.

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In some episodes, he is the star--slashing a policeman to death or ripping the head off a psychiatrist and peering inside while quipping, “There’s one shrink who needed her own head examined.” In others, Freddy makes only cameo appearances--haunting the dreams of the residents of Elm Street and popping up as a sort of malevolent Alistair Cooke.

“As opposed to ‘Friday the 13th'--where they just used the name to attract a TV audience and then didn’t deliver anything that had anything to do with the theatricals--it was important to me that we deliver something that resembled the features,” said Jeff Freilich, executive producer of “Nightmare.” “There is blood--more than you’ll see on a show like ‘Falcon Crest.’ But this is not a slasher show.”

“These are going to be nasty little classics,” said Robert Englund, the actor who portrays Freddy. “It’s a little bit subversive for TV, but not because we’re getting away with blood and guts. There are more bodies on ‘The A-Team’ or ‘Miami Vice.’ We prey on the foibles and fears of the middle class and push them to their extreme. It hearkens back to the darkest ‘Twilight Zones’ or ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents.’ ”

Some psychologists contend that the R-rated movie version of Freddy already haunts the dreams of many young children, and with the ugly terror flickering into living rooms every week, the number of traumatized children, they say, will multiply rapidly.

Freilich, who has two young children of his own, said he is concerned about the effect Freddy might have on children, but he insisted that it is up to parents to prevent their children from watching the program. He said he would not allow his own children to watch it. But he argued that Freddy is a fictitious monster and that all of the show’s murder and mayhem takes place in dreams.

“Guns and bombs that you see every day on television are much more realistic than the character of Freddy Krueger,” Freilich said. “I’m more concerned about my 6-year-old thinking he can point a gun at a person and they won’t die. I’d rather he be desensitized to monsters than to bullets, because bullets are real.

“Still, children should be old enough to understand that this is fantasy before they are allowed to watch it. For some that’s 50 and for some that’s 7 years old.”

Someone is watching, that’s for sure. “Nightmare” scored a 7.1 rating (representing more than 340,000 households) and captured 14% of the available audience in its debut on KHJ last Saturday. “It’s ratings were superb,” said program director Walt Baker.

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And more horror is coming: Another syndicated series, “Monsters,” is scheduled to debut at midnight Friday on KTLA Channel 5.

“A lot of people love this stuff,” said Englund, who has become rich and famous since dawning Freddy’s horrific makeup and felt fedora. “Especially teen-agers and young adults. Freddy is the boogie man. They go to see him and they feel alive, attentive, they laugh, they have a catharsis. There is no equivalent anymore of the circus side show--of that tradition, that right of passage of sneaking into the circus tent to see the freak show. Maybe that’s what horror shows are all about.”


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