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Panic Fest 2023: The Third Saturday in October I & V

Images courtesy of Chattanooga Film Festival

In a familiar echo of Ti West’s X and Pearl, the Third Saturday in October movies were shot consecutively, the first one as a sequel to the ‘original’ and then the second as that original, effectively making it a prequel. It’s a more apt comparison than it might initially seem, as like and Pearl, the “prequel” is a vast improvement over the initial project, both in execution and vision. This makes conceptual sense though, The Third Saturday in October Pt. V is supposed to be the cheesy ’90s cash-in on a moribund franchise, while The Third Saturday in October is supposed to be the cult classic original whose atmospheric chills played its part in ushering in the early ’80s wave of slasher horror. Both films hit their targets, but it’s much more meaningful to say that of Part I. It’s a lot easier to make a movie that looks and feels like a cheap, risible cash-grab that delivers some moments of cheesy ironic fun, it’s a lot tougher to make one that looks and feels like the real deal. With the hotly anticipated MaXXXine hitting screens, let’s hope director Jay Burleson also gets to complete this trilogy, perhaps with a glossy nostalgia-bait requel where Heather (Allison Shrum) ends Harding’s reign of terror for good and feeds him into a wood-chipper or something.

The idea of conjuring up a fictional franchise of forgotten schlock horror movies in the Halloween or Friday 13th mold is the kind of thing horror fests like this were made for—pure fan service for genre devotees who’ll revel in the familiarity, the excess, and the low-budget, retro stodginess. But for almost as long as there have been slasher movies, there’ve been parodies of them. Many of the most classic examples achieve comedic self-awareness and tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation. Few were made with the intention of creating a future classic, they were dismissed by respectable audiences and a sense of humor about their low-brow status became a genre-wide default response. They didn’t try and do ‘better’ and win over the sniffy naysayers, they leaned into their ‘trash’ status, getting even goofier, ever more rushed, more excessive, and many became cult classics as a result.

The poster for The Third Saturday in October Part I
Image Courtesy of Chattanooga Film Festival

The fictional The Third Saturday in October was, we’re told, one of these movies. The opening crawl self-describes the feature as a cash-in on the popularity of Halloween, but does situate it before Friday 13th. That should give you an apt barometer for judging the ambitions of this fictional film and the makers of the actual one you’re watching. It’s going to be more creatively bankrupt than Halloween, but less so than Friday the 13th, and is going to feel like a mishmash of both, with some elements ripped from one, and others ‘predictive’ of the other. The film’s title is both an absurd parody of the Friday 13th titles and of Michael Myers’ propensity to take the rest of the year off from killing, and an allusion to the rivalry between two Southern football teams which has been alive for over a century and is traditionally contested on said date. In the fictive world of the fictive movie, it’s also the date its hearse-driving, one-eyed, masked killer Jakkariah Harding (Antonio Woodruff) comes out to prey on the townspeople of fictional Hackleburg as they innocently watch the game.

The one-eyed Harding actually has a little more personality than a lot of mute masked killers, displaying a particularly sadistic streak, chuckling diabolically to himself as he dispatches his victims, or pausing to smoke a cigarette over their bodies. However, the real stars of the franchise are the characters unique to each film. The ‘original’ follows Ricky Dean Logan (Darius Willis) and Vicki Newton (K.J. Baker) two parents of children killed in Harding’s original 1968 rampage, as they attend his execution, follow his casket to the cemetery, and witness his ‘miraculous’ resurrection (cue Nope‘s ominous query: “what’s a bad miracle?”). Their story runs parallel to that of good-girl Heather (Shrum) a teenager invited by a handsome out-of-town college student (Casey Aud) to come and watch the game with his druggie friends (Kate Edmonds, Veanna Black, Dre Bravo, Richard Garner, and Libby Blake), and whose fortunes are destined to collide with Harding’s.

It’s a clear mirror to Halloween‘s setup, with the gruff middle-aged hero doggedly pursuing his homicidal quarry as the latter closes in on our virtuous heroine and lays waste to her friends. Part V setup is more The Slumber Party Massacre though, with our new heroine Maggie (Kansas Bowling) a babysitter charged with protecting her young ward PJ (Poppy Cunningham), who insists they go across the road to join Maggie’s high-school friends (Taylor Smith, Bart Hyatt, Autumn Jaide, Tom Hagale, Parker Love Bowling, Devan Katherine, and Daniel Cutts) in watching the game. The gore in this one is sillier, the acting cornier and the aesthetic less refined. Where Part I is a pretty spot-on recreation of ’70s horror, Part V feels more non-descript and generically low-budget. Both films invest themselves with a good amount of personality, heavily showcasing the quirky small-town sensibilities and local hangouts populated with larger-than-life characters, and of course, the John Carpenter-styled score that heralds each appearance of the killer with a blast of squishy early ’80s synthesizer.

The poster for The Third Saturday in October Part V
Image Courtesy of Chattanooga Film Festival

I’ve little hesitation in calling the supposed original the better film, it has more atmosphere, a better story, more suspense, and more memorable and credible characters, some of whom are note perfect for the oddball eccentrics slasher movies written into themselves, many of which have become iconic personalities. One could easily imagine Part I‘s pajama-wearing coke-head Denver (Kate Edwards) or Part V‘s eccentric middle-aged referee Neil (Paul Hagale) receiving the same treatment. They’re fun characters with a lot of presence, an iconic look (can easily imagine indie girls dressing as Denver every Halloween), and a charismatic performance to carry them off. Some characters are less original though and feel like direct one-to-one references, like the wheelchair-bound Lester (Bart Hyatt) who is just a clear parody of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s whiny Franklin.

Mostly these two movies do a good job of mirroring the movies of the time, without feeling too obvious, absolutely nailing the weird offbeat details that make old-school slashers so enduring and often, with an additional, slightly more confrontational attitude towards issues of race, disability, and sexuality than films of the ’80s and ’90s tended to exhibit. Ricky and Vicki have a tense altercation with a racist guy who hits on Vicki and a great conversation afterward about how they’re each treated by the Southern patriarchy. It’s really good character-building and adds some unexpected depth to the story. The fact the killer himself is black is noteworthy in itself, aside from Candyman, black audiences don’t have many marquee slashers, and Harding is a decently iconic one, at least until he puts on the comedically anonymous Halloween mask.

The fact the original does pull off some real style, gravitas, and tension doesn’t mean the cheesy fifth sequel is without merit though. It’s hard to name a fifth entry in any slasher franchise that you’ll find many people to defend, and Burleson certainly captures the weird cheesiness and nastiness one would expect of a franchise that’s at a ‘what are we even doing here?’ stage. These sillier parts are when Part V is at its most fun and one could even say it drags less than Part I, which does lose its way a bit toward the end when it shifts locations. I definitely prefer Part I but fans of deep slasher lore and cornier the better horror should find a lot to enjoy about both movies which were pretty much made for the kind of late-night watch parties the characters are attending.

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Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where they graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory, and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent they were the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and began a public blog on their Letterboxd account. Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed their current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

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