When Sophia Cacciola and Michael J. Epstein’s postmodern diptych of fake proto-slasher End Zone 2 (supposedly 1970, actually 2022) and its fake retrospective documentary The Once and Future Smash (2022) absurdly posited a ‘football revenge craze’ to which the original End Zone (putatively 1964) belonged, they might as well have been describing the subgenre from which writer/director Jay Burleson’s similarly fake slashers The Third Saturday in October (1980) and The Third Saturday in October Part V (1994) had emerged.
For while the title of Burleson’s faux franchise alludes to the kind of ‘calendar horror’ found in Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) – all films which, as well as Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Wes Craven’s Shocker (1989) and Uwe Boll’s Seed (2007), Burleson is openly pastiching here with his masked, execution-surviving, unstoppable killer in the house – the ‘third Saturday in October’ also marks an annual fixture in the footballing calendar, when the Alabama-Mobile Seahawks face the Tennessee A&M Commonwealth. Jakkariah Harding (Antonio Woodruff) may return every year to the ‘sleepy farming community’ of Hackleburg, Alabama – a real enough place, although no doubt chosen in part for the horror resonance of its first four letters – to resume his night-long killing spree, but much of what prevents the locals even noticing his malign presence among them is that game playing out on the television as a constant distraction to all these true-blooded Alabamans and their guests from out of town.
The Third Saturday in October purports to be a cheap Halloween rip-off which garnered enough of a cult following to spawn its own equally low-budget series, and The Third Saturday in October Part V presents itself as the series’ final sequel. In fact, though, both these films are nostalgic facsimiles, made back-to-back in the here and now as affectionate throwbacks. They also, not unlike Leigh Janiak’s Fear Street: Part One: 1994 and Fear Street Part Two: 1978 (both 2021), pay loving attention to the contrasting period details at either end of the slasher boom, from its beginnings in the late Seventies/early Eighties to its woeful death throes in the mid Nineties – just before Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) would pop up to resurrect the whole genre for knowingly postmodern reappraisal.
True to their timeframe, Burleson’s films are less overtly knowing than the Scream films. For while they certainly do offer plenty of allusions and easter eggs for the slasher connoisseur, they do not constantly nod and wink about it, or provide a constant meta-commentary on the murderous proceedings from horror-savvy characters. As a result, these two film’s very particularised and contrived brand of awfulness closely mimics the awfulness of many genuine slasher films, while leaving the viewer unsure where exactly the irony lies – even if such painstaking reconstruction of past artefacts is of course itself necessarily a sophisticated postmodern exercise. These films’ subtlety, and their utter lack of subtlety, are two blades of the same bloody set of shears.
Burleson has stated that the proper order in which his films should be viewed is in reverse, to replicate the specific Eighties/Nineties experience of someone first encountering a late entry of a horror franchise at a sleepover party or in a video store, and only then working their way back to the ‘original’. To be honest, it probably does not matter which you watch first. For not only do Harding’s massacres seem never to end (except for 364 days of the year), and could go on ad infinitum well beyond the events of The Third Saturday in October Part V (whose last line is, “He’ll never be dead”) – but they also seem to have started well before the first The Third Saturday in October, in which we learn that Harding was already a silent ‘drifter’ as far back as 1968, had already engaged in killing sprees and been subjected to more than one failed execution before 1980, and, in all his indestructibility, was already long since a ‘monster’ rather than a man.
So one might catch up with Harding’s inhuman outrages at any point, early or late, and they would still look much the same. The first film, though, does explain how he came to acquire his characteristic ‘Mister Bones’ mask and the hearse that is his typical transport. It also establishes a bizarre in-franchise trope: every football-watching party upon which Harding intrudes must always have one much older male guest (respectively Richard Garner and Tom Hagale) amongst all the nubile young co-eds (including classic final girls played by Allison Shrum, Kansas Bowling and young Poppy Cunningham).
Both these films are subversive, in a way that perhaps can only come with hindsight. In The Third Saturday in October Part V, the odious, two-timing jock Peter (Taylor Smith) may mock George (Daniel Cutts) for his speech impediment, and refer to George’s wheelchair-bound brother Lester (Bart Hyatt) – modelled on the similarly taunted Frank Hardesty – with ableist slurs that would be unacceptable in a film now (in a way that they might not have been in 1994), but these transgressions will not go without their karmic punishment, as Harding, long before killing Peter in a literally emasculating fashion, will first mutilate him in such a way as to guarantee that he never walks again, even as Lester miraculously regains his mobility.
Meanwhile, had The Third Saturday in October genuinely come out in 1980, it would have been both groundbreaking and game-changing in being the first slasher to feature not only an African-American antagonist in Harding, but also a Black hero in the person of Sam Loomis figure Ricky Dean Logan (Darius Willis, also narrating the sequel), who plays avenging father alongside (white) avenging mother Vicki Newton (K.J. Baker). Another African-American character, Ned (Dre Bravo), may be one of many who is slaughtered by Harding, but significantly – and subversively – he is by no means The First To Die. In the early Eighties, and in a small town where at least one old-timer (played by Danny Vinson) gives expression to openly racist attitudes, such Black representation would have been positively revolutionary in a horror film – but inserted today into a faux-Eighties horror, it seems more like a long-overdue corrective, and a cinematic rewriting of history with all the retroactive wish-fulfilment fantasy of Quentin Tarantino Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019). In fact Kate Edmonds’ joyously exuberant performance as the pyjama-wearing, dance-loving hedonist Devon in Part I has more than a little of Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate about it, even if Devon may prove altogether less lucky.
Both these films are what they ape. For just as real slashers were often soulless affairs with poor writing, variable acting, repetitive set-pieces and diminishing returns, they were just as often time capsules for changing values, launching pads for future careers, and repositories for the kind of idiosyncrasy, invention and eccentric local colour that is only possible in work done outside of the studio system. You will find all of this in The Third Saturday in October and its belated sequel – but what makes them stand out is their critical distance from the times that they recreate. Burleson obviously loves the genre that he is so slavishly imitating – and if you do too, then these curious confections, though certainly of niche appeal, are likely to provide proper accommodation for your particular errant tastes.
strap: Jay Burleson’s faux franchise opener and its fourth sequel lovingly recreate the beginning and end of the slasher boom
© Anton Bitel