Friday the 13th: The Franchise - An Appreciation

October 31, 2012 - 2:02 am   |   by
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"His name was Jason..."

When it comes to the slasher sub-genre of horror films, it's difficult to find any that are unique and bring something new to the table. Most of the ones that came out of the early 1970's and throughout the 1980's followed a particular formula: teens go into woods; teens drink & do drugs; teens have sex; teens get slaughtered. That pretty much sums up the genre, more or less. Immortalizing that formula was the Friday the 13th franchise, a series of films made specifically to cash in on the success of the original and annually provide entertainment for horror fans.

Technically, the original Friday the 13th film was late in the game as far as slasher movies go. John Carpenter's Halloween had already cleaned up at movie theaters and drive-ins all across the country only two years prior. Even earlier than that was Bob Clark's Black Christmas. That film was more of giallo-type film than a slasher, but you can certainly see the similarities between them all. So if you wanted to be analytical about it, the slasher sub-genre had been created long before Friday the 13th ever came along. It may have not been the first, but it did popularize it while also making headway for many copycats to follow.

Unlike Halloween, the Friday the 13th series was better known for its extensive use of blood and gore, something that Paramount Pictures really got behind and promoted at the beginning of the series. Every year, a new roster of teens would meet their demise in some very creative and, quite often, ridiculous ways. As each film was released, the kills became more and more imaginative, becoming far more important than plot or characterization. Even though the MPAA really came down hard on some of the latter films in the series, the first film escaped relatively unscathed with an R rating, setting the standard for what would be done with the sequels.

Friday the 13th was also one of the early slasher films not to have come from an independent source. It had a slightly higher budget than one would normally have to make these types of films and a major Hollywood studio backing it. In that way, it's highly unusual, as opposed to smaller and more independent films like Halloween, or even the often-overlooked Sleepaway Camp franchise (which parodied Friday the 13th extensively). Unlike their no budget counterparts, the Friday the 13th films found a much bigger audience and were seen by a lot more people.

As far as Jason himself, he became a cultural icon. Ever since he put on that hockey mask in the third film of the series, he's more or less been well-known to popular culture just as much as Freddy Krueger, or even Darth Vader for that matter. He's never been one to have much of a personality either, which the series has had some fun with at times. He's just a killing machine, out for revenge against those who've wronged him. He doesn't talk or quip funny lines. He just stalks his prey and kills it without remorse. He never dwells on it and he never takes prisoners (despite what we've seen in the remake, but I'll get into that later). Even though Jason is at the center of the series, I don't consider him to be the real focal point or the appeal. Fans have always tended to cry foul whenever Paramount (or New Line Cinema) made a Friday the 13th film without the real Jason on-screen doing the killing, but the real draw is the gore, horror and suspense, and not so much the characters. It works ok most of the time, but for someone like me who craves a bit of characterization in what he watches, it can be frustrating. Sometimes the logic of certain things in these films is also a problem, but despite it all, they're still fun to watch.

Even though I'm not quite as big a fan of the Friday the 13th series as I am the Nightmare on Elm Street series by comparison, I certainly don't discount it by any means. As with the Nightmare series, I have a marathon of the Friday the 13th movies every year, and at least once a year; sometimes on Halloween and sometimes on Friday the 13th (all weekend, of course). As a kid, I dressed up a couple of times as Jason for Halloween as well, so I'd say that I'm a fan without being fanatical about it. Some of the films I really enjoy, while others I have some problems with, so I'd like to take this opportunity to dissect the films a bit and explain exactly why I like some more than others. I'll be discussing a lot of the plot details, characters and situations, so if you haven't seen these films and want to avoid spoilers, it's probably the best idea not to read any further. For everyone else, I hope you enjoy it. And whether you agree with my opinions or not, hopefully it'll stir up some good-natured debate amongst us all. So let's get started with the first one.


Friday the 13th

In 1979, Sean Cunningham decided that he was going to, in the words of screenwriter Victor Miller, "Rip off Halloween". They quickly came up with a story, got together with an unknown group of young actors & filmmakers and produced it. The film follows a group of camp counselors who are preparing Camp Crystal Lake for reopening, but instead they're knocked off one by one by an unseen killer. At the end of the film, it's revealed to be an older woman named Mrs. Voorhees, who blames the camp counselors for her son Jason drowning at the camp three decades earlier. She takes her revenge on them, but she's eventually stopped and killed by the lone survivor Alice.

Friday the 13th

Looking back on it comparatively, Friday the 13th actually opens very much like Halloween. There's the beginning of the film, which takes place in the past in first-person view of the unknown killer, as well as the flash forward to the present with a girl walking through town, not unlike Laurie Strode from Halloween. However, this is where the film severs its visual detachment from that film. From this point on it follows its own route without heavy-handed allusions to other horror films (despite there being a nod to The Shining when Mrs. Voorhees is trying to break the pantry door down with an axe and afterwards peering in at Alice).

There are plenty of good things to like about this first film. There's quite a bit of set-up and building the suspense up in the story. There's the character of Ralph, the doom-prophesizing old geezer who seems to materialize out of nowhere at times. There's also a great little group of actors, including a young Kevin Bacon in one of his first films. There's some fantastic special effects from Tom Savini, as well as Harry Manfredini's signature score, which would more or less stick for the rest of the series. So yeah, there's plenty to like. It's in some of the technical and plot details where the movie fails a bit for me and doesn't hold up as well as it should.

The one thing to remember here though is that when this film was being made, there were no thoughts of this becoming a huge movie franchise. Sean Cunningham himself thought that the idea of bringing Jason to the forefront as a killer who had somehow survived drowning and was living in the wilderness was ludicrous and that it wouldn't work, a view shared by many others who worked on the original film. This was nothing more than a low-budget horror film designed to cash in on the success of its predecessor Halloween. It's just that simple, and the filmmakers aren't coy about admitting to it either. However, now that there's a long-running series of films, minor details become more crucial when they're all stacked up together. Continuity issues with the story are probably the biggest flaw of the series, among many other things.

The biggest flaw of the first film, at least to me, is that the killer is being built up visually as a man. If you look closely, the killer is not only dressed like a man but also the hands of a man are doing the killing. Most of us probably already know that it was prosthetic and special effects maestro Tom Savini doing the kills for the most part, but for a film that's trying to follow a story thread as much as this one does, this jumps out at me as a major error. That's why it really comes out of left field when you find out that it's a middle-aged crazy woman. In a twisted sort of way, the killings are very efficient, and the killer doesn't really waste time or effort in carrying them out. That's why I've never quite fully bought the reveal of Jason's mother, especially when she's clumsily trying to kill Alice. At one point she has her cornered and there's no way that she's able to get away, and Mrs. Voorhees does nothing more than smack her around. Or how about the moment when she amusingly tries to stab her on the beach with the end of a broken oar? It's a bit of a let-down, but I don't hold it too harshly against the film.

I also find it strange that the family that owns Crystal Lake, the Christy's, is never mentioned again in the sequels. In fact, this particular spot of land seems to change hands with different owners without even a mention. Details like this are mostly minor and frivolous, but even a slight mention of it would have made the sequels tie in to the first film a bit more directly. There are also all sorts of visual continuity errors from film to film as well, such as the fact that there's a different Camp Crystal Lake sign in nearly every film. Other minor details are simply forgotten or brushed over in the sequels, which is to me why the first film doesn't really feel like the first film. Overall, it's a mixed bag of great special effects and questionable minor details, at least as they apply to the sequels.

However, none of these things were much of a factor when the film was released on May 9, 1980. It was one of the first independent films to be released nationally across the country, and the investment paid off. Friday the 13th brought in big profits, along with an awareness that films like it were great business for teenagers on a Friday night. Soon after, a sequel was developed without the involvement of the original director, who wasn't happy with the direction that it would take. Despite it being held up as a classic, I don't like the first film as much as I do a some of the sequels that followed.


Friday the 13th, Part 2

Frank Mancuso Jr., the head of Paramount Pictures at the time, wasted no time in following through on the success of the previous film, and less than a year later, Friday the 13th Part 2 made its debut. Taking place in an area just a stone's throw away from Camp Crystal Lake, this film follows a group of camp counselors in training, but when they disturb Jason's neck of the woods, the murder spree continues.

Friday the 13th, Part II

Almost unwittingly, Part 2 seems more like a proper slasher film than its predecessor, as well as a better film in general. Not only did it have a higher budget, but it also focused a bit more on the characters. You got to know them a bit, and they weren't just the clichéd partying teenagers looking to get wasted and screw around all night long. They seem more like real people. They did take the sexual plunge, of course, but it feels more believable comparatively. It's great to see at least one of these films have not just characterization, but motivation as well. For instance, Ginny and Paul, the head counselors, have a strange relationship with each other, and you can tell that there's some sort of rift between them involving something we know nothing about. Paul's motivation throughout the film is to make her like him again and Ginny's motivation is to try and get over whatever the problem is between them. It's not mentioned out loud in detail, but it's there for those paying close attention. You just don't find that kind of subtlety in any of these films.

The rest of the characters are interesting too, even the half naked girl who contributes nothing most of the time except to be eye candy. Her motivation is to try and win Scott, who's after her in a big bad way. The skinny redheaded guy, Ted, is out to have a good time, and is genuinely funny and likable. The motivation of the wheelchair-bound guy, Mark, is to be more than what he is and ultimately get out of the wheelchair, and his love interest is intrigued by him because of this. However, it's the other couple in the film that don't seem to fit into this more realistic scheme too well. They like to cause trouble, and you can tell that about them immediately. They feel shoehorned in just to get the plot underway, but at least they have some sort of purpose because they're useless otherwise. When Paul warns the group not to trespass near Camp Crystal Lake, these two do just that. And by doing so, they invade Jason's home turf.

Part 2 also has some distinguishable visual flair, and that's saying a lot for a series that's looked down on justifiably for being so cheaply made. Thanks mostly goes to Steve Miner, who would go on to direct the next film, as well. The film also borrows a couple of deaths from the Mario Bava giallo classic Twitch of the Death Nerve. In particular, the double impalement of the troublesome couple with a spear, as well as the infamous machete to the face of the kid in the wheelchair. The kills aren't quite as bloody or as gory as the first film because of the MPAA coming down hard on the final cut, but they seem to have more of an impact.

The film's biggest problem for most people at the time (especially the people that made the first film) was that Jason was alive somehow despite drowning in 1957. It's a bit of a logical lapse, but for me personally I've just always assumed Jason to be a supernatural force of some kind anyway, considering how much damage he can dish out as well as take. I don't think a normal human being could squeeze someone's skull in and make their eyes pop out (not that the filmmakers really had that in mind at the time). Like the fourth entry later, this film has a group of teenagers that we like and we don't necessarily want to see them meet an early demise, especially Amy Steel's character. She's not the typical heroine and she adds a bit of substance to the film. It's also nice that they set her up early on as someone who's studying child psychology, which she uses to her advantage against Jason. She understands him, as evidenced in the bar scene where she talks about his relationship with his mother. It's very clever and well set up. I also prefer Jason's look in this film, with the potato sack over his head, and not because it's a slight take on The Town That Dreaded Sundown, but because it's not the hockey mask for once. It's just too bad that they couldn't focus their efforts on coming up with a more satisfying ending that made a little bit more sense, but I digress.

Released on April 30, 1981, Friday the 13th Part 2 once again brought in the revenues, and I think it's pretty apparent that I'm a big fan of this film. Nearly all aspects of it work perfectly for me, and it feels more like a film than just a generic slasher. I'm sure that the filmmakers were only merely concerned with making an entertaining slasher movie without much thought into how it was constructed, but it doesn't matter because they did well on all fronts. It's one of the underappreciated films in the series, at least compared to The Final Chapter and The New Blood, but Part 2 is really where this series begins for me. It's not a carbon copy of the first film but it carries more genuine suspense and is much a better film by comparison. It's a shame that this couldn't be latched onto in the sequels that followed. After this film, Jason is nothing more than a killing machine with no psychological nuances. He simply kills to kill, to the point where it became a bit of joke later on. The kills also became bigger and broader and seemed to have little to no substance or reason. Admittedly, this isn't a series that really goes for that kind of thing, but I just wonder what it would have been like if it had, which brings me to Part 3.


Friday the 13th, Part 3 (3-D)

The third outing from Jason & Co. is probably my second least favorite of the entire series, mainly because it's such a drop off in quality from its predecessor. The direction that Part 2 took seemed like a good way to go for the series, at least to me. It was well-made, well-shot, had some nice characterization and wasn't chock-full of horror clichés. Its strong storytelling aspects were completely ditched because the focus of Part 3 was to make the gimmicky 3-D work. The story itself is about a girl who returns to the area of Crystal Lake after having been attacked by a strange man in the woods there long ago. Her and her friends stay in a farm house nearby, and one by one, Jason takes them out.

Friday the 13th, Part III - 3D

I'll go ahead and start this off by saying that I mostly dislike 3-D, whether its being used as a storytelling tool or as simply a gimmick. It doesn't ever fully work no matter how it's being used, and usually story is sacrificed because of it. Just look at Avatar, which used the 3-D to tell its story, but that story was so simple-minded that it was ridiculous. On the other hand, there's the gimmicky 3-D, as used in Friday the 13th Part 3. Characters spend their time awkwardly sticking objects toward the camera lens, such as when Jason fires a harpoon directly at the camera. It's cheesy, and definitely doesn't add anything in 2-D. I've attempted to watch the film in 3-D a couple of times, but it ended up giving me a headache more than anything.

As a consequence, everything else in the film suffers. The dialogue is probably some of the most atrocious of any of the films. For instance, blood drips from the ceiling and a character asks out loud to themselves "where is this coming from?". The delivery of the dialogue isn't much better, as evidenced by the lead actress. The characters are also more thinly-drawn. They have no substance or character motivation, except Shelly, who just wants to be accepted. The problem is that he intentionally scares and angers everyone around him all the time, and is sad when no one understands. Logic is also thrown straight out of the window in this one, just to have more scare value (albeit cheaply). This is also the film where Jason becomes a Timex watch (you know their slogan so I don't need to repeat it). He's bashed in the head, hanged and takes an axe to the face, yet somehow survives it all. I guess this is where his supernatural abilities come into play. Yeah sure, whatever. They even did a bit of retconning at the beginning of the film, tossing out the final moments of Part 2.

To be fair, there are some unintentionally funny things and moments throughout the film, including the film's uncredited actor, the barn. For some reason or another, the barn plays a significant role in the film because everyone is attracted to it like ants to sugar. People go inside it for no reason other than because it's there. Shelly even knows where the light switch in the barn is, even though he's never been in there before. It's where Jason does most of his dirty work in the film and where he seems to be hiding out at times, but it feels like the film is trying its hardest to include it as a main character. There's also that terrible moment at the end of the film when Jason's mother pops up out of the water to grab Chris, which is a carbon copy of the first film when young Jason pops up out of the water and grabs Alice. Why they decided to do this is beyond me. It's negated in the next scene anyways and makes no sense whatsoever.

Even though I dislike a lot of the things about the film, there are some good points to it. The characters and situations themselves don't feel like familiar territory. Sure it's a group of teenagers getting together for a good time, but they don't feel clichéd. We have the lead who's been away for a while (presumably in a mental hospital, but that's just a guess), her love interest who really isn't much of an interest to her at all (and a bit of a wuss for a so-called "country boy"), the pregnant couple, the awkward guy who never learned how to socialize with other people, the lonely girl who sees nothing in the lonely guy but friendship, and finally, the older-looking pot-smoking couple (why are they in this group of people?). So this isn't just another set of promiscuous and rebellious teenagers looking for a good time with lots of sex, drugs and alcohol. It's very tame in that regard. There's also the biker gang, who are only around to increase the film's body count and contribute nothing to the overall plot.

The special effects themselves are about average. The only death sequences in the film really worth mentioning would be Andy's character being split in half and Debbie's character taking a machete through the chest from underneath. I like that the film has the guts to kill a pregnant woman, even though she doesn't look pregnant. The best thing about the film overall is the opening and closing theme, which is catchy and funky. The score is pretty much the same, but that funky intro and outro is quite terrific (not that it improved the film all that much).

Making its way into theaters on August 13, 1982, Friday the 13th Part 3 wasn't as stellar a hit as its predecessors but it did pretty good business considering. The critics hated it (like they did all of the films) but the fans generally seemed to get into it. The sequels always have their pros and cons, and while some are better than others, some are just not that great. Part 3 falls into the latter category for me. However, it's not the worst film in the series. It's definitely worth watching, but when you're having a marathon of these movies, you can't wait to get to the next one.

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