In honor of a year with not one but three Friday the 13ths, the Movie Sleuth will be reviewing every Friday the 13th film over the course of the next month.
The first five appearing today, and the second five to be released in March on Friday the 13th. Enjoy, and let the bloody good times roll.
Friday the 13th (1980) — directed by Sean S. Cunningham
The one that started it all! Unless you take into account that the first sequel directly steals a kill from Mario Bava's Bay of Blood (which was 1971, seven years before Halloween). Nothing in this classic mess of mayhem and mischief is original. Does it matter? Not so much. Time and nostalgia has been kind to the original Friday the 13th, and by now, this series has achieved a status that makes it critic-proof. Sean S. Cunningham's film may now be widely regarded as one of the better made entries in this genre, but at the time, pissed-off critics went so far as to publish his home address so outraged parents would have somewhere to send their hate mail. After all, we can't have directors making films about faceless killers slashing teenagers to death for no reason. That makes me mad. But it was okay when Halloween did it.
Seriously, what was up with parents in the 80s? Protesting this series, throwing tantrums over Silent Night, Deadly Night… They're just movies! Try raising your kids to know the difference! No wonder we're all so screwed up. Did you know there are still people who think Dirty Dancing is a good movie? Rant concluded.
What can I even say about this film that hasn't already been said in no fewer than two special edition releases on home video chockablock full of behind the scenes documentaries? Everyone and Jason Voorhees' mother knows this film back to front, right down to who the killer is. Plot is beside the point, so the point becomes this: Does it do what it does well, and does it hold up today? Yes and no. It suffers now—and certainly suffered then—from a lack of originality by stretching the premise of Halloween’s opening shot out to a feature-length run time. But the biggest faux pas is simply that it pulls one of the cheapest moves in mystery storytelling by not even introducing the killer until the end. Boooooo!! However, when the killer does show up, it’s game on, and it’s a doozy.
The real stars of this film are Tom Savini and Betsy Palmer. Savini’s makeup effects elevate the material as a whole, as well as gave birth to the visage of Jason that we all remember scarring our childhood in the closing moments. Betsy Palmer’s performance as Mrs. Voorhees is a milestone in the genre. To this day, she is genuinely creepy and very effective in a role she only accepted because she believed no one would see it. But see it they did, even if screenwriter Victor Miller did use every cliche in the book, including the “it was all dream” gimmick. Again: Boooooo!!!
Friday the 13th: Part 2 (1981) — directed by Steve Miner
Rushed into the theaters the very next year, Steve Miner took over Sean Cunningham’s opus and brought Jason back to life in the form of the Elephant Man. Instead of the iconic hockey mask everyone recognizes today, Jason’s first appearance as an adult looks more like someone’s inbred cousin found an old flour sack and decided to go on a rampage. While certainly not as marketable of a visage, it works for this film, but it does raise a lot of questions. For instance: If Jason didn’t die, why did he choose to grow up in the woods in a shack made from spare parts? If Jason didn’t die but did see his mother get beheaded, which caused him to go berserk and murder people… why did he care about that, but not care enough to go back to his mother while she was still alive? If you bring logic into this, it’ll tear the fabric of reality apart faster than you can say “Game Over.”
It’s a lot easier if you just come into this with the mindset that Jason is already some kind of zombie, or better yet: Who cares? Because blood, boobs, and that one girl’s ass that’s so nice it gets its own closeup. We get sex, skinny dipping, throat slicing, and pitchfork killings. Because reasons. It’s not like we care about the story anyway, even if this sequel does an exceptional job of telling it, and moves toward establishing even more tropes of the genre. The campfire sequence alone, in which Jason’s mythos is elevated to the level of cautionary folklore, sets the tone for the whole series.
As sequel entries to Friday the 13th go, this one is the closest to the original. It has the same look and feel, but brought to life by a more talented director with a gift for visuals that Cunningham in all his self-promoting glory just doesn’t have. One could argue that the film had double the budget of its predecessor, so of course it will have a more refined look. The original was shot for $550,000. I would remind them that Halloween looked better than Friday the 13th with almost half of that budget. It’s not the camera you’re shooting with; it’s the talent behind it. The extra money sure didn’t go into the acting or the makeup effects, I can guarantee you that. Despite its flaws, this is a sequel and an equal. If you watch it as a double feature with The Burning (made the same year and with Tom Savini behind its effects), you’ll find your mind blown by one scene in particular that both films share. And I don’t mean they have “similar scenes.” I mean it is the same, beat for beat, despite being written at about the same time and released within months of each other. I’ll leave it to you to decide which film does it better.
Friday the 13th: Part 3D (1982) — directed by Steve Miner
The first and only film in the series to succumb to the gimmick of 3D during its resurgence in the 80s, Friday the 13th: Part 3 is when Jason officially became a household name. This is when he puts on the iconic hockey mask for the first time and made movie history. Aside from that, does it have anything new to offer? Not really, but there’s an irreverence to the material this time, again directed by Steve Miner, that’s both refreshing and kind of awesome. Taken for what it is, this could be one of the ultimate drive-in classics. It hits all of the same formula elements and cliches, including a stoner couple that could be the modern day equivalent of Fred and Wilma—The Flintstoned’s—and gives us one of the absolute worst performances of all-time by a leading actress. Dana Kimmell is so bad, the only thing missing is the line “You are tearing me apart, Jason!” Her flashback scene could be used to teach an acting course called “Don’t Let This Happen to You.”
Like all films from this bygone era of 3D, there’s enumerable shots of people randomly shoving phallic objects in the camera’s face to the point where you’d almost rather be watching the mentally scarring money shot from Enter the Void. Almost. Taken without the 3D for the whole experience, these shots come off as stilted padding, but when Miner isn’t dangling a yo-yo in front of our face for minutes at a time, he pulls off some genuinely inspired visuals that work no matter what number dimension you’re in. The handstand kill is a winner-winner chicken dinner that’s always referenced whenever someone thinks of the best kills in slasher history.
Friday the 13th: Part 3 is the first film of the series to buckle up and go balls to the wall, accepting that it is what it is, and nothing more. Though I’m still perplexed at why the filmmakers decided to retcon a portion of Jason’s backstory, including his appearance. This would be a little more acceptable had they not recapped the last film to remind us he wore the burlap sack and country bumpkin overalls, but when you take into account that he would’ve had to not only change his clothes but also retroactively shave his head… I’m bringing logic into this again, aren’t I? Who cares about logic? If the screenwriters didn’t, why should I? In their eyes, the fun to be had by watching Jason actually run trumps logic nine times out of ten. I’m inclined to agree.
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) — directed by Joseph Zito
Just writing the title down makes me snicker. Final Chapter, my ass. Actually, Friday the 13th: Part 3 was originally going to be the final part of a trilogy, but was so immensely popular that a fourth film became a priority for the producers, and for that, we thank you. Part 4 is the distilled culmination of three screenplays trying to get this formula perfect. They nail it here, and in the process we get a couple of characters that we can actually identify with. Holy balls, I actually said that. In addition to the usual walking archetypes—the stoner, the jock, the hot chick, the virgin, the male underwear model—we get Crispin Glover and Corey Feldman, who not only manage to navigate the career minefield of a Friday the 13th film, but escape it with dignity. If only there was a scene where Crispin barged in on Jason strangling the hot twin to death, and yelling, “Hey you! Get your damn hands off her,” followed by shitting his McFly pants, that would’ve been a time capsule for the ages.
This time out, the director’s chair is filled by Joseph Zito. For a man who claims to have had no ideas going into this project, he knocks it out of the park. He begins by setting a tone of imminent dread with a virtuoso tracking shot that picks up the night that Part 3 ended. It takes us on a tour of death and rampage in its cleanup phase, with paramedics and police officers running amuck with a sense of palpable urgency, and ending on the image of Jason’s body being covered with a sheet. As the emergency vehicles disappear into the night, their colored lights and sirens fading into the distance, Zito holds on a shot of peaceful darkness and tranquility. It’s as if nothing ever happened here now. This moment hits a note that the rest of the film cannot possibly hope to measure up to, and it’s the closest the series ever comes to approaching “Art.”
The rest of the film is standard fare, but really well done. Zito and his cinematographer, along with stuntman Ted White behind the hockey mask, visualize Jason as a menacing specter in the darkness, ready to jump out and crush your skull in the shower right after you get laid. There are some terrific visual moments, the kills are top-notch, Tom Savini’s makeup effects are superb, and the entire film overall is just a pleasure to sit through. It’s dated and trite, yes, but it’s got a charm and a craftsmanship to it that very few films in this series can match. If someone asked me which sequel best sums up the whole deal, this is it.
Friday the 13th: Part V — A New Beginning (1985) — directed by Danny Steinmann
When you bring up this movie, the usual reaction from fans is “Why, God, why?!” This is widely accepted as being the low point of the series. I honestly could not disagree more. The worst by far is yet to come. Time has been kinder to this movie than some of the other turd burgers that would later be slapped with the Friday the 13th moniker and defecated into theaters. A New Beginning represents exactly that, an attempt by the filmmakers to bring the series back to the roots of the original, driving the narrative with a mystery plot. We don’t know who the killer is in this one… or at least we aren’t supposed to. I think. The director telegraphs this punch so far in advance with a fourth wall-smashing closeup, he must think subtlety is a type of caffeinated beverage.
Years have passed, Jason is still dead, Corey Feldman’s character of Tommy Jarvis is now a grown dude who somehow managed to get ripped while brooding in his bedroom like Sarah Connor waiting for Judgment Day. He pretty much exists to bring the established hook in from the previous film, look sad, have Jason hallucinations—halluci-Jasons?—and eventually contributes absolutely nothing in the final act. Surrounding him are the usual cookie cutter problem children in a country house (in the woods, of course) pulling double duty as a mental institution and halfway house. I think it’s safe to say a place like this wouldn’t exist in any current reality, and it certainly would not occupy its inhabitants’ time with activities that involve using an axe.
Front and center in this film are hillbilly stereotypes and Melanie Kinnaman, whose wet t-shirt contest temper tantrum scenes are the bookend to Dana Kimmell’s hilariously bad monologue delivery in Part 3. I mention these two things because they are the only elements that prevent this film from being completely forgettable. I laugh so hard watching this movie that it could almost work as a straight comedy. The makeup effects are so bad when you actually get to see them—thanks, MPAA!!—that they’re punchlines all on their own. I suppose if I had two recommend this film for two reasons, it would be Deborah Voorhees. Yes, that’s actually her name, and yes, I did say two reasons in reference to one person. I’ll leave you to figure that out for yourself.
-Blake O. Kleiner