Image taken from Syfy.com (The most famous non-Canadian to wear a hockey mask…)
Slasher films often have an unfavorable opinion among many critics past and present. Sure, several have been undeniably praised like the first Halloween, first Texas Chainsaw Massacre and first Nightmare on Elm Street. You can even argue that Psycho and Alien are on the cusp of inhabiting the same genre as Micheal, Leatherface, Freddy and the rest. No one would dare say a bad word nowadays to those films.
Jason stands unique in one way. None of his films have quite gotten the same lofty acclaim as the slashers mentioned above. Yes, the first and sixth films do sorta get over the bar of being considered “guilty pleasures” at least but this long running, twelve entry series continues to fight past a stigma which endures to this day. Does it need to, though?
Friday the 13th is a series where even its worst entries have some redeeming entertainment value, if only in parts rather than the whole package. For most, the first eight entries under Paramount’s banner are the definitive exploits of the slasher(s) that have haunted Camp Crystal Lake. For Halloween this year, I managed to watch the first seven movies.
I didn’t see the eighth, as even among the fanbase that is a divisive entry mostly lending to how our undead serial killer didn’t actually “take” Manhattan as the title promised. One day I might, but most recommend the first seven, the tenth(Jason X), and maybe Freddy vs. Jason.
As I run through my thoughts on each movie, I’ll try to see, from the perspective of a man born after the series was in full bloom why they remain so appealing even now. Is it dumb fun? 80s’ nostalgia? Something deeper going on despite its artistically shallow appearance? Time to find out. For a series this size, one part won’t be enough.
Friday the 13th (1980)
Image from Looper (If Scream hasn’t already spoiled who the first movie’s killer is by now, you’re more hopeless than the majority of the cast.)
Friday the 13th is a ripoff of Halloween. Not just the first movie, almost the entire series. The big changes are Jason becoming something more than human over the series’ progression and that it is set almost entirely within campgrounds and woods rather than small-town U.S.A.
I’m not knocking the series for that. There were a lot of slasher films that capitalized on Halloween’s genre defining approach to a masked killer gradually picking his/her way through victim after victim. It’s just that Friday the 13th did it the coolest of the imitators. Save for Nightmare on Elm Street, no slasher series came close to reputation. It arguably surpassed it at least in notoriety.
That’s funny, because the original FT13 killer is female, unmasked and unrevealed until the final girl ( the name for the often female sole survivor of these movies) discovers to her horror that a seemingly nice middle-aged woman has been the cause of all her friends’ deaths. Why did Pamela Vorhees kill? All because of little Jason.
In case you still don’t know the basic background behind the man behind the mask, Jason was a physically and mentally deformed child growing up in the 50s. While at summer camp, the poor child was left to drown unattended in Crystal Lake while the counselor’s meant to take care of them were off having sex.
Ms. Vorhees returned the favor for those two inattentive counselors the following year. And so the legacy of the campground began.
For a film that doesn’t involve Jason, it still begins many of the tropes, cliches and moments that would define the series. A group of teenagers/young adults arrive at a semi-isolated campground officially to get ready for the kids going to summer camp later but really to hang out, drink, have sex, imbibe in drugs, or just be what their hormonal instincts expect them to be.
They come in various forms. There’s the stoner, the jokester, the shy one, the horny one, the horny couple, the jock, the bitch, and then there’s the protagonist. The last one, mostly coming as a female, is the one who will at least survive the longest, likely won’t have sexual relations of any kind( beyond hand holding and kissing) and they will probably be most of all the least annoying. All so you actually don’t want Jason or in this case his mother, to kill her.
The original Friday the 13th has an early 80s charm which manages to get around the fact that compared to the numerous follow-ups is kind of slow. The kills are mostly unimpressive save for an incredible one involving Kevin Bacon in his first starring role.
There’s a sense of the filmmakers starting off raw when it comes to the formula. It’s unlikely that Sean Cunningham, the film’s director, nor anyone else knew that a franchise was in the making, but for those with the foreknowledge of how large the series will become, it can feel like an unrefined beginning.
Perhaps it is the slow, methodical cinematography and less emphasis on the spectacle of the kills and more of a mystery of why the counselors are dying and from who that is the reason modern critics are kinder to the original than the others. Fans of the series, while certainly respectful of the original, don’t seem to consider the first on the same “fun factor” as the later increasingly less serious entries.
I’m in the same camp. The six films I saw after the original are all better at pulling off the eventual formula the series would repeat, have a faster pace and become genuinely more enjoyable for the schlock it is.
Friday the 13th Part II (1981)
Image from Consequence of Sound (No, Jason is not a Klansman in this movie. I don’t even think he knows what racism is, not that it matters…)
Friday the 13th part II, while more enjoyable and perhaps better than the first for my tastes is a pitch perfect example of “close, but no cigar.” Just the fact that Jason hasn’t yet worn the hockey mask yet exemplifies that.
So, Jason is and has been alive for almost 30 years by the point part II takes place and after being stuck living in the woods for all those years, he finally finds his dear mother… at the point the first movie’s final girl Alice killed her.
Shocked, dismayed and pissed, Jason manages to track down Alice several months after the events of the first movie and introduce her to an icepick. Yes, Jason’s first confirmed kill of the entire series was the sole survivor of the first movie.
In all quasi-fairness, Jason is beginning his never-ending crusade of vengeance for his mother’s death and the horrible circumstances that led Jason to be where he’s at in the first place, starting with his supposed drowning and those inattentive young adults.
Jason is also mentally handicapped where the higher functioning parts of his brain are relegated to creativity regarding killing, placement of victims and an astonishing stealthiness for a guy so large and tall as him. He doesn’t really begin to have teleporting powers until he becomes undead so maybe you can chalk up the supernatural to his more out there traits.
Who’s to say that Jason’s decades long survival up to this point wasn’t already supernatural to begin with? Does it matter?
One thing that becomes abundantly clear going forward in part II is the series’, shall I say, selective interest in continuity. Oddly enough that factors into the charm, for what it’s worth to me. Friday the 13th took place in 1980( though there’s evidence in the fourth it was 1979). part II takes place five years later, so it is 1985 in a movie made in 1981.
I suppose time hasn’t passed too much to make the setting not make sense. It does make a new summer camp being opened right next to the old, bloody one sensible enough. The real chronological confusion, assuming you let that keep you down which it shouldn’t, is yet to come.
So, who are Jason’s first set of victims and near-victims? Well, aside from poor Alice, there is actually several adults which are over the age of 40. Crazy Ralph, the local nutcase from the original who correctly proclaims doom to those who visit Crystal Lake sadly doesn’t take his own advice much to Jason’s convenience. Even the middle-aged cop authority figure who frowns upon the new set of teens drinking, toking and sexing is not free from Jason’s vengeance.
The only way to meet Jason and live is to be a final girl or boy, his mother or a kid though though that last rule only starts applying by the sixth movie. The movie throws some curve-balls to those expecting a full onslaught of the slasher movie conventions, which are still present. The final girl or boy is often the character that doesn’t imbibe in any of those nasty vices. No sex, no drug use, no alcohol.
Ginny, this movie’s final girl, does partake in two out of three of those things and has a boyfriend which while she does not sleep with, certainly was planning on. Maybe the formula was still being tweaked early on or maybe the conventions need not be followed that closely, if only for novelty’s sake.
Even crazier is that Jason only hunts down half of the new camp counselor’s in training. Half of the group goes into town to have more of that sordid teenage fun safely away from Jason’s stomping grounds. One of them is the goofy comic relief who you would imagine must die by Jason’s hands as well as an unnamed black guy and Asian gal. The black guy not only didn’t die first, he didn’t die at all. Good on you, Friday the 13th part II!
One crucial aspect I enjoy in all the films is how there is a very identifiable structure which is actually enjoyable in its repetition. The films mostly start before night falls and you get the line of future victims arriving and settling in to what will be the location of Jason’s hunt.
You get some but not too much background on the youthful party and some new information or reiteration of Jason and his growing legacy. Night falls and slowly but surely Jason goes to work.
It’s not just seeing how Jason does in his targets that is part of the subversive entertainment, it’s when do the character(s) that will survive start to notice something is off? It’s rather remarkable, perhaps due to Jason’s expertise at stealth, that it always takes awhile for the group to realize that something has gone terribly wrong.
Finally, those that will likely survive the night start discovering the bodies that Jason will almost certainly put on display for some and it becomes a chase movie. For those who don’t particularly care for the slasher genre, here’s something to chew on.
Take the first Terminator for example. Some would argue the film is a slasher due to involving a nigh unstoppable killer on the loose, a group of victims start piling up and eventually in the first movie’s case, it’s the final girl left to contend with a monster. Sarah Conner got the T-800, Ginny is the first to get Jason.
She will be the first to totally survive the series and more than likely will retreat to a place in the world where Jason won’t follow, assuming her killing blow wasn’t a killing blow. Surprise, surprise, Jason isn’t finished and next time he is getting a world renowned wardrobe change.
Friday the 13th part III
Image from DailyDead (Jason’s gonna get you…IN 3DDDDDDDDDD!!!!!!)
Even though I believe the discerning viewer should at least watch the first seven movies, part III is the entry where the series comes into it’s own. It’s the one where Jason gets the first of several hockey masks and man does he look burly as all hell in this one. All the better.
In case you didn’t know or forgot, you are to be forgiven if you did, there was a short lived revival of 3D movies in American cinemas in the early 80s. Amityville had a 3D film, Jaws had a 3D film and Jason had to have a 3D film. OK, no he didn’t but it does give this entry a notable identity other than more or less perfecting the formula for movies to come and getting our favorite villain a proper mask.
You can still find versions of FT13P3 that has a 3D format accompanied with charmingly retro 3D glasses. Now I can’t help but imagine a masked Jason with them. However I watched the 2D format on a rental from Amazon Prime. The movie still works, though the parts where they keep throwing objects at the camera in an attempt to make use of the gimmick are super obvious and super enjoyable for how stupid they often are.
Everything from a kid prepping a baseball bat for a swing to a super fake snake jumping out at you to yo-yos to my favorite that doesn’t involve youth corrupting acts of violence, an aerial shot of popcorn being popped. Obviously the appeal of 3D for Friday the 13th or really any slasher film is seeing a weapon Jason uses being flung right at your face.
The standout moment is the harpoon gun firing right at a poor girl and seeing the harpoon hit the screen and then getting Jason another one for the eventually absurd tally. That this is preceded by Jason’s first appearance with the hockey mask is the icing on the vicariously fun cake.
Again, I have to note the oddly enjoyable pacing of these films as all of them, at least all of the ones I watched clock in at around an hour and 30 minutes. Seeing the setup, sun going down, night beginning and guessing who will go first and how they will go; it’s a cyclical dance that Jason plays for both his fictional victims and for the audience.
The third final girl is Chris, who is indeed referred to in the masculine despite showing little to no tomboyish traits, aside from an honestly awesome commitment to overcome Jason. I don’t know how much it is acknowledged the satisfaction one can feel in having the one that survives and even defeat Jason or any slasher figure be female.
I would not suggest any feminist message in it, as there is the allegory of the final girl’s survival signifying her not committing any of the vices of her peers, which isn’t even entirely true through the whole series as mentioned when discussing part II.
Then again, while they do often scream under the circumstances( who the hell would blame her or any other FG), their ability to think on the spot, set traps and eventually overcome the big brute is honestly a commendable convention if you think about it. Maybe there is some grain of feminism that can be correctly correlated, regardless of all the instances of somewhat shameless and quite shameless nudity and sex involved.
Part III is the beginning most of all, of a visual legacy for Jason and his series. The mask is finally here, the pieces of the dumb fun puzzle are fully in place and it is a question of what they do next time and the time after next time to keep the series fresh enough to be great, for what it is.