Friday, May 13, 2011

The Day You Count On For Terror Is Not Over

The murderous exploits of Jason Voorhees have spread out over so many films over the years that on this Friday the 13th, I thought it was worth remembering a time when the iconic character - and the Friday franchise - was still a fresh presence on the horror landscape.

In 1981, Friday the 13th Part 2 was released - not only was it the first Friday sequel but it was also the first slasher sequel. With its script by Ron Kurz and Phil Scuderi, Part 2 created a mythology that would steer this series into the annals of history as one of horror's most successful and long-running franchises.

Steve Miner, an associate producer on the first film, took over directing duties when Sean Cunningham was reluctant to encore on the sequel. Smartly taking a "if it isn't broke, don't fix it" approach, Miner aimed to deliver more of the same in terms of what made the first film successful (good looking teens and twentysomethings getting slaughtered) while striving to apply a little more craft behind the camera.

Miner shows his directorial chops up front in a lengthy and suspenseful opening sequence that reintroduces surviving Final Girl Alice (Adrienne King), now living alone after the traumatic events of the first film, trying to get her life back together, only to find Mrs. Voorhees decapitated head in her refrigerator. Jason finishes off his mother's killer with an ice pick to the temple and after a fade to white, the title sequence kicks in.

The movie picks up five years later as a new group of camp counselors are gathering for training near the area once known as "Camp Blood." Too near to it for many locals, including the sheriff and town looney Crazy Ralph, who both spread the word in their own way that setting up shop so close to troubled grounds is only inviting that same trouble to return. But do these kids listen? No, for them Mrs. Voorhees' killing spree is old business and any notion that her son might be prowling the woods is ridiculous - the stuff of campfire tales and local superstition. As practical joker and electronic game enthusiast Ted (Stu Charno) dismissively snorts: "five years ago, some girl fell out of a canoe." As the saying goes, those who ignore history are bound to repeat it.

Child psychology student and head assistant counselor Ginny (Amy Steel) is a little more thoughtful on the subject of Jason, seeking to put the legend "in real terms." Her mini-speech about the man-child she imagines the adult Jason to be isn't so flattering - calling him "a frightened retard" just ain't nice - but it's the only time in the series that anyone tries to wax philosophical about the character.

What Miner, Kurz, and Scuderi fail to have Ginny address is how Jason could possibly be out there in the first place. The legend of Jason was screwed up from the start but the original series just glossed over this and kept moving. What happens between Friday the 13th 1 and 2 makes absolutely no sense, however, and when the makers of the 2009 remake tried to retell the story, things didn't exactly fall neatly into place.

The trouble is this: for Mrs. Voorhees to be driven to kill anyone who dares to reopen Camp Crystal Lake, a path of vengeance that leads her to eventually be killed by Alice - which then sparks Jason's own bloody retribution - Jason had to have drowned as a child due to neglectful counselors. That's the event that starts everything.

So...ok. But if Jason did die as a boy in 1958, then how did he become a full-grown man? And if he didn't die, what was he doing in the woods from '58 to 1980? And hold on - if he drowned as a kid, why didn't they ever recover the body and give him a proper burial? The thought that Jason's body would have never been retrieved from Crystal Lake is insane. It's not like he fell off a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean - he's in a tiny-ass lake. Has there ever been a drowning victim in a closed body of water that hasn't been able to be recovered? I mean, hell - what kind of mother would Mrs. Voorhees be if she didn't insist on being able to lay her child to rest? Surely not the kind of fiercely devoted mother that we're supposed to believe she is.

What I'm saying is that the conundrums of the Planet of the Apes and Terminator series look as rudimentary as a child's arithmetic homework next to the brain-exploding impossibilities presented by the Friday the 13th series. But that's what happens when you take a sequence that could have only been a dream (Jason's leap from the lake at the end of Friday the 13th) and try to refer to it as being real.

Audiences at the time went along with Jason's return without a fuss and I think that's simply because the final shock of Friday the 13th was so incredible that people just wanted to see more of that character, period. Realism was not going to get in the way of a good boogeyman. It didn't matter that it made no sense that Jason could be alive and be a full-grown adult. The myth that Part 2 lays out is that Jason saw his mother beheaded and subsequently sought out his revenge on anyone coming into his woods. Simple. Easy to understand. Except if you thought about it for even the slightest micro-second.

But hey, in case you hadn't gotten the memo, there's a frightened retard on the loose.

Look, there he goes now!

Back when I first saw Part 2, I thought the sight of Jason's dilapidated shack was so creepy. Looking at it now, my main thought is that this is an awfully big place for a single dude. And again, by having Jason living in a handmade shack they're playing it as though Jason has been living in the woods for years like some cretin hillbilly but...that...doesn't...make...sense...

Of course, it's the body count that matters in a Friday the 13th film, not logic, and Jason dutifully scrubs as many of the film's young counselors as he can, putting up big numbers to match his mother.

It's well-known that the MPAA clamped down hard on this film, causing most of Carl Fullerton's make-up work (most famously, the scene of two lovers impaled by a spear) to disappear into legend before ever seeing the light of a movie screen. At the time, it was disappointing enough to know of the cut footage but today the lack of graphic kills stands out even more. In '81, gore FX were fighting to be seen across the board so even with its truncated bloodletting, Part 2 still kind of delivered the goods. After all, it wasn't every day that you saw a guy get a machete buried in his face. Today, though, in the wake of a decade where the Saw series, the Hostel films, and any number of other bloodbaths - from The Passion of the Christ to the most recent Rambo installment to the 3-D Piranha remake - all skated by the MPAA with ease, Part 2 looks laughably tepid.

Just as it was difficult in 1981 to watch the films of earlier decades and understand how some of them were ever considered shocking, it's sweetly sad to watch Part 2 now and remember that this was notorious fare back in the day. How is it possible that this movie - and, really, the entire early '80s slasher cycle - has now become an example of more innocent times? That's crazy, is what it is.

I don't have to remind any horror fan that Part 2 is the one where Jason sported a burlap sack before he upgraded to a hockey mask. Count me in among the many sack supporters out there. Everyone always cites The Town That Dreaded Sundown as the inspiration for Jason's look here and, hey, it's a real good look to emulate if you want to scare the crap out of people. The hockey mask is what turned Jason into a slasher superhero but the sack with its one eye hole cut out - that's just creepy. I think he rocked that look better than anybody - even better than Joseph Merrick. But that's a close race, I'll grant you.

I doubt if anyone, even very young viewers, who watch the early Fridays for the first time today finds any of them to be scary in the least but those who saw them when they first came out still remember the impact they had and while I think Parts 3, 4, and 5 all managed to produce some decent scares, Part 2 was the last time that the series was truly frightening.

I mean, just the imagery of Jason's candlelit shrine to his mother was so grandly ghoulish - putting the movie, if peripherally, in the company of films like Psycho and Deranged. The subsequent Fridays never approached anything like it.

As someone who was scared shitless by Friday the 13th Part 2 way back when, it's a curious thing to rewatch it now and see it through much different eyes. Other films of similar vintage still hold up today and even if they don't scare me quite as much as they used to, I can still get a buzz of adrenaline from Alien, Halloween, The Fog or even - to a lesser extent - the original Friday the 13th.

Part 2...eh, not so much.

That said, there's still a lot to like about this entry. The sack fits Jason like a glove, Amy Steel was the best Final Girl the series ever had (and it's had a few great ones), and the climatic chase remains exciting.

Horror sequels were once reserved for classic monsters, like Godzilla or Dracula, or for blockbusters like Jaws, not slashers. Even Psycho, the godfather of the modern slasher, never had a sequel until Friday the 13th kicked opened the floodgates. Once both Friday the 13th and Halloween saw their first sequels appear in '81, it was a sign that a new era had arrived. Thirty years later, it's a kick to watch Friday the 13th Part 2 and be reminded of those simpler days. Happy Friday the 13th!



10 comments:

Caffeinated Joe (Wings) said...

Great review!

My take on how the end of part one works with part two is this:

In '58, Jason was in the lake, the counselors weren't watching and everyone thought he drowned. But he somehow made it to a shore, and was even more confused and lost, so he went into the woods to hide. And he never left. Remember, he was "special", so he wasn't thinking normally to begin with and this might have been too much for his brain.

Flash forward to '80s, his mom on a killing spree and telling Alice all about her son who drowned. Alice, in the canoe after all that mayhem, dreams that young Jason pulls her under. But Jason is now an adult in the woods and either watched his mother be killed, or came upon the scene after Alice killed her. He takes her head, but doesn't realize Alice is in the canoe or he can't reach her. Remember, he wasn't the undead zombie yet, so he couldn't just walk through the lake.

He takes the head and waits, then - somehow - finds Alice and gets his revenge and then hightails it back to the lake and his home in the woods.

In the remake, I think they tried to make this all work tighter. Jason had "drowned" sometime in the late 70s. In the beginning of the movie, it is 1980 and Pamela is on her rampage. In this movie, it hasn't been 22 years since Jason's drowned, only either a few years or months. But young Jason watches his mother get killed and grabs her head and runs off into the woods and grows up there.

Then it flashes to the present, where the adult Jason is the "curse of the Lake".

That's how I have always looked at things and it all works for me.

And I loved the burlap sack, too! Not sure what would have happened had Jason kept that and never got the hockey mask. He might have seemed creepier for a longer time instead of maybe becoming a pop culture icon of the slasher films.

Love these movies, anyway. :)

Jeff Allard said...

Good work trying to make sense of Jason's convoluted history, Joe! No matter how hard people try, though, I think all explanations come up a little short. That said, I still love the series as well. The fact that they don't make much sense isn't enough to cancel out their entertainment value or their indispensible nostalgia factor.

As for the sack vs. the hockey mask, I think the series would've faded out after Part 3 or 4 had the hockey mask not become such an iconic image.

Mike/All Things Horror said...

This is my favorite of all the Fridays,with none of the others really being close. Count me in as a big proponent of Team Potato Sack face.

With regards to the film being scary-there's the sequence where Ginny finds Jason's shack, and while she's looking around, you see Jason running towards the cabin while she's completely unaware. That bit STILL gets me every time.

Jeff Allard said...

I love that shot, too, Mike. Miner really came up with some cool moments and overall, Part 2 is a better-directed film than the original. Ultimately, I still favor the first film but I can't fault Miner's work at all. Part 2 is my favorite of the sequels and even though this post makes it sound like I'm a little down on it, I have huge affection for this movie. It's just strange to watch these movies that were once forbidden fruit and see how quaint they now seem!

Caffeinated Joe (Wings) said...

That shot is great, Mike, as is the scene of Jason running across the road and just being glimpsed by the cop. Gotta give that cop kudos for going after the strange man in the woods!

Jeff Allard said...

Too bad he didn't call for some back-up!

J.D. said...

Count me in as another big fan of the Sack Head look. I dig the hockey mask, too but there is something undeniably creepy about that sack!

Excellent indepth look at this film. Man, I haven't watched it in years but you've really inspired me to check it out again. It's been too long.

Jeff Allard said...

Glad you liked the post, J.D.! Honestly, I've probably watched Friday Part 2 more than any other horror movie. It's the definition of comfort food for me!

knobgobbler said...

I'm fine with the idea of them never finding the body... swimming in a haunted pond with a vengeful dead kid at the bottom is a creepy idea.
If someone had begged my 11yr old self to make PT2 I would have kept Jason as a undead mutant boy... living in the lake... wearing his sack, coming out for murder sprees.
Fast moving and sinister... none of that WWF/NHL crossover look.

Jeff Allard said...

The thing with Jason is you're kind of left with two options and neither are very satisfying. One, you say that Jason did drown in 1958 but came back to life when his mother was murdered on the shore of Crystal Lake. Even allowing for the possibility that his body was never recovered way back when, the bigger issue is "how the hell did he grow up?" That's not a common zombie trait, right?

The second option is to say that Jason survived his drowning and had been living in the woods for all those years. But as Tom Savini said in Crystal Lake Chronicles, "For Jason to be around today means what? He survived by living off crawfish on the side of the lake? For thirty-five years? Nobody saw this kid walking around and growing up? It asks you to accept a lot."

I think the remake could have cleaned things up by simply condensing the timeline. I think in the remake, he should have survived his drowning and staggered into the woods, confused. But the very same week that he "died," that's when Mrs. Voorhees goes nuts and tries to take out all the counselors. The Final Girl kills Mrs. Voorhees on the beach, just as Jason staggers out of the woods looking for his mother.

Then, either he takes his mother's head and goes directly into living in the woods (hard to accept but at least his mother wouldn't be out there looking for him and he now has an extra motivation to hide from the world) or he gets taken into the state's custody and, due to his "special" nature, is put in a state hospital from which he breaks out of once he reaches adulthood and begins his killing spree.