Thursday, October 31, 2013

Friday the 13th Marathon

Spoiler Warning: As each title in this series tends to build and expand upon the events and revelations contained in the previous title(s), each of the following reviews may contain spoilers from previous titles in the series.

Friday the 13th (1980)

Friday the 13th follows on the heels of Halloween, further defining what was fast becoming the formula for slasher pics, refining it to the familiar "rowdy teens get offed in the woods one by one" format we all know by heart. Unfortunately, it's also the most over-exposed and easily-parodied of the slasher franchises, and doesn't manage to be as effective as either The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Halloween, despite creating an eerie atmosphere around the iconic setting of Camp Crystal Lake. One thing Friday the 13th does (arguably) have going for it is an actually plausible explanation for the trope that would be brainlessly imitated (and later subverted) ad nauseam by countless slashers to come - namely, that teens who engage in illicit behaviors (drinking, drugs, and especially premarital sex) will be the first to go. That being a crucial part of the premise, it's no surprise that Friday the 13th - more than any other slasher to come before it - built a reputation for itself as an audience-pleasing title that would promise scenes of teenage mischief (including lots of nudity - or at least partial nudity) in addition to more and more imaginative (and eventually ridiculous) kills, for the purpose of dazzling viewers, as much as scaring them, for years to come.

Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)

The fact that the killer in the first Friday the 13th wasn't Jason, but his mother - an older woman - almost seems subversive in hindsight, but there's a reason Pamela Voorhees isn't the figurehead of the franchise. And Jason's shocking appearance at the end of the first movie not only sets up his rise to prominence in the sequel, but serves as one of the most memorable "final scares" (another trope that's since been done to death) in all of horror. If anything, Friday the 13th Part 2 is even better than the first part, with more interesting characters, a better-developed summer camp atmosphere, and the writer's good judgment to frame Jason as the focus of a campfire legend. Here, Jason is less the supernatural force of nature that he would become, and more a simple-minded freak (haunted by memories of his mother) with a penchant for killing, distinguished by the almost comical sack he wears over his head, to protect his vanity. If you only wanted to watch one Friday the 13th movie, this one would not be a bad choice.

Friday the 13th Part III (1982)

What Friday the 13th lacks in quality, it makes up for in quantity, with more and faster sequels than its leading competitors. Which may have been for the best, considering that it's not until the third movie that Jason finally picks up the hockey mask that will come to define his image. And compared to other slasher franchises that seem determined to cash in on former glory with every new sequel, Friday the 13th (or maybe just Jason as a character) is a story that almost seems designed to be developed over multiple titles. That having been said, the series sees a dip in quality with Part III, which at times feels like a self-parody. The expendables are pretty much interchangeable, and their absorption into drugs, sex (take your pick), and/or biker gangs (no kidding) is over-exaggerated. And by this point, Jason's constant skulking around is beginning to get tiresome. Still, it's a thrill to see him finally donning that hockey mask.

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)

Friday the 13th is fond of lengthy recap scenes, to bring the audience up to date with each new installment, and The Final Chapter begins with one of the more effective openings, recycling the campfire story from Part 2. Having endured being hanged and an axe chop to the forehead in the previous installment, Jason's lifeless body is finally taken into custody. But apparently two lechers making out on a stretcher in the morgue is enough to bring his interminable sense of old testament justice back to life. Thankfully, The Final Chapter is a good deal better than Part III, even nearing the level of Part 2 - and with the advantage that Jason's got his iconic mask. In fact, the killer is at his behind-the-scenes best here, only stepping out of the shadows when he's ready to strike. The Final Chapter also stars a chubby-cheeked, preteen Corey Feldman, along with the usual cast of teenagers, who I might add, provide this movie with enough nudity to make it one of the best slashers in terms of the balance between sex and violence. This is easily one of the best Friday the 13th sequels, so enjoy it before the series takes a dive.

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)

In the conclusion to The Final Chapter, little Tommy Jarvis survived by diving a little too far into Jason's headspace. In A New Beginning, he's grown a few years, and that experience has unhinged him. And when he transfers to an out-of-the-way "youth development center", the killings begin again. Has Jason returned from the grave? Like Part III, this film has more of a farm than a lake atmosphere - and, also like Part III, it's not one of the better Friday the 13th sequels. You've got your usual gang of teenagers, except this time they are all "troubled" youth - and the caricatures of mental illness on display aren't all that sensitive. Too many of the actors (oddly, sometimes the non-crazies more than the crazies) oversell their characters, acting as if they're trying to be funny. Even if they succeeded, it wouldn't be the right tone for a Friday the 13th movie, but they don't, and that just hurts the film all the more.

Perhaps the only thing this movie does well is set up the slasher as a mystery. There's enough ambiguity about Jason's death (was Tommy's vision of Jason rising from his grave a memory or just a nightmare? Was Jason really cremated, or is that just a rumor? What exactly was the extent of Jason's off-screen damages at the end of the last movie, and what kind of healing powers does he have anyway?) and plenty of characters built up as red herrings to genuinely leave you guessing (that is, if you're naive enough to think that they'd make a Friday the 13th movie where the killer is NOT Jason). Unfortunately, the movie's just not good enough to make the mystery worth solving. It relies far too heavily on cliches, which comes off as extremely lazy writing. For a movie subtitled "A New Beginning", it doesn't inspire much hope for the future of the franchise.

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

The internal logic that "connects" the Friday the 13th movies was never very strong (in fact, even Jason being a killer in the first place was something of a retcon of the first movie). Here, it's worse than ever, probably on account of the filmmakers disagreeing about where to take the series. Rumor has it that A New Beginning was supposed to usher in the era of a copycat killer posing as Jason, and the real Jason was really supposed to be done in at the end of The Final Chapter. But, as the subtitle to Part VI suggests, Jason's popularity was too great for him to stay dead for very long. And, considering the would-be fatal treatment he endured in Part IV, he's made a remarkable recovery, though he's looking more ghoulish and zombified than ever before. Of course, his indifference to the natural process of death makes him all the more intimidating - woe be to any rebellious teenagers that cross his path. Excitingly, the series is back to the summer camp environment in Part VI - with kids (and not just counselors) for the first time! Plus, Tommy is running around in the background, serving as Jason's primary adversary. Part VI, like Parts 2 and IV before it, understands much of what makes Friday the 13th tick, and knows how to position Jason as the iconic, fan-favored figure he is, although it suffers a little from a conspicuous lack of nudity. It's not the best Friday sequel, but it isn't the worst, either.

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

Thinking that Jason could be stopped for good by returning him to the lake he originally drowned in was a creative idea, but not a particularly smart one. After all, he was resting pretty soundly in his grave, until Tommy had to come along and dig him up, allowing for a fortuitous lightning strike to reanimate his body. Of course, that begs the question of why somebody doesn't just destroy the body altogether - like, by cremation, as was rumored in Part V, and as Tommy failed at doing in Part VI. But at this point in the series (which was never intelligent cinema to begin with), all that matters is ending each movie with Jason's climactic death, and then bringing him back anyway, in the very next installment.

The New Blood ditches the Tommy character altogether (which is just as well), and ramps up the supernatural element with a new character who possesses latent psychic abilities (comparisons with Carrie are not out of place). But her trauma from seeing her father drown as a child (and likely being the cause of his death), and the conflict with her self-serving therapist comes off very soap-opera-y at times. And the flock of teenagers in the cabin next door aren't very interesting. The New Blood isn't terrible, but it's an extremely mediocre entry in the series. The most it has going for it is a few imaginative kills (Jason really starts getting creative with his killing implements here), and the final showdown between Jason and the psychic girl, which is admittedly as exciting as it is cheesy. But it's not enough to save this movie from mediocrity.

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

Jason Takes Manhattan is a strange animal. It's actually not a bad movie - the writing and characters are better than average for a slasher movie (although the harbinger's presence in this case is completely inexplicable). And I don't want to be the kind of person who says, "you can't be innovative and take Jason new places," especially after - what, 7 iterations of more or less the same thing? But Jason Takes Manhattan (which could just as well be called Jason Takes A Cruise) doesn't really have the feeling of a Friday the 13th movie. And I guess you could take that as a plus or a minus. Personally, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing, but I don't see why the killer has to be Jason at all. It could have been any serial killer or movie monster. I almost want to say that this movie exists right on that cusp between the classic slashers (of which Friday the 13th was obviously one of the front-runners), and the newer era that the '90s would usher in, which eventually led to the Screams and the I Know What You Did Last Summers and their ilk. In any case, Jason Takes Manhattan gets pretty ridiculous towards the end, but if you don't take it too seriously, it's actually a lot of fun.

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)

So Part VIII of Friday the 13th had what was probably the most imaginative and convincingly final death of Jason yet - with him dissolving in a torrent of toxic waste in the sewers underneath Manhattan. And yet, he still comes back for Part IX (although ostensibly The Final Friday, we all remember how The Final Chapter worked out - five movies ago). Jason Goes to Hell opens with an extremely clever ruse, that borders on self-aware parody (of the good, smart kind). And it would have made a fine denouement for the series (and final conclusion for the character of Jason Voorhees), except that it lasts less than ten minutes, and this movie has another hour and twenty minutes to tell a ridiculous story about how the "curse" of Jason spreads from one body to another.

I said it the last time I watched this movie - this late in the series, with Jason's iconic look so well-established, it just loses its impact when the killer is some random guy (especially when it's several random guys throughout the course of the movie). If Jason Takes Manhattan didn't have the atmosphere of a Friday the 13th movie, at least the killer was still Jason. Here, it's some slimy worm that transfers orally from body to body. I mean, the freaking Necronomicon makes an appearance! Don't get me wrong, I love to see the Necronomicon show up in movies, but since when does it have anything to do with Jason Voorhees?

What this is, is a fairly run-of-the-mill supernatural slasher-of-the-'90s, superficially dressed up as a Friday the 13th movie. Although it is fun to watch Steven Williams (who played the informant X on The X-Files) in the role of a mysterious bounty hunter, his presence and very existence is inexplicable, except as a convenient avatar for the writer to explain to the audience the otherwise baseless rules of Jason's "curse". I guess, all told, this movie is not quite as bad as I remembered it, but given the deterioration of the series (also apparent in A Nightmare on Elm Street's parallel entry, The Final Nightmare), maybe it's a good thing that they were wrapping it up. It would have been nice if they'd ended on a stronger note, although it's not exactly like it actually stopped them from making more movies later on. I mean, even this one, as final as it's supposed to be, ends with an explicit teaser for the Freddy vs. Jason match-up that was still ten years in coming.

Jason X (2001)

With seemingly no explanation as to the continuity between this movie and its predecessors (Jason seems to have become more of an archetype than simply a recurring character by this point), Jason X jumps ahead into the future (giving this installment of the franchise a very unusual and alien feeling), with a research facility rightfully treating Jason as a scientific anomaly, whose remarkable regenerative properties promise the hope of groundbreaking technological breakthroughs. That is, if Jason can be contained long enough for anyone to figure out his secrets.

Jason X follows Jason Takes Manhattan and Jason Goes To Hell in further diluting the original concept of a summer camp killer (remember that?) and taking Jason to another setting far removed from Crystal Lake. But when he gets cryogenically frozen and eventually discovered 455 years later by a recon team that subsequently takes him up into space, Jason X shows its colors as a ridiculous 21st century "b" quality SyFy channel movie-of-the-week cheesefest, that relies too heavily on CG fx. I suppose that if you don't take it seriously, and if you have the right sense of humor (some of the self-referential jabs were funny, in a very unscary way), you might be able to enjoy it, but frankly, it's pretty dumb - even for a Friday the 13th movie - and too silly for my tastes.

Conclusion: The fun of the Friday the 13th movies relies on its adherence to what has become the typical slasher formula that mixes sex, drugs, and other expressions of youthful rebellion with the violence that the guilt complex in our collective unconscious fears is the primitive repercussion for those acts. Though only standing in for this retributive force, Jason Voorhees, eventually with his hockey mask and machete (among other implements of doom), manages to stand out as an icon of fear that stalks the woods beside the archetypal lake where you go to summer camp. Here are my picks for the entries in the Friday the 13th series that I think are most worth your time:

Friday the 13th (1980)
Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

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