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That Friday Feeling: A Study on the Friday the 13th Feature Films – Part 1

The human psyche is a complex thing. Not content with the status quo we fashion for ourselves, we seek to push the limits of our capabilities in the form of self-imposed challenges. This may be something personal, like weight loss, something educational like learning a language, or something elemental like climbing a mountain. Over recent months I have lost a few pounds, I know a few sentences of Welsh and French, and I’m quite partial to a vigorous trek, so I’m left with the rational conclusion that my efforts will be best spent watching every single Friday the 13th movie!

Now I’m no stranger to a prolonged horror session, but to attempt to watch twelve movies in one hit would be foolish. The impact of the central character and his tragic plight might be lost, the quality of the films may diminish from one to the next and by the time Jason takes Manhattan I may be so bleary eyed that I mistake the sprawling metropolis of New York for say, Vancouver. No, I’ll pace myself and consider each movie on its individual merits as well as part of a wider franchise. So each Friday, for twelve weeks, I will take on every instalment of the Vorhees saga, come rain or shine, drunk or sober, snacked or un-snacked. From Pamela to Packanack, from Roy to Kelly Rowland, all the way up to the inevitably soul crushing reboot. Have I even seen them all in the first place and if so what do I win? Who cares if summer is done… let’s go camping!

“HIS NAME WAS JASON… AND TODAY IS HIS BIRTHDAY”  

FRIDAY THE 13TH 

Released in August of 1980, Friday the 13th literally crashes through the screen. The POV murder of two frisky camp counsellors gives way to Harry Manfredini’s screeching score, like the Psycho theme engaged in a high speed chase with the Jaws soundtrack. It’s easy to look back on horror films with the benefit of decades of derivatives and derision. No doubt such an attitude will inform my journey through these films, but this is an original both within the franchise and for the burgeoning sub-genre of slasher flicks. But first, we have to get there…

Thumbing to Camp Crystal Lake seems like a smart move – you’re young, good looking, and it’s a small town where restaurant staff tell the customers to finish up so they can give you a ride to your destination. What’s to fear? Yes there’s an old drunk named Crazy Ralph who blabs some crap about ‘a death curse’ but he probably saw Texas Chainsaw Massacre a few years back and is just riffing on that. But Ralph is the progenitor to the wizened old fruit cake who knows something we don’t, the embodiment of an early warning system disguised as loose exposition. You just know that sometime in the next ninety minutes, ole Crazy Ralph is going to morph into Prophetic Ralph, before transitioning into On The Money Ralph. And then he’ll probably die. Or am I getting head of myself?

So everyone rocks up to camp. There’s flirting, drinking, good weather and an unknown assailant with a number of nifty ways to dispatch these hedonistic youths… but why?

I recently watched The Burning and was pleased to see Holly Hunter and George from Seinfeld among the cast, cementing slasher flicks as THE proving ground for the latter day cream of film and television. In the case of Friday the 13th we have Kevin Bacon, whose soon to be skewered neck graced my bedroom wall for a year or two back in the early nineties (thanks Fangoria). The look of shock on his face is one that should be heeded by all teenagers considering a hormonally charged retreat somewhere wet and leafy. And so one by one these hapless kids get sliced and stabbed both on and off screen, (the highlight of the Tom Savini effects being an axe to the melon) until only Alice is left. But we still don’t know why, and also, should I care? The breadth of buffoonery perpetrated by these counsellors that do no counselling is not quite as predatory as the  male cast of The Burning, but ‘It was a different age’ platitudes aside, Alice is about the only one I can place a shred of investment in. She runs, she hides, she flaps all over the place until she stumbles upon a friendly woman in a delightfully woven sweater, in itself suspicious for the time of year. This newly revealed deus ex-matriarch confidently tells Alice that she’s not afraid, a line that gives me the willies more than anything that comes after. 

“Did you know a young boy drowned the year before those two others were killed? The counsellors weren’t paying any attention… They were making love while that young boy drowned. His name was Jason.”

And thus a woman named Pamela Vorhees is revealed as the killer, broken by the death of her son at the hands (albeit hands that were firmly placed in one another’s pants) of counsellors from yore.

What follows is a rinse repeat scuffle and chase, followed by an attempt by Mama V to despatch poor Alice only to be knocked on her ass. The sensible move would be to finish her off, but Alice is terrified, confused and has nowhere near the benefit of experience or level of comprehension regarding the subtleties of horror tropes that we take for granted. And she needs to combat Pamela to acquire the resolve to finally do her in. And thus she does, in perfect slow motion, with a machete to the neck that deprives Mommy dearest of her head.

With 20/20 hindsight, you can poke holes galore in a movie like this, but that same hindsight reveals some fantastic – if not entirely intentional – threads that foreshadow the rest of the series. Beyond being a clever inverse of the Bates family narrative, the constant beatdown of Pamela only to return even fiercer in the next scene is a microcosm of Jason’s entire cinematic existence. Alice’s appropriation of using whatever is to hand as a murder weapon is also a staple of the Vorhees approach to ending life. There is a lineage being created here, whether the movie knows it or not.

Friday the 13th is perhaps the go to example of a horror everyone thinks they’ve seen when in fact what they’ve seen is one of the sequels. What you’ve almost certainly seen is the shock reveal of poor, deformed, lake dwelling Jason as he launches out of the crystal blue water to wreak vengeance upon Alice. I too thought that was the end, only to mumble surprise through a mouthful of crisps as she wakes up in hospital to be told there was no boy. He drowned… remember.

And so we’re left with a lingering shot of Crystal lake, calm save a ripple or two. Or maybe that little boy is still down there somewhere, waiting. Maybe he saw the whole thing. But for now, camp is closed. Until next Friday

“I DON’T WANNA SCARE ANYONE, BUT I’M GONNA GIVE IT TO YOU STRAIGHT ABOUT JASON…”

FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2

In a scene that’s almost identical to the one in The Burning, coiffured camp conductor Paul sets the stage. The fact that both these films were released a mere seven days apart is perhaps more astonishing than the survival techniques employed by the demented creature we will come to know as the scourge of Crystal lake, now unofficially renamed as Camp Blood. But that’s just a coincidence, as is the fact that I’m watching both these films exactly seven days apart. If I dwell on these things I might feel I’m in too deep here. Two films in to a twelve movie ‘series’ and already the signs point to something… uncanny.

Now this movie was never meant to be a direct sequel. The idea was to make a series of anthology movies riffing on the idea of the Friday the 13th superstition, owing more to the Amicus school of horror than this new slasher business. But that ending was just too good and what could easily be seen as an EC comics style epilogue, became the launching point for the next eleven Friday’s of my foolhardy but totally awesome endeavour.

Caught in the throes of a remarkably sequential dream sequence, Alice Hardy thrashes around her bed as she recounts the events of that awful night some two months ago. She is the sole survivor and despite being all a-quiver, she is trying to get on with life. This opening scene could easily be seen as a pre-cursor to the start of Scream but with added Lewton buses. Alice is, for all intents and purposes, our protagonist and there’s no way she’s gonna get killed in the first – whoa!

Now one thing Scream doesn’t have, is a head in a fridge, and before you can say, ‘Is that his Ki-Ki-Ki-Ma-Ma-Mother’s head?!?’ he’s stabbed Alice in the temple, the screen has exploded with that familiar screech and we’re back in the game. Except this time the game is a dungaree clad linebacker with a sack cloth cowl ventilated not for his mouth, but his one good eye. Jason’s signature look is all about the hockey mask, but there is something about the sack and dungarees look that helped cement the legend of Jason as a no fuss monolith, born of the camp in which he died and made of whatever is to hand. Like a plaid swiss army knife that never blunts.

The plot in this film is essentially identical to the first, the difference being the spectre of the first movies events hangs over the camp. Actually it stalks it from the woods, astute enough to despatch both Crazy Ralph and the local Deputy before tackling the counsellors. Long assumed to be a fairly mindless lug of an inexplicably supernatural killer, Jason actually demonstrates both a meticulous sense of strategy and a playful side. Offing Ralph and Deputy Winslow removes the grim portent as well as the link to assistance and a figure of authority to confirm what’s happening. Jason is clearly his mother’s son and uses some brutal but efficient techniques to kill these teenagers, most impressively kebabbing two of them while they have sex.

This scene was subject to heavy censorship, so we don’t see the impaling. This eliminates the plot hole of whether Jason changed the sheets before climbing into the bed to frighten the piss out of his next victim. If he didn’t he would be covered in blood, if not can a creature this domesticated truly be so foul? Any consideration that this monster is anything but soon gets tossed in the shed as sole(ish) survivor Ginny discovers the make-shift tomb and altar to the guiding light of this franchise, Jason’s mother Pamela… or her rotting head to be precise. If movies have taught us anything, it’s that a tight spot often breeds true ingenuity, and in a moment of genius that feels like Freud wrote an episode of the A-Team, Ginny lays a psychological smack down on Jason. She throws on Pamela’s sweater, ever so slightly moves her hair a bit and convinces him she is not his next victim, but his doting mother back from the grave. Jason’s developmental issues (as Ginny earlier fails to describe him) are always a get out of jail card in these movies, but this is the first time it’s used. That or he’s got something in his eye. To be fair candlelight can be a bit fuzzy when you have a sack on your head.

Regardless, Ginny cleaves Jason with his machete and escapes to be reunited with Paul and some  dog I couldn’t be arsed to mention earlier. No boats this time, no tranquil lakes, just a pooch and a window and a Jason smashing through it, unmasked to reveal his bulbous, lopsided visage. And the rhythm of this franchise is established with an ending that is the same, but different, haunting us with it’s uncertainty and familiarity. For now the boy from the lake is dead. His final victim taken to hospital in a state of delirium, while mother’s head sits still upon the altar, her gaping jaw almost forming a smile. Christ knows what happened to Paul…

“NO! YOU CAN’T BE ALIVE!”

FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3

I’ve been steadfast the last two Friday’s and stuck to my oath, but this week you couldn’t get me out if you tried. My only reticence comes from the lack of 3D. Oh for a local cinema cool enough to put that on. So we start with the now ubiquitous flashback and then we pick up Ginny’s story at… oh, actually, no, we don’t. In fact we never hear from Ginny again! A little delve into the excellent Camp Crystal Lake Memories documentary reveals that the original plan was to follow Ginny into a mental hospital with Jason pursuing her there, but actress Amy Steel’s agent demanded too much cash and the filmmakers went back to square one. In this case, square one is a local store on the edge of camp blood. Jason takes a leaf from Michael Myers’ book and watches from betwixt the linen, having been revived by means that defy (but never require) explanation. He has stopped for a haircut though. Gone is the rugged patchwork mane, replaced by a smooth but lumpy  dome.

This instalments group of horny misfits are led by Chris and her on/off squeeze whose folks own a house by the lake (yes, that lake!!!) Alongside them are prankster chucklehead Shelley and his ‘you never told me this was a blind date’ date. There are two other couples, distinguishable by libido and propensity to get blazed. There’s also a biker gang who have an entirely unprovoked scuffle with our pals, but ultimately serve as just a warm up for Jason.

At first, part 3 seems like a trudge through a structure that, by 1982, had almost become standard, but the innovation of 3D would’ve made it a perfect means to employ that novelty. Horror has always loved gimmicks, and this one comes right out of the freakin’ screen! 3D tech aside, there is a vague hook of a reason for them visiting the camp, if not quite a plot. Chris reveals that she was attacked by a mysterious disfigured behemoth two years back, and has returned to Crystal lake to conquer her fear. Alas, her fear is the only thing doing the conquering this weekend.

The first two movies patented a kind of Vorhees kill style, and by part 3 Jason is not just adaptable and efficient, he’s ingenious. Like the basketball player who comes back each season with new ‘where the f@#k did he learn that’ moves, Jason glides effortlessly from knitting needle, to pitchfork, to harpoon gun via electrocution and the obligatory post coital under the bed (or hammock) kill. And when he’s tired of the tools, he just squeezes a guys  head so hard his eyeball pops out. And all this with compromised vision. Jason Vorhees is a true pioneer, and so it is fitting that as he comes into his own as a killer of teenagers, he chooses this moment to don that most iconic of masks, now arguably more closely associated with sex crazed campers than actual hockey goalies (sorry Canada, but it’s true).

Jason is genuinely imposing in this movie. At times he lumbers like a sad bear, but the hockey mask adds an unbreachable element to the character. He is singularly focused, utterly instinctive and no way are you getting past him. Well, final girl theory says that Chris probably is, and so she does after one of the better chase-wound-repeat-kill scenes in the franchise. The 3D was (I assume) at its most glorious as Jason, axe cleaved into his endlessly reinforced skull, claws and grabs at the air trying one last time to finish Chris before he dies… again… maybe.

Chris drifts off across the lake in a little canoe, but certainly not until a hallucinatory Jason appears, unmasked and undead. Earlier in the movie, we lingered on a shot of Pamela Vorhees’ grave, perhaps just to remind us that she is still the driving voice in these films, if no longer the force. If there’s one thing these films do well, it’s twist set ups for sequels. Granted they often don’t lead anywhere, but they don’t need to. Linear storytelling is all well and good, but horror needs to be fun. So when ghoulish crone Pamela Vorhees erupts from the water, don’t expect her back in part four. You can’t have it all kids. 

“HELP, HE’S KILLING ME! HE’S KILLING ME!”

FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 4: THE FINAL CHAPTER

This movie has one of my favourite posters in all horror. As a kid I used to look at it in my local video shop, and having no real reference to ice hockey in early eighties Wales, thought the mask looked like a potato. So there’s a reference I didn’t understand, but if there’s one thing any child of the eighties will recognise, it’s Crispin Glover and Corey Feldman. Reinforcing my theory that slashers are a kind of actors studio proving ground, we are introduced to George McFly’s gang of teens on a mission to party, and a cabin dwelling Father-less family where-in lives young Tommy Jarvis, obsessed with making horror masks and pretty darn good at it too. Perhaps this was a nod to Tom Savini, who returns to make up effects duty, but unlike most other Friday the 13th plot threads, this one actually leads somewhere.

Billed as the ‘final chapter’, this movie is supposed to be Jason’s swansong. It is also the first time he spontaneously revives, waking up on a morgue slab after getting an axe to the forehead in part three. (Eagle eyed film historians among you will notice that the lecherous morgue jockey who serves as first victim also played bungling recruit Fackler in Police Academy)

Jason immediately starts to indiscriminately murder his way back to Crystal Lake while the kids get laid, get high and watch vintage burlesque movies. Somewhere amongst all this Crispin Glover does a dance that is infinitely more unfathomable than anything else that takes place across these dozen movies, so I’ll just mention it and move on. While this is happening, Tommy and his sister Trish meet up with Rob, who is out looking for his own sister who went missing at the lake. Yes, she was one of the victims in part three but the timeline here is all screwed up and you’ll just make yourself sad if you try and make sense of it.

One thing this movie does is drag out the wait for Jason to come calling, but once he does it’s a pretty fierce onslaught. This Jason is a brute that, while happy to employ the tools of his trade, is equally content with his hands, as the poor sap who gets his face smashed into the shower wall can attest. This Jason is also more intimidating than previous incarnations, perhaps because he is now defined as supernatural, and with that comes the realisation that he can’t be reckoned with. Rob seems for a short while like he may keep Tommy and his sister safe, but in truth he is little more than a human shield, and dies in the basement in a scene that is actually more blood curdling and brutal for its restraint. Trish and Tommy engage in a half arsed game of cat and mouse as they try to evade Jason, during which time Trish is elevated from the screeching victim to family protectorate as she tries to keep away from Tommy. One thing that should be said, is that Corey Feldman was always one of the better performers in anything he was in as a kid, and this film is no exception. Using his effects skills, Tommy fashions himself as a sort of pre-drowning Jason and becomes the crazy bastards living inner child. Tommy may have read up on Jason earlier in the film, but he’s taking a punt here and the film relies heavily on what we’ve seen in previous instalments as justification for his boldness. And it pays off, culminating in Jason’s face sliding down a machete in one of the best moments of practical make up effects the genre can muster.

With Tommy and Trish safe, we can rest easy. Except by now we know all too well what’s coming, and the movie trades on this. The surprise is not Jason’s sudden resurrection, it’s Tommy’s response as he clutches the machete and mercilessly hacks Jason’s head to pieces, consumed by that same bloody vengeance. And we’re left not with a wink or grin or a call back to films gone by, but with a look in a little boys eyes that suggest that while Jason is gone, the horror lives on.
Final Chapter, my arse.

NEXT: PART V – VIII

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