VHS Revival explores the various anomalies of a series firmly in transition.
When you think of anomalous franchise entries, Friday the 13th Part 2 is not a movie that immediately springs to mind.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Halloween III: Season of the Witch can both be considered anomalous for obvious reasons, and when it comes to Jason Voorhees specifically, you would probably have to look to body-swapping ‘Hidden’ clone Jason Goes to Hell or the space-bound Jason X. In fact, every instalment but part 2 can be considered anomalous in a superficial sense due to Paramount’s reliance on crowd-drawing annual gimmicks, such as a spectacularly goofy endeavour into Reagan-era 3-D, fan-dividing Impostor killers, and even telekinesis. So why part 2, I hear you ask?
Let me take just a few moments to explain.
It is no secret that the original Friday the 13th was designed to cash-in on John Carpenter‘s seminal slasher Halloween, which makes the series derivative by nature, and Part 2 apes that particular formula even more stringently. Although the original killer has been replaced, Jason is still a POV stalker in the Halloween vein; no different than a dozen slasher imitators from the pre-certificate era. The movie also borrows from Hitchcock’s Psycho, Tobe Hooper‘s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even has the gall to imitate Bay of Blood‘s infamous spear death, which sees two lovers skewered crudely together while in the throes crowd-pleasing passion. It even brings back Crazy Ralph with his wild-eyed Hitchcockian spiel before mercifully having Jason dispose of him forever. If you’re going to steal, then steal from the innovators. Part 2 does just that, and it does a mighty fine job of it.
That’s all well and good, but ultimately this is not what the series would come to be associated with. Granted, it would always maintain the same basic formula, but there is a lack of distinction here. The Friday the 13th series will always have its detractors, and rightly so. Beyond Part 2 the franchise is little more than gimmicky trash, but it knows it is; it is compulsive, almost brainless viewing, but that’s what makes it so special. Part 2 is a film that is very much at an embryonic stage, a sequel lacking identity which lurks lost and lonely in the forests of Camp Crystal Lake like an unloved son learning the basics of overblown retribution.
Crazy Ralph – [to Jeff and Sandra] I told the others, they didn’t believe me. You’re all doomed. You’re all doomed.
Ultimately, Part 2 is perhaps a little too good for a ‘Friday’ movie, which is an anomalous statement in itself. In many ways it is the very best in the series. At least, it is from a technical standpoint. Say what you will about the laborious rehash of past events that borders on the annoyingly superfluous — perhaps a way to add significant minutes to the film’s relatively minuscule running time — but when Jason finally procures an icepick for the execution of part one’s final girl, he is patient, swift and brutal. John Carpenter would have been proud.
Sadly, that’s as bloodthirsty as it gets save for the like-for-like Bava execution and one more stand-out offing, and there is a familiar foe at work making sure that events are kept relatively bloodless. Just like its predecessor, the movie would suffer from censor interference, the MPAA insisting on a substantial forty-eight seconds of cuts in order for the movie to avoid an X rating. Halloween got by without the gore, but for the Friday the 13th series to continue to stand-out as a superior clone graphic violence is essential, and in this case sorely missed, a debilitating factor that is only mildly soothed by the slick flash-white transitions that frame every death.
As a slasher fan, there are many reasons to enjoy Friday the 13th Part 2 as a standalone movie, but very few of them can be considered unique to the series. Harry Manfredini’s superlative score is the most prominent, a Herrmann-esque crescendo of spine-slicing strings that carries the movie through its more neutral periods, while further embellishing arguably the finest final battle in the history of the franchise thanks to a heroine who proves more than just a dumb chopping block.
Which brings me to another superior aspect of Part 2: the portrayal of its characters. Amy Steel is luminous as the movie’s final girl, but the movie’s cast are richer on the whole, a relatively developed screenplay giving us more to care about than your typical low-end slasher fodder, which is always good in terms of suspense. Particularly effective, although severely exploitative and derivative of Tobe Hooper’s most infamous creation, is paraplegic Mark’s narrative. Yes, it plays on our basest and most patronising sympathies, but when the almost lucky-in-love teenager takes a machete to the face you care that he dies, a fact that further punctuates the best kill of this particular instalment. This is a superbly executed sequence, offering a rare glimpse into those increasingly grandiose future kills synonymous with later instalments.
Still, this is a movie starring Jason Voorhees, and in comparative terms there is a ceiling when it comes to serious analysis. Yes, this is a superior effort in the traditional sense of the word, but is it really what we look for in a Friday the 13th movie? Of course, it is all a question of subjectivity, but for me Part 2, as good as it often is, hasn’t quite evolved to possess the kind of distinctiveness that makes Friday the 13th one of the most iconic horror franchises in all of cinema.
Paul – I don’t wanna scare anyone, but I’m gonna give it to you straight about Jason. His body was never recovered from the lake after he drowned. And if you listen to the old-timers in town, they’ll tell you he’s still out there, some sort of demented creature, surviving in the wilderness.
Part of the problem is Jason himself; a variation of the character who, like the movie, comes across as transitional. Jason will always be associated with his iconic, dead-eyed hockey mask — nobody could ever dispute that. Also hard to dispute is the fact that Jason suits the bestial peephole sack look he adopts here. Even if it is derivative of The Town That Dreaded Sundown, it brings a human element to Jason otherwise lacking, but is human something that really fits the bill?
At the time it did, obviously, but the infamous mask Jason acquires in Part 3, about the same time his character emerges from the POV shadows to begin his transition to the antihero we all know and love, is essential to the longevity of the series, for better or for worse. Of course, each movie would adopt a superficial artifice to keep punters interested, but the mask allowed the Jason character to truly make his mark in the same vein as Myers, Krueger and the all-too knowing Ghostface. Every great killer needs a hook, and I’m not talking about the dull and rusty variety.
Also, Jason’s mojo lies in his indestructibility and outlandish capacity for regeneration. This movie admittedly sets the ball rolling with a thrilling final scare, but during his face-off with final girl Ginny he comes across as a little bit timid, flailing like a bony-armed boy blindly swatting at a pest when his resourceful young foe strikes back. In the end, Part 2’s Jason is just a little too apprehensive, a little too mortal.
The question now is: how does one summarise the debut of one of the genre’s most memorable creations? From a filmmaking standpoint it is superior to much of what we have been subjected to over the years, but when you look at it in comparative terms, in this regard, it is the undisputed heavyweight of a largely lightweight division. The movie is essential, yet nonessential viewing as a platform for our marquee attraction. In saying that, I mean it got us to the starting line, but never really entered the race.
Does that make it an inferior instalment? No. Quite the opposite, in fact. As an actual movie, Friday the 13th Part 2 is superior in just about every way, but what it lacks is the kind of identity that sets it apart — a once crucial element in such an oversaturated stalk-and-slash market — and fundamental changes were needed in order to form the basis of a franchise with a now seemingly unlimited lifespan.
Ultimately, the movie is unique for not being unique, but in the grand scheme of things I suppose that works both ways, making the movie exceptional and distinctive in its own right.