VHS Revival explores the anomalous qualities 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, two productions handled by New Line Cinema after they had purchased the rights from Paramount with a view to producing the long-anticipated Freddy vs Jason crossover. 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? Please allow me 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. According to writer Victor Miller, director/producer Sean S. Cunningham called him up and said, “Halloween is making incredible money at the box office. Let’s rip it off,” unwittingly giving birth to the slasher sub-genre. This makes the series derivative by nature, and Friday the 13th Part 2 apes the Halloween formula even more stringently. It also introduced us to a character who would transform Friday the 13th from a hugely successful standalone movie into a franchise colossus, but there was still much work to be done.
Friday the 13th Part 2 is a slasher in the more conventional sense. Although Betsey Palmer’s wonderfully psychotic and decapitated Pamela Voorhees had been replaced by a more marketable figure, Jason was still a POV stalker in the Halloween vein — no different from a dozen imitators to emerge from the slasher’s golden age. The movie also borrows rather liberally from Hitchcock’s Psycho. In Friday the 13th, the relationship between Jason and his mother was Norman and Norma Bates in reverse, but in Part 2 the dynamic is flipped to resemble Psycho directly. The film even has the gall to imitate Bay of Blood‘s infamous spear death, which sees two lovers skewered crudely together while in the throes of crowd-pleasing passion. This has since been refuted, but barring some absurdly detailed coincidence, I’m just not buying it. We also see the return of Walter Gorney’s borderline-parodic, Hitchcockian harbinger of death Crazy Ralph, whose wild-eyed ravings are mercifully disposed of forever. This is all a very familiar patchwork, but 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.
But with the original stalk-and-slash formula becoming somewhat tiresome, even receiving the spoof treatment by 1981 in the form of Mickey Rose’s Student Bodies, the series would have to evolve in order to stay afloat in an oversaturated market, and after a decade of Jason-led sequels the franchise would become unrecognisable from those earlier instalments. Gone were the slow, patient builds of yore, replaced instead by the kind of throwaway mayhem and campy in-jokes that Jason has become synonymous with. 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 abandoned son learning the basics of overblown retribution. Until we get a proper look at him, Jason may just as well be his dear, deceased mother stalking the victims of the first movie, especially since the unidentified Pamela had hairy, thick hands and was quite obviously played by a man.
Crazy Ralph – [to Jeff and Sandra] I told the others, they didn’t believe me. You’re all doomed. You’re all doomed.
I must admit, I came to Friday the 13th Part 2 rather late in my fandom. Growing up, it was the hockey mask I craved, which should tell you everything you need about its importance to the continued prosperity of the series. I’d seen bits here and there, but stuntman Steve Daskewisz’s Jason wasn’t something to which I was accustomed (for those who are wondering, Daskewisz played the masked Jason in Friday the 13th Part 2; Warrington Gillette played the character in his unmasked form).
All these years later and Part 2 is actually one of my absolute favourites of the entire franchise. In fact, I’ll go as far as saying that it is even a little too good for a ‘Friday’ movie, which is an anomalous statement in itself. It may be a basic rehash of its predecessor, but for me it is a marked improvement of that same old formula, and in many ways the very best in the series — at least from a technical standpoint. Say what you will about an opening 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 ice-pick for the execution of Friday the 13th‘s final girl, Alice Hardy, 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 censorship 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 was 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. So explicit and ‘who can top this?’ would the sub-genre become that Carpenter would find himself imitating his most famous imitator after finally giving in to a Halloween sequel that seriously upped the violence as a commercial necessity. The irony is just delicious!
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 nerve-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. For me, Ginny is the strongest, most realistically sketched final girl in the entire series, someone who questions when others dismiss, who uses sheer terror as a motivator, refusing to run blindly into a pathetic trap of her own making and instead summoning up the courage to give Jason the thrashing of his life. Not only does she attack our monomaniac brute with a plethora of deadly weapons, she uses her intelligence to fool Jason into a make believe confrontation with his deceased mother.
Amy Steel is luminous as Jason’s most resourceful opponent, but the 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 creating suspense. Particularly effective, though severely exploitative and derivative of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is paraplegic Mark’s death. 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. A superbly executed sequence, Mark’s death is a blueprint for the ceaseless abattoir of creative slaughter that would follow, teasing the kind of remorseless killing machine that Jason would soon evolve into. Just how on Earth did that wheelchair make it all the way down those steps?
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.
But 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, 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 superb as it is as a standalone slasher, hasn’t quite evolved to possess the kind of characteristics that made Friday the 13th one of the most iconic horror franchises in all of cinema. This was the first of two instalments directed by Steve Miner, and in Friday the 13th Part 3 he would begin to mould the lump of brutish clay that now takes the form of one of horror cinema’s most recognised cultural icons. In Part 3, Jason took his first steps to becoming a character who we followed rather than avoided, who we rooted for rather than opposed. When he lurched out of the POV shadows for the infamous harpoon kill, we saw his reaction to what had just transpired and marvelled as he lumbered into the distance in search of his next victim. Notably, this was the first time we saw him wearing his famed hockey mask, and for me it represents a major turning point in the series.
Part 2’s Jason is a different beast entirely; a variation of the character who, like the movie, comes across as transitional. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even if Jason’s peephole sack is unashamedly derivative of The Town that Dreaded Sundown, it gives the character a human element absent from other instalments. During his climatic face-off with Ginny, Jason 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. Comparatively speaking, Part 2’s Jason is just a little too apprehensive, a little too mortal; just another purveyor of teenage slaughter waiting to be unmasked. Don’t get me wrong, as a standalone picture this is classic, Golden Age slasher fare, and a somewhat unassertive yet single-minded killer is a juxtapose that provides an eeriness all of its own, but the character is distinctly at odds with the rest of what is an irresistibly trashy series.
I adore the anomalous aspects of Friday the 13th Part 2, and in recent years it has become my go-to instalment, but is that human element something that fits the bill overall? When I think of Jason, I think of gloriously over the top slaughter, deliciously ludicrous characters and a sense of fun that saw him drowned, hung, hacked, shot, set on fire and buried alive, only to return to the fray time and time again in the most unlikely of circumstances. To me, Friday the 13th is silly, throwaway cinema; the more outrageous it becomes, the more enjoyable it gets. More importantly, Jason will always be associated with that iconic, dead-eyed mask, and with good reason. The addition of Jason’s mask was vital to the longevity of the series — for better and for worse. Each sequel thereafter would adopt a superficial artifice to keep punters interested, but none of that would have mattered without the hockey mask. It allowed Jason to 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.
So how does one summarise the debut of one of the genre’s most memorable creations? From a filmmaking standpoint, it is head and torso above much of what we have been subjected to over the years, but when you look at it in comparative terms, it is the undisputed heavyweight of a largely lightweight division, a spirited round of action, but one which failed to land the knock-out blow in a commercial sense. For those who are new to the series it is essential, yet nonessential viewing for understanding the seemingly limitless appeal of the franchise. In saying that, I mean it got us to the starting line but never really entered the race. That doesn’t make it an inferior instalment — quite the opposite, in fact (the shot of Jason’s peephole face appearing in a flash outside the cabin where Ginny lingers is one of the most inspired in the series), but what it lacks is the kind of identity that sets it apart — a crucial element in such an oversaturated sub-genre — and fundamental changes were needed in order to form the basis of a franchise with a now ostensibly 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.