3-D gimmicks, superlative kills and the founding of one of horror’s most recognizable artefacts make Friday the 13th Part III the most influential instalment in the series
Jason Voorhees was still very much a character in transition back in 1982. This may sound like a spurious statement given the character’s stalk-and-slash simplicity, but he was far from the finished article from a commercial standpoint. His only other appearance, save for a dream sequence as Friday the 13th‘s ill-fated neglectee, came as a peephole purveyor of death who emerged from the Camp Crystal wilderness for a shot at marquee stardom. More than a little redolent of The Town that Dreaded Sundown‘s brutal Phantom, Friday the 13th Part II‘s Jason was a distinctly human creation — a fallible, borderline pitiful angel of vengeance who would have his ass handed to him by the tough and determined Ginny Field (Amy Steel).
Jason may have been a star in the making, but during a period of slasher oversaturation he was just another in a long line of POV killers. The film’s money-spinning title and a return to Camp Crystal Lake gave the character a sense of continuity in comparative terms, but no one could have dreamed of what the series would become, and Friday the 13th Part III had a significant hand in establishing the cultural juggernaut currently hacking his way out of legal limbo.
Thanks to John Carpenter’s reluctant decision to pursue a Halloween sequel as Jason’s first instalment went into production, it was Haddonfield scourge Michael Myers, dredged from the mystique-crushing annals of ambiguity and emboldened by a deathly white pallor, who was the genre’s most recognizable attraction. It’s no secret that the original Friday the 13th, despite having the deliciously deranged Pamela Voorhees as the killer, was a straight-up derivative of Carpenter’s breakout film, creator Sean Cunningham transparently suggesting, “Halloween is making incredible money at the box office. Let’s rip it off,” in a phone call to screenwriter Victor Miller, but financially there wasn’t much in it.
Halloween was one of the most successful Indie films ever produced, raking in a cool $70,274,000 on a budget of approximately $300,000. Aping the holiday title theme first suggested to Carpenter by Black Christmas director Bob Clark, the original Friday the 13th wasn’t too far behind, managing a whopping $59,800,000 on a budget of $550,000. Their respective sequels fared considerably less well, but Myers still edged it, posting returns of $25,500,000 to Jason’s $21,700,000. The following year, Carpenter was through with a presumed-dead Myers, opting for ill-fated spin-off Halloween III: Season of the Witch, a sequel that put the series in limbo for more than half a decade. With a Myers-shaped void just waiting to be filled, it was finally time for Jason to stamp his authority.
Ironically, when Friday the 13th Part II went into development in 1981, it was pitched as a Halloween II rip-off. Initially set in a psychiatric hospital, the idea was to have Jason track down the surviving Ginny, offing a bunch of fellow patients and doctors in the interim. Steel, who producers envisaged as their Jamie Lee Curtis, was originally approached to reprise the role, but turned it down with a view to shedding the slasher stigma and broadening her horizons.
Andy: How do we do it?
Debbie: Well, first we take our clothes off, and then you get on top of me or I can get on top of you.
Andy: I know how to do it. I mean, how do we do it in a hammock?
Debbie: [undressing] Well, uh, I think you can figure something out.
Andy: I’ll think of something!
Steel’s decision was rewarded with regular work in two short-lived TV shows, but the roles quickly dried up, the actress tempted back into the slasher fray four years later for Paramount’s cinematic prank April Fool’s Day. Steel, who for many is the superior final girl in a series that would place less emphasis on characterization going forward, would later regret rejecting the role, as would her many fans, but it’s hard to imagine the series having such longevity away from its iconic Camp Crystal setting, which along with the film’s title was still the biggest draw of the series in 1982. It was also the place in which Jason procured one of modern horror’s most valuable commercial artefacts.
Though vital to the evolution of the Jason character, Friday the 13th Part III was something of a devolution for the series as credible horror. In the absence of Steel, a brand new final girl was required, but with the slasher formula very much established in the minds of the teenage demographic, acting ability took a backseat to appealing physical attributes, something that left uncredited screenwriter Petru Popescu, recruited to make the screenplay “more sinister and menacing,” feeling somewhat perturbed. Having sat in on the casting sessions, Popescu was surprised by Steve Miner’s idea of who the latest final girl should be, which differed greatly from his own.
The role of protagonist Chris Higgins went to a young Dana Kimmell, who would find regular work in the early 80s with one-off appearances in popular TV shows such as Happy Days, The A-Team and Dynasty. All-American beauty Kimmell certainly looked the part, with an endearing quality that put her firmly in the realms of sympathetic victim, but she was no Amy Steel, and Kimmell would all but confirm Popescu’s suggestion that actors were cast for purely aesthetic reasons. “I had done a film called Sweet Sixteen, and I guess the producer/director saw me in that,” she would explain. “I went for an audition and basically met with Steve Miner and that was it. I didn’t have to do a whole lot of auditioning for it.”
Despite its superficial intentions, Friday the 13th Part III manages to achieve that “sinister and menacing” quality thanks in large part to the late Richard Brooker’s one and only appearance as Jason and a series of graphic kills that brought our villain out of the POV shadows, but some of the acting is painfully melodramatic, particularly a scene in which Kimmell recalls a prior meeting with Camp Crystal’s perennial scourge, allowing her the significant honour of being the only final girl to escape Jason’s clutches on two separate occasions (though why he decided to let her live is anyone’s guess). Acting imperfections aside, Higgins proves herself rather resourceful by the movie’s end, adopting a take-no-prisoners attitude that sees her smash Jason in the face with a shovel, hang him from a barn and impale him with an axe. Higgins may be as sweet as apple pie, but she has a surprisingly tough crust, and is certainly one of the most striking final girls in the series.
On the whole, Friday the 13th Part III is the first instalment in which our cast become truly throwaway, forging the fickle, yet strangely rewarding template for the series going forward. It’s not as shallow as the series would become during Jason’s more self-aware period, but it’s arguably the leanest in terms of characterization pre-A New Beginning. There is still a half-assed attempt to give our characters enough personality to make them sympathetic, but on the whole they’re generic types set up for the slaughter, particularly a pair of far-out stoners designed to tap into the popularity of the Cheech and Chong movies. Paul Kratka’s Rick, despite playing host to a 3-D effect for the ages, is a contender for blandest deuteragonist in cinematic history, and resident jock Andy Beltrami isn’t far behind in the forgettable stakes, though he is victim to what is ‘hands-down’ the most brutal and deserving kill of the entire series, even topping Axel’s unceremonious head-snapping and super bitch Melissa’s axe to the face (if you’re hand-standing around a secluded cabin with a history of mass murders, you deserve everything you get).
Of all the kids in Friday the 13th Part III, Larry Zerner’s overweight prankster, Shelley, the character responsible for providing Jason with his visual trademark, is probably the most memorable, which is ironic since Zerner wasn’t an actor at all, and was actually cast having been randomly scouted on the street. Shelley is the physical manifestation of marmite. His constant whining and lame attempts at wooing the exceedingly beautiful Vera (Catherine Parks) are either oddly charming or crawl under your skin like a particularly rampant bout of scabies, depending on your predilection.
In a series renown for its shameless beauty discrimination, Shelley is the first stereotypical geek to meet a tragic, Jason-led demise. Part II’s equally geeky prankster, Ted, would precede Shelley, but the Friday formula wasn’t as refined in 1981, and Ted manages to evade death by pounding booze at an all-night bar while his successor succumbs to a rather nasty throat-slitting for simply trying to earn respect. Pretty fly if you ask me. It’s amazing how geeks were punished so ruthlessly in the realms of slasherdom, while pristine beauties, albeit the frigid kind, found a way to overcome the odds. America sure put a lot of stock in the high school hierarchy during the Reagan 80s.
Shelley and Vera’s awkward pairing is fairly touching in the feeblest possible sense. You get the feeling Vera genuinely cares for him, which makes her ruthless dispatch all the more devastating, and you have to feel a little sorry for Shelley, even if there are times when you wish you could grab Jason’s machete and do the job for him. The pair’s heroic excursion to a local convenience store also introduces us to the film’s wild card, a gang of random biker punks who, Jason aside, are the most endearing characters in the entire movie, giving credence to composer Harry Manfredini’s equally left-field disco splurge. Some find both a distraction, reducing Popescu’s “more sinister and menacing” intentions to outright silliness at a time when slashers were still admired for their anarchic cynicism, but despite its graphic brutality and moments of grim foreboding, Friday the 13th Part III excels at being silly ― some of it purposeful, some of it not so much.
Before the mathematical advancements of IMAX eliminated eye fatigue at the tail-end of the 20th century, 3-D had proven a problematic concept going back decades. This was mainly due to the technical difficulties and financial burdens placed on studios whose main goal was to create as much profit as possible, which typically meant limiting risk. A patent for the 3-D process was filed by British film pioneer William Friese-Greene way back in 1890, but it was a quarter of a century later in 1915 that the first test reels were presented to audiences in red-green anaglyph through the use of a stereoscope.
The earliest film shown to a public audience, screened at the Ambassador Hotel Theater in Los Angeles, was Nat G. Deverich’s silent drama The Power of Love. Filmed in dual-strip in black and white, single strip colour anaglyphic release prints were produced, which required a single projector and the red and blue anaglyph glasses that became the commercial selling point for future 3-D attractions. Despite the stumbling blocks of two world wars, the introduction of Polaroid Filters to the stereoscopic process, an invention originally designed to reduce glare in car headlights, saw 3-D grow into a viable mainstream option.
It was with the popularising of colour cinema that 3-D truly began to take off. Beginning with Arch Oboler’s Bwana Devil, the first colour stereoscopic feature, the format continued to evolve, introducing various features, including the addition of stereophonic sound and Cinemascope, but by 1953 the novelty was beginning to wear thin, and an abundance of financial and technical problems, some of which affecting audience enjoyment, saw the gimmick’s stock plummet. A second string of films were presented in 3-D, but the uneconomical process meant that many were shown in 2-D, including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Dial M For Murder, which was subjected to audience walk-outs and shown exclusively in 2-D thereafter. But 3-D would rise again.
Nostalgia is cyclical, and in the 1980s everyone was mad about the 1950s. Cold War horror was subjected to an era of practical effects heavy reboots, movies such as John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly paying homage to the kitsch monster movies of yore, but it wasn’t just horror that received the nostalgia treatment. Stephen King’s Stand By Me was one of many 80s movies built on rock ‘n roll reminiscence, and Robert Zemeckis’ sci-fi smash Back to the Future quite literally travelled back in time to a place that brought it all flooding back for thirtysomethings across America.
And so began the short-lived, Reagan-era 3-D revival, focusing mainly on the horror genre at a time when the slasher picture ruled the roost. Billed as the first horror film to be released in 3-D in twenty years, 1982’s Parasite, another 50s throwback, led the way, and re-releases of past efforts such as Hitchcock’s previously ill-fated Dial M For Murder soon followed, but it was three horror franchise releases, Friday the 13th Part III, Amityville 3D and Jaws 3D, that are most remembered, and not very fondly.
Despite the usual technical and financial difficulties, those first two franchise releases did rather well at the box office. Thanks to the draw of being able to witness Spielberg’s monstrous creation coming through the screen (well, kind of), Jaws 3D raked in a rather impressive $88,000,000 on a budget of just $15,000,000, and though the Friday the 13th series had nowhere near as much stock, Jason’s second outing was a significant improvement on its predecessor commercially.
Ironically, Friday the 13th Part III, screened in 1,079 theatres across the US (813 of which were 3-D capable) knocked Spielberg’s colossal hit ET: The Extraterrestrial off the top of the US Box Office charts, becoming the second-highest-grossing horror movie of 1982 behind Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, a movie that Spielberg was also directly involved with. It was also the first 3-D film to receive a wide domestic release. Given this distinct advantage, Friday the 13th Part III remained Jason’s most successful outing as a marquee killer until 2003’s Freddy vs Jason.
With a domestic box office return of $36,690,067, Paramount’s 3-D gamble proved a huge success, but the novelty soon wore thin. By the time the woefully received Amityville 3D was released on November 18, 1983, a $6,000,000 film that managed only $300,000 in profit, the 3-D revival was already heading for hibernation. The format was a much weaker draw than it was back in the 1950s, and the 80s wave of movies just weren’t very good. In a decade renown for excess, the main issue was the way in which 3-D was rammed down audiences throats, something Friday the 13th Part III is arguably most guilty of.
The majority of Part III’s silliness derives from its eagerness to cram-in as many 3-D moments as it can. Don’t get me wrong, its use also results in some of the most memorable kills in the series, but the amount of innocuous moments dedicated to the process proves tedious to the point where you can’t help but chuckle in disbelief. It’s like a prolonged joke that goes from a giggle to a slight smile to utter, joyless despondency, but then back to a smile and a giggle, all the way up to inane giddiness. You have your unnecessary scares like a striking snake, a leaping rake, and a crudely presented eyeball from the film’s Hitchcockian harbinger of death (a cheap replacement for the deceased Crazy Ralph), which are completely ineffective but forgivable, but swinging bales of hay, descending yoyos, laborious displays of juggling? What’s all that about? And if you’re not tickled by the sheer absurdity of it all you’re going to have to conjure rare endurance because they stretch on forever, particularly if you’re watching in flat 2-D.
The capturing of those scenes was even more laborious. First of all a new kind of lens had to be developed for fears that faulty projection lenses would prohibit the film from achieving a wide theatrical release, which would have been devastating to such a typically low-risk franchise. Originally, Paramount leased two 3-Depix cameras from the Marks Polarized Corporation, but soon decided to develop a 3-D lens exclusive to Paramount, one that was incompatible with Marks projection lenses. Legal problems inevitably followed. MPC filed a $25,000,000 lawsuit based on Paramount’s attempts to monopolize the market by offering reductions to those who chose to lease projection lenses directly from them. MPC were ultimately credited for their part in the movie, but an injunction that would have required Paramount to change its equipment was denied.
The execution of the film’s copious 3-D moments proved just as problematic. Due to the crew’s inexperience with the new lens technology, shots would sometimes take hours to set up, the effects so tricky to capture cast members were forced to endure multiple takes. This was no reflection on their ability to deliver lines. Miner and his crew were almost solely concerned with the crowd-pleasing visuals Paramount were counting on to boost the box office following the previous instalment’s underwhelming returns. During the convenience store confrontation, Larry Zerner required more than ten takes to simply hit the lens with a wallet, an arduous task that resulted in arguably the most pointless and ineffective 3-D effect in the entire movie.
All of this effects the film’s pacing, but despite its flaws Friday the 13th Part III is still my absolute favourite of the series. ‘Friday’ fans can usually be divided into two groups ― those who dig Jason’s brutal earlier outings and those who dig the silliness of those later instalments. I’m a fan of both, and for me Friday the 13th Part III strikes the perfect balance between absurdity and brooding malevolence, one punctuated by that quirky left-field score, a fitting accompaniment for a film that frolics in the zany waters of some out-there wilderness. The film’s superficial 3-D antics may be cack-handed at times, but Friday the 13th is that rare mainstream franchise that succeeds as trashy, fast food cinema. It’s not supposed to be credible. It’s pure, mindless fun, and as long as the kills live up to Jason’s fearsome reputation, something severely lacking in those later instalments, the sillier the better.
It also features some of my favourite kills in the series, which are superlative viewed in either dimension thanks to Return of the Living Dead practical effects artist Allan A. Apone. Friday the 13th Part III was subjected to the usual cuts, but none of them devastating enough to detract from Vera’s ruthless harpooning, Andy’s brutal hacking and the infamous eye-popping moment that perfectly encapsulates the inimitable tone of Miner’s second and final outing. In fact, the film’s most notable omission is the fabled alternate ending that went against the victorious final girl trope synonymous with the series.
In the original ending, which is just as batty as the rest of the film, Chris takes a leaf out of original final girl Alice’s book, escaping to the Crystal Lake waters in a canoe, only this time it’s Jason’s dead mother who emerges to drag her under in a quite ludicrous nod to the first instalment, (wasn’t she decapitated?). Sadly, there is no surviving footage believed to be in existence, but production stills of the scene have since been released, which not only reveal an alternate look for an unmasked Jason designed by none other than practical effects maestro Stan Winston, they also allow us to piece together a shock ending that sees Chris ruthlessly decapitated. Hardly traditional, but certainly in-line with the film’s cavalier nature and violent extravagances.
Ultimately, Friday the 13th Part III is Jason’s movie, the instalment that would forge one of horror’s most recognisable and enduring icons. Much of that has to be accredited to the absolutely inspired decision to have Jason wear a hockey mask, though no one person can lay claim to that particular eureka. Like many of the most inspired creative decisions in the annals of horrordom, it was all a happy accident.
According to Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th, the signature artefact was unearthed during a lighting check designed to test the continuingly troublesome 3-D technology. A mask was yet to be decided upon. It’s so easy to get that kind of thing wrong ― what may seem scary at the time could end up making a mockery out of the character ― so hockey fan and 3-D effects supervisor Martin Sadoff grabbed his Detroit Red Wings goaltender mask as a temporary aid.
Chris: [to Jason] No! You can’t be alive!
Miner immediately liked what he saw. This one ubiquitous image became something else entirely on former trapeze artist Richard Brooker’s intimidating 6’3″ frame. Using a process known as VacuForm, the mask was enlarged to create a cast suitable for the character’s makeup, and after holes were added and red triangles strategically placed by art director Terry Ballard, a marquee giant was born. Some things are so obvious you don’t see them coming.
Brooker’s casting was another happy accident precipitated by Paramount’s notorious thrift. Friday the 13th Part II‘s Steve Daskawicz was initially set to reprise the role of Jason, but since the studio had moved production to the West Coast to limit expenditure, the East Coast based Daskawicz was asked to pay his own airfare, which he naturally declined to do. Daskawicz did a fantastic job as Jason, lending the character a bestial fragility that really sets the instalment apart, but Brooker has always been my favourite portrayer.
Jason would grow even more indestructible thanks to The Final Chapter‘s Ted White, who brought a frenetic savagery to the character, and the hugely popular Kane Hodder, who gave us a marauding character of comic book invincibility, but there’s something so disquieting about Brooker’s performance. His lumbering frame and docile manner make him the most ominous incarnation in the series, giving us an animal who shares the raw savagery of a mountain bear and the head-cocking inquisitiveness of a small puppy. The casual manner in which he lumbers away in search of his next victim having just harpooned Vera is so disconcertingly blunt. For the first time in the series we see our masked killer plain as day, his identity no longer confined to the prerequisite climax. It’s an iconic moment in the series, Jason’s first step to becoming the antihero audiences would soon embrace.
For me, Friday the 13th Part III is the most complete instalment of the series, warts and all. It may have began as a cynical punt at franchise longevity, a rather short-sighted one given the 3-D format’s fleeting resurgence, but accidentally or otherwise it was vital for the franchise long-term. If Part II introduced us to one of trash horror’s most iconic creations, then Part III set the bar for the antagonist-led brutality that would prove such a low-budget smash. Friday the 13th is no longer an unlucky day in Western tradition, it’s Jason day, a testament to the legacy of both the franchise and the character Friday the 13th Part III helped shape into a commercial beast. Strangely, Jason is never once referred to by name throughout the entire movie. Sometimes appearances really are everything.