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Friday, February 06, 2009


What makes a film a “landmark?” Many elements can figure into that assessment and among them are such factors as innovative direction, great performances, special effects which raise the bar on what can be visualized, scripts that capture and express universal aspects of the human experience or speak on changes in our culture, or even something as simple as a film hitting at just the right time and striking a chord with audiences. Each generation witnesses a number of such movies and those flicks each carve out a place for themselves in motion picture history, but how many landmark films are there that genuinely suck? I can’t provide an answer to that question, but this I can tell you: 1980’s FRIDAY THE 13TH is definitely a landmark, and it also most definitely sucks fetid farts from a dead hobo’s ass.

Anyone with an interest in ‘80’s-era horror knows of the legacy of the slasher film boom, a wave inadvertently launched by a film actually deserving of its landmark status, John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978), but while that film lit the fuse, it was FRIDAY THE 13TH that provided the gunpowder. Imitating HALLOWEEN’s stalk-and-kill structure and also ripping off the Italian proto-slasher flick BAY OF BLOOD (1971), FRIDAY THE 13TH eliminated such elements as suspense, excitement and general intelligence, but jacked up the gory murder content to levels previously unseen in a film released by a major studio, and therein lay the secret of its considerable box office success. The sort of ultra-violent material common to the dingy recesses of the grindhouse crossed over to the theaters of suburbia courtesy of FRIDAY THE 13TH being an independent movie that got picked up for next to nothing by Paramount and underage teenagers flocked to theaters to revel in its body count charms.

Loaded to the gills with then-shocking sights such as a young Kevin Bacon getting a hunting arrow shoved through his neck, the movie told the bare bones story of a pack of brain-dead camp counselors who seek to re-open Camp Crystal Lake, a summer camp for kiddies that has lain fallow for some twenty-two years following the drowning death of a mentally-handicapped boy named Jason Voorhees due the negligence of two camp staffers who were too busy getting their hump on to pay attention to their young charge.

Jason Voorhees: victim of counselor negligence.

Then, a year later in 1958, another pair of counselors attempt to get their hump on but instead experience a fatal case of coitus interruptus at the hands of an unknown assailant. Skip ahead to 1980 and the latest batch of slasher fodder carrying on despite warnings from the locals, and the rest of the film's running time drags along between murders until we find out that the crazed and rather inventive killer is none other than the seriously insane mother of the deceased Jason.

Betsy Palmer as Pamela Voorhees, proving that you just don't fuck with a mother's kid.

But before we can stop to think about how there's no way that this woman could be physically strong enough to hoist a grown man's corpse off the ground and pin it to a door with an arrow through the eye and out the back of the skull, she is decapitated by the lone surviving counselor, a virginal young thing who hacks off the crazy broad's noggin with her own machete. Then, as the girl drifts upon the lake in a canoe while waiting for rescue, the corpse of Jason Voorhees erupts from the water and attacks her, but it all turns out to be a dream, to say nothing of a total ripoff of the ending of the immeasurably superior CARRIE (1976).

The "Boo!" that launched a thousand sequels (okay, nine, plus a crossover and a reboot/re-imagining).

When the film was released in May of 1980, FRIDAY THE 13TH hit my hometown of Westport, Connecticut like an atomic bomb and immediately became the must-see film for every kid for miles around. The R rating proved to be little hindrance to any under-seventeens who wanted to see it thanks largely to the theater it played at being staffed by people who were seventeen at the oldest (excepting of course the manager), and they obviously couldn't care less about enforcing the pointless MPAA restriction. The material in the film was no worse than anything that could have been found in any issue of EERIE or CREEPY — in fact it was much tamer by far — and gruesome tales have gone part and parcel with the American teenage experience for a very long time, so where was the harm in letting in the spotty-faced masses? As far as the filmmakers were concerned when FRIDAY THE 13TH ended up being the most profitable film of the Summer of 1980 after THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK — think about that for a minute! — it was the polar opposite of harm, and though the film was pretty much crucified by critics who tarred it as nothing more than a festival of plot-free carnage, those critical brickbats amounted to less than a squirt of rat's piss in a rusty thimble. The flick was a hit and the studio heard the "cha-ching!" of cash registers worldwide, so a sequel was put into production almost immediately.

1981's FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 opened just a hair shy of a year after the original and had to solve a seemingly insurmountable narrative problem: nearly every character in the film was quite decisively dead, including the killer, so how would a sequel have anything to do with the original? The filmmakers solved that snag by having Jason turn out to actually be alive and have him off the previous film's survivor in the movie's opening minutes, after which the story jumps to 1984 for no particular reason and essentially repeats the first film's already lackluster story beats, only somehow making the proceedings even more boring; I seem to recall some news items about the film's gory content being toned down due to critical outcry and the murders are definitely not up to the first film's Grand Guignol excesses, so that may have had something to do with it. Having seen FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 when it came out, I recall myself and everyone I knew who saw it finding it to be a massive disappointment, but in recent years it's actually acquired something of a cult following and is even hailed by some as the best of the series (hollow praise if ever I heard any). All I have to say to that is the fans of it must have incredibly low standards when it comes to horror movies. Oh, and Jason rocks the bold fashion statement of wearing a burlap sack over his head. (Cue Count Floyd voice) Oooooh, scary, kids!

Jason with a bag over his head: Charlie Brown's multi-eyed ghost costume displayed more imagination.

But I will say this for FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2: the design of the interior of the shed that serves as Jason's shrine to his mom's severed head is very creepy and as good as anything found in the most gruesome panels of vintage issues of TALES FROM THE CRYPT. (See below)

You've gotta love this set!

If I ever have a home in the suburbs with a garage, I intend to shamelessly rip off this design for use in a homemade haunted house for Halloween. If I can talk someone into getting made up as a rotting head and sit unmoving with their body concealed by a table top, only to have them snap open their eyes and moan just as trick-or-treaters are about a foot away, I guarantee a Halloween memory that will last a lifetime (or some youthful heart attacks and suddenly filled costume bottoms)!

Despite a repeat of the critical savaging received by its predecessor, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 did well at the box office and the next installment, the imaginatively-titled FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3, opened in August of 1982. Memorably featuring an assortment of fun 3-D gore sequences (sadly lost on home video) — including a bit wherein Jason crushes a victim's skull, causing his eyeball to rocket at the audience in 3-D, and when I saw it in the theater the audience went wild, but the icing on the cake was when some stoned guy in the rear of the theater exclaimed, "I got it! I got it!" — FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3 is the most significant film in the entire endless series for one reason: this is the one where Jason finally dons his trademark hockey mask, the missing element that ensured him iconic status among the bogeymen of the American horror pantheon.

The iconic Jason: proof that a hockey mask and a machete go a long way in creating sartorial elegance.

After that the sequels churned on and on, one barely discernible from the other with the worthwhile exceptions being 1984's FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER (a title that's hilarious in hindsight) with a young Corey Feldman as the kid who actually kills Jason (yeah, right), 1993's JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY (again, yeah, right, but it it's more fun than almost any other film in the series and has the best opening sequence of the whole lot), 2003's ultra-ridiculous JASON X (in which the indestructible slasher is transplanted to a sci-fi future and given a bionic upgrade) and the anti-team-up opus FREDDY VS. JASON (2003), which pits Jason against fellow eighties horror icon Freddy Kreuger of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) and its many sequels.

And now, in just one week, a remake/reboot/"re-imagining" of FRIDAY THE 13TH is set for release into a horror market flooded with remakes and watered-down PG-13-rated pussified bullshit, and despite my relative ambivalence toward the series I'm actually looking forward to this return of the hockey-masked, machete-wielding embodiment of sheer malevolence. The original film sucked in the first place and most of its follow-ups existed as nothing more than an excuse for guys to lure their girlfriends into the dark recesses of the local multiplex in hope of a fistfull of rawhide (if you know what I mean), so a series reboot that gives us Jason from the get-go, appropriately adorned with his hockey mask, will probably be better than the 1980 original by default. But what I'm curious to see is just how violent and gory the new Jason creepfest will be, especially when taking into account how shockingly over-the-top charnel house organs-a-flyin' the 2008 RAMBO was; Sylvester Stallone countered complaints about the film's gory excesses by claiming in a press conference that the violence was necessary to call attention to the ongoing problems in Burma or some such bullshit, but no one who saw it bought that line os malarkey and embraced the film as the kind of slaughterhouse cinema that certain members of the moviegoing audience — Yer Bunche standing proudly among them — had longed to see return in all its sanguine glory. Sadly, the films of Jason Voorhees can't hide behind some high-falutin' claptrap about making any kind of statement other than proving that people love gory shit, so let's see if Jason returns to the screen without having been neutered by the MPAA. And you just know there'll be a super-gory "unrated edition" released to DVD a few months down the line...


John Bligh said...

I pretty much agree with everything you said, though I have no hope in the "re-imagining " being any good. I'll probably get it on Netflix, though..

Anonymous said...

I thought you'd mention Ari.

Tracey said...

Love this piece.