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Non-Review Review: Friday the 13th, Part II

There is something almost endearing about how direct the Friday the 13th film series is, how comfortable it is in its skin.

There are arguments to be made that the original Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street are genuine cinematic classics, that are frequently underrated because they were followed by decades of sequels, knock-offs, reboots and remakes. Although they rapidly devolved into franchise zombies, Halloween really jump-started a cinematic genre, and Nightmare on Elm Street was slyly post-modern.

Somebody didn't read the signs...

Somebody didn’t read the signs…

In contrast, the Friday the 13th films have no such pretension. Instead, the Friday the 3th films exist as pure and uncompromising slasher schlock. Hack and slash and slice and dice. The Friday the 13th film series is powered not by central themes or ideas, but by a simply desire to churn out movies in which attractive and generic characters get brutally slaughtered. It is a ruthlessly efficient model; there were eight Friday the 13th films released between 1980 and 1989.

It’s hard not to admire the ingenuity at work here – the Friday the 13th films are relentless, refusing to let little things like logic or resolutions get in the way of the next sequel. Friday the 13th, Part II starts the franchise machine properly rolling, by rather efficiently getting around the fact that the first film’s serial killer had been fairly cleanly dispatched. It’s time to meet Jason Voorhees.

If you go down to the woods today...

If you go down to the woods today…

As pointed out in the opening scene of Scream, Jason Voorhees was not the killer in the original Friday the 13th. Instead, all those attractive young people were slaughtered by Pamela Voorhees. Pamela – as Friday the 13th, Part II conveys through a somewhat ham-fisted flashback reel – was motivated by the death of her young son on the lake all those years ago. It is not the most nuanced of motivations, but it provided a suitable excuse for the requisite carnage.

The opening sequence of Friday the 13th, Part II features an extended flashback (or “slashback”, if you will), framed as the nightmares of Alice Hardy. Alice was the only survivor of Friday the 13th, and was the person who beheaded Pamela Voorhees at the climax. Friday the 13th, Part II is rather rather transparent in its blood lust, so the flashbacks present not only Pamela’s murders in loving detail, but also the decapitation of Pamela Voorhees.

"Well do better next time, we promise..."

“Well do better next time, we promise…”

Friday the 13th was a massive commercial success, earning back $39m on a $1m budget, demonstrating that low-investment high-return horror films are not a recent development. As actress Adrienne King tells it, the studio knew it had a good thing going:

Well I believe after that opening night, Friday May 13th 1980, when it opened on over 3,000 screens and Paramount realised they had a hit on their hands – a gift from god so to speak – I believe they all got together that weekend and came up with what was going to happen. I’m sure they were on top of that thing so quickly like a fly on paper that they probably had a rough draft of the script by Monday. They had to deal with the fact that Jason at that point was only in my dream, and the fact that there was no bogeyman. Mrs Voorhees was gone, maybe they thought for a second that Alice could become a killer…?

So the decision was made – credited to producer Phil Scuderi – to make Jason the killer in Friday the 13th, Part II. It was a very pragmatic solution to the problem at hand, even if it raised all sorts of questions.

Putting the matter to bed...

Putting the matter to bed…

Then again, the Friday the 13th series is incredibly pragmatic. That pragmatism is perhaps the series’ defining feature. Unlike villains like Freddie Krueger or Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees did not emerge fully-formed. He appeared in a dream sequence towards the end of the original Friday the 13th as a rotting corpse of a young boy. He appeared in Friday the 13th, Part II wearing a pillow case over his head. It would not be until Friday the 13th, Part III that Jason would don his now-iconic hockey mask.

Compared to other slasher villains, Jason Voorhees is a blank slate. He lacks the supporting cast and history that defined Michael Myers in the first couple of Halloween films. He lacks the charm that Robert Englund brought to Freddie Krueger. Jason Voorhees can be whatever the plot needs him to be, ignoring any previous appearance that might contradict whatever is necessary for the plot in which he is appearing at any given moment.

You know, I'm not even sure the movie takes place on Friday the 13th...

You know, I’m not even sure the movie takes place on Friday the 13th…

There’s a ruthlessness to the continuity of the Friday the 13th films – all that matters is the perpetual present; the past is malleable, something to be bent to the whims of the current script. Not only does Friday the 13th, Part II retcon the ending of Friday the 13th, Friday the 13th, Part III retcons the ending of Friday the 13th, Part II. Jason could be anything that the films needed him to be, without ever providing any hint of a consistent character.

As much as the Friday the 13th series can be said to have a continuity, it is frequently revised a redrafted. At one point, the franchise considered replacing Jason with Tommy Jarvis; Friday the 13th, Part V: A New Beginning featured a new serial killer named Ray Burns. None of this stuck. When Jason returned in Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives, it was suggested that he had not survived the drowning and had always been a supernatural creature.

Well... there's just not hygienic...

Well… there’s just not hygienic…

Even Friday the 13th, Part II is unsure what to make of Jason Voorhees. Why is he killing these young people? The movie posits a couple of plausible explanations, but never seems too concerned with the details of Jason’s motivations or pathology. As Ronald D. Moore noted while working on the first draft of Freddie vs. Jason, Jason Voorhees has always been drawn rather broad and with little regard for nuance or character development.

As such, the movie offers a few hints, but little detail. “Legend has it that Jason saw his mother beheaded that night, and that he took his revenge,” Paul suggests, during the movie’s obligatory campfire scene. “A revenge that he’ll continue to seek if anyone every enters his wilderness again.” Ginny offers a more sympathetic psychological take, “I doubt Jason would have even know the meaning of death, at least until that horrible night.” Later, we find an alter to Pamela Voorhees, maintained by her son.

An altared state...

An altared state…

Is Jason murdering these teenagers as a grotesque tribute to his deceased mother? Is he acting out violence because violence is all that he has ever known? Has he turned feral after all this time alone in the wilderness, and is simply protecting his home from an encroaching civilisation? There’s some interesting material there, but Friday the 13th, Part II never seems particularly interested outside of the fact that Jason might have a reason to kill off all of these teenagers.

There’s no hint of irony to any this. Friday the 13th, Part II is here for the murder and the mayhem, and everything else is just a vehicle to that. And, to be fair, the movie realises this. There’s a very cynical tone to the film. Members of the female cast spend entire sequences in (or even out of) their underwear. The image of Jason impaling a post-coital couple with a spear through the bed might be the most Freudian of slasher movie killings.

Just in pillow case!

Just in pillow case!

A lot of the elements of slasher movies mocked (and critiqued) by Cabin in the Woods are played entirely straight in Friday the 13th, Part II. There is a sense that Friday the 13th, Part II expects us to empathise with Jason on some level, falling back on the familiar slasher movie cues that help signal to the audience that the victims deserve to be punished for their transgressions. As with a lot of these kinds of slasher films, there’s an uncomfortable sense that the audience is meant to be believe these kids deserve this.

Crazy Ralph rants and raves about obvious danger, but the young cast pay him no heed. When two of the staff are caught wandering into the site of Pamela Voorhees’ killing spree, Paul refuses the punish them.  “You’re not even going to punish them?” the local sheriff demands of the camp leader. “What kind of place is this?” There is some faint sense of karma at work here, that perhaps these victims are getting some sort cosmic comeuppance.

Way to wreck it, Ralph...

Way to wreck it, Ralph…

After all, Friday the 13th, Part II opens with the casual murder of the only surviving cast member from the first film. Alice is attacked and murdered in her home by Jason with an ice-pick. It is clear that nobody escapes, at least not in the long term. Of course, the movie glosses over the practicalities of the sequence: How did Jason find her? How did he commute? How did he transport his mother’s head? Did nobody find it odd to see him wandering around town?

That said, the murder of Alice was the result of actress Adrienne King’s reluctance to commit to an entire film. She had been targeted by a stalker following the success of Friday the 13th, and wanted to put some distance between herself and the film the film franchise. Still, the creative decision to kill Alice off so casually and so vindictively feels like it sets the tone for the rest of the film. Despite the fact that we know very little about Jason or why he does what he does, this is his story. Everybody else is just fodder.

They won't like that, Ted.

They won’t like that, Ted.

(To be entirely fair to Friday the 13th, Part II, it should be noted that both of the local characters who warn the youngsters about the local dangers are killed off by Jason over the course of the film. Crazy Ralph is murdered with barbed wire while spying on Paul and Ginny at the camp. The local sheriff is murdered when he stumbles on Jason’s little shack out in the woods. In both cases, there’s a sense that Jason is punishing intruders, those wandering into places where they don’t belong.)

Friday the 13th, Part II is acutely aware of the camera at every point in the film – even more than most horror films. The camera not only turns the audience into voyeurs, but it also acknowledges that no world exists beyond what the camera can see. Characters seem to only be visible to one another when they are on camera – popping out from hiding spots that should not have hidden them from the intended target.

Phoning it in...

Phoning it in…

In particular, it seems like Jason himself cannot be seen when he’s off camera. While this handily explains how he could track and kill Alice, it is also obvious towards the end of the film as he attacks Ginny in her car. He pops out of vision on the driver’s side, and then starts stabbing through the roof. Ginny seems surprised by this, even though the next cut reveals that he is attacking from the passenger’s door – which was right in front of Ginny, but behind the camera.

In a way, this seems to be Friday the 13th, Part II winking at the audience – acknowledging the movie’s pragmatic approach to horror and brutality. Much like anything from the first film that might contradict this story didn’t happen, anything that happens to be outside the camera’s field of vision simply does not exist. Ted disappears from the final act of the film when he simply decides not to head back to the camp – there’s no coda to follow up on him, he simply does not exist.

"Gee, you think maybe we should pay attention to this sign?" "Nah."

“Gee, you think maybe we should pay attention to this sign?”
“Nah.”

There’s a strange purity to all this, an unapologetic efficiency. Friday the 13th, Part II is not concerned with being a great (or even a good) film on its own terms. It is just trying to be an efficient slasher film. It certainly succeeds.

5 Responses

  1. my fav jason movie is, jason takes Manhattan

  2. Hey horror fans! I’m the son of Ted White who portrayed “Jason” in Friday the 13th The Final Chapter. I finally got off my duff and wrote about the time my dad invited me to the set for one of the kill scenes and his private conversations between director, Joe Zito and effects guru Tom Savini. It’s a bloody and funny, crazy story and I was there to see it go down. I’ve told this story for years but have never written about it. He’s actually a stuntman who did a slue of Westerns and doubled for John Wayne in several of the Duke’s films. This story and many more from his career are now in a paperback compilation called “In The Shadows of Giants.” And the corpse didn’t fall far from the casket as I have had my own share of crazy stories to tell as well. Check it all out soon on Amazon and Kindle. You won’t be disappointed! Like our Facebook page to get notified of the launch! https://www.facebook.com/shadowsofgiants

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