Killing Is His Business, and Business is Good
This past weekend, producer Michael Bay’s Friday the 13th reboot scratched, axed and clawed its way to the top of the box-office charts, crushing the competition handily.
No surprise there – people like to be scared, and Friday the 13th is, for better or worse, a durable brand name. Even critics laid down their machetes, at least long enough to acknowledge they were dealing with a phenomenon of sorts. Roger Ebert, who once said that his half-star evisceration of Friday the 13th, Part 2 summed up his feelings about the entire series, rolled out a blood-red carpet of sorts, giving this latest incarnation two stars and lauding its “excellent” technical credits. Faint praise, perhaps, but I doubt Jason Voorhees writes many letters of complaint to the editor.
Truth be told, I’ve never thought too highly of Friday the 13th or its sequels. All the other franchise-spawning horror heavyweights – A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, Halloween and even Saw – began with an inspired idea, but director Sean Cunningham’s 1980 original about a mother-and-son team slaying camp counselors at Crystal Lake was exploitation at its most mind numbing. There were boobs, battered bodies and, soon enough, a hulking, indestructible behemoth in a hockey mask who became an iconic harvester of grief and panic. But not much more.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s try to put the movie and its progeny in their proper historical perspective, even if the very notion of Friday the 13th as a cultural artifact is scary indeed.
Friday the 13th
To the extent that any movie about a crazed serial killer can, the original seems almost innocent now, especially considering the seedier imitations and sequels that followed. Recently re-released on DVD and Blu-Ray, the movie looks its age – impeccably restored, yes, but still grainy in parts, never more so than during an opening sequence that neatly foretells what’s to come: Two horny teenagers sneak out for a quickie, only to find themselves on the business end of a machete minutes later. From there, the action unfolds in similar fashion, one mutilation after the next, though the killer’s identity is obscured by first-person camerawork until the waning minutes.
While that might suggest a modicum of suspense, the reality is that Friday the 13th is far too predictable and arbitrarily resolved to work as a macabre whodunit. Like the mythology that would inform the rest of the series, Mrs. Voorhees is largely absent until the movie’s grisly denouement, making her glorified cameo more puzzling than satisfying. The film does rather cleverly set the stage for future installments, however, particularly when her long-dead son emerges for a split-second from his watery tomb.
Note: Among the revealing extras offered by the latest repackaging of Friday the 13th is an interview with the cast, in which actress Betsy Palmer – Mrs. Voorhees herself – admits to thinking the script was a “piece of shit.” Screenwriter Victor Miller seems loath to disagree, acknowledging that he was originally commissioned by Cunningham to write “a Halloween rip-off” that would make a quick bundle of cash. Kevin Bacon, the biggest star to have appeared in the first movie, is nowhere in evidence.
Friday the 13th, Part 2
Jason, fully grown and sporting a burlap sack for headgear, makes his first kill early in Part 2, predictably dispatching the lone survivor from Friday the 13th with an ice pick to the skull. To be fair, director Steve Miner’s follow-up is actually an improvement on the original, thanks to more expensive production values and a livelier, handsomer cast. (More flesh is bared, even before it is shredded with the usual assortment of sharp-edged tools.) But that’s hardly an endorsement, except in the most superficial terms. Otherwise, there is nothing new under the Crystal Lake sun in Part 2 except fresh corpses, a brand new bogeyman and the decapitated head of Mrs. Voorhees, crudely preserved in a ghoulish shrine.
Friday the 13th, Part 3
Miner returns for a second go-round, and he’s got a gimmick: Jason in 3-D! (Eleven directors and only a handful of well-known stars – among them, Bacon, Corey Feldman, Kelly Hu and Crispin Glover – have participated in the Friday the 13th series.) Those interested in reliving the theatrical experience are welcome to try: The new DVD re-release includes a 3-D viewing option and two retro pairs of red-and-blue glasses, though the intended effect is lost on the small screen.
The story, of course, is business as usual, with a few extra touches of unintentional comedy – namely, the scenes needlessly included to exploit the novelty of the 3-D format. (Rarely before have characters in any film spent so much time aimlessly juggling and spinning yo-yos at the screen.) This time, victims include a Tommy Chong type who lives, briefly, to puff joints, and a Class of 1984-style gang hoping to throw a scare into the white, middle-class teens who normally frequent Crystal Lake. To his credit, Jason doesn’t discriminate.
Part 3 does represent a milestone in the series, though, as it marks the first time he dons his famous mask. In future installments, he would wear it while terrorizing clueless New Yorkers (Jason Takes Manhattan), punishing nubile astronauts in space (Jason X, perhaps the saga’s lowest point) and, in the lively and unabashedly campy Freddy vs. Jason, battling his Elm Street-dwelling rival, Freddy Krueger.
All of which brings us to director Marcus Nispel’s remake, which isn’t really a remake at all. After dispensing with Mrs. Voorhees before the opening credits, it launches into a brand new slaughterfest that sporadically pays homage to scenes from the first three films but stays truest only to their formula. And yet it works. It is easily the best Friday the 13th ever made, if only by virtue of the fact that it’s actually pretty good.
How good? That depends what you’re looking for. By now, you know whether Friday the 13th is your kind of movie, and if it’s not, you’ve probably stopped reading by now. If it is, be assured that the acting is passable, the effects are impressively convincing, and the suspense is real. It’s not a great film, but it is a frightening one, and what more do you need to know?