Saturday, October 3, 2020

A Deep Dive into Friday the 13th with Greyranger

0. I'm not necessarily a fan of the slasher genre, though I've seen an adequate horror-lover's share of it. With many, many hours to fill under COVID, and the franchise almost entirely available on the streaming platforms I'd just started watching regularly, I figured what the hell, I'll watch the Friday the 13th movies. This would be a chance to finally see the first two movies in the series (as well as some others I'd only seen in parts on television). I don't presume to make A Definitive Statement On The Series And Its Relationship To The Larger Culture (Or Even To Horror Cinema). I've watched the movies, done some (though not all) reading of background*, and recorded my impressions. My rankings of the series and other data bits are at the end; I've loved none of them but appreciate some more than others.

* = Stacie Ponder has written up all of the films over on her still-indispensable blog Final Girl - I'm grateful to her particularly for calling my attention to the often-berserk logos the movies threw at us. Such off-the-wall gestures are often where a low-budget movie's spirit truly lies, and more than anything it's those gestures that kept me engaged with the series even as one dead teenager began to resemble all the others.

1. The First

At the start there doesn't seem to be a whole lot to take from this seeing it for the first time 40 years on - you know who the killer will be revealed to be, and you know who's going to jump out of the lake in the epilogue, so finally seeing it is really just a chance to finally say you saw it, to check it off a list. So you recalibrate a bit, and try to be open - I know the basic story (which can be summarized very, very easily), so I look to the margins as openly as I can to see what else is there. 

There's some (not a whole lot, but some) sensitive work by the cast, one or two memorable character turns (fellow Overlook creature Trash sees a hint, JUST a hint, of Altman in their interactions), and a richly atmospheric setting. The key action all happens in less than 24 hours, during which clouds gather and then a rainstorm rages and subsides (and I like how the storm registers as an event in the movie, building an open quiet that the tension builds in nicely). Watching it forty years on it's odd how the gore effects, which were so scandalous in 1980, are barely lingered on. The violence isn't thrown in our faces long enough to really disturb us, though perhaps forty years later this series' true legacy is how it has desensitized us to this kind of violence.

It does wear its influence of Bava's BAY OF BLOOD on its sleeve, mainly in the quiet and emptiness that surrounds its murder sequences. There are some unsettlingly quiet touches as well (the quick dart of a hand behind a curtain is the bit I remember most keenly). Movies hold one's interest with a lot less; franchises, though, you'd hope would be built on a base less flimsy.

2. The Best

The first film was trying something new but wasn't sure what - this one has a model to build on and is stronger. Better realized and delineated characters (including a few you actually come to care about), more elaborate kill scenes, wild stylistic flourishes (Jason's reveal is sublime - Terry unleashing her shit right into the camera is bravura), and even Manfredini's score is better resourced (some lovely synth and strings interplay). Bloody summer fun, if you can overlook the wild gaps in logic. I imagine Amy Steel's performance will remain one of the series' best leads. (EDIT: Indeed it did.)

3. Comin' At Ya

The creative team take a couple of steps back here - in part 2 they knew they were making a genre movie but at least let its characters breathe and had strong connection between the set pieces. Here all the attention has been paid to the 3-D pop-outs with no care or detail put into anything else - Steve Miner made a more-than-coherent movie with 2 but seems handcuffed by the demands of the 3-D (and, no doubt, a studio that suddenly realized there was money to be made with this franchise), and the result is dramatically inert. Can't believe it took TWO people to write this, the most dull and rote script in the series (so far). Richard Brooks' Jason moves around like somebody's sprightly grandpa. The final barn fight gives it some oomph (with a lovely interior Louma crane shot that's more thrilling than any of the in-your-face effects).

4. The "Final" Chapter

The characters all have a spark that was missing in part 3 (the Jarvises are particularly likeable - the film would have benefited from a few more minutes with them), Jason's bulkier and more formidable, the killings become more elaborate (Tina's slo-mo defenestration in the rain is GORGEOUS). Director Joseph Zito seems to have given this one a bit more zip, though it appears that's because everyone in the cast was totally unified in absolutely despising him.


If we assume that these movies are all in continuity with one another, oddities quickly emerge: we see Mrs. Voorhees driven mad enough by her son's drowning to terrorize Camp Crystal Lake for two decades. And yet her son survived and was close enough to witness her murder and thus get fired up to embark on his own rampages (and how the hell did he get to Alice's apartment and back?). The sprawling geography of 2-4 (which take place over about four consecutive days) suggests that the environs surrounding Crystal Lake are fairly vast, which may explain how Mrs. Voorhees never saw the makeshift shack her son built within walking distance of the camp. I'm not surprised the video game took it all in - the designers must have had a field day with such evocative and expansive territory to map out. 

5. A New Beginning

And here I part with the slasher orthodoxy - this widely-reviled entry has (as I make these notes) given me the most entertainment so far. It doesn't have jokes but it's nonetheless very funny: the smash-cut from Joey's axe murder to the POLICE SQUAD! shot of the arriving siren makes me laugh just thinking about it. Part 3 had actors struggling with a nothing script and as a result had no energy; this one has actors full-tilt embracing a nothing script and is a lot more fun. It keeps looking for something else to cram into the formula; what character bits can we explore, what skills did an actor say they had on their resume that we can have them do on camera. The characters feel real and it's fun to spend time with them (Violet's robot-dancing to Pseudo Echo's "His Eyes" is a particular highlight).

6. He Is Risen

Tonally consistent (and Imma credit Tom McLoughlin, the series' first ever "written and directed by" credit) and downright silly at times (with Manfredini actually creating POLICE ACADEMY-style comedy score for the paintball sequence), but much of the comedy comes from actual jokes. A whole mess of strong performances in this one: Thom Mathews is rootably determined as by-now-the-series-protagonist Tommy Jarvis, and Jennifer Cooke is more than likeable enough to sell her bewildering turn as his besotted co-hero. Jason's supernatural rebirth starts its own continuity (which is smart), and the thing is surprisingly light-footed and pleasant-spirited.

7. The New Blood

There's the series' best story here: the story of a girl beset by abilities she doesn't understand and a guilt she'll never shake, of the shadowy lake that seeded her talents and still holds her close, of the energies that still manifest around her upon her return to the lake, of the unspeakable evil she accidentally frees from the depths of the lake, of the doctor who says he's trying to help her but seems to be guiding her via his own agenda, of her escalating fear as she tries desperately to embrace the human comforts around her, her anguish at losing everything, her terror turning to anger as she finally becomes who she is, becomes strong enough to contain and destroy the horror she unleashed, of her finally seeing the love that was always there, in the lake, of her leaving her past behind, her old world burned down as she confidently steps forward toward the new.

Paramount was given all these elements (assembled by the wildly ambitious producer Barbara Sachs), as well as a stunt team leader who took so seriously the iconography of the villain he was asked to play that he set a record for being on fire. Poised to deliver something next-level, Paramount instead asked for the same idiot teenagers, more of the same gratuitous nudity, the same shallow formula. Few involved saw it as anything more than a job, and a job is what we got.

Tina Shepard deserved better.

8. Takes A Boat Ride, And Then Manhattan

The lower budgets of the earlier efforts made for sleazy viewing, but also allowed for genuine strangeness and off-kilter moments. The good news in 8 is the production values are higher: the characters are an improvement on the previous and feel lived-in and semi-motivated, and this one has some of the series' best camera work. But the interesting ideas don't breathe and get glossed over, the spontaneity has been choked out of the series (even the endearing daftness of the title logos is gone - this thing has a generic Manhattan-in-the-80s title sequence that could have played before any movie set in Manhattan in the 80s), and it lingers on the suffering of its characters past the point of entertainment. It is firmly and unmistakably the product of capitalists at this point, which might be the scariest thing about it.

9. Aw, hell.

It took Jason longer to get to Hell than it did for him to get to Manhattan. Paramount just threw their hands up and gave the franchise to New Line, and New Line resumed the ongoing battle to turn this thing into something. This one plays like the second part of a movie for which the first part doesn't exist - suddenly Jason's a worm that jumps from body to body and there are various agents after him. It's crazily mixed and gets a coupla points for some engaging character bits and inspired lunacy (a diner gets attacked and the entire counter staff take arms up in defense) but it gives us way too much to just take on faith, and there's nothing on screen to really give a shit about. Even Manfredini's just randomly stabbing at his new digital keyboard at this point. A movie this insane should be more fun.


Couldn't find this one, and at this point in the series-thru I was getting punchy and contrary so damned if I was gonna buy it. My memories of this thing are good, with Kane Hodder as implacable as ever in both classic and future mode; Lexa Doig and Lisa Ryder effectively swapping their ANDROMEDA roles; David Cronenberg in a fine turn, during the movie's prologue, as an asshole scientist. I recall this being breezier than the others, more consistent and sure of itself - it feels like director Jim Isaac was given a solid script and a decent effects budget and left to it. (And how dismaying it was to find, while reading up on this movie, that Isaac died in 2012 - I wasn't the world's biggest PIG HUNT fan, but I would have been curious enough to watch another film from him.)

11. vs. Freddy...

Some of the luster has worn off, yet it's still my favorite movie in the Friday the 13th franchise. With director Ronny Yu (veteran of a mess of wuxia films and BRIDE OF CHUCKY) helming the thing the deck's stacked in its favor.  The characters are richer (and even mourn the deaths taking place around them), and Jason becomes a semi-realized character rather than a cinematic device that exists solely to eviscerate teenagers (Yu's decision to recast Ken Kirzinger in the role since he had more soulful eyes than Kane Hodder pays off). The story leans hard into fantasy (and harder into a Universal horror influence than even McLoughlin did in part 6) and is better for it, with a nice balance between the milieux of the title characters (artfully color-coded). Freddy's quips make him unpleasant and gross as opposed to evil; Kelly Rowland's sassing of Freddy is an unmotivated low point that nearly derails the thing. TIMELY BONUS: the treatment of Freddy's rampage as a public health crisis. And the climactic battle delivers.

12. 09

Jared Padalecki and Danielle Panabaker lead a cast who could have done a lot more than they were asked to; their sympathetic work, some solid camerawork, and a tight contraction of years of continuity are undone by ugly sadism, under-baked supporting roles, derivations from other movies, and just too much bullshit (I can buy that Jason built a shack in the woods; I can buy the crawlspace underneath; I can buy neither the vast network of tunnels nor the rusty school bus within them). I'm really glad to have finished a damn-near-full series view-through.

13. TL;DR

I rank'em FvsJ; 2, 6, 5, X, 1, 4, 7, 9, 8, '09, 3-D. 

Favorite kills: the rain defenestration in 4; the face-thru-metal in 6; the liquid nitrogen in X.


This post appears in a different form at Robson's own blog, The House of Sparrows.


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