September 5, 2014


There seems to be a bit of confusion surrounding just who – or in this case ‘what’ – started the slasher craze that cluttered up theaters in the 1980s. You usually hear that Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, released in 1960, was the granddaddy of the slasher film. True, it did introduce several tropes that would become all too common in the horror genre. The isolated setting, the mother-fixated psychopath and the brutal dispatching of cast members via kitchen knives are all present, but PSYCHO didn’t immediately unleash a torrent of blood after its release. The censorship demands wouldn’t relax for another couple of years, a fact that probably stifled more than a few eager filmmakers.

The next film usually mentioned is Bob Clark’s 1974 classic BLACK CHRISTMAS. Like PSYCHO, this film introduced a few more standard slasher tropes, from the holiday setting to the ‘killer in the house’ trick that would frequently be used over the years. But Clark’s film didn’t have the mass appeal of PSYCHO and didn’t leave much of a dent in the American psyche. Then John Carpenter unleashed HALLOWEEN upon the world. The Little Slasher That Could, HALLOWEEN was an independent film that achieved Hollywood success, taking in an unprecedented 47 million dollars. But the success of HALLOWEEN was a slow process. Without major studio backing, HALLOWEEN would take a good long time getting going. The next piece of the puzzle alleviated that problem.

FRIDAY THE 13TH was made as a direct result of HALLOWEEN. Screenwriter Victor Miller and director Sean Cunningham openly admit that the film was an imitation of Carpenter’s classic, lifting the formula created by Carpenter’s distillation of PSYCHO and BLACK CHRISTMAS. As a result of a handful of successful screenings and some eye-grabbing advertising materials, a four way distribution battle began. When the smoke cleared, FRIDAY THE 13TH would find a home at Paramount. And this, dear reader, is what really began the slasher craze. A major studio releasing a blood and guts slasher film was unheard of. Critics and film journalists took issue with the content of the film, sure, but their real beef was that a Hollywood major had dipped its hands into the cesspool of the grindhouse circuit.

Paramount didn’t care and for good reason. FRIDAY THE 13TH was a goddamn event movie in its own right and audience support was through the roof. FRIDAY THE 13TH opened on over 1,000 screens and took in a sizable (approx) 6 million on its opening weekend. Like HALLOWEEN, the profits kept rolling in. By the time FRIDAY THE 13TH left the theaters (unlike HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13TH was subject to the normal studio releasing schedule), it took in close to 40 million. Not bad for an independent film with no stars, an unproven director and a budget of less than $600,000. Overnight, the concept of negative pick up deals for independent horror films became the norm. Studios began actively buying whatever slasher films they could get their hands on. Whole advertising campaigns were built using the FRIDAY THE 13TH model. Studios began to give these films press, presenting whatever movie they would shitting out that week as “bloodier than INSERT SLASHER HERE” or “scarier than INSERT SLASHER HERE”. It was a game of financial one-upmanship. If Film X was a success, studios clamored for Film Y, the movie that would do all the same things only bloodier. And audiences… Well, we ate that shit up.  

And then someone had an idea. With an ever escalating amount of horror films flooding the market, why not franchise a few of them? Instead of releasing five movies, all of which had unique titles, release a sequel. Save some of that development money and create a film with an already recognizable title. Who cares if the killer was sent flying into a wood chipper at the end of the previous film? Dismiss it all with a massive plot hole. No one cared anyway. We didn’t go to see these films for their narrative continuity and studios knew that. We went for the tits and the blood and the scares. Studio heads knew we cared about the formula first and the specifics second. The first two major franchise installments came out in 1981. The first was FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 and the second was HALLOWEEN 2. 

While HALLOWEEN 2 was a noticeable step down in quality, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 was a definite step up. Truth be told, though I loved it as a child, the original FRIDAY THE 13TH is simply not a good film. It’s barely adequate in the writing and directing departments and is so poorly lit that trying to watch the film on a worn out VHS tape was always an exercise in futility. The final reveal of Mrs. Voorhees stands as the most ridiculous plot development this side of the giallo film. She simply shows up, says hello and then tries to kill the Final Girl. There is nothing special about the film except its place in horror history. But the sequel corrects everything that was wrong with the first film. The acting is competent, the characters are all likeable (though there’s too damn many of them; a standard problem with body count films) and the film is directed with a reasonable amount of style. Perhaps the biggest improvement between the two films is that FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 is actually frightening, one of the few early slashers that actually was. I understand that THE FINAL CHAPTER is the fan favorite and the first film is spoken about like it’s the goddamn CITIZEN KANE of 1980s horror films, but let it be known: there is only one FRIDAY THE 13TH film worth seeing and it’s this one.

All of the familiar elements of the slasher are on display here. The first ten minute slaying of the previous films survivor, the endless POV shots (I will never understand how characters in slasher films never manage to see the hulking killer standing four feet away from them, hiding behind nothing but a single fucking twig), the gratuitous nudity, the graphic bloodletting and the last minute stinger that sent the audience out on a high. All of those elements are wrapped around a carbon copy of the original script. A group of young adults are setting up a summer camp. While waiting for the kids to arrive, they smoke pot, fuck around and go swimming. Sensing the audience is about to fall asleep, the killer starts wiping out cast members left and right. A thunderstorm starts up, the cast is whittled down to a single woman and then it all devolves into a long chase scene before ending with the killer being whacked with some kind of sharp object. FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 is clearly nothing new. 

But there’s something about the film that just works. Director Steve Miner (who would go on to direct a number of notable horror films) lifts a bit more from Carpenter than just the screenplay formula. He uses the foreground and background in interesting ways, playing around with audience expectation. The actors are all playing stereotypes but the film twists them in several surprising ways. The jock, for example, is a guy in a wheelchair. The Final Girl, psychology student Ginny, is more of a wiseass than the lanky nerd guy (the usual wise ass in these kinds of films) and displays a real kind of intelligence and strength (name me one other Final Girl that stops and waits in a bush just so she can kick the killer in the nuts). The horny boy and his girlfriend don’t actually ever have on screen sex and neither of them reveal their naughty bits. It’s weird. Of all the FRIDAY THE 13TH films, this installment is the only one with characters I didn’t want to murder before Jason murdered them. That alone makes this film 100x more watchable than any of the others. 

Even Jason comes across as an interesting character here. Looking a bit like a hillbilly version of the killer from THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, potato-sack Jason is much more cruel and three dimensional than other iterations of the character. His weird shrine to his mother and his reactions to Ginny in the final minutes of the film recall the ending of HALLOWEEN 2, that moment when you think, just for a moment, that the killer is more than just an unstoppable boogeyman. The most vicious murder in the entire film, that one that really freaked me out as a kid, involves a prolonged tracking shot as Jason sllooooowly approaches the wounded Vickie, knife raised. It’s an unnerving scene and one that helps make Jason feel like something more than just a rabid Rottweiler in a room full of helpless bunnies. I always thought the hockey mask was a ridiculous choice. It felt like a gimmick and made Jason, in my oh-so-humble opinion, far less frightening. For my money, this is the ultimate representation of the character.

Now it may go without saying but FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 is far from a perfect film. But I would say that it’s a near perfect slasher film. It does exactly what a good slasher should. It gives us characters we like (so we can actually feel some kind of worry and stress over their survival), a killer that’s actually scary and has a pace that builds slowly then releases like a cannonball. Yeah, it’s still suffers from some awful writing and most of the kills are just ripped from Mario Bava’s BAY OF BLOOD (Ron Kurz, the screenwriter of the film, claims to have never seen it; I don’t believe him) but everything works as it should. You can definitely feel the hands of the censors though. FRIDAY THE 13TH was a sore spot for the MPAA. They received a great deal of backlash from critics for allowing so much of the violence to remain intact. As a result, the FRIDAY THE 13TH series became the MPAA’s favorite whipping boy. The cuts really reduce some of the impact of the kills but they remain some of the stronger bits of violence in the franchise.

It’s sad that the franchise, just now showing promise, would quickly become a laughing stock. Every film that came after only further drove the franchise into the ground. It became a series of gimmicks (in order: the 3D gimmick, the advertising gimmick, the “is he dead?” gimmick, the horror comedy gimmick, the cross-sub genre gimmick, the location gimmick, yet another cross –sub genre gimmick, yet another location gimmick, and finally the team-up gimmick). But I guess we can all sleep easy knowing that for one installment, the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise was actually good. 

That’s more than can be said about the LEPRECHAUN franchise. At least there’s that.