Friday, November 13, 2015

Happy Friday the 13th: Friday the 13th Part II (1981)

It was great fun for establishment movie critics of the day -- in the early eighties -- to dismiss the first several Friday the 13th films as artless, anti-social “dead teenager” movies.

Yet today, one can gaze at the first two films in the durable franchise (from 1980 and 1981, respectively) and quibble with these disses   

The first two movies in the Friday the 13th cycle actually hold up remarkably well. Though they are not particularly deep in terms of theme, they are nonetheless effective and well-made.  In both productions, for example, the slasher format is at its most naturalistic, eschewing theatricality, artificiality and the supernatural in favor of blunt, in-your-face violence, grounded characterizations and psychological, human motivations.

In later entries, of course -- and perhaps to compete with the likes of Freddy -- Jason becomes more an overt supernatural personality, back-from-the-dead and ready to party, as it were. 

But the first two films make the most out of the stream-lined narratives and situations. These are stories, simply, of a mad killer who attacks young people in an isolated, natural setting. The first film makes a fascinating Garden of Eden case, even, comparing a snake in a cabin, to the evil Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer). Both get decapitated.

Friday the 13th Part II (1981) has long been one of my favorite films in the saga, for a few key reasons.  The first is that the movie attempts to ascribe intriguing and meaningful psychology to Jason’s character; establishing his “Momma’s Boy” complex, which has remained -- through sequels and even the reboot -- a key facet of this Bogeyman’s persona. 

Jason’s psychology is explored in the film by the sympathy shown by his would-be-victim (and great final girl): Ginny (Amy Steel). We learn in the film that she is a child psychologist in-training, and she applies that knowledge to Jason.

Today, we would never someone with Jason’s obvious deficiencies a “frightened retard,” as Ginny does at one point, but the terminology is not as important as Ginny’s thoughts.  Specifically (and while at a bar no less…) she goes to the trouble to “imagine” what Jason’s life must be like, having been traumatized by the murder of his mother.  She puts herself in his shoes, and this ability to empathize (and grounding in psychology) are the things that differentiate her from the rest of the youngsters.

Ginny’s attempt to imagine or see Jason and his psychology are intriguing, because twice in the film, Ginny actually nearly catches sight of him.  She seems to sense Jason’s presence in two early shots, once during a hike in the woods when she lags behind the group, and later when she stands on a cabin porch.  It’s as if she is more sensitive to him, and that is the factor that helps her survive.  The pay-off occurs in the finale, when she dresses as Jason’s mother in an attempt to confuse him (and save her own life in the process).  She has been “in tune” with his presence, and even his pain, in some way throughout the film. 

In many slasher films, a connection of sorts exists between the insightful, sensitive Final Girl, and the Masked Killer, and that is abundantly the case here.  I rather like that Ginny’s ability to put herself in the shoes (or sweater?) of the “monster” is also the thing that saves her life in the end.

Secondly, Friday the 13th Part II -- far from being the anti-social menace that critics feared would destroy civilization -- is actually pro-social and forward-gazing in some significant sense.

Consider that the character Mark (Tom McBride) --- a young man confined to a wheelchair -- is depicted as both physically attractive and sexually desirable. Indeed the film treats Mark as “equal” fodder for the vicious killer, Jason. Sure, he’s in a wheelchair, but when he breaks the vice-precedes-slice-and-dice commandment like the other teens, Mark’s still toast. Although there is a conversation in the film regarding how Mark ended up in a wheelchair (via a car accident), he is more than just that chair to the filmmakers and other characters.

Instead, he is seen as a fun-loving person who -- like the others – just wants to have fun.  He wants to smoke weed and have sex, just like everyone else, and therefore is neither an object of pity or ridicule (like Franklin in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).  In other words, Marc’s “handicap” doesn’t mark him for special treatment in the film, either within the drama, or outside, it by the filmmakers. That’s admirable.

Mark also gets a great death scene, and one I have never forgotten since I first saw the film at my girlfriend’s house at a party when I was in sixth grade.

I also regard this film highly because Part II -- in many ways – offers the perfect distillation of the slasher paradigm. 

The first fifteen minutes of the film re-introduce virtually every component of that tried-and-true formula from the tour of the dead and the coup de grace (Mrs. Voorhees decapitation, in flashback), to the sting-in-the-tail/tale (Jason in the lake) and the introduction of useless authority (Crazy Ralph’s final appearance).  If someone wishes to understand or teach the pieces of the paradigm, Friday the 13th Part II is a great place to start learning. You can find every formulaic element in a short duration

There are some odd moments in the film to be sure, like the comical shot of Jason’s hands taking a tea kettle off the stove after the water boils at the end of the pre-title sequence.  Why would he even bother? 

But that funny caper arrives after a sequence that gives audiences a heart-pounding “cat scare” jolt, and a gory demise for the only survivor of the first film, Adrienne King’s Alice.

Also on the down-side: I can’t watch Max’s (Cliff Cudney) and Vicki’s (Laurie Marie Taylor) scenes in the film without doing a double-take.  These actors must have been cast because they look like dead ringers for John Travolta and Amy Irving.

But otherwise, Friday the 13th Part II provides a good psychological insight into Jason-- who here wears a potato sack instead of his familiar hockey mask -- pits him against a great, sensitive nemesis in Ginny, and, under the surface, suggests, even, that he is an equal opportunity slasher.

Along the way, the slasher format gets played out in every last detail, from the car that won’t start (Ginny’s), to the cat jump (in Alice’s home), to the “you-play-you-pay,” vice-precedes slice-and-dice dynamic. In the latter case, Max and Vicky get speared together while making the beast with two backs.

Steve Miner also directed the lean, efficient H20 (1998), and his no-nonsense approach pays off here.  The film is like a freight train barreling down at the tracks towards us, focusing on scares and just enough pop psychology so we don’t feel debauched by the gruesome violence.

That’s a recipe for success that the Friday the 13th franchise couldn’t always replicate. 

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