Saturday, May 14, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Blackstar: "The Mermaid of the Serpent Sea" (October 3, 1981)

In "The Mermaid of the Serpent Sea," the Trobbits gather together a shipment of "power fruits" and "knowledge nuts" for the Mermanites of the Red Crown Reef.  

They sail to the reef, but find that the gentle water dwellers have been attacked by a phantom ship and minion of the Overlord called Captain Typhod.

Typhod wants the shipment of fruits and nuts for himself and his master, and transforms the Mermanites into savage sea serpents. 

Fortunately, Blackstar, Klone and Mara come to the rescue...

In this episode of Filmation's Blackstar (1981), audiences meet Typhod, another colorful minion of The Overlord. He's a nasty sea captain or pirate with a powerful ship at his command. The phantom ship can cloak during battle, and also fire teleporting beams at prey.  In other words, the ship's mast-had (shaped like a dragon), opens its mouth, and a beam comes out that captures victims, like the Mermanites.

Blackstar goes up against that beam in "The Mermaid of the Serpent Sea," and I don't know if I've mentioned it before in these reviews, but his star-sword makes a bionic sound effect when in use. 

Specifically, Blackstar re-uses the familiar sound effect from The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978).

"The Mermaid of the Serpent Sea" also begins to explain why the Overlord places such a premium on controlling the Trobbits and their tree.  Their tree produces "power fruit" -- which enhances physical strength and power, and the humorously named "knowledge nuts," which augment intelligence.  So the tree is not just a home to the Trobbits, it is a source of power and energy.

This is an enjoyable episode of Blackstar; one which develops the world and inhabitants sufficiently. For example, there is a nice flashback in the episode showing the crew of the golden galley defeating Captain Typhod in the past, and defending the Mermanites. 

About the only negative quality I can tag about this episode involves Klone.  He has a prominent role, but the writers do nothing to develop his character.  Is this shapeshifter a one-of-a-kind like Deep Space Nine's Odo?  

From a race that lives on Sagar?  

Why is he allied with Blackstar and Mara?  

The character, while useful for his changeling abilities, has no depth at this point. We know nothing of his people, his personality, or even his governing philosophy (like Vulcans and logic, for example).  

Next week: "The Quest."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "Gremlin the Dragon"/"Royal Wedding" (September 18, 1982)

Filmation’s Flash Gordon (1979-1982) underwent a dramatic format change for its second and final season.

Each half-hour would now tell two self-contained stores (of approximately ten minutes length), instead of dramatizing one 22- minute serial that was part of an overarching narrative or arc. 

The first season concerned Flash’s quest to gain the trust and cooperation of the diverse kingdoms of Mongo and bring down Ming.  The new season would focus instead on a kind of post-Ming world; one where he was still a factor but no longer had the power base to control the planet.

The second season of Flash Gordon also undertook another, controversial step. Writers added a new central character: a diminutive pink dragon named “Gremlin.” Gremlin served as cute, comic relief on one hand, but also saved the day on more than one occasion, proving himself a crutch for the writers. 

Season Two of Flash Gordon also re-uses a lot of footage from Season One. Ming’s secret “Magnetic mountain fortress,” for example, is the home of the Beast Men from the first season.

Finally, Flash himself has undergone a kind of personality transplant for Season Two. He’s much cheekier; a wise-cracker. Every new situation is met with a quip or a joke. Unlike the situation in Blackstar (1981), where any deepening of the titular character seemed like a step-forward, this approach somehow didn’t seem right for Flash Gordon as a character.

On the positive side, Flash has a new toy to play with this season; a jet pack.

The season begins with two tales, “Gremlin the Dragon” and “Royal Wedding.”

In the former, Flash and Dale are returning to Arboria for the wedding of Princess Aura and Prince Barin in their rocket (which is flying yet again…) when they set-down to rescue a little pink dragon who is attempting to escape from the Beast Men.  

Flash names the dragon “Gremlin,” and uses a jet pack to defeat the Beast Men. After the adventure, Flash and Dale sort of unofficially “adopt” the “little imp.”

In “Royal Wedding,” Ming hatches a nefarious plan on the day of the royal wedding. He sends a giant robot to capture Aura, Dale and Gremlin, hoping the prisoners will be “bait,” and Flash will come to the rescue. 

Flash does make the attempt, but Gremlin manages to steal the remote control to Ming’s giant automaton and leads him off a cliff, where he is pulped.  Ming is left promising, vainly, “We’ll meet again…sooooon!”

The inaugural stories of Season Two feel a bit light-weight. 

The first episode, “Gremlin the Dragon” may be the better of the two, simply because it features a straight up purpose, to introduce a new character.  The story also manages to depict the commitment Flash and Dale feel towards each other. Neither one is willing to leave the other behind in a tough situation.  

And, indeed, Dale actually does something useful in the episode, for a change, and saves Flash’s life.

“Royal Wedding” isn’t so good, perhaps because, even at this early date, the writers seem bound and determined to over-use Gremlin. 

He is the one who defeats Ming’s plan, and the little dragon’s victory does nothing to make Flash seem heroic, or Ming feel like he's still a genuine threat.  

Ming’s villainy is reduced considerably by the fact that his plan for revenge is defeated by a flying “pest.”  It seems to me that Gremlin is a fine supporting character and addition to the cast, but that the writers should have used him more sparingly. He could help out, he could support the action, but he shouldn’t often be the definitive factor in winning the day.

Next week “Sir Gremlin” and “Deadly Double,” two more Gremlin-centric Flash Gordon episodes.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Happy Friday the 13th: Jason X (2002)

Jason X is a huge departure for the slasher series because it is set in the distant future…and in outer space. The film is also one of the lowest-grossing entries in the sturdy franchise, which means, perhaps, that audiences didn’t take too well to its many departures from the norm.

But I’ll tell you right now, straight-up: I love Jason X.

It’s an utterly ridiculous movie that tosses Friday the 13th, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) and Aliens (1986) into a blender and comes up with one weird -- but also highly inventive -- horror film. The movie possesses a sense of joy about itself, and its own ridiculousness. The vibe is pure, anarchic glee.

While it’s true that the film is never overtly scary or suspenseful, Jason X is undeniably fun, gross, and ingenious. A few of the kills are downright inspired in conception and execution, especially the one involving a giant corkscrew, and another involving a doctor’s face dipped in liquid nitrogen.

Yet one particular moment in the film strides above all the rest, and deserves absolute, adoring respect.  

Late in the film, a cyborg version of Jason stumbles into a holodeck version of Camp Crystal Lake, and encounters two nubile young women (actually computer-generated distractions...) who proclaim -- loudly -- their love for premarital sex.  

Reverting to form, Jason stops to kill them, but the trick is that the avatars are designed just for that purpose, to appeal to his draconian (or perhaps Victorian...) sense of vice-precedes slice-or-dice morality.

I could watch this scene in Jason X a dozen times and not get tired of it. In part, this is so because the sleeping bag kill (my favorite in the series) is resurrected, and in part because the Friday the 13th franchise finally acknowledges on screen -- in true post-modern fashion -- its enduring subtext.  

You pay.  You fuck…you’re out of luck. 

Lest we forget, the original franchise came about as the Reagan Revolution unfolded in our nation, and a tide of conservatism swept the country.  These films -- though despised by conservatives -- are very much about that draconian, black-and-white world view. If you engage in premarital sex or smoke weed...Jason's going to kill you.  

So be good for goodness sake!

But back to Jason X. Any film that is willing to wink at the the entire saga's central conceit is seriously deserving of some love and respect.  

Accordingly, I bow down before Jason X. It may not be good in any tangible artistic sense, but it sure is knowing, nasty and entertaining as hell.

“I’ve seen worse.”

In 2010, at the Crystal Lake Research Facility, Jason Voorhees (Kane Hodder) escapes captivity. A resourceful scientist, Rowan (Lexa Doig) manages to freeze him in a cryogenic unit, but not before being wounded and succumbing to the cryo-gases as well.

Four hundred years later, in 2455, a class of students explores the now abandoned, environmentally-ravaged planet Earth.  There, students uncover Jason and Rowan at the ancient facility, and bring back the frozen life-forms to their ship.  

Professor Lowe (Jonathan Potts), their teacher, sees an opportunity to make a profit.

When Rowan is awakened, she expresses concern about Jason, but Dr. Lowe assures her he is very dead. 

But Jason has never stayed dead for long, and this time is no exception...

“He just wants his machete back!”

Despite their charms, the Friday the 13th movies are repetitive in the extreme. Most of the films involve a lumbering killer (either Jason or his Mom) knocking off camp counselors under cover of approaching storm at scenic Camp Crystal Lake.  You get the scene involving pre-marital sex...and death.  Of smoking weed...and death.  Of skinny-dipping..and death. 

And then you get the tour of the dead, in which Jason has propped up all the bodies, so the Final Girl can run through them all like a fun house carnival. Then you get the coup de grace in which Jason apparently dies, and some twist-in-the-tail/tale that promises yet another sequel.  

Later movies throw in variations of the format, like adding a Carrie knock-off, or visiting Manhattan, but Jason X, perhaps, is the first of the franchise to turn its eyes towards wholesale assimilation of science fiction tropes.

Not surprisingly, Star Trek is a major inspiration, particularly The Next Generation. A major character, for instance, is a sentient android named Key-Em 14 (Lisa Ryder), who adapts to different environments, likes to role-play and is, apparently, fully-functional just like our old friend Mr. Data (Brent Spiner).  

Also appropriated from the Next Generation is the conceit of the holodeck, a kind of virtual reality chamber where reality can be re-molded to different settings based on user input.  As is the case on the Enterprise D, the space crew we meet in Jason X uses the holodeck for training and recreational purposes.

The Alien film series is also a major influence here. In particular, Rowan (Lexa Doig), plays basically the same role in Jason X as Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) does in Aliens (1986). Consider the specifics: She is awakened from a long cryo-sleep to contend with a threat that only she has direct, first-person information about. In Aliens, that threat is the xenomorph from LV-426. In Jason X, of course, it is Mr. Voorhees. 

Similarly, both Rowan and Ripley continually act as a brand of Cassandra figure. They warn all those around them about what will happen once the threat is encountered, but they are ignored until it is too late.

Similarly, Rowan is surrounded by other figures you may recognize from Aliens.  That film also had an android, named Bishop (Lance Henriksen), of course.  But there’s Sgt. Brodski (Peter Mensah) in Jason X, a dedicated fighter and protector who makes a good stand-in for Michael Biehn’s Hicks.  And then there’s the Carter Burke surrogate, an avaricious teacher more interested in profit than safety: greedy Professor Lowe (Jonathan Potts).

These qualities and characters might be decried as cheap or obvious shots at more popular film/TV franchises, and yet I can’t really quibble with how Jason X utilizes them. It’s not a movie’s subject matter that counts, remember, but the ways in which a movie explores that subject matter. In this case, the futuristic trappings provide two great moments in Friday the 13th history.

The first such moment involves sick bay Nanites or nano-bots (another idea familiar to us from the Trek-verse) that re-build Jason as a half-flesh/half-metal juggernaut. I loved the idea of Jason getting a dramatic visual and technological upgrade so late in his cinematic life. There’s a great moment of Frankenstein-like portentousness here as the Nanites swarm down on Jason’s corpse and bring it back to life in this new, flesh-and-steel form.

Secondly, there’s that holodeck moment I mentioned in my introduction above. The survivors of the spaceship realize that Jason can’t resist temptation. He sees gorgeous, nubile camp counselors…and…must…kill them.  The urge is too strong for him to overcome. Frankly, this is a perfect movie moment, an inspiration that could emerge, finally, only from synthesizing so many disparate creative sources, and from accurate recognition of Friday the 13th's symbolic legacy and "meaning."

I also appreciate the film’s ending, which finds Jason careening to Earth Two like a falling star, and landing in the proximity of a body of water.  This is New Crystal Lake, a perfect place for him to take up old (murderous) habits, and so one can view the whole movie as a kind of origin story that gets Jason Voorhees -- urban legend -- from Point A to Point B.

I realize fully that outer space tends not to be a fertile terrain for established horror franchises. Hellraiser and Leprechaun have both gone to the stars, only to experience severe orbital decay. I would argue that Jason X doesn’t suffer the same inglorious fate. Instead, the film gets better, moment to moment, one cribbed inspiration to the next, until it reaches that moment of bliss with the holographic camp counselors.

Was it a mistake sending Jason to space? The Friday the 13th  saga has made worse mistakes, frankly. Going to 3-D in 1982 didn’t make for great entertainment in my book. Tossing out a Jason impostor in A New Beginning (1985) is also a low-point. And of course, Jason in Manhattan (taking the city alongside the Muppets, presumably), is an historic misstep. Especially since the Big Apple looks more like Toronto in that eighth Friday film. 

None of those films, I would suggest, showcase the audacity to go big, to go weird with such apparent confidence. You might laugh a lot during Jason X, but you're laughing with the film, not at it.

Jason X captures well the idea that I expressed here a few weeks ago, and which I often attempt to explain to my son. That idea is simply that horror movies don’t always need to be serious and grim if they can have fun with their ideas, and move the ball a few yards down the field.  

Jason X features some cool special effects, a well-developed sense of humor, and a worthy upgrade for a durable movie monster. Throw in a fun cameo by genre great David Cronenberg and an utterly ridiculous scene involving Jason just wanting “his machete back,” and you have all the ingredients for a good time at the movies.

Soon after Jason X, the 2009 re-boot came along, and started the whole damn cycle over again, eliminating humor and silliness from Jason's DNA, and taking the scatter shot world of Friday the 13th very seriously. 

Over-seriously, if you ask me. 

To this day, I prefer the crazy ingenuity of Jason X.

Happy Friday the 13th: Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

I could have selected any Friday the 13th film to review today, to celebrate this horror holiday. 

But I chose 1988’s The New Blood, directed by John Carl Buechler, for a few reasons. 

First, this entry features my all-time favorite kill in the long-lived slasher franchise: the sleeping bag murder. 

And secondly, the film’s climax is dominated by a clutch of really great, really inventive gags. Jason Voorhees, like Wily Coyote, gets felled by a falling roof, and punctured by nails to the head. And then he falls through a staircase, and finally gets burned alive (or undead, as the case may be.)

What’s not to love?

Well, actually, quite a lot. 

The New Blood is not exactly a good horror film, but at the very least it helps demonstrates a theory that I have attempted to explain to my eight-year old son, Joel.

And that theory goes like this: Once upon a time horror films didn’t take themselves so bloody seriously, and emerged, sometimes, as a whole of fun. 

During my teenage years, a group of high school friends would get together on Friday nights and we’d all go see these films at the theater. The Friday the 13th movies were good for a laugh; and sometimes good for a scream too.

That doesn’t mean such films are actually good, however. It only means they are fun.

The New Blood is, in terms of this dynamic, buckets full of “fun.” It’s not good in any conventional or critical sense.

If you are seeking a “good” Friday the 13th movie, I would recommend the 1980 original, the 1981 first sequel, or Part VI: Jason Lives, which has a great sense of humor about itself.

The New Blood -- a kind of Jason vs. Carrie on the cheap -- also represents a point of no return for the franchise. The Jason saga was competing, at this historical juncture, with the far more popular (and more imaginative) Nightmare on Elm Street series, and the writers/producers/directors of the late era Friday the 13ths embarked upon creative somersaults to help Jason compete.

In the span of a few years, Jason battled Carrie, visited New York City, became a body-hopping demon, went to outer space and was re-born as a menacing cyborg, and then went head-to-head with Freddy before, finally, a 2009 reboot that felt like Jason’s Greatest Hits…one…more…time.

A New Blood is the inauspicious start of that trend, an era when a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach was adopted for the Friday the 13th franchise. New Blood is low brow, slapdash and dumb for a lot of its run, and yet, in its climax, just the right amount of zany too.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement? 

That’s probably true.  The acting in the film is dreadful, the story is ridiculous and underdeveloped, and yet the final act -- featuring Jason riddled with nails, doused in gasoline, drowned and otherwise abused --plays like real life Looney Tunes cartoon.

Even against my better judgment, I can’t quite resist the bloody thing.

So Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood?  I can’t help but love it…at the same time I’ll tell you flat out it isn’t a very good or accomplished film.  Sometimes fun is just where you happen to find it.

A young girl, Tina, is traumatized when her parents argue at their home on Crystal Lake. She runs down a pier, jumps into a boat, and wishes her father dead.

The pier collapses and her father drowns. Tina, possessing telekinetic abilities, feels lingering guilt over his demise.

Years later, a teenage Tina (Lar Park Lincoln) returns to Camp Crystal Lake with her mother and her psychiatrist, Dr. Crews (Terry Kiser).  She walks to the pier where her father died and attempts to resurrect him.

Instead, she awakens the sleeping juggernaut, Jason Voorhees (Kane Hodder).

The undead Jason is soon back to his old tricks, hacking up and murdering local teenagers. But before long, Tina realizes she must harness her unusual mental abilities to put an end to Jason’s reign of terror…

My first observation on this re-watch of The New Blood is that, in the Friday the 13th universe, the 1980s have lasted for approximately 25 to 30 years. 

Think about it: We know from on-screen title cards in the first film the action occurs on the cusp of the 1980s. 

Three films follow and then in The Final Chapter (1984), we meet Tommy Jarvis, a ten year old kids, or thereabouts. 

He kills Jason, and Jason is dead and buried. 

Eight or so years later an adult Tommy Jarvis visits Jason’s grave to be certain the killer is dead, and ends up accidentally reviving him (with a little help from lightning).

But in that film, Jason Lives, it’s still the mid-1980s, even though almost a decade has passed.

Now, The New Blood starts. One early image is of Jason defeated, right where Tommy Jarvis left him: floating submerged in a lake. 

A little girl with psychokinetic powers, Tina (Lar Park Lincoln) wishes her father dead at the lake, and the pier upon which he stands crumbles and falls apart. He drowns. 

Seven to ten years later, a high school aged Tina returns to the lake and attempts to revive her father with her unusual mental powers, but awakens Jason instead.

So Jason has been at the bottom of the lake for about a decade at this point.

And yet it’s still the 1980s. 

Talk about a hell you can’t awaken from: a world of shoulder pads, acid-washed jeans, and mullet haircuts lasting for not a few years, but a few decades.

The other crucial thing to understand about the film is that in this eternal-1980s, Jason has developed the power to defy and violate the laws of physics. 

Sure, in other films of the franchise, Jason possesses the knack of always appearing at the right place at the right time so he can execute the most isolated or vulnerable teen victim. 

But here, he actually seems to boast the ability to teleport.

During one kill sequence, two teens decide to go skinny-dipping in the Lake. One young woman strips down, and gets into the water.  She submerges, and while she is underwater, Jason murders her boyfriend.  She pops up from underwater to see her boyfriend dead, murdered, and suddenly -- just a second or two later -- Jason emerges from under the water too, right next to her.  Without making a sound (like splashing water as he enters the lake), the killer has moved from somewhere on shore to being underwater, only inches away from his prey.

This power grows more pronounced in Jason Takes Manhattan, when a victim in a cruise ship disco sees Jason at the room’s entrance, but can’t manage to keep his eye on him, and Jason teleports closer and closer to him…

Jason’s been through a lot these films, however, and perhaps it is no wonder that he’s taking the easy way out, using teleportation skills to catch and kill his quarry. The film’s best and most humorous kill occurs, similarly, when he picks up a girl in a zipped-up sleeping bag and smashes her head first into a nearby tree. 

The (violent move) is so easy and simple, that you may feel Jason just isn’t into his work anymore. There’s no hunting or stalking here, no ratcheting up of the fear.  He just slices open a tent like a can of fruit, pulls out the girl (in sleeping bag) and with one shot unceremoniously cracks her skull.

It feels, at least to me, that all the energy in the film was being rallied for the climax, which finds Tina doing her Carrie shtick and using her fearsome mental powers against Jason. There’s a great shot here of the roof dropping on Jason’s head (and then his undead hand punching through shingle). 

And then Tina telekinetically douses Jason in gasoline and sets him on fire.  Jason burns, in glorious long-shot before our eyes, and I’d be lying if I said the stunts and effects didn’t still look impressive.

I also love how Jason looks in this film. He’s been rotting so long that we can see the skeletal structure of his back poking through his flesh, and when Tina telekinetically tightens his trademark hockey mask on the back of his head, white/yellow pus oozes out of his flesh. 

In other words, Jason looks like a real monster, not just a mad-dog slasher this time around, and I appreciate the adjustment in premise. He’s been dead and buried before so he’s clearly a supernatural entity of some type.

Perhaps the most ludicrous aspect of The New Blood is the manner of Jason’s resurrection, which I alluded to above. Tina’s telekinetic powers miss their target, her Dad, and accidentally hit Jason instead.  

This is almost as bad as a dog pissing on Freddy’s bones…in a dream.

I didn’t know that telekinesis works this way; that it can make wrong turns or hit unsuspecting corpses.

Of course, if Tina can resurrect the dead, like Jason or her Dad, just using her mental powers, why doesn’t she resurrect her Mom before the end of the movie?  

Once you open up that can of worms, it’s tough to shut down. Why not resurrect all the dead kids who are still in one piece?

The New Blood is filled with dopey, quasi funny moments that hover in a nebulous twilight zone, half-way between the realm of intentional and unintentional humor.  Dr. Crews (Terry Kiser) slowly goes cross-eyed when gutted by Jason, for instance.  And one teenager is killed by a party horn to the eyeball. 

It’s tough to take any of this action seriously, at any level, and yet one scene -- with a young woman trapped in a wood-shed as Jason hunts her -- is surprisingly suspenseful.

The New Blood makes me laugh every time I watch it. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it isn’t concerned with much of anything, besides punishing vice (the precursor, universally, to slice-and-dice).  I noted here that dead teenagers aren’t the only commonalities of all these franchise films.

Instead, every Friday the 13th movie features a moment in which a storm rolls in, lightning crackles, and the power goes out.  Jason moves in with the storm, a supernatural avenger operating under cover of Mother Nature, punishing transgressors for the unpardonable sins of premarital sex and smoking weed.

It used to be that critics did a lot of hand-wringing over these films, but in today’s horror film environment, the New Blood looks positively innocent and naïve. 

Still, in the telekinetic-a-thon of the finale, viewers do get their money’s worth out of this Friday the 13th entry, and good heaping dose of fun, too.

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. 

Happy Friday the 13th Day: Friday the 13th (1980)

Happy Friday the 13th!

Surveying the eleven-strong Friday the 13th saga (twelve if you count Freddy vs. Jason…) the weight of several really bad entries in this slasher-styled film cycle is a difficult cross to bear.  This is especially true for the occasionally-inspired franchise entry, such as this sturdy and even visually-accomplished 1980 originator from director Sean S. Cunningham and writer Victor Miller.

There’s no doubt that the original Friday the 13th is an exploitation film designed to capitalize on the success and popularity of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).  But there’s also little doubt that this first entry in the long-lived series is a much stronger film than most people likely remember, at least in visual and symbolic senses.

Although Friday the 13th doesn’t always succeed, particularly because it overuses the stalker P.O.V. shot, other visual flourishes remain impressive, or at least laudable.  In other words, the exploitation here is -- at the very least -- grounded in some solid craft.  And the narrative details and structure as crafted by Miller are both sturdy and simple, thus permitting director Cunningham to shape the visuals in a unique direction.

Today, I want to shine a light on some of the film's more unique and intriguing visual touches, and point out a few reasons Friday the 13th boasts social and cultural value as a work of pop art, and as a product of its time period.

“We ain’t gonna stand for no weirdness out here.”

A group of camp counselors, led by Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), prepare for the grand re-opening of Camp Crystal Lake, even over the objections of locals like Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney).

These objections stem from Camp Crystal Lake’s checkered history.  In 1957, camp counselors failed to pay attention when a young boy, Jason (Ari Lehman) drowned in the lake.  Soon afterwards, two counselors were murdered.  Then, some years later, the water in Crystal Lake inexplicably “went bad,” scuttling an attempt to re-open the camp.

But Steve is committed to the cause, and with the help of a sensitive artist and fellow counselor, Alice (Adrienne King) gathers the troops for the big day of the camp’s re-opening.

In short order, however, the curse of “Camp Blood” resumes as a secret assailant begins killing the camp’s new denizens.  The crisis comes to a head during a powerful thunderstorm, and the murderer is revealed as someone who was very close to young Jason…

“God sent me.  You’re doomed if you stay…”

One quality most people forget about the original Friday the 13th is the film’s strong sense of place.  In particular, Crystal Lake is visualized as an idyllic American town, one filled with abundant pastoral and natural beauty.  Early scenes in the film document this beauty, creating an almost Rockwell-ian vision of the surrounding area (actually Blairstown, New Jersey).

This is Friday the 13th?

And this?

And this?

These visualizations serve a crucial purpose, because Friday the 13th largely concerns innocence lost or destroyed. Two camp counselors, while making love, allow an innocent child to die.  Thus while they sacrifice their (Biblical) innocence, Jason loses his innocence…his very life.  At the same time, Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) loses her son and therefore her innocence, along with her mind.

The beauty of the natural environs subtly reinforces the film-long conceit of a Garden of Eden-type setting, but one that is now corrupted.  For example, one short scene relatively early in the film reveals a snake inside one of the counselor’s cabins, a snake in the garden, as it were.  The snake is promptly decapitated by a counselor’s machete, putting an end to the threat and thus restoring order.

Symbolically speaking, that moment is intentionally reiterated in the film’s bloody denouement as our final girl, Alice, lops off the head of a more dangerous snake in the garden – the killer -- also utilizing a machete.  The two images connect meaningfully.

In both cases, we get the idea of natural order overturned by the presence of evil (a serpent, specifically...), and then order is restored, even if the respite is brief.

A snake in the garden gets decapitated by machete.

And then a second snake in the garden gets decapitated by machete.
The Serpent -- the dangerous and murderous invader in the Garden of Eden -- spends much of the film watching and stalking prey, and thus the film frequently repeats one specific composition.  In particular, the camera takes up a position outside while it gazes inside a building (a cabin or a bath house), through a window-glass.  Outside the window is only darkness since the setting is mostly nighttime. But inside the buildings, the characters are brightly lit and attending blithely to their mundane business, unaware of danger.

I wrote about this intriguing composition some in Horror Films of the 1980s, but it’s a significant element of the film’s tapestry.  It reveals not merely the voyeurism of the killer as she stalks her prey.  It also visually constricts the space of the protagonists within the rectangular frame, literally boxing them inside a series of smaller and smaller boxes.  In the tightest, most claustrophobic of those boxes, our heroes go about their business without realizing their world has become limited and closed off by the (invisible) presence of the slasher nearby.

Tight-framing is a regular and de rigueur feature of horror films, but Friday the 13th goes a step further with its relatively ingenious framing technique. Here, characters blindly walk into bloody death, a fact which we, the audience, can recognize and anticipate, but they cannot.  The result of this near ubiquitous staging is that the film becomes more genuinely suspenseful.   We wait, and wait, wondering when the terror will strike, and how it will strike.

Victim in a box #1

Victim in a box #2

Victim in a box # 3

Victim in a box #4
At the same time that the film "boxes in" its victims, the original Friday the 13th also offers wicked sub-textual commentary on the teenagers’ fates because stenciled and stickered camp legends reading “danger” and the like punctuate the Camp Blood's landscape.   Just as the characters are unaware of how their lives have become limited and finite by the presence of the unseen killer, they similarly take no notice of signage which constantly warns them of a threat.  They literally can't see the forest for the trees.

Well, the sign (on right) does say "DANGER."

Well, the sign (upper right) warns "KEEP OUT."

On a basic level, these visual touches make Friday the 13th more intellectually adroit than your average example of the slasher film.  Although the film wants to ape the energy of Halloween, it clearly boasts its own, frequently clever life force as well.

Where Friday the 13th treads even deeper into sub-text, however, is in the explicit connection between man and nature.  The film’s full-on bloody assault occurs under cover of thunderstorm, pounding rain and lightning.  If you watch every Friday the 13th film, you’ll find that this idea recurs more frequently even than the presence of Jason Voorhees.  The “invader” arrives with natural cover, thus with the implicit help, perhaps, of a force beyond the human world.  Is God on Jason (or Mrs. Voorhee's) side in this battle?

Going back to the Jean Renoir short film A Day in the Country (1936) -- an effort based on a story by Guy de Maupassant -- film has frequently connected human nature with Mother Nature.  The Renoir film depicts the tale of a family that vacations near a beautiful lake.  Two women in the family are seduced by burly farm hands that live nearby, and the romantic assignation culminates in an unexpected thunderstorm. 

Have they affected nature with their wanton acts?  Or contrarily, has nature affected them and thus spawned these very acts?

The equation in Friday the 13th is not that different, at least on a basic level. A storm rolls in and it is one that metaphorically "rains blood," according to one character’s dream, recounted explicitly in the dialogue.  

Accordingly, this storm brings with it a vengeful murderer.  

Is the storm thus a manifestation of the killer’s undying rage?   Is it a protest against the unnecessary death of an innocent child?  Or does the storm represent the tears of God, as it were, the fact that a mother’s love has turned to cold-blooded murder?

I’ve often noted that 1980s watchdog groups like the Moral Majority were foolish to protest the Friday the 13th films because, by one interpretation, these slasher films certainly tow the conservative line about human vices and bad behavior.  

One way of  gazing at the film is to consider that those who are negligent -- those who smoke weed, and those who indulge in pre-marital sex -- are punished by a supernatural avenger, the Hand of God, for their transgressions.  Mrs. Voorhees does the actual punishing via machete, but it is God himself – in the form of the rolling thunderstorm – that grants her murderous campaign the cover it needs to succeed.  You can take or leave that interpretation, but it represents one valid reading of the film's text.  As I like to say, in Friday the 13th and it sequels, vice precedes slice-and-dice.

There are other elements of this exploitation film that audiences now tend to forget about because of all the water and bad sequels under the bridge, yet which probably bear mentioning.  For one thing, the film is dominated by imagery which portends doom.  

One such moment involves Moravian Cemetery, the last turn-off on the road to Camp Blood.  In essence, the shot of the graveyard reminds the audience it’s a short commute from the camp to death.  

Secondly, one of the camp counselors -- the Practical Joker stereotype, Ned -- pretends to drown in the lake early on.  His cruel and thoughtless act foreshadows, of course, the motivation behind the murders at Crystal Lake.  He is re-enacting (unknowingly) the moment that killed Jason, and the moment that actually brings about his end.  Thus even his "joke" is portending of doom.

And then there’s Crazy Ralph.  He’s not a subtle guy, even in terms of his wacko, almost cartoon appearance.  But Ralph is undeniably the “Cassandra” of the film: the old man warning the young people about their impending doom. Like the mythical Cassandra of Ancient Greece, he is doomed to know the future and not to be believed.   Within the context of Friday the 13th, he is also, however, a conservative symbol of tradition.  He is the herald (or historian) who warns of danger, and who is ignored by irresponsible, unworried, callow youth.  They believe that tradition and history don’t apply to them; that they are free of those restraints.  Ralph knows this is not the case, but is dismissed as crazy.  

Again, many of these elements have been repeated so often in the formulaic slasher film sub-genre that it’s difficult to look the original Friday the 13th in its original context, before all this stuff – the Cassandra, the storm, the P.O.V. shot – became reflexive and de-rigueur ingredients.  But all these elements exist for a valid reason in Friday the 13th, and generally enhance the film’s sense of anxiety and danger.

Camp Blood?  Take a left at the grave yard. 

Crazy Ralph: The Cassandra Complex.

Did somebody drown here?
Slasher movies still get a lot of guff, even today, for lacking “socially redeeming features,” and many critics treat Friday the 13th as Exhibit A in that argument. The late Roger Ebert wrote, for instance, that the “primary function” of the teenagers in the F13 films is to “be hacked to death.”

On the contrary, I would argue the primary function of the teenager in films like Friday the 13th is to survive.   

While Mr. Ebert -- a personal and professional hero of mine, by the way -- reflects fondly in his review of Friday the 13th Part II on the innocence of his youth (and the cinema of his teenage years in the 1950s), he fails to acknowledge something important.  The cultural context that gave rise to the slasher format is entirely different from the one he nostalgically describes. 

Friday the 13th and its ilk arise from a teen culture that witnessed the Vietnam War played out bloodily on television news. It arises from a generation that witnessed a U.S. President toppled in the Watergate Scandal. It arises from a generation that saw the Energy Crisis, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, America held hostage by an Islamic regime in Iran, and the brutal madness of Charles Manson and his cult. 

The self-same teen generation saw a U.S. President’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt testify -- straight-faced -- before Congress that America’s natural resources need not be preserved for future generations, since Judgment Day would arrive in this one.  If you also recall some some of the pervasive cultural fears of nuclear apocalypse in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, you can see how America by 1980 had traveled a significant distance from Annette Funicello and The Mickey Mouse Club (1955). 

So why would discerning film critics expect the entertainment of 1980–1985 to be identical to the entertainment of 1950–1955?  The world had changed, and entertainment -- as it always does – changed with it.

The important question to ask, instead, is what kind of entertainment arises out of such a roiling, turbulent cultural context?   At the heart of Friday the 13th...what is it really about?

Consider that in these slasher films, the best and brightest teenagers battle for survival.  Many teenagers die, it’s true, but a handful of the smartest triumph over seemingly insurmountable, nay supernatural, odds. 

Even better, the slasher format -- Friday the 13th films included -- universally champion a very specific brand of hero: the final girl. 

This character archetype is female, obviously, but also smarter, more insightful, and more courageous than her peers of both sexes.  While those peers smoke weed or indulge in pre-marital sex, the Final Girl has instead detected that something in the world is not quite right; that something is off-kilter. While her friends waste time on momentary pleasures, she becomes clued-in to the fact that the world is a dangerous and troublesome place. She starts to "see" the world's dangers (as I enumerated them in above paragraphs...), and devises a life-saving response.

So where critics such as Zina Klapper argue that slasher films champion and actually “induce” violence against women, I’d again argue the contrary point.   Based on the cast dynamics of the Friday the 13th films alone, these movies are equal opportunity offenders in terms of murders, yet pro-woman in terms of survival.  

In other words, the slasher films kill a whole lot of teens of both sexes, but offer, almost universally, one type of survivor: the smart and resourceful female.

This is certainly the case with Alice in Friday the 13th.  She has no recourse but to trust herself -- and her instincts -- on the night of the attack.  No man comes to rescue her, or to sweep her off her feet.  She can rely on nothing beyond her own personal qualities.  Not government (Watergate), not the military (Vietnam), and not corporate interests (Three Mile Island).  

In the end, Alice gets locked in mortal combat with another woman, Mrs. Voorhees, and that's significant too.  How many times in horror movie history have women been afforded the role of primary hero and primary villain in a single work of art?  Sure Mrs. Voorhees is certifiably bonkers, but she is an example of a person who saw something in the world she didn't like and sought to change it.  She is thus the dark reflection of an assertive final girl like Alice.  Accordingly, I can’t see how this movie fits the established party line about misogyny and horror flicks.

Final Girl

Final Monster
When I look back at Friday the 13th, I do see a cheap exploitation film, to be certain.  It's a step down from the artistry and vision of Halloween, for instance.  Yet Friday the 13th undeniably speaks to a specific historical context. Given that historical context I described above, is it so surprising, so morally corrupt that one generation’s entertainment of choice concerns a crucible of survival in which only the clever, the moral, the resolute and the resourceful manage to survive an apocalyptic world that seems stacked against them?  Where evil always resurfaces, even if in a new form? 

Slasher movies don’t make audiences meaner, as Janet Maslin asserted in a column in The New York Times.  They simply take the real world of the 1980s as it already was and demonstrate to teens that they can survive it, given the right skill set. 

Impressively, that skill set is associated not with stereotypical male qualities or even with men at all, but with young, intelligent women.

I can’t legitimately argue that all slasher movies are well-done or social valuable.  Some are dreck.  

But I’ve always felt it was wrong to lump in the first Friday the 13th with the mountains of dreck because it features some visually accomplished moments, a smattering of interesting symbolism, and -- not the least of all -- it conforms to the slasher format’s most noble conceit by reminding kids (and particularly girls) that even if the Boogeyman is at the door (in the form of the Cold War or anything else), they can survive.  

And they can do so with the qualities they already possess in spades, namely intelligence and insight.