Fun fact: After the original Halloween made a truckload of money, Paramount, looking to capitalize on this new slasher-horror sensation, took out a full-page ad in Variety for a movie that had no cast, no script, not so much as a plot summery. The movie was titled Friday the 13th. Sometimes this is how mega-franchises are born.
This month saw the only Friday the 13th on the calendar this year, so it seemed like a good time to take the whole series for a spin, all twelve movies, and see how they stack up. If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s generally about a machete-wielding maniac in a hockey mask killing scores of camp counselors, and you’ll probably think I’m making some of this up. I assure you I am not.
Let’s get started.
Friday the 13th – As inexpensive hit movies are wont to do, Halloween spawned a slew of copycat slasher movies with half the brains and twice the carnage. In other words, if Halloween is a Rembrandt, Friday the 13th is Dogs Playing Poker. There’s nothing wrong with that, lots of people love Dogs Playing Poker. And while Halloween is far more intelligent and even-handed, Friday the 13th knows exactly what it is and isn’t afraid to just be that. “Here are your sexed-up camp counselors, enjoy watching them being murdered one-by-one for ninety minutes.” I think that’s why critics savaged it, but audiences went bananas for it. Not all art is made for museums. Some of it is made for your rumpus room. Plus, Kevin Bacon.
High-point: Betsy Palmer’s performance as Mrs. Voorhees is easily the best thing in the movie. She plays crazy like a pro. Unfortunately the flip-side of that is…
Low-point: Jason Voorhees, who would become the series’ primary antagonist, only appears here in a dream sequence. Granted it’s an excellent sequence, but in the context of thirty years later, first-time viewers may be disappointed.
Friday the 13th Part 2 – While Friday the 13th plays like a cheap knock-off of Halloween, its sequel feels more like its own beast. Like Halloween II, it does bring back the surviving lead from the first movie, but it turns that formula on its head by immediately dispatching with her and expands the series lore in a far more interesting way than John Carpenter’s follow-up did. The kills are appropriately over-the-top, setting up what would become a series-long game of one-upmanship, though almost nothing in the subsequent movies beats the wheelchair-bound victim careening backwards down an excessively long flight of stairs with a machete in his face. Plus, it introduces Jason as the slasher icon we’d come to know and love, although the hockey mask doesn’t show up until Part 3.
High-point: The shrine Jason has built to his mother’s head is impressive and that entire scene is one of the best in the series. It’s one of the only real glimpses into Jason’s mind and motivations we ever get.
Low-point: I definitely do not like that Crazy Ralph, one of the best things about the first movie, is done away with in this one. Walt Gorney should have been making Stan Lee-like cameos in the series right up until he passed in 2004.
Friday the 13th Part 3 – Almost everything Part 2 got right, Part 3 got equally wrong. Lore expansion is almost non-existent, and what little they do amounts to weak flashback sequences revolving around the main character having randomly encountered Jason once years before. The characters are uninteresting even for a slasher movie, and there are multiple distracting shots that are obviously there only to push the 3-D format it was originally shot it. It does put Jason in the hockey mask that he’d wear for the next thirty years, and some of the kills are fairly creative, but ultimately it’s a sad middle-child of a movie. Not as good as what came before, and not as good as most of what would come after.
High-point: Jason is a crack-shot with a harpoon gun.
Low-point: The very ending, which carried on the series tradition of a final jump-scare in the dumbest way possible.
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter – You have to hand it to the filmmakers, they immediately followed one of the worst in the series with one of the best. The casting is above-average, giving us relative unknowns Crispin Glover and Corey Feldman right before they exploded. Jason begins to verge on superhuman at this point in the series, doing things that arguably could not be done by human being of normal strength and endurance. In less-capable hands it could have come across as ridiculous, but here it just makes Voorhees stand out within the increasingly crowded slasher field.
High point: Corey Feldman kills it as Tommy Jarvis, who would return for two more sequels, even if played by a different actor.
Low-point: If there’s a low-point to this movie, it’s that the ending sets up the incredibly ill-conceived idea of having Tommy Jarvis become the ‘new Jason’ in any further sequels. Just… No.
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning – With Jason ostensibly dead (for realsies this time) at the end of part IV, the fifth Friday was supposed to further along Tommy Jarvis’ progression as the new series antagonist. Sent to a camp-like home for troubled kids, Tommy ends up the prime suspect as people start dropping dead at the hands of a Jason Voorhees copycat. Tapped to direct this time around was Danny Steinmann, who was best known at the time for hardcore pornography. The pedigree shows, as the movie moves from kill scene-to-kill scene with the exact level of care that a porno moves from sex scene-to-sex scene. The cast is like a group of cartoon characters that are either pathetic before they die or downright loathsome before they die. The whole thing is incredibly mean-spirited, which could be either a positive or a negative depending on who’s watching.
High-point: You actually have to admire the audacity on display as two-dimensional characters are introduced two-by-two and then unceremoniously dispatched. The only way it could be closer to murder-porn is if someone showed up to fix the cable and was immediately cleaved in twain. Part of me wonders if Danny Steinmann understood what the series had become better than anyone else at the time.
Low-point: Jason Voorhees does not actually appear anywhere in this movie.