JANUARY 25, 2009
I wonder what it was like for folks to see Friday the 13th during its initial theatrical run, or even a year or two later. Because for me, like many other fans I am sure, Friday the 13th means Jason. The first one I saw was Final Chapter, which had Jason, hockey mask, and the formula down pat. One of the universal memories for a lot of fans in my age group is finding out from a friend, or from an actual viewing, that Jason didn’t appear in the film at all except as a slimy mongoloid child in a lake. “His mom’s the killer? What the-!!"
As such, it’s probably the ONLY horror franchise in which saying that “part ___” is your favorite won’t get you roasted alive. It’s not very often you hear someone claim that Halloween 6 or Nightmare on Elm St 4 represents the best of the series, but with Friday the 13th, it’s equally uncommon to hear “the first one is the best”, at least in my experience. Obviously, the primary reason would be the lack of Jason, but in this most recent viewing, I was hard-pressed to find any other reason for putting it a notch or two below some “traditional” entries.
For starters, it’s the only one besides Jason Lives that has more of a focus on suspense than a body count. Only ten folks are killed in this one (a low for the series, though that’s hardly a surprise), and half of them are off-screen. But rather than have everyone die the second they split away from the others, as they do in the sequels, everyone gets a pretty lengthy stalk/atmosphere scene (and in Brenda and Bill’s case, that’s all they get, since their death is hidden from our eyes).
The characters also have far more personality than the later films (again, except for Jason Lives, which like this one, has a much smaller group to deal with). I love the scene where Officer Dorf comes along, because everyone (except Alice, who must be off dealing with whatever vague problem she has “out west”) gets a little moment to show their personality. They talk to themselves in the bathroom, doing impressions and such, make off the cuff remarks... they’re real people. There’s also a sense of camaraderie that a lot of the other entries lacked – even though these kids just met or barely knew each other, they seem more like a real group than say the kids in New Blood, who are supposed to be close friends and yet don’t gel together at all.
Plus, I liked the idea that the lake is actually part of the real world. We see diners, cops, truckers... it feels easier to identify with, like a place I would go to or actually have gone to in Maine or whatever. Again, some of the later sequels felt less natural because they were always so devoid of life beyond the people that were about to get killed.
And yet it still has that lovably cheap charm that is present for the entire series. The most laughable example is the “thunderstorm” that Kevin Bacon sees, which is clearly just a guy shining an orange light on his face from a few feet away. But you also get the scares that make no real world sense at all (was Crazy Ralph just waiting in the closet all day, hoping someone would need a can of soup?), people without peripheral vision, etc. And I think every single corpse blinks or takes a breath.
One low-budget aspect that’s not as charming is the editing. It downright sucks at times: shots linger on forever (there’s at least two shots of Alice leaving a shot, and then we just look at a tree or whatever for another 10 seconds), and the film as a whole is about 10 minutes too long. There’s a fine line between developing character (having the kids play Strip Monopoly) and padding the runtime (watching all three of them take their turns back to back, with only a boot coming off). If they needed to be 95 minutes for whatever reason, maybe they should have shot an additional scene at the beginning with Mrs. Voorhees (or even someone mentioning that she EXISTED), which would make the reveal much less of a cheat. Though to Sean Cunningham and all 45 writers’ credit – they don’t really make much of an effort to make her look innocent, she pulls up in the jeep we know belongs to the killer, and more or less reveals her intentions about 12 seconds after meeting Alice), rather than waste time thinking she’s an ally only to slowly let her true side out.
Folks have demanded a proper special edition for years, and thanks to Platinum Dunes’ remake, we finally got one (I suspect that 90% of all horror remakes exist solely to make money off the original film again), and on Blu-Ray to boot. The video quality is quite good on the BR, particularly in the daytime scenes (look at the level of detail on the bricks and stones when Annie is walking through the town). It’s a very grainy film, and kudos to Paramount for not de-graining it for its high def release, which is a disastrous process that other films have suffered the indignity of on their ‘remastered’ Blu releases (Dark City, for example, now resembles something shot on DV). And the cut footage, which totals 10 seconds, is well integrated back into the film. The new 5.1 mix SOUNDS good, though the surrounds are mostly ignored. Considering all of the POV shots, I was hoping for a lot of tree branch crackling type noises to be coming out of my rear channels, but I honestly forgot that I was listening to a 5.1 mix once the film began. Still, it’s clear and richer than the original mono track (which is included) for sure.
A wealth of extras are also included, though for the most part they cater only to new fans (presumably those who will come out of the new film and then discover that it was a remake), as it’s just a bunch of stuff die hards already know (Betsy Palmer thought the script was a piece of shit! Tom Savini’s friend played Mrs. Voorhees at the end of the movie! It was cold in the lake!). There’s some reunion footage and a basic retrospective, both run about 15 minutes, with everyone telling the stories you expect. Another new feature is a lame short film focusing on a pair of Jason-esque murders. Without any explanation for its inclusion, this is the worst kind of filler nonsense, and it should have been excised in order to up the bit budget of the film itself. The one sort of interesting (to a well versed nerd like me) piece is an interview with Cunningham, shot in his own home. Again, it’s not like you’ll learn a lot, but it’s a nice and honest self-examination of the guy who is attributed to ‘creating Jason’ (something he more or less takes no credit for). There’s a commentary by Cunningham and a bunch of others, though it seems to be edited together from interviews instead of a screen-specific track. Again – if you’ve already read the books or even a bunch of Fangorias on the subject, you won’t really learn anything new. We also get the awesome original trailer.
Blu-Ray owners get two more extra features, another sort of generic retrospective about the film, and a look at Savini’s creations. Ironically enough, even they are exclusive to the Blu-Ray, they are presented in standard def and are also incredibly dark (which is great when Savini is talking about his legendary work, because you can’t fucking see any of it). They also seem to be re-edited from a full length (or at least, wider-ranging) doc about the series as a whole, as people from all of the films are thanked during the end credits despite the fact that only part 1 is represented either with cast, crew, or clips. In short – if you’re not a Blu-ray owner, I wouldn’t consider this to be the disc you lose your 1080p virginity on, but if you have BL already, by all means enjoy the crisper picture and less shelf-hogging package.
A landmark film that is known as much today for what it DOESN’T have compared to what it does, Friday the 13th is a must see for any horror fan. It holds up fairly well, and is nowhere near as half-assed or reprehensible as some critics would have you believe. And the great thing about it is that it proves a point that I have been trying to make since Horror Movie A Day began: I don’t care if a film exists solely to make some money (Cunningham and the others freely admit that it was made “to keep the lights on”), as long as the people involved put some effort into making something that will actually entertain, rather than use their “independence” as an excuse for its faults. That’s something the Michael Feifers of the world clearly don’t understand and possibly never will.
What say you?