When the horror historians look back on this period, they will surely note the extended drought of Friday the 13th movies that we’ve lived through the last 11 years. The reason that Jason Voorhees hasn’t killed anyone on the big screen in a while can be best summed up in two words: “legal stuff.” The shame is that when that last Friday the 13th bowed in 2009, it brought a new energy to the franchise that was cheesy fun, and yet somehow reverent of the original series. Of course, it’s also a reminder that where the series ended up is nowhere close to how it began.
By the time that the Friday franchise got to the first decade of the 21st century, no director, producer, or studio chief was going to proceed with a Friday the 13th movie without Jason Voorhees as the villain. Of course, horror fans know that it was Jason’s mother, Pamela Voorhees, who was the bloodthirsty killer in the first Friday. It’s interesting to note that in a genre that’s become synonymous for big men stalking and killing young females that Sean S. Cunningham tried to subvert things so early on by making a middle-aged woman his psycho killer.
But that’s not the only interesting detail about that original Friday the 13th. The film is quaint, and not just by the standards of the time, but the standards of subsequent entries in the franchise. The initial scenes feel like some kind of low stakes camp comedy shot in a kind of veritas style that was “Linklater-esque” before Richard Linklater came along. There’s what seems to be a lot of handheld camerawork as about half-a-dozen good-natured city kids get Camp Crystal Lake ready to receive summer guests.
Even the sense of foreboding that Cunningham tries to create is subtle. Executing his film like a man that saw the first five minutes of Halloween and believing it to be the greatest five minutes of cinema ever made (debatable), Cunningham takes the whole idea of seeing things from the killer’s P.O.V. to its natural conclusion. Many of the kills in Friday the 13th are from the point of view of Pamela; all the better to hide the killer’s true identity and gender, but it’s also a great way to make the audience feel involved. In a manner, it feels like the audience is also killing the camp counselors.
After we get about 40 minutes of fun in the woods, and another 40 minutes of the grisly, systematic murder of the various counselors, only Adrienne King’s Alice is left alive when Mrs. Voorhees arrives in the flesh. Betsy Palmer plays Pamela’s reaction to the murder scene she created with a Norma Desmond-like display of melodramatic exaggeration; you know she’s in on it because she’s trying too hard to pretend that she’s not in on it. That’s before Pamela starts pantomiming (channeling?) Jason, who encourages his mother to kill Alice and chase her around the campgrounds.
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The film ends with Alice beheading Pamela and having a nightmare (vision?) of the young, disfigured Jason dragging her under the lake. Alice asks the police about what happened to the boy that attacked her in her dream, and when they have no idea what she’s talking about, she concludes that he’s still out there in the lake. It’s hard to say just how much thought had gone into making a Friday sequel while working on the original, but why introduce Jason in the last five minutes if you’re not setting him up as the villain of part 2? Heck, Alice even decapitates Pamela with a machete, which becomes Jason’s signature weapon.
If franchise awareness was incidental in the original Friday the 13th, it’s entirely the point of the 2009 remake. Director Marcus Nispel and the team at Platinum Dunes manage to combine three Friday the 13th films into one, tight 90-minute package that shows us the evolution of Jason from an observer to his mother’s beheading at the hand’s of a camp counselor, to his sack-wearing persona attacking some campers, to his iconic hockey mask, which he wears as he hunts a group of horny young college students at an area cabin.
The Nispel film is a winking and knowing affair on multiple levels, not only to the accepted tropes and archetypes of the Friday films, but to the history of the franchise itself. One of the key subplots is that Jason takes a hostage, the sole surviving member of the camping party Whitney, who is the spitting image of Jason’s mother when she was younger. One of the key plot points of Friday the 13th Part 2 is when Ginny pretends to be Pamela in order to confuse Jason, a gambit Whitney uses in this film as means of distraction.
And there’s so much to distract Jason because his ragtag collection of victims, mostly culled from central casting at the CW, are so ripe to be murder victims in a slasher film. Before Jason arrives at the cabin there’s drinking, cheating, pot-smoking, destruction of property, more drinking, some grand theft boat, and one instance where beer is drunk out of a dirty old sneaker while playing beer pong. These kids aren’t just teasing Jason, the injustice collector, they are practically rubbing their joie de vivre in his hockey mask covered face.
Only Whitney and her brother Clay make it to the final confrontation with Jason, because the point of all this is family; Jason’s trying to avenge his, while Whitney and Clay are trying to save theirs. It’s interesting to look back at the Friday’s because Jason biggest defeats usually come down to a matter of family. The Jarvis family in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter is the best example with Tommy coming to the defense of his sister after Jason kills their mother. There’s also Jessica Kimble, the daughter of Jason’s half-sister Diana in Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. Jessica and her partner Steven have to end Jason’s curse once and for all to save their infant daughter Stephanie, Jason’s great-niece.
It’s hard to say if any of this purposeful though, or whether it just lines up in the reading. The Platinum Dunes oeuvre in the aughts was to basically do cover versions of horror classics whether that was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror or The Hitcher. Often these movies would be set in the same time period as the original and just retell the same story with new actors, better color grading, and state-of-the-art effects, but Friday the 13th was more of a remix. And in the process, it delivered something that was both familiar and fresh without walking over old, familiar ground.
Theoretically, a Friday the 13th movie is about as “Shake and Bake” as a horror movie franchise can get. Maybe that’s because the original followed in the immediate wake of Halloween, but it seems like all you need is some young people, a big stretch of woods, and a guy in a hockey mask, and you have a movie. There’s something about that seems wholly unambitious, but that’s a deceit. Looking at the span of Friday movies from its two (current) bookends, and you can see a series that changes with the times.. but will Friday the 13th ever be allowed to change again? Ask the lawyers.