12 May 2007

SUMMER OF BLOOD: SECOND VERSE, BETTER THAN THE FIRST

There have always been sequels. But once upon a time, there was not such a thing as the de facto sequel, the sequel which is justified simply because the original film exists. A story had to be truly special, or inordinately successful at the box office to earn a continuation.

That changed with Friday the 13th, Part 2.

Given a precursor that had no ready entry point for a follow-up, which did fair business for its cost, but nothing special, there's no obvious reason why this film came out before Halloween II, The Hills Have Eyes, Part 2 or even Aliens. It just did. And then the hellgates were opened, and soon we saw everything from The Sting II to Grease 2 to the ne plus ultra of all asinine sequels, Psycho II.

Given its bastardly descendants, it is perhaps surprising that Friday the 13th is a distinct improvement over its predecessor - not much of a hurdle to clear, I'll admit, but it's really not a terrible slasher by the standards of its day, and it's incomparably better than the watery shite the studios try to pass off as horror cinema here in 2007.

None of which, mind, means that it's a good movie. Just that all things considered, it probably should have been a whole lot worse.

It's pretty easy in this instance to point at one individual who can claim responsibility for the film's relative success, and that man is Steve Miner, a director who brought far more in the way of skill and care to this project than Sean Cunningham would have even dreamt of (Miner was an associate producer under Cunningham during the shooting of Friday the 13th, but it doesn't show). In the first place, Miner seems to actually understand how to use darkness to create mood, rather than just to create a whole lot of damn dark. There's always enough light to make sure we know what's going on, but frequently not quite enough that we know what's about to happen, and that is a huge step up from the prior film.

Not to mention, Miner (or perhaps just his cinematographer, Peter Stein) has an actual ability to frame a shot in such a way that it's interesting and tells a story. I can't think of one single image in Friday the 13th that functioned in any way other than to capture the rudiments of the action. Part 2 is hardly an Ozu film, but it's quite clear that the director tried, especially during the climactic chase sequence...but I'll get to that soon enough.

Lastly, Miner's camera moves. A lot. Apparently flush on the receipts of the first film, someone decided to get a Steadicam rig for the sequel, and it paid off handsomely. It's not quite that the camera becomes a stalker, as it had and would in so many other slashers, but it works a little bit like it does in an early-'80s Sam Raimi film, making sure we're aware that there's something out there, looking, wandering. It pulls us through the space inside the screen and adds to our sense of the physicality of the movie, and therefore allows us to better partake of the danger. I'm not sad to admit that the filmmaker inside of me grew jealous at more than one moment, in admiration of some particularly well-choreographed sequence.

One such moment opens the film: we stare down a rainy street at night to a house with a few lights on, before panning down to the street and a boy's feet, as he runs home to bed. Seconds later, two much larger feet step into frame, and they walk with great haste to that first house, as the camera struggles to keep up. It's a neat, parsimonious opening that tells us something right away: there's a big dude out there, with secret and presumably malicious intent.

This shot opens one of the longest pre-title sequences in history (the length varies by print, but it's 12 minutes on the DVD, almost 15% of the total running time), in which we are reacquainted with Alice (Adrienne King), the heroine of the first film. She hasn't been adjusting well in the two months since killing Mrs. Voorhees, as we find through the generous application of stock footage from part 1 crudely disguised as a dream sequence.

For no real reason other than because we've seen all of the repeated footage we need (and even at this point, it's scary how big is the difference between Cunningham and Miner's visual vocabularies) Alice hops out of bed and into a laundry-list of '80s horror clichés: a quick shower, a mysterious nobody on the phone, a false scare in the form of a cat being thrown at the actress from offscreen (and it is more obvious that the cat was thrown here than in any other film I've ever seen), and finally the dismembered head of her adversary from the last film sitting in her refrigerator. This last discovery is quickly followed by a very large man shoving an ice-pick into her skull, and the first big flaw becomes clear: this film is shockingly light on the blood. Which might not sound like a problem, but I promise that it is to anyone who would willingly watch a slasher film.

And honestly, the first big flaw was already nicely pointed out by Adrienne King: the acting in this film sucks every bit as hard as the first, with one surprising exception that I'll return to.

Cut to the summer, years later, and two bland looking young people in the same exact town that Friday the 13th opened in. I'll skip ahead of the movie and say that it turns out that a young man named Paul Holt (John Furey) has decided to hold a camp counselor training session on the shores of Crystal Lake, a mile or so down from the site of the infamous Camp Blood murders. It appears from circumstantial evidence that these are college-aged counselors this go-round, and even though the actors are still resolutely in their mid- to late-twenties, it's much less distracting for that reason.

And who do we have this time? A batch that's even harder to tell apart than their ancestors, that's who! In order of introduction: Jeff (Bill Randolph), who is kind of blond; his girlfriend Sandra (Marta Kober), about whom I recall nothing; the practical joker Ted (Stu Charno), who I kept calling "Ned," because that was his prior-film analogue; Terri (Kirsten Baker), who wears tight shirts and no bra, and will give the series its first proper nudity, and has a foul dog named Muffin; Scott (Russell Todd), who is horny and very fugly after the fashion of the early '80s; Vicky (Lauren-Marie Taylor), who is slutty but dresses conservatively, and is not specifically identified until after her death (although a "Vicky" is alluded to vaguely in one scene); Mark (Tom McBride), who is in a wheelchair; and Ginny (Amy Steel), who has a car with a crappy starter and is studying child psychology, and is a bit sarcastic. Not, perhaps, the same assortment of actual character traits as Alice, but it's enough - especially the child psychology bit - to mark her immediately as the Final Girl.

There are also six counselors, including two who are not white, in a startling display of slasher film affirmative action, who are collectively named "Extra Counselors." Hey, it's still something for the resume.

On the first night, Paul tells a tale of Jason Voorhees, who drowned when he was ten, and his crazy mother who killed people in revenge, and the myth that Jason still walks these woods, and then the needle skips out of its groove as the record slams to a halt. The whole entire point of Friday the 13th, as recapped here and in the opening sequence, is that Mrs. Voorhees was avenging her dead son. Now, all of a sudden, it seems that he's been alive and well in the same exact woods where she did all of her killing, for these past decades, and not one time did mother and child reunite. And it makes the whole "zombie boy Jason" bit at the end of the first film even stranger. But let us sweep that under the rug for this film, because there's absolutely no doubt that Jason is quite grown-up and alive in the current entry. And he is pissy.

First, the Steadicam alerts us that something is watching the campers as they unpack; it turns out to be Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney) from the first film, and he gets garroted pretty much immediately. A bit later, Jeff and Sandra are out in the Forbidden Woods, where they find a dead dog (who may or may not be Muffin), and an angry cop (Jack Marks) who chases them off, finds another person in the woods whom he chases to the old camp that cannot conceivably have gotten that decrepit in just five years, where he gets summarily offed.

That night, the Extra Counselors, Ted, Ginny and Paul all go to town (this sadly saves Ted, the film's Odious Comic Relief, from a bloody death). The remaining six all go down pretty quickly in mostly bloodless scenes. The only real exception is Mark, who gets a machete to the face in a moment that is equal parts Twitch of the Death Nerve ripoff (as is another death, in which a couple get speared in medias fucking) and Dawn of the Dead ripoff. Cast those nets wide, boys! In the last death, we find that the killer - Jason Voorhees, big surprise - is a big dude in overalls with a pillowcase with one eye-hole over his face.

It's desultory and entirely boring, but it does stand above its slasher brethren in one important respect: the girls are killed just as quickly as the boys, without all those stalkery-scenes that in the first film stretched out to as much as 2.5 minutes. Which makes it a tiny bit easier to stand, moral-like.

(Also, we get to see Jason move a body. That hardly ever happens in any slasher, but nobody knew that in 1981, so I don't like to think of it as a big deal).

Anyway, Ginny and Paul return, Paul goes down almost before they even realize that Jason is present, and so begins one the single greatest Final Girl scene in any film I can name from the whole damn decade. For you see, Ginny is really smart, about 90% of the time, and she manages to hide very well, very often. Many words ago, when I mentioned the good compositions during this sequence, here's what I meant: there are many shots in which we see Ginny in focus in the foreground, and Jason is far in the back, usually separated by a framing element, a tree or car or window. It's not Welles-style genius or anything, but it is a constant reminder of the chase, and compared to the first film in the series, where half of the shots in the Final Girl sequence were an out-of-focus flashlight in the upper-left corner, I choose to be lavish with my praise.

Eventually, Ginny comes to Jason's lair, and finds the shrine he built to his mother, and quickly disguises herself to appear as Mrs. Voorhees. Jason finds her, and falls for the trick, and you know how I said there was one good performance? It's Warrington Gillette as Jason in this scene. Seriously. With a pillowcase over his face and one eye-hole, he manages to sell us 100% on the idea that Jason is a stunted child-man, using damn little else than the angle of his head.

Then somehow Paul and Muffin come back and they kill Jason, and then flee to their camp, but Jason follows them and grabs Ginny-

-and it's morning, Ginny is fine, Paul's body is missing.

I suppose that at some point the final chase became a dream sequence, but I'm fucked if I know when. Shock endings suck.

So, all in all, this might just be the best post-Halloween slasher film I've ever seen. It is well-shot, and it has a great Final Girl sequence, and a pretty fine performance of its psycho killer. But it has some major flaws besides those I've already mentioned: it struggles too hard with continuity in the beginning, before giving up and pissing all over continuity; and the middle third is endlessly boring. And, I need hardly mention, it's not at all scary. Slasher films are never scary.

But it's well-done enough, and although I pine for Tom Savini's gore effects, I'd rather have a good director seven days of the week. This isn't a great film - not even a great horror film - but it's good enough that for the first time in my life, I begin to see that there was at least a sliver of justification for the hundreds of slasher movies produced between 1980 and 1993.

Or maybe, it's just that I was that starved for something that didn't completely blow after the first film.

Body Count: 9, or perhaps 10 (damn that final scene!), plus one dog.

The F13 Dating Controversy: It's established clearly in the dialogue that this story takes place five years after its precursor; ergo, this film released in May, 1981, takes place in the summer of 1985. Jason Voorhees "drowned" 28 years ago, and is presumably 38 years old. The first Camp Blood murders occurred 27 years ago.

Reviews in this series
Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980)
Friday the 13th, Part 2 (Miner, 1981)
Friday the 13th, Part 3 (Miner, 1982)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (Zito, 1984)
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (Steinmann, 1985)
Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives (McLoughlin, 1986)
Friday the 13th, Part VII: The New Blood (Buechler, 1988)
Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (Hedden, 1989)
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (Marcus, 1993)
Jason X (Isaac, 2001)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
Friday the 13th (Nispel, 2009)

1 comment:

javi75 said...

I just watched this on blu-ray. It's the only Jason movie I've ever seen. I was going to say the movie is mind-boggling terrible but funny (if you laugh at it), but after reading your review and how much worse the first one apparently is, maybe I should try to put it in perspective too. At one point I thought the movie should have been called "The rock in the puddle", it's so funny how many times we see it.
I did notice the use of the Steadicam, and how little blood there is (which I thanked, I can't take gore). I also noticed how sudden and brief all deaths are, and I thought that was a minus for the genre, but I'm not a fan of it, and you count it as sort of a plus.
Maybe you shouldn't count the dog in the body count. He appears alive at the end, on the door, just before Jason grabs Ginny. Apparently the animal corpse we see earlier was some other thing.