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Friday the 13th: From Crystal Lake to Manhattan

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Friday the 13th: From Crystal Lake to Manhattan on DVD.

"Some folks have a strange idea of entertainment." - The old caretaker, Friday the 13th: Part VI: Jason Lives

I love these cheesy, stupid films. I can't help it. And yet I've never seen a single cohesive critical take on them. Even people who specialize in horror and trash movies tend to turn their noses up at them.

Yet, there must be something about the Friday the 13th films to draw people to them time and again. They've made a collective fortune and spawned a total of eleven films. (Film legend at one time dictated that the series would continue out to number thirteen.)

The basic notion is that groups of teens appear each summer at Camp Crystal Lake, only to be slaughtered by Jason Voorhees, a supernatural killer who hates all camp counselors because, when he was a kid, a couple of them let him drown while they were off having sex. Jason has been stopped in any number of ways and yet keeps coming back.

People who have bothered to write about the Friday the 13th series tend to say that the first film (1980, Sean S. Cunningham) is the best. I disagree; I say it's the worst. Made in 1980, just a couple of years after the red-hot Halloween, it's a direct and shameless ripoff. (Halloween became the highest-grossing independent film of all time and held the record until 1999.) It's also meant to be a sort of murder mystery in which viewers can guess who the killer is, but even that plot-line is botched.

No, it wasn't until the films settled into their formula that they became interesting. Part II (1981, Steve Miner) boasts the first appearance of Jason as we know him today, with his hockey mask and machete, and Part III (1983, Steve Miner) had the novelty of being shown in 3-D, at least in theaters. Watching it on television yielded a slightly less interesting result.

Part IV, otherwise known as The Final Chapter (1984, Joseph Zito) marked the first time the series hit its groove. By then, they had become murder stories stripped down to nothing but the murders. Of course, a bunch of teenagers tend to get jiggy with one another, taking showers together or sneaking off into the woods. But no matter who they are, what they do, or where they go, they're Jason fodder.

In other words, the films offer the viewer a certain power. We don't have to invest anything in these people. We can watch them at a Godlike distance; we're safe and smart and they're not.

The filmmakers didn't even bother with the irony that The Final Chapter wasn't really the final chapter. Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985, Danny Steinmann) came next with no real change in the formula.

But Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986, Tom McLoughlin) may be the best in the series. It still follows the formula, but it includes a vague post-modern attitude, in which the characters seem to be aware of horror films while still living in one. Joe Dante's The Howling tried this as early as 1980, but the idea was never fully exploited until ten years later with Wes Craven's Scream. The caretaker's line, quoted above, says it all. This was also the movie that boasted the shameless Alice Cooper theme song: "He's Back (The Man Behind the Mask)."

In a way, the filmmakers must have begun wondering about their creations. Why were they being made and why did people care? Who were the people that came to see them? Should they even try to make a good movie, or should they merely follow the formula?

There's no correct answer. Fans like these movies for both comfort and discomfort. An established formula offers something safe and known, but the knowledge of walking into a "danger" zone provides little tingles, exercising the "fear muscles" that rarely get used on a day to day basis. It's a little like riding a roller coaster again and again. We're not there for the plot, the acting, the direction or the view. We just want the thrills, even if we've been through them the exact same way many times before.

Part VI must have been difficult to follow up, and so the filmmakers began inventing little gimmicks, like the telekinetic girl in Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988, John Carl Buechler) and taking Jason out of Camp Crystal Lake and into New York in Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989, Rob Hedden).  Even though every critic complained that the New York segments only come during the final ten minutes, these gimmicks mattered little to the overall film quality. Perhaps they gave an illusion to the aging fans that, yes indeed, this time you'll see something different.

The Friday the 13th films make perfect Halloween party viewing in that you don't have to follow the entire plot, you can talk during the film, and still get your money's worth by walking in on one of the silly, grisly killings or equally silly shower scenes.

Party guests can make a game out of spotting future famous actors like Kevin Bacon (Part I), Crispin Glover and Corey Feldman (Part IV) and Tony Goldwyn (Part V).

Though they are all currently available on separate DVDs, Paramount has now released the first 8 films in a terrific five-disc box set, with two movies each per disc, plus a fifth disc full of featurettes and extras. Incidentally, New Line owns the rights to the final three films: Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993), Jason X (2001) and Freddy vs. Jason (2003), so you won't find them here. The picture quality is excellent, though I found variations in the sound: the "scare" noises and music cues are much louder than the dialogue, so watch your speakers.

October 29, 2004

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