The second one was probably just a few days of shooting. It was up in Connecticut. Don’t remember much about it. It was just me and a black cat. And a head in the refrigerator
—Adrienne King (Alice), “Friday the 13th Chronicles”
I was always a fan, an avid fan, of Halloween. Michael Meyers was like a hero to me. So when they asked me to be in the Halloween movie, I was flabbergasted: “Oh, this isn’t? This is…? Oh, sorry. Friday the 13th. Great movie! Who’s in that one again?”
—Corey Feldman (Tommy), “Friday the 13th Chronicles”
It gets the story jumping along, because we all know what we wanna see. We wanna see Jason get here and do his stuff.
—Rob Hedden, commentary track, Jason Takes Manhattan
We were gonna stick to the Friday the 13th formula, which is, you know, killing naked teenagers in the woods with household implements.
—Tom Savini, “Secrets Galore Behind the Gore”
Poor Jason Voorhees. Like most slasher movie monsters, he’s a victim as much as a killer, driven to express his rage in the only way he can. Without a decent mom or childhood memories, lacking language, and, as revealed in his eighth film, quite grotesquely disfigured by some toxic-wastey sort of substance, the guy has been killed repeatedly over the past 24 years. It’s true that he’s resurrected again and again—most recently in New Line’s pick-up of the franchise, in Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993), Jason X (2001), and last year’s Freddy vs. Jason—but each time out, he looks a little older. Slashing is hard work.
Paramount’s new DVD set, Friday the 13th: From Crystal Lake to Manhattan, collects the first eight films (two films per disc), released from 1980 to 1989, and a horde of extras on a fifth DVD, ranging from informative to silly. The first film sadly comes sans commentary (though writer/director Sean Cunningham appears in several featurettes, including “Friday The 13th Chronicles,” where he explains, “Our assumption was to start with those little things that scared you as a kid, you know, you think there’s something under the bed”). Memorably, the franchise begins without its star, Jason, except as a small boy (Ari Lehman) in flashbacks, drowning—again and again—in Lake Crystal in 1957 while his camp counselors are distracted by one another. Made by Sean Cunningham, for some ungodly small amount of money (reportedly $700,000), the film followed on Halloween (whose Michael Myers came with his own major-damage backstory) and preceding Wes Craven and Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger (whose birth as result of a nun’s rape by 100 maniacs made him prone to vengeance), Jason was conceived as a victim only, leaving his mother (Betsy Palmer) to avenge his tragic end by murdering lithe and lovely camp counselors for years afterwards.
Often remembered as young Kevin Bacon’s film debut, the first Friday the 13th set up a formula, essentially, as makeup guru Tom Savini notes, killing naked adolescents in the woods. Opening with the murder of two sexually active counselors a year after Jason’s death, the film cuts forward to 13 June 1980, when Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer) has reopened the camp. New counselors start training, and new bodies start dropping. As most everyone knows by now, the unseen killer is revealed at film’s end to be Jason’s mother, driven insane by rage and misery and slicing up kids who remind her of those negligent teens.
While Palmer is effectively nutty, her comments for her segment of the documentary, “Friday The 13th Chronicles” (structured as separate segments for each film, featuring interviews with Cunningham, Savini, and cast members, set within corny blood-slashy graphics and with Intercut with film footage as illustration), looks mostly exasperated as she recalls that she agreed to act in this “piece of crap” movie to pay for a new car, as hers had just died.
No matter Palmer’s gripes (which are intercut with close-ups of her wholly campy performance as Mrs. Voorhees): the first film was an unexpected hit, and Paramount rushed a sequel into production, which resurrected the ostensibly drowned Jason (his spectacular rising from water would become something of a motif in subsequent films). In Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981), Jason is as yet un-hockey-masked, and played by the lurching Warrington Gillette, wearing a burlap sack over his face). He comes after the sole survivor from the original, Alice (Adrienne King), now (five years later) working at a new camp, dangerously near the first one (nicknamed Camp Blood). She’s joined by a new Final Girl, Ginny (Amy Steel), tough and intuitive even as she provided the requisite hot bod.
The line-up of victims for Jason was lengthy. And the films could be demanding on their largely inexperienced and young casts, in terms of hours, stunts, and arduously cut-rate mise-en-scène. As observed by Peter Bracke, editor of the DVDFile.com, who moderates a cast reunion for the commentary track for Friday the 13th Part III (originally projected in gimmicky 3D, in 1982), the films “aren’t really known as actors’ films.” Still, the actors typically took their work seriously, working hard to create characters despite thin scripts and lack of “motivation.” Richard Brooker, who played Jason in this film, laughs that he was told he had no dialogue, no motivation, no specific characterization (“You’re just killing people”). He imagined a reason for his behavior, though, having “studied acting for many years.” For close-ups, he remembers, they used 11 different appliances, which made eating complicated “I sucked lunch through a straw.”
The post-3D sequels were less interested in experimentation than in granting experience to next generations of actors and filmmakers. Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter (1984) is, of course, not even close to final, but did introduce new blood. Maestro Tom Savini came on board for makeup (the series moving on up, apparently) and Director Joseph Zito brought in youngster Tommy (Corey Feldman), who developed an ongoing story arc, a conflict with Jason that stretched over three films. At first, he’s an innocent living with his sister Trish (Kimberly Beck) and single mom (Joan Freeman), but once he kills Jason, he turns rather disturbed as well. The fifth installment, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985) features lots of girls and some bloody chickens; Tommy is older (now played by John Shepherd), and a killer himself, rampaging in competition with Jason. And in Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives (1986), Tommy (now played by Thom Matthews) accidentally resurrects Jason (again), leading to mayhem. As McLoughlin (calling himself a former “monster in a suit” for John Frankenheimer’s Prophecy) notes during the cemetery unearthing (which includes a brief appearance by Ron Palillo), “I’m a big fan of worms, maggots, and the like,” thus, the camera lingers on same.
The remaining films are rather last-gaspy, but not so different from their predecessors that you’d notice a particular lapse in quality. Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988) opens underwater with Jason (stuntman Kane Hodder, quite the pickup player, as he also played Leatherface in Chainsaw III, and Jason again in Part VIII). This time, Jason surfaces at the accidental behest of telekinetic Tina (Lar Park Lincoln), with help from a narrator: “There’s a legend around here. A killer buried, but not dead, a curse on Crystal Lake, a death curse. Jason Voorhees’ curse. They say he died as a boy, but he keeps coming back. Few have seen him and lived. Some have even tried to stop him. No one can.” As if we didn’t already know all this.
In the first New Line film, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989), the monster tags along on a cruise taken by a group of high schoolers into the city. Here he wreaks predictable havoc (Hedden notes in his commentary, “I think to up the stakes here, it’s always good to kill off the crew,” that is, leaving the hapless kids to pilot the ship). The murders occur in the usual way, punishment for sex or, in the case of bad girl prom queen Eva Tamara (Charlene Martin), accompanied by her friend Eva (Kelly Hu, in her first movie). The good girl here is Rennie (Jensen Daggett), plagued by nightmares of Jason’s childhood drowning and fretful over her much missed, missing dog.
If the plots are repetitive, the actors and crew members—at least those gathered together for these commentaries—are rarely less than enthusiastic. The DVD set’s array of extras features lots of reminiscing, in brief and cheesy documentaries and four commentary tracks (for Part III, Carl Beuchler and Hodder on Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter , writer-director Tom McLoughlin for Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives , and writer/director Rob Hedden for Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan ). Some of these talking-headed pieces are more compelling than others. Surely, it’s delightful to hear, in “Crystal Lake Victims,” Corey Feldman’s recollection that work on the Friday the 13th films (he appeared in two) occasioned “memorable experiences,” for instance, the first time he saw a “woman’s bare breasts” (a scene he then admits was shot in two parts, so he actually “didn’t see anything”), or director Joseph Zito’s memory of casting Crispin Glover as a teenager in Part IV, expecting that it would be difficult on him, because you’d never know what Crispin was going to do (“it was an amusement park,” he says, smiling). As you might imagine, most of these victims recall good times on the set. William Butler (Michael in Part VII), who remembers shooting amid alligators, patrolled by a “gator man” with a gun. Butler brings to bear all kinds of charm, introducing himself, rather sweetly, “Hi! I’m Jason Voorhees’ victim number 54.”
Other featurettes include “Secrets Galore Behind the Gore,” which gathers comments by Savini, Hodder, and Buechler, though, aside from Savini (a great storyteller), these are less detailed than you might anticipate. As they remember their thinking about effects, weapons, rubber appliances, and makeup, the documentary is understandably focused on Savini’s famous ingenuity (“We stuck the foam rubber head with toothpicks into the neck so when we struck it with the machete it would fall off!”), as he ticks off the many “glorious deaths” he concocted. Likewise, “Tales From the Cutting Room Floor” features footage excised from the films, most always for ratings reasons. Here you might regale in Kevin Bacon’s uncut death scene or a longer version of Mrs. Voorhees’ decapitation in the first film, and progressively gorier death scenes in any number of sequels. Beuchler and Hodder provide a commentary over some extended scenes from Part VII: The New Blood. “Friday Artifacts and Collectables” includes objects owned by cast and crew members, including lunch boxes, an original hockey mask and a tombstone from Part VI. Somewhere, someone understands the value of such paraphernalia.
Friday the 13th has surely wound down over its nearly 25 years. The tepid reception for last year’s Freddie vs. Jason is only partly a function of post-9/11 weariness of bloody excess. Given the quick-witted self-reflexiveness of the Scream franchise, the old school slashers look a little pokey (and their victims just look dopey). Still, and even if the masked serial slasher concept was never precisely original, Jason’s lurching ruthlessness attracted a loyal, if shifting, fan base. Whether you read him as symptomatic—of consumer culture, puritanical hypocrisy, or vigilante cruelty—From Crystal Lake to Manhattan isn’t about to clear up confusions, only revisit them.