Reviews

A Skinny-Dipping Survival Rate of Zero: 'Friday the 13th: The Ultimate Collection'

This isn't Kurosawa or Truffaut, but it sure will make you spill your popcorn.


Friday the 13th Parts 1-8

Director: Various
Cast: Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, Kane Hodder
Distributor: Paramount
Rated: R
Release date: 2011-10-04

Along with Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees became a national icon in the '80s. During that decade, the Friday the 13th series became infamous for the increasingly creative ways the killer does in his victims and for its resultant rising body count. Perhaps even slightly more than Freddy, Jason became the paradigmatic slasher of that strange period when we became obsessed with unkillable monsters and the serial killer, a fascination that has endured.

Friday the 13th: The Ultimate Collection is an eight DVD set that provides horror fans with all the essentials in the series. Complete with tons of extras, it’s packaged with a miniature hockey mask plus 3-D glasses to use with part 3. The discs come in a booklet with slipcases containing each disc. The booklet is a pretty substantial hardback with “Friday Facts” about each film on the respective disc’s slipcase.

Watching all of these films together makes for the perfect October scary movie marathon. Many of them are not that long and never waste time with exposition beyond the first few minutes. Sean Cunningham, creator and producer of the series, knew what we wanted. The camera work is quick, weird and startling and the narrative never slows down to let you catch your breath. This isn’t Kurosawa or Truffaut, but it sure will make you spill your popcorn.

And if you think these flicks are stupid, useless and lack redeeming value you might want to stop reading because I’m going to go into full horror geek appreciation mode. Could you just go turn on IFC? Surely there’s an important documentary you need to be watching?

The original film and Friday the Thirteenth Part 2 essentially function as a single narrative. All fans of the series know that Jason is not the killer in the original and that the iconic hockey mask makes no appearance even in part 2. The original Friday is notable for an early Kevin Bacon appearance and for the fairly spectacular death his character dies, engineered by SFX artist Tom Savini.

It’s in part three that we see the most recognizable elements of the series. In fact, it really defines classic Friday the 13th for most fans. The hockey mask makes it first appearance and Jason has gone from being a kid with a bag over his head to a great lumbering horror, a Frankenstein’s Monster plus sadistic killer, the savage Id personified with a machete. And some of the most iconic kills appear in this one, including annoying Andy dying while doing a stupid handstand.

Number three is the all-around fan’s movie. Its full of homages to earlier moments in the series and to other horror franchises ranging from Psycho to Godzilla. One of victims even dies while reading an issue of Fangoria magazine. Brilliant.

Parts Four, Five and Six are sometimes thought of as the “Tommy Jarvis” films. The series is at full maturity here, we know all the rules and Jason has a firmly established mythos. Some fans were less than enthused about young Tommy but I have to say that I found the young Corey Feldman pretty adorable (the other “Tommy’s” less so). In Part 4, I loved the idea that Tommy could fight Jason because he was the kid into horror make-up and movies. This is an important theme in horror… young nerds with knowledge (think “Mark” in Salem’s Lot). And young nerds becoming the Monster they think they have defeated.

Both Part 6 and 7 are, for some fans of the franchise, where things just got too ridiculous. Ironically, this is because the films really depart from the formulae and new directors try to inject some life into the franchise with a bit more humor and the trope of telekinesis. It mostly doesn’t work although I confess myself something of a Tina fan in part seven, restructuring as she does the by now easily recognized template of “the final girl”.

Part Eight. Well, that’s just a total campfest and a lot of fun in my opinion. Obviously putting Jason in New York City would be the worst idea ever and, luckily, that’s not exactly what happens here (although there are some fun scenes of Jason in Times Square, etc). Putting him on a party boat is, however, a good idea and teenagers die like flies. The “Friday Facts” guide helpfully tells us that the body count here is higher than in any other entry other than part 5. Good to know.

And, sadly, that’s its. Paramount distributed the first eight films before passing the franchise along so no Jason Goes to Hell, no utterly ludicrous Jason in Outer Space in Jason X and no Freddy vs. Jason. Thankfully, the 2009 reboot didn’t make it in, either.

The special features are a must-have for horror fans. One of the best of these is “Jason Forever” a panel from 2004 that featured four actors who have played Jason. I also found the producer commentary featuring Sean Cunningham in the early entries of the series to be pretty useful in getting a full picture of what it was like to make iconic films on a shoestring. Fan favorite Kane Hodder appears on the commentary tracks for Parts 7 and 8.

“Making of “ docs for the Friday films often spend a lot of time on special effects so many of you will love these features that appear on each disc. Be aware that if you picked up the DVD editions that have come out in the last few years (including the first “Uncut” edition), that the special features are exactly the same.

I appreciated the fact that this set didn’t include a bunch of useless crap and extra packaging. You can actually dispose of the box. All of the films are in that hardy little book that’s actually about the size of an average DVD.

OK, and the hockey mask. I usually hate these ultimate collection gimmicks that jack up the price $20. However, this thing is just awesome. It’s made out of very heavy durable plastic and is pretty much an exact replica of the mask from Part 3. You’ll love it because it’s actually a collectible a fan would put on their desk or shelf. I have it between my Bride of Frankenstein figure and Freddy glove (don’t judge, God knows what you’re into).

The 3-D glasses are another matter. They are flimsy cardboard and all they have to commend them is having Friday the 13th on the side. Also they don’t work. You’ll be tossing these pretty quickly.

Should good people be watching these movies? If Friday the 13th is the archetypal slasher franchise, its also been the target for much of the criticism thrown at the genre. Simplistic readings of the slasher have tended to see these films as simple parables of moral custodianship, narratives where the virgins stay alive and whoever has sex first dies a bizarre death in a mode over-determined by some pretty obvious phallic symbolism. In this understanding of their meaning, the films are part of a larger wave of the sexual-counterrevolution of the Reagan years.

The great scholar, critic and filmmaker Laura Mulvey produced the most sophisticated version of this critique. Mulvey believed that film in general had privileged what she called “the male gaze”. Slasher films took this a step further and second-wave feminist critics focused on the number of post-coital massacres that take place within the films and the frequency with which the female body is shown naked and concomitantly vulnerable.

There’s no question that all of the films show a special interest in teenage sexuality and the female body. The camera lingers longingly on shower scenes and awkward make-out sessions. Skinny-dippers have a zero survival rate. Jason takes out one couple in flagrante delicto in part 2 in one phallic spear thrust.

At the same time, there are several films in the series that rethink this scenario a little bit. In part 4, couples that don’t have sex also face an imminent slashing from Jason. Moreover, both Tina and the Tommy Jarvis are interesting re-imaginations of the hero—people in some way marginal but with special kinds of knowledge that allow them to fight the monsters.

Meanwhile, plenty of male loudmouths who see Crystal Lake as a site to whoop it up with cheap beer and pursue sexual conquest meet their death at Jason’s hands. In fact, especially in parts two, three and four, there is almost a kind of frontier narrative at work with Jason Voorhees functioning as a preternatural force, wreaking a terrible vengeance on intruders into his woods. Moby Dick with a machete.

I even think there is a critique of summer camp going on here. No, really. In parts 1 and 2, there’s a lot of emphasis on Jason Voorhees as a tale told around the campfire, just as camp counselors have spun stories of phantoms in the woods and maniacs with hook for a hand for decades. These nasty little chillers tended to be parables of social control, warnings to be a team player and to practice group values (“they kill the strays and the loners.”).

But, in the Friday the 13th series, it’s the annoying counselors themselves who get the business end of the machete, arrow or spear gun. Their campfire tales of terror and social control end up coming to life and killing them. Don’t buy it? I explore the idea more in my new book Monsters in America Monsters in America, so read that and let me convince you.

If you're looking to pick all these up in one swoop (and get the awesome hockey mask that’s a fanboy/girl delight), then this isn’t a bad set. Of course, you might also want to wait on the inevitable Blu-ray special collection before you go wandering around Camp Blood. Either way, keep your clothes on, reign in your hormones -- and don’t go swimming alone.

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