Friday the 13th Part III

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The original “Friday the 13th” (1980) was fascinating because it was so unlike what I expected. It had a mystery plot in which the killer wasn’t revealed until the shocking twist ending; just enough cleverness to elevate what would otherwise be a cheap rip-off of “Halloween” (1978). The “Friday” sequel from 1981 offered a sympathetic (or at least humanizing) portrayal of Jason and a likable main character who used her education, of all things, to trick Jason in the end. Who would have predicted that?

And throughout both of these films, nary a hockey mask appears.

Enter “Friday the 13th Part III” (1982). Here is the film that fulfills my initial expectations for this franchise: horny camp counselors getting picked off by a Man In A Hockey Mask, cheap production values, bad acting, and some creatively over-the-top kills.

“Part III” has the feeling of a quick cash-in. You can almost sense how eager the filmmakers were to make more money off this franchise. What was in the film was incidental. As evidence, I offer the shot where two characters get into a car and no less than three crew members can be clearly seen reflected in the windows.

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That said, “Part III” played an important role in the evolution, or at least the endurance, of the franchise.

The last installment developed Jason as a character, but here’s he’s just a “force of nature.” This is sometimes how people describe Jason. He’s relentless, he has no apparent goal or purpose, and he just kills whoever is nearby him. According to “Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th” (2013), the director (Steve Miner) told the actor who plays Jason, “Don’t ever ask me what your motivation is.” Jason is just a killing machine.

Jason’s transformation from a character to an Iconic Horror Movie Monster was necessary though. Necessary in the sense that “Friday the 13th” wouldn’t have become an enduring series of films otherwise. The characters of Jason and Mother Voorhees had been substantive enough to sustain, barely, two films. At this point, the series needed a new hook.

So, they could have developed the camp counselors into more complete characters and tried to make a real movie or they could have pushed the camp factor and reveled in the franchise’s inherent stupidity. They made the wise choice.

For extra protection, the filmmakers turned to Hollywood’s favorite money-making gimmick, 3D, which had the nice effect of inspiring some creativity, as each kill had to be exploitable in 3D somehow. A simple machete to the face wouldn’t do for this film. Here we have harpoonings, eyeballs being ejected from their sockets, and one very clever shot filmed from below a glass floor in which a young man is cut in half while walking on his hands.

And at some point, someone put a hockey mask on Jason. It just looked neat.

While “Part III” pushes the franchise into campier territory than its predecessors, I don’t want to give the impression that it’s great fun. Most of this movie is bland and forgettable.

But “Part III” was a bridge. In a way, the series needed to regain its footing now that Jason was transitioned from a character to a Monster. At the very least, it set the stage for future installments to use Jason the Monster to greater effect.

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Halloween II

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Merry Christmas, everyone. If you’re like me, the holidays are a great time for a nice, bloody slasher film, and who better than Michael Myers to personify the spirit of the season.

To say I was “fascinated” by “Halloween II” (1981) seems like an overstatement, but I was surprised, and, as sequels go, it is unconventional.

The film opens with the climax of “Halloween” (1978). No prologue, no narration to explain what’s happening, just Jamie Lee Curtis trying not to get stabbed by Michael Myers. I assumed this was just meant to remind the audience of where the story left off. This was, after all, before the age of home media, and it was safe to assume that nobody had seen “Halloween” since its theatrical run.

I awaited a fade to black and a jump forward in time because, naturally, I expected the action to take place three years after the events of the original, since three years separated the original and the sequel. But then, seamlessly, the story just proceeds from the original’s ending, in which Michael’s body disappeared after he was shot out of a window. The next most logical events happen: Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) goes off in pursuit of Michael and Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) is taken to the hospital, unaware that Michael is following her there.

The whole of “Part II” feels like the third act of a more modern horror movie; the violence gets a little sillier, and there’s a revelation about Michael’s motivation when Loomis discovers that Michael and Laurie are siblings. It also provides a proper ending to the story, in which Loomis sacrifices himself to save Laurie and finally kill Michael.

The films have a total runtime of 180 minutes, and it wouldn’t be impossible to cut 60 minutes and splice them together to make one complete story. This may sound like heresy, but honestly, not that much happens in the original. I think it’s memorable because of John Carpenter’s score and because of that creepy feeling you get when Michael is stalking Laurie and staring at her behind that vacant-looking mask. Plot-wise, it’s pretty thin.

This got me thinking: Did the 2007 “Halloween” remake do just that? Did Rob Zombie tack the plot of “Part II” onto the end of his movie? Research tells me that he did not, the story being half-prequel and half-remake of the original. (I didn’t actually want to watch the movie, as I’m prejudiced against modern remakes.) Zombie’s film includes a fully fleshed-out backstory for Michael and, interestingly, the detail about Laurie being Michael’s sister. It seems Zombie agreed that Michael’s pursuit of her needed an explanation.

Splicing “Halloween” and “Halloween Part II” together would be a good idea if you cared about telling a complete story with these characters, but maybe that’s not the point. I guess Michael’s disappearance at the end of “Halloween” was meant to make that creepy feeling stick with you after you left the theater: He’s still out there. He could be lurking behind any hedge in your town. He could be behind the wheel of any passing station wagon. The movie was unconcerned with logic and backstory; it was about making you feel a certain kinda way.

But it’s nice to have the sequel to wrap things up, and to finally immolate Michael to a satisfyingly crispy cinder.

The Werewolves of ’81

1981 saw the release of two werewolf movies by upcoming directors: “The Howling” by Joe Dante and “An American Werewolf in London” by John Landis. These two films must be considered together, as befitting their conjoined history.

“The Howling” tells the story of a TV news reporter (Dee Wallace) who discovers a colony of werewolves living in the woods outside Los Angeles. As to be expected from a Joe Dante picture, it blends humor and horror, appropriately adopting a tone that acknowledges the silliness of the subject matter while still delivering the necessary thrills. It must also be said that “The Howling” is a competently made motion picture with a solid script that tells a complete, if forgettable, story.

The same could not be said about “An American Werewolf in London,” which is often so baffling it gives you the distinct feeling that director John Landis was covertly making an experimental film disguised as a werewolf thriller. The story sounds straightforward enough. A pair of American tourists are attacked by a werewolf. One dies and the other becomes the titular lycanthrope. He meets a girl, transforms, and kills a bunch of people. Simple, yes, but maybe too simple for a feature film. With a lot of screen time to kill, Landis introduces a subplot that goes nowhere involving the werewolf’s dead friend (more on that later), a dream sequence featuring machine gun wielding Nazi orcs, and an extended sex scene that seems plucked from “The Red Shoe Diaries.” It whips from comedy to horror to romance and back again with such velocity that your brain gets confused. What exactly are we supposed to feel during the interminable scene where the main character kills time in his girlfriend’s apartment? Is it supposed to be funny? Tense?

Now, if you’re the type of person who likes bad movies, the foregoing might make “American Werewolf” sound like the perfect film for a drunken Saturday night with your buddies. It probably is perfect for that purpose, and I probably would enjoy it in that context. However, when I saw this movie, I was expecting a bloody great werewolf movie. In that respect, it’s a disappointment, and therefore a deplorable waste of the phenomenal makeup effects by Rick Baker. Because while “The Howling” is a better werewolf movie, “An American Werewolf in London” has the superior werewolf transformation effects.

That transformation scene has a place in the pantheon of the greatest effects sequences in film history. It conveys the true horror of the experience; the character looks and sounds like he’s in anguish as his skeleton cracks and reconfigures itself, and his mind slowly dims as it’s replaced by a carnivorous animal instinct. If you watch that scene in isolation, it’s so good that you’d expect the movie to be a masterpiece – maybe the best werewolf movie ever made? Not so.

The film avoids greatness by straying too far from its simple premise. That subplot I mentioned about the dead friend, for example. After surviving the werewolf attack, the main character, David, wakes up in a hospital bed and is confronted by his friend, Jack, who died in the attack. Jack is trapped in some sort of limbo and can’t rest in peace until the last werewolf dies. David is now the last werewolf, so Jack returns throughout the film to humorously invite David to kill himself. Jack is a totally original movie monster, to be sure. He has some properties of a ghost (he’s invisible to everyone but David), a zombie (he has a seemingly corporeal body that continues to decay as the film progresses), and a vampire (he’s undead but retains his full mental faculties, including speech and wry humor). Jack apparently lacks any ability to harm David himself. Is Jack just a figment of David’s imagination? Hard to say. When David is finally killed by his girlfriend in the end, the film just comes to a full stop. What happened to Jack is left to our imagination.

Speaking of the ending, David, in werewolf form, is cornered in an alley by the police. His girlfriend tearfully begs them not to kill him. She approaches, carefully. David’s snarl relaxes, and for an instant, we think she can break through to him. But he lunges at her and she is forced to shoot him. A perfectly good ending to an actual werewolf movie, but the drama is undercut by the soundtrack; David has barely hit the ground before the credits start to roll over an upbeat doo-wop rendition of Blue Moon. It’s the kind of ending that leaves you stunned for a moment. “I guess it’s over,” you think. Also, “I want to slap this movie.” That music at the end is actually the biggest insult to the audience. It’s as if Landis were embarrassed about making a werewolf movie, and didn’t think the ending could actually be touching, so he added the discordant silly music as a way to say, “Nevermind, it was all a joke!” You pay your money to see a werewolf movie and in the end you finally realize you got punked.

Compare this ending to the ending of “The Howling.” I actually won’t. I’m inviting you to do it. I think it’s possible that there are some people in the world who haven’t seen this movie after 35 years, and it shouldn’t be spoiled. Like I said earlier, Joe Dante found the right tone for “The Howling.” It’s funny but it’s also dramatically and logically coherent. The earnest performance by Dee Wallace makes her the perfect focal point. She’s in a campy B-movie, surrounded by comic supporting characters, but she doesn’t act like it. She’s utterly sincere, right up to the last scene, in which she becomes the hero. It is hysterical, but also poignant in a way, and it provides a proper ending to the story.

Dante and company knew that viewers of “The Howling” would want to see a fun, thrilling movie about werewolves, so that’s what they dutifully provided. You will not find machine gun wielding Nazi orcs anywhere in it.

 

Friday the 13th Part 2

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“Friday the 13th Part 2” (1981) has the distinction of being the first slasher sequel. (“Halloween II” would be released later the same year.) As such, you’d think it would be a pioneer of the Sequel Rules, as famously articulated in “Scream 2” (1998), i.e. a higher body count and more elaborate, gory kills. In this respect, “Part 2” is a disappointment. The body count is roughly the same, and it didn’t seem to occur to the filmmakers to get more creative with the ways the killer disposes of the horny teens. That said, “Friday the 13th Part 2” is an improvement on the original.

It should be said that this film is basically a remake of “Friday the 13th.” The setting and story are the same and the characters even look strangely similar to the original cast. But, like any smart sequel, it uses the events of the first film to fortify its own story. In the original, the backstory of Jason and his mother was spilled out suddenly at the end, but here, those details are used throughout the film to humanize the killer, if such a thing can be said about Jason Voorhees.

The major upgrade that was done for the sequel was ditching the mystery angle. The original film used a first-person camera to conceal the identity of the killer until the end, when the killer was revealed to be an elderly woman. The fun of a mystery plot can be totally undone by an unsatisfying conclusion, and while this was a funny twist, and Betsy Palmer’s performance as Mrs. Voorhees was appropriately creepy, she was not at all threatening. The reveal made you reconsider the story and wonder why any of the victims were not able to run away from her or overpower her, forcing you to conclude, “Oh well. It’s just a dumb slasher movie.”

In the sequel, there are a few first-person shots, maybe used as a callback to the original, but it’s made fairly clear that the killer is Jason, the son of Mrs. Voorhees. This allows us to explore the character a little, as when the sheriff discovers his crazy ramshackle shed in the middle of the woods. You can’t help but imagine Jason building it. One character mentions that Jason hunts woodland animals to survive. Another expresses sympathy for Jason and his mother, both trying in their own deranged ways to cope with the loss of the other.

So, little by little, a picture emerges of Jason as a human; a dangerous and demented one, to be sure, but one who needs food and shelter and the love of his mother nonetheless. It may also be significant that at this point in the franchise, Jason has still not donned his signature hockey mask. He’s not yet Jason the Horror Movie Monster. He’s a guy who lives in the woods. All of this gives the sequel a bit more depth – just enough to make this stupid slasher movie feel more substantive and satisfying than the original.

 

The Shining

the_shining_2If you ever find yourself stuck at home after a snowstorm, browsing through your streaming movie device, wondering what is exactly the right movie to watch, this is it.

Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980) is about a man (Jack Nicholson) who’s hired to be the winter caretaker for an old hotel. He moves in with his wife (Shelley Duvall) and his son just as all the other hotel employees are leaving for the winter. The three settle into their routines; the mom doing chores, the kid riding his Big Wheel around the empty hallways, and the dad trying to write a book. Then a snowstorm cuts off the hotel from the rest of the world, and things get weird.

Well, actually things had been getting weird from the first scene. It seems the previous winter caretaker went crazy and murdered his family. This was blamed on the effects of isolation. When the mom tells the kid they’re going to move into a hotel, the kid has bloody visions of the future. He says that an invisible little boy talks to him and shows him these images. Is that just his way of processing his precognitive powers? Or is he actually communicating with some other person who has future knowledge? Perhaps a future version of himself?

Also, was Jack crazy from the start or did he get possessed by the evil hotel ghosts? Stephen King (who wrote the novel on which the film is based) famously hated Kubrick’s version because it implied that Jack was on the cusp of a psychotic break before they ever got to the hotel. Apparently in the book, Jack is a decidedly good man who saves the day in the end by committing suicide.

But in the film, none of these questions are completely answered. The fact that many details are left unexplained gives the movie a greater sense of mystery. You watch it and you find yourself wondering, unsure. That’s how you should feel when you watch a horror movie. We know just enough to follow the story, i.e. over the course of their stay in the hotel, Jack becomes more and more unhinged and then tries to kill his family. That’s all we need.

In the place of clearly defined story details, we have a beautiful and eerie location, some truly haunting images, and three great performances from the lead actors. Nicholson is perfect in one of his most Jack-Nicholsony roles. (I especially like the scene where Shelley Duvall interrupts him while he’s “working.”) The son (Danny Lloyd) is creepily authentic as the Weird Kid who talks to himself and scares his therapist. I’ve heard criticisms of Shelley Duvall in this movie, but I think she is perfect too. The stilted, awkward way she delivers her lines make sense for her character; she’s playing the role of the devoted wife and mother but she’s actually barely repressing her fear of both her abusive husband and her seemingly deranged son. When Jack finally snaps, she does too, and all the terror she’s been holding back comes flooding out.

Let’s talk about the ending. Jack chases his son into a hedge maze where the boy outsmarts him and escapes, leaving his father trapped, where he freezes to death. This is a clear resolution to the overall story. There is a stinger at the end though. The final shot is a closeup of a photograph that shows Jack at a party at the hotel in 1921. Wtf is that supposed to mean? In his 2006 essay on “The Shining” Roger Ebert speculated that Jack may have been “absorbed into the past.” Sure? That’s as good a theory as any. But the meaning of that photo, like the other unexplained details, isn’t critical to understanding the plot. This is in contrast to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) in which the whole ending is so vague that it doesn’t provide a resolution to the story. Don’t get me wrong, I love “2001” but it’s more of a work of art than a story.

With “The Shining” Kubrick gives you just enough details to craft a coherent plot, but leaves as many mysteries as possible, allowing that feeling of uncertainty and dread to build up inside you as  you watch it. A real snowstorm doesn’t hurt either.*


*A movie theater is also a nice place to see this film. “The Shining” is playing at IFC Center Jan. 22-23 and at Nitehawk Cinema Feb. 26-27. All screenings are at midnight (my favorite).

 

The Fog

fog01I grew up in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where fog is a big deal. It would often be so thick that my elementary school would delay the start of the school day until it lifted. Walking to school in the fog would have meant certain death.

I remember the fog from the back of my mom’s station wagon, driving home from Grandma’s house after dark, the headlights illuminating nothing but a wall of mist. At any moment, a figure might materialize from the fog in the middle of the road. There would be no time to swerve. Or a truck traveling the opposite direction might appear, drifting into your lane, its driver fast asleep. The fog creates tension. You hold your breath until you reach home safely.

Not a bad atmosphere for a horror movie. Sadly, “The Fog” (1980) is one of John Carpenter’s lesser works (to be polite). It gets bogged down by a complex plot involving a curse, a hundred year anniversary, and a magic gold cross. It features a pack of ghosts who appear from thick air (See what I did there?) but always on the outside of a locked door, obliging them to break down the door like a bunch of dumb zombies. Why not wait for the fog to seep under the door and then appear inside the house? I guess they’re not that smart.

The opening scene is wonderful though. It shows a crusty old salt whispering a ghost story to a bunch of kids gathered around a campfire. Their mouths agape, they lean forward in anticipation. I wish the whole movie had that feeling, but it’s neither scary enough nor campy enough.

My mom and her best friend would disagree with me, though. They saw this movie in its original release when they would have been in their mid- late-20s. It clearly struck a nerve somewhere. They still bring it up in conversation, and I went to see it based on their well-known enthusiasm for it.

But for me, “The Fog” doesn’t capture that feeling of creeping terror that you get when you’re surrounded by real fog, when dangers of all kinds could be just a few feet away… if you could only see that far.


I saw “The Fog” at BAM on a wonderfully scratched up 35mm print as part of their John Carpenter retrospective, which continues through February 22nd.

Friday the 13th

Friday_the_thirteenth_movie_poster“Friday the 13th” (1980) may be the unlikeliest kickoff to a major franchise in film history. Prior to this viewing, the only Jason movie I’d seen was “Freddy vs. Jason” (2003), and I’m not even sure if that counts. My expectations were thus: a bunch of horny teenagers at a remote lake camp would get killed one by one by someone wearing a hockey mask.

Already a thin premise, but imagine my surprise when the hockey mask didn’t even appear.

I was left wondering why this film resonated with audiences so strongly. The premise wasn’t new. The slasher had been seen before in John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1978), and much more effectively too, since its killer was creepier and its main character more endearing.

“Friday the 13th” was just one of a number of “Halloween” rip-offs. Its characters are underdeveloped and the time between kills feels like filler. But it stuck with audiences, mainly I think, based on the strength its final moments.

The Reveal of the Killer. 

“Friday the 13th” depicts its killer with point-of-view shots. This type of shot was also used in “Halloween,” but there it was just a hook for the opening scene. Here, it’s used for almost the entire movie to hide the identity of the killer.

Throughout the film, we see other characters interacting with the killer. They smile. They’re warm and friendly. This is a clue. The killer doesn’t look threatening on the surface. And yet, after seeing so many teens stabbed and axed, we still expect some sort of menace. When she’s revealed, the killer is wearing a sensible cable-knit sweater and looks like the picture of an aged public school secretary. One gets the feeling that even if she did have a mind for murder, it would be a simple thing to escape from her by jogging lightly away.

She is, of course, Mrs. Voorhees, Jason’s mother. We learn that Jason drown in the lake years ago due to the negligence of his camp counselors who were busy humping and getting high. The camp had been closed since then, but is about to reopen, and Mrs. Voorhees, determined to cancel those plans, sets about murdering all the camp employees. And this all occurs on Jason’s birthday, Friday the 13th.

I think all of this works. Her non-threatening appearance plays as comedic, but unintentional comedy is always welcome in a B horror movie. Mrs. Voorhees may make you smile more than cringe, but she’s a memorable villain with a compelling motivation.

The Surprise Ending.

The way this film ends is ridiculous. It makes no sense, even within its own world. But it still gets you.

Inspired by the ending of “Carrie” (1976), the filmmakers tacked on this goofy epilogue hoping to leave the audience with one last fright. They succeeded, and as a bonus, a major film franchise was born.