Saturday, August 13, 2022

A New Dimension in Terror: Friday the 13th Part III at 40

Some horror icons arrive on screen fully formed, whether it be The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Xenomorph from Alien or Michael Myers. But Jason Voorhees is one icon that took some workshopping before he fully came together. Only glimpsed as child in 1980's Friday the 13th, he graduated to being a fully grown backwoods psycho the following year in Part 2 but the sack over his head that he wore in that first sequel, fashionable as it was, didn't feel like a look that was worth hanging on to. With its unintentional similarity to the recently released The Elephant Man (1980) as well as its callback to the killer of The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976), it had a second hand feel to it. It wasn't anything that was unique to Jason. But when audiences saw him don a hockey mask in Friday the 13th Part III, the reaction was a collective cry of "That's it!" 

Whether the character would have taken off in the way he did or have experienced the same kind of longevity without the addition of the hockey mask is a question that can never be truly answered but I think it's safe to say that it didn't hurt. That mask gave Jason a look that instantly clicked with people as much as the signature sounds of composer Harry Manfredini's Friday score had. You put both of those things together and you're really off to the races. Of course, the big selling point of the Friday movies early on wasn't even Jason so much as it was the series' spectacular splatter FX. Who was doing the killing was incidental. All that mattered to audiences was that they got to see throats slashed, axes buried in skulls and heads liberated from their bodies. 

Moving Jason up from his last minute shock appearance in Alice Hardy's dream to being a living adult dwelling in the woods near Camp Crystal Lake was definitely not a case of the people involved with the series brainstorming about how to continue the story from the original and saying "Oh! You know what would make perfect sense?" No, just the opposite. The only way Jason showing up as a living adult in Part 2 even starts to work is if the Jason we saw lunging out of the lake at the end of the original is only in Alice's dream. No one particularly wants that to be the case, of course. Fans want to think of that as the real Jason as well but having it as a dream was how director Sean Cunningham and writer Victor Miller originally meant that scene to be understood and that's how it has to be if we've got Jason running around as a grown ass dude in Part 2. No, even then it still doesn't come close to explaining everything but it at least gets you, well, someplace. It's a start, is what I'm saying.

As ridiculous and illogical as it was to have Jason be re-introduced, sans explanation, from a kid that died in 1957 to a living adult, it was in step with Friday's old school exploitation M.O. of always following the money. It didn't matter that Jason attacking Alice at the end of Friday the 13th had just been a dream. The character had made such an indelible impact with that final jump scare that out Carrie'd Carrie that clearly any sequel would have to feature him - even though doing so made as much sense as if there had been a Carrie 2 immediately after the original and it had centered on a zombie Carrie who had literally crawled out of the grave seeking revenge. All the Friday folk knew was that Jason's appearance had sent audiences out of the theater buzzing so they wanted to keep cashing in on that response, again and again. 

It speaks (positively, I say) to the relaxed attitude of audiences in the '80s that the appearance of adult Jason in Part 2 was so readily accepted, no questions asked - even though some very obvious questions could have been raised. Like, why wasn't Jason's body ever recovered from the lake in 1957? He wasn't swept into the ocean, for God's sake. How lazy is everyone in Crystal Lake that they wouldn't drag the lake to recover the body of a child? And if Jason survived his drowning, how did he live in the woods undetected for decades? But everyone was so game for adult Jason that none of that mattered. Don't try and be a brainiac about this crap was the '80s way of thinking. Save your stupid questions for someone who cares.

By 1982, the golden age of the slasher craze was beginning to fade but Friday the 13th had an advantage that movies like Humongous didn't: brand name appeal. If someone was only going to see one slasher movie in a year, they were going to make it a Friday the 13th, not roll the dice on, say, Visiting Hours. And 3D was about to give the series an added leg up on the competition. When you talk about matches made in heaven, you can't get much better than bringing Friday the 13th and 3D together. You've got a series that's already famous for delivering top of the line splatter and now you can promise audiences that the blood will be literally dripping off the screen? Oh hell yes. You didn't have to be William Castle to see how this gimmick was going to pay off huge for Friday the 13th. The movie didn't even have to be good. 


Of course, some said at the time (and even still!) that Part III in fact wasn't good but I say those people don't know how to watch a fucking movie. With Part 2, director Steve Miner had arguably outdone the job that Sean Cunningham did on the original, putting out a more polished film, and his encore with Part III was another thoroughly solid effort. Probably the most difficult thing to convey to people who didn't experience the early Friday's when they came out (I'm talking 1 through 5) is that they were seen as legitimately scary then (something I'm glad the 2009 remake really tried to get back to). These were not perceived as campy or corny in the early '80s, they were movies that audiences went into prepared to gasp and scream at the splatter FX (which might look tame today but were shocking enough at the time to have people turning away from the screen or watching through their fingers) and Miner's two entries did an ace job of delivering the slasher goods. 

Released on August 13th, 1982, Part III paired its 3D excitement with some of the most memorable kills in the entire franchise. You had Andy (Jeffrey Rogers) get a machete to the balls while hand standing down a hall (a kill that all the dudes in my junior high school found to be particularly wince-inducing), Rick (Paul Kratka) had his head crushed so hard that one of his eyes pops out (in 3D, baby!) and bad ass biker Ali (Nick Savage) learned to his chagrin that if you survive one bout with Jason, never challenge him to a Round 2. But arguably the most iconic kill in III is the one where Richard Brooker's Jason is first seen in the mask that he lifted off ill-fated prankster Shelly (Larry Zerner). As Vera (Catherine Parks) fishes Shelly's dropped wallet out of the lake, Jason laconically strolls out onto the dock, wearing that hockey mask, and takes aim with a spear gun, firing it at the camera and hitting Vera squarely in the eye. With that one scene, Jason finally made his definitive entrance. 

Early on in the development of Part III, Miner had flirted with the idea of continuing the story of Part 2 survivor Ginny Fields (Amy Steel) as she recovered from her ordeal in a mental hospital but Miner and his collaborators decided not to break from the successful Friday formula. So rather than a tale of a survivor coping with their trauma inside the walls of an institution, we get a classic Friday set-up. Final Girl Chris Higgins (Dana Kimmel) goes out to her family's place on Crystal Lake to spend the weekend with her boyfriend Rick and a group of friends, only to have Jason waiting there, ready to pick them off one by one. Had Part III decided to mix things up, even a little, the series might have headed in a more unconventional direction but instead Part III established Friday's pragmatic, if it ain't broke don't fix it approach. 

Even when later entries would introduce a left field element like a telekinetic teen or when they transported the action to an unlikely locale like Manhattan or, um, space, those installments were still rooted in the same body count narrative. Part III could have changed the course of the franchise but instead it insisted that it stay the course. Ultimately this was the smart and correct move.

Credit for the introduction of the iconic hockey mask has being claimed by/assigned to different parties but however Brooker's Jason came to be wearing that familiar face gear, it doesn't really matter. It's not as though it got there through any burst of creative inspiration. It was, ironically given the series' namesake holiday, simply a matter of luck. The idea that audiences would respond to the mask so strongly was impossible for anyone to predict. Movie by movie, Friday the 13th had fallen ass-backwards into its mythology and Part III was where everything finally came together. It was also the moment where Friday the 13th as a series really stepped on the gas just as the Halloween franchise took the foot off theirs. 

Up until Part III, Friday the 13th had been the second place slasher franchise behind Halloween. But in '82, just as Jason found his groove with his snappy makeover, Halloween ditched Michael Myers in favor of Silver Shamrock masks. As much as Season of the Witch has gone on to become a cult favorite, it put Halloween in a hole just months after Part III had been a big summer hit. Serving the fans the slickest slasher spectacle of the early '80s allowed Friday the 13th to surge at the right time. After that, Halloween found itself in the position of playing catch up with Friday the 13th. Jason might not be one for making 5D chess moves but in '82, his 3D moves were enough to make him look like one savvy slasher. 

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