Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Halloween Countdown #8: FRIDAY THE 13th, PART 2


Are you all watching AMC's Halloween Fear Fest? It just started, and it features bunches of scary flicks as well as little interviews with horror movie makers. Right now, they're playing eight of the FRIDAY THE 13th movies, and next week, it's on to the HALLOWEENs.

Whee!

I'm going to confess this with the utmost humiliation I can muster: FRIDAY THE 13th, PART 2, is one of my fave scary movies. I know it's not a cerebral exercise in movie making. It's not even respectable to like it. But it still makes me jump during some of those dumb cat-comes-through-a-window scenes, and I always get nervous when it comes time for Jason's face to be revealed from under that pillowcase he wears (He didn't get the hockey mask until part 3 and, frankly, I think the pillowcase is way creepier.). The bottom line is that this is a movie I can watch over and over again, just for that scary movie experience that I hope I'm going to get whenever I pop a new movie into the DVD.

Weirdly, I'll even submit to you that a writer of action/suspense might also learn a thing or two by how F13:2 sets things up, but we'll get to that.

You guys know the basic story by now: Horny counselors show up for training at a semi-isolated camp spot. Crazy Ralph ("You're all doomed!") warns them. They ignore Crazy Ralph. Jason does his thing.

But there are some elements of F13:2 that make it a bit better than your average B-horror show. (And we have to consider, here, that this movie came out in 1981, long before audiences became well-versed in scary movie mechanics--SCREAM did a lot to produce a jaded bunch of viewers who know the conventions of a horror flick.)

First, F13:2 does a pretty good job of establishing the "Legend of Jason" in the initial few minutes, even while setting up the tone. I think having this mythos is what gives the series its accessibility, and a good legend lifts one series above the rest.

And this is how they do it: the Final Girl of the previous movie is having nightmares about facing off with and then killing Jason's mom in the last movie. It evens seems as if F13:2 is going to focus on this Final Girl once again, but this time she'll be facing off with Jason, not Mommy.

Nope.

F13:2 has the brass balls to kill off the Final Girl right away. It throws the viewer off his/her game, because who do we connect to now?

(At least PSYCHO had the decency to kill off its "heroine" mid-way through the film!)

Secondly, F13:2 gives us a true menace. We know that most horror movie franchises, such as the FRIDAY movies as well as the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETS, degenerated as time went by--the villains became cartoons instead of real threats. Freddy became a bad comedian and Jason became a wrestler who lumbered around in that hockey mask and somehow developed the ability to never die. But in this flick, Jason's got some mystery to him. (There's an entire scene devoted to the Final Girl theorizing about what Jason might be, how he might've been shaped by his mother's death, etc.) Jason's also got a lot of pathos, because before he became that supernatural wrestler of the later movies, he had a pretty average body, and he depended more upon his stalking skills than anything. You can only see one eye peeking out from underneath his pillowcase, and that's a great touch, because you can detect confusion in that gaze. You can see some mental wounds, too. Jason isn't just a generic killer here--he's primal. He's (as the Final Girl says) a little boy trapped in a man's body. Also, when Jason tries to kill someone, he doesn't always do it with the brutish efficiency he exhibited during those later films--there's one time in particular when his weapon breaks. And the Final Girl comes up with a genuinely clever way to entrap him, and his vulnerability to her plan actually makes him a bit more human.

Another great thing about this movie is that some of the counselors are developed with more attention than characters in these movies usually get. They're not *just* horny plot points who're being set up to provide a gory murder pay off (although, yes, some of them *are* just that)--a few of them actually have decent "moments" and lines. Take, for instance, the "comic relief guy." Yes, he spouts silly jokes, but he's got some moments that reveal he's a thinking man, and you get the feeling that he might be fun to hang out with in small doses. Then there's the head counselor. He's got this dry sense of humor that distinguishes him from the other dead meats. And the Final Girl is probably one of my top three favorite Final Girls ever. She's a psychology student, smart, resourceful, and appealing, with a fun sense of humor. She's your best friend from high school, freckled, with strawberry blond hair. But she's not an annoying goody-goody, and that's where some Final Girls fail.

Now, remember when I mentioned that this movie might teach a writer a thing or two about setting up some action and suspense? Just watch the way the movie introduces an undependable car that has a hard time starting. (Jaded viewers will know that this will pay off in the third act, but the car is used as a character building moment for the Final Girl and the head counselor.) Look at the introduction of a spear that will be used during the murder spree. (Big action rule: weapons should be introduced in a setting long before the hero or villain has need of them.) And look at how it's established that the Final Girl has a comfortable acquaintance with how to use a chain saw, so that, when she has need of it, the audience doesn't laugh at the absurdity of a girl even knowing how to turn one of those things on. Um...at least, I wouldn't know how to do that. Apologies to the Woman Nation. (Another action rule: don't bring a fighting/survival skill out of left field and give it to your character just because they all of a sudden need that skill to survive. It needs to be established beforehand, even if it's just a one-second shot.) A lot of scary movies don't bother with these simple rules, but it's nice to see it here.

One of the smartest things this script does to escalate the stakes and danger is to send a lot of those counselors off site to a bar, where they party away while a few select dead meats stay behind to get killed. That way, Jason can pick off the victims one by one, like a traditional murder mystery, except we know who the killer is in this one. And the movie does this isolation quite organically, without introducing a snow storm that blocks off the camp or anything like that.

Sure, there are things about this movie that grate on me: some bad acting along with the good. Muffin the dog's dopey appearance at the end (although it does set up a relief moment just before danger springs out again). Worst of all, there's a character who wants to get into a guy's pants so desperately that she practically drools out her dialog. (Gah--that character gets on my nerves.) But those are small potatoes compared to the rest.

Also, I love Jason's look in this flick. He's not so much a monster (as in the later movies) as he is a twisted hillbilly with a peach fuzz beard. You almost feel sorry for him when you see him, even though he's still trying to kill someone.

And that ending? Yikes! If you've seen it, you're probably with me when I tell you that even now, after many, many viewings, I still expect that the head's eyes will POP open and scare the crap out of me.

I've got several movies to choose from next: BLACK SABBATH, the original MY BLOODY VALENTINE, and some J-horror movie that someone recommended to me but I can't recall the name.... See you soon!

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