It’s not that there’s nothing to appreciate in the venerable, once shocking Friday the 13th franchise. It’s just that everyone involved in the series did everything imaginable to keep us from taking it seriously. Enter Friday the 13th Part III (originally released in 3D).
With original producer and director Sean S., Cunningham was never shy about admitting that his 1980 slasher was a blatant attempt to cash in on the unprecedented financial success of John Carpenter’s still excellent 1978 indie horror Halloweenbut the first two films in the Friday the 13th series were acknowledged imitators. With the twist ending to the first film, moviegoers ready to see the introduction of another seemingly indestructible masked killer in the vein of Carpenter’s Michael Myers spoofed by revealing that the slasher was the crazed mother of a child who became Left to drown by negligent counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, Cunningham at least put some effort into his rip-off.
With the mother dispatched and presumed long dead, camper Jason Voorhees, who inexplicably appears as the show’s silent, stalking antagonist going forward, next year Friday the 13th Part 2 (directed by Cunningham protégé Steve Miner) also made an honorable effort to play with the already serial-wearing slasher formula. Along with the requisite higher body count, the sequel not only introduced Jason (who hid his deformed face under a flour sack inspired by the 1976s The city that feared sunset) as the apparently back-from-the-dead killer, but also the long-running series’ best so-called “final girl” in Amy Steel’s Ginny.
In the truly intense finale, the stalwart Ginny, introduced as a student of child psychology, manages to distract Big Mama’s boy Jason by donning her dead mother’s clothes and playing on the murderous man-child’s affection to nearly disarm him, eventually succeeding that of surviving film-long slaughter.
Naturally, the ubiquitously lucrative slasher genre must leave the door open for the next sequel. (After the second possible dream sequence in a row, we’re still not sure if Ginny’s colorless boyfriend Paul is alive or dead.) This may be a cliché now — and was even becoming one in 1981 — but fans of faceless, implacable slashers/murderers were on board.
Miner returned to helm the third installment, released yet another year later, but this time the now-also-on-board minds at Paramount believed that Friday the 13th needed novelty to keep the box office running. And with every 30-year-old gimmick of 3D projection rekindled, it was decided that what the franchise needed was for audiences to scream and escape now three-dimensional horrors.
Evaluation of Friday the 13th the series is an exercise in placing it in time and place, acknowledging its enormous impact and influence, perhaps analyzing some of the themes and undercurrents even the people involved were less than concerned with, and most importantly, not succumbing to mocking what quickly became one of the most programmatic and predictably exploitative franchises in film history. The first two films were hardly classics of the genre, but they were competently made, the characters (with actors drawn from the New York theater scene) were above average for the genre, and some thought was spent on the motivations of the first two killers. Mother Pamela was a city-dwelling summer camp cook whose grief spurred her on a horrific, misguided revenge when Camp Crystal Lake reopened. And as nonsensical as Jason’s return in the sequel was from a narrative logic or time perspective, Ginny’s mid-film monologue unpacking the pain of the campfire legend of the deformed, drowned little boy shows a willingness to think of Jason as more than just a merchandising gimmick.
Part III, on the other hand, are nothing but red flags. The gritty, lived-in East Coast vibe of the first two indie outings has been swapped for more studio-friendly California locales, complete with a woefully inadequate Crystal Lake. (Artfully constructed, the once-naturalistic setting is here a sickly green pond, and the improperly sealed construction kept seeping down to the mother.) Shifting shores saw the theater kids traded for indifferent, generic TV types, none of whom were helped in their performance from the rough and rudimentary 3D process that prioritizes technically usable takes over performance. And it shows, with few of the overcrowded and underdeveloped cast breaking out in any meaningful way.
As for Jason, played for the only time by British stuntman Richard Brooker, the show’s lack of any conception of the character comes through in full force here. A back story sees Part III‘s last girl, Chris (Dana Kimmell), who remembers an unnecessary and distasteful encounter years before where she’s been stalked, knocked unconscious and, it’s implied, sexually assaulted by Jason. Although ultimately left vague (and ultimately retracted as Jason’s violent nature is never again shown to have a sexual component), the mercifully discarded idea is indicative of how little thought was spent on who or what Jason Voorhees was meant to be. Additionally, Booker’s Jason both runs and cries in pain when attacked, something later installments would largely phase out in favor of Jason being more of an unrecognizable boogeyman figure. (Whether Jason’s acquired ability to seemingly teleport in conjunction with a good jump scare is a better trait is for Friday the 13th fans to decide.)
Watch the trailer for ‘Friday the 13th Part III’
It’s also here that Jason takes what would become his most iconic accessory, in the form of a goalie’s hockey mask of all things. It’s an unexpected and interesting image when Jason sends former porter and group prankster sad-sack Shelley (Larry Zerner), whose mismatched headgear is the brainchild of 3D supervisor and Detroit Red Wings fan Martin Sadoff. With the predecessor Michael Myers famously adopting a doctor William Shatner mask as his murderous face, it’s as interesting a choice as any.
But it’s the forward 3D gimmick that really turns the franchise in the exact wrong direction, other weaknesses aside. Aside from the overly bright, often out-of-focus cinematography (always creepily creepy), the film’s endless, flashy parade of unnecessary 3D stunts turns what had been a flawed but atmospheric slasher series into a squealing freak show. Among the scares to come, we get a fake-looking snake attack, camera-attacking yo-yos and juggling fruit, a baseball bat, a rat, a thrown wallet and a vague and unconvincing extracted eyeball, all designed to make moviegoers react as whether they are on a carnival trip. Even when the effects are more Jason-forward (a spear gun to the eye, pitchforks, a ridiculous wire-dependent head that squeezes the eyeball pop), there’s no care beyond making sure the projectiles get to you. There is a decent use of the gimmick when the dangling and seemingly dead Jason, after being decapitated and hanged by Chris, swings his arms directly at the camera, but given the film’s short but interminable 95-minute running time, it an inspired, creepy touch too late.
Ultimately sideshow aspect of Friday the 13th Part III the work. Doubling Part 2‘s budget of $2.5 million, the film earned over $36 million at the box office. (Though extensive preparations for theaters to show Paramount’s revamped 3D process reportedly added millions to the film’s cost). ET the extraterrestrial for the first place (note that Steven Spielbergs beloved classic had been in wide release for several months at the time.) And while the Friday the 13th franchise thrived in subsequent decades with diminishing commercial and critical returns, Friday the 13th Part III can be pegged as the point where ambition and creativity essentially fled the series, Jason Voorhees’ predations on increasingly identical and nubile teenagedness following the uninspired path laid out by this tiresomely derivative outing.
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