Poor Jason Voorhees. Of all the American horror icons of the 1980s, he was the only one who failed to appear in a good or even particularly interesting movie. While the Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre films quickly became jokes, they undeniably sprung from notable first films that are considered by many to be part of the horror canon. But Friday the 13th, the series that features Jason, that ghoulish unstoppable colossus, as he dispatches with teens for increasingly remote reasons, was creatively bankrupt from the very first installment, which was released in theaters in 1980 in a transparent attempt to cash in on the stunning success of Halloween a few years earlier.
The original Friday the 13th is, in fact, rather shockingly lame considering the brouhaha it inspired. Ineptly and indifferently directed by series creator Sean S. Cunningham, the first film follows a slasher pattern that now rivals the set formality of kabuki: A bunch of horny kids go out to a remote place to do something or another—in this case to renovate a supposedly cursed camp ground called Camp Crystal Lake—and are quickly and gruesomely dispatched by a killer who will remain unseen until the final reel. In the case of this film, we learn—and in a conscious reversal of the mother-son dynamic that informed Psycho—that the baddie is a middle-aged woman stalking the camp that had once allowed her little son Jason to drown.
The almost nonexistent budget admittedly serves Friday the 13th well: Shot on an actual abandoned campground somewhere in New Jersey, the setting is eerie and almost entirely responsible for the few shocks the film manages to land. But the film, compared to slashers such as the elegant Halloween or the terrifying Black Christmas, is slack and slip-shod. Cunningham, as he would display in future projects, obviously isn’t a filmmaker, and he’s unable to wring much tension out of the wonderful atmosphere. The killings, obviously the reason everyone sees these sorts of films, are gruesome but are often so poorly timed they wind up playing as awkward and ineffective. And perhaps worst of all, you wouldn’t know the talent makeup artist Tom Savini was capable of by looking at the film.
Yet Cunningham was clearly shrewd, and it’s obvious that his talents were more of the William Castle variety. The title itself is catchy and unsettling, priming audiences for arm-squeezing and chair-jumping, and the director cannily stuffed the last 10 minutes of Friday the 13th with enough gore and incident to disguise how little had actually happened in the hour and change that preceded them. The audiences left the theater goosed and satisfied, particularly with the final moment, which was a steal from Carrie’s show-stopping capper. And, of course, there’s Harry Manfredini’s hokey but iconic score, which was, like the rest of the film, a hodgepodge: a bit of Bernard Hermann, a dash of Pino Donaggio, as well as a pivotal sprinkle of vague originality, “ki ki ma ma.”
The film was a moneymaker of a proportion that exceeded Cunningham’s wildest dreams, paving the way for Jason’s rise as mascot of the blossoming franchise. The surprise of the Friday the 13th films is that a few of the immediate sequels, before the series’s nosedive into absurdity and desperate self-parody around the time of Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning, are directed with considerably more skill and confidence than the first film. The second and third movies, both directed by Steve Miner, have a better pace, much better kills, and the blocking and lighting are even competent. The trade-off, however, is that Part 3 ushered in the use of studio sets as opposed to on-location shooting, which means that the first film’s major contribution, its atmosphere, had been irreversibly compromised.
The comically inaccurately titled Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter is often said to be the fan favorite though, and the fans are right. The film, directed by genre staple Joseph Zito, is actually well shot and blocked, which is immediately evident in the legitimately terrific opening tracking shot that picks the film up right where the last one had left off—something that’s unusual for these horror franchises. The cast, which features Corey Feldman and Crispin Glover, is also better than the amateurs who normally populate this series. Most importantly, Part IV also easily has the best kills of the series, finally allowing Tom Savini, who declined to work on the first sequels, the opportunity to strut his stuff. And this one even almost has a story, which includes the clever fan-pandering touch of pitting a young horror-movie nerd against Jason. And the big guy himself? Jason’s look, by this point, was firmly in place as a kind mammoth working-class Frankenstein’s monster with a penchant for hockey masks and pointy things, particularly machetes.
Part V is disgusting, ugly, contemptuous junk even when graded on the considerable bell curve I’m extending to this series. Part VI: Jason Lives aims for a spoofy tone that doesn’t fly, as I tend to prefer horror films, even sell-out sequels, with the courage of their convictions. Part VII: The New Blood is notable for fan favorite Kane Hodder’s first appearance as Jason, as well as for the decent gimmick of pitting a telekinetic, in yet another Carrie steal, against Jason. (The gimmick works, kind of, as its fun watching a girl beat up Jason.) This one also has the bit where Jason beats a woman in a sleeping bag to death against a tree, the one kill in the entire series that’s authentically disturbing. The makeup, however, is off in Part VII, with too much emphasis on turning Jason into an actual monster. Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan makes a fatal error that famously irked fans, which is that Jason, due to budget constraints, was barely allowed to actually take Manhattan. Instead, Jason was forced to content himself with a mini cruise ship that stands as one of the ugliest sets in the series.
The Friday the 13th films are, to put it mildly, simple entertainments, but re-watching all of them again revealed to me why these movies have enjoyed a shelf life far beyond what they, let’s face it, deserved. The Friday the 13th movies are obviously about how much it would suck to have a knife plunged into your belly or to get your head lobbed off by a household cutlery of some kind, particularly when you’re about to get it on with your girlfriend, as these movies are basically about getting drunk, smoking a joint, and feeling up your girlfriend in a time when seeing movies was still a communal experience. But, I think there’s another, somewhat subtler, appeal to the series that’s actually enhanced by their general ineptitude: Jason, more so than any of the other 1980s monsters, is explicitly working class. Jason’s characteristic garb is suggestive of someone who works for hourly pay with his hands as his suit could be the suit of a coal miner or a truck driver or a factory worker. This suggestion is exponentially accentuated by the characteristics of most of Jason’s victims, who are usually, with a few exceptions here and there, white yuppies with apparently few monetary concerns. These people are generally vacationers who violate Jason’s turf, and so Jason, who’s almost always seen in motion or exertion (i.e. working) must set things right. Class warfare is so implicit in many of the influential horror films of the last half century—Night of the Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Nightmare on Elm Street—that even poor Jason, a threadbare clone of countless bad guys, somehow manages to stumble upon some social subtext, even if it’s almost entirely by accident.
Predictably, not too much care has been taken with the image, as I'm sure these transfers are the same unenhanced versions from the original barebones DVDs first issued in 1999. The picture is frequently soft and there is some haloing, though these movies never really looked very good to begin with, but the clarity here is, however, greater than the worn-down VHS prints I originally encountered in the 1980s. The surround sound is better, allowing you to recreate the party atmosphere of a theater filled with teenage, and yes, even middle-aged gorehounds.
Friday the 13th: The Ultimate Collection is the first compiled box set of special edition DVDs that were initially released separately in 2009, so I wouldn't advise a repurchase unless you absolutely must have the hockey mask replica that's been included. That said, fans that have yet to buy the set would be well-advised to seek this collection out, as it has a treasure trove of extras.
Every film, except parts two and three, includes audio commentaries with the directors, as well as sometimes with the writers and casts, and in the case of The Final Chapter, there's even a secondary commentary by horror directors Adam Green and Joe Lynch. Green and Lynch's commentary is by the far the most entertaining, as it affords an illustration of the touching fan devotion that even the flimsiest movies can inspire. (Green at one point calls this one the "Dark Knight or Godfather Part II of Friday the 13th movies.") The fan commentary also nicely contrasts with the considerably dryer filmmaker commentaries, revealing that one person's cultural touchstone is just another person's day at work. Victor Miller, the screenwriter of the first film, might be the most straightforward of the various collaborators, as he bluntly confesses, in more than one special feature, that the impetus for making the first Friday the 13th was a phone call from Cunningham to the effect of "Halloween is making a lotta money, let's rip it off." The commentaries in general are refreshingly honest and even affectionate though; these people had no illusions of creating the next Juliet of the Spirits, as they were working for the money and possibly even for the chance to do a movie with a guaranteed audience that might hopefully earn them greater exposure. The fact that most of the names remain unknown to you only adds to the poignancy. (And the famous names, such as Kevin Bacon and Crispin Glover, didn't deign to participate.)
The making-of features, which are included on every movie except for Part 3, are effusive in the expected ways but also contain actual information that fans of the movies might want to actually hear. Details about the makeup and the stunts are covered as well as most predominantly the series's considerable problems with the MPAA, which resulted in the usually abrupt kills, a series trait that Green and Lynch also debate at rather considerable length in their commentary. In many cases, the deleted—or "slashed"—scenes fortunately include the original murder scenes, which serve as yet another testament to the MPAA's hypocrisy and inconsistency. (The actual bloodshed in most of these movies is pretty tame.)
There are a number of other endearingly strange extras that illustrate how aggressively this set is pitched at the fans. A number of features, such as "Jason Forever" and "Friday's Legacy: Horror Conventions," afford home viewers a glance at the convention subculture that bring fans together with some of the writers and cast members, such as Betsy Palmer, Victor Miller, and Kane Hodder. Autographs are signed, stories are told, and the kinds of silly questions that only an obsessive can muster are patiently answered. The most random extra though has to be a feature on Part VII that follows two female cast members as they get together for a makeover. WTF?
Part 3 is the skimpiest on extras, which is kind of curious considering that it's the film that marked the debut of Jason Voorhees as we traditionally know him (he was skinny and wore a sack on his head in Part 2). A commentary by Steve Miner, the director who really found the series's groove, would've been nice. That said, Part 3 does include the option of watching the picture in its original 3D format, and, while that gimmick quickly becomes an eyesore, it's moderately amusing for a few minutes. I would suggest watching the first half of the film in 2D, so as to avoid a headache before the second half, which has the best 3D kill moments, including a well-timed harpoon bit.
Some of the extras are less successful. The "Lost Tales from Camp Blood" and "Crystal Lake Massacre" features are fictional short film spin-offs that will only be of interest to the hard hardcore fans, and "Inside Crystal Lake Memories" is a pointless plug for a book that could've been folded into one of the convention pieces. A distanced, scholarly Carol Clover kind of commentary on the films would've also been a nice way to round things out, but still, I can't really imagine a Friday the 13th fan wanting much more than what's already been included in this set of gratifyingly absurd indulgence. The liner notes even include a sure-to-be helpful guide of kills and weapons used.
The box set of this undeniably disreputable horror franchise is 100 percent for the fans, and they should be pretty happy with this extras-laden smorgasbord.