The great drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs once joked that the “Friday the 13th” filmmakers essentially “made the same movie nine times.”
He’s not entirely wrong.
Each installment, despite being touted as a new “part” or “chapter,” always felt like a stand-alone entry.
The constant changing of filmmaker, screenwriter and cast with each new sequel, as well as a studio that failed to keep any sort of continuity (so much for the Jason Voorhees Cinematic Universe, or JVCU), made for a lousy narrative timeline.
As the sequels began to pile as high as the body count, the consistency of the plotlines became tenuous at best. This is why Steve Miner’s “Friday the 13th, Part 2” (1981) stands out from the rest. It aims to be, like “Halloween II” of the same year, a true follow-up, with a story that picks up right after the original.
Whereas the original “Friday the 13th” (1980) began with a creaky, not entirely effective start, the sequel has a great opening. We begin on a close-up of a boy’s feet as he walks along a rain-soaked street, reciting “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” We gradually become aware of the presence of returning character-now-prime-antagonist Jason Voorhees- initially, we only see his shoes.
As in John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1978), we get the sense of an invading presence in humble suburbia. Miner immediately establishes he’s a stronger filmmaker than Sean Cunningham, who directed the first film.
We are reacquainted with Alice, the prior film’s lone survivor, played by Adrienne King, sporting primo ’80s Mom Hair. An extensive, “Rocky”/ “Superman”-like recap of the prior movie helpfully fills in the uninitiated (the flashbacks also give us a chance to revisit Betsy Palmer’s sublimely nutty performance as Jason’s mother).
What transpires in the hypnotic, genuinely scary pre-title sequence is something of a mystery: knowing what we eventually find out about Jason Voorhees, how was he able to track down Alice and find his way into suburbia?
Another puzzling element: Why is a watermelon sitting atop Alice’s fridge? Never mind, the prolog plays like gangbusters. The rest is all right, though there are some jolting moments and, to be sure, horror history is made here.
“Friday the 13th Part 2,” as horror fans know, was the first to introduce Jason Voorhees as its central villain (after a curious, somewhat mystical tease at the legendary finish of the first installment).
The sack cloth mask Voorhees adorns here is steeped in horror lore (it’s a choice that references the 1976 “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” but the image goes even farther back). It was initially slapped with an X-rating for its blend of sex and violence.
The original had to overcome this cinematic scarlet letter A as well, though this would become an afterthought considering its success, whereas the more high-profile sequel made headlines for the many sequences that had to be cut.
The formula is firmly in place here: teens come to the idyllic Camp Crystal Lake for an experience that is removed from the dangers, pressures, and contradictions of the outside world. They embrace the allure of sex and total frivolity, only to have it come crashing down from the appearance of Voorhees, who punishes them, as both a manifestation of the judgmental adult world and as an embodiment of nature’s cruelty.
This began a long run of sequels to the disreputable but enormously popular sequels, each one leaning heavily against a gimmick: if part one was driven by its alarmingly vivid blood and gore, the sequel was more of the same, although, most pivotally, it had a mythical, omnipresent and vicious killer driving the anxiety of the characters.
With Jason Voorhees established as the new and ongoing franchise threat, the subsequent sequels were also gimmick-driven: part 3 was in 3-D, part four claimed to conclude the story with “The Final Chapter,” part five cynically restarted the whole thing as “A New Chapter,” part six resurrected the neglected Voorhees and, an especially welcome touch, added a self-aware sense of humor.
Part seven paired Voorhees against a telekinetic Carrie White clone, part eight had the gall to float Jason to New York, part nine saw Voorhees plunge down to hell via the glove of Freddy Krueger, part ten hurled Voorhees into outer space and part eleven finally made good on a title fight between Voorhees and Krueger.
Are you exhausted yet? There’s also the 2009 remake, which, like this entry, peaks before the opening credits, then coasts on formula.
John Furey’s performance as the most authoritative camp counselor helps this a lot – he nails the essential, lengthy and spooky monolog that sets up the lore. The character of Mark is played by Tom McBride, an Anthony Perkins-like actor whose character is likable and well developed, as well as a rarity in American film, then and now- a regular teenager in a wheelchair.
Considering the level of the screenplay, Amy Steel is strikingly good. Although other roles (mostly on television) came her way, Steel deserved a far more extensive film career.
Furey’s exposition-heavy and still effective speech on Jason’s origin is one of the few verbal highlights in the screenplay. However, late in the proceedings, one of the camp counselors drops a great line: “These kids smoke better dope than I do!”
At one point, two of the likable leads find an empty bed, soaked in blood, an image of sex gone bad, a true teen nightmare.
A great perspective on how film critics viewed the film at the time can be found in the printed critique from one of the all-time greats: Roger Ebert’s hilarious review, both a dismissal of the film but a celebration of the rowdy in-theater experience he took part of, is among his best.
For all the “nasty bits” that had been cut back, there are some noteworthy images, particularly in the grand finale: the filmmakers concoct a novel way to bring back Betsy Palmer. The concluding big scare isn’t on the level with the big whammy Cunningham and crew came up with for part one, but it’s still a jarring image.
This came out during the first big wave of the teen slasher genre, arriving around the same time as “My Bloody Valentine,” the Jamie Lee-Curtis-led “Terror Train” and “Prom Night,” “Happy Birthday to Me,” Linda Blair’s “Hell Night,” C-list competitors like “Graduation Day” and “Final Exam,” overt rip-offs like “The Burning” and “The Prowler” and “grown up” horror fare like “The Shining” and “Dressed to Kill.”
While “Friday the 13th, Part 2” was successful and found an appreciative audience upon release, it only solidified the series as subpar controversy-bait in the eyes of film critics and genre genre catnip for fans that followed Jason all the way to Manhattan, outer space and beyond.
“Friday the 13th, Part 2” isn’t stylish and lacks the atmosphere that made the first act of the original so effective at creating tension and mood. As with every sequel made by Paramount Pictures in the 1980s (New Line Cinema would pick up the franchise in the early 1990s), it’s a low-budget, competently made but cinematically lacking effort.
Whereas the subsequent “A Nightmare on Elm St” (1984) would showcase bravura filmmaking in its initial entry and ongoing installments, the filmic saga of Jason Voorhees, in its prime (1980-1989), always felt like rushed projects with not enough money or time available to the filmmakers.
One can argue that this made it a lesser slasher film franchise, though I’d argue that the emphasis on startling make-up effects, cheap thrills and a sinister imagination was part of the charm.
Also, every time I look at any of the “Friday the 13th” movies, I see the fashion choices, lingo and hairstyles of my childhood babysitters and all the older “cool kids” I grew up with.
Can a movie with multiple decapitations in the first ten minutes make one nostalgic? This one can.