Who knew how epic 1981 would be for establishing two of the most long-running slasher series in the horror genre? While the logic behind franchising a successful original always comes with a fair share of reservations from fans, critics, and filmmakers alike (not to mention valid questions on the merits of art and craft), it’s hard to argue that HALLOWEEN II (following John Carpenter’s highly-regarded 1978 film) and FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 (following Sean S. Cunningham’s critically-scorned 1980 original) made genuine efforts to apply the mechanics of a continuing storyline to slowly but surely advance the mythos of their characters. Despite their flaws, what both of these films have that a majority of today’s horror franchises do not is a level of imagination and craft that nods to its source without leaning on it excessively as a result of creative bankruptcy. Neither HALLOWEEN II nor FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 were fearful of taking their plots and characters in new directions, all while firmly cementing the mechanics of American “body count” horror.
While FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 has its following within the slasher subgenre, it also tends to get lost in the shadow of its predecessor – not to mention the Michaels, Freddys, and countless other faceless slashers who kept the ‘80s rip-off cycle going strong and cynical. That being said, PART 2 is easily the best of the FRIDAY THE 13TH bunch, a film that actually grows finer with age.
Director Steve Miner (who got his start in film by working on Wes Craven’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT) shows more skill than most would give him credit for – the handheld POV shots and the ground-level images of suspicious feet wandering around are exceedingly effective (the pre-title sequence, which takes place after a rainstorm, is thoroughly chilling), and his use of the camera as a tool for misdirection succeeds more than it fails. (Granted, Miner would squander these skills with the truly awful FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3 the following year.) And some of the De Palma-styled tracking shots show an ambition and patience that is pleasantly surprising for a subgenre that has come to pride itself more on extra-gory “money shots.” Even the fake-out jump-scares (a cat through a window; a hand on a shoulder), which have become the bane of horror’s existence over the past couple decades, seem less obvious – and certainly less pronounced – here.
While Harry Manfredini’s screeching string score is as overstated as ever, it tends to only go into overdrive during the credits and the periodic chases that punctuate the film (during which it’s appropriate).
If Ron Kurz’s script doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, it is still a model of economy – after an extended prologue in which we catch up with the previous film’s survivor, Alice (Adrienne King), PART 2 has roughly an hour to tell its new story. And, while certain aesthetic techniques are employed to align this sequel with its predecessor (the use of white-fades; slow motion during the climactic action), the film feels more like a genuine continuation than a cynical cash-grab.
Jason (Steve Dash, masked; Warrington Gillette, unmasked), the boy who was purported to have drowned due to camp counselor negligence years before, is still out and about, slaying the counselors-in-training at a neighboring camp. The preamble to the inevitable slaughter is well-executed, with some endearing character introductions (Amy Steel is the assertive and snarky psych major; John Furey the resourceful alpha male; and gawky ‘80s mainstay Stu Charno (CHRISTINE) the crass comic relief) and the requisite sexual interludes (though this aspect is more restrained than in later series entries).
Whereas the 80’s slasher cycle would turn into an equal-opportunity murder machine, with only the Final Girl remaining to vanquish evil (until the next sequel, anyway), PART 2 sees fit to let at least half of its unwitting characters live (when offered the chance for one last night on the town, a majority take advantage, while the mayhem ramps up back at camp). And when the odd-trio of Ginny (Steel), Paul (Furey), and Ted (Charno) talk of the Jason lore at a crowded local pub, the speculative nature of the conversation betrays an interest and intelligence that most films of this stripe only bother with in simple catch-all terms to explain the method to the killer’s madness (it bears noting that Ginny makes a decision to stop drinking after the conversation, a factor that may play into her survival later). Furthermore, this conversation isn’t a mere bit of padding to delay the inevitable – it is practically applied during the climax, wherein a cornered Ginny uses child psychology to tame the savage Jason (albeit temporarily). As a result, Steel truly earns her status as one of the most astute and resourceful Final Girls in the slasher subgenre, and not just a survivor by default.
Jason himself possesses flaws here that went AWOL in the later entries that presented him as a superhuman killing machine. His mountain-man attire (overalls; flannel shirt), sack head (this was before the more popular hockey mask), and his shack (made of disparate scavenged parts) all serve as backwoods extensions of his speechless character – despite his actions, there is a bizarre, Quasimodo-styled sympathy lurking under the surface of PART 2.
While the jump-scare false ending has been done to death (established by the original, and ripped off by subsequent FRIDAY THE 13THs with no shame), Miner’s clever misdirection makes it effective, even today – and while the mystery of its final moments remains maddeningly unresolved (“Where’s Paul?” indeed!), it makes for the type of ambiguous ending that goes unseen in most horrors. There’s a lot more going on in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 than you might think, and that’s a great thing.
4 out of 5 stars
Jonny Numb (aka Jon Weidler) co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK podcast and prefers cats (sorry, Muffin). He can be found on anti-social media outlets Twitter and Letterboxd @JonnyNumb, and his movie reviews occasionally pop up at numbviews.livejournal.com.
(Photo from Bloody Disgusting.)