Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, February 15, 2009
      ( 2/15/2009 12:57:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"YOU MAY ONLY SEE IT ONCE, BUT THAT WILL BE ENOUGH!" With a Michael Bay-produced remake in the theatres and two months of real Friday the 13ths lined back-to-back, it's an auspicious time for Paramount to reissue "Deluxe Editions" of its first three Friday the 13th flicks. "Kill . . . Kill . . . Kill . . . Uncut," the back of the box to the 'un trumpets, and that really sez it all.

As scriptwriter Victor Miller notes in two separate bonus features, the primary intent behind the first Friday was to "rip off Halloween." Director/producer Sean Cunningham already had prior experience taking better films and turning 'em into durable low-rent fare -- his 1972 Last House on the Left, done with a young Wes Craven, was a crassly energetic drive-in remake of Ingmar Bergman's classic art flick The Virgin Spring -- though nobody expected Friday to spawn the franchise that would rise from the depths of Crystal Lake. As Porky's was to Animal House, so Friday the 13th was to Halloween: a dumbed-down amalgam of the elements that made the original low-budget sources so successful.

In Friday's case, of course, the formula was simplicity itself: strand a batch of young and randy teenagers away from adult authority and then put them at the mercy of a seemingly omnipresent killer. (The only adult authority we meet before the denouement is a comic relief cop who acts like he's wandered in from some sixties drive-in hillbilly comedy.) Let the closest-to-virginal -- even if she's not averse to a game of Strip Monopoly -- teen girl survive for the big face-to-face showdown with the killer. Kill off all the rest. Cunningham even managed to snag the child of Hollywood royalty for a role (Bing's son, Harry Crosby, who gets an arrow in his eye), though the part was not the ticket into a major career that Halloween would be for Jamie Lee Curtis.

Paramount's new DVD and Blu-Ray reissues of Friday the 13th Uncut reportedly restore ten seconds of footage to the film, though it's difficult to detect where these once-excised seconds are in the uncut version. Presumably, they're a part of makeup maven Tom Savini's crowd-pleasing kill effects, but I couldn't state this for certain. Though most viewers recall the big onscreen fx -- the full-on throat slashing of Robbi Morgan's hitchhiker victim, the arrow-through-the-throat demise of a young and studly Kevin Bacon, the decapitation of Betsy Palmer's mad Momma Voorhees -- the fact is that a majority of the movie's bloody demises occur off-camera. And while the trailer attempts to give the impression that thirteen different people buy it in the flick (they even repeat surviving plucky heroine Adrienne King twice in the trailer's phony body count), Friday's actual death count proves significantly lower.

The point of it all, of course, is plain ol' Barnum-esque sideshow exploitation. Much of the fun behind the Savini-orchestrated death scenes is in getting the audience to go, "Whoa, how'd they do that?" It's a "magic show," director Cunningham notes during one of the set's bonus interviews, one that current CGI-generated horror flicks can't match since everybody knows the big visual moments have been created in some techie's computer.

As a movie, Friday the 13th is economical and fairly artless, though Miller and Cunningham (who'd gotten his start directing "educational" skin flicks like The Art of Marriage) do a decent job setting up the mechanics of their big kills. A sequence with the movie's camp counselors attempting to corral a snake in their cabin, for instance, helps establish the space beneath the bunks that will make the death of Kevin Bacon's Jack possible as well as the presence of a machete that'll prove Missus Voorhees' undoing. At times, the movie's low-budget restrictions even work in its favor. Where later entries in the series, for instance, used composer Harry Manfredini's Bernard Herrman swipes as stingers for a batch of false scares, the first flick's more parsimonious use of movie music adds to its effectiveness and results in some surprisingly effective moments.

Friday's characterization is minimal, to say the least, but the inclusion on the DVD of a "bonus" short entitled "Lost Tales of Camp Blood -- Part One" establishes that Miller & Cunningham knew enough about storytelling to at least provide some recognizable character types (the goofy guy who's always playing pranks on the rest of the cast, the pot-smoking party girl, the crazy coot who delivers an unheeded warning, etc.) In contrast, "Lost Tales" doesn't make the slightest effort at establishing its two victims before it snuffs them out. For all the lambasting that the original received at the hands of mainstream movie critics, at least it worked to hook its teenage audience.

As someone who saw the first Friday the 13th in an old and odiferous Central Illinois movie house the year it came out, I'll admit to having a small soft-spot when it comes to this flick. The movie may be cheap, but has it has a go-for-broke honesty that few of its slicker followers can muster. I can still remember jumping during its Deliverance/Carrie-inspired final dream sequence: the one that showed us Jason Voorhees as a moldering mongoloid child corpse leaping onto Adrienne King's canoe to drag her into the depths of Crystal Lake. "He's still out there," the freaked-out heroine tells us at the close of this exploitation classic.

He still is.


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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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