Sunday, 12 July 2009
Friday 13th Retrospective Part 4 - Jason Goes Fourth
There will be spoilers and there will be blood!
More scarred than Blofeld! More cunning than Kojak! And yuckier than Yul Bryner! Everyone’s favourite psychopathic slaphead is back! And this time - it’s final!
Apparently tired of catching grief from the bosses at Paramount, series producer Frank Mancuso Jnr. decided enough was enough and it was time to wrap up the Friday 13th saga. Although Part 3 has out performed it’s predecessors during opening weekends (handy box office league table here fact fans!), the general critical climate was mounting against the franchise and slashers as whole. Plus there was the beginnings of a backlash against the increasing sequelitius infecting studios at the time – audiences were starting to learn that often a sequel’s worth could be calculated by divided the quality of the original by the number in the title.
Hence The Final Chapter appeared in theatre sans numeral. And apart from hoping to avoiding ending up in the comedy sequels league tables that were fast becoming a staple of end of the year film round ups, one does wonder whether it was also an attempt to airbrush the 3D fiasco out of history. Certainly Mancuso seems to have recognised that Jason’s latest screen adventure needed to raise its game and so set about assembling a quality crew for the picture.
His first shrewd move was to get Tom Savini back on make-up duties. The man who Fangoria had dubbed ‘the sultan of splatter’ was an immediate box office draw, and horror fans had already proved they’d endure the most incompetent cinematic dreck just to see Savini’s wizardry. With Steve Miner not wishing to return to the director’s chair, Mancuso then hired Joseph Zito, who had recently proved his slasher credibility with the fan favourite The Prowler. Finally though, demonstrating he’d learnt some most important lessons from Part 3, he hired some decent actors – netting up and coming stars Crispin Glover and Corey Feldman. All was set to give Mrs Voorhees’ little monster a spectacular send-off.
And indeed The Final Chapter is a rousing return to form, working the slasher formula to fine effect. All the usual elements here, but where this movie scores over the previous outing is they utilised in a story that actually makes sense, and even contains some characterisation.
In what is rapidly becoming traditional in the series, we are introduced into yet another previously unknown settlement on the shores of the geographically morphing Crystal Lake. However in this flick, we are shown a brace of houses nestling in the deep woods, one is a family home and the other a holiday property – a far more believable setting than the crowded Higgins Haven milieu with its multiple stores and that crazy farm stocked up on hay for non-existent horses. Zito returns the basics of the first two films, heeding Victor Miller’s wise words that a key plot mechanic is that the character should be placed in an isolated setting. Hence we get some good use of location filming and some nice camera work that emphasises the vast brooding woods that surround the houses.
In addition to creating a more effective location for the action, from the first shots of the hovering police helicopter and emergency services gathering at the aftermath of the Higgins Haven, The Final Chapter establishes a firm sense of reality. This time around it feels far more like the events are unfolding in the real world, rather than the Scooby Doo-esque universe of Part 3.
And also unlike the last instalment, the script writers actually seem to be familiar with real teenagers. Obviously in such in a Friday film the majority of the cast are just there to be Jason fodder, but the screenplay actually does bother to try and give all the characters some individual stories of their own. Certainly a lot of these are merely sketched in, such as the tension between Sam and Paul over his attraction to one of the twins, and the tentative romance between Sara and Doug. But these little touches make the characters believable and the group of teens a realistic dynamic. Plus they are not saddled with a pair of aging potheads in a ‘why they hell are they there?’ fashion.
Some of the group may be a little anonymous but the script avoids the tar-pit Part 3 sunk into -reducing the cast to a bunch of archetypal clichés i.e. The Goofy Joker, The Good Girl, The Bitch & The Smug Bastard Who Walks On His Hands. Indeed the script actually sets up two possible Final Girls and a number of potential male survivors, ensuring a pleasing element of suspense. It’s one of the challenging entries in the series for the game of Who Dies Next – admittedly it’s not massively taxing to guess correctly but it’s refreshing that Zito and co made the effort not to be totally predictable.
But where the film shines is the characters it follows most closely – Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman), Ted (Lawrence Monoson) and Jimmy (Crispin Glover). The mere fact that I’ve bothered to credit the actors should give you a clear indication of how well the characters work. Ted and Jimmy have a convincing friendship in the film with real chemistry in the performances. The script deftly captures exactly the kind of banter between guys their age and avoids the stereotypical jock and his nerdy friend path. They have real character and heart and are scripted as if they were in a John Hughes movie. But best of all we get to The Glover throwing some shapes!
Now when you’ve all stopped laughing, I’d like to point out that Zito doesn’t play it as a comedy scene – rather we have a rather accurate portrayal of a young fella trying and rather making a mess of pulling some cool moves to impress a lady. Perhaps only Crispin Glover could ever capture the required mix of weird gawkiness and attempted cool. It’s nice touch of verisimilitude which in the hands of other directors would have descended in slapstick. And, for you trivia fans out there, apparently the music in this scene was originally AC/DC’s mighty ‘Back In Black’ – and believe me it’s well worth the bother of syncing it up! Start the track at the 5 second mark of the above clip and watch the fireworks!
Corey Feldman also turns in a great performance; he’s cute without being cloying, smart without coming over as a wise ass, and most crucial for a child actor, natural. His character hits the right marks and come off as charming and relatable rather than an annoying brat. It’s often claimed that Tommy hobby of monster making is a homage to Savini – and indeed the masks and creatures that fill his room are mostly from Savini’s own works. But actually in addition to providing a plot point for the final showdown with Jason, Tommy’s love of all things monstrous instantly endears him to the target audience of horror fans.
Also having a family, and specifically a child in the plot adds greatly to the film’s dynamics. Firslty it helps establish a more realistic setting for the action, rather than the usual bubble universe s of slasher film where adults are nowhere to be found and teen do what ever they like. But more importantly we expect that all the teens are fair game for Jason, as are any adult characters who cross his path. But placing a kid in Jason’s sights, and particularly the well drawn and likeable Tommy, significantly ups the levels of threat and the horror quotient, making Jason all the more threatening and monstrous when it becomes clear he has no qualms about butchering children.
It’s exactly this sort of well considered plotting and characterisation that makes this film such a success. You can adhere to the slasher formula as faithfully as you like, but if you neglect the setting and the characters, all the gore and nudity in the world will not prevent your film boring the audience.
Of course, being both a Friday 13th movie and the fourth part of a franchise there are some weak points in the script and perhaps inevitably some plot holes, but mercifully none of the yawning logical abysses of Part 3. One example is that we never see what happened to Mrs Jarvis – we see her encounter an unseen Jason but we are never shown a body later; it feels almost like there is a scene missing here. Another is that Jason seems to get away with dispatching the teens in the holiday house without anyone else hearing a sound – although to be fair this is a classic suspension of the normal laws of sonics prevalent in horror movies.
The big plot niggle however is the film’s timeline. Conventional wisdom holds that the events in this movie take place the day after Part 3, which leads to awkward questions about Rob, a character who has come to Crystal Lake to seek revenge on Jason who killed his sister in the previous massacre. If this is the day after, he must be particularly revenge fuelled to leave his family’s side so soon and why are his newspaper clippings – some of which presumably from that morning’s paper - so tatty.
However the film never actually explicitly states it is the day after. It makes more sense to assume that a few days at least have elapsed since the end of Part 3, and would explain why Tommy doesn’t get more of a roasting for leaving the door unlocked after there’s been a mass murder down the road the day before. But the bottom line is I’m inclined to forgive this logical lapse purely on the ground that the script succeeds on most other levels.
There is one other problem with Rob though. I did feel that the movie somewhat fumbled his story’s conclusion. Considering he’s been set up as the avenging hard man, he goes down very easily. Which in itself is no bad thing, but it’s a bit of a missed opportunity. I think they could have set up more effectively as a surprise twist. And we certainly didn’t need as much dialogue from him while Jason’s killing him – “Aargh he’s killing me!” is perhaps the dumbest line in the movie and stands out in a script that has largely avoided such lazy hokum.
With Savini back on board, obviously the make-up effects are to notch. Sadly a lot of his work has suffered from the censors’ scissors, but the scenes left in still pack a punch. As it stands, as the cuts are generally to the earlier gore set pieces, and so we are left with the most graphic splatter in the final act. This gives the movie an decent curve of escalating mayhem which culminates in the grand guinol killing of Jason. In Going Pieces – The Rise & Fall of the Slasher Film, Savini reports that audiences went berserk when they saw his epic tableaux of Jason falling face first onto the machete and sliding down the blade. And you can still see why today – it’s a fantastic effect and a satisfying piece of poetic justice for the villain.
And speaking of the villain, it time for our traditional look at Jason himself. As you’d expect with his creator Savini on the makeup duties, this Jason is easily the best so far. He’s still powerfully built but the lumbering quasi-hunchback look is gone, and rather than the rather pink and rubbery flesh as been replaced with a far creepier frog belly white skin and nasty blackened fingernails. And he’s far better served by the script, rather being seemingly retarded he’s smart, cunning and menacing. In The Final Chapter, he moves with swift shark-like deliberation instead of shambling about as he did in Part 3.
As mentioned earlier that he’s as keen to kill Tommy as anyone else really ups his villainy and fear factor. But it also nicely scotches the myth that his killing is a form of punishment on teens indulging in the old sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Also this is probably the last time we see Jason portrayed truly as the evil monster. Sure, he doesn’t have a road to Damascus style conversion, mends his ways and I looks after injured wood land animals in later films, but by his resurrection in Friday 13th Part 6: Jason Lives, he definitely become the anti-hero, the monster the audience loves.
And speaking of resurrections… Yes it the Dead or Alive question again. Now if previous entries have had fans debating Jason’s status, in this entry things become really murky! At the film’s start he is seemingly dead. Now the Alive camp could argue that he’s just in death-like coma, but there’s a fantastic shot when his (possible) corpse in placed into the morgue cabinet. Just before the door closes, we see a sudden plume of breath arise in the frosty air. Is it normal breathing returning to our hockey masked friend or him literally getting a second wind?
Of course such questions don’t really matter – what is important though is zombie or not, he does die at the film’s close. Not only do we have the marvellous Savini shish- kebab bonce sequence, but after this when he is showing signs that even this isn’t doing to stop him, Tommy Jarvis does thing we’d all do if faced with a slasher villain… Keep hacking at the creepy masked bastard, just be sure he can’t pull that “Haha I’ll not dead routine!” and impale us with a sharp implement of his choice.
Again it’s the great combination of action, character and performance that make this one of the most satisfying Jason defeats in the series. An iconic monster like Jason needs an equally iconic death in the last reel. And it also nicely sets up the interestingly downbeat ending. It’s a final nod to reality, showing us that triumphing over Jason has come at a great cost.
Friday 13th – The Final Chapter is one of the finer entries in the series and indeed one of the better slashers of the period. In many ways is it quite predictable, but while it doesn’t break new ground, it does deliver the fun and thrills in a deft fashion. Indeed this film’s strengths ensured the best yet box office figures and predictably the franchise would return again…