Friday, 27 March 2009

Friday 13th Retrospective Part 2 - Miner to Major

WARNING - There will be spoilers and there will be blood!

When Friday 13th opened in theatres the critical response was pretty much unanimous – Cunningham’s movie was derided as a new low for cinema. One reviewer, in an act of ass-hattery that today would lead to serious legal action, even published Betsy Palmer’s home address and instructed his readers to send her hate mail for appearing in such a tawdry flick. Critics loathed it, self-appointed moral guardians condemned it, and parents were outraged. But the kids loved it and box office returns far exceeded the dreams of its makers.

So naturally a sequel was quickly put into production. Interestingly, the original idea was to make a movie unrelated to the first but hinging upon another tale of terror taking place on the titular date – a concept that would later be attempted by the Halloween franchise with the much-maligned Halloween III – Season of the Witch. However this idea was swiftly vetoed and studio bosses, no doubt with an eye on the success of 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, decided that continuing the story was a better option. And it was producer Phil Scuderi who came up with the idea that the sequel should centre around Jason…

It’s often claimed that this franchise simply remade the same film over and over again. But Friday 13th Part II does differ from the original; admittedly it’s not wildly different – it’s still basically teens die screaming with sharp things in their heads – but the formula has evolved. There is no attempt at a murder mystery plot here; an early scene sees Paul recounting the legend of the Crystal Lake killings, leaving the audience in no doubt that the unseen killer in the prologue was Mrs Voorhees’ little boy. And while we still get the POV shot games, we also get to see Jason with an Elephant Man style bag on his head carrying out the killings.

And Part II adds the missing term “masked killer” to the slasher equation. In this respect, it could be said that Part II is actually more of a Halloween rip-off than the first is. Certainly in losing the whodunit angle, we have a movie that far better fulfils the original’s remit of doing Halloween but with extra gore.

However just as the first movie drew more on Psycho than Carpenter’s film, Part II also delves further back into horror history and borrows from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There's some minor lifts in that, like Tobe Hooper’s film, Part II features a wheelchair bound character that nicely breaking audience expectations, gets killed. And final girl Ginny even attacks Jason with the iconic power tool. However it's the last act’s extended chase sequence through the woods where you can really see the Chainsaw influence.

Now the 2009 remake did pick up some flak from fans who felt that Jason was being turned into Leatherface. But in this film, Jason’s debut as slasher, there are clear parallels with Hooper’s psychopath. To begin with both are essentially scary rednecks and are both characterised as being child-like to the point of retarded. In terms of movement, Jason resembles Leatherface far more than Michael Myers - another common complaint about the remake was the fast Jason, but in this film he runs and scrambles after his prey. Finally his tumble-down shack in the woods with his mother’s decayed head on an altar surrounded by corpses echoes the death fetish décor of the Sawyer’s home.

It’s quite interesting to note how different Jason is in this movie. His portrayal as a degenerate backwoods psycho, complete with dungarees, plaid shirt and special pitchfork attacks, is a far cry from the calm killing machine of later films. The sack he wears may not be as iconic as the hockey mask but it is marvellously suggestive – the fact that there’s only one eye hole cut in it really has you wondering what the hell is under there. But importantly, this treatment of the character conveys the sense that Jason is a seriously mentally defective man, and this edge of reality makes him all the more very menacing.

And because Jason works so well in this incarnation, I quite understand why they retained so much of it in the remake. As we’ve already seen several criticisms stem directly from the influence of this movie’s Jason, and there is one more that needs to be mentioned. In the 2009 version, Jason uses the occasional traps, which have had fans howling in protest. But I would direct you to Scott’s death in Part II – after his stalkery clothes stealing, he blunders into a rope snare which leaves him hanging upside down and promptly gets his throat slit. Now although in his dialogue, he blames Paul and ‘his wilderness bullshit’, I think there’s a case to be made that Jason laid the trap. Firstly, the training courses haven’t actually started yet and it makes no sense for Paul to leave traps randomly lying around the camp. And secondly, this movie is big on set ups – plot devices such as the spear, chainsaw and Ginny’s unreliable car are introduced well before time – hence I tend to think that if we are expected to think that the rope trap was set by Paul, we’d have been shown it being done.

But what of the movie itself I hear you cry! Well new director Steve Miner, a man with a career that can only be generously described as patchy, acquits himself pretty well. The pace of the movie is noticeably quicker and slicker than its predecessor. The original runs at a typical 1970’s pace with a long set-up before the mayhem begins. However Part II kicks right into the action with the prologue where Jason despatches Alice. Operating at classic slasher tempo, you are never too far away from some action, with Miner steadily building up the pace and delivering a thrilling 20 minute finale with Jason hunting down Ginny. And like Cunningham before him, he lenses a lot of shots that convincingly emphasise the wilderness setting, hitting that important sense of isolation.

The killings are effective though there’s nothing as memorable as the deaths of Kevin Bacon or Betsy Palmer in the first film, which I suspect was more to do with concerns over the MPAA than Carl Fullerton replacing Tom Savini. And even so, cuts were made to ensure the movie got a certificate. I don’t know whether it was due to the censoring of the kills, but Miner has the final shot of the kill scenes burn out to white which is a nice stylistic flourish.

Also I think on balance that the characters have more depth than the first movie and the performances are a cut above too. Now obviously we’re not talking Mike Leigh stylings here, but they behave more like real people than the average shreddie, and the script does attempt to make the kids likeable (something we’ll be seeing a lot less of in future instalments). Ginny (Amy Steele) in particular is an excellent final girl, who instead of the usual hapless falling over and screaming, demonstrates courage, intelligence and determination. The final face-off between her and Jason in the shrine to Mrs Voorhees is sheer class - her stratagem to defeat him by impersonating his mother works well as the script has bothered to flesh out her background in child psychology.

Among fans, it’s often a toss-up between this and the first for the crown of best Friday movie. Indeed, many prefer Part II for it’s quicker pace, higher production values and scary depiction of Jason. Personally I think it’s nearly the better film but for a couple of niggles…

First up there’s the oft debated question about Jason. Is he alive or dead? In the context of this movie (and despite later instalments appear to contradict it), I think you have to conclude that he is alive and his appearance at the end of the first film was a dream or hallucination. But if he didn’t really die in 1958, how the hell has he survived in the woods so long? And why didn’t he ever contact his beloved mother? Especially considering how she’s been lurking around Camp Crystal Lake setting fires and murdering counsellors all these years. However if you ponder why he wears a mask and/or the version of his ‘death’ from Freddy Vs Jason, you can construct a rationale for why he disappeared into the wild woods and spurned human company. But at the end of the day, it’s not that big a plot hole and the movie moves fast enough so you don’t really have time to question it.

That is, unless you think he’s dead, in which case you’ve got a huge gaping continuity abyss to deal with. According to Paul, Alice disappeared 2 months after the end of the first movie so how in the name of Christ did he grow from a scabby kid into a full grown redneck mutant giant in just 60 days? Did he send off for one of those muscle building courses advertised in comic books and really go for it???

But ignoring the questions of revenge-fuelled zombie metabolisms and the abilities of the disabled to survive in forests unaided, my major quibble with Part II is the ending. Like the first, they go for the “phew its all over …. OH SHIT IT AIN’T!” final shock. However in this case it’s a bit botched. Although having Jason burst into the cabin in his unmasked glory is a great jump scare and looks terrific, the problem is we see him dragging off Ginny. But then Ginny awakes and Paul is missing, which leaves us wondering what the hell happened. Instead of a disturbing final mystery, we are left with an annoying question. The scene isn’t set up well enough to make sense of it as a dream – there’s no clear point at which it could have started - and you can’t help thinking why didn’t they just have Jason grab Paul.

But quibbles aside, this movie is the textbook slasher. It delivers the same suspense and thrills as the first but does enough differently to deserve to be called ‘Part II’. In short, it delivers everything a good sequel should.

And it has been claimed that this movie’s success was a contributing factor in the ‘80s outbreak of sequelitus. Even though the late 70’s had given us follows ups to blockbusters like Jaws and The Godfather, it’s worth noting that this flick predates even Halloween 2. So it’s fair to say that Friday 13th Part II opened the way for making sequels to smaller genre-based movies.

And of course, it gave the world Jason, who audiences were to keen to see him return. Hence work began on a 3rd instalment and Steve Miner, having done a bang up job on Part II, was called upon to helm it. What could possibly go wrong?

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Hammer Please Don't Hurt Them!

There are many books on Hammer films, a veritable shelf-load in fact, not to mention the countless magazine articles and retrospectives that have appeared over the years. And if you’re already a Hammer fan you could probably recite a history of the studio in your sleep by now. But if you’re just getting into the Hammer oeuvre, you are faced with a perplexing array of titles. However for both fans old and new, I’d heartily recommend Wayne Kinsey’s Hammer Films – The Bray Studios Years.

Covering the years between 1953 and 1967, this volume presents an in-depth look at the history of England’s most blood soaked studio. Largely the story is told through quotes from the people involved with Kinsey providing all the necessary background and commentary. We get a wealth of detail on the production of the movies themselves, from how the scripts developed right through to their release and box office impact.

And this oral history approach really brings the story to life; often behind the scenes books can get a little dry and bogged down in technical issues, but hearing the details from those involved neatly avoids this. You get a clear picture of the personalities involved, a real insight into the life of a working film studio and some simply marvellous anecdotes. For example, did you know that Peter Cushing regularly used to consult his doctor and ensure that the correct surgical instruments were on show in the Frankenstein films? Or that Christopher Lee used to sing opera duets while getting his monster make-ups applied?

And on the subject of make-ups, this book doesn’t skimp of the details of the effects used. There’s a great deal of material from make-up wizards Phil Leakey and Roy Ashton and special effects maestros Les Bowie and Ian Scoones. In this age of CGI saturation, it’s wonderful to read about the craft of proper old school practical effects. These guys were often being asked to do things no one else had ever done before and have to do it under severe constraints of time and budget. Their dedication and invention really shine through and you'll look with fresh admiration at their work on screen.

However the real jewels in this book are the details of Hammer’s frequent run-ins with the censors. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, film studios did not merely present their films to the likes of BBFC and MPAA for certification; it was common practice to submit the script to the censors before filming! Now in the case of Hammer Films there was a lot of haggling over what the censors would allow them to show on screen. And thanks to Kinsey’s amazing work, we can read the full correspondence between the studio and the BBFC censors. The Hammer execs would nearly always argue the toss over every single cut and really push the envelope as far as they could. And often some of the censors’ remarks are very funny – for example on the script of the 1960 feature Terror of the Tongs, BBFC script reader Audrey Field wrote:

“It will be seen that this is basically Boy’s Own Paper stuff, transformed into Criminal Lunatic’s Own Paper stuff by the addition of some recherché brutalities”

But aside from being amusing, the interchanges between Hammer and the censors give an intriguing view into past social attitudes on sex and violence in the media. For example, with the psycho-thriller Paranoiac (1962) the BBFI was not concerned by the violence but the fact that some of the scenes of mayhem took place in a chapel. This BBFC material alone, which has not been covered in any other volumes, make it one of the best biographies available on the studio. Kinsey deserves high praise for this exhaustive and unique research.

Of course this isn’t the full history of Hammer, but Kinsey has written a companion book which charts the rest of the studios life - Hammer Films – The Elstree Studio Years - which needless to say, I’ll be tracking down as soon possible.
Overall this is a brilliant book on Hammer, whether you're a novice or an old hand. Highly recommended!

Sunday, 22 March 2009

New Look!

As my reviews have been getting longer of late, I thought it was high time for a redesign. Hopefully the new layout will be alot easier on the old eyeballs!

Friday, 20 March 2009

Friday, 13 March 2009


So after literally decades in development hell, Alan Moore’s epic Watchmen has finally made it to the silver screen. Over the years, the likes of Joel Silver, Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass have been attached to the project with projected casts that have included Arnold Schwazernegger, Simon Pegg, Sigourney Weaver, Daniel Craig, Jude Law, and Joaquin Phoenix. And now in the hands of Zack Synder, it’s finally arrived.

Generally the phrase ‘comic book adaption’ is a bit of a misnomer. Apart from a few movies that are based on stand alone graphic novels such as A History of Violence or Road To Perdition, usually a movie will not actually be adapting a comic but translating a character into cinema. Generally a movie will take the sharacters, villains and props of a comic and then create a new story around them. Sure, some of the comic book movies, such as the X-men or Spiderman franchises have drawn upon story arcs from the books but only rather loosely - they haven’t actually set out to adapt a specific set of issues. ‘Comics character movies’ would be a more accurate description for this type of movie.

However in the case of Watchmen this is exactly what the film makers have done. Rather than using the source material as a template, they have adapted Moore and Gibbons’ work as you would a classic novel or a play. And the key word here is ‘classic’; there are many literary adaptations which play equally as fast and loose with the source material as the average superhero flick and seemingly the effort to faithfully follow the original increases with the work’s perceived status.

Now let me put my cards on the table – I’m a long time Moore fan and originally read Watchmen as it came out issue by issue. Since then I’ve read it countless times, to point that whole sections are now indelibly burnt into my brain. And this is an important point, as I think there’s a big difference in how you view the movie if you are familiar with the original comic.

Knowing the graphic novel so well, I can only really judge the film as an adaption of it. As with most movie versions of classic books, you tend to think that if it’s well made with a decent cast and they stick to the text it should work. However all too often Hollywood thinks it knows better, changes all and sundry, and you end up wondering why they bothered paying for the rights in the first place.

And how faithful is Watchmen? Unbelievably is the short answer. It’s not just the most faithful adaptation of a comic but perhaps one of the most accurate screen versions of any novel. I was frankly astounded to how much of the original was there up on the screen. There are shots that are panel for panel from the comics – they have pretty much used the original graphic novel as a storyboard. The casting is spot on – it’s uncanny how close the actors resemble Gibbons’ art. And there are some wonderful performances that really nail the characters – Jackie Earle Haley is simply stunning as Roschach, he even sounds exactly like how I’ve always ‘heard’ him in the comic.

Yes there are some minor changes but nothing egregious. I’m happy with the redesigned costumes –many superhero outfits they need a bit of work to look good in real life - and inevitably some elements of the original have been compressed in the movie. Even the much debated loss of the comic’s alien death squid is only a minor alteration – in effect the change is only really a cosmetic detail as the ending of the movie is still the same.

This is an incredible adaption. Synder and co have gone to astonishing lengths to translate the comic into cinema. And perhaps the ultimate example of this is Nixon’s nose. One thing that keeps cropping up in reviews is the Cyrano de Bergerac style hooter Tricky Dick is sporting. When you see it, you feel like one of the cast of Roxanne and expect Henry Kissinger to jump up and shout “Keep that guy away from my cocaine!”. Apart from “Christ, you could have some one’s eye out with that!”, the general reaction is to assume the make-up guy lost a bet with God. However, if you look at the original art…

… you can see that Gibbon’s draws Nixon in an almost caricature style. And rather than having just run out of cash for a better nasal prosthesis, Synder has chosen to follow the original art’s lead.

Naturally there has been a great deal of fanboy carping about the changes, but what has really fascinated me with the critical reaction to Watchmen is the repeated claim that it’s actually TOO faithful! Now what the hell is that about? No seriously, what the fuck is that about?

Now I can understand that if you go to see this epic expecting another Iron Man, you’ll probably come out thinking it was too slow in places and far too long. But should Synder have butchered the source material to deliver more action? Of course not, the fact is it’s not that kind of story and if you think it should be, you’ll have the same pacing issues with in the original.

That said though, I do think the movie misses a couple of beats in its pacing. I did feel that some scenes could have had a little more impact. But this is a nitpicking issue, the scenes still work and mainly the movie maintains a decent pace and flow. And I heavily suspect that the missing beats will appear in the DVD directors cut.

Which brings me to another important point – what is in currently playing in theatres is not the complete package. Essentially what we have here is a similar situation to Lord of The Rings, with the definite version being the DVD cut rather that what was shown in the cinema. Now with regards to Watchmen, remember how much the extra scenes in the DVD version of The Two Towers added to the film, particularly the material about Boromir’s past? Well I’m guessing the disc version of Watchmen will be adding scenes that have a similar strengthening effect to the story and characters rather than dragging for the sake of it. (The extended cut of Jackson's King Kong - I’m looking at you!)

Plus aside from a director’s cut, there also going to be an Ultimate cut which will incorporate the Tales From The Black Freighter (which is currently available separately) and God knows what else into the main body of the film. Interestingly when Terry Gilliam pulled out of the director’s chair, he stated that his main reason was that he felt you could only really adapt Watchmen as a 5 hour mini-series … and by my reckoning the Ultimate cut will not be far off that!

So bearing in mind that really the final judgement of Watchmen can only come with the disc release, how does the current version stand up? Well I loved it. It’s not perfect but its damn close. Again I’ll point out that I’m judging this as an adaption – and as such it is an amazing piece of work. Yes, there are some minor niggles but I do think that these will be fixed in the disc version. And also, in true armchair director style, there are things I’d have done differently. But the movie works and there’s more of the original material brought life than I ever thought was possible.

Lord alone knows what the average moviegoer unfamiliar with the graphic novel will make of it, but if you set aside your expectations of the usual super heroics and can go with it, you’ll find much to enjoy and a lot of food for thought. I think it’s fair to say that if the movie doesn’t grab you the graphic novel will probably leave you a bit cold too. And if you have read the graphic novel, I think you’ll be amazed by the adaption they have delivered. Zack Synder is often accused of being a style over substance director and that may very well be true, but in the case of Watchmen, in being so faithful to the book he’s doesn’t need substance – Alan Moore has provided that for him.

I think this movie will find a sizeable audience, particularly when it arrives on disc - like the graphic novel, this is a film that repays multiple viewings. I think Watchmen’s biggest problem is that it’s not just another superhero movie, it’s not even an adult and gritty superhero epic – it’s actually a deconstruction of the whole concept of heroes, not to mention mediation on a host of political and social issues. However its biggest asset is that the movie retains all these elements from the graphic novel.

To draw a parallel, Watchmen is to superhero films what Apocalypse Now is to war movies. It’s eccentric pace and strange blend of action and philosophy may well surprise and confuse audiences in the same way Coppola’s film did - both subvert their genres, moving far away from the usual explosions and ass-kicking into territory that will alienate the pop corn crowd. However, if people can see past the costumes, I’m sure this movie will gain a better critical status than the current mixed reactions it’s receiving. And that may take a while, but if nothing else this movie is going to be a cult favourite for years to come. I just hope that, unlike Dollar Bill, it doesn’t get shot with its cape caught in the door to the bank...

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Friday 13th Retrospective Part 1

A little before the release of the Friday 13th remake, I decided it was high time to acquire the full original series. Originally I intended to watch the entire eleven film saga before going to see the new version, but then it struck me that perhaps a better option would be to watch them afterwards. That way if I loved the new film, I’d have a boatload of Jason action to follow it with. And if I hated it there’d be the originals to console myself with. So effectively the ‘watch after’ option promised a win-win situation.

Plus, as I planned to write a retrospective, seeing the new film first would allow for some interesting critical angles. One of things which interests me about the Friday saga is how they developed; unlike a lot of other franchises the formula wasn’t delivered fully formed but gradually evolved through the series. So on this journey from Crystal Lake to deep space, we will be noting where key elements appeared first, and which of them the new film has picked up.

Now before we get started, a few words about my own relationship with this series. Now as a dyed-in-the-wool lover of the weird and macabre, obviously I have a soft spot for this series but I must confess it’s not my favourite horror franchise of all time. I was always more of an Elm Street man back in the day, but Jason does have special place in my heart – after all, like his arch rival Freddy, Mrs Voorhees’ son is a truly iconic monster. And as Freddy Vs Jason proves, they have become the modern equivalent to the classic Universal monsters.

Also I must point out that my previous viewing of these movies is somewhat patchy. Although I’ve seen them all and a few several times over, some I’ve only seen once, and others I’ve not seen in a long time. Plus some of these movies I only saw on worn rental video copies in a room full of people yakkin’ and messing about. Hence I’m looking forward to seeing them all back to back, in the proper order, and in some cases not through a hazy of smoke and ale.

There will be spoilers and there will be blood! So settle back in your armchairs, put Alice Cooper’s He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask) on repeat and step back in time to a little place called Camp Crystal Lake…

FRIDAY 13th (1980)

Now this movie holds a lot of fond memories for me – apart from its huge impact, it was the first modern horror film I ever saw. Indeed it was one of the first movies I ever saw on video. Up until then I’d only seen old movies on TV but the dawn of the video age was about to change all of that. For younger readers, I can’t stress enough what a revolution video was. I know that in these days of downloads, DVD and TV on demand the following all sound like tales of when dinosaurs ruled the earth, but don’t panic, I’m not going to start offering you all Werther’s Originals! The humble home VCR changed everything - if you didn’t see a movie in theatres, or like in this case were too young to be allowed in to see it, you’d missed it and it would be a good few years before it was likely to turn up on television. So suddenly gaining access to movies, that only a few months ago were in theatres, was incredibly exciting. Even more thrilling was that video rental was being picked by garages, off licences and convenience stores - and most of them were only too happy to ignore a movie’s classification, and therefore kids everywhere were waltzing home with adult fare such as Dawn of the Dead, I Spit On Your Grave and Driller Killer.

So when ever I think of this movie, I still vividly recall the massive buzz I got when my mate rang up and said ‘We’ve just got a video player! Wanna come over and watch Friday 13th?”. Man that was so exciting – I was going to see an X film! Thank you space age technology and the lapsed morality of the local rental store!

And needless to say I loved the movie. I was somewhat surprised that generally the gore quotient wasn’t much higher than late Hammer flicks such as Hands of the Ripper, but I was totally blown away when Savini pulls out all the stops with Kevin Bacon’s impaling and the beheading of Mrs Voorhees. However what really impressed me was the atmosphere and suspense; there was a lot more to this film than just the much talked-about splatter, it had a story to tell and built to a truly thrilling climax.

So many years later, would the original hold up? It had been a long time since I last saw it, and I hoped this wouldn’t be one of those occasions where you revisit something from your youth and end up wishing you’d stuck with your original memories of it. And thankfully that wasn’t the case. In fact, I came away rather impressed!

Although director Sean Cunningham and write Victor Miller have both admitted that they conceived this movie as purely as a cash-in on Halloween, in the end they delivered far more than just a cheap knock-off. The easy route would have been to simply to recreate Halloween in a different location, with the biggest creative choice being the new killer’s mask. But Miller’s decision to keep the killer’s identity secret until the finale adds a whole different dynamic to the film. In Halloween we not only know who the killer is right from the start but also his motivations, but in Friday 13th we don’t know the killer’s identity or why it’s all happening. So while Halloween creates its tensions and atmosphere with shocks and jump scares, Friday 13th builds up suspense with its mysteries. The whodunit plot allows Cunningham a broader directorial palette than just rehashing Halloween’s cat and mouse antics. In fact, the film actually owes more to Psycho than Carpenter’s opus. In terms of plot and structure there are many similarities; both are whodunits, Mrs Voorhees’ derangement is pretty much an inversion of Norman Bates’, and Harry Manfredini’s score more than echoes Bernard Herrmann’s famous music to murder girls by.

And although he may be just borrowing from Hitch and Carpenter, I was impressed with Cunningham’s direction. And I didn’t expect to saying that! Not only does he deliver a film with a solid accumulating pace, he actually delivers a fair few shots that go above and beyond the call of duty for an exploitation film. Particularly whenever Crystal Lake is in view, Cunningham has gone out of his way to frame some simply beautiful scenes using the reflections in the water. And considering the low budget and short shooting times you really have to give the guy a lot credit for making the effort. It’s true that Cunningham isn’t a world class director and you could say his motivation for making this movie was purely commercial, if not actually cynical, but in spite all of that the film shows that he approached the actual direction with some artistic vision.

The famous end sequence of the film showcases both this visual flair and his ability to craft a story. A real hack wouldn’t have bothered giving us the memorable set-up shots of the drifting canoe against a backdrop of trees displaying the first touches of autumn, never mind considering to catch the reflections. Equally other journeyman directors would have been content to close the film with the jump scare of Jason leaping out of the water. Cunningham however continues and follows this final scare up in great style with the hospital scene and the “Boy? What boy?’ routine. Again I really didn’t expect to be saying this, but the film’s conclusion shows considerable directorial finesse. He’s delivered a Carrie-inspired final shock to get you jumping out of your seat but then with the coda he attempts something more ambitious; he wants to give the audience one last unnerving chill that will have them nervously looking over their shoulders after they leave the theatre. He pulls in closer and closer through the hospital scene until Adrienne King’s eyes are filling the screen as she delivers the last haunting line “Then he must be still out there…” and dissolves back the placid lake.

It’s not only brilliantly eerie but it also lends weight to the Jason scare as it quite cunningly opens the door for audience interpretation. Although Jason’s appearance was conceived as a nightmare sequence, the coda doesn’t just write it off as ‘it was all a dream!’ which always diminishes a scare. Instead the audience is left wondering “was it a nightmare?” or “Was it Jason’s ghost?” or even “Holy Jesus Living Fuck! Is there a scabby slaphead kid living in that fucking lake?!?”

It’s also important to remember that no one was expecting this movie to be that successful, let alone make enough money to warrant making a sequel. When this movie was made sequels were generally not nearly as common as they are today, and at this point no one was even talking about a follow-up to the mighty Halloween - indeed it was only the slew of imitators that kick-started the development of a sequel. So Friday 13th’s ending was constructed this way purely for the sake of freaking out the audience.

And I’d suggest that it’s the finale that really made this movie. In his epic ramble through the horror genre Danse Macabre, Stephen King defines three categories of scares:

"The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there..."

Now the climax of Friday 13th scores a triple whammy. First we have the gross-out of Mrs Voorhees beheaded, then the horror of Jason rising from the depths and finally the terror of the “what if?” close. Cunningham and Miller not only hit all three, but got them in the most effective order too, ensuring that their movie would linger in the minds of the audience long after the countless other Halloween clones had been forgotten. And as we’ll see later, subsequent movies in the series attempted to replicate the success of this ending but failed to grasp the key elements that made it work so memorably.

And speaking of key elements, what is established in this first film? To begin with the most important thing is the bare bones of the formula laid out here –

teens + killer x gore + nudity = box office hit

This is the template not only for the rest of the series (including the remake) but for the slasher genre as a whole. But note that there’s still a key phrase in the equation missing. Can you tell what it is yet? We’ll come back to this in Part II…

Admittedly the amount of flesh on show here is coy by today’s standards and even tame compared with the grindhouse pictures of the time. Quite possibly Cunningham had his eye on the mainstream market and so resisted the temptation to shoot as many bare breasts as possible, but the concept is still definitely there.

Similarly the gore is pretty restrained compared to the splatter that soaked subsequent movies. Now this wasn’t just down to the advances in special make-up effects pioneered in the ‘80s; Tom Savini had already provided some jaw dropping gore in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. But Romero’s movie had gone out unrated by the MPAA – a risky proposition for any film-maker. So considering that the point of making Friday 13th was to emulate Halloween’s box office success, you can understand why there wasn’t more gore.

Also it’s worth noting that the actual kills are fairly straightforward in this movie. They are mainly all slashings and stabbing and even the standout deaths, such as Kevin Bacon’s impaling and the beheading, though stunning are still treated as realistic murders. It’s only in later films do we get the gimmicky set-piece kills with odd implements being utilised and Jason punching holes in people.

But despite these qualifiers the formula elements are definitely in place, including the most iconic of all – the use of the killer’s POV. This is one of the biggest steals from Halloween, although to be fair it wasn’t exactly new when Carpenter got his hands on it. But it is one of the defining structures of any slasher movie. And aside from it’s ‘straight’ usage to, this first movie uses it to toy with the audience – sometimes when we think we are being shown the unseen assailant stalking the shreddies, it turns out that it’s actually just one of the other characters. It’s a classic fake-out, one that ranks right up there with the spooky noise turns out to be the family pet routine, and we’ll see it turn up many times later in the series and indeed countless other slasher flicks.

The next key feature is isolation. As Victor Miller explains in His Name Was Jason the camp deep in the countryside provides a plausible reason for the kids to be alone and for the authorities to be too far away to save them. And more generally, a small band of characters cut off from the rest of society is a classic trope in not only horror movies but thrillers and action-adventure films; any plot threat soon loses its credibility if the characters can just hop on a bus and get the hell out of there.

This feature is well set up in the first movie. As well as the afore mentioned artistic shots of the surrounding landscape emphasising the remote location, other features such as the hitch-hiking girl’s death also establish how far away from the rest of civilisation Camp Crystal Lake is. Later films didn’t pay nearly as much attention to the plot’s geography – indeed as the series progresses Crystal Lake becomes a very crowded place. But love it or hate it, one thing the remake got right was recreate the same sense of wilderness of this first film.

Finally we come to the last key element – Jason himself. This movie sets down the classic mythos for the series, establishing the origin story. Interestingly though, considering how Part 2 and subsequent sequels have Jason as the killer, it could be argued that in terms of narrative that this movie feels more like a prequel. Considering how this year’s reboot chose to set up the mythos, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are tentative plans to do a straight remake of the original as a prequel at some point.

However the big fan-divider with the story presented in the original is whether Jason is alive or dead. And to be fair, the series as a whole isn’t sure itself – the earlier films are going with the idea that he was only presumed dead, but once we have zombie Jason the later films seem to switch to the idea that he did die and rose again with the death of his mother.

This was one aspect of the saga, I was very intrigued to see how the reimagining would handle. As it turns out, they fudge the issue – when we get the camp fire retelling of the tale, all that’s stated is “that Jason came back” – so we still have the same question of whether he died or survived. Presumably these details were left vague to allow narrative room for future resurrections but I’d also suspect they were trying to please all the fans of the franchise – after all Friday fans can be divided as to whether they prefer Jason as mutant mountain man or rotted revenant. (I’m just glad there’s isn’t a sizeable fan base for the death worm from Hell variant…)

However to get back the original, I think the ambiguity works well in context. Although in the terms of the series it leaves the kind of continuity holes that drive fanboys round the twist, looking at this film in isolation, it doesn’t matter whether he’s alive or dead, and it adds a pleasing final mystery to the conclusion.

So then to wrap up at last … Bet you didn’t think I’d find so much to write about did ya? No, nor did I! But that I think is testament to how good this movie actually is. Although it may seem slow moving compared to modern films or even later entries in the series, I think this works in its favour - remember it’s actually a more of a murder mystery than the usual slasher fare, so the extended focus on the characters and the slow build towards the climax is very fitting for this type of story. And it’s refreshingly different from what you expect from either the franchise. In many ways, it’s only in Part 2 that the series ventures fully into the slasher genre…

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

CHIN STROKER VS PUNTER – Who will survive and what will be left of them?

We’re back to the wonderful world of podcasts and this time we’re looking at Chinstroker vs Punter (or CvP as I’ll be referring to it from here on in). It’s another UK-based film review show and appears roughly fortnightly. But rather than a round-up of the latest releases hitting the theatres, CvP takes an in-depth look a single film. And they have a killer twist which is the show’s title encapsulates.

For those of you unfamiliar with the vagaries of UK slang, allow me to explain. “Chin stroker” is a mildly derogatory term for an intellectual, whereas a ‘punter’ is the ordinary guy in the street. So then in this ‘cast, we have our genial hosts discussing and arguing the merit of a movie from these perspectives – Mike as an ex-film student is the chin stroker, and Paul represents the punter massive.

Each episode sees them take turns to select a film for dissection. And dissect they certainly do, in great detail - it’s not uncommon for the shows to run as long as the film under discussion. The format generally is to go through the movie from start to finish, commenting and criticising along the way. And while certainly helps to be familiar with the works under the microscope - and be warned that the shows are spoiler-heavy - the discussions are always interesting and entertaining in their own right.

The show’s pretension versus popcorn approach ensures some fascinating debates and part of the fun is guessing how divisive of the show will be. And aside from the polarities of viewpoint, the guys present a wealth of background detail on the films. The show uncovers a great many little known facts and production anecdotes which will delight any movie buff.

The alternating picks also deliver a varied and diverse of menu of cinema. One week we could be looking at arthouse, and another venturing into the relams of schlock. And the boys are not above throwing in the odd curveball – for example, Paul recently selected the classic Powell and Pressburger Black Narcissus.

However if all the above sounds like a little dry, I must point out that this is a very funny show. Often recording under the influence of the old vino collapso, there’s frequent hilarious outbursts and digressions. Generally when listening to an episode of CvP, you’ll be alternately marvelling at the excellent critiques and rolling on the floor with laughter.

Recently they have done a cross-over episode with one of my other favourite movie podcasts Cinerama, and the boys will be joining Ian again soon for a Watchmen spectacular.

This is a great ‘cast with a winning combination of insight and humour.

Find the latest shows here

The older shows are archived at

And there's a blog at

So open a bottle of red wine and join the party!