Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Friday 13th Retrospective Part 3 - A Flat Miner


Back in the early ‘80s, 3D returned to cinemas and once more foyers were filled with dump bins of cardboard spectacles. The original 3D boom kicked off in 1952 with Arch Oboler’s Bwana Devil – memorably plugged with the line “The Miracle of the Age!!! A LION in your lap! A LOVER in your arms!”. And when the box office receipts flooded in, studios realized that 3D was an ideal way to woo audiences away from the cathode glare of TV and back into theatres. And for several years, they cranked out a plethora of 3D features and thrilled packed houses with classics such as House of Wax, It Came From Outer Space and The Creature From the Black Lagoon. And it was a lesson the industry never forgot…

And today with the movie industry now feeling threatened by home cinema systems and internet movie piracy, the third dimension is coming back in a big way. However at the dawn of the ‘80s, the threat was the humble home VCR and so once again stereoscopy was dusted off to drag the masses’ asses back into cinema seats. This time round the craze turned out to be more a brief fad – by 1984 it was becoming clear that the post Star Wars leaps in special effects technology and a host of FX literate directors like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Joe Dante and Robert Zemeckis meant that audiences would happily flock to see the latest blockbuster in theatres purely to appreciate the spectacle and FX wizardry on a big screen. The creation of the summer blockbuster as a stunts and FX-driven rollercoaster, cinema as a theme park thrill ride, ultimately dispensed with the need for the 3D gimmick.

However back in 1982, studios were gearing up to revive 3D cinema in a big way, hoping to recreate the box office boom of the ‘50s. Now to screen movies in 3D meant a significant outlay for the studios; to begin with you have to ship two prints, then there’s the cardboard specs and finally there’s shelling out to upgrade theatres to be able to show your movie in 3D. And so it’s no coincidence that the 80’s 3D features were dominated by sequels of successful franchises. Paramount chose enter the arena with Friday 13th Part III. After all, 3D had always served genre features well, but no doubt they had one eye of the future. Friday 13th movies were cheap and quick to produce and because they were inexpensive made phenomenal profits back. So they got test audience reaction and get any theatre upgrades out of the way with this movie, and then they would be ready to deliver a 3D entry in their Star Trek franchise. And if it failed, well it was only a cruddy slasher flick in a series that critics hated and thus was something of an embarrassment for Paramount despite the huge profits the movies reaped.

And undoubtedly, the move to shoot in 3D has seriously hamstrung this movie. As well as doing brisk box office business, the Friday 13th franchise has always had a very healthy post-theatre market in video rentals and sales. However until very recently with a new Region 1 DVD edition, this movie has never appeared in 3D on disc or tape. As Mark Kermode has noted, 3D is the pointy genre of film making, and this flick is a textbook case with a lot of thrusting things at the camera.

However watching it flat – as most people will have – what you end up with a movie featuring a host of very odd looking shots. If you didn’t know that this originally was shown in 3D, you’d get the impression that the director was afflicted with sudden bouts of artistic insanity. And if you did, you’re left spotting the scenes that were inserted and/or conceived purely to look cool in 3D, and wondering how they looked.

Now for this Friday marathon, I was very tempted to pick up the new 3D release. However after hearing reviews from the Drunken Zombie and Now Playing podcasts which both reported that the 3D effects aren’t that impressive and the movie now induces headaches, I decided to pass. To be honest this movie is painful enough in 2D.

Back in 1983, when I originally saw Part III on video, this was the flick that moved the franchise off the ‘must see’ list. If the first two movies defined the slasher genre, Part III seemed to define a new formula for the franchise itself – bad actors set killed in badly written scripts. And in comparison to what other horror movies produced at the time were doing, such as the relentless onslaught delivered by The Evil Dead, Carpenter’s jaw-dropping remake of The Thing or even the outright weirdness of Michael Mann’s The Keep, the Friday 13th films, and slashers in general, were beginning to look tired, repetitive and unimaginative.

And needless to say, age has not improved this film. For me, it’s definitely a contender for the title of worst film in the entire franchise. Despite Steve Miner returning to the director’s chair, there was huge quality drop. Obviously shooting in the stereoscopic format took its toll, and I don’t know whether is was due to a lack of time or the limitations of filming in 3D, but the flair Miner showed in Part II is absent. The pace and dynamics are gone and ironically we have a very flatly directed Part III. I remember from reading the various making of features in Fangoria, that the 3D process made a lot of extra work for the crew which might explain this. However a look at Miner’s patchy subsequent filmography shows that we aren’t dealing with a grade A director either.

But in fairness though, the problems with the movie cannot be traced solely to the issues incurred by the use of 3D. The film’s visuals may be somewhat clunky but Miner’s direction is still competent. But what really jars is the script, which considering the quick production time and the added difficulties of Paramount wanting it in 3D, I doubt Miner had either the time or creative power to change. And at the end of the day, a film’s strength really lies in the script – a weak director can make a decent film from a good screenplay but many a world class auteur has been scuppered by working with a poor script.

Now to call Friday 13th Part III’s script a mess is to over dignify a steaming tar-pit of nonsense. To start with, the characters are pure cardboard. Now admittedly, they are only there to be dispatched by Jason but even so they should have at least had some depth. And while the characterizations in the first two films weren’t going to give Mike Leigh sleepless nights, at least they were believable as people, whereas this bunch appears to be written by aliens whose only exposure to teenagers has been through hackneyed TV sitcoms. What little personality they do possess tends to be unlikeable – Andy is a smarmy goon, Shelly just plain irritating and don’t get me started on the cartoon biker gang. But worst of all, whereas Part II gave us Ginny, a final girl who was intelligent and brave, here we have Chris who has as much personality as the average broom handle.

Now by this stage of the series, you could perhaps forgive the lazy characterization on the grounds that all the audience is really interested in is Jason and his antics. But in this film we learn nothing new about him or his mythos; indeed there’s no real reason why he kills in this film. Back in Part II, Jason is killing to carry on his mother’s work and arguably because people are encroaching on his territory. It’s often cited that Jason ‘punishes’ those who indulge in immoral activities such as causal sex, drugs or drinking, however on the basis of this movie we can conclude that Jason will just kill you because you’re there.

Now a maniac who kills anyone crossing his path can still be scary without any backstory or motivation if placed in an effective setting. However the situations dreamed up by Part III’s script really fail to build up any real tension or menace and deliver no surprises. It’s very much a by the numbers exercise – Jason loafs about in a barn, kills everyone in the house next door, cue chase and fight with final girl and wrap up with another dream shock sequence. It’s completely predictable at every turn. For example, inept practical joker Shelly feigns death and instantly you know that when he does get the chop it will be thought of as another joke.

But what torpedoes any possible suspense is that the script is so poor, and consequently it’s not believable in the slightest. The plot is thoroughly riddled with a lack of logic – remember the store keepers Jason slays at the movies opening? Well, I heavily suspect they were Mr and Mrs Script Coherence, as there precious little sense after this. Here’s a few of the *ahem* highlights…

Early on, we get a sequence with Chris and Rick loading hay into the barn and for some inexplicable reason the script tells us that every year Chris’ father buys hay and forgets to purchase the horse to go with it. Why is this scene here? To explain why there’s a barn? Wouldn’t the screen time better been spent recounting or referencing the Jason story thus far?

When Jason is chasing Chili (who clearly can’t really be bothered to actually do any running in her performance), she runs to the front door which suddenly blows open …. And instead of running through it AWAY FROM THE FUCKING MANIAC, she turns round and runs back towards him!

This is immediately followed by a scene Rick and Chris returning from their walk in the woods and has Rick commenting “hey that wind’s really getting up”. Now either this scene should have preceded Chilli’s chase, or the script writers thought they’d better explain the blown open door. Just in case we thought Jason was now a master of the fours winds as well as a possibly undead serial murdering slaphead.

But despite this tendency to helpfully explain things no one gave a toss about in the first place, the writers manage to present the key story thread and make no sense whatsoever. In an attempt to craft a final girl, they set up that Chris is returning to Higgins Haven after a traumatic event occurred there. It’s later revealed that this prior event was an encounter with Jason. Now in the flashback he appears with the same look and outfit as he does in this film, but this continuity gaff isn’t the problem. The trouble is we’re told that Jason catches Chris, who faints and then wakes up in her own bed. What? We’ve already established that if you’re breathing Jason will kill you, so what the hell happened here? Furthermore in the final battle, Jason raises his new-found hockey mask revealing his ugly mug to Chris as if to say “Look! It’s me again!”. Now possibly all of this is a mangled attempt at a Laurie Strode plot and we’re meant to think that Jason comes to Higgins Haven to finish her off, but the rest of the film appears to say that he just ends up here after fleeing the scene of his previous crimes.

The final supposedly scary dream sequence has the corpse of Mrs. Voorhees rising from the lake to menace Chris. Now aside from the questions of who sewed her bonce back on and what’s her corpse doing in the lake anyway, what really makes no sense is why Chris would dream this as there’s no mention of any of the previous film’s murders and no references to Mrs. V herself.

Finally there’s one last logical lapse that will neatly bring us into a discussion of Jason himself in this movie – the hockey mask. Jason acquires his iconic mask from Shelly who is using it in one of his lame japes. Said jape involves coming out of the lake in scuba gear to scare Vera. Now you have to ask why he’s wearing a hockey mask and not a face mask, considering he’s got the rest of the underwater kit, including a working harpoon gun. Perhaps they play underwater hockey where he’s from. And presumably against sharks.

And some people thought the means by which he got his mask in the remake was lame…

However, this is one act of script nonsense we can be thankful for. Otherwise Jason would have spent the next eight films rocking this look…

… Less than iconic, I’m sure you’ll agree.

And so to Jason himself. We’ve already noted the absence of character development bar his new found antipathy to anything he encounters. And he still runs like a bastard, even managing a sprint after being stabbed in the leg. The big change here is his appearance – for some reason Miner and co decided to revamp the character make up. The hairy mountain man look was out, and instead we get a bald Jason. In the previous film, he looked somewhat melted, but here Jason appears more deformed and is somewhat reminiscent of Quasimodo. And if you look closely, they appear to have given him a slight hunch, which leads me to wonder whether they were intending an Esmeralda plot line with Chris. Though knowing this script, the hunchback look might have been inserted to explain his rope swinging in the finale.

Generally I liked his look better in this flick. Firstly it seem to fit in better with the boy Jason Savini created in the first film. And his change of costume away from the hillbilly look works well considering that this film as lost the wilderness atmosphere. In the first two films, Camp Crystal Lake was an isolated place, but here we find there’s also a local store and the farm/holiday home Higgins Haven nearby.

But that said the actual facial design of Jason in this movie doesn’t quite work for me. Partly this is because Jason appears more drooling than menacing, which gives the film a slight whiff of demonizing the handicapped. But mainly, and more damaging for the horror quotient, because he reminds me the Moog from Willo The Wisp

Now separated at birth gormless expressions aside, we should wrap up this look at Jason in Part III with a quick revisit of the old live or dead debate. Now after the machete blow through the chest he received at the close of Part II, by rights he really should be dead if he wasn’t to begin with. Of course movie villains often display scant respect to the laws of biology or medicine, and Jason X mentions that he possesses strange powers of super-regeneration. But for the first half of this movie, Jason does appear to spend a fair amount of time lying low in the barn, so is he is he recuperating here?

But wait, there is a third option! Let’s review the facts – he can regenerate. And he appears to have changed his physical appearance. … The answer is obvious! Jason is a Time Lord!

And so having hit a seam of needless pop culture references, it’s high time to conclude. Basically this movie has little offer really, and if you can invent some spurious reason as to why Jason’s now sporting the hockey mask there’s no real reason why you could skip directly from Part II to the Final Chapter. And I for one would not blame you!

But you would miss out on a couple pieces of excellent comedy splatter. There’s the scene everyone remembers from this flick where Jason squeezes Rick’s head until one of his eyeballs fly out. Also Vera’s death by harpoon is quite fun too – yes I know you can see the wire the harpoon flies down all too clearly but for me that’s part of it’s charm; it’s like getting a glimpse of what Spiderman would be like as a slasher villain.

Despite its many flaws, there is some fun to be had watching this, but only if you’re approaching it as an inadvertent comedy. It’s nearly so bad it’s good with its nonsensical plot, poor acting and cheesy 3D gimmicks. Though I’d stress the ‘nearly’, it doesn’t quite scale the hilarious heights of the likes of Plan 9 From Outer Space or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

In short, this entry sees the series becoming almost a parody of itself. And sadly this movie is exactly what the average movie-goer thinks all the films in the series are like – artless exercises riddled with bad acting and shackled to a tired and predictable formula.

Having descended into clich├ęd sequelitus, to the causal viewer and fans alike the prospect of further films didn’t look promising. However the next film would see the return of Tom Savini to the franchise, and star a dream team of ‘80s icons Corey Feldman and Crispin Glover…

Friday, 3 April 2009

To Major Tom – The Bowie Letters by Dave Thompson

In 1972, a 12 year old boy in Bournemouth, one Gary Weightman, wrote a fan letter to David Bowie. And despite not receiving any form of reply, he wrote again. And again. And has continued to regularly write to his idol throughout his life. To Major Tom is a collection of his epistles to the Thin White Duke written over the next 30 years…

Of course Gary Weightman doesn’t really exist; he’s the creation of author Dave Thompson. But if you’ve ever faithfully followed an artist or a band, you’ll know Gary. Deep inside every music fan’s heart, there’s a Gary Weightman – after all, at some point or other during the impressionable years of youth we’ve all thought of dropping our idols a line. And this book is not so much about Bowie but about the experience of being a life-long fan.

Of course if you are a Bowie believer, you’ll find much to enjoy in this off beat novel. You could say that this book is a kind of fans-eye view biography. However, somewhat cannily, Thompson has Gary write about a good deal more than just fan commentary on the various ch-ch-ch-changes in Bowie’s career. So rather than 12 page dissections of the lyrics of ‘Cygnet Committee’, we get a wider view of the musical world with Gary updating Major Tom on what else he’s listening to and observations on what’s going on in the world of rock. We see the rise and fall of glam, the birth of punk and evolutions of ‘80s stadium rock.

Plus along the way, we get the unfolding story of Gary’s life. In some respects, the book becomes a coming-of-age story as we follow his progress through the teenage years into adulthood. And we also see how his relationship with music evolves and changes over the years. Perhaps inevitably as the decades roll by, Gary’s letters start to become less frequent as the demands of work and raising a family squeeze music into a smaller role in his life.

On one hand, this means that the letters from 1985 onwards don’t have the fizz and sparkle of the earlier ones, and some readers may feel that the novel sort of peters out towards the end. However in terms of character verisimilitude, I think it’s probably only right and proper that the letters of the last few years are increasingly sparse and become more reflective in tone.

Now the obvious end for a book of letters to Bowie would have been for Gary to finally receive a reply. This book’s strength is that Thompson has created an archive of correspondence that you have to remind yourself isn’t real. And so while this would make for a heart-warming big finish, I think Thompson has wisely resisted this; including a final transmission from Major Tom himself could potentially wreck the entire conceit’s realism. To finally receive a letter back at the end would be just too much of a fairytale ending.

However debates over the ending aside, this is a great little book. It's not just Bowie's story but also the story of how music has changed. To Major Tom gets to the heart of what it’s like to be a music fan and will ring a lot of bells for anyone who has ever obsessively hunted down a back catalogue or plastered their room with posters and music press clippings. It's honest, personal and fun just like the music it celebrates.