It’s not that there’s nothing to appreciate in the venerable, once-shocking Friday the 13th franchise. It’s just that everyone involved in the series did everything conceivable to keep us from taking it seriously. Enter Friday the 13th Part III (originally released in 3D).
With the original installment producer and director Sean S. Cunningham never shy about admitting his 1980 slasher was a blatant attempt to cash in on the unprecedented financial success of John Carpenter’s still-outstanding 1978 indie horror Halloween, yet the first two films in the Friday the 13th series were creditable imitators. With the twist ending of the first film faking out moviegoers who were primed to see the introduction of another seemingly indestructible masked killer akin to Carpenter’s Michael Myers, by revealing the slasher to be the mad mom of a child left to drown by neglectful counselors at Camp Crystal Lake, Cunningham at least put some effort into his rip-off.
With the mother dispatched and presumed long-dead camper Jason Voorhees inexplicably emerging as the series’ silent, stalking antagonist going forward, the next year’s Friday the 13th Part 2 (directed by Cunningham protege Steve Miner) also made a creditable effort at toying with the already serially wearing-thin slasher formula. Along with the requisite higher body count, the sequel introduced not just Jason (concealing his deformed visage under a flour sack inspired by 1976’s The Town That Dreaded Sundown) as the seemingly back-from-the-dead killer, but also the long-running series’ best so-called “final girl” in Amy Steel’s Ginny.
In the genuinely intense finale, the stalwart Ginny, introduced as a student of child psychology, manages to distract hulking mama’s boy Jason by donning his dead mother’s clothing and playing on the murderous man-child’s devotion to nearly disarming him, eventually managing to survive the movie-long slaughter.
Naturally, the ubiquitously lucrative slasher genre needs to leave the door open for the next sequel. (After the second possible dream sequence in a row, we’re still not certain whether Ginny’s colorless boyfriend Paul is alive or dead.) This may be a cliche now — and even was becoming one in 1981 — but fans of faceless, implacable slashers/killers were on board.
Miner returned to helm the third installment, released another year later, but this time, the now-also-on-board minds at Paramount thought that Friday the 13th needed novelty to keep the box office rolling in. And with the every-30-years gimmick of 3D projection reigniting, it was determined that what the franchise needed was for audiences to shriek and duck away from now three-dimensional horrors.
Assessing the Friday the 13th series is an exercise in placing it in time and place, recognizing its enormous influence and impact, perhaps analyzing some of the themes and undercurrents even the people involved were less than occupied with, and, most importantly, not succumbing to scoffing at what quickly became one of the most programmatic and predictably exploitative franchises in movie history. The first two films were hardly classics of the genre, but they were competently made, the characters (with actors drawn from the New York theater scene) were above average for the genre and there was some thought expended on the motivations of the first two killers. Mother Pamela was a townie summer camp cook whose grief spurred her to horrible, misguided vengeance once Camp Crystal Lake was reopened. And, as nonsensical as Jason’s reemergence was in the sequel from a narrative logic or time-frame standpoint, Ginny’s midfilm monologue unpacking the pain of the campfire legend of the deformed, drowned little boy shows a willingness to think of Jason as more than just a merchandising gimmick.
Part III, on the other hand, is nothing but red flags. The scrappy, lived-in East Coast vibe of the first two indie outings is swapped for more studio-convenient California locations, complete with a pitifully inadequate Crystal Lake. (Artificially built, the once-naturalistic setting is here a sickly green pond, and the improperly sealed construction kept seeping down to muck.) Switching coasts saw the theater kids swapped out for indifferent, generic TV types, none of whom were helped in their performances by the balky and rudimentary 3D process prioritizing technically usable takes over performance. And it shows, with few of the overpopulated and underdeveloped cast breaking out in a meaningful way.
As for Jason, played for the only time by British stuntman Richard Brooker, the series’ lack of any conception of the character emerges in full force here. A back-story sees Part III’s final girl Chris (Dana Kimmell) remembering a needless and distasteful encounter years before, where she’s pursued, knocked unconscious and, it’s implied, sexually assaulted by Jason. While eventually being left vague (and ultimately retconned away, since Jason’s violent nature is never again shown to have a sexual component), the mercifully discarded idea is indicative of how little thought was expended on just who or what Jason Voorhees was intended to be. In addition, Booker’s Jason both runs and cries out in pain when attacked, something later installments would largely phase out in favor of Jason being more of an unknowable boogeyman figure. (Whether Jason’s acquired ability to seemingly teleport in service of a good jump scare is a better trait for Friday the 13th fans to decide.)
Watch ‘Friday the 13th Part III’ Trailer
It’s here, also, that Jason puts on what would become his most iconic accessory, in the form of a goalie’s hockey mask, of all things. It’s an unexpected and interesting visual once Jason dispatches former wearer and group prankster sad-sack Shelley (Larry Zerner), with the incongruous head wear being the brainchild of 3D supervisor and Detroit Red Wings fan Martin Sadoff. With predecessor Michael Myers famously adopting a doctored William Shatner mask as his murder face, it’s as interesting a choice as any.
But it’s the marketing-forward 3D gimmick that truly turns the franchise in the exact wrong direction, other weaknesses aside. Apart from the too-bright, often out-of-focus cinematography (always anathema to horror), the film’s endless, showy parade of needless 3D stunts turns what had been a flawed but atmospheric slasher series into a squeal-courting freak-show. Among the would-be scares, we get a phony-looking snake attack, camera-assaulting yo-yos and juggled fruit, a baseball bat, a rat, a thrown wallet and an indistinct and unconvincing extracted eyeball, all designed to make moviegoers react like they’re on a carnival ride. Even when the effects are more Jason-forward (a spear gun to the eye, pitchforks, a laughably wire-dependent head squeeze eyeball-pop), there’s no care taken beyond ensuring the projectiles are comin’ at ya. There’s one decent use of the gimmick when, after being head-chopped and hung by Chris, the dangling and seemingly dead Jason lurches his arms straight toward the camera, but, considering the film’s short but interminable 95-minute run time, it’s one inspired, ghoulish touch too late.
In the end, the sideshow aspect of Friday the 13th Part III worked. Doubling Part 2’s budget to $2.5 million, the movie earned over $36 million at the box office. (Although the extensive preparations for theaters to be able to screen Paramount’s revamped 3D process reportedly added millions to the film’s cost.) It even unseated E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the number one spot (noting that Steven Spielberg’s beloved classic had been in wide release for months at that point.) And while the Friday the 13th franchise slashed ahead in the ensuing decades in diminishing commercial and critical returns, Friday the 13th Part III can be pinned as the point where ambition and creativity essentially fled the series, Jason Voorhees’ predations upon increasingly identical and nubile teen dum dums following the uninspired path laid out by this tiresomely derivative outing.
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