A Home Video Halloween

10/29/2009 11:22 AM |

Editor’s note: If you’re one of Henry’s nine Twitter followers, you know that he’s been getting himself into the Halloween spirit by watching lots of old horror movies. In this blog post, to put you in a similar frame of mind, he returns to the post-Trick or Treating, pre-drinking years of yore, when Halloween meant meeting up at whoever’s parents’ house had a furnished basement, drinking lots of sugary cola, and watching bad slasher movies on VHS.

Henry’s born and raised in Brooklyn, of course, so these are not actually his memories. But let him join in the fun for once, won’t you?

Halloween II (1981)

John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) is justifiably renowned, I guess: it’s artful and undeniably influential. Still, many of its “innovations” were cribbed from the Italian giallo films (Argento et al.), and Bob Clark was stealing, er, borrowing, from those same Europeans four years earlier, reappropriating their tropes for American screens, when he made the criminally overshadowed Black Christmas (1974). Rewrite the textbooks! Anyway, Halloween, in terms of historical stature, is in a class by itself, and comparing the sequel to it—as critics and audiences often do, dismissively—is unfair. Sure, Halloween II lacks the freshness of its predecessor. But compared to films its own size—such as the sluggish Prom Night (1980)—it’s a goddamn masterpiece.

Though Carpenter handed off directing duties to Rick Rosenthal this time around, he and frequent collaborator Debra Hill lent legitimacy to the affair by penning the screenplay, which—in the tradition of The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)—opens immediately where the first film ended: Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) is taken to a hospital after her climactic battle with boogeyman Michael Myers, who eventually follows, killing nursing staff and EMTs before chasing Ms. Strode through the building’s (absurdly abandoned) corridors.

Rosenthal deserves more credit here than he usually gets: carrying on the formal traditions established in the first film, Halloween II‘s camera work is graceful and unconventional, from the copious P.O.V. shots and long takes to the carefully composed widescreen frames, not to mention the creamy interior lighting. (Credit is also due, obviously, to cinematographer Dean Cundey, a frequent Carpenter collaborator who would go on to work regularly with Spielberg and Zemeckis.) Rosenthal also creates a palpable sense of post-massacre pandemonium: Haddonfield, Ill.—which looks as deceptively idyllic as ever—is full not only of costumed revelers but uncontrollable mobs; the whole town is in a barely contained state of confusion bordering on chaos.

Halloween II may not be a genre game-changer like the film it follows. But the point of transformative films, like Carpenter’s original, is to pave the way for solid imitators, to fashion new paradigms for new filmmakers to function within. That’s what this film is: a second-tier masterpiece.

Friday the 13th Part II (1981)

The Friday the 13th series, on the other hand, is exactly the sort of imitator that can tarnish the legacy of a true original. The first film in this neverending series was a crude cash-in on the Halloween phenomenon, with a little Carrie (1976) poaching for good measure. I haven’t seen the original in many years, but it seems by now most of us agree it’s weak, and that the big twist is a big disappointment. (The recent reboot was a mess, as well.)

Part II, on the other hand, has a soft spot in my heart: it’s the quintessential 80s slasher, complete with promiscuous, plastered, post-Carter pueriles getting their reactionary deserts. Sure, it’s a bit dopey (how is Jason so big if he was a boy in the last film, set five years earlier?) and sloppy (why do half the characters disappear from the film after the midway point?), but it also maintains an anchoring sense of driving logic—something that can’t be said for so many of the horror movies that would follow as the decade progressed.

For starters, the violence here is rooted in coherent psychological motivation. Jason saw his mother decapitated in the previous entry, and he’s out for revenge: against camp counselors—his natural enemies—and against the first film’s Last Girl Standing, who swung that fateful, mom-killing machete blow. The opening sequence, in which Jason shows up in suburbia (very Myers-ish) to kill said survivor, is perhaps on a par with Scream‘s (1996) masterful, now-classic opening, in terms of mounting tension. (It also includes, as Mark Whitehead notes in his slim and handy Slasher Movies, one of the slasher oeuvre’s strangest moments: Jason taking a boiling teakettle off the stove after he has claimed his victim.)

Jason’s also still a mortal here: he can be injured and wrassled with (by the next film, he’s squishing heads with his bare hands); he even allows a dog, who cozies up to his ankles, to survive, and thus shows a glimpse of humanity—which is more than can be said for Michael Myers in Rob Zombie’s dunderheaded, goremongering remakes. He also still has yet to acquire his trademark hockey mask—which by now has become so cliché that it’s more funny than frightening—and appears in the film instead with a crude sack over his face. What the characters in Baghead (2008) say is true: a man with a simple bag on his head can be some creepy shit.

Friday the 13th Part III (1982)

Steve Miner, who produced the first film, helmed this entry as well as its franchise predecessor. Yet Part III is so inferior to Part II that we can probably blame the precipitous decline in quality largely on the screenwriters. Ron Kurz, an uncredited writer on the first film and the sole writer of the second, had bid the franchise ado by Part III, and was replaced by Martin Kitrosser and Carol Watson. (The former would go on to become Quentin Tarantino’s regular script girl, er, guy.) They bring none of the second film’s sensible motivation to this entry’s killings: Jason’s murders here are illogical and indiscriminate, heralding what we would later be able to diagnose as Rob Zombie Syndrome. In the first scene, Voorhees stalks and then murders a Lockhorns-esque couple because… well, for no reason at all. If the writers had thought to include a dog, Jason surely would have killed it, too.

Then comes the racism: early in the film, a gang of Big Bad Blacks (and a token white) with motorcycles and chains—whose outfits presage the “Beat It” video (1983)—pick on our heroes, including a Seth Rogen-esque Jew, who then claims a modest revenge against his dark-skinned aggressors. Seriously? Revenge fantasies of the meek and Hebraic? Jason dispatches these toughs first; slasher films, of course, are deeply conservative, and here there’s a bit of vengeance on urban gangsters—body counts must get bigger with each franchise entry, too, don’t forget—before it’s on to the immoral, bourgeois whites (including a stoner couple, a Chong and Cheechette), who, by the way, aren’t even camp counselors. So what’s Jason’s beef with them?

Furthermore, why are these kids near Camp Crystal Lake, anyway? From the viewer’s perspective, it’s exhaustingly repetitive. (Watching the film, I found new sympathy for the producers who tried to take Jason to Manhattan or outer space—yes, just get him away from those same damned woods!) The film is plagued with other such problems: there are too many fake-outs, too many kills to accomplish, so that most of them are rushed through (according to Wikipedia, several murder scenes were trimmed or removed to secure an R rating); plus, the movie suffers the general predictability that settles onto a series by its third entry. (Lazily, Miner also fails to create as palpable a sense of place as he did in the previous film; furthermore, Harry Manfredini’s score is a pale imitation of the wonderful Bernard Hermann pastiche he composed for the previous film.) It also doesn’t help that, like all Part Threes in the 80s, this film was shot in 3D.

If you haven’t seen Friday the 13th Part III in 3D, can you still say you’ve really seen it? Yeah, probably. The technique seems only to have been used once a reel or so, in order to have something leap out at the audience: a snake, a tossed wallet, a yo-yo, juggled apples, popping popcorn. And a couple of disembodied eyeballs, natch. It isn’t grossly (haha!) intrusive, but concentrating on the gimmick must have caused Miner to focus less on two-dimensional elements like, um, suspense, or plot, or logic.

All that Part III really has going for it is the last reel or two; like the poorly paced Prom Night—which holds whatever little it has (like yet another Carrie pinching) for a blowout finale—an extended final chase finally offers a few of the thrills the audience has been waiting for, and the characters literally dying for. But it’s far too little, far too late. Friday the 13th Part III marks the beginning of the end for a series that had barely reached a height from which to fall.

2 Comment

  • good artice. one correction- Jason drowned in 1957 (according to wiki- just checked) and events of the first one are taking place in the “present” of 1979, which would make him around 30. The kid Jason jumping out of the lake at the end of part 1 is a dream sequence. Part 2 is one year later or something like that, so the continuity from part 1 to 2 makes sense.

    but yeah, I think the one’s with Tommy were pretty good, the kid Tommy, and then when Tommy came back as a teenager, A New Beginning? That was real good watching if you were 14 or 15 at the time. Also at that point the chronology goes down the tubes (the missing 10 years it would take Tommy to grow up), but who cares!

  • Yeah, I guess from a hindsight perspective, the ending of the first film is confusing.

    Cop: We didn’t find any boy.
    Girl: Then he’s still out there!

    I think it’s because they didn’t intend to do a sequel, let alone bring Jason back as the murderer. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter. I’m perfectly willing to grant slashers a lot of leeway with stuff like this, because plotting consistency between entries isn’t really what I watch them for!