Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. 40 years after Camp Crystal Lake appeared on the silver screen, we look back at Friday the 13th and how the perennial slasher series mutated across the years. Read the rest of our Friday coverage here.
Ironically, what makes Friday the 13th such a great franchise is the fact that it contains no truly great movies. Each entry is thrilling, fun, and iconic, but they aren’t paragons of filmmaking craft. Instead, the franchise creates the platonic ideal of a brand: a series of films that reliably deliver on the audience’s expectations while making enough changes to keep it from feeling tedious. Friday the 13th Part 2 (directed by series producer Steve Miner in his directorial debut) was no exception, as its change of direction helped lay the groundwork for a saga that would be a gamechanger in the slasher genre.
The first Friday the 13th film, directed by Sean S. Cunningham, was a massive hit, and naturally, the executives at Paramount were itching to start filming a sequel. There was just one small problem: most of the characters were dead and the previous antagonist, Pamela Voorhees, had been decapitated. The dead counselors could easily be replaced, but even if they brought back Pamela, a middle-aged woman was hardly the type of killer a studio would base a franchise on.
The workaround came from the dream sequence at the end of the first film. After the only survivor of the Crystal Lake Massacre drifts off in a canoe to stay safe, she dreams she has been dragged under the lake by Pamela’s son, Jason, whose death was the motive for Pamela’s killing spree. The filmmakers decided that Jason would be the one to stalk teenage counselors as revenge for his mother’s death.
And so a horror icon was born. However, he didn’t spring out of Friday the 13th Part 2 fully formed. The Jason we know and fear today mostly stems from his portrayal in Part 3 and The Final Friday. Instead, Part 2 is the missing link between the Giallo-inspired mystery of the first film and the Jason-centric direction that would start in Part 3.
The film starts two months after Part 1 with Alice Hardy (Adrienne King), Crystal Lake’s final girl, having an expository dream sequence that shows her final confrontation with Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer). Shortly afterward, she discovers Pamela’s preserved head in her refrigerator before being stabbed with an ice pick by an unseen assailant.
We then cut to five years into the future, starting Friday the 13th’s wonky timeline. (My headcanon is that the franchise takes place in an alternate universe where the ‘80s lasted 20 years.) A new set of cannon fodder—I mean, camp counselors—are opening up a camp on the other side of Crystal Lake. Despite warnings from Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney) and Deputy Winslow (Jack Marks), these plucky young folks are convinced that the stories about Jason are just urban legends.
Part 2 is the missing link between the Giallo-inspired mystery of the first film and the Jason-centric direction that would start in Part 3.
But, like in all horror movies, the legends turn out to be true. Soon, both Ralph and Deputy Winslow are killed by an unseen murderer in an abandoned shack. Unaware of the danger, the counselors go off to a bar, leaving a small group behind to watch the camp. Little do they know they’re about to come face-to-face with horror history.
Despite not being shown fully until an hour into the film, it’s no secret that Jason (Steve Daskewisz) is the killer. However, he’s not the Jason audience may recognize. Instead of the infamous hockey mask that he gains in Part 3, he wears a burlap sack that is undoubtedly inspired by The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Jason also isn’t the unstoppable zombie that he would evolve into as the series progresses. Daskewisz’s Jason tends to stumble, make mistakes, and get knocked down much easier than he would in the sequels. He may be evil, but he still feels human.
But while this Jason may be more human than later incarnations, that doesn’t make him any less brutal. While many kills have a tendency to fade to white before they get too gruesome (undoubtedly to appease censors), there’s no shortage of bloody good fun. Miner gives us machetes to the face, slit throats, pickaxes to the head, and of course, the Mario Bava-inspired scene where two lovers are impaled to death with a spear while in bed.
Since Jason is a new killer, he requires a different type of protagonist. The sequel’s final girl, Ginny Field (Amy Steel), shares many similarities with Alice: they’re resourceful, tenacious, and are both sleeping with the camp’s owner. However, Ginny has one quality that Alice doesn’t: a connection with Jason. As a grad student studying child psychology, Ginny can gain insight into Jason’s thought process.
Due to the nature of Friday the 13th’s twist ending, Alice couldn’t know anything about Pamela, and as such, her designation as the final girl seems random. Ginny, however feels fated from the start to face off against Jason. Similarly, future protagonists of the series often have either a shared history with Jason or some kind of skill or insight that gives them an edge against him.
A protagonist with an insight into Jason isn’t the only thing that repeats throughout the series. Friday the 13th is known for repeating plot elements over and over again, and not just the basic “kids get killed” plot. Most of these elements started in the first installment: rainstorms, counselors being impaled by arrows/spears in bed, counselors leaving the campsite to leave select few alone and defenseless, and, of course, someone who warns the kids of their impending doom.
Friday the 13th Part 2 adds two new elements that echo in later films. One is a character dressing up as someone from Jason’s past (used again in The Final Chapter). The other is, strangely enough, characters being united by an annoying dog (a cheesy ending that cheapens both Part 2 and Jason Takes Manhattan).
This familiarity is a big draw for the series. In his own way, Jason Voorhees is a comforting presence to horror fans, and the fact that each movie recycles elements from previous entries gives me a sweet hit of dopamine every time I watch them. Originally, the series was meant to be an anthology where each movie shares no connective tissue other than the names. Thank God this idea was scrapped, because a world without Jason isn’t a world worth living—or dying—in.