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.
With the success of Friday the 13th and its sequel came a glut of rip-offs and homages. More than 40 slasher movies were released between 1980 and 1983, and while none of them reached the same level of success as the Friday movies, the competition was fierce enough that Paramount Pictures was compelled to do something, anything to keep distinguishing themselves from the crowd. Thankfully, and providentially, the filming of Friday the 13th Part III coincided with the short-lived but memorably terrible 3D horror revival.
Now used mostly to give more depth to backgrounds in animated movies (and to charge an extra $5 for tickets), 3D as a film and photography process has existed in some form or another since as early as the 19th century, initially with the creation of the stereoscope. By the 1950s it was a popular theater gimmick — certainly more popular than vibrating seats or “smell-o-vision” — used mostly in low budget horror and science fiction like The House on Haunted Hill and Robot Monster. The trend was only sustainable for a few years, however, because, despite the lean production qualities of the movies it was used with, 3D technology itself was costly and cumbersome for theaters to maintain.
3D petered out over the next two decades, though it was occasionally used in such oddities as Flesh for Frankenstein and the X-rated The Stewardesses. It was the release of 1982’s Parasite that brought it back to theaters, featuring flesh-eating hand puppets that burst out of their victims’ faces and directly into audiences’ eyes, all in gloriously juicy technicolor. Like 3D movies of the 50s, the technology was used largely to compensate for scripts that were written on cocktail napkins, and less than enthusiastic actors.
Compared to other 3D movies released in the same period, Friday the 13th Part III looks like The Thing.
Often the “in your face!” effects were unintentionally hilarious, such as Jaws 3D ending with an explosion of blood and guts flying towards the screen, framed with a fully intact set of shark’s teeth, like a Cape Cod souvenir. Other times they were merely annoying, like a character in Amityville 3D shining a flashlight directly into the audience’s eyes, a questionable creative decision for a film style already known for causing headaches and general visual discomfort.
Compared to other 3D movies released in the same period, Friday the 13th Part III looks like The Thing. Like all 3D horror movies, it’s charmingly silly, and not at all scary, but there’s at least a competence to it that isn’t present in Jaws 3D, in which characters die and then appear again later, and Amityville 3D, in which much of the action centers on a Satanic Jacuzzi. That competence isn’t, however, reflected in the 3D effects themselves, which often feel like an afterthought, and illustrate the bare bones budget, particularly when viewed now in high definition. Here are some of the absolutely terrifying things thrust towards the audience like an overenthusiastic preschooler with a bug:
- a rubber snake (on a wire)
- a lit joint
- a rubber eyeball
- a pitchfork handle
- a bunch of apples
- a harpoon (on a wire)
- Jason’s hands (admittedly kind of cool)
Again, like in Jaws 3D, the scene that was meant to blow audiences’ minds right through their hats came off as riotously funny, when Jason Voorhees crushes a man’s head with his bare hands, causing one of his eyes to pop out and fly towards the camera. We’ve come a long way when it comes to simulated head crushing technology, as exhibited in a particularly gruesome episode of Game of Thrones. Here, the dummy head doesn’t even remotely resemble the actor it replaces, and even on a low-res screen you can clearly see the wire the fake eyeball moves across, like a tourist ziplining in St. Thomas.
That said, there’s a lot to like about Friday the 13th Part III. It’s the first in the series to show Jason wearing his iconic hockey mask, as opposed to the John Merrick-esque flour sack he wore over his head in part 2. It’s the first in the series to feature non-white characters, both of whom are killed off, because of course they are. It’s the first (and sadly only) in the series to feature a disco version of its theme music. It tries (not always successfully, but still) to address the subject of post-traumatic stress disorder, in a way that virtually no other slasher movie was willing to at the time.
When last we left Jason, his left arm was hanging on by a thread, and he was doing the bidding of his mother’s head, which resembled a dessicated apple. Now, his arm has miraculously healed, he’s gotten a new look, and without mom to boss him around he’s just killing whoever he wants, starting with the couple who owns the local general store. It’s here that the Friday series really starts leaning into the quirky locals of Crystal Lake for comic relief, with a train-obsessed shop owner who eats fish food, helps himself to his own inventory before putting it back on the shelf and lets his pet rabbit run free among the produce. It’s a bizarre, almost John Waters-like moment in a series that up to that point had been relatively humorless.
The plot of Friday the 13th Part III can be, like its predecessors, explained in one sentence. Another bunch of twentysomethings (along with a pair of 40 year-old hippies that they evidently just picked up off the side of the road at some point) show up to stay at a house on Crystal Lake, only to be swiftly picked off one by one. As far as slasher movies go, Part III is remarkably sex-free, and, as opposed to earlier films in the series, everyone appears to be wearing underwear.
Also remarkable is that, as far as the male characters are concerned, these are the most useless boiled potatoes you’ve ever seen in a horror movie. It’s hard to choose who’s the worst between pothead Chuck (David Katims), who walks through a waterlogged basement in his bare feet, Andy (Jeffrey Rogers), whose sole personality trait is that he can walk on his hands, Rick (Paul Kratka), who’s annoyed that his girlfriend’s traumatic past makes her reluctant to have sex, and budding incel Shelly (Larry Zerner), a grown adult who still plays “ha ha, you thought I was dead!” pranks on his friends. Only biker gang leader Ali (Nick Savage) even comes close to being a hero, and he’s slashed to bits for his trouble.
Regardless, Part III wastes little time in getting under way, and its hour and a half runtime feels like twenty-five minutes (plus you get treated to that disco theme during both the beginning and end credits). Precisely because of its shabby special effects, and lack of real, keep you up at night scares, it’s a solid introduction to the series for anyone who might be a bit squeamish about horror.
Its primary failing is being immediately followed up with Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, which is not just the best movie in the entire series, but one of the best in the slasher genre overall. If Friday the 13th movies were pizza, The Final Chapter would be Bleecker Street Pizza, while Jason X would be Wal-Mart frozen pizza. Friday the 13th Part III falls somewhere in the middle, like mall pizza: it ain’t great, but it ain’t bad either.