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Archive for April, 2012

The Usual Suspects (1995)

The year of 1995 was a great one for the crime genre, and one of my favorite years in movies.  This year saw the release of Michael Mann’s Heat, David Fincher’s Se7en, and this, Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects.  In my opinion, all three films are exceptional, unique, and standard bearers of their subgenres of crime.  The Usual Suspects falls very much into that film noir category.  It is a great film, but some say it has no re-watchability due to the twist ending.  I happen to disagree.  This is a film that has more than just story to satisfy, and I hope my insights here will help you see that.

San Pedro, California is the stage for the aftermath of a fiery mystery on a ship in the bay.  Law enforcement discovers 27 bodies and $91 million worth of drug money, and has attracted the interest of the FBI and U.S. Customs.  The only survivors are a severely burned Hungarian and the crippled con man Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey).  Verbal tells the story of how he and four other felons were rounded up and put into a line-up six weeks ago in New York for a trumped up charge about heisted gun parts.  They are the wisecracking hijacker Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollack), the short tempered and egotistical professional thief Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), his accent-heavy partner Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro), and the real prize for the NYPD is Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a corrupt former cop who has supposedly given up a life of crime.  However, U.S. Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), who has a deep, invested interest in determining the fate of Dean Keaton, is not willing to let Verbal go without digging deeper into his story.  He learns that the five men forge a loose accord to engage in a series of daring, highly profitable heists that lead them out to Los Angeles into an unforeseen, threatening situation.  As Kujan probes Verbal for the truth, FBI Special Agent Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito) discovers that the Hungarian says he saw the devil, he saw Keyser Soze.  He is the most feared and mythic of crime figures, and no one has been able to identify him, until now.  Verbal’s story unfolds as Kujan and his colleagues slowly assemble the fragmented pieces of this puzzle which may lead directly to the identity of Keyser Soze.

I’m starting with the cinematography and music here because they are where the atmosphere of the film thrives.  Newton Thomas Siegel was the director of photography, same as the later made Denzel Washington film Fallen.  I previously reviewed that here, and highly praised the look, feel, and cinematography of that film.  This film further solidifies Siegel’s rich talent in my view.  He does absolutely brilliant work in evoking such strong and mysterious moods throughout the film with both his camera work and the lighting.  It is a gorgeous example of film noir visuals in the color medium.  Light and shadow are indeed key, but the subtle color temperatures give the right tinge of atmosphere and tone in key scenes.  The compositions are very well plotted out to have, sometimes, double meanings upon first and second viewings.  The staging and angles of the scenes between Spacey and Palminteri are amazingly well handled to never make it feel like the same old thing every time.  There’s a new angle, a new composition, a new way the scene is played out in that limited physical space every time the film cuts back to it, and it all feels natural from the development of emotions and storytelling.  Much of this is indeed a well planned out idea from the filmmaking team as a whole, but Siegel executes it with amazing skill and artistry.

John Ottman, who was also the editor, created a fantastic score that lives and breathes on its own.  Listening to the soundtrack is a brilliant, vibrant pleasure.  It has character and personality while maintaining the subtle style of the storytelling.  The theme itself is great and is instantly recognizable when it hits, and it really drives the story forward in certain parts.  There’s a nice flourish in the opening arrest montage where some steel drums chime in once Fenster is introduced.  Just that little bit of Caribbean flavor conveys something to the audience about the character before he ever says a single word.  That’s such a smart piece of work.  Overall, Ottman’s score brings all the mysterious, suspicious, suspenseful, and dramatic elements of the film together in a powerful and vibrant way.  As with the cinematography, it evokes a strong film noir style while still feeling contemporary.

Furthermore, Ottman’s editing is some of the best I’ve ever seen.  Not just in how each scene itself is cut together, but how everything flows together.  How the film transitions from present time to flashback and back again.  I don’t know how much of it was in the script, but the execution is what truly matters.  Things are well punctuated in these transitions allowing for the dramatic narrative to hit the right beats in the right context.  Ottman knows when to pull us into and out of a flashback, and exactly how to do it.  That also feeds much into the sound editing and design.  It all feels organic and entirely in sync to create a cohesive flow and objective in pinpointing these moments.  There is so much one can learn of good structural flow of a narrative by watching this film.  I also love how there are many moments where Ottman and Singer just let the camera roll on the actor.  They don’t cut away or mess with anything.  They just let the actor work the moment, and that is so important in a film with this kind of cast and enveloping dramatic story.

And this film does have an immensely powerful and amazing cast!  Everyone is great, but I think Chazz Palminteri is my favorite.  As Dave Kujan, he’s smart, sharp minded, and subtly charismatic.  The range he shows here is impressive.  Kujan can be laid back talking friendly with Sergeant Rabin or Agent Baer, but then, he can shift into the probing investigative mind trying to deconstruct Verbal’s story and psyche.  Yet, he can turn it up further getting right into Verbal’s face, and trying shake him up with his intense, confrontational words.  Kujan is a driven law enforcement agent, but he never lets his invested interest in Dean Keaton get the better of him.  He keeps it all in check, and works the case to the very best of his ability.  He just wants the full truth so he can lay that interest to rest.  Chazz balances all these elements of Kujan perfectly.  He shows wonderful chemistry with everyone he shares the screen with further solidifying his role as main protagonist.  He really commands the screen, but Spacey owns it just as much with a more subtle performance.

Kevin Spacey truly deserved the numerous awards he received for this performance.  It is very intelligent, but underplayed.  Verbal is a little quirky and socially awkward.  He rambles on, but Spacey works all these elements into every moment of the performance.  It’s never an abrupt shift in focus for the character.  It’s a cohesive whole of Verbal’s personality.  It all has purpose, even more so on repeat viewings.  The body language of Verbal is also greatly realized as Spacey did extensive research for the character’s cerebral palsy to get all of it right.  It adds further to Verbal’s perceived weakness.  His physical weakness begets his weakness of will.  The splashes of emotion with fear, self-pity, and pain are very powerful making Verbal appear to be a very sympathetic character.  Still, the moments of sharp intellect slip through Verbal’s more cowering exterior, and really help sell that he’s not as foolish or naive as he sometimes appears to be.

Gabriel Byrne is excellent as well.  He greatly reflects Keaton’s struggle between the ex-convict and the man trying to be legitimate.  How the system won’t let him be that better man now, and how it drives him back into being the man they expect him to be.  While he tries to deny that he is not the man Dave Kujan claims he is anymore, he quickly falls back into being that man.  It is who he is, and Byrne is able to show how Keaton is unable to contently balance those two parts of his being.  It’s a man fighting his nature who seems more comfortable and confident as the man he doesn’t want to be.  It’s a fascinating dynamic that Gabriel Byrne pulls off with great ease and a dark, mysterious, and foreboding depth.  He’s electric on the screen, and is entirely compelling.  You can never quite get a handle on what his objective or intentions are, and that makes Dean Keaton terribly intriguing.  As Bryan Singer says on the commentary, “Gabriel is the most easily complex actor.”

The supporting cast adds further flavor to the film.  Stephen Baldwin’s McManus is an arrogant, hard-up man with attitude and ego to spare.  As he himself says, he believes that “there is nothing that can’t be done.”  He truly believes that the reward is worth the risk, every time.  He plays off of Benicio del Toro’s Fenster beautifully.  Benicio takes a character that was, admittedly, nothing special on the page, and gave him a memorable, standout quality.  He created a whole character out of next to nothing, and the performance really put him on the map.  Kevin Pollack adds plenty of levity, but not without his own bolstering attitude as Todd Hockney.  How he and McManus clash constantly gives the team dynamic some needed conflict and turbulence.  These are guys who joined up out of happenstance, not because they’re friends.  Even Keaton and McManus have conflicts like when meeting Peter Greene’s wonderful character of Redfoot.  He’s a fence, a guy who can move and sell stolen goods to discrete buyers.  Greene gives him a fine Los Angeles quality with his slightly flashly entourage and charismatic style.  Still, he’s a tough guy who doesn’t take any crap when McManus starts chewing him out after a job goes awry.  For whatever reason, Greene didn’t take a screen credit for this film.  Regardless, I really love the vibe he brings with him.  He adds a shady element into the story as he can appear friendly, but under the surface, he’s all about his own agenda.  He doesn’t mind manipulating anyone or putting other people in danger as long as he gets what he needs in the end.  John Ottman even throws in a distinct musical cue for his two appearances that I also love.

The late Pete Postlethwaite always delivered fantastic performances giving them his all.  As Kobayashi, he is a great conduit for the mythic Keyser Soze.  He conveys authority without force or confrontation.  His words and tone carry all the weight that is needed.  Kobayashi knows that what he has to say is enough to rattle these men, and doesn’t have to dress it up at all.  He’s very straight forward and matter of fact, but still with a questionable quality.  He seems legit enough, but he leaves enough suspicion and truth with these men to keep them on edge.  Enough to scare them, but not enough to for them to leverage their way out.  Postlethwaite underplays the role just enough making him threatening and foreboding enough without betraying the professional manner of the character.  He is exceptionally effective.

Another great addition to the supporting cast is Giancarlo Esposito as FBI Agent Jack Baer.  He has a very fine charisma and upbeat attitude along with a nice feel for old style film noir sensibilities.  He fits in here smoothly.  Dan Hedaya is entertaining and enjoyable as Sergeant Rabin.  He’s a bit strung out, but that just adds a more hectic element to the character dynamics in that police station.  He adds to the texture of a film already rich with great characters.

Keyser Soze is one of the most brilliant cinematic creations of all time.  A crime lord that purports his own myth through the fears and exaggerated stories of others.  He just lays the seeds for it, and allows it to grow to service his own advantage.  He works from the shadows, never allowing anyone but an extreme few to ever see his face.  Anyone else who works for him almost never knows that they are doing so, and anyone who thinks they are can never be certain that they are.  As Kobayashi says, “One cannot be betrayed if one does not have any people.”  A spook story for criminals is perfectly film noir.  Soze is an urban legend.  Something that is so hard to grasp the truth about that you doubt it, but you dare not dismiss it in case any of it might be true.  I also love that the subject of Keyser Soze doesn’t even appear until nearly an hour into the film, but the mystery of him exists from the start.  This allows the story, characters, and the world they inhabit to be firmly established and grounded in reality before this mythic figure is truly introduced.  With the introduction of him, it elevates the tension and danger for everyone.

The story structure is also quite fascinating.  You have both a mystery happening in the present time while the supposed back story of the mystery is being told by one character.  However, the one character, Verbal Kint, is constantly challenged on information he held back from the District Attorney.  Verbal is shown to be not entirely forthcoming, and abridging his tale to protect his own self.  So, Kujan has to keep probing to get the full disclosure.  Thus, while you are getting engrossed in Verbal’s story, every once in a while, the audience has to question just how authentic his storytelling is.  However, as the pieces of the puzzle are slowly put together by Kujan, Baer, and Rabin, you can see there is some truth in what Kint is saying.  A lie is most convincing when it’s wrapped in some truth, and that is the screenwriting brilliance of this film.  Lies and truth get so intermixed that it is nearly impossible to separate them.  I also love that the film opens with that docks scene which is objectively presented.  It’s not part of Verbal’s narrative to Kujan, and so, you know that this did happen as you see it.  It’s just a matter of how they got there.

For me, the re-watch value of The Usual Suspects comes, primarily, from the fantastic performances, but also, the strong film noir tone.  This is an excellent example of film noir in a contemporary movie.  The mystery elements are still compelling upon repeat viewings due to how well constructed and presented they are.  It’s a film that allows to see new things and put new pieces together every time you watch it.  They are subtle things, but if you’re watching it with a probing mind like Dave Kujan, you can weed out a little more of what is truth and what is not.  Even the seemingly most throwaway expression or action can turnaround with a new meaning.  However, it is a film I wish I could watch again for the first time.  Partly because I don’t recall what my reaction to the film was originally watching it on VHS in 1996, but because it is so effectively structured and executed that I’d love to have that feeling of tension and apprehension which comes from a fresh first viewing.  Plus, I believe I fell asleep in the middle of watching it the first time.  So, that sort of spoils the experience.

The chemistry amongst the cast is just electrifying.  Everyone slips nicely into their characters, and the dynamics between them are rich and vibrant.  Everyone makes a firm impression that is quite memorable.  That is not an easy feat with an ensemble cast, but Bryan Singer handled these heavyweights extremely well.  When one has the talent for being an exceptional director, it will always shine through, and this could not have been a better first major impression for Singer to make.  He had done some smaller films before this, but they were not truly in the public eye.  This was his first major motion picture with serious, high profile acting talents.  While he had only a $6 million budget, the talents involved elevate the overall technical and artistic quality of the picture.  Looking back, while it doesn’t have quite as much scale as some are accustomed to, it’s not really a film that requires much.  The action is conservative because it services the plot, but it is nicely handled.  The entire sequence on the boat is expertly shot, choreographed, edited, and paced.  Nothing gets lost in the process of bullets and explosions.  Again, the plot and characters maintain control of the film’s focus throughout.

The Usual Suspects is just an excellent crime thriller that is atmospheric, exciting, and enthralling.  There are very distinct and dimensional characters everywhere you look that make it an entertaining and intriguing narrative.  Everyone behind the camera came together to create one amazing film that flowed beautifully and coherently allowing the pieces of the puzzle to slowly slip into place, but not give you a full picture.  It leaves you thinking and wondering, and that is an excellent accomplishment for any mystery.  You need not answer all questions for the story to be satisfying.  It merely has to keep you hooked in with a cleverly written plot, and that is the foundation for what made this a great film.  I give much respect to Christopher McQuarrie for writing such an intelligent script, and to Bryan Singer for crafting a film that remains entertaining and interesting no matter how many times I watch it.

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Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)

This purported “Final Chapter” of the franchise would not be the last, but it made for a convincing conclusion.  However, as is the way in Hollywood, if it makes money, make more of it!  So, they did.  Friday The 13th: The Final Chapter is arguably the best of what I call the classic formula before Jason rose from the grave or any self-aware satire crept into the films.  However, I do have one terribly stinging point with this film that has actually forced me to turn it off time and again.  Now that I have you intrigued, let me break down the premise for this fourth film.

The film begins, again, where the last one left off.  Jason’s supposedly dead body is carted off to the Wessex County morgue, but it is only a matter of time before Jason Voorhees is back on his feet killing his way back to Crystal Lake. Arriving at the lake is the Jarvis family which include the mother (Joan Freeman) along with daughter Trish (Kimberly Beck) and the pre-teen Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman).  Of course, there is a whole station wagon full of teens on the way, and soon after, there is also a man named Rob Dire (Erich Anderson) camped out in the woods who is on the hunt for Jason.  He has caught word that Jason’s body is missing from the morgue, and believes that Jason is alive and headed back to Crystal Lake.  His sister was a victim of a previous massacre, and he’s out to stop Jason himself.  He crosses paths with the Jarvis family, and becomes an instant friend with young Tommy who shows him his collection of personally created horror monster masks.  Shortly after Rob departs back into the woods, Jason begins to pick off the fun-loving teens next door one-by-one, as usual.  However, the climax of the film shows Jason getting the tables turned on him in the worst way, despite how madly he fights to off these final few potential victims.

Okay, the positives here are many.  First off, Tom Savini returned as special make-up effects artist to kill off Jason.  His talent and quality elevate the film very high up beyond the previous two films.  It’s not just the quality of the effects, but the dynamic ideas that Savini can put into practical execution that make for more inventive kills and scenarios.  This only gets better and more graphic as the film goes on.  They don’t hold back in the climax, and really drive home the “death of Jason” intent with highly convincing and elaborate make-up and physical effects.  It’s one of the most successfully graphic films of the series being able to put more of the unsettling violence on screen than ever before.

Director Joseph Zito does a wonderful job to make this a more cohesive piece than the previous entry, and also brings along some character depth.  Screenwriter Barney Cohen develops the characters well giving them strong introductions with distinct personality.  As with Part 2, we get actors with some charisma, energy, talent, and rich personality.  They jump into their roles fully, and have an enjoyable time in front of the camera.  Among the young talents featured are Crispin Glover and Corey Feldman.  Both of which turn in solid work.  Glover is mostly known as George McFly from Back to the Future as well as the Thin Man from McG’s Charlie’s Angels films.  Director Zito clearly knows how to work well with actors, and how to bring some entertaining qualities out of their performances.  He also crafts some of the best suspense of the series using Manfredini’s music, smart camera work, and nicely plotted scenes to create a tense atmosphere for Jason to thrive in.

This is one of Manfredini’s most tense scores, yet.  I think it tends to depend on the director he’s working with on how good his scores end up being.  On the films where the directors have a strong, vivid vision for the film, and know how to craft horror with suspense, we get his musical talents at their best.  This is a prime example of what Manfredini can do when collaborating with the right filmmakers.

Focusing back on the cast, Feldman richly demonstrates the potential he had as a young actor here.  He’s essentially a lead actor, but an unexpectedly so.  He surely charms an audience, and is highly relatable.  Still, one would not focus on him as the real forefront character of the film until they see where the story weaves itself in the third act.  As Tommy Jarvis, he starts out like any young kid – fun, energetic, and imaginative.  However, when the story finally takes a more dangerous turn near the end, Feldman shows his diversity with a very intense and dramatic performance.  It sells the ending of the film entirely, and could have been a gross failure with any lesser of an acting talent.

Ted White has never been a standout Jason performance for me.  From many accounts, it seemed like he didn’t care for the job himself, and was just collecting a paycheck.  How accurate that is, I’m not sure, but where Richard Brooker seemed to have a definite and distinct personality for his portrayal, White’s seems less distinct and more generic.  There’s nothing particularly bad about what he does, it has just never made much of an impression on me.  However, he does do a quality job that some fans do appreciate and enjoy.

Now, the big negative mark I personally put against this film is the character of Trish Jarvis.  In the latter end of the film, she becomes so painfully DUMB that it literally becomes a chore to continue watching the film.  Now, this is a bit of a spoiler, so, avert your eyes for until the next paragraph if you wish to avoid such things.  It’s the dead of night, Rob Dire goes down into the pitch black basement, and gets bludgeoned to DEATH by Jason!  So, what does Trish do?  She runs away, but then, changes her mind – as if she suddenly came to her senses (when she really takes all leave of them) – and goes back to find Rob in that basement where Jason is undoubtedly still lurking around!  This is moronic beyond comprehension!  Anyone who would get anywhere NEAR believing this to be a good idea deserves to have their brains bashed in!  Sorry, but this level of moronic incompetence just pisses me off, and I think Barney Cohen owes me an explanation for writing the character like this.  Unless you’re doing a horror movie parody, this sort of writing is just ridiculous, and is reflective of the worst, most clichéd writing in the horror genre.  It’s dumbing down the characters to the point where they are just short of brain dead to service some idiotic need in the storytelling.  Furthermore, she continues on from this point being a total moronic idiot making the stupidest decisions in the midst of an attack from a homicidal madman, and it is only a total shame that it’s her who embeds that machete in Jason’s cranium!

This is all just sad because the film is filled with smartly written characters.  The cast has great chemistry, and make for a very entertaining film.  Zito balances the light-hearted moments out well with the hard hitting horror elements.  It’s all solid examples of what the genre can offer at its best, which many films don’t tend to strive for, or don’t have the talent involved to make happen.  So, it baffles and angers me to see such a dumbass character be given the run of the third act of the film.  Actress Kimberly Beck does nothing in her performance to make it any more bearable.  He flashes these dumbfounded expressions over and over again throughout the movie further instilling no confidence in Trish’s intelligence.

If you ever wonder why I don’t tend to post numerical ratings on my reviews, it’s because of maddening conflicts like this.  It’s a great, excellent film except for this one terrible element.  I should look on The Final Chapter as a crowning achievement in the franchise, its high point, but because I have to spend a third of the film watching a badly written character run around like she’s looking to get killed, I can’t do that.  I have literally turned this movie off after that basement scene and not gone back to it.  It’s at that point where the film takes a nose dive for me, but that’s just me.  For whatever reason, other fans can look past that, or just never viewed it in the same light as me.  I just can’t tolerate a stupid character unless there’s something endearing about them, but there’s none of that here for me with Trish Jarvis.

Aside from that, this really has all the best elements the franchise has always strived to bring together in a cohesive whole.  The previous three laid the ground work, some doing a better job than others, but this entry got it right in spades – suspenseful tension, high quality make-up effects, and a solid story with wonderful, memorable characters.  Regardless of my sole gripe with the film, you can hardly pass this one up because Joe Bob Briggs says, “it’s got important plot points,” in regards to the following two sequels.  This begins the Tommy Jarvis trilogy of the Friday The 13th franchise, each film starring a different actor in the role Feldman originated, and I have contrasting opinions on the following two films.


Friday The 13th, Part 3 (1982)

Oh, 3D.  You are the current bane of my cinematic existence.  Back in the 1980s, there was a short run of 3D horror movies trying to revive this quick cash grab gimmick, and they all sucked – Amityville 3D, Jaws 3D, and Friday The 13th, Part 3: 3D.  Straight up, this film is a prime example of leaning heavily on the 3D sight gag gimmicks to provide entertainment value instead of actually making a good film.  Even in current times, this is still done, but my disdain for 3D is the fact that it’s never worked right for me despite me having no visual impairments.  It detracts and distracts from the theatre going experience instead of enhancing it.  I have never seen this film in a 3D presentation, and so, there will be no assessment on it.  Still, it does factor into the lightweight quality of the film.

F13, Part 3 begins where Part 2 left off where Jason Voorhees has been wounded, but is able to slip away into the woods and the night.  He wanders to a small market in Crystal Lake, and while he kills the cranky couple which own it, he grabs himself a new set of clothes (and apparently a shave as well).  Meanwhile, a sizeable group of teens set out on a weekend at Crystal Lake at Higgins Haven, the woodland retreat for Chris Higgins (Dana Kimmell) and her family.  Also, tagging along is the uptight Rick (Paul Kratka), and the jokey Shelly (Larry Zerner) along with a pair of old stoners.  Chris is very weary of returning to the area because of an attack by a freakish man in the woods two years prior, but Rick does what little he can to comfort her.  In the meantime, Shelly and one of the teenage girls take a ride to a convenience store where a trio of bikers cause them a bit of trouble, but Shelly leaves them a bit humiliated.  This provokes the trio to follow them back to Higgins Haven, but their snooping around the barn costs them a great deal more than they bargained for.  Jason gradually kills off each and every person in the area – as per usual – until the climactic confrontation with the heroine.

This is the first misstep in the franchise for me. After a great outing with Friday The 13th, Part 2, I’m rather disappointed in how uneven and disjointed the direction and story are here.  Not to mention the quality of the cast and characters fall down one big notch, and the makeup effects aren’t anything to note.  Steve Miner does return as director, but it just feels a little lazy.  I think the problems mainly boil down to a flimsy script and the irritating and stupid 3D sight gags. Co-writer Martin Kitrosser also co-wrote Friday The 13th, Part V: A New Beginning, an even worse entry in the series, and so, you can easily judge his lower grade talents by that.  Aside from a few sparse screenwriting credits, Kitrosser essentially only works as a script supervisor since this film.  That means he just maintains a film’s internal continuity during production and records the daily filming progress.  The other co-writer, Carol Watson, has extremely little on her filmography.  So, it really doesn’t inspire confidence looking back on everything.  Ron Kurz, writer of Part 2, also has very little on his résumé, but he wrote a solid and coherent script that worked and flowed well.  The same cannot be said for this movie.

Whereas Part 2 had some vibrant performances, this falls into flat stereotypical characters.  These screenwriters attempted to bring some emotional depth to Chris Higgins with her previous frightening encounter with Jason, but it falls flat because of the actress in the role.  Amy Steel and Adrienne King were head and shoulders above Dana Kimmell.  Her performance is a little too one dimensional to fill the character out, but even then, it’s written with nothing but vulnerability.  The best female heroes of the series have always been ones that had a strength to pull on to fight back in the end despite their emotionally vulnerable sides.  Chris Higgins really is just an increasingly hysterical would-be victim.  Her uptight boyfriend Rick does not inspire strength or confidence, either.  Larry Zerner’s Shelly is a loveable misfit that pulls too many cheap practical jokes, and ends up pissing everyone off – unlike Stu Charno’s Ted from the previous film who was a master of practical jokes, and everyone still had a good laugh afterwards.  The difference?  Ted was everyone’s friend.  Nobody seems to really like Shelly even though he is supposed to be, at least, someone’s friend in this group.  They treat him like a lame annoyance, and I can’t disagree with that sentiment.  His only redeeming act is that he provides Jason with his very first hockey mask.

And instead of tight pacing, too much time is dragged out to indulge in those atrocious 3D sight gags.  Beyond that, the screenwriters throw in a lot of extraneous characters who eat up screentime for the sole purpose of increasing the body count.  They really add little to the entertainment value.  Other films later did this, but they would be more to the point and the characters usually would have something to do with the plot.  The three bikers are okay, but it just feels like a frivolous side plot which amounts to little.  It’s just another blah element piled into this film that further disjoints the story’s flow.  Not surprisingly, I have many of the same issues with A New Beginning.

And really?  A disco theme?  This movie was released in 1982.  Disco was deader than Jason’s mother by then.  Thankfully, this horrid opening credits tune is the extent of this bad 70s flashback.  Still, Harry Manfredini and Michael Zager should be ashamed of this.  It also horribly dates the film as older than it actually is because disco was long gone by the time of release.  The hippy stoners don’t help either.  In 1982, the big hit songs were Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky III along with tracks from John Cougar Mellenkamp, Hall & Oates, Foreigner, The Cars, Journey, J. Geils Band, Tommy Tutone, Rick Springfield, Soft Cell, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, the Steve Miller Band, and Fleetwood Mac.  All solid pop, rock, or new wave songs.  Manfredini and Zager could’ve gone for something more contemporary, and made it fit into the musical landscape of the time.  Instead, they drudge up disco for no good reason.  The theme hardly sets a good tone for the movie seeming more akin to a parody than an actual straight horror film.  Beyond that, the score is not too memorable.  When the worst part of it is what you remember the most, that’s an ill sign.

The only real highlight of this movie is Richard Brooker’s performance as the now hockey masked Jason Voorhees.  It’s a more nonchalant, confident performance that exudes a menacing quality.  He’s more calculating and focused in his slaughter.  The body language is very strong and deliberate.  He takes his time and wastes no motion.  He doesn’t need to rush his actions, he can stalk with patience, and strike at his leisure.  What Brooker does also adds to the blankness of the character.  He shows no panic, no rage, no urgency.  He is without conscience or contempt.  He merely kills because he’s imitating what his mother did, but possibly also due to a territorial mentality that these are his woods and anyone who enters is a trespasser.

The kills are still good, but the make-up effects fall down in quality a little more.  I just know that little from this film has stuck with me in a good way.  The climax is pretty good starting to show off more of Jason’s tolerance for pain and ability to survive injuries that would kill anyone else.  Brooker just gives Jason a lot of consistent personality here, and the climax is boosted by his talent and physical ability.

I wish there was more to delve into with this sequel, but it’s just too thin and shallow.  The tension is not very taut, and the storytelling is quite lax.  There’s no real urgency or looming suspense to maintain interest for me.  I just groan at the flat stereotypes that populate the screenplay – the stoners, the hysterical heroine, the heroine’s comforting boyfriend, the sexy girls, and so on.  It comes off like a lesser grade film compared to its predecessors with less talent in front of and behind the camera, aside from Richard Brooker.  No one was really trying to make a good horror film, they were just riding on the gimmickry of 3D to pull in the bucks, and of course, it worked.  This out-grossed both of the previous films in the series with just over $36 million.  However, bad movies that use 3D still top the box office today, and it makes me sick.  Yes, I still hate you Jim Cameron.  As for Friday The 13th, Part 3, I know there are people out there that do like this film, and so be it.  That’s your opinion, and this is mine.  I don’t like it very much because it pales in comparison to the far more tightly structured, more lively, and more intelligent Part 2.  There won’t be another Friday The 13th film that I 100% enjoy until Jason is struck by lightning and rises from the grave.  Let that act as a cliffhanger for my inevitable, almost entirely positive review of The Final Chapter.


Friday The 13th, Part 2 (1981)

There are few sequels that manage to improve upon the original, and even fewer in the horror genre.  However, when the main filmmaker behind the project is superior to the original, it is no surprise.  This was Steve Miner’s directorial debut, and of course, no one could anticipate anything of his quality at the time.  However, he has gone on to have a very successful career as a director of films and television, and so, in retrospect, it is easy to see that Friday The 13th, Part 2 was in more versatile hands than the original.  This is indeed my favorite film of the classic formula, despite being in the pre-hockey mask era.  This is a good, classic piece of horror cinema, and I want to detail why it was a marked improvement over the first film.

Two months after the events of the previous film, Alice Hardy (Adrienne King) is trying to put her life back together, but that is short lived as she is murdered in her own house by a silent killer.  Five years later, Paul Holt (John Furey) is opening up a counselor training camp near the now shut down Camp Crystal Lake.  Holt is joined by many young men and women including, among others, the practical joker Ted (Stu Charno), the wheelchair bound Mark (Tom McBride), the sly Scott (Russell Todd), and Paul’s spirited girlfriend, the film’s female lead, Ginny Field (Amy Steel).  The locals like what he’s doing with these young people, but don’t like that he’s doing it so close to “Camp Blood.”  Paul even tells the story of Jason Voorhees around a campfire, but with a jokey scare at the end treating the legend lightly.  Even the prophetic warnings of Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney) don’t scare them away.  As night falls, while some go into town for a fun time, many of these teens begin to fall prey to the film’s new killer, an adult Jason Voorhees seeking vengeance on anyone who treads through his domain.

Okay, before the true highlights begin, I do have to admit that the special make-up effects are not as good with the departure of Tom Savini.  That is almost inevitable as his talent is not easy to replicate.  At this time, Savini went to work on the Friday The 13th rip-off The Burning.  It is a film I did see many years ago, and did not care for at all.  It is only a shame that I had to purchase the VHS tape to see it.  That aside, with this film, Carl Fullerton and his team still deliver some high quality physical effects that serve the film well.  It is merely a disservice, as would become a regular stinging point for the franchise, that the MPAA required numerous cuts to be made to tone down the violence and gore.

The pacing this time out is increased and steadier.  The film begins with a great suspenseful sequence that jump starts the hearts of the audience.  The character introductions are more tightly woven together, allowing for the film to keep moving forward instead of lingering.  The kills are nicely interspersed throughout the movie to maintain the tone it sets from the start.  It keeps an audience gripped into the film as the terror continually stalks these characters.

Speaking of such, we are treated to some charismatic and enjoyable characters this time out with more distinct personalities than before.  The actors in the prominent roles such as John Furey, Amy Steel, and Stu Charno are great and memorable.  Furey nicely projects Paul Holt’s maturity and level headed sensibility while still being a light-hearted, fun loving guy.  Ginny is a fun challenge for Paul, but it is clear they have a lot of affection for one another.  Amy Steel portrays her with a lot of likability showcasing an assertive attitude that is playful.  She displays intelligence while still being able to have fun.  Ginny has enough strength to carry her through the madness of the climax, but surely shows moments of vulnerability.  I also really love Stu Charno’s prankster Ted.  He’s all kinds of fun playing some elaborate and inventive practical jokes on his friends.  He keeps the tone light at times, and because of Charno’s charisma, he is instantly entertaining.  He makes things lively and vibrant while never descending into bad one liners and wisecracks.  He’s a very realistic friend that many people have who just likes to have a great time, and an even better night out on the town.  However, this never betrays the overall tone of the movie, it merely enhances the versatile enjoyment of the picture.  The chemistry of this cast is some of the franchise’s best, and even the supporting cast gets fine opportunities to add to the flavor of the picture.

Director Steve Miner gives this film some solid suspense and tension in every potential stalk-and-slash scene.  From all accounts, he had heavy influence from Mario Bava with this film, and it really helped deliver a great first sequel.  Miner knows how to handle his acting talents well and balance them out evenly to excellent effect.  Everything is shot very well to enhance the slight unsettling vibe flowing through the film.  The addition of the storm during the climax was an excellent touch.  It just adds more to the atmosphere and intensity of the sequence, but it never dominates or disrupts what each individual scene is doing, tone wise.

The score by Manfredini is possibly a step up from the previous film.  With a more evenly paced film, the music has more chances to slip in and out to create individual moments of horror than a chain of kills clumped together.  Again, atmosphere and tone is set early on with the intelligent visual storytelling and underplayed music.  The filmmakers let the score, subtle sound effects, and performances play up the unseen killer until he finally strikes, and creates a deeply disturbing moment that jumps straight into the opening credits.  The film is able to continually create great sequences like this all the way through to the clever ending that throws in some nice psychological elements to Jason.  It’s also smart that Ginny raises the idea of her deception earlier in the film so that the audience grasps onto what she’s doing as she’s doing it.

Warrington Gillette and his stunt double Steve Daskawisz do a very good job as Jason.  He’s not the more refined or confident killer as we have come to know, but the physical acting is well done.  The sack on the head look is very similar to the killer in the 1976 film The Town That Dreaded Sundown, which was based on true events.  The hockey mask surely became a much better iconic image which forged his personality, but for this version of Jason, I think that one eye peaking out of the hood works very well.

Writing this review, I never realized just how good of a film this is beyond just being highly effective and enjoyable for me.  There is no reason why this can’t be viewed among the best of its genre.  It delivers everything a solid slasher film should as well as a lot of what good horror is meant to.   While it doesn’t have the technical elegance or subtle brilliance of a Halloween, it has good atmosphere, tight suspense, intense scares, and entertaining characters who never devolve into moronic stereotypes.  They might not all have great depth, but they are grounded in reality.  Overall, this is a strong highlight of the series, and surely set the bar higher than the original Friday The 13th.  Subsequent sequels would vary in quality to great degrees, some just as good, some not nearly, but not for the lack of having a solid reference for doing it right and well with Friday The 13th, Part 2.


Friday The 13th (1980)

Sometimes, the first film in a franchise is the best and all sequels are just watered down retreads.  Other times, the first film is merely a rugged blueprint for future installments to build upon to create better films.  I believe the original Friday The 13th fits into the latter category.  That is not to say it doesn’t have admirable qualities, but the formula and execution is not as refined as some of the other films in the franchise later became.  There are numerous elements that downgrade this even in comparison to the first sequel, and the difference in who the killer is does not factor into my opinion here.

Camp Crystal Lake used to be an idyllic summer camp for kids, but for over twenty years, it has had a supposed death curse upon it.  Camp counselors found dead, the water gone bad, and various accidents of sorts have plagued it.  Even the local prophet of doom, Crazy Ralph, tries to warn all comers to the danger ahead.  However, Steve Christie is determined to re-open the camp and mend its reputation.  The teenage counselors feel safe and comfortable in the deep woods, but soon, on this Friday the 13th, an unseen killer stalks them all intent on seeing their bloody corpses litter the campgrounds.

First off, the positives.  You can never deny the high quality talents of Tom Savini.  He’s a master make-up effects artist, and he had honed his skills most notably on George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead prior to this film.  Here, he created some of the best gore effects and special make-up of the series.  They are seamless, and that only enhances the surprise elements of the movie.  I believe the success of this Friday The 13th owes a lot to what Savini accomplished as it raised the bar for gore very high, and that gave it something different than the more atmosphere-driven Halloween.  This film really started the bloody slasher film craze, and it is due to the effectiveness of these physical effects.

The score by Harry Manfredini has always been a divided issue for me.  In some ways, it is suspenseful, but in others, it is just wild strings shrieking on the soundtrack with no sense of tension or rhythm at all.  However, it rarely feels like a Friday The 13th movie without his signature style, but there are exceptions.  For what Manfredini offers, his first foray with the franchise is a solid effort.  It creates a good atmosphere that services the film’s style of horror.

The acting from our two leads is very admirable in a subgenre known for a lot of cringable performances, to say the least.  Adrienne King is a fresh faced, likable talent here, and reflects a lot of vulnerability and sympathy.  Yet, she is able to demonstrate some strong will in the more intense fight-for-your-life sequences.  The other talent I mention is who portrays the killer, and that acting talent really elevates the film above its unrefined shortcomings.

What truly detracts from this movie are two things.  The first is the pace.  Even by my patient standards, the film drags along at a very slow pace.  By modern cinematic standards, it’s terribly sluggish.  This is mainly due to the fact that very little occurs in the story.  People slowly arrive in town, and it goes along like a slow, calming weekend until the killings really pick up the pace.  That doesn’t start happening until about halfway through the movie.  The characters don’t offer up much personality or charisma to maintain interest or momentum in the first half of the movie.  By the time the film really gets a good stride going, it’s almost over.

The second issue is that Sean Cunningham is not a very inventive or dynamic filmmaker.  There is nothing outright bad about what he does, but there’s also nothing exceptional or impressive about it either.  The incessant use of the killer’s point of view shots tend to take away from the tension and mystery since you always know where the killer is, and who the killer is stalking.  Some sequels would lay off of this idea, and create suspense and tension through more clever methods.  Here, it works for a little while, but ultimately, it overstays its welcome by wearing thin quickly.  It’s almost as if Cunningham saw the opening scene of Halloween, and wanted to recapture that idea and feeling for this entire film.  I don’t feel it works to that extent.  Hiding the killer’s identity was key to the story, but better filmmakers later demonstrated a more diverse approach to maintaining that idea.

If, by chance, you have not had the identity of the film’s killer revealed to you by now, I won’t be the spoiler.  Let’s just say, it is an unexpected twist in the story that is probably the most intelligent part of the screenwriting and casting.  This is before Jason Voorhees began his killing spree under a burlap sack or a hockey mask.  So, it has a different sort of ending as we get a killer with dialogue who can showcase their madness without a mask.  There is a further twist ending beyond this that captivated and terrified audiences in 1980, and gave the franchise a jumping off point to actually become a franchise.  It truly is nightmarish.

Friday The 13th does deliver some good scares that remain effective to this day, and again, Savini’s work has been key to maintaining that effectiveness.  However, there’s little beyond that to hold the film together through its run time, and even then, the scares are not spread out enough to keep that heightened tension going for the majority of the film.  It was not a film written with compelling characters, and not vastly cast with charismatic acting talents.  So, it shouldn’t have been plotted out where the performances or characters needed to carry the movie for a hefty distance before the horror aspects took over.  Again, this works as a template for future installments to build upon to make more well balanced and tighter films.  The Friday The 13th franchise is my favorite slasher film series, and just because Jason is not the killer in this film does not affect my opinion of it.  At one time, I had hoped that a remake could take this film, and re-manufacture it into a more evenly paced and tighter movie.  Bring it up to the more intense and entertaining levels of the better sequels.  Sadly, the 2009 remake from Platinum Dunes was an utter failure, and like many horror remakes, put a death nail in the franchise.  I will give credit that this 1980 film was a horror milestone, and it launched the entire slasher subgenre that ran rampant through most of the decade.  However, it was not the best of the genre, and there are better films within the franchise than Sean Cunningham’s original.