Friday the 13th Part III

Friday the 13th Part III ★★

“Who are you? What are you doing? Hey, cut that out, that’s not funny!”

Imagine, if you will, that you are a feral man-beast who has lived nearly your entire life in a remote wood, your only animating emotions being fear and anger. Imagine further that you have just completed a remarkably successful killing spree—your lack of formal education and human interaction apparently not having stunted your evasive maneuvers or way with instruments both blunt and bladed. Police have arrived on the scene, collecting bodies and escorting the sole survivor of your rampage to the local hospital, and you have been injured, said sole survivor having proven pluckier than you might have imagined. What, exactly, is your next move?

There could be several possible answers to that question. You might choose to get the hell out of Dodge, relocating to a new lake where nobody knows your name—surely nubile charnel can be found in nearly any corner of the country. Then again, you might choose to remain in the area but lay low in hopes that the kerfuffle wrought by your rampage will die down soon enough—after all, most of the victims were out-of-towners, whose lives are by definition worth less than those of taxpaying residents. Or perhaps your bloody extravaganza will continue apace, motivated as it is (however fuzzily) by a desire to avenge your mother’s untimely demise. Each option possesses an element of rationality. If, however, your single-minded focus is on killing, killing, killing towards freedom, we may stipulate that there is at least one thing you are unlikely to do in the few hours between your prior victim and your next: shave your head.

Such is the superhuman inattentiveness of Steve Miner's Friday the 13th Part 3 that, even though the film begins mere hours after the end of its predecessor, Jason’s (Richard Brooker) appearance is radically changed. The stringy, Neil Young-on-peyote hair of Part 2’s Jason is gone, replaced by an immaculately shiny chrome dome. Not only that, Jason has grown substantially, in terms of both height and bulk, in the hours since he (seemingly) dispatched Paul (John Furey) and failed to take care of Ginny (Amy Steel). One can only assume Jason had built his mother’s shrine on a site riddled with intense radiation.

Ah, but wait. Here I am criticizing Friday the 13th Part 3 for failing to be detail-oriented while I commit the same sin. Technically, Miner’s continuation of the Crystal Lake saga does not pick up just after Part 2’s end—as is tradition, it picks up just beforehand, with archival footage reminding us of Ginny’s clever ruse, pretending to be Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) in an effort to fool Jason. Unlike the original film’s Alice (Adrienne King), Ginny sadly does not return for Part 3 outside of the requisite recap. Given her status as the best thing about the series to this point, it is an unhappy omen of things to come. (For simplicity’s sake, it is probably best to ignore Part 3’s utterly bizarre reconstruction of Part 2’s ending, suggesting that Jason left his mother’s shrine and headed straight for new rampages and that his bursting through the window to attack Ginny was perhaps a dream—at least, that’s arguably what Part 3 suggests, though it is by no means clear, and in any event, it is completely unnecessary as Part 2 plainly left Jason alive for future adventures. The purpose of such rejiggering remains a puzzlement—it cannot be to explain Jason's drastically altered appearance, as (i) Ginny removed the bag over Jason's face and would have had no reason to have dreamt Jason to look completely unlike what she saw, and (ii) it wouldn't address Jason's multi-inch growth spurt and acquisition of steroidal bulk, which the audience can plainly observe.)

Among Friday the 13th fans, it seems there is a special appreciation for Part 3. No doubt this is due in part to its introduction of Jason’s hockey mask, as iconic a horror prop as the genre has ever produced. And whatever one’s feelings on the series or the evolution of the Jason Voorhees character, it is difficult to gainsay the mask’s effectiveness. Most of the film’s best images involve it, and like Michael Myers’ spray-painted William Shatner visage, its implacability is truly unnerving. If the goal is to create a boogeyman rather than a well-rounded human being, a mask at least has the virtue of iconography.

Besides the repurposed sports gear, however, the question of Part 3’s relative popularity is a bit of a mystery. It is certainly not a result of increased quality, as nearly everything about Part 3 is worse than the prior two films, with the added handicap of a thick sheen of 3D gimmickry overlaying the proceedings. Instead, the fondness for Part 3 in comparison to its predecessors seems to arise from a Sleepaway Camp-adjacent place where the absurdity and campiness of it all produces an alchemical reaction. The ingredients are nearly there, too, and they certainly help to compensate for some of the subpar components. But one man’s campy delight is another’s shoddy spectacle. While entertaining, Part 3 teeters back and forth across that divide. It all depends, I suppose, on perspective.

For example, one might find the details surrounding Debbie’s (Tracie Savage) pregnancy by her boyfriend, Andy (Jeffrey Rogers), amusing, or distasteful, or just a half-assed attempt at character development. Does Debbie’s lack of any recognizable pregnancy symptoms (other than a stated-but-not-demonstrated frequent need to urinate) constitute a sly joke on the part of writers Martin Kitrosser and Carol Watson, or is it simply an example of their indifference? Does Debbie’s eagerness for Andy to bring her a beer suggest thoughtlessness on her part as a gestational host, or have the filmmakers simply forgotten that she is supposed to be with child? Like Jason’s disappearing hair and lengthening spine, the purpose behind these developments is anyone’s guess, though the smart money is on ineptitude.

Perspective is also key to Miner’s most noticeable contribution to Part 3: its 3D conceit. So outrageous and persistent is Miner’s insistence on flaunting his added dimension that one can’t help but wonder if eye spasms resulted from all the winking. In addition to machetes and fire pokers and other implements of death, everything from wooden poles to snakes to baseball bats to popcorn to TV antennae to yo-yos thrust themselves obnoxiously in the viewers’ faces, constituting such an aggressive tutorial on precisely how not to use 3D technology that one can only assume that is the point. Perhaps Paramount insisted on getting its money’s worth out of the gimmick, but the frequent shifts in perspective are jarring and contribute no atmospheric or suspenseful gains. They do, however, make Part 3 memorable in inadvertently laughable ways.

As he did in Part 2, Miner manages to craft some genuinely indelible images—Jason’s first appearance in his mask, lit from above while standing on a pier; Jason being revealed in the background as Chuck (Tommy Chong, er, David Katims) fixes a blown fuse; Jason holding Rick (Fred Gwynne’s nephew) hostage while Chris (Dana Kimmell) calls out to him from the porch—but the rank stupidity of his characters and the sub-community theater-level acting undermine Friday the 13th Part 3 from beginning to end. Sometimes this seems to be the result of deliberate, albeit failed, attempts at humor. For example, shopkeep Harold’s (Gabe Kapla...Steve Susskind) outré schlubbiness, selling half-eaten foodstuffs and letting his pet rabbit run wild and unsanitary through his food emporium, would appear designed to elicit purposeful laughs, though wan smiles are more likely (Harold’s decision to defecate and then leave the toilet without wiping, while consistent with the rest of his hygiene, cannot be blamed on Miner, Kitrosser, and Waston, as it is merely a persistent and disgusting movie-character cliché, repeated later in the film by Chuck).

But mostly the performances and dialogue cannot be redeemed by adjectives like “knowing” or “campy”—they are just bad, full stop: Vera (Catherine Parks) staring wildly at the lake after an arm reaches out, an exaggerated mask of fear modeled by someone unacquainted with the concept; Shelly (Steve Wozniak?) delivering his token-annoying-nerd lines as though they are being fed to him through an earpiece; Chris telling her story of a past encounter with Jason that she inexplicably survived, her flashback-accommodating cadence dragging the tale out beyond all reason and her vocal inflection more suggestive of an encounter with lousy waitstaff than a deranged killer; Rick. The introduction of a menacing biker gang brings some welcome ethnic diversity to the series’ cast, only to be immediately undercut by their role as criminals of inexplicably immediate hostility.

As with the rest of the series, Part 3 ends up a mixed bag, a combination of occasionally solid visuals and inadvertently entertaining shoddiness mixed with half-dimensional characters played by incompetent actors delivering leaden dialogue. But its main problem is the problem with the series’ retcon work after the original installment. As poorly paced and hideously acted as the original Friday the 13th is, it has a decent solution to its whodunit—the vicious serial killer is not a young-to-middle-aged white man, it is an elderly woman, crazily but understandably avenging her son’s death. It’s a solid self-contained story. But Jason a Michael Myers-like unstoppable force of nature? Is he a backwoods redneck killing those who stumble into his path à la Leatherface? Is he a perverted mama’s boy in the vein of Norman Bates? As Jason mutates through all three, he ends up becoming a nothing—a hulking monster whose fascinating, if overly convoluted, backstory is abandoned in favor of the least interesting option. Jason is a hulking murder machine—he is Michael Myers but without even the minimal gloss of being evil incarnate. Michael, for all his problems, at least embodies the terrifying notion that someone could be, at his core, innately and irredeemably wicked. Jason is just a large thing that goes bump in the night—he occasionally bumps entertainingly, but divorced of any recognizable motivation, any undercurrent of social anxiety or preternatural fear, he can’t really worm his way into one’s psyche. Which is perhaps appropriate—with victims as bland and interchangeable as a drawerful of white t-shirts, why shouldn’t their villain follow suit?

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