One of my friends recently told me that Friday the 13th Part 2 was the first film that he saw in the Friday the 13th franchise and that it still feels like the “original” for him. Rewatching it, I’m not surprised, since, for me, the sequel is even greater than the original – or more like the original than the original – as well as one of the greatest horror films of the 1970s and 1980s, right up there with Halloween, The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Although Jason’s mother was the killer in the first film, it was Jason himself who was most thoroughly identified with the camera. With Jason now front and centre, it feels as if the vision of the first film is really completed and consummated this time around, in what amounts to the franchise’s first real introduction to Jason. Nevertheless, at this point the studio was uncertain of the extent to which it would depend on Jason long-term, with the result that this most mercurial of horror icons is not introduced as a character, nor even as a figure, but more as a slasher and serial possibility than positions the film itself as a delicate and beautiful pivot between the demands of a sequel and full-blown serial extension.
That tension drives the bravura opening sequence, in which the last victim of Friday the 13th is attacked and killed by Jason in her suburban home before the action returns to Camp Crystal Lake for a second round. There’s a certain symmetry in that, since Alice Hardy (Adrienne King) was the only character in the first film to be targeted by both Jason and his mother – and Part 2 is keen to maintain that continuity, opening with an extended montage sequence recapitulating the key events of Friday the 13th. No doubt, this flashback is fairly staid and unimaginative on its own terms, but it serves the dual purpose of establishing the serial momentum that elevates Part 2 above a mere sequel, as well as lulling the audience into a false sense of security when its comes to the camera’s objectivity and detachment from the events taking place. For a franchise that is famed for its point-of-view sensibility, the second instalment opens with about as dry, documentarian and objective a camera you could imagine, but only for the sake of shocking us once again with how complicit it is with Jason’s prehensile gaze.
As soon as this opening montage sequence ends, then, director Steve Miner sets about embedding Jason’s perceptions within those of the camera, which follows Alice around the house as she prepares for dinner and bed. While this opening sequence is clearly drawn from the first fifteen minutes of Halloween, it is arguably even more unsettling and unnerving in that the identification of the camera with Jason’s gaze is not a given – as it is with Michael Myers – but instead occurs as a much more subtle and emergent process. As that process unfolds, we’re effectively treated to a miniature film-within-the-film, a fifteen minute exercise in suburban horror that anticipates the opening of Scream more than even Wes Craven’s Deadly Blessing, right down to the specific shots, angles and objects that are incorporated into this single suspenseful trajectory. Key to this gradual awareness of Jason’s presence is a new openness to camera mobility, with room after room and corridor after corridor converging behind Alice as the camera subliminally identifies itself with, announces and then fails to disclose Jason’s presence, often within the space of a single tracking-shot. Whereas Jason was more or less associated with a gaze in the first film – albeit an amorphous gaze – here his presence manifests itself more as a series of perceptual tendrils that snake their way around the house, taking control of the phone system, electricity grid and even the weather, until Jason is both the object and agent of every shot, identified more profoundly with the camera than any other slasher of the era, which perhaps explains why Friday the 13th enjoyed the most robust seriality of any slasher franchise of the era as well.
From the very beginning, then, we get a sense both of Jason’s profound insatiability and profound invulnerability, as Miner weaves such a deft perceptual tapestry that the sheer existence of the camera becomes enough to guarantee Jason’s longevity and durability as a slasher. As a result, there is less anxiety about abstracting and diffusing Jason than in the first film, with Miner often going out of his way to point out to us, quite blithely, that Jason’s point of view shots don’t correspond – and don’t have to correspond – to any concrete or discrete physical position. As a film driven by point of view shots that don’t have to correlate to a stable point of view, the terror of Part 2 is therefore driven first and foremost by an amorphous, circumambient – or circumillbient – apprehension of space. While the action may return to Camp Crystal Lake for the rest of the film, there’s a sense that this sojourn into suburbia has been needed to establish this spatial sensitivity, and that what plays out over the rest of the film is in some sense suburban horror, not simply because the Lake feels continuous with the more exurban, pastoral visions of suburbia extolled and punctured by Wes Craven, but because suburbia itself also seems to have turned from a geographical to a notional entity, not unlike the way in which Gilles Deleuze observed that westerns in the 1970s and 1980s were distinguished first and foremost by transplanting themselves away from the physical and historical West.
With that suburban optic in place, it’s no surprise than when we do return to Camp Crystal Lake, the camera’s ability to register and process space is almost unbearable – and unbearably suspenseful – in its minute gradations, reticulations and perspectives. Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that we are only nominally receiving a frontal perspective on the woods, since each individual shot works more to give an impression of the camera and recording apparatus’ total immersion in its filming environment, in what feels more and more like a precursor to the vortical atmospherics of The Blair Witch Project as the film proceeds. As with the great neorealist directors of the 1930s and 1940s, Miner will often train the camera on a vista some time before anyone enters the scene, while also revelling in empty – or apparently empty – spaces, all of which is bound up with a free-flowing, mobile and flexible cinematography that often makes this feel like a film almost entirely composed of tracking-shots. Apparently, Part 2 was shot very rapidly, on a tight budget and schedule, and that sense of exigency seems to have worked in Miner’s favour, with every shot still retaining the freshness of that original exchange between lens and leaves, forest and camera, especially with Sean Cunningham back again at the helm as editor, stitching it all together with same sublimity he brought to the original film.
As in the opening scene, then, it is an alarming and oppressive sense of space that drives the action here, with the camera so identified with the woods, and the woods so identified with Jason, that he is never entirely present but never entirely absent – impossible to perceive, impossible to escape – as the camera manages to gather up every other watcher, voyeur or possible perspective into a collective gaze big enough to subsume everything into a totalising evocation of the woods. Yet the woods don’t merely make themselves felt in their creepiness but also in their melancholy – and often deceptive – calm. More than the first film, Part 2 is driven by long periods of downtime, with the vast majority of the action – even the critical moments – suffused with a casual, low-key, relaxed kind of vibe that just makes the suspense all the more luminous. When a blackout descends and rain sets in at the beginning of the third act it does so as quietly and uneventfully as you could possibly imagine, while none of the campers are picked off until the final thirty minutes, as Jason initially proves himself content to simply wander around the peripheries.
Indeed, the peripheries are where most of the action occurs, even at the end, as Miner respects the audience’s intelligence, spatial sensitivity and visual literacy enough to allow some of the most crucial moments to play out at the corner of your eye, with the result that the viewer often registers things at the exact same moment as the characters. In Cinephilia, or The Wind in the Trees, Christian Keathley, following Walter Shivelbusch and Mary Ann Doane, identifies cinephilia as an attachment to fleeting, transitory moments that are “in excess of their intended significance” and describes the cinephilic mindset as one of “panoramic perception,” in which cinephile frees up their eye to wander over peripheral, marginal and apparently unimportant fringe details. By elevating these details to the focus of the action, and dwelling upon the minute gradations of the woods – serendipities beyond the script – as a key object of horror, Miner thwarts the determinism of conventional horror tableaux and defies the expectations of even seasoned horror viewers. If part of the pleasure of horror is knowing that we are about to be surprised, then Miner surprises us with how staid our surprises generally turns out to be. Time and again, I have felt as if the scariest possible experience as a horror fan would be gradually realising that someone is present in a space that I previously thought to be empty. While I’ve seen that possibility explored in a nascent way – there’s a scene in Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty For Me that almost gets there – I’ve rarely seen it explored as beautifully as in one of the final scenes here, in which one of the last remaining campers looks as a darkened corner of a cabin only to realise, at the same time as the viewer, that “there’s someone in this room.”
It makes sense, then, that the three key murders all take place in the midst of looming, panoramic vortices of space. In the first, a resident jock is caught up in a bear trap and left dangling, upside down, while another camper goes for a knife to cut him down, only for Jason to arrive with a knife first. In the second, a wheelchair-bound camper is slaughtered and pushed backwards down a vertiginous flight of stairs. It is in the third, however, that this atmospheric suspension is taken to its limit – a twenty-five minute tour de force in which Jason and a single victim scramble through every space in the house and woods, as Miner comes up with an apparently inexhaustible array of shots, compositions and tableaux. Just when you think this chase must come to an end, there’s always another angle, as the camera becomes more and more fluid, and we start to return to the sequential tracking-shots of the prologue, recalling and even outdoing those of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as the entire film spirals and gathers around the Lake. Like all good slasher films too, this giddy cinematographic ride is punctured by moments of genuinely traumatic, harrowing and emotionally grating violence, closer in affective urgency to those of The Burning than to the more stylised images of the original film.
It feels right, too, that throughout the entire process Jason is never systematically visualised in any way. If anything, he is more identified with the impediments to his gaze, as Miner draws upon an equally inexhaustible combination of occluded sightlines, with every bough, trunk, doorway and window that intrudes before the camera seeming to demand out attention in the same way as the wind in the trees that form Keathley’s quintessential cinephilic moment. All that we regularly see of Jason are his feet, which works beautifully to suggest an insatiable sense of movement and momentum that both gives the film its overall feeling of grim inexorability but also establishes the wider serial rhythm of the franchise as a function of Jason’s presence. On top of all that, Jason doesn’t have a signature weapon or signature method of slashing, simply materialising out of whatever space and opportunity he happens to inhabit. In a great moment towards the end, he picks up a scary mask only to cast it aside in favour of a fishing-spear underneath, as if even the provisional agency of a false face would be too humanising or subjectifying. When we do finally see him front-on, he is wearing a simple, white cloth, exuding an affective flatness that is only punctured by a single eye hole. Gazing out, his solitary eye feels more like a camera lens than anything discernibly human, and if the film makes a single mistake it’s in briefly showing Jason’s entire face in the very last scene. Not only does this turn him from a possibility into a monster, but by clarifying that his other eye is inoperative, it slightly diminishes the uncanny challenge of that single, monocular gaze.
For all that Jason is offered as a slasher possibility, however, there is also a psychoanalytic narrative going on here, although it is never allowed to intrude too far into the film or to diminish Jason’s austerity in any way. In fact, it probably makes more sense to describe it as a psychoanalytic possibility, clearest in the way in which the ultra-naturalistic soundscapes of Miner’s mise-en-scenes are periodically interrupted by bursts of Bernard Herrmann-like string stabs. Recalling Psycho from the very outset, they intensify as the action gathers around Jason’s shrine to his mother, a clear descendent of Norman Bates’ cellar. Similarly, Cunningham’s editing also helps bring a Hitchcockian sensibility into play, as Miner’s elaborate tracking-shots and spatial conundra are offset by still shots, usually close-ups, of hands grasping and moving towards uncanny or defamiliarised part-objects, such as door-handles, window latches and and everyday objects. Indeed, every object feels like a part-object insofar as every object feels on the verge of being repurposed as a weapon, with the result that every object yearns to converge, just as every space yearns to converge and – finally – every action of Jason’s yearns to converge upon a single, visceral tribute to and identification with his mother. Without psychoanalysing that to death, it’s enough to say that what ensues is a startling and yet entirely natural combination of slasher and Hitchcockian suspense that anticipates the revival of Hitchcock through the 80s, as well as subsequent revisionary exercises in the vein of Blue Velvet.
All in all, then, Part 2 was a wonderful surprise and one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. It made sense to me that this was a Steve Miner joint, since I’ve always felt Halloween H2O to be one of the strongest sequels in the Halloween franchise, as well as arguably the closest to John Carpenter’s original vision – especially his spatial sensitivity – while also managing to carve out its own distinct voice. In Cinephilia, Keathley observes that one benefit of cinephilic distraction and fixation is that it turns film from a standardised visual experience into an amorphous whole-body experience, and I’ve seen very few films that fuse that cinephilic imperative with the visceral demands of body horror as beautifully and elegantly as Friday the 13th Part 2.