Crystal Lake Countdown: Looking Back on ‘Friday the 13th Part III’

As is the often the case with once-successful franchises, all good things must come to an end.  Although Part 2 (1981) still managed to make an exorbitant profit at the box office – more than seventeen times what it cost to produce – it was a massive step down from the first movie’s windfall of cash.  And judging by the laws of diminishing returns, at least, the franchise was not long for this world.

Having seen the supposed writing on the wall, everybody involved decided to go out on top: a massive blow-out to send the slasher franchise off on a high note.  The budget was nearly doubled from the second film (itself double what the first cost to make) and was filmed in expensive (and admittedly gimmicky) 3D.  The kills were bigger and bloodier than either of its predecessors, and the narrative was designed to satisfactorily bookend what was begun in the original film.

To that end, we open up on the tail end of Jason’s (Richard Brooker) murder spree the night before, where he cut his way through camp counselors-in-training in a neighboring camp, was revealed to be a deformed and near-feral man-child and managed to escape even after facing down the business end of his own machete.  The following morning, Jason continues his senseless rampage, this time targeting a thrill-seeking group of friends and the menacing bikers that they’ve managed to piss off.

There really isn’t much to Part III (1982) that wasn’t initially explored in Part 2.  The only difference here is that everything’s bigger and better polished the third time around owing to all the extra cash on hand.  Rather than a quick stop in the rink-a-dink town of Crystal Lake, we see more of the surrounding woodlands, shops and townsfolk, giving the site of Jason’s murder spree a larger and more deeply lived-in feeling than the sparse campgrounds of the previous two movies.  Likewise, the script is a lot meatier than it had been to this point, with subplots ranging from the unrequited love of a goofball prankster, the escalating animosity between the latest batch of teenage campers and an out-of-town bike gang and an implicit rape-revenge storyline involving Jason and our Final Girl Chris (Dana Kimmell).

But while the overall production got a well-deserved upgrade, the main draw to the series has always been its ability to deliver on increasingly elaborate and gore-fueled kills, and in that regard, Part III is the franchise high-point thus far in the series.  The kills are both gorier, more graphic and more elaborate than ever before.  And even though the 3D gimmick gets old in a hurry, it is occasionally used to the film’s benefit: with the camera being far more dynamically involved in the death scenes, often with Jason’s attacks being directed straight toward the camera to admittedly great effect.

This is also the entry where everything clicked into place for the franchise.  The filmmakers (now under the banner of Jason Inc) refocused the films on Jason himself after the first film.  And rather than a series of sometimes-questionable masks and makeup effects to cover up the actor’s face, Part III gives the character his iconic look: dark work clothes and off-white hockey mask.  Jason – not yet the hulking zombie he would become in later films – was still decidedly Human, meaning that he could be put down rather effectively by a well-timed blow, carefully constructed trap or coordinated assaults by the film’s protagonists.  What resulted was an idyllic blend of realistic terror and iconic imagery that no movie before or since nailed down quite so perfectly.

And because this was intended to be the final entry into what was supposed to be the Friday the 13th trilogy, the film circled back rather effectively on the events of the first film.  Namely, the ending sees Chris cast off into a canoe after putting down Jason (just like Alice in the first film) only to be assaulted by the zombified corpse of a Vorhees.  Only instead of the infantile Jason this time around, it was the re-headed Pamela Vorhees.  And while it is admittedly silly and contrived in the context of this film, as the coda to a better-than-decent horror franchise that had come to bat for each of the last three years, it was a satisfying, earned ending that seemed to put to rest the horrific events of franchise.

Sadly, what had been a major draw toward the franchise until now – namely that the series had managed to resist many of the overused tropes of the slasher subgenre and felt surprisingly fresh because of its unique take on its otherwise straightforward material – has mostly vanished by the time this third entry had come around.  Chris is a fairly typical Final Girl (now established as a staple of slasher movies).  Having avenged his mother’s death and returned to dispatching hapless teenagers that have intruded on his home town, Jason has taken on the familiar trappings of the standard slasher villain (down to the iconic mask and bladed weapon).  Although more fleshed out than in other films of its type, the expansive cast of victims are more expandable than in movies past and more easily fall into the stock archetypes that those familiar with the subgenre (or at least the scathingly funny Cabin in the Woods (2012)) will immediately recognize.

Although Part III ultimately feels more familiar and less necessary than the first two movies, it proves to be a noticeably leap in quality over those same movies.  So while there is less to distinguish it from similar slashers from its time, it is considerably better than the vast majority of them.  And while these three psycho-thrillers aren’t especially great on their own, they culminate into an experience that is far greater than the sum of their admittedly base parts.  At times unexpected and at times excellently executed, the first three Friday the 13ths are a testament to the often mercurial nature of early slasher films: must-sees for horror fans, and even a disposably good time for those just wanting something to do on a certain unlucky day of the week.

Rating:  4/5

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