Horror movies in general, and slasher movies in particular, are often plagued by innumerable sequels that offering increasingly diminishing returns after the relative high water mark of the first movie that they sprang from. It’s a simple matter of economics, really. Since they typically take place in a single location, use non-name actors and can get by on the back of a few buckets of blood in lieu of lavish special effects, their budgets are about as rock-bottom as they come: so much so that virtually any money that they make automatically translates into profit.
And while this was certainly the case for the first Friday the 13th (1980), the extent to which is ultimately proved true was astounding even by the standards of low-budget horror movies: on par with movies like The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Get Out (2017). Despite only setting back its studio $550,000, that movie raked in nearly $60 million. And when a movie earns more than one hundred times what it cost to make in the first place, sequels are inevitable.
Despite some initial debate as to what direction the nascent franchise aught to take following the monstrous success of the first movie – up to and including setting up an anthology franchise where each installment was completely unrelated to one another aside from taking place on the iconic date in question (a concept that was attempted and much derided in 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch) – returning director Sean S. Cunningham decided to follow the final, non sequitur scare from the end of the last movie: that Pamela Vorhees’ son, Jason (Ari Lehman), was alive and living alone in the woods surrounding Crystal Lake. After avenging his mother’s death at the hands of Alice (Adrienne King), he returns to his old stomping grounds to dispatch a new batch of camp counsellors-in-training from a neighboring camp.
Like the first movie, Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) came so early in the 80’s cycle of slasher films that part of the fun in watching it today derives from all of the ways that it unexpectedly breaks from the still-flexible formula of the slasher subgenre. For instance, its Final Girl – that is, the virginal “good girl” who survives by abstaining from the sex and drug use that implicitly dooms her friends – is anything but what we have been trained to look for in slasher movies today. She arrives late to work, strips down for the camera almost as soon as she’s introduced, is sleeping with her boss and goes out drinking with the other counselors. In fact, she is merely one of several counselors to survive the night, all of whom went drinking in town while our victims stayed behind to watch the camp.
Furthermore, Jason is here presented more like a deranged mountain man than the unstoppable, undead killer he more memorably becomes in later installments (or even relative to other 80’s celebrity slashers like Michael Meyers, Freddy Krueger and Chucky). He is just as susceptible to physical attacks as any of his victims (save, of course, for differences stemming from his dominating physique) and is even put down on several occasions by a well-timed blow. And as he had not yet settled on his iconic hockey mask, he goes through several disguises here – including a rubber monster mask and a one-eyed burlap sack – adding a layer of mystique that is simply absent when he later settles on a singular look.
Like what happened between Deadpool (2016) and Deadpool 2 (2018), the substantially increased budget between movies meant the second film was overall a better-realized version of the first. The cast is significantly increased from the mere handful of payers from only a year prior, the gore effects are more numerous and more elaborate and the increased number of sets each display a much more elaborate set design. It ultimately had the effect of creating a bigger, better and more thoroughly entertaining film than the first movie ever could have been (even if anything resembling the first movie’s killer twist was absent in its sequel).
And despite the caricature of itself that the franchise would rapidly become, this early installment in the series is filled with genuinely likeable characters running the full gamut of teen hangout antics. The kills are both affecting and well spaced-out. The third-act reveal of a shrine devoted to Jason’s mother, complete with her decapitated head, is a great set-piece that goes a long way toward revealing the fractured mental state of the killer. And Ginny, whose so resourceful that she at one point convincingly disguises herself as Jason’s mother (by wearing her moldering clothes) and momentarily distracting Jason by ordering him about like a petulant child, is perhaps the best-realized Final Girl that the subgenre has ever produced.
It’s a genuine landmark film, in both its franchise and its genre, that doesn’t quite manage to rise above the quality of the first film, but remains a fresh entry into the rapidly developing slasher cycle. It is, in short, a must-see for horror fans and a worthy curiosity for everybody else.