Friday, 13 January 2012

Friday 13th and Jason Lives. Again

Maybe Crazy Ralph was right all along. With liquor on his breath, the eccentric bumpkin tried to warn those kids about the fate that was about to befall them: “You're doomed! You're all doomed!” OK, so he was actually referring to the gruesome curse of ‘Camp Blood’, but in light of what happened to the careers of most of the young stars of Friday 13th, his prophetic words take on a newfound prescience.

In a way, they were doomed from the start. Plucked from obscurity, to star in a high profile film series bankrolled by a major studio, it makes sense that these young performers would think that this was to be their big break. Unfortunately, for most of them, appearing in the long running hack-and-slash franchise meant instant death for their ambitions of a life in the performing arts.

In the same way that each successive sequel continually repeated the same tired format, young actors kept ignoring the fates that befell their predecessors. Incredulously bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, they turned up to scream their lungs out, only to end up in a pile of blood-slathered bodies, their dreams punctured by a piece of rusty farm equipment.

At the height of the slasher boom, Friday 13th ruled the horror box office. Each year a new instalment would pop up, offering fans a familiar dose of hokey dialogue, cheap shocks and dismemberment. They didn’t seem to care that the films had all the richness and layered complexity of youth hostel toilet paper – for them, the formula was king.

In spite of its ability to turn a healthy profit, Paramount always seemed a little ashamed of its malformed child. They might never have turned their back and let it drown (like those careless camp counsellors), but they certainly never bestowed much love or attention on it. As a consequence, fans of the genre’s most prolific killer have repeatedly been short-changed when it comes to behind-the-scenes material. The likely rationale is that, since so little creativity was expended in making the films, there were precious few stories to tell about the process.

Or so we thought, until author Peter Bracke decided to write the definitive history of the much-maligned franchise. Undaunted by the fact that some of the series’ alumni made Bin Laden seem comparatively easy to track down, Bracke spent three years locating and interviewing over 200 people involved in the films. He then began the process of fastidiously weaving together the complete story, from Sean Cunningham’s original right through to the franchise mash-up Freddy Vs Jason, using the transcripts from these interviews.

The result is ‘Crystal Lake Memories’, an astonishingly exhaustive history of a seemingly underserving subject. After all, it’s easy to understand how a film series like Star Wars or Godfather might warrants a no-stone-unturned approach. But Friday 13th?

To be clear, Bracke is under no illusions about the quality of the films themselves. But he understands their significance in the broader context of film history, as well as the hunger of the fans for an unexpurgated insight into how they were made. This combination of nostalgic affection and clear-mined objectivity ensures that the book remains honest and focused throughout its 320 pages.

By allowing the actors, film-makers and technicians to tell the story in their own words, Bracke neatly sidesteps the pitfalls of pretention that often come with writing a retrospective history. This is no revisionist attempt to position these films as art, merely a warts-and-all insight into the 1980s horror scene.

Along the way, a number of interesting stories and anecdotes come to life. We get to hear about the less-than inspired origins of the first film – Cunningham came up with the title, and ran a full-page ad in Variety to secure funding, without a script or much of an idea of what the finished film would be about. We also discover that the set of Part V was liberally dusted with white powder, as an incentive to keep performers on their toes during the long night shoots. Plus, it’s fascinating to learn that, despite the series’ reputation for depicting attractive young couples in the throes of passion, the young male stars of Part VII were all acting their socks off in order to convince audiences that they were heterosexual. Running concurrently throughout the narrative is the story of the MPAA and its desire to eviscerate the series itself. Wielding a blade even sharper than Jason could lay his hands on, the censors stripped back the gruesome effects to such a degree that some of the later instalments were about as bloody as an episode of Murder, She Wrote. And just as preposterous.

When Crystal Lake Memories was originally released six years ago, it became an instant bestseller and received glowing reviews. The only drawback, in fact, was its ungainly size – this is not a book you can read in the bath. Well, that and the costs associated with buying a coffee table book larger than the item of furniture it was intended for. With this in mind, Bracke has returned to the scene of the crime and forensically reconstructed the original volume with a host of new content. In the new eBook edition, available for iBook and Kindle on 13th February, readers will find storyboards, concept art and promotional materials, as well as a bunch of new interviews with stars of the franchise who opted not to participate last time around.

Sadly, there’s still no sign of Crispin Glover or Kevin Bacon, the two actors who managed to build respectable careers off the back of their appearances in the series. Like many of the performers who appeared in the Friday films, they’d probably rather forget the fact that they were ever involved, in the same way that I overlook the 12 months I spent working in McDonalds as a student. Thankfully, the passage of time has loosened up the majority of performers, who can now reflect on their experiences with a degree of good humour and pragmatism. Having said that, it still makes for amusing reading to hear some of these thespians talking about their method approach and commitment to the role. Especially since the majority of their performances involved little more than a couple of lines of dialogue, before being skewered like a chunk of mutton in a Turkish grill.

Suffice it to say, an eBook about Friday 13th will probably have limited appeal outside of the die-hard fan community. But anyone with an interest in the horror genre, low budget film-making, or the harsh realities of Hollywood’s exploitative underbelly, will find plenty to keep them occupied in this meticulously compiled history. As Martin the gravedigger famously deadpanned in Part VI: "Some folks sure got a strange idea of entertainment."

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