Thursday, May 10, 2012

Friday the 13th DVD

Friday the 13th Uncut. With Extras. From Paramount. After years and years of being slighted by the mountain, fans had all but given up on Region 1 releases of either of those two prospects. (For once) We can thank remakes for bringing on this new edition that’s both uncut with the gore from the International release of the film, and filled with a number of extras. The film needs no introduction, but certainly deserves reevaluation, since in the ensuing years that Jason’s become a horror staple, the first film is actually much different than it’s usually given credit for. This new Blu-ray also encourages reevaluations of the picture and sound, which in the previous years have been both grainy and flat. This is a huge release for horror fans – did Paramount get it right?

The Story

A couple conservatively peppy counselors sing in choir and play the banjo around the fire. Not exactly the kind of edgy opening one would expect from a movie with the notoriety of Friday the 13th – but yes, that’s how it all began. It’s 1958 at Camp Crystal Lake. A couple of the counselors sneak off and make a little love upstairs in the cabin, only to be assaulted by none other than the first person camera perspective. Slow motion screaming and then…a faux 3D title comes literally crashing through the screen. Friday the 13th. After that prologue, we jump to “Friday June 13 – The Present” where goshgolly Annie (Robbi Morgan) treks underneath a massive camping backpack through a small city on the east coast. She comes upon a diner. “Excuse me…how far is Camp Crystal Lake from here?” She’s met with silent stares and cryptic comments from the townsfolk. There’s a deep and dark history there that extends far beyond that opening kill.

We all know it now, but yes, there was a little boy who drowned there a few years preceding the 1958 double murder. Jason was his name, I think. After his death, strange things started happening at camp. There were fires. The water went bad. And then, there were murders. The camp got shut down, but thanks to blind ambition by Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), it’s being ready for reopening. Annie is to be the cook, and manages to thumb her way to just outside the campgrounds. She’s picked up by one more driver, but instead of taking her to camp, the driver leads her to slaughter deep within the woods. Thus begins the vaunted “24 hour nightmare of terror”.

The rest of the prospective counselors shrug off Annie’s absence – they’re there for a good time. Alice (Adrienne King) has some history with Steve, and hints at rekindling that old flame. Jack (Kevin Bacon, yeah, that one) and Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) have a lot of sex. Ned (Mark Nelson) pranks the crowd with archery hijinks and faking his drowning. Brenda (Laurie Bartram) and Bill (Harry Crosby, son of Bing) plans some Strip Monopoly after nightfall. Unbeknownst to them, though, there’s a killer on the loose, and it’s about to get nasty. Spears through the neck, beheadings and cinema’s best bitch fight await on horror’s unluckiest day.

Although writer Victor Miller makes no qualms about calling Friday the 13th a Halloween clone, it is much more than that. It certainly wasn’t the first film to cash in on Carpenter’s success story (although one could argue it was the first with big studio backing), with movies like Driller Killer, Snapshot and Silent Scream paving the way. So why was it the first to really resonate? Miller was able to strip the genre, which through Carpenter’s film was one rooted the classical Old Hollywood tidings of suspense, composition and performance, and turn it into, as director Sean S. Cunningham perfectly states on the DVD, “blue collar horror”. There was no pretention – hell, there hardly was any form. The camera was shaky, the lighting was naturalistic, the performances amateur and the story as pared down as one could be. Even the whodunit was catering, since there are no hints about the identity of the killer, and once it’s all revealed, the killer just fills in all the blanks anyway. Friday the 13th was raw, unpresuming and totally earnest. It promised a good time, and in 1980, that’s all young America needed.

Tom Savini’s effects work is justly praised, with standouts like Kevin Bacon’s spear to the throat, Marcie’s axe to the face or Jason’s lakeside “how do you do” finale destined to stay on death demo reels for decades to come. That’s not what makes the film so effective, though. Harry Manfredini’s Psycho on Speed score, with all its iconic violin shrills and “ch ch ch”-ing isn’t the reason, either. Nor is the lush green, isolated and idyllic camp setting with all its imbued nostalgia. You can’t even peg this one on Kevin Bacon’s penis like you could Hollow Man and Wild Things, although it still sneaks its way into the film via cinema’s tightest Speedo. No, what makes the film so effective is the way Victor Miller’s script keeps the bodycount thumping without ever pausing for plotting or pretension. It’s the same sort of direct cinema as The Last House on the Left, only minus the literary pretension of Craven’s Bergman allegory. It’s a bunch of average kids getting killed in the woods, and the kills come like clockwork.

Whether you’re white collar, blue collar or not even fit for a collar at all, there is something refreshingly communal about the accessibility of Friday the 13th. The script wears its hand on its sleeve, and Cunningham shoots it just as it’s shown, and the way it so earnestly puts these totally unassuming twentysomethings into the boiler is so strangely inviting. The movie doesn’t wear its simplicity like some kind of better than thou badge like The Strangers. It just is. There are few movies as comfortable in their own plain skin as Friday the 13th, and it’s that straightforwardness that makes the film so continually inviting. Anyone can watch it, anyone can appreciate it, and it’s that warm, even wholesome, simplicity that continues to separate it from by all other means better slashers (like the sequel, for instance). There may be a ton of Jason films proper, or even more Halloween clones, but there’s nothing else out there that appeals to such simple cinematic delights as the first Friday the 13th.

Maybe calling it much more than just a usual Halloween clone isn’t really fitting. Perhaps a better designation would be to call it, in fact, much less. It’s a night out in the woods, and before that formula needed a hook (be it Manhattan or 3-D), that was the simplicity the genre needed. From the frenzy of finding a snake in the bunkhouse and the ohmygosh scare of a swimming resuscitation prank to a crazy old coot riding his bicycle through the woods and a group effort to remove a stump from the ground, Friday the 13th is the kind of effortless, direct cinema that before this only felt natural in documentaries. Of all the things that can be spoken about this horror watershed, I think I’ll settle on its quiet, quaint truth. A tale of a mamma who loved too much!

Image Quality

Friday the 13th has had no less than four different releases in R1, and this release is in many ways the best the film has ever looked…unfortunately, it’s also the worst. First, the good. Compared to all the previous releases, there’s no question the Blu-ray looks a whole heck of a lot better. Contrast is vastly improved, bringing detail to areas of the screen that were previously bathed in black. Consider the scene with Bill outside the cabin – it’s only in the new Blu-ray (and to a lesser extent the DVD) that the window can actually be seen. Before, it was black. This extends into plenty of other scenes, most interestingly the scene where Mr. Christie gets knifed, since now you can make out the identity of the killer if you freeze frame it fast enough. The Blu-ray, naturally, has an even wider contrast latitude than the new DVD, and the added detail it brings out really allows the film to be seen anew.

The new transfer is also noticeably sharper than the previous DVD releases, bringing forth a crispness that just wasn’t there before. You see new things, like the hair on Tom Savini’s assistant’s, err, Mrs. Voorhees’ hands when she loses her head. You see cellulite on Marcie’s legs. The scene at the end where Mrs. Voorhees pauses for her “Kill her!” soliloquy is so sharp it almost jumps off the screen. There are plenty of those “wow” moments throughout the film, where it feels as if it’s being viewed through a window. Of course, there are plenty of other times when that window is a very grainy, color-faded, flickering window. Friday the 13th certainly isn’t benchmark. For every scene of vivid clarity and color during the daytime exteriors, there are all those dark, grainy blue-tinted night scenes where the blacks don’t hold and the exposure is anything but perfect. Check out Annie's scenes before the diner for some rough film flicker, or the edges of the later night scenes for some color tinting. Again, though, even those scenes come out for the better on this new transfer.

The color timing this last go round, too, is much better. Flesh tones are much more flattering this time around – just look at that Crazy Ralph snap. This looks to have been corrected scene by scene, too, since the Ralph scene takes out the red, while the overly-orange scene of Alice at the end adds some to make it look much more natural. The outside exteriors look much more lush with this new color filtering, as well. The way this whole transfer adds detail, sharpens edges and enhances color, it really makes the film look much more beautiful than its shoddy reputation would suggest. And these images hold up on the big screen.

It may look much better on bigger televisions, but the problem is that there is just way less there. The new Blu-ray and DVD are inexplicably zoomed in a robust 11% compared to the original 2004 DVD (10% compared to the 1999 DVD). This more often than not compromises the simple beauty of a lot of the shots, where previously comfortable group shots suddenly have hands chopped on the bottoms and shoulders on the sides. As the included screenshot shows, it’s a pretty significant crop, and something that Paramount really needs to answer for. Even all the uncut footage has been previously shown without crop, so one would think someone must have misframed, or mishandled this print somewhere down the telecine line. That doesn't look like the case. The cropping seems to change position from shot to shot, so there was clearly a conscious effort here to artistically manipulate the image. The DOP is nowhere to be found on the extras to this disc, so I highly doubt he gave approval - and I can't imagine Cunningham facilitating such a change. Someone went in and changed this, and someone has some 'splainin' to do.

When Code Red mucked up the theatrical cut of Sweet Sixteen, they at least threw on a proper transfer of the Director’s Cut. When Severin delivered a low level audio mix of The Psychic they issued a full recall and audio upgrade. These are smaller companies…when bigger companies do this, like Universal did when they zoomed in and misframed Back to the Future Part II & III, they issued an apology and a free refund to anyone who bought the previous discs. Paramount, your framing issues here are just as significant. What are you going to do about it?   


If the idea of a Blu-ray transfer seemed totally out of the cards for this modest little potboiler, then a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track (or Dolby Digital 5.1 on the new DVD) must really have seemed out of line. Yet Paramount has delivered with this sharp and effective remix. Harry Manfredini’s score sounds beautifully rich and active – it’s always skirting around the five channels, although there isn’t a great deal of directionality. Still, it’s pretty cool hearing the “ah ah ah” sounds capping off in the rears. There are even a few stereo bits, like when all the drives to Crystal Lake go from left screen to right. The dialogue and effects still sound a bit flat, but hey, it’s a 28-year old mono-based cheapie. Hearing distinct cricket chirps in the satellite speakers should be bonus enough! Mono tracks are also included for prosperity’s sake.

Supplemental Material

An amalgam of old and new, this new special edition culls from both the From Crystal Lake to Manhattan box set and the overseas Warner special edition from 2004, as well as serving up some new footage exclusive for this release. It should also be noted that the Blu-ray has two supplements not on the new DVD – “The Friday the 13th Chronicles” and “Secrets Galore Behind the Gore”. Before we get into that though, let’s first cover the real bonus: uncut. The back of the box states “This unrated version contains 10 seconds of footage different from the original R-Rated version,” so this means that we aren’t being shown anything entirely new or groundbreaking, but now, finally, all the kills can be presented intact.

In the uncut version, Annie’s throat slit at the start stays on those extra few seconds as she falls out of frame and it fades to white. Previously, this scene was shown in full on the original 1999 release, but on the version included in the “From Crystal Lake to Manhattan” box set it faded to white almost right after the slash. Mrs. Voorhees’ beheading is also included in its entirety. Previously, on the 1999 version the scene cut almost instantly after the head was severed, whereas this version (and the one included in the box set) shows her headless torso with those male looking hands grasping at air. The longest addition is the Kevin Bacon kill, which for the first time is presented uncut and with a completely different viewpoint previously only shown in cut footage on the 2004 box set. This shot comes right after the profile shot of the throat stabbing, looking up from above. While this includes more blood and a different vantage point, it’s far less convincing than the angle that’s commonly shown, and in ways lessens the impact of the scene. Other than those additions, every other scene seems to be unaltered from previous releases.

Okay, now onto the extras. How does that wedding custom go…something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue? Well, the old includes two previously mentioned Blu-ray exclusives. “The Friday the 13th Chronicles” is the first segment from the feature-length documentary included on the 2004 box set, running about 20-minutes and exclusively on the first film. With interviews with Sean S. Cunningham, Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, and our first Jason, Ari Lehman, it’s a loving recollection of the whirlwind that was the first Friday. Palmer talks about how she thought the script was a piece of shit but agreed to do it for need of a new car. Lehman talks about how his swimming skills were the only pre-req for the job. King talks about the original reception, and Cunningham just can’t quite believe how it’s all become such a million dollar industry. If you haven’t seen if before, the piece at the very least treads water. The same can be said for the other Blu-ray exclusive carry over, “Secrets Galore Behind the Gore”. This one is 9-minutes, and is basically Tom Savini going through each kill and revealing the effects work behind it. Most of it is pretty common knowledge now, but the effects are all so good it’s nice to hear it again, and right from the source.

Something new? This Blu-ray (and the new DVD) has four fresh features fixed for this disc, which are all presented in HD. The first is “Fresh Cuts: New Tales from Friday the 13th”, and it delivers just what it promises – anecdotes that previously haven’t been heard. Savini memorably talks about how he helped stage the final bitch fight, or how he almost shot Sean S. Cunningham with an arrow. Victor Miller explains the motivations behind the scripting process (basically, ape Halloween) and talks about the original title of the film. Harry Manfredini finally talks about his notorious score, like how the final track was actually culled from a pop tune he had made years before. Ari Lehman talks about setting up for the famous finale, but the most surprising, and welcome, addition is Robbi Morgan to discuss her role as Annie and being Friday’s first post-credits kill. There’s a ton of other nuggets from the speakers and for 14-minutes the Friday the 13th anecdote bank gets a bunch bigger. Great stuff.

The next new extra is “Friday the 13th Reunion”, which is 17-minutes from a 2008 panel discussion featuring Savini, Lehman, Miller, Palmer, Manfredini and King. This extra has the benefit of spontaneity, where audience members ask Adrienne King to belt out a scream (and boy, does she deliver) and Betsy Palmer to talk about her declined offer to work on Freddy vs. Jason (“I’m an actress for God’s sake!). It’s all candid, mostly funny, and at times even serious, like when King addresses how a stalker stopped her from fully participating in the sequel. The only complaint is that it goes by so fast – it would have been nice to include the entire event in its entirety rather than truncating it for all the meat and potatoes.

Rounding off the new extras are a few shorter bonuses. The first is “The Man Behind the Legacy: Sean S. Cunningham”. It would have been nice to hear him talk more about his career (from doing porn with Craven to making the awesome sex comedy Spring Break to crafting another hit with House to finally getting away from directing), but unfortunately this focuses almost entirely on Friday the 13th and how it paid for the beautiful home he tours us through. It’s 9-minutes of him talking about his reasoning behind making the film purely for profit purposes, and while not boring, it’s more redundant given all the other features. There’s also the trailer presented anew in HD and “Lost Tales from Camp Blood – Part 1”, which has the novel idea of making a brand new kill scene using the Friday the 13th trademarks. Although in execution it comes off a little amateur, it’s still cool to see a new death with the Manfredini music. My one big gripe – you don’t even see the killer, let alone the mask. C’mon! Still, a great idea and one of the freshest extras to come around in awhile.

The something borrowed bit includes the commentary track leased out from Warner’s Region 2 special edition. It’s moderated by “Crystal Lake Memories” author, Peter Bracke, and in addition to the usual suspects (Cunningham, Palmer, King) there’s also words from the editor and assistant editor, as well as writer Victor Miller. It’s a big truncated and formal with introductions every time a new speaker is edited in, but they sure cover a lot of ground. Bracke does well in introducing several critical topics of interest to give the anecdotes more weight, like how the film is often embraced by the gay community for its “coming out” parallels and how it differentiates itself from most other slashers.

Blue? Well, the extras are solid and diverse, but there’s still a bit to feel blue about. There’s really no talk on the cinematography and specifically on production. Barry Abrams has always been curiously silent on his work as director of photography and most glaringly Steve Miner still hasn’t come out to talk about this film and the two he directed. More about how the shooting went would have been welcome, too, particularly how all those counselors got along on set. It would have been nice to have heard from more of the actors (come on, Kevin), although at least Annie finally came out of hiding. Forget all those Jason reunions, he’s a guy behind a mask…how’s about a counselor reunion!? This release does well in really archiving discussion from a lot of participants, but at this point it’s still not quite definitive. I look forward to more years down the road, but for now, this will more than fill the void that had been left open far too long.

Final Thoughts

Friday the 13th is a slasher film like no other, so quaint, simple and downright accessible, yet packed to the brim with gruesome gore effects. The other films may have one-upped the gore, but none have captured that innocent campground nostalgia the way this first film has. This new release gives fans what they’ve been asking for with a ton of extras from all over that provide hours of Friday mythology. The new 5.1 surround track really opens the film up, and the Blu-ray visuals are sharper, filled with greater detail and fuller colors. There’s only one problem with this release, but unfortunately it’s big. Eleven percent big. The film has been zoomed in significantly from previous releases, often compromising the compositions. It’s a substantial shortcoming, and something that needs to be addressed by Paramount immediately. Until this issue is fixed, this new release is incomplete and cannot be recommended. Why does Friday the 13th get all the bad luck?

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