Color, 1980, 90 mins.

Produced and Directed by Sean Cunningham

Starring Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, Jeannine Taylor, Robbi Morgan, Kevin Bacon, Harry Crosby, Laurie Bartram, Mark Nelson, Peter Brouwer / Written by Victor Miller / Music by Henry Manfredini / Cinematography by Barry Abrams

Format: DVD - Paramount (MSRP $24.98)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital Mono

Unlike the Nightmare on Elm Street series, the notorious Friday the 13th films didn't simply spawn serial killer extraordinaire Jason Voorhees full fledged within the first film. Instead, the first four Friday films, deeply flawed as they are, form a kind of unholy evolutionary scale chronicling the development of a horror icon. From this perspective, the first film may come as a rude shock for anyone expecting a guy in a hockey mask hacking up unsuspecting teenagers.

Following a vague prologue in which a pair of horny camp counselors are killed by someone or something unseen, the film picks up in the "present day" with a young girl, Annie, hitchhiking her way to Camp Crystal Lake, where she is to begin working for the summer. Unfortunately, her driver turns nasty and slits her throat in the middle of the woods. Cut to Camp Crystal Lake itself, where a truckload of counselors in training are preparing for the reopening of the notorious, cursed summer camp. As night falls, the bored teens resort to strip poker and other adolescent activities to pass the time, but strangely enough, they seem to be vanishing one by one. Soon the requisite virginal member of the troupe, Alice (Adrienne King), finds herself going face to face against the killer in a brutal fight to the death.

Friday the 13th completely personifies the early '80s slasher genre: fresh young victims, gory (but not lingering) killings, and plenty of cheap, moody scares. Though artistic craftsmanship is hardly the name of the game here, director Cunningham (House) displays a reasonable ability to wring the maximum amount of tension out of a basic "afraid in the dark" situation. Furthermore, the film packs some extremely effective jolts, particularly the Carrie-inspired last minute shocker that left many viewers ejecting several feet above their theater seats. None of the actors, including a young Kevin Bacon, have much to do but make a fairly amiable group, and for once this slasher prototype actually takes its time between slaughters to build up some sense of characterization. This method may seem boring to jaded viewers brought up on hyperactive slasherthons (particularly the film's middle third, in which virtually nothing happens), but for anyone who wants to see where the genre got its start, this and Halloween are the places to start.

Watchable U.S. editions of Friday the 13th have been few and far between over the years. Paramount's original U.S. video master was simply terrible, cropped distractingly from the 1.85:1 theatrical prints and sadly lacking in any color or black scale. The Warner Brothers Japanese laserdisc and VCD release featured a fullscreen transfer with much additional image on all four sides of the screen, but more intriguingly, Tom Savini's splashy gore effects ran on for an additional few seconds during three murder scenes. Though limited to a few frames in some cases, Annie's throat slashing, a facial axing, and one infamous spear through the bed gag contained enough additional explicitness to send gorehounds buzzing with excitement. When Paramount announced the title for DVD, anticipation waned when the standard R rating was cited for the print. However, at least the first murder remains uncut, surprisingly enough, and the axing sequence (a mere handful of frames) doesn't matter much one way or the other. The spearing - easily the most viscerally horrifying moment in the film - is the only noticeable loss but remains startling even in its MPAA-approved form. The transfer itself, however, easily compensates. Nicely framed with all vertical information intact, this anamorphic transfer easily outclasses every previous version in all departments. Though some signs of cheap early '80s photography pop through here and there, mostly thanks to a little shadow grain during the early daylight opening scenes, this is truly a Friday like you've never seen. The mono soundtrack is noticeably cleaner than the laserdisc, with Harry Manfredini's classic repetitive score still sounding appropriately shrill and jarring. The DVD also includes the long version of the theatrical "countdown" trailer, and while it's a shame Paramount obviously didn't pack this one with extras as well as the treatment of its most obvious counterparts, Elm Street and Halloween, horror fans should be quite pleased with its presentation here.

Color, 1981, 87 mins.

Produced and Directed by Steve Miner

Starring Amy Steel, John Furey, Adrienne King, Kirsten Baker, Stuart Charno, Warrington Gillette, Walt Gorney, Marta Kober / Written by Ron Kurz / Music by Henry Manfredini / Cinematography by Peter Stein

Format: DVD - Paramount (MSRP $24.98)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital Mono

Usually dismissed as a lesser remake of the first film, Friday the 13th Part II has aged interestingly over the years and in many respects surpasses its predecessor. Like the original, the level of artistic craftsmanship (not to mention story and characer depth) is practically nonexistent, but these films are drenched in that creepy, atmospheric, and strangely innocent early '80s slasher atmosphere that was sadly killed off by too many imitations and jokey sequels. Significantly, this film also marks the first extended appearance of the maniacal, deformed Jason Voorhees, a silent behemoth who stalks teenagers as retribution for his drowning experience as a child. However, in this film he sports a torn cloth bag over his head (a la The Elephant Man) and only donned his famous hockey mask beginning with Part III.

Beginning with a brief, arbitrary prologue in which Alice (Adrienne King) suffers from nightmares of her Camp Crystal Lake experience and winds up encountering Jason in the flesh, the film gets down to business as another group of counselors coming to open a summer camp near "Camp Blood" five years after the bloody slaughter. After the obligatory warning from Crazy Ralph, the not terribly bright pack settles down and gets ready for an evening of adolescent abandon. Some of the teens go to town and mingle with the locals, while others stick around and find themselves winding up as fodder for Jason's implements of death. As the body count builds, two survivors remain to fight Jason on his own, brutal terms.

Unlike Friday the 13th, which suffered only subliminal trims to achieve an R rating, the sequel wound up on the chopping block as it were and lost most of its gory highlights along the way. Virtually every genre publication has noted this film's debt to Mario Bava's Bay of Blood (Twitch of the Death Nerve) thanks to two murder sequences (a machete to the face and a double impaling during sex), but virtually no blood is actually spilled on camera during the entire film. Despite the series' reputation, most of the violence occurs through suggestion and shock cuts starting with this entry, and Steve Miner handles the directorial chores with enough verve to make this look like a masterpiece compared to Halloween: H20. Thanks to some moody cinematography and the usual nerve-grating music score, Miner manages to work up some effective chills; unfortunately, he still can't cover up the fact that the last two minutes - while undeniably jolting and haunting - make no sense whatsoever.

As with the original Friday, Paramount has delivered an impressive new anamorphic transfer that looks much cleaner and more colorful than most viewers know from ratty VHS and late night cable screenings. While it's regrettable that none of the legendary lost gore footage could be reinstated, the film makes a nice time capsule and should now enjoy an improved reputation. The U.S. trailer, another countdown starting from the number 14 and working up(!), mistakenly implies that there were 13 counselors in the first film; in any case, it's a fun reminder of how horror salesmanship used to operate. Hopefully if these two releases go over well, Paramount will see fit to release the next two films in the series, maybe with the third entry in 3-D. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but anything's possible.

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