Friday the 13th Part II wasn’t supposed to be a sequel at all.
Initially, the plan was to ignore all the previous ongoings at Camp Crystal Lake and launch an annual anthology that would get ‘80s teens flocking to the cinemas for an entirely different type of scary movie each year. But money talks, and after the original slasher raked in nearly $40 million on a budget of just $550,000, producers realized it would be more profitable to simply serve up more of the same.
To say that this U-turn was divisive is an understatement.
Previous director Sean S. Cunningham and screenwriter Victor Miller walked away from the franchise in objection, as did prosthetics maestro Tom Savini, who understandably couldn’t comprehend its logic-defying narrative (“It asks you to accept a lot”). Still, the tried and tested approach worked, and the 1981 release (40 years ago on April 30) ultimately paved the way for a further ten horrors of varying quality over the next three decades.
Jason Voorhees’ upgrade from brief cameo to central villain was undoubtedly Friday the 13th Part II’s most pivotal development. The character only pops up (literally) toward the original’s climax for a classic jump scare which some believed was a figment of sole survivor Alice’s imagination. Surely a young boy believed to have drowned couldn’t have survived in the wilderness for 30 years without being spotted? The sequel soon proved that somehow, yes, yes he could.
Jason here isn’t quite the indestructible, unstoppable machine that later takes over Manhattan, gets sent to space, and goes up against fellow ‘80s boogeyman Freddy Krueger. For one thing, he’s wearing a hessian sack over his deformed features (a la The Town That Dreaded Sundown’s The Phantom) rather than the hockey mask that would become his trademark. He’s also a little clumsy and haphazard in his murderous pursuits.
There’s even a trickle of humanity left. You almost feel sorry for the big galoot when he’s duped into thinking his psychotic dead mother (whose decapitated, mummified head he’s enshrined, obviously) is speaking to him from beyond the grave.
But Jason still manages to create a reign of terror every bit as impressive as his mother, dispatching with the new camp counselors who’ve descended upon Crystal Lake five years on with surprising ingenuity. Doom-mongering Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney), one of three returnees, is garroted. Mark (Tom McBride) gets a machete to the face before tumbling down a flight of stairs (seemingly glued to his wheelchair) in an unintentionally comical fashion. Jason even kills two for the price of one when he impales Sandra (Marta Kober) and Jeff (Bill Randolph) mid-coitus, perhaps the most blatant example of the slasher genre punishing the horny.
A member of the Voorhees family going on the rampage is just one of many ways in which Part II improves on what it's heavily borrowed from Part I. The ill-fated gang essentially look the same as Kevin Bacon and co., yet are much more likable on the whole, particularly Ginny (Amy Steel) whose tenaciousness and resourcefulness earned her the status of the franchise’s ultimate final girl.
The child psychology student even extends sympathy toward Jason during a chat about his possible existence and motives for revenge. (“And you know the only person he’d ever known was his mother… I mean, she was everything to him”). Of course, she then draws upon her psychoanalysis to warp his mind in the climactic showdown, dressing up as a figure from the past in a briefly successful bid to make him surrender (a tactic that would be replicated by Corey Feldman’s Tommy in 1984’s misleadingly-titled The Final Chapter).
Friday the 13th Part II also boasts better cinematography (the slight increase in budget seems to have allowed for a much-needed lighting director) and largely thanks to nerdy jokester Ted (Stu Charno) even some attempts at humor, something which director Steve Miner would build on further in the 3D third installment that arrived just a year later.
Upgraded from assistant producer, Miner makes some odd decisions, too. The opening scene takes an interminably long time recapping the events of Part I before Alice is fatally stabbed with an ice pick. (Actress Adrienne King actually asked to be killed off quickly after becoming traumatized by a deranged real-life fan. She subsequently abandoned acting for nearly 30 years.)
Terry (Kirsten Baker) is given the ultimate horror insult – an offscreen death. And bizarrely, the fate of Paul (John Furey) after Jason’s final surprise attack is never revealed.
As with the other 11 Friday the 13ths, Part II is far from a classic of the genre, its setting too generic and its backstory too convoluted to be considered anything other than a nuts-and-bolts slasher. Yet by connecting the low-budget thrills of the original with the more outlandish spills of its follow-ups, it remains the most instrumental chapter in the franchise’s bizarre mythology.