A Storytelling Autopsy: Friday The 13th Part III In 3D

What follows is not a review, or even a proper critical evaluation of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III. Instead, I'll try to peel back the storytelling mechanics to explain why this stereoscopic film still haunts us.

(warning: spoilers follow, in the improbable case you haven't seen the film.)

Titles appears warning theatergoers that the first few minutes of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III are not presented in 3D.  There's good reason for this- the opening is actually an abridged version of PART II's climax.  It's doubtful that anything more was meant than to inform the audience that they wouldn't see anything pop from the screen for a few minutes, but these titles might as well ask us to view the footage with those cardboard glasses plastered to our faces, because in short order the film demands that we see the familiar sequence through very different eyes.  The recap ends with Ginny and Paul limping from Jason's shack.  No return to Ginny's cabin.  No muffin.  No Jason leaping through the window.  No Ginny waking on a stretcher.  None of that.  Because  things are different now and we've changes perspective again...


PART III has the strangest pacing of the entire series.  It's willing to veer off wildly into weird, offbeat moments that do little to advance the main plot.  The first of these deviations starts things off, beginning as soon as the main credits fade.  Harold and Edna's final moments do little more than set the tone of the film: less serious than the previous entries, with stagy death sequences more in line with wax museum torture scenes than the brutal realism that came before.  The filmmakers never go for the jugular the way the others did.  The intention is for this one to be harmless fun.  And, y'know, in 3D.

Fast forward to the yo-yos, paddle-balls, and popcorn.

FRIDAY THE 13TH and its first sequel rely heavily on motif-driven narrative tricks to give the story impact.  By the time the cameras rolled on PART III, the series had already become synonymous with a specific sort of suspense and shock sequence, often referred to as “stalk-n-slash” scenes. While the gore shots undeniably are crucial elements to those films, they would be completely ineffectual without  a strong storytelling infrastructure. To prove this point, look no further than grislier entries in the '80s slasher wave like NIGHTMARE IN A DAMAGED BRAIN, which has a devoted cult following that is microscopic compared to FRIDAY's audience.

But in 1982, Paramount really didn't care. They wanted another sequel- not for story, structure, or impact, but purely for the cash office receipts it would generate. So, rather than focus on the very elements that made this series the defining franchise of the slasher cycle, the suits decided to plunge headfirst into William Castlesque gimmickry. Enter 3D (yo-yos, paddle-balls, and popcorn).

It takes the film a remarkably long time to introduce the main cast. The 2009 quasi-remake pulls the same stunt but for a much more dramatic purpose. Here, the narrative simply wanders for a while before settling down with Chris, Rick, and the crew. It's notable, too, that our “final couple” are the least interesting characters in the film (!) and that even bit players like the bikers and Mrs. Sanchez have more depth (yes, I did that intentionally). The new partygoers are particularly one-dimensional (okay, I'll stop) characters better suited to television sit-coms. Shelly, Chuck, and Chili endear themselves to fans because they're broad parodies of familiar archetypes.  A couple of middle-aged hippies straight out of a (then-current) Cheech & Chong stoner comedy?  In a FRIDAY THE 13TH movie? Shelly seems like an exaggerated extension of the Ned and Ted family tree, practical jokers teetering between loveable and obnoxious. Unlike those characters, Shelly's jokes are unrealistically elaborate if not impossible (how did he pack the scuba gear and fake hatchet?).  Excess is everywhere.

Perhaps feeling that killing off Crazy Ralph in the second film was a mistake (and because that movie's  more psychological bent is completely abandoned this time around), we quickly are introduced to Abel, a transparent attempt to capture a little of the original's flavor. I guess there should be some sort of metaphor involved when the film's would-be Roman Chorus waves an eyeball at the audience in 3-D, but I'll be damned if I can unravel it. 

But, y'know, yo-yos, paddle-balls, popcorn-

-and an eye.

The major “innovation” here seems to be the insinuation that Chris was raped by Jason at some previous point.  It's exactly here that it becomes clear that the filmmakers fundamentally misunderstand Jason.  The idea of the character procreating- that is, creating life rather than taking it- is as misguided as it gets.  Jason died, according to his mother, because of sex.  The character's entire logic is shattered- or maybe not, since the movie doesn't take the scene to its logical conclusion.  But if the idea is not  followed through, why have it at all?  It serves no purpose, not even on a exploitation level, since there's no blood or skin in the scene at all.

To fully understand why FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III succeeds wildly as a visual experience but fails miserably on a storytelling level, we need only look as far as the Final Girl.  Alice was an artist.; Ginny a student of psychology.  The films that were built around those characters made sense.  We see the world through their eyes and it's consistent and believable.  But Chris?  What exactly do we even know about her, except she's avoids intimacy (unlike Alice and Ginny, by the way) and was probably sexually assaulted by a character who detests sex?  Nothing.  As such, there's nothing to build a film around, and it doesn't feel for a minute like anyone tried.  Without a central point of view, the film veers off wildly (Harold and Edna, a trip to the store, the biker's mischief) and every detail seems larger than life and unrealistic.

Of course, in the middle of this whirlwind of anti-contextualized threads, Steve Miner and crew accomplished something far greater than anything in the previous entries.  This is ground zero, the film that cemented Jason as a classic film icon, on par with James Bond, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe.  It's the mask, naturally, and Richard Booker's fearless performance.  It's seriously impossible to imagine this film enduring the way it has without either of those elements.

FRIDAY THE 13TH PART III is undeniably one of the most fun links in the franchise's chain.  Story-wise, it's also one of the weakest.  Thankfully, the next entry would be filmed in the traditional two-dimensional format.  And the series' depth would return.

Yo-yos.  Paddle-balls.  Popcorn.

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