Friday the 13th Part 2 is the best film in the Friday the 13th series (and by a pretty wide margin). It is also possibly the best slasher film of all time (it should be noted that I do not consider Black Christmas, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or even Halloween as full-on slashers). However, I would argue that it is largely underrated, even among fans of the franchise. Several installments routinely receive more attention and praise than this film, especially the original, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, and Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. While I would acknowledge that these are three of the better entries in the series, I would rank the second film above any of them.
That Part 2 manages to be better than the original film is particularly impressive. Not because I think the original is a great film (I don’t) but rather because it is so rare for a sequel to be better than the original. Furthermore, Friday the 13th Part 2 isn’t better simply because it just barely clears the low bar set by the original film; on the contrary, the second film greatly improves on the first in nearly every regard. I believe this is partly because it is almost more a remake of the original than a sequel to it.
Stick to the Formula
No doubt, the entire Friday the 13th series has a distinctly iterative quality, with each entry being essentially a repetition of a formula rather than a continuation of a larger narrative. Friday the 13th Part 2, however, is the most salient example of “sequel as remake” in the series, as it hews even closer to the film that precedes it than subsequent entries would. While later installments would venture farther afield (some might say astray), the changes tended to be mostly superficial. By and large, the Friday the 13th franchise is one guided firmly by the mantra (so eloquently expressed by Mike Love in response to Brian Wilson’s penchant for musical experimentation) “Don’t @#$% with the formula.”
This uniquely repetitive quality of the series is, of course, one of the things it is most criticized for. Importantly, I don’t think most fans of the series (myself included) would deny the franchise’s “reuse and recycle” ethos. However, rather than getting hung up on it, fans accept and embrace it (it even becomes part of the fun of the series). Thus, once one accepts these films for what they are, the task of evaluating individual installments becomes largely a matter of determining how well (or poorly) that entry executes the basic formula.
Second Verse, Same as Better Than the First!
For me, Part 2 is the pinnacle of the series precisely because it executes the formula so well (essentially perfecting it). While the original Friday the 13th is correctly credited with establishing the slasher movie formula, it is marred by tedium and sloppiness. For example, there are numerous sequences that appear to be lit entirely by flashlight, rendering any action almost indiscernible. There are also several pointless scenes, e.g. Steve at the diner, that accomplish nothing (no plot or character development, no building of suspense, no foreshadowing, not even comic relief) and seem to exist only to pad out the runtime.
The second film, however, executes the formula with more care, competence, and style. Thus, while the original film is an example of a good idea hindered by mediocre execution, the second film is essentially the inverse: a mediocre (or at least logically questionable) idea executed very well. For me, the execution part (so to speak) of a slasher film is always more important than the conceptual part, and this has a lot to do with why I enjoy the second film far more than the first.
Friday the 13th Part 2 is better than the original in just about every meaningful way. For one thing, it is noticeably better directed (Steve Miner’s superior grasp of visual storytelling is abundantly clear). To cite just one example: fairly early in the film, a police officer chases Jason through the woods until coming upon his shack (and no, I don’t know how it is that Jason apparently has indoor plumbing, but the shack itself is a nice bit of creepy set design, nonetheless). During this scene, Miner makes a point of showing each character crossing over a puddle. Why does this matter? Well, it does two things.
First, in the moment, it is a small but effective way of indicating where these characters are in relation to each other. Second, it sets up something that comes later in the film, specifically during the extended final girl sequence. During this sequence, Jason chases Ginny, who eventually stumbles across the same shack from earlier in the film; before she gets there, though, we see her cross the same puddle, which now serves the purpose of telling us where Ginny is (and, more importantly, where she’s about to be). It’s particularly effective because we, of course, know what this means, while she obviously has no idea.
So, this one seemingly inconsequential visual detail actually does quite a lot: it orients us, as the viewers, spatially within the film; it sets up something that comes later, acting as both subtle foreshadowing and providing a callback of sorts; and it even adds a little extra bit of anticipatory dread in the midst of a fast-paced and tense chase scene.
That’s not good slasher filmmaking, it’s just good filmmaking. It’s the kind of subtle and clever touch that is almost entirely absent from the first film (and, honestly, from most of the series) but is found throughout Part 2.
The Body Count Continues…the Incompetence, Thankfully, Does Not.
In addition to being better directed than the original, Part 2 is also better written (some of the dialogue is even intentionally funny), features acting that is at least as good if not better (with maybe one exception, no one is actively bad and most of the cast is actually good), and it looks and sounds better (the editing is crisper, the score is very similar but better, and the sound design is sharper). It also has the best final girl of the series and arguably the best final girl, period (as well as arguably the best final girl sequence ever). The villain is better (I’m sorry, but I can’t take Pamela Voorhees seriously) and the kills are underrated (it’s not Savini, but all the kills are solid and some are fantastic).
Overall, Part 2 is simply more economical, more intense, and more exciting than the first film. It’s also more grounded, rawer, and creepier than any of the later installments. It is, simply put, the purest distillation of everything that I want from a slasher film.
Part 2 vs The Original: The Same, but Different
Now, I realize that the second film does change some things from the original. I also realize that some of these very changes are why some people think the original is superior. On this matter, I will simply say that, while I respect those opinions, I strongly disagree.
The one significant change to the formula, the loss of the “mystery” element from the original film, has never bothered me; I’ve always thought the reveal in the first film is a bit of a cheat and that it makes the film feel more like a giallo than a true slasher.
I also recognize that Part 2’s entire existence is predicated on taking the original’s inciting event and saying, “just kidding.” This too has never bothered me. Perhaps if I thought the original was a truly great film, I might have an issue with the sequel’s blatant revisionism. But I don’t, and I don’t.
Additionally, I understand that some fans really dig the lo-fi realism of the original film, which includes many of the things that I have already criticized here as merely poor filmmaking. For me, the second film manages to retain some of that same grittiness but without looking poorly made.
Finally, I recognize that some might criticize the second film for its extended recap of the first film (especially given its already short runtime). To that, I would first say that several of the installments from this point on do the same thing, so it’s not a criticism unique to this film. Second, I kind of like that you can watch this one without having to watch the first one, since the recap provides a nice, succinct version of the first film, one that cuts out all the boring parts and leaves just the good stuff.
“I Get No Respect.” – Baghead Jason
While I have focused largely on comparing Part 2 favorably to the original, I would reiterate here that I would also compare it favorably to any of the other installments in the series. However, Part 2 is rarely cited as the best (or even in the top two or three) of the series. I think this is partly due to its transitional status, which can make it easy to overlook. While it is the entry that properly introduces Jason as the killer, he is not the iconic villain that fans would come to know and love. Here, he’s noticeably smaller and less a hockey enthusiast and more a fan of The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
I think the fact that Jason in this film is distinctly human and thus more believable makes Part 2 more genuinely frightening than later installments. I might even go so far as to say that this film may be the only installment that is actually scary or suspenseful (with the possible exception of the original). I might go even further and say that it may be the only installment that might actually be called “good” in any conventional sense.
As noted, I think the original is too shoddily made to be considered good, and while I enjoy some of the entries from the third film on, even the technically well-made ones have a distinctly different feel to them. Beginning with Part 3, the films get bigger but not necessarily better, as they become decidedly more about spectacle than atmosphere (I think Part 2 has the best balance of these two elements). I think it’s also worth noting here that Part 2 would be the last installment filmed in the woods of the northeast (New Jersey for the original and Connecticut for Part 2), something that goes a long way in lending the first two films a certain authenticity that is missing from subsequent entries.
Even for its faults (including its credulity straining premise), I feel like Part 2 is the last installment that can be, for the most part, taken seriously. I think this is partly because it takes itself more seriously than later installments would, while still not taking itself too seriously (another example of the film striking just the right balance). As a result, the film is still fun without being too self-aware and “in on the joke” (my main complaint about the widely loved Part VI).
Additionally, compared to later installments, the second film has a kind of elegant simplicity to it, both in concept and execution. It is noticeably more straightforward and less cluttered than subsequent entries, which would introduce more set-pieces, more effects, more characters, more kills, more plot, more…everything. In Part 2, the story is as simple as it is in the first film (actually, it’s even a little simpler). There’s no 3D, no superfluous characters, no additional backstories or subplots to confuse the timeline or slow down the pacing, no supernatural elements that require a suspension of disbelief, and no “name” actors to remind you it’s just a movie (I’m convinced that the presence of Corey Feldman and Crispin Glover has a lot to do with why so many fans love The Final Chapter so much).
Friday the 13th Part 2 is just a creepy guy running around the woods stalking and killing people, which is really all it needs to be. Of course, it wasn’t the only slasher film to strip the formula down to its most basic elements, it just did it better than any of the others.