The story goes that Sean S. Cunningham, producer of low budget movies (mostly horror, including Wes Craven’s first movie, The Last House on the Left) had an idea for a movie called Friday the 13th. He had no story, no characters, nothing else in mind except for the title. So he went to a graphic designer and had an ad designed with the title smashing through glass. The kicker was the tagline: The most terrifying film ever made. Then he placed the ad in Variety. The feedback was immediate. People–teenagers and young adults, mostly–wanted to see this movie.
Victor Miller wrote the story and Cunningham took on directing as well as producing. You know the story already: After being closed for 20 years because of murders, Camp Crystal Lake is being reopened as a place for inner-city youth to experience nature. A group of young people join Steve Christy in preparing for the reopening. Someone attacks and murders them one-by-one until the lone survivor, Alice, wins. There is a shock ending and an implication that a sequel could be made.
There is a gradual build-up to this first film. Miller and Cunningham start off with a young couple being murdered in 1958, but then allow some time for the characters to arrive at Crystal Lake and hang out before the killings really start up. There is the sense that they actually want the audience to know the characters.
Peter Brouwer as Steve Christy is pretty good, though he is hardly in the movie. He’s the “old man” of the group, in his mid-to-late-twenties, yet is young enough to have a thing for Alice (Adrienne King). There’s an implied romance there that is never developed.
Betsy Palmer is priceless as Mrs. Pamela Voorhees. Her arrival at the end of the movie is sudden but you instantly like her, and then fear her when she goes nutty. Her revelation that she’s the killer and her motive, the drowning death of her son Jason, is well done for a melodramatic scene. It looks as though she’s having a blast playing the crazed killer.
Tom Savini’s makeup is another thing that’s always fun to watch. His makeup never really feels polished yet is always believable. His strength as a makeup/special effects guy is in the roughness of the final product and helps the movie achieve a shock-value that the other early slasher movies lacked.
The music by Harry Manfredini is also really good. It’s very Psycho-meets-Jaws in its execution and sound. When the famous Friday music begins, you know to hang on to your armrest.
The overall feel of the movie isn’t serious. Sean S. Cunningham wasn’t trying to create a horror masterpiece, but rather was trying to make a fun, scary movie. Obviously inspired by John Carpenter’s Halloween, he moves away from his work with Wes Craven to something meant to sell a shitload of tickets, barrels of popcorn, and make kids scream and laugh. And it does. More than 30 years later it’s like opening a time capsule, but it’s fun.
And the last good thing about this movie is Kevin Bacon. He does a good job in this movie. Hell, all of the “kids” do a good job in this movie, but it’s Kevin fuckin’ Bacon! And this is where the passage of 33 years really counts. To see someone who has become more than just a really good actor but an icon in an early role like this is fun. It’s like seeing Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street, however, there’s a major difference between the two. I’ll get to that later.
The characterization is crap. With the exception of Mrs. Voorhees, none of the other characters have a history. The only “kid” who seems to have lived at all before this is Annie (Robbi Morgan) whom we first meet hiking into a small town on her way to Crystal Lake. She is thumbing her way there and gives a little insight into her life. There is an attempt at giving Steve Christy and Alice a little bit of characterization but it never really gets off the ground. Whether it was Victor Miller’s writing or Sean Cunningham’s lack of caring is for the individual viewer to decide. I think it’s a combination of both. Considering the slower build-up to the killer’s spree, this is a shame.
Because of weak characterization, the acting never really gets off the ground. As I said before, all the “kids” do a decent job, and I’ve already acknowledged Brouwer and Palmer (and Bacon) but for the most part the kids are given very little to do. They are caricatures more than people. Alice is the nice, smart one who Steve wants but may want Bill (Harry Crosby) instead. Jack (Bacon) and Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) are boyfriend and girlfriend and go to the camp with their friend Ned (Mark Nelson), who is a bit of a jokester who takes things too far. Brenda (Laurie Bartram) is a little risqué but…not…? And to try to go any further is impossible, because that’s all these people are. They’re played adequately enough, but there’s no meat. They’re given nothing to really do but go through the movie and, well, die.
This is the biggest problem of the movie. Because we’re never really invested in the characters, we never really give a damn about who lives and who dies. One of the strengths of Halloween, the thing that made it a classic, is that John Carpenter and Debra Hill crafted teenagers who one could relate to and care about, so when the faceless killer goes after them, you give a damn.
The revelation of the killer at the end is also a misstep. Yes, Betsy Palmer plays Mrs. Voorhees with gusto and has fun in the role, but because she shows up out of nowhere, she’s meaningless to the audience. Miller gives her a throwaway line (“I’m a friend of Steve Christy”) to throw the audience off and make them think she’s safe, but considering they’ve never seen her before it doesn’t matter much. Perhaps if she’d been around throughout, it might have more surprising. Even if she’d been in the town at the beginning, trying to warn Annie off, it would’ve worked. Instead, here’s this nice lady from out of nowhere who must be the killer. (Let’s not go into the question of how she can lift some of these dead bodies and throw them through windows even though they’re larger than she).
Saturday the 14th
Overall, Friday the 13th is a fun movie with no pretensions. Cunningham wanted to make a movie that would sell tickets and popcorn and he did. The film has been picked apart by critics and naysayers since its debut in 1980 (which, being three years old, I wasn’t really aware of). It is not, and never should be, mistaken for a work of art, or even a good movie.
The biggest problem from an adult point-of-view is that it exists only to watch people die in various ways. It’s surprisingly tame considering the later movies and its reputation. There are gory scenes, but the gore is minimal and is cut away from quickly. And there is, surprisingly for a slasher movie, an innocence that comes through. Despite the depravities, it’s somehow a very innocent movie and worth watching now if, for no other reason, only to see it as a popular classic movie, bad as it may be. I had fun.
With the template set, and box office being huge, there was no wonder Paramount wanted a sequel.
I don’t remember when I first heard/read about the fiasco between Richard Donner and the producers of the Superman movies. It may have been in issues of Entertainment Weekly or Starlog or even online. Either way, I was in my teens or early twenties. Maybe my mother read or heard it somewhere and informed me. Either way, there was a Eureka! moment for me, when it made sense that the feel of Superman II is different than Superman: The Movie and Lois Lane is hardly in Superman III. I know that the documentaries that came on the 2000 release of the Superman movies on DVD, along with the special extended edition of the first movie, went into it a little. And like Superman fans around the world, I wondered what could have been. By the time I really knew about Donner’s firing, Christopher Reeve was already paralyzed from the neck down and the idea that there was, apparently, a load of unused footage of him in his most famous acting role was heartbreaking. If only Warner Bros. or the Salkinds would release the footage. If only someone would go by Donner’s notes and try to piece together what was filmed for his version of Superman II (surely Donner, who’d moved onto The Goonies, the Lethal Weapon series, and other successful films, wouldn’t want to come back) it would be such a great thing to honor Reeve, the late-Marlon Brando, and the hard work put in by everyone involved in those movies.
In 2004, Christopher Reeve died. It wasn’t a surprise. Still, it broke my heart.
I don’t remember when I first heard/read about the release of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, but I was excited. As a matter of fact, it was one of the first DVDs I got from Netflix when I joined.
Due to demands made by fans worldwide (and I wouldn’t be surprised if Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns being on its way toward theaters at the time was a big influence) Warner Bros., who now owned the sole film rights for all the Superman movies, went to Richard Donner and asked if he wanted to do a special edition. He agreed, bringing his friend and collaborator Tom Mankiewicz back into the fray. Using remastered footage from the original shoot of both Superman and Superman II, along with some Richard Lester footage, two screen tests, and even a few brand new shots, Donner told the second chapter of the Superman story as it was originally written. Or at least as close as he could manage under the circumstances.
The DVD came during a particularly dark period for me. I was living with my parents again, not long after the divorce from my first wife. I was depressed. This movie made me very happy, while it also hurt a great deal.
It’s essentially the same story as the theatrical Superman II. General Zod, Ursa, and Non are freed from the Phantom Zone and come to Earth. Superman and Lois Lane consummate their relationship and he gives up his powers for her. He gets his ass kicked and finds out about Zod, goes back to get his powers back, fights Zod and crew in Metropolis, and finally leads them back to the Fortress of Solitude where he defeats them. Lex Luthor even escapes jail the same way, finds out info about Superman the same way, and sits in the background the same way. By the end, Lois has forgotten that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same and everything is status quo again.
Yet, it’s very different.
I intend to keep this one short. I don’t wish to get as carried away by this movie as I did with the original version. Let’s see what happens….
Should I even waste the space mentioning Christopher Reeve as Superman? I think I do. I think his performance is even more impressive in The Donner Cut than in Lester’s version. While a lot of Donner’s footage was used in Lester’s movie, a lot wasn’t. Most of the Daily Planet scenes in Superman II were rewritten and reshot, which led to the continuity errors mentioned in the last essay. That said, the idea that Reeve, Kidder, and the rest would shoot a scene in Perry White’s office for Superman, then go change, come back, and shoot a scene for Superman II where there seems to be a higher comfort level for Clark and the rest is pretty amazing. Reeve brings a certain intensity and seriousness to the role that seems even more on display with Donner behind the camera than with Lester. Maybe it’s comfort. I don’t know, but while he’s great in the 1980 Superman II, he positively shines in the 2006 Donner Cut. The scene when he returns to the Fortress of Solitude after getting his ass kicked is so much more powerful in this version, with Reeve playing it not only as desperate but terrified, because–
Brando returns. By the time Warner Bros. approached Donner to do his cut, Brando was dead and his family had given consent to use footage of him as Jor-El. This meant that the story of Jor-El and Kal-El continued to its logical, and heartbreaking, conclusion. I don’t want to give anything away in case you’ve skipped this version of Superman II, but suffice it to say that the scene is great. To know that greed triumphed over this scene back in the original is a sin.
The movie is less silly. Even the scenes that needed to be kept that Richard Lester shot have been re-edited to excise superfluous silliness. If you’re from Krypton, you’re taken seriously. If you work for the Daily Planet, you’re taken seriously. The humor in this movie comes from the same place as the first film: Lex Luthor and company, as well as the simple things that come out of life, best personified by Clark Kent. The rednecks, the silly army stunts, Non’s silliness, Lois Lane’s screechy stupidity, and the people of Metropolis’s odd comments and sight-gags are all gone. That’s not to say that everything is dead serious. Lois and Clark still have witty banter, Otis still almost brings the balloon down, and other funny moments pepper the film, but they’re from character, not set-ups.
The story makes more sense because the continuity is kept in better check. From first-to-second movie, to the scenes within this movie itself, it just flows better. Let’s look at an example.
In Richard Lester’s Superman II (1980), Superman takes Lois Lane to the Fortress of Solitude. They have dinner, falling deeper in love as they do. Finally, he decides he wants to be with her, so he calls on Lara (Susannah York) and is given a speech. A chamber comes up and he steps inside. Red light shines and there’s a pretty cool special effects shot of the breakdown of Superman. The audience sort of goes into Superman and watches him become (gasp!) normal. In a strange turn of events, Superman’s costume and hair fade to street clothes and simpler hair, and he leaves the chamber as Clark Kent. Then he and Lois sleep together.
As a kid, I wondered: How the heck did his clothes change? Why did his hair suddenly change? It made no sense.
Now, Donner’s cut (2006): Superman still takes Lois to the Fortress of Solitude. They still have dinner, falling deeper in love as they do. Finally, he decides he wants to be with her, so…they sleep together. Now, let’s ignore the science of interplanetary coitus for a moment, and how someone who is called the Man of Steel might accidentally kill his lover when he…well…you know. It’s a beautiful scene, done the same way as in the theatrical version. Now, though, he awakens and leaves Lois in the shiny silver bed. We next see him dressed in a white shirt and dark pants. He is talking to Jor-El, the same basic conversation he has with Lara. And this time, not only is Lois watching, but she’s watching him wearing Superman’s shirt! It’s a subtle touch, but so effective. Even more effective, the holographic head of Jor-El looking at Lois in an accusatory way as Kal-El becomes Clark Kent. Again, the drama in the situation is heightened and makes more sense. When Clark Kent steps out of the chamber, sans special effects of him coming apart on the inside, he is wearing the street clothes he went in wearing. His hair is the same. He’s just…different. Another superb moment by Christopher Reeve.
The biggest problem with this movie is, of course, that it isn’t really the sequel to Superman. Because it wasn’t finally put together until nearly 30 years after it should’ve been, it looks like a rough cut of the movie in some places. I got the sense that this is a good outline, in some cases, of the way the final film would’ve looked. That it was mostly the best thing they could come up with based on what they had. Which is exactly what it is. The joy of watching this movie isn’t getting Richard Donner’s definitive vision, but rather as close to it as we’ll ever get, which is pretty damn close. In that way, this movie works wonderfully.
The ending. I could’ve this in the 1980 Superman II essay but chose not to because I was already very long. The deaths of Zod, Ursa, and Non. Superman tricks them out of their powers and then beats the hell out of them. Well, out of Zod and Non. Lois takes care of Ursa. They fall into the nothingness of the Fortress of Solitude and, we presume, their deaths. In the Donner Cut, the same thing happens. They up it, though, by showing only Superman and Lois Lane leaving the Fortress. They lands miles away and Superman turns around and uses his heat vision to destroy the place. Unlike Lester’s Superman II, Lex Luthor is not shown leaving with Superman and Lois, so one must assume that he’s still in the Fortress. A cut scene in the Special Features section of the Blu Ray shows the three Kryptonian villains and Luthor being taken away by the U.S. Arctic Patrol, presumably to jail. I’d understand why this was cut. If the Fortress of Solitude was supposed to be a secret, how would they get there? Of course, it also helps understand why Superman would destroy his little piece of Krypton. In the theatrical version of the movie, Superman leaves with Lois and Luthor and the Fortress of Solitude remains.
The ending, part 2. As I mentioned in the my essay on Superman: The Movie, the scene of Superman changing Earth’s spin, and thereby changing time, was supposed to end Superman II. In The Richard Donner Cut, the movie begins with what Donner wanted for the original ending of the first movie (and a much better scene of the Phantom Zone Prisoners’ escape) and ends with the Earth-spin-time-changing sequence. I feel like this is even more confusing than it was in the first movie. Did this whole second movie not happen? Isn’t that akin to saying it was all a dream? I don’t know. I really just don’t like this ending, either way. If this is only to make Lois forget about their romance, it’s kind of douchey. Speaking of which–
The ending, part 3. This is the ending of both versions of Superman II, shot by Donner. Superman saves the world and goes back to the diner where he got his ass kicked in the few days he went without power. There’s Mr. Wonderful himself, the truck driver who kicked his sorry ass. And, being the hero we all aspire to be, Clark Kent/Superman shows just how human he has become by humiliating and, essentially, kicking the bully’s ass. Now, I’m torn on this part. As a kid who was bullied, and who has some great stories about me getting my ass kicked, I still cheer that Superman/Clark Kent teaches the bully a lesson. Still, it is unbecoming for a hero who should be teaching by example. In essence, by teaching that lesson, he sorta kinda becomes the bully himself. Do you disagree?
After the Battle
Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is a beautifully executed case of What Might Have Been. This is not the movie that Donner would’ve released, but is as close as we’ll ever get, and it’s fine. It is a labor of love and the love seeps through. It’s also a fascinating thing to watch for those wanting to be filmmakers. To compare and contrast the two versions of Superman II shows how you can get two very good movies with the same basic story, but how the minor details can make or break aspects of it. Which do I prefer? I don’t know. Both have things I love, both have things I’m not fond of. Either way, it’s worth seeing whether you’ve seen the original Superman II a million times or only once.