Friday the 13th took the world by storm in a way that was completely unexpected, especially by the filmmakers themselves. They had, by their own admission, not necessarily set out to make a great movie. They wanted to make something audiences would have fun with, something that would keep the lights on for a while. Friday the 13th was designed to be a thrill ride, something that people could laugh at, but that could catch them off-guard at any moment. As much as audiences were led into the rhythm of its structure, there are unpredictable elements to the movie as well. Not the least among them being that, unlike most slashers of the time, the camera didn’t always pull away from the carnage.
There’s no implied arrow through Kevin Bacon’s throat, you sit there and see the whole thing happen. Yet, in the case of Ned or Brenda, you’re led to imagine what happened to them, only for the bodies to pop up later on. It’s manipulative in a way that audiences loved. They loved it so much that the film became a huge hit, even beating out Empire Strikes Back at the summer box office.
Making a sequel, even in 1980, was a no-brainer. After all, Friday the 13th contained a simple formula. Follow the same rules, give people what they expect, and it should be enough to duplicate at least some of the original success. That’s a business model Hollywood has been using ever since. It doesn’t always work, but in the case of Friday the 13th Part 2, it did. It worked so well that the movie actually improves on the original.
As seminal, important and effective as Friday the 13th is, there was room for improvement when it came to the characters and the overall formula. This film is one of the rare whodunit slashers that doesn’t really allow you to guess—or at least correctly guess—who the killer is going to turn out to be. There are a few subtle things, like the fact that Steve Christie appears to be driving the same kind of jeep we saw the killer drive toward the beginning, but that doesn’t do much except give a suspect other than Crazy Ralph.
It’s all rendered moot by the end, because when Mrs. Voorhees arrives and literally announces herself as the killer, that’s her first scene in the entire movie. She was never around at all in town or anywhere else before that. Sean Cunningham did that intentionally, claiming that he wanted to “keep people guessing,” but in this case he took that phrase insanely literally by not even giving audiences the opportunity to correctly identify the killer as they watched.
The characters in Friday the 13th are also victims to the formula. They’re not as interesting as the more eccentric townspeople. With the exception of Bill, you’re never led to believe that any of them might be the killer, so they’re sort of treated as disposable. Ned’s the loud, spastic comedian of the bunch, but he never gets to show any kind of other side until moments before his death. Alice, our heroine, is interesting primarily because she’s a mystery. She hints quite a bit at a larger story going on, something that might prevent her from being able to work the camp all summer, yet we never really get to know what it is.
In these two particular fields, Friday the 13th Part 2 managed to up its game and actually top its predecessor. The cast we’re introduced to in the sequel is, initially, much larger than the cast of the first. But even if the camp is bigger, we’re introduced to a few key characters who form our main ensemble. It’s tough to say exactly what makes them stand out. This is still a summer camp slasher in which these kids are picked off in fairly rapid succession, so there’s not much time to get to know them.
Yet it makes the most out of whatever time we do get. Ginny, Paul, Ted, Terri, Vickie, Mark… they all have standout moments, clearly defined personalities and just feel generally more well-rounded than their predecessors. You believe that these characters existed before this weekend. That’s the key.
This stronger characterization carries over to Jason and the way, in general, that he is handled as a killer. Friday the 13th falls a little too deeply into the rabbit hole of keeping mystery alive. The sequel, instead, establishes Jason as a local campfire story right out of the gate. Nobody really knows what happened at Camp Crystal Lake, nobody knows what happened to Alice. They only know the story. Did Jason die in the lake or did he somehow survive? Is he living out in the woods, isolated, stalking the campgrounds like a territorial animal? Even if Jason surviving the lake cheapens the end of the original and Mrs. Voorhees’ motivations, this is great, atmospheric build-up. It’s a fantastic way to establish the killer.
It also allows us a heroine who serves a purpose other than simply being the last one left. Ginny is majoring in child psychology and takes a keen interest in the Jason legend, even if it’s simply being used to scare the counselors-in-training into doing a good job. She doesn’t necessarily believe that Jason’s actually alive and roaming the woods, but when she finds out, she knows what to do. There’s a reason that Ginny is widely considered to be one of the best—if not the very best—heroines in the entire Friday the 13th franchise.
Ginny is a well-rounded character, earnestly portrayed by Amy Steel. She’s smart, sarcastic, resourceful. She’s comfortable and confident in a way that many other typical final girl characters sometimes aren’t. At the same time, she has a hard time relating to the others. Her time is spent either with Paul or by herself and, for the most part, she seems to be okay with this.
Jason himself is a presence that hangs over the entire film. He’s a ghost story, and yet his portrayal is aggressively realistic—more so than any of the sequels that followed. There’s nothing to really set him apart as more than human. This Jason appears to simply be a man who happened to survive a traumatic childhood experience that should have killed him—even though that retcon makes no sense whatsoever.
The decision to attempt to make Jason a human killer in Part 2 probably stems from the fact that Friday the 13th was in no way an overtly supernatural movie. It was a fairly straightforward slasher about a mother who had lost her son. More than that, it was a neat inversion of Psycho, given that Mrs. Voorhees was keeping Jason alive inside of her mind, even speaking in his voice.
For the purposes of Part 2, it makes sense on a larger character level to make Jason a human living in the woods, surviving by an animal, defined by the loss of his mother, because it makes him a foe perfectly catered to Ginny. This is a kind of threat that she, even as a camp counselor, can understand and combat. As she proves in the bar, she understands Jason, understands his motivations, at least somewhat. Knowing that bond between mother and son allows her to be one of the few characters in the franchise to truly trick Jason, even for a moment.
It’s these small details, like a more engaging and resourceful heroine, the fun and funny ensemble and the lingering presence of Jason that make Friday the 13th Part 2 a better version of everything the original set out to be. It does what that film does, and does it well, but it also fills in some of those gaps where the first could have been tighter, funnier, even scarier. Sequels should normally do something different to avoid the pressure of having to top the original, but if they can—if there’s an actual opportunity to do those things better, they should take it. Friday the 13th Part 2 is a perfect example of that.