Director: Sean Cunningham
Cast: Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, Jeannine Taylor, Kevin Bacon
The 1980s was the decade of the slasher film, a genre that brought untold popularity and notoriety to the horror film and would ultimately seal it's fate. There's no denying that few of these films had any artistic credibility and were merely invented to lure teenagers and make a quick buck. Many franchises emerged throughout the decade, all of varying quality and most borrowing liberally from John Carpenter's Halloween(1978). The most popular series, producing no less than eight films throughout the course of the decade was Sean Cunningham's minimalist and quaint, Friday the 13th. Released by Paramount Pictures, this series was a financial success for the studio, much to their embarrassment, as they were trashy exploitation of the highest order. They forever altered the way moviegoers would view hockey masks, with the intimidating Jason quickly becoming a horror icon and a champion among gorehounds the world over.
The first film is a low-budget and unassuming picture and not the genre classic that it's reputation suggests. It's really nothing more than a rip-off of Halloween, complete with a score "borrowed" from Psycho(1960), though with those added, "chi-chi-chi-cha-ha-has" that have become synonymous with the series. In fact, Jason was not even the main killer this time around, as the first film is designed as something of a poor;y constructed who-done-it, which ultimately fails since the killer doesn't even arrive until the last thirteen minutes! What most people remember are the gore effects by Tom Savini, who set a standard for blood and gore throughout the decade, starting in 1979 with the groundbreaking, Dawn of the Dead. If anybody is the star of this movie, it's Savini and his realistic effects which still manage to startle and sicken, three decades later.
The film begins with a prologue, much like Carpenter's film, with a set of counselors getting attacked in 1958 by an unseen killer. Flash forward twenty two years later and the camp is reopening, already having received the sort of infamy reserved for mysterious castles in Transylvania. The local hicks call Camp Crystal Lake the colorful name of "Camp Blood," and a pretty young hitchhiker bothers to ask them why. She should live so long. We are soon introduced to the cast of horny teens, which are actually a tad more likable than in most of these things. The dialogue is not the greatest and some of the teens(particularly an obnoxious bozo named "Ned") are fairly insipid, but for the most part they are a pleasant surprise for this type of picture. As everybody and their brother knows by now, Kevin Bacon is among the would-be victims and it's a tad surreal to see him in this, though it's certainly not his trashiest film. 2007's Death Sentence holds that distinction.
Before long, that pretty hitchhiker from the beginning, after meeting the town crazy, Ralph(Walt Gorney, who steals the film for me) and getting a lecture right out of Dracula, she is picked up by the killer and eventually stalked and sure enough, first blood is drawn, as she gets her throat cut. Meanwhile, the kids engage in youthful shenanigans, including the infuriating Ned firing an arrow dangerously close to another pretty counselor, even doing a not-so-bad Humphrey Bogart impression, a real knee-slapper involving a cop on a bike who warns them about smoking grass and the killing of a snake. Then it starts to get dark and a storm starts up. Marcie(Jeannine Taylor) has a surprisingly effective scene where she relates a recurring dream to her boyfriend(Kevin Bacon) about a river of blood, hinting at her own death. Uh-oh.
A storm starts up, symbolic of sorts, and the body count begins to mount. Ned investigates a figure moving around a cabin and is not seen again, except in the top bunk of the same one that Kevin Bacon and Jeannine Taylor are making love in. They soon bite the dust, as Bacon gets an arrow shoved through his throat from under the bed and pretty Jeannine(clad in shirt and panties, in typical slasher fashion) gets an ax in her head for her troubles, even after doing a pretty decent Katherine Hepburn impression.
The rest of the counselors are playing strip Monopoly, which is cut short by thunder(?) and this splits the group up more...literally. Modern viewers may be surprised by the restraint, considering that Brenda(Laurie Bartram) is killed offscreen, while investigating the archery range in a rain storm. Only Alice(Adrienne King) and Bill(Harry Crosby, son of Bing) are alive and they soon discover that the phones are cut and everyone is missing. The owner of the camp makes his way to the camp, but he gets killed as well by someone he recognizes, and Bill goes missing.
Out of nowhere, a crazy lady shows up named Mrs. Voorhees(Betsy Palmer) and tries to help Alice, our boring heroine. Quickly, Alice realizes that Mrs. Voorhees is nuts, as she rants about her son, who drowned in the lake by the camp in 1957, while he was supposed to be supervised by counselors making out. She goes after Alice and chases her around the camp until a fight on the beach leads to the crazy lady getting her head lopped off by a machete.
In the morning, Alice is found by police in a canoe, and out of nowhere(to everyone but those who saw Carrie(1976), the decomposed body of Jason rises from the water and takes Alice under. She awakens in a hospital and asks where Jason is. No one found him, for he is still there in the lake. We're not sure if Alice has been driven insane or if some apparition lurks beneath the waters of the lake, but it's admittedly a good close-out.
Friday the 13th is a doom-laden film, a seemingly feature length metaphor for death. It's ironic that this film and the many it spawned, so hungrily lapped up by teenagers during the 80s, seemed to have been at war with them and what they represented. While, I strongly doubt that anyone could find any complexities in this script, there's no denying that on a subconscious level, a puritanical theme runs throughout. These kids are hardly villainous, even if Ned is deserving of a punch in the face, he's certainly not even so guilty that he should receive the ultimate fate of death. Nearly all the kids(with the exception of the symbolically virgin female "survivor") all partake in taboo activities, as deemed by Christian society, including smoking pot, drinking beer and of course, sex. The fact that these kids are so under-developed and are merely vessels for destruction, makes this theme all the more blatant. It probably explains why these films upset me, even when I was in the right demographic to enjoy them, which I technically still am. These kids were stereotypes of the worst order, caricatures of teenagers, who for rebelling against society, however small, deserve(at least according to the filmmakers) a violent death. Despite, the woman inevitably(and by now, the cliche) sole survivor, these films were often misogynistic. For a guy, it was great to see all the pretty girls in varying degrees of undress, but to realize that they were always going to die for basically, being beautiful, never set well with me.
I doubt that this was really the film's initial intention, for the formula was still being invented, but if the blame can be found anywhere, it's really here. Of course, such themes were already prevalent in giallo films, such as those made by Dario Argento and Mario Bava, but never on teenagers as the specific target.
Earlier in the review, I admitted surprise at the performances of the kids for being above-average, and indeed, they are a rather professional lot, but that doesn't mean that they are well-developed characters. Bacon and Taylor are a sympathetic couple, and their demises are a bit sad, despite what little we knew about them, though that may be my natural empathy and humanity speaking. Robbi Morgan as Annie, the unfortunate hitchhiker and Laurie Bartram as Brenda, bring a mature likability to their roles, but are killed off pretty cruelly.
Adrienne King is a very dull heroine. She seems like a nice girl and is certainly attractive, but hardly makes for an audience identification character, the same way that Jamie lee Curtis did in Halloween. It's not even that the script gives her much to work with, as we're not certain that she even has any connection to anyone, despite a chaste kiss between her and Bill, and a hint of a past relationship with camp owner, Mr. Christie(Peter Brouwer). Unfortunately, 90% of all horror movie heroines were to be molded in this one-dimensional light.
Betsy Palmer joins the club of once-respectable stars who slum to pay the bills, an old Hollywood tradition. She's hilarious as Mr.s Voorhees, though God knows that wasn't intentional. Palmer really chews the scenery as the grieved mother of Jason, complete with theatrical gestures that must have went out with the last touring company of Uncle Tom's Cabin(thanks for the joke, Mr. Maltin!)
It's a very over the top performance, and one that the actress was not exactly proud of, deeming the film as a "piece of shit," which is understandable, considering her past work. However, it's also one of the most lively and memorable things about the film, along with Walt Gorney's stupidly over-the-top take on "Crazy Ralph" which is guaranteed to bring down the house. Make no mistake, Friday the 13th is not a subtle film.
The real star of the film is Tom Savini, who provides some ground-breaking gore fx that inspired countless imitators, though most of it is actually not seen in the picture. For what it's worth, Friday the 13th is a far-less bloody production, than it's reputation suggests, not that it's pleasant either way. Savini's simple but effective take on murder effects, including the throat slit and the ax to head, look disturbingly real. By cutting to a real instrument and using the editor as his tool, Savini creates the illusion and proves his mettle. The most famous bit is the arrow through the neck scene, which is genuinely unnerving and disturbing, particularly since it happens to a now well-known actor. Of course, there's also the decapitation of Betsy Palmer, which must have shocked her fans when that occurred!
Despite several slasher films under his belt, such as The Burning(1981) and The Prowler(1981), Savini quickly grew disenchanted with the slasher film and could see the writing on the wall. He returned for the fourth film in this series, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter(1984), and that was his final slasher movie.
Friday the 13th survives on period nostalgia. The gritty photography, the natural atmosphere and locations have made it stand up today, but that does not mean that it is equatable as a classic. While much of the 80s horror output are preferable to the endless torture porn and cgi fests made today, a majority of the genre efforts produced were relatively weak and dull. This film is no exception.
The lack of real characterization, a good plot and central villain, don't make the film all that memorable and it's difficult to imagine this film becoming the springboard for such an endless series and imitators. Even, The Burning, a very trashy film, has more atmosphere and genuine shocks in it, along with a more frightening heavy, but this is the one that got the franchise.
It always irks me, even when I was a teen, when this film made great horror film lists. Why? Is it because it led to a pretty mediocre franchise? How about the fact that it's not very original? I'm not sure. My only explanation is 80s nostalgia. Try comparing this to other 80s films like The Fly(1986), The Changeling(1980), Near Dark(1987), The Dead Zone(1983) and A Nightmare on Elm Street(1984) and the comparison in quality becomes glaring.
I admit that even for me, this film does have a tinge of nostalgia. When I was ten, I bought this on VHS along with Halloween, two of my first "adult" horror films. Like the rest of the world, Halloween impressed and inspired, while this one merely amused and that has certainly eroded as the years go by. The gore was shocking, but not even as impressive as later, sicker entries in this series. Nor was the nudity quotient as high as a young adolescent male would desire(Friday the 13th 2(1981) upped the ante in both departments, memorably, with probably the hottest female cast of the bunch, along with the most memorable deaths.)
At the end of the day, though, Friday the 13th was never a classic. It's a poor movie and a chore for many filmgoers to sit through. It's not the worst of it's type, but it's not that good, either. If you are going to recommend a recent vintage horror film, stay away from this type. It's a weak example of the genre and one of the more mediocre films that have earned the mark of "classic."
Trust me, there are better ways to spend a Friday night, even if it falls on the thirteenth.