TGIF13 – Day One: Friday the 13th (1980)
While you’ll never hear me say any of the Friday the 13th films are “great movies,” it is unquestionably one of my favorite film series ever. Why? Over the next twelve days, I will attempt to answer that question, with a series of reviews covering the entire franchise. For each individual entry I will also compile a “body” and “boob” count, point out the “crazy old coot” character, and finish up by pointing out both minor and major nitpicks I had with the movies (usually relating to things like questionable continuity and the like). Just a warning…these columns are primarily meant to be enjoyed by fans of the series, so I’m assuming most of the readers will have already seen the films. This means there will be SPOILERS galore. Read at your own risk. Now, without further ado, let’s kick it off with a look at the one that started it all…
FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)
Directed by: Sean S. Cunningham
Written by: Victor Miller
The year…1958. The place…Camp Crystal Lake. One year after the tragic drowning death of one of the young campers, two counselors are brutally murdered after sneaking off to fool around.
Flash forward to present day (Friday, June 13, 1979), and Camp Crystal Lake is about to open back up for the first time since those unsolved murders. But no sooner have the team of new counselors arrived to start prepping the camp then they are suddenly being picked off one-by-one by a mysterious assailant. Could these new murders have anything to do with the crimes of the past? Spoiler alert…yes.
Eventually, only counselor Alice remains, and she is forced to face down the unknown villain. Oh, hell, why am I pussyfooting around it? It’s Mrs. Voorhees, and she’s killing everyone because the boy who drowned back in ’57 was her son, Jason. I mean, c’mon, you knew that, right?
Ahhh, the original Friday the 13th. An undisputed classic of the genre, and of the most beloved slasher films of all time. But do you wanna know the dirty little secret of Friday the 13th – the one that many horror fans know, but simply can’t bring themselves to admit?
It’s really not that good.
Now, before you light those torches and get out the pitchforks, allow me to explain. I’m not denying the movie its place in history, nor am I even saying it’s a complete waste of time. On the contrary, I definitely understand why it became the classic it did, particularly given the era it was released in. What I am saying, however, is that this is an examples of a movie that is such a sentimental favorite to so many, that very often its numerous flaws are either ignored or dismissed. Over time, it’s been placed on a very high pedestal by the horror community, but an objective viewing today reveals a film far more relevant for what it eventually launched than for the quality of the work itself.
Of course, that’s not to say Friday the 13th brought nothing to the genre. At its core, the film is little more than a rather obvious attempt to cash in on the massive success of Halloween a couple years earlier. But whereas John Carpenter’s film was propelled mostly by mood and tension, and was relatively restrained when it came to actual bloodshed, Friday creator Sean S. Cunningham decided to let it rip and not shy away from gory scenes of onscreen carnage. Horror fans, always on the lookout for the next big thrill, responded favorably, and thus the template for the modern slasher film – in all its blood-drenched glory – was born.
And yet, even in this regard it’s important to go easy with our praise. For while Friday is undoubtedly responsible for the over-the-top direction the slasher genre would go in, it’s certainly not the first horror film to offer such visceral moments of blood and guts. Cunningham was really only following the example already set by directors like Mario Bava (whose Bay of Blood is a clear influence on the early Friday films), Wes Craven (who created scenes of unpleasant violence in Last House on the Left that could easily be considered precursors to the slasher genre’s eventual shocks) and, of course, George Romero. In fact, it was because Cunningham was so impressed with the nasty carnage of Dawn of the Dead that he decided to bring that film’s special effects man on-board his movie. Smart move, as Tom Savini’s contribution to Friday is definitely one of the key factors in explaining its success.
After all, it’s certainly not the story, nor Cunningham’s direction of it. For the most part, the film is a rather simplistic mixture of the “teens stalked by a single killer” formula already established by Halloween and the “whodunit” style mystery of the classic Italian giallo films (hence the killer-POV shots that keep the perpetrators identity a secret until the climax). Cunningham does an adequate job, but brings no strong sense of style to the proceedings. And the “whodunit” element is rendered moot, since the movie commits the ultimate mystery sin – at no time during the story are we given any clues or evidence that could actually help us guess the killers identity. It isn’t until Mrs. Voorhees actually shows up and explains her motive that we have any idea what is going on.
It’s also unlikely that viewers will be won over by the film’s cast of kids/victims. Sure, there’s some fun to be had in seeing Kevin Bacon in an early role…
…but, overall, this group is at best boring and, at worst, completely annoying. Though, to be fair, it’s not entirely the fault of the actors, since they are saddled with lame dialogue and the kind of forced “aren’t we wacky” frolicking that always seems to occur in movies about young people that are actually written and directed by adults.
So what was it, then, that led to the movies success, if it wasn’t just Savini’s effects (which, like I already said, were great, but far from groundbreaking)? Well, the film’s appeal can pretty much be attributed to the admittedly powerful final act. It might not seem like a high compliment to say that a film would be almost forgettable if not for its last 20 or so minutes, but oh, what a climax it is. Obviously there’s the shocking appearance of Jason, but we’ll get to that later on in the “Nitpick Patrol.” For now, let me just say that the real MVP of the film is Betsy Palmer, who turns in a delightfully unhinged performance as the psychotic Pamela Voorhees.
Palmer makes the most out of a limited amount of screen-time, and by the time she starts “talking” to her dead son while chasing Alice (as legitimately chilling a moment as this movie really has to offer), you’ve forgiven the movie’s earlier faults and are now completely along for the ride. That’s a testament to a strong performer, and while Jason would eventually become the iconic star of the series, it’s important not to forget or underplay just how important Palmer was in making the film even worthy of any sequels.
All in all, Friday the 13th is, for the most part, a rather underwhelming effort that nevertheless had just the right amount of intriguing elements and came along at just the right time in the horror genre to blow up and become much bigger than it probably deserved. It’s certainly not the worst film of the slasher cycle – not by a long shot – but it’s also far from the best. It definitely deserves to be seen at least once by anyone interested in this series or slasher films in general, but the Friday franchise would see much better entries in the future.
BODY COUNT: 10
A body count of ten ain’t too shabby, but it should be noted that only half of these kills occur onscreen. Most of the others consist of the “character goes missing, only to have their body later discovered by another character” variety. That the first film is the least violent of the series is not shocking. It is, after all, slasher tradition for each sequel to get consistently more blood-soaked than the last. Still, once you’ve seen the rest of the series, or any number of the carnage-filled imitators that followed, it can be odd to remember how comparatively tame this one is.
The infamous arrow through Kevin Bacon’s throat is still pretty darn cool – in fact, it’s probably even more entertaining today, as there’s always a sick glee that comes with seeing the humble beginnings of an eventual superstar…especially when that humble beginning ends in such a brutal fashion. But, as great as Bacon’s death is, the real highlight is the slo-mo decapitation of Mrs. Voorhees, which remains gleefully gruesome even by today’s standards.
BOOB COUNT: 1
That’s right, just one single bared breast in this first installment, during a love scene between Kevin Bacon and his girlfriend. We almost get the second boob of the pair, but unfortunately Bacon’s hand keeps a firm grip on it, thus keeping it from the audience’s eyes. Man, now that I think about it, he was really asking for that arrow to the throat.
CRAZY OLD COOT:
The “crazy old coot” tradition is born, with everyone’s favorite bicycle-riding doomsayer, Crazy Ralph. And yes, he actually is listed in the credits as “Crazy Ralph.” With his constant warnings of Crystal Lake having a “death curse,” Crazy Ralph set a standard for this type of character that would be copied and parodied in numerous movies to follow.
OK, let’s talk for a moment about that iconic moment of Jason jumping out of the lake…
…because as cool as it is, it’s also kind of confusing once you really start to analyze it. Now, it’s obviously just a dream that Alice has while floating safely in the boat, right? This much seems clear from the police officer who speaks to her after she awakes in the hospital telling her that his men didn’t see any boy in the water when they pulled her out – even though we clearly saw an officer standing on the shore yelling to her just seconds before Jason’s attack. Not only would that officer have obviously seen Jason, he would have apparently had to have rescued Alice from him, as well (unless Jason just pulled her underwater and then inexplicably let her go). So, barring some sort of conspiracy by the CLPD to cover up the existence of Jason, all evidence seems to suggest the attack never actually happened.
Also lending credence to the dream idea is that the Jason who attacks Alice is still just a boy. Given that the movie is taking place about 23 years after Jason “drowned,” that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Sure, you could say “well, yeah, he drowned in ‘57 and then remained at the bottom of the lake until suddenly reviving and popping up to attack Alice after his mother’s death.” That’s all well and good, except it ignores two crucial points. For one thing, Jason’s body is remarkably well-preserved for having been underwater for 23 years. Perhaps more importantly, the next few films in the series make no attempt to portray Jason as a supernatural sort of character. During the initial entries in the series, Jason is undeniably human. No evidence is offered to suggest that he drowned in ’57, was resurrected in ’80, and then in the short span of time between the first and second film hit some sort of mutant growth-spurt and aged to adulthood. True, given his black-magic origins later suggested in Jason Goes to Hell, you could ret-con the whole thing to suggest that was indeed the case. But the makers of the first few films were obviously not thinking that far in advance, so it’s quite the stretch to get so creative with the explanation here.
So, then, if this moment is indeed nothing more than a dream, it raises an interesting question: how the heck does Alice know what Jason looks like? Like the other counselors in the film, Alice isn’t originally from the Crystal Lake area, and is therefore not at all aware of Jason’s story. In fact, she never hears one word about it until Mrs. Voorhees talks about it at the end of the film, and even in that instance never hears anything of Jason’s disfigurement. We get to see it, thanks to a couple brief images of Jason drowning, but all Alice knows about the boy is that he “wasn’t a very good swimmer.” So why would her dream vision of Jason match his actual appearance? Is there some sort of psychic bond between Alice and Jason that the filmmakers forgot to tell us about? Actually, that would help explain Jason’s somewhat remarkable ability to track Alice down in the sequel…but we’ll talk about that tomorrow.
Now, you might say I’m over-thinking this particular sequence, and you’re probably right. The filmmakers certainly didn’t put this much thought into it. The scene was not in the original Friday screenplay, and Tom Savini has admitted that it was only thought of later, in order to give the movie a Carrie-like final jolt. Savini himself suggested the idea of Jason’s return, and even though Cunningham apparently found the idea as nonsensical as I do, they decided to let the irrefutable power of the image outweigh any problems with logic. And, to be fair, they obviously made the right choice. It’s an awesome moment, and Friday the 13th certainly wouldn’t have become the phenomenon it is without it.
And besides, anytime I start to feel a little confused about the whole sequence, I just have to step back and remind myself what series I’m watching. Because while the Jason attack might not make much sense, it’s actually small potatoes compared to the logical leaps and bounds that pop up in future installments of the series. Perhaps, then, it’s a good thing that this particular moment is so inexplicable. It serves as an early sign that we will frequently have to turn off our brains in order to properly enjoy this series to the fullest. And that’s exactly what I intend to do for the rest of the movies…
Ah, who am I kidding? I’m still gonna nitpick those films, as well.
FINAL SCORE: 2 out of 4 Hockey Masks
Posted on November 4, 2014, in Franchise Post-Mortems, Friday the 13th, Reviews and tagged Friday the 13th, Horror Movies, Jason Voorhees, Kevin Bacon, Slashers, Tom Savini. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.