Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Studios: Paramount Pictures
Starring: Adrienne King, Kevin Bacon, Betsy Palmer
Tagline: They Were Warned… They Are Doomed… And on Friday the 13th, Nothing Will Save Them.
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: horror, slasher, stalker, thriller, psychopath, serial killer, teen
Scare score: C+
Plot overview: As the film begins, two adolescent counselors at Camp Crystal Lake are killed by an unseen murderer wielding a knife and a machete. The film continues in “present day” as a handful of teenagers make their way to Camp Crystal Lake, which is set to reopen despite past tragedies and local rumors, resulting in the townies referring to it as “Camp Blood.” The counselors arrive on Friday the 13th, and on their first night they are stalked and murdered by an unseen killer until only one is left to fend for her life.
Ask somebody in America to think about teen slasher movies, or just show them a retro hockey mask, and they will think about the Friday the 13th franchise. These films might just be your most stereotypical, thought-about, and referenced staple horror movies, filled with plenty of teenagers behaving badly and some mysterious killer stalking them in the distance. To me, the character of Jason goes hand in hand with Michael Myers even more so than he does with Freddy, although the latter left his mark rather explicitly on the ’80s despite recent remakes. I wish I could have been alive in the 1980s if only to rot my teeth with candy and popcorn while going to the movies to see the constant debuts of these now-retro horror flicks— the iconic masks, the wide array of weapons, and the horrible acting on behalf of the victims.
I was never a big Friday the 13th fan growing up as I was much more partial to Halloween. Last night, however, was the perfect night to re-watch this campy horror classic and really enjoy it for the first time. It’s clear that this franchise wanted to soak up some of the success of Halloween, and to me that’s really cool. They did their own, good* job, made a new horror menace, had your classic story line, and left their mark on generations to come.
*I use ‘good’ here to mean the sort of good that comes from kind of bad things. You know? Anyway, let’s get started.
This is a movie of wonderful contradictions. Throughout the whole thing there is a bizarre mix of awful script-writing with strangely natural, effortless acting, but there’s also plenty of decent script with acting so bad that you want to pull your hair out. This really surprised me, especially the scenes where the varied ensemble (including Kevin Bacon and one of Bing Crosby’s sons… like no big deal I guess) of teens are actually so casual that you think you’re looking at candid home footage. These parts are contrasted by everything you imagine teen horror (especially from the ’80s) to be: awful. To help the acting, some of the writing is really natural and even enjoyable— and then there are parts that you want to poke your own eyes out because the dialogue is so dumb. What a roller coaster ride with a strangely awesome outcome.
I think most people between the ages of 15 and 60 would at least recognize (although not necessarily know the source of) the “ki ki ki, ma ma ma” sound that this movie made so iconic. Also, I mean, it’s clearly more of a “chi chi chi, ha ha ha” with a really guttural emphasis at the beginning of either sound, but movie scorer Harry Manfredini says otherwise. This movie gives us an eerie score (with parts sounding identical to Psycho by the end), with music building us up and making us ready for “bam” moments that rarely come.
The movie poster is awesome. I want it in my bedroom now. Enough said.
My favorite thing about Friday the 13th is how it was filmed. The first person point of view is normally just the cameraman, but in crucial moments it is also the killer— and the lines are often blurred. There are scenes in which we’re meant to think we’re seeing what the killer sees, and then it turns out that no one was there. I absolutely love that. Sure we’ve seen what it’s like behind Michael Myers’s mask (with the two dumb eyeholes, nobody actually sees like that), but we also usually see Michael himself. That’s the other thing I love about this movie— killer wise, it does everything Halloween doesn’t. We don’t know who the killer is this entire film, and this mystery identity keeps us guessing and worrying. Also, where Halloween banks on the shots with the killer made just visible in the background—down the street, in a window, in the backyard (PS I love those shots)—in this movie we never see the killer. The best part is that we are so often set up to expect to see a shadow or silhouette, and we never do. All we ever see is a hand and the weapon. The first person makes this film much more suspenseful.
Next we have the question of the plot itself: this entire film is plausible— why shouldn’t some teens left alone at a creepy camp out in the woods be stalked and murdered by some assailant? Nothing fantastic happens here except for the killer’s insanely good aim with arrows, knives, and axes. This movie is scary because you’re going to think about it the next time you go out camping with friends. So again, the whole movie, you’re sitting there and thinking “Uh huh, this is going to happen to me (especially in West Jersey: yikes)”— and then the last ten minutes happen.
The last ten minutes of the movie leave us with questions that cannot be answered. Following a night of scaring and tragic events, why would you just float out into the middle of a lake in the dark on a canoe quite literally without a paddle? Why would Jason still be a boy? Why does Alice (King) suddenly believe that “he’s still there” and why would he be a boy (you dope)? Why did the police show up blaring their lights to a camp even though there was no call for help or reason to think anything was wrong? And since when does a machete—which I could have sworn was a broken canoe paddle—cut clean through a neck and spine? While the shot of Jason jumping up out of the water made me jump a little, too, I wonder if the entire falling action of the movie was made purely to introduce Jason and set up the sequel. Still, I’ve read that the whole Jason sequence was dreamed up only to provide one final scare in the movie. Sell. Outs.
One of the best things about this movie is the mystery identity of the killer. This isn’t Michael Myers, who we know is stalking and killing everybody in Illinois. Is it Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney)? Is it the camp’s owner, Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer)? After the commercial success of this franchise, everyone associates the movies with one thing: Jason. After all, it’s all about him, isn’t it? Well we return to this first film, and then we’re not so sure. Because 21 years after an unnamed child drowns at Camp Crystal Lake, we think we’re watching only slightly related events until the last ten minutes of the film when we finally hear the name ‘Jason’— and meet his mother, Mrs. Voorhees (Palmer). I absolutely loved that the killer was a woman and a mother, and I loved that through her reverse-Psycho psychosis she provides her own M.O. by switching to “Kill her, mommy. Kill her.” While that might be really easy to laugh at in a crowd, by yourself or with a small group it is a truly eerie touch of crazy. Mrs. Voorhees’s pursuit of Alice at the end of the film was rather pathetic (I think she gets knocked down, but she gets up again a la Chumbawumba at least 5 times), with the suspense dragging on until ridiculousness climaxes with a decapitation that’s so unpredictable we don’t know if we can accept it. Then again, I guess the filmmakers didn’t really care if we accepted it, because with at least 10 more sequels to follow, this is the highest-grossing horror film franchise of all time.
Final critique: While this is the slasher film franchise that set all the stereotypes, in and of itself it is not the most stereotypical movie. One one hand, we had something creepy, new, and different at the time of the film’s release. Characters are at times filled with real teenage emotion, but they are usually very flat with little delivery. Deaths are plentiful and while they are often suspenseful, they are not scary or interesting. Their random occurrences and their random discoveries, however, perhaps add more terror to the film than a movie boasting predictable deaths might have. All in all, this is a campy classic that I’m sure only gets worse as the franchise moves on. For the time being, I highly recommend this first film especially during the Halloween season or at any late night movie viewing. Be warned that there are some gory scenes, but not too many real scares.