Happy Friday the 13th! In honor of this superstitious holiday, I have taken it upon myself to watch the Friday the 13th series. That’s right. For the next 13 weeks, I will be reviewing a Friday the 13th film every Friday. Why? Because It’s a franchise I’ve never given the time of day and what better time to start then on Friday the 13th? So strap in, it’s gonna be a long ride… to Hell!
The first time I watched Friday the 13th I was in high school. I don’t remember if it was out of interest or obligation, but I couldn’t call myself a horror fan without seeing Friday the 13th. I knew all the twists going in, I also knew about the film’s final jump-scare and Kevin Bacon being killed point-blank Robin Hood style i.e. arrow through the throat because, well… it’s Kevin Bacon. My initial reaction was muted. In my mind, there wasn’t anything separating Friday the 13th from My Bloody Valentine, April Fool’s Day or any other cheap holiday-themed slasher movie.
Watching the film again, I spoke too soon. Though I wouldn’t go as far as saying Friday the 13th is a classic, I do think it does a lot of things well. Friday the 13th is competent. Tom Savini’s makeup effects hold up and if the film was cheap, it sure as hell doesn’t look it. I can see why it was a hit. What I want to uncover is what is it about this film that screamed thirty-year franchise?
Friday the 13th was directed by Sean S. Cunningham, a fact this movie wants you to know right from the get-go as “A Sean S. Cunningham Film” appears in big letters right after the Paramount logo. Cunningham started his directorial career in 1970 directing primarily indie dramas and family comedies. He dabbled a bit with horror with the horror/comedy film Case of the Full Moon Murders (1974) but more importantly he produced his good buddy Wes Craven’s infamous debut film The Last House on the Left. Yet it wasn’t until in 1980 that Cunningham and his longtime writer collaborator Victor Miller tested the icy slasher waters with Friday the 13th.
Apparently, Cunningham was inspired to make Friday the 13th after seeing John Carpenter’s Halloween. This doesn’t come as a surprise considering everyone wanted to make their own version of Halloween back then. Between 1979 and 1981 alone you had; Christmas Evil, New Year’s Evil, To All a Good Night, My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me, Prom Night, and Terror Train (New Year’s). It was what you did back then. Cunningham was stoked. So stoked, he took out an ad in Variety before Miller finished the script. Why so eager? What story was he dying to tell? It goes like this…
Opening at Camp Crystal Lake in the summer of 1958, a POV camera wanders through a quiet camp in the late night hours. This is where we first hear the infamous Friday the 13th noise. If you don’t remember, it’s kind of like a “chi chi chi, ha ha ha.” According to the film’s composer Henry Manfredini, the sound is actually, “ki ki ki, ma ma ma,” using the words “kill” and “mom.” If you’re not familiar with the film this will become relevant later. Though I also heard Charlie Sheen once say the noise is “Jiff Jiff Jiff, Pop Pop Pop,” on one one of those “I Love the 80s” shows. He wasn’t a talking head, rather he walked into someone else’s segment and said that to the camera. Never understood that.
Anyways, this creepy presence sneaks through camp and goes after two teens. The geeky boy yells, “We’re just messing around.” But too bad, ya gettin’ stabbed boi. Then the title card appears over black and breaks through glass? It’s presented as if it were a cheap 3D effect but as far as I know only the 3rd Friday the 13th was in 3D. It’s okay, I just don’t get it.
Twenty-one years later we meet Annie (Robbi Morgan), a newly hired camp counselor stopping by a diner asking for directions to Camp Crystal Lake. As you can imagine people are hesitant to talk about Crystal Lake. It seems cliche now but I have to remind myself these tropes were new to people in 1980. A truck driver named Enos (Rex Eberhart) agrees to drive Annie, but not before a man known as “Crazy Ralph” (Walt Gorney) proclaims, “It’s got a death curse!” in regards to Crystal Lake. I honestly can’t tell if this is played for comedy. After all, Cunningham set out to make the scariest movie possible. Why would he purposefully make his film’s harbinger of doom a laughable old coot who rides a bicycle? That’s right, he says “It’s got a death curse” and then rides on a blue bike with a basket. Hilarious.
“What about Anni?” She is picked up by an unseen driver (It’s all POV from the driver’s perspective) only to be so scared by the driver’s reckless driving that she leaps from the vehicle and is then stabbed in the woods by the driver. It sounds dumb but it’s effective. I appreciate that the murderer is set up as a person you think you can trust at first glance. It’s a method of scaring your audience rarely applicable to slasher movies. You also don’t expect the first character you meet to be the first to die.
At camp we meet the rest of the counselors settling in (when do the campers show up?) and man, are they forgettable. There’s Ned (Mark Nelson), Jack (Kevin Bacon), Bill (Harry Crosby), Marcie (Jeannine Taylor), Brenda (Laurie Bertram) and Alice (Adrienne King) and I can’t tell you one thing that differentiates one from another. When the most memorable thing about each character is how they die, you know the writer didn’t care about his victims. There’s also the owner, Steve (Peter Brouwer), who’s most interesting quality is he has a mustache. Alice becomes the de facto protagonist about half way through because she never tries to “make da sex” but this seems more like an accident than a story decision. Also, Crazy Ralph pops up again in a pantry yelling “It’s got a death curse!” Still sticking with that “death curse” thing, huh? Is that all this guy has going for him?
For the next ten minutes or so, we watch the “characters” unwind, drinking, playing games and makin’ da sex. I appreciate the film taking its time. This downtime is used to create a mood, building the tension with someone spying on the counselors to Henry Manfredini’s atmospheric score. Though it’s a shame they couldn’t have found a way to use this time to better develop the characters. Give someone a quirk, a catch phrase, anything! Make the Kevin Bacon character a talented dancer. You know he has the moves!
Ned is the first to die… offscreen. After this, Marcie and Jack are makin’ da sex in one of the cabins. Ned’s body is lying in the bunk above with his throat slit, nice. Marcie leaves to go to the bathroom, Jack notices blood dripping down and BAM! Arrow through the neck. The effect looks great and might be the best death in the film. Damn it, Kevin Bacon, must you always steal the spotlight? Marcie gets an ax to the face and next thing you know, counselors are dropping like flies.
It’s a weird feeling watching characters die you hardly know, but the deaths ( the ones you see) are done well. The vibe outside is dark and rainy and each death has a slow buildup from the killer’s perspective. Brenda is next, pierced by an arrow on the archery range (a lot of arrows so far). Steve shows up and gets killed in typical fashion and Bill is also killed off screen. Alice tries to get help but all the phones are disconnected. Man, it was so easy back then for slasher villains.
Eventually, a car pulls up in front of Alice and it’s a kindly older woman in a sweater named Pamela (Betsy Palmer). Pamela claims to be an old friend of Steve’s and brings Alice in from out of the rain. Pamela explains she used to work at the camp as a cook with her son… Jason—By the way Betsy Palmer? She’s great, so creepy. Pamela launches into a story in 1957 when counselors ignored the screams of her son as he drowned cuz they were makin’ da sex. Why Pamela chooses to tell this story to Alice and none of the other victims I have no idea. Alice flees and is pursued by Pamela. It’s a nice twist but ridiculous when you realize all of these young teens couldn’t outrun a mom. A middle-aged mom who apparently hid under a bed to stab Kevin Bacon with an arrow, kill a girl from afar with a bow and arrow and string a dead body from a tree.
Alice flees to the lake and finds a machete which she uses to decapitate Pamela in slow motion. The effect looks good, the slow motion doesn’t. I can only assume they were so proud of the effect they had to cram it down the viewer’s throat. Relieved, Alice lays down in a boat and lets it drift into the middle of the lake. “What the hell are you doing?” I get that she’s been through a traumatic event but why would you lay down in a boat and not run for help?
The next morning the police arrive at the lake and call out to Alice in the boat. Again, why didn’t you lie down beside the lake? Now those cops have to go fetch you from the middle of the lake. What a moron. Alice thinks everything is okay until a muddy, deformed Jason (Ari Lehman) leaps up from the water to bring Alice under the water. It scared me as a teen and still scares me today. Cut to a weird dream wipe and Alice wakes up in the hospital. She asks about Jason and the officer says there was no sign of the boy. “He’s still there,” Alice proclaims. Cut to a shot of the lake. Was the attack real? This is where it gets confusing.
Maybe when I watch Friday the 13th Part II the ending will make sense, but as of now let me explain my confusion. Pamela’s motivation to kill is revenge for the death of Jason. We know Jason is not dead based off of the sequels (at least he’s not a living corpse in the first few sequels). If Jason isn’t dead, how come his mom couldn’t find him? Most of the movies are set in Crystal Lake. Are you telling me Pamela lived near Crystal Lake for 21-years and didn’t realize her son was alive? Weren’t police involved? If they never found a body why did they close the case? It makes no sense. This basically invalidates all of the sequels. Somebody tell me I’m off base because I don’t get it. Anyways, on to my final opinion.
The movie is good. Friday the 13th might be riddled with cliches and forgettable characters but it is indeed scary. Pamela Voorhees is scary. The deaths are scary. The rainy cabins being pelted with rain as “Jiff Jiff Jiff, Pop Pop Pop” plays in the background is scary. This is so close to being a great movie. I’m glad I watched it, but where does it go from here? Earlier I asked myself why this became a franchise and now I have a guess. People like the mythology. “Who was this Jason? Did he really die?” Sure, it doesn’t make sense, but it enticed viewers. At least that’s the conclusion I reached. As to where the franchise goes from here, I don’t know, I assume nowhere good, which is crazy, I haven’t even truly met Jason yet. Though more on that next week with my review of Friday the 13th Part II.