The slasher genre has to be, at least in some ways, stitched into the very fabrics of who I am. I’ve told many different stories about them, if you have been willing to listen.Whether it is watching A Nightmare on Elm Street at my grandmother’s house in my pajamas like it were my Saturday Morning Cartoons or searching through boxes of VHS tapes in the attic as a kid, in hopes to revisit old classics or discover new ones.
Like any relationship you’ve in your youth, as an adult, you look at it with new eyes and new perspectives as an adult. Whether what you are seeing can stack itself against your maturing interests in film or if it has aged poorly. Neither should be seen as a disappointment, really. If it doesn’t, that only shows how far we have come as a film industry and, if it doesn’t, your beloved film series may be evergreen. Either way, the memories aren’t leaving you any time soon.
Friday the 13th is a 1980 American slasher film produced and directed by Sean S. Cunningham and written by Victor Miller (for years, Sean S. Cunningham reserved ownership of the franchise, but Victor Miller recently reacquired “domestic” rights for the “original” film, casting down on the series’ future). The film sees a cast comprised of Betsy Palmer, Adreinne King, Harry Crosby, Laurie Bartram, Mark Nelson, Jeannine Taylor Robbi Morgan, and even a young performance from Kevin Bacon.
The film arrived shortly after John Carpenter’s Halloween and was often regarded as carrying on a natural progression of madman-type flicks that began with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In-retrospect, beyond both of those, I believe it could be argued that Friday the 13th takes a lot of cues from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the relationship between mother and son.
The film tells the story of a group of teenage camp counselors as they are attempting to re-build and subsequently re-open an abandoned summer camp called Camp Crystal Lake. This is in spite of the townspeople who appear skeptical to say the least, especially an eccentric older man named Ralph, often referred to as “Crazy Ralph” for his accusations and very campy way of trying to dissuade them. When Friday the 13th arrived in theaters, it received a mixed critical reception from critics and moviegoers alike. Horror enthusiasts have embraced it, as have a fair share of casual moviegoers – the film grossed nearly 60 million off a budget of barely over half a million.
I will be the first to admit that I have never been a fan of the Friday the 13th series in years prior. This is the second (or third) review I have written about the original film as a matter of fact. I have always wound up with the same general sentiment, in spite of my persistent desire to like them. Whether I have complaints or not, I have a lot of genuine affection for Halloween, Elm Street, Child’s Play, Scream, (you name it!) but I was never really caught up in the hockey masked killer.
That’s why this will hopefully be the definitive review I do of the original film (and the rest of the series) and I made certain to offer it the best chance I could.
I bought the whole series on Blu-Ray and feel that it benefited the film in ways I hadn’t even anticipated. Certain aspects were more apparent than prior that I hadn’t noticed. Small details like the hanging shot from out the window of the cabin where you can clearly see the phone lines had been cut, or when the killer is revealed and hidden beneath the clothing their wearing is the flannel ensemble that we’d seen them wear prior. Most of you likely already noticed all of these things and, chances are, I likely noticed them as well and forgotten, but I did discover a new appreciation for the more detail-oriented inclusions in the film.
The voyeuristic first-person point-of-view offers a unique approach (that had been before but has done way more since) that disguises our antagonist and leaves assumption to moviegoers. Many of you already know the twist that awaits in this film, but that shouldn’t take away how it turns a trope on its head before it had even really become a trope yet.
The criticisms I had of the film haven’t been alleviated. Friday the 13th runs for 95 minutes and does absolutely whatever it can in-order to pad its runtime to a feature-length. Except for develop its characters or build its antagonist and central conflict. The myths of Jason Voorhees and the detriments plaguing Crystal Lake are sparsely mentioned in the film. A truck driver mentions a child who drowned and a couple murders the year after, but, otherwise, we are left only with Crazy Ralph to feed into our suspicions.
When I first watched Friday the 13th, I believe I always interpreted it as a film that was built around making the audiences think Jason was brought back from the dead and was seeking his revenge against those that drowned him, and the end was all about pulling the rug out from underneath us. I think that’s because, even when I watched the film, I already knew “the twist,” because I had heard it referenced in horror films like Scream beforehand. Instead, now I understand as more about making us think there is a different murderer running amuck throughout Camp Crystal Lake who was believed to be responsible for a young boy’s drowning and subsequent murders.
It makes the film feel more satisfying on a structural level because, thereby, it should not be faulted for not drawing attention the way, say, a whodunit would. This isn’t a whodunit, this is a basic slasher film with a unique twist.
As I mentioned, the characters are one-dimensional or expendable at best and throwaway at worst. Sometimes I hear Friday the 13th boiled down to the bare necessities of Halloween, isolating the “slasher” aspect from characters like Dr. Loomis or more intimate traits like that. It’s meant to be “all about the good stuff,” but I don’t think that is an accurate representation.
Friday the 13th doesn’t boil anything down, instead, it short-changes you. The film isn’t blood-and-carnage turned to eleven, instead it is a cast of characters at a camp who are trying to find something to do to fill the gaps in-between that blood-and-carnage and failing because they haven’t been developed beyond a superficial level. Too often the film dawdles and meanders when it could have shaven nearly half an hour off itself and reaped a tauter, more effective film in benefit.
The film’s cinematography and score are aspects I did like about the film.
Sometimes I feel it could have disciplined itself or reeled back. The iconic shot at the end of the film with the young girl in the canoe with the reflection of the trees and herself over the water, for instance, I really liked. However, they had already shown that same shot with other characters, and while not a big deal, I think that might have diluted my reaction to it. The cinematography really does capture some impressive shots, however, and outdoorsy backdrop coupled in with the sounds of nature offers a vibrant liveliness that is accomplished very well.
The film’s score has that classical sound that feels very thematic. I would argue that horror in terms of accomplishing conventional horror is suited best with light brushstrokes and an understated, nuanced delivery. However, there is something about that classical sound that offers a sense of escapism and playful fun that I think encapsulates a lot of why many people gravitate toward slasher films or even the Hammer Horror or Universal Horror of decades prior.
I do think I appreciated Friday the 13th this time around more than I ever did prior, complimented in-part by the visual upgrade of seeing it on Blu-Ray. Unfortunately, I still would not call it a decent film overall. Some of the film’s shots and the incorporation of music elevate it beyond a lot of the slasher fare that tried to imitate its formula, but the excess hurt its overall score.
If broken down to the bare essentials (the same way it allegedly did Halloween), the story of Friday the 13th is an enjoyable horror story, but I don’t think it came together ideally with this film.