So let's recap: it's 1979, and schlock producer Sean S. Cunningham wants to make a psycho killer movie. He does so with a script by soap veteran Victor Miller and the uncredited Ron Kurz, in which seven teenagers go into the woods and die. There's a bit more to it than that, I suppose, but precious damn little more. Populating this film would be a veritable army of nondescript twenty-somethings. The make-up effects were provided by Tom Savini, whose work Cunningham had admired in George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead...
...and that single choice decided the fate of the 1980s cinema: for while Friday the 13th is a tedious movie at best, there is no denying that the gore effects are the work of a genius in his field. Perhaps if the film had been dismal across the board, it would now be totally forgotten; but as it stands, Friday the 13th was a major hit, giving birth to an entire generation of gorehounds who (unless they were fans of Italian exploitation films, a fairly dodgy proposition in those early days of home video) had never been exposed to anything like the gut-wrenching yet R-rated viscera of Savini's muse. The film became a smash hit, surely not for its suspense (which was non-existent) nor its sex (one quick flash of a boob, a brief shot of a man's ass), but for the imaginative and uncomfortably realistic depictions of throat-slittings and arrow-piercings, available for the first time to a teenage audience in this comparatively sanitized film.
On Friday, June 13, a ditzy young woman (Robbi Morgan) arrives in a run-down New Jersey town looking for directions to Camp Crystal Lake, re-opening more than twenty years after a boy drowned and two counselors were brutally stabbed to death. The camp's rebirth is the brilliant scheme of Steve Christy, who has sunk nearly $25,000 into repairs, and this girl, Annie by name, is to be the camp's new cook. At the local diner, she is warned by a crazy man named Ralph (Walt Gorney) that "Camp Blood" has a curse on it, and she will die with all of the other teenaged counselors if they persist in remaining there.
Nonplussed, Annie pushes forward, hitching a ride in a blue Jeep, whose driver we conspicuously never see, whose voice we never hear, and whose mien obviously freaks Annie out, because after a very short while she jumps out of the moving car and runs through the woods, only to be caught and killed with a great big hunting knife.
Meanwhile, six other teens and Steve Christy himself (Peter Brouwer) are setting themselves up at the camp. The great slasher tradition of expendable meat characterized less by name than by stereotype is witnessed here in its first, full flower: Bill (Harry Crosby), the hunky cipher; Brenda (Laurie Bartram), the worldly and clever sexpot; Jack, the horndog (Kevin Bacon, the film's only famous or even semi-famous alumnus); Marcie (Jeannine Taylor), Jack's even hornier girlfriend; Ned (Mark nelson), the practical joker; and Alice (Adrienne King), who is smart, artistic, not apparently inclined towards sex, and outdoorsy. You will not that Alice alone has more than one characteristic, and this brings us to an other great tradition: the only character who actually seems like a person is surely to be the Final Girl.
Without belaboring the plot, here's what happens: the teens are killed off one by one by a never-seen killer, with four convenient red herrings dropped in (in this order): Steve Christy, driving a blue Jeep just like the person who killed Annie; a bigoted, ill-tempered cop who comes to camp to warn/harass the kids; Crazy Ralph, who is found in the camp's pantry moaning about doom and blood; and Bill, who demonstrates a remarkable proficiency with a machete and is always has to go someplace for just a moment every time someone is killed.
It's the sort of mystery that the characters don't realize is a mystery, insofar as they are all killed in isolation and found all at once by Alice (this structural element, which I like to think of as "The Uncovering of the Tableau" après Joseph Campbell, was brought to the slasher film by Black Christmas, as I failed to notice in my brief history), and she obviously doesn't grasp that she's in a murder mystery given how readily she disbands her rather clever safe room the instant a middle-aged lady named Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer, a minor 1950s TV star who famously took this role, in a script she called "a piece of shit," because she needed to pay for a new car) comes into camp, and all of our red lights start blinking that this lady most unquestionably must be the killer.
Which makes it an unfair mystery, the very worst kind. For 75 minutes, we're kept wondering who's the psycho, and it turns out to be a character we don't see until there's no possible doubt that she's our villain. Not that I'm complaining, mind you - the film is already not a good mystery. The film is not a good anything. Anyway, Mrs. Voorhees chases Alice around the camp, after telling her the story of how her little Jason died in 1957 because some counselor were snogging when he fell in the lake, and how this has fueled her desire to Kill All Teenagers, at least those who are associated with Camp Crystal Lake, and enjoy sex. It's a very boring chase around the camp, ill-paced and poorly lit. Ultimately, Alice lops Mrs. Voorhees's head clean off, then hops in a canoe to spend the night on the lake where hopefully she will be safe. When the police arrive the next day, despite having been called by no-one, she starts to paddle back to shore, until a slimy zombie boy jumps out of the water with a roar and pulls her down-
-then she's in the hospital, being reassured that there was no zombie boy when the police saved her, and she must have just dreamed it. Or did she?
Yeah, I don't know. And boy-oh-boy, neither does Sean S. Cunningham.
Friday the 13th made a boatload of money, established the Rules of the Slasher Film in iron, and launched the 1980s' biggest subgenre. I think there is one simple reason why this film did that when the equally successful and infamous Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre could not: it sucks. John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper were both very capable filmmakers, and their projects were highly individual and controlled. Whereas Friday the 13th:
-had hardly a single line reading that rose above adequate, and had many more (including every single line uttered by Annie or Marcie) that made the actors sound like it was there first runthrough ever and they were drunk.
-was shot without the least thought given to visual beauty or narrative subtext. My favorite single element of Friday the 13th as a bad movie is the shocking number of times that a shot contains nothing but blackness and the white dot of somebody's flashlight swinging in a corner, with absolutely no indication of what's going on or where. This literally happens six or seven times.
-makes not the slightest attempt to hide the outright theft of every one of its ideas from much better films.
-is not remotely frightening.
Suddenly, you didn't need to have talent beyond the most rudimentary workman's knowledge; you needed to have decent gore, or in most of the movies that followed this one, actresses willing to doff their tops for twenty seconds.
So why the hell did this film become successful? It's a fair question, and I kind of stabbed at an answer earlier, but I'd like another try. And I'd like to use Harry Manfredini to make my case.
Harry Manfredini wrote the score for Friday the 13th, all but one of its sequels, a whole host of forgotten '80s horror film, and apparently a film by Agnès Varda. Manfredini, perhaps, is not a good composer. His work in this film is, almost without exception, as ballsy a clone of Bernard Herrmann's Psycho score as you could imagine. The exception was a recurring motif - calling it a "theme" would be pushing it - in which a synthesised "voice" chants something like "ch-ch-ch-ch, ha-ha-ha-ha" very quietly.
In 1980, the gold standard for horror soundtracks was John Carpenter's main theme for Halloween, a Minimalist, almost Philip Glass-inspired piece. It was artsy, to cut to the chase. Now along comes Manfredini, and he decides that the music we all remember from his score, well it won't even be music. It will be just a short little sting, atonal and even brutal.
This is at the heart of the slasher genre: this atonal brutality. It is an entire filmmaking ethos about killing young people violently and quickly. The morality of that it certainly questionable (and beyond the scope of this review, but there's a lot of summer left), but the effect is not: this is primal, raw storytelling. And Sean S. Cunningham, with his clunky inability to make a film, brings that rawness to bear in a way that Carpenter's Euro-tinged film couldn't, and Hooper's nihilisitc epic went too far beyond. The fact Friday the 13th is a piece of crap goes hand in hand with its raw simplicity, much like how the greatest punk rock groups could barely hold on to their instruments, let alone play them. It doesn't "work," but it's effective.
Now, why people were still going to that well 13 years later? That is something that absolutely blows my mind.
Body Count: 10, including the killer, one occurring off-screen.
The F13 Dating Controversy: June 13 fell on a Friday in 1980. So this film takes place in 1980, 23 years after Jason Voorhees drowned, and 22 years after his mother killed two teenagers, forcing the closure of Camp Crystal Lake.
Reviews in this series
Friday the 13th (Cunningham, 1980)
Friday the 13th, Part 2 (Miner, 1981)
Friday the 13th, Part 3 (Miner, 1982)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (Zito, 1984)
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (Steinmann, 1985)
Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives (McLoughlin, 1986)
Friday the 13th, Part VII: The New Blood (Buechler, 1988)
Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (Hedden, 1989)
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (Marcus, 1993)
Jason X (Isaac, 2001)
Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003)
Friday the 13th (Nispel, 2009)