I normally reserve horror movies for the month of October. I watch so many of them during that period that I’m usually sick of them for quite a while afterward, and I want to try and reserve as many of the potentially “good ones” for that period since there are, after all, so many bad ones. But it’s a rare October which contains a Friday the 13th (the next one is 2017), so there’s a conflict in that the appropriate time to watch Friday the 13th is seldom within that month. But that’s all right, it’s worth making an exception for, and nothing says I can’t enjoy the occasional horror film outside of the glut period. I missed my opportunity in January, but I acquired a DVD of the original Friday the 13th in late February; I’ve held onto the copy since, unwatched, so I could watch and review it for today, Friday, April 13.
Although I had not previously seen any Friday the 13th films, it’s more-or-less impossible to not have picked up a lot of tidbits about the series from various pop culture references and discussions. I know, for example, that Jason Vorhees doesn’t acquire his iconic hockey mask until the third film. I knew his origin story. And, of course, even if I had been coming into it completely blind, the DVD setup menu helpfully reveals the killer before you watch the film. (Brilliant!) Nevertheless, I tried to “blank my mind”, so to speak, and watch this movie as if I knew nothing about what was to come, like a viewer upon its original release. (Fun fact: the film was released May 10, 1980, but was set slightly later, on June 13. That was an actual Friday the 13th that year, which had to have increased the general nervousness of teens going to summer camp. Fortunately, unlike in the film, it was as far from a full moon as it could be.)
Welcome to Camp Crystal Lake. Depending on how you look at it, your stay will be either very brief or for eternity.
The film opens with a scene in 1958, in which two camp counselors are murdered while making love. The camera remains in the point of view of the killer, who is thus unseen by the audience — and who is never caught in the story. It then jumps to the present day, 1980, in which Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), son of the previous owners, is attempting to re-open Camp Crystal Lake. He’s hired a handful of young adults to help him get the camp ready and to serve as camp counselors when it opens in two weeks. This being a slasher film, most of them don’t really have complex personalities, as they’re simply here to up the body count. There’s Annie (Robbi Morgan), the cook who arrives late to the town. (Interesting side note; while confirming to myself that most of these actors never did anything else, I noticed Robbi Morgan did some stunt work for The Great Outdoors). Brenda and Marcie (Laurie Bartram and Jeannine Taylor) are a couple of girls who are mostly interested in flirting with the boys; Alice (Adrienne King) is a bit more practical, and also unsure on whether she wants to stay to help open the camp. Bill (Harry Crosby) is handy with tools and supplies. Jack is mostly just a generic guy, which is somewhat ironic considering he’s played by Kevin Bacon, easily the most successful of the film’s alumni, and yet he gets the role that arguably gives him the least to work with. And because no group of juvenile pre-corpses is complete without a practical joker, there’s Ned (Mark Nelson), who pretends to drown in one scene, recklessly fires an arrow while another person is handling the archery target, and in general acts like a complete idiot.
Ned’s odds of survival wouldn’t be good even in a musical comedy.
As this is one of the defining examples of the slasher film genre, we all know pretty much how things are going to go. It does throw a few curve balls the audience’s way, however. For example, while many slasher films have a pretty solid shift between the “youthful hijinks” section of the film and the “pile of bodies” section, Friday the 13th actually starts the killing fairly early, but also keeps it secret from the other would-be victims. This helps to build the suspense, as while the audience knows the killer is out there, the camp counselors are completely unaware of the danger they’re in for most of the film. This also means that even though these kids aren’t going to win any genius grants, only one of them commits the “What an Idiot” sin of going off on their own once they know there’s danger, so for the most part, the audience doesn’t get the impression that these kids are simply too stupid to live. I also have to admit that the film did “get” me at one point, near the end, after it had lulled me into a false sense of complacency with the film’s climax having apparently passed. I’m not easily gotten, so I have to give it some credit for that. (If you’ve seen it, you know the moment; if you haven’t, I’ll let you discover it on your own. Have fun!)
Additionally, any viewer who does manage to go into this without knowing anything about the franchise will be treated to a fair amount of misdirection as to the killer’s identity. Camp owner Steve comes across as being a bit creepy with his fawning over Alice, and most of the townsfolk seem stand-offish to Annie when she arrives. Even the police officer seems vaguely threatening when he arrives at camp and rants about the counselors smoking weed without any evidence. And, of course, there’s Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney), who prophesies their doom and has a habit of turning up where he shouldn’t.
Neither doors nor sanity are an obstacle to Ralph.
Director Sean S. Cunningham does a pretty good job handling the reins on this film, with my only real criticism being a few scenes where it’s too dark to make out what’s going on. Fortunately, little of consequence happens during those scenes. Most of the killings are shown with the killer completely off screen to preserve both the suspense and the mystery of who is behind it all. The killings are also quick, but with decent build-ups. I thought the pacing of the film was one of its stronger points, as the secretive nature of the killings makes it so that the killings can be spread out throughout the film without immediately turning it into the usual “run and scream” festival that most slasher films become after the first thirty minutes are up. Viewing much of the film through the eyes of the killer, with the iconic ki ki ki ma ma ma sound effect going in the background, really helps to sell the feeling of impending doom for the victims.
As far as the acting goes… well, slasher films aren’t known for great acting (or actors with lasting careers), and Friday the 13th isn’t much of an exception in that regard. Kevin Bacon, as noted above, went on to be very successful, but his later roles were probably given to him more on the strength of his performance in Animal House than here; here, he has little to do other than just be a generic boy who is interested in girls. Most of the other counselors have the same “flat character” issues, though Mark Nelson has a bit more to work with as goofball Ned. It’s some of the side characters who really have the best performances, with Walt Gorney as Crazy Ralph being a particular standout, along with Betsy Palmer as a matronly former employee of the Christy family. But for the most part, characterization in the film consists of a silent killer going after generic young adults; it’s the suspense that is the point of the film, not the characters.
But that suspense works reasonably well, as does the the actual killing of the characters. It’s difficult to build empathy for characters when you know they’re doomed, and the film doesn’t try too hard at establishing it, but it does well enough to make the audience care about some of the characters and to be shocked at at least a few of the ones who don’t make it. It is, on the whole, a well-crafted slasher movie, and it’s not hard to see how this wound up spawning one of the longest-lasting franchises in the genre. It was well worth the wait, and the watch. Now we’ll see if I can get my hands on Part 2 before July 13th….