December 1, 2013

Movie Review: Friday the 13th (1980)

By the time Friday the 13th saw the light of day in 1980, the groundwork for the slasher film had already been established. Whether you go back to proto-slashers like Hitchcock's Psycho, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, or Mario Bava's Twitch of the Death Nerve (some of whose kills were, uh, borrowed for the early Friday films), or if you stick to more traditional horror outings like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, and Halloween (which may be the purest form of slasher), Friday the 13th is hardly an original or groundbreaking entry in the about to explode sub-genre. It is curious that this one, of all films, became the franchise-spawning, MPAA lightning rod, and virtual poster child for the slasher genre.

I cannot claim any great insight or knowledge, I have never done any proper research, pretty much everything I have come up with is based on my own anecdotal evidence that will hold no water and render my own opinions completely invalid. I guess it doesn't matter that much as I am still a fan of the film, the series and all related to it, even if I did not grow up that way. I was late to the game and did not see Friday the 13th until sometime in the 1990s.

Friday the 13th is an interesting film. It was originally conceived and sold as a title. There was nothing outside of that title, so when interest was shown, they had to come up with something. Director/producer Sean S. Cunningham along with writer Victor Miller (and the uncredited Ron Kurz) fashioned this whodunit killer movie set at a summer camp, a location where they could put young people in danger without much adult intervention. It turned out to be a winning choice, propelled to huge success with the help of positive word of mouth and the inexplicable backing of Paramount Pictures, who pushed it like a major A release.

As the movie opens, we see campers singing around a campfire. Two of the counselors sneak away to one of the nearby buildings for a little bit of that thing unsupervised adolescents do that usually get them killed in horror movies (you know, sex!). They are interrupted by someone they seem to recognize, but is not seen by the audience. The two are brutally killed and we cut to the title card and opening credits.

The movie picks up some years later. The camp had been closed since the murders, but there is a new effort to get the camp going again and a new crop of counselors (including an early screen appearance by Kevin Bacon) have arrived to help with the preparations. It does not take too long before one of the new counselors, Annie (Robbi Morgan), is warned of “Camp Blood” and its death curse. Of course, she doesn't even make it to the camp. Oops, spoiler, sorry.

As the movie progresses, we are introduced to the new counselors as well as the man behind the project, Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer). We also watch as the teens goof around and pair off for adolescent sexual escapades. We are also witness to the deaths of almost all of these youngsters, in rather gruesome fashion, including that famous arrow tip through the back of the throat bit.

Everything leads up to that final confrontation between the one lone survivor and the killer. A killer whose reveal was a very good one. The killer of this movie is not indicative of where the franchise or the sub-genre was going, but is one that brings in a performer cast against type and introduces genuine emotion, rage and pathos to the proceedings. In some ways you can view the killer as a victim of chance, mistake, a victim of life.

It is not something I can say ever really dawned on me in my early days of horror fandom, but there is something very sympathetic about the killer in this film. I think this really is a scary film. Sure, there may not technically be a lot to it, but it has the death of innocence, revenge, and it is all set in an isolated setting where finding help is not exactly going to be an easy thing to do.

Spoiler Alert. Pretty much everyone knows that the killer is Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer). Even if you have not seen the movie (and what are you waiting for?) you know this. It is easy to write her off as a psychopath murderer, and you would not be wrong. Still, there is definitely depth to her character. Think about why she is this way. She went through the tragic loss of a child due to the lack of attention from those who should have been watching and protecting. She was forced to go through something that no parent should ever have to endure, the death of a child.

Sure, it is not like it had just happened, but she has been forced to live with it for years. On top of that, there was no closure for her, since young Jason was never recovered, or even found. Her grip on sanity and logic was ripped from her in the same way her son was torn from her life. She decided to do whatever it took to keep that camp closed, even if it meant murder. She was bound not to let what happened to her ever happen again and to that end she killed in his name. Sure, it could be argued she was inflicting the same thing on the parents of the counselors, but she was not exactly in a right frame of mind.

With all that said, it is easy to see the counselors as the victims of a murderer, but they are likely more akin to innocent bystanders caught in the blowback of Mrs. Voorhees eroded sanity. Not necessarily targeted for what they were but for where they were. They were there on the camp and Mrs. Voorhees killed them for it. Keep people away from the lake, save future kids and their families from a similar fate.

Friday the 13th is a movie that hit at just the right time. It was a movie that struck a chord with audiences. Critics railed against its “pornographic violence” (which seems tame by today's standards), word of mouth spread like wildfire, propelling it up the box office charts. I do not think I can point at any one element as a cause for the popularity, but with the success of Halloween it was a style perfectly ready to be exploited. Cunningham just did it first. It is amazing, what started as a Halloween rip off, took on an amazing life of its own. It just goes to show that when yuou have creative people looking for a creative way to make a movie on a low budget, there is no predicting the outcome.

While it is not my favorite slasher, Friday the 13th is a good movie that I am not sure I will ever actually get tired of watching. It does a good job of disguising who the killer is, presents mostly likable killer fodder, feels real, has a secure grounding in reality, has a great Psycho-esque score, and one hell of a stinger for an ending.

On a side note, in July of 2012, a friend and I went looking for the original filming locations of this classic. This what we found: In Search of Friday the 13th and Additional Photo Gallery.

Highly Recommended.

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Dell said...

Nice review, but you pretty much answered your own question about why it became so popular. After "Halloween," horror fans were looking for more slasher flicks. This one came along with the right backing, was graphically violent (esp. for 1980 and more so than "Halloween"), and had a serious buzz surrounding it. As you mentioned, Paramount pushed it pretty hard. Though I would say there is nothing inexplicable about that. "Halloween" was a huge success and they want a slice of that pie. There were also many news reports about the dangers of violence in cinema, or some variation of that theme, that featured this movie as the main culprit. I specifically remember watching one such report on "Nightline." Of course, anything that seems to get adults worked up enough to want to ban, kids are going to flock to. There was no one element that made it popular, it was a culmination of things. Basically, it was the right movie at the right time.

draven99 said...

Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my drivel.

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