40×40: Friday The 13th (1980)

Directed by Sean S Cunningham

“We ain’t gonna stand for no weirdness out here.”

Why Did I Get This?

Just like The Blob, this is another of Late Reviewer friend and contributor Vikki Layton’s scary movie care package films (I might get through another one or two before we get to Halloween, but we’ll see).

This one, I’d seen a few times over the years, though I’ve probably seen bits and pieces of the sequels more frequently than I’d either sat through an entire film or seen the original. As a bit of a geek, I’ve always been fascinated in how special effects were created, and Tom Savini’s work on this as well as his work with George A Romero were probably a factor in sparking that interest.

I also used to have a stack of paperback novelisations of the films which I read many times before I was old enough to see the movies, so while I wouldn’t say I’m a particular fan of the movies themselves, I’ve always had a bit of a morbid curiosity about them.

As well as the gore, I remember it’s also notable for one of the great horror bait and switch reveals as well as a young Kevin Bacon getting an arrow through his throat, but will I enjoy it this time round? Is ‘enjoy” even the right term for a slasher film?

This blog has always been about presenting my own thoughts on revisiting the films sitting on my shelves, so if you’re looking for in-depth stories about Friday The 13th, I’d point you towards 2013’s excellent and exhaustive Crystal Lake Memories documentary (and the book it’s based on). Here though, are a few of my scribblings about the infamous slasher.

The Late Review

As always, the Late Review will include spoilers from the film. If you’d like to avoid them, scroll straight down to the next heading!

A year after the accidental death by drowning of a young boy at Camp Crystal Lake, two camp counsellors are murdered in a barn. Twenty-one years on from their murder, a new team of teens are getting the camp ready to reopen, until an unseen killer begins bumping them off in increasingly gory and inventive ways.

It’s no secret that Friday The 13th ‘borrows’ heavily from other, better films. The point of view shot from the killer was done better in 1978’s Halloween, the musical stings while the first teens are being stabbed sound like Bernard Hermann’s work on 1960’s Psycho, although just the right side of copyright infringement. The final scene of doctors dumping a little exposition feels like the end scene of Psycho too, while the last-minute jump scare is shamelessly ripped off from 1976’s Carrie.

But while he might be acting as a magpie, there’s no denying the tricks Cunningham borrowed work well with this low-budget horror – certainly well enough to have it talked about and earn enough to establish one of the biggest franchises of the 20th Century.

What also helped make Friday The 13th memorable were the kills. As I said, I’ve always been a fan of Tom Savini’s work, and while the digital transfer hasn’t been entirely kind to certain bits and pieces of his gory gags (you can spot the almost flesh-coloured appliances here and there more easily on DVD), there’s more invention and convincing grue on show in this 40-odd year old movie than in many of the current digitally-assisted cheapie horrors.

More importantly, the first film is less about the spectacle of how the cast is bumped off and more about building the suspense between kills. Yes, the murders are pretty spectacular, but the franchise isn’t at the point yet where you’re only watching to see what creative new ways the effects team have come up with to off the teens. Also, the editing is clever enough to cut away at just the right moment after one of Savini’s gags so while you’re shocked at what you’ve seen, you’re not staring at the screen trying to work out how it’s done – Kevin Bacon’s infamous death with an arrow through the back of his neck is the perfect example of this, and far shorter than I remembered.

Something else I found interesting was the movie’s attitude towards the teens themselves. Aside from the occasional beer, joint and game of strip Monopoly, none of them were particularly unlikable. Well, maybe Mark Nelson’s Ned was a bit annoying, but you’re certainly not rooting for him or any of the others to get bumped off.

More importantly, each of them was shown to be quite capable and resourceful. They’re all working hard to fix and paint cabins ready for the summer camp to begin, but when lights go out they’re confident enough to have a crack at using the generator. When a sink doesn’t work, they can monkey about with the pipes until it does, and when a snake gets into one of the huts, they block the door and attack it with a machete rather than run shrieking from the room.

They’re basically the opposite of the slaughter fodder presented by the later sequels and modern imitators, and I found that pretty refreshing.

While we’re talking about differences between the sequels and the original, if you didn’t remember the killer was Betsy Palmer’s Mrs Vorhees in this one (rather than her gigantic, unkillable, hockey mask-wearing son Jason)… then you clearly haven’t watched Wes Craven’s Scream recently.

But the difference it makes having a character carrying out these horrific murders for a reason (albeit a wrongheaded and insane reason), is really refreshing. No lumbering bogeyman picking off kids willy nilly just because they’re nearby, but a grieving and mentally unbalanced mother (who doesn’t get a first name in this instalment but is later referred to as Pamela Vorhees), who is still bitter about the loss of a child going to remarkable lengths to take revenge on anyone she feels may hold responsibility (or who could cause another child to die).

Alright, so she’s a character introduced with 20 minutes to go, and it’s somewhat difficult to believe she’d be capable of, say, using arrows to lift a teenager a couple of feet into the air and skewer him to a cabin door, or throw another through a window. But it’s a solid reveal and a decent twist, and just one of the more inventive aspects of this grimy little slasher that’s far better than any of its follow-ups (and most of its imitators).

Verdict

Is it a great film? It was never going to trouble any awards ceremonies, the writing feels quick and dirty and the cast – while game enough – are often a little unpolished.

But some of the shots are genuinely stunning and feel like they have no place in a cheap genre quickie – look at the images leading up to the final jump scare as Alice (Adrienne King), drifts beautifully across a completely still lake in a rowing boat with lush forests in the background and tell me that doesn’t belong in a far more expensive and respected film.

Would I revisit it? Yeah, absolutely.

Would I recommend it? Well, that’d depend on who asked.

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