Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Writer: Victor Miller
Producer: Sean S. Cunningham
Stars: Betsy Palmer, Adrienne King, Jeannine Taylor, Robbi Morgan, Kevin Bacon, Harry Crosby, Laurie Bartram, Mark Nelson, Walt Gorney, Ari Lehman
A murderer stalks the counselors preparing to reopen a summer camp that was once the site of several gruesome deaths.
Anyone born in a time when a half dozen or more sequels already existed in the “Friday the 13th” film series may find visiting the original to be either unintentionally condescending or unintentionally laughable. The film is by no means bad or unwatchable, it is just that in a contemporary horror landscape that is post-“Scream” and post-“Cabin in the Woods,” going into “Friday the 13th” without an appreciation for the era in which it was made will find the movie showing every year of its age. Not to mention that those truly unfamiliar with the series’ origins will be doubly disappointed to learn that Jason Voorhees only appears in a brief epilogue cameo.
Of the major fright film franchises from the 1980’s and 1990’s, which include “Halloween,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” etc., “Friday the 13th” is the one that holds up the most unfavorably. Ignore the hairstyles and the wardrobe, and Michael Myers’ earliest outing exists as timeless with suspense-based scares and classic themes. An anamorphic aspect ratio and early employ of steadicam also lend “Halloween” a remarkably current look. A large part of the appeal for “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in the first place is its dated seventies vibe and grainy 16mm film with screeching soundtrack. It is effective because of its gritty quality. “Nightmare” holds up similarly well by modern standards, and its iconic slasher has the advantage of being present from the outset. Meanwhile, as dolphin shorts and feathered hair occupy the real estate onscreen, a straightforward approach to cinematic storytelling keeps “Friday the 13th” frozen in 1980 like Han Solo in carbonite.
Similar to “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th” opens with the first-person perspective of an unidentified killer stalking and slaughtering two counselors at Camp Crystal Lake in 1958. Flash forward to “The Present” and Steve Christy has recruited a handful of enthusiastic teenagers to help him reopen the site that locals now refer to as “Camp Blood.” Even though it has been over twenty years since the last death, someone picks up where the murders left off and the new counselors begin disappearing one by one in suitably bloody fashion.
As a murder mystery, the movie does not work because it has no true suspects. Anyone that qualifies as a potential red herring is exonerated almost immediately in a subsequent scene. And the person who is the killer is only first introduced in the final minutes of the film, cheating the audience out of any chance to figure things out before the climax.
“Friday the 13th” truly is the definition of a “slasher.” It has no actual plot. A group of teenagers is in the woods preparing a campsite and someone butchers them all. There are a few brief teases of romantic subplots between various characters, but there is no definable story of which to speak.
If it were released nowadays, “Friday the 13th” would be mercilessly panned by critics and universally loathed by audiences. But it was not. It belongs to a time when its tropes had not yet become clichés. And viewing it under that light of being a trendsetter in horror casts “Friday the 13th” as something that was genuinely effective for its time.
Everything that horror movies presently take for granted is included: a cryptic warning from a crazy old man, wandering alone in the woods, the phone line being cut, the power going out, a Final Girl left to alone to battle the baddie, and a lot of phrases like, “stay here while I go take a look.” “Friday the 13th” was not the first slasher film, but whatever it did not borrow from what came before, it set the pace for every clone that followed.
Various elements of the film stand the test of time better than others. Innovative for their time, Tom Savini’s makeup FX still have good ideas, like the arrow through Kevin Bacon’s throat, but outdated techniques reveal a lot of the seams, such as the prosthetic on Robbi Morgan’s slashed throat. Meanwhile, Harry Manfredini’s familiar intonations of “ki ki ki, ma ma ma” continue to be just as effectively creepy now as they were back then.
The original “Friday the 13th” is a “get the job done” horror movie. But it is a job that it does well, even if it is done simply. Few fans would argue for it as the greatest installment in the series, although its impact on the genre is undeniable. And for that one reason alone, “Friday the 13th” will always remain a classic.
Review Score: 75