Long considered to be an unlucky day due to superstitions involving the number thirteen and religious connotations, Friday the 13th is perhaps equally as well-known as being the title for a long-running series of slasher movies. As a result, this is clearly the best opportunity to take a look at the Friday the 13th (Various, 1980 to 2009) horror series and to commemorate this unlucky and dreaded date.
Released: 9 May 1980
Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Distributor: Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures
Stars: Adrienne King, Harry Crosby, Jeannine Taylor, Kevin Bacon, Peter Brouwer, and Betsy Palmer
Camp Crystal Lake is attempting a reopening some twenty-odd years after a series of grisly murders and unfortunate events. However, when the enthusiastic crop of would-be camp counsellors begin dying in gruesome ways, the few survivors are left at the mercy of a relentless serial killer out for revenge…and blood!
Inspired by John Carpenter’s Halloween (Carpenter, 1978), which is generally regarded as giving birth to the “slasher” sub-genre of horror cinema, filmmaker Sean S. Cunningham desired to make his own slasher film, one that would be visually striking and brutal in its execution. Though Cunningham thought up the basic concept, the screenplay was completed by Victor Miller, who delighted in crafting the vicious and surprising twist for the film’s antagonist. Although Betsy Palmer famously only took this role to buy a new car and found the experience to be somewhat degrading and embarrassing, she later shared some interesting insights into the character’s psychology and motivation that would come to inform the film’s many sequels.
Friday the 13th eventually made nearly $60 million at the box office, a financial success that was mired only by scathing reviews that attacked the plot, its derivative nature, and excessive violence. Over time, opinions haven’t really changed much but, regardless of this, the numbers spoke for themselves and Friday the 13th soon inspired one of the longest running and most iconic, influential, and successful slasher franchises in horror history thanks to the iconography of later antagonist, Jason Voorhees (Various), and the gruesome punishment of a slew of horny teenagers for engaging in debauchery.
Friday the 13th begins in 1958 where an unseen killer stalks and brutally murders two camp counsellors right in the middle of having sex; the influence of Halloween can immediately be felt as Cunningham borrows wholeheartedly the first-person perspective used by Carpenter at the start of his film. However, while Carpenter did this to hide the fact that his killer was a young boy, Cunningham maintains the perspective throughout the majority of Friday the 13th’s kills. The mystery of the killer is maintained throughout the movie, with only brief glimpses given on the assailant’s hands; we never hear their voice or name and all we really know is that they’re at least the size of a full-grown adult and driven by a vicious obsession to punish all who dare try to reopen the camp.
This mystery permeates the film and lingers in the air like an ominous cloud when the story jumps ahead to then-present day; it helps that the film is stuffed with characters, many of whom are intentionally set up as red herrings and to fool us into thinking they are the killer, like “Crazy” Ralph (Walt Gorney), who desperately tries to warn the unsuspecting kids about the camp’s “death curse”. Indeed, the legend of Camp Crystal Lake is a horror story all unto itself; the townsfolk refer to the camp as “Camp Blood” and are largely distrustful and fearful of the site. Annie Phillips (Robbi Morgan) is told the tragic story of how a boy drowned in the lake in 1957 and how mysterious fires and poisonings have contributed to the camp’s notorious reputation.
However, the new crop of camp counsellors are, for the most part, oblivious to the camp’s storied history thanks to the owner, Steve Christy (Brouwer), attempting to maintain order around the camp by intentionally leaving out Camp Crystal Lake’s more gory details; a rugged, hands-on kind of man with one hell of a moustache, Steve is a hard taskmaster who is determined to get the camp refurbished and ready to go and to silence the naysayers from town. Despite this, he disappears for most of the film, leaving his new counsellors to fend for themselves, thus setting himself up as another potential suspect.
In Steve’s absence, the camp is kept ticking over by his, right-hand woman, Alice (King), an aspiring artist who seems to have a bit of an unresolved or troublesome relationship with Steve; Alice is just as hands-on as Steve and generally acts as his go-between, ferrying messages and jobs to the other counsellors. Despite being the default authority figure, Alice is no more prominent or outstanding than any of the other characters, who are actually slightly more interesting and dynamic thanks to their more memorable, if cliché, characteristics. They might be horny goofballs at times, with few complexities to them, but Alice is a comparatively bland and boring character by comparison; retroactively, of course, her more grounded and responsible nature make her the ideal “final girl” but, unlike some of her contemporaries and counterparts from around the same time, Alice still falls short for me and, even in the finale, is little more than a screaming wreck who gets lucky rather than being an adaptable and capable young woman.
To be fair, most of the counsellors are far more interested in mucking about setting the place up, flirting, and shagging; Ned (Mark Nelson) is especially interested in the prospect of hooking up while at camp, mainly because of how brazen and affectionate his friends, Marcie (Taylor) and Jack (Bacon) are. The teens, who are rounded out by Bill (Crosby) and Brenda (Laurie Bartram), quickly bond, finding plenty of time to sunbath, relax, and play lewd pranks on each other all while largely unaware that they’re being watched and stalked from the dense forest. You might think that, maybe, future star Kevin Bacon stands out from the pack but, to be honest, he simply blends in as another disposable victim for the film’s killer and only a die-hard Kevin Bacon fan would say any different. In the end, he like his peers, exists to get laid and then meet a hauntingly gruesome end.
Like any good horror film, Friday the 13th is bolstered by two things first and foremost: the brutality of the kills and the haunting nature of its soundtrack. Just as Carpenter’s iconic Halloween theme helped to increase its dread and horror, so too does Harry Manfredini’s memorable “ki-ki-ma-ma” chant help to personify and represent the largely-unseen killer and takes on additional significance once the killer’s identity and motives are revealed as it represents the desperate pleas of a wronged son for vengeance.
Of course, you can’t talk about any horror film, much less a Friday the 13th, without mentioning the special effects; born from the mind of effects maestro Tom Savini, Friday the 13th’s practical effects and horrific kills might be some of the more subdued in the franchise but they’re still an undeniable highlight of the film. Friday the 13th features such gruesome moments as Annie getting her throat slit (and Ned’s similarly mangled corpse), Marcie taking an axe right to the face, and, of course, the iconic visual of Kevin Bacon getting an arrow thrust through his throat from beneath his bed! Later, Alice is traumatised when she stumbles upon the bloodied and desecrated corpses of the counsellors (with Brenda’s body being launched through a window as she attempts to hide) and the film concludes with a pretty impressive, if now somewhat preposterous, decapitation effect.
Naturally, with the killer’s identity remaining a mystery throughout the film, the reveal of the killer for the film’s finale is probably one of the most memorable moments of Friday the 13th beyond the score and the gore. As I mentioned, many characters are set up as red herrings throughout the film but the killer is, eventually, revealed to be Pamela Voorhees (Palmer), an old friend of the Christy’s and the camp’s former cook. While this is a shock (mainly because it appeared as though the killer was a male, judging by the hands), it’s also pretty damn obvious that she’s the culprit as she appears literally out of nowhere right at the end of the film after everyone else but Alice has been brutally murdered, although this may still come as a shock to many newcomers or those ignorant to the franchise who believe that the more iconic Jason was the killer all along. Pamela, though, was the original killer of the franchise; driven to a murderous rage after her son, Jason (Ari Lehman), drowned in the lake years ago due to the negligence of the camp counsellors, Pamela is revealed to be the one behind all the killings and unfortunate events that have plagued Camp Crystal Lake ever since. Unlike Jason and Michael Myers/The Shape (Nick Castle/Various), Pamela is an articulate and deviously calculating villain, mimicking the cries of her child to lure Brenda to her death and initially fooling Alice with her affable nature. It doesn’t take long, though, for the extent of Pamela’s psychosis to be revealed and, much like the finale of Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960), she spells her motivations out as plain as day and pursues Alice with a crazed aggression. Luckily for Alice, Pamela becomes massively inept and far less efficient with her final victim, which ultimately leads to her grisly decapitation at Alice’s hands.
While Pamela’s eventual reveal makes for a frantic and exhilarating finale, it comes all-too late to really make up for the tedious monotony of the rest of the film; Friday the 13th does almost too good a job of building tension towards its dramatic conclusion as we’re forced to follow a group of largely uninteresting and dull characters through plodding scenes devoid of energy or intrigue. It’s one thing to establish a foreboding mood but it’s quite another to just be out-right boring and, with a surprisingly low body count and few instances of sex and debauchery, Friday the 13th is largely a chore to get through until Mrs. Voorhees enters the proceedings. The film then pulls a shock twist completely out of nowhere, purely because Carrie (De Palma, 1976) pulled a similar trick, by having Jason’s mangled and monstrous form attack Alice right at the end of the film…only for it to be revealed as a nightmare…or something. The Friday the 13th franchise is full of clunkers and poor efforts but, honestly, one of the weaker entries has to be this original film; while it’s memorable and influential for taking the concepts and troupes of Halloween and largely mapping out the template for slasher films for years (even decades) to come, it can’t be denied that it’s a bit of a slog to get through. Sadly, even for a someone who is as big of a fan of the franchise as myself, all the superbly gory special effects and crazed performances by Betsy Palmer in the world can’t change my aversion towards this first film which, while a classic to be sure, is more of a snooze-fest than anything else.
Could Be Better
How do you feel about Friday the 13th? Do you believe it to be a horror classic or do you agree that it’s largely unspectacular, especially now after the film’s many sequels? Which of the camp counsellors was your favourite and why, and do you think Alice made for a compelling character or would you have preferred to see someone else survive to the finale? Who did you think the killer was the first time around and what did you think to Mrs. Voorhees’ dramatic reveal? Were you even aware the she was the original killer or have I just spoiled the film for you? Which of the Friday the 13th movies is your favourite? Perhaps you prefer a different slasher film or franchise; if so, what is it? Do you consider Friday the 13th to be unlucky? Are you watching a Friday the 13th movie today? Whatever your thoughts on Friday the 13th (the movie, franchise, and day), go ahead and leave a comment down below and be sure to check in again for more horror content in the near future!