FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980)
No film genre is as inclusive as the scary movie. While other genres are sniffy about placing their highbrow pictures alongside cheaper films, the scary movie genre has no qualms sitting the likes of The Exorcist (1973) alongside Pumpkinhead (1988). For a fright film to be effective it doesn’t have to have high production values or be Oscar-worthy, and one of the best scary movies from the economical end of the scale is Sean S. Cunningham’s 1980 slasher classic Friday the 13th (1980).
Following the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) Cunningham quickly spied a new audience hungry for horror movies. Keen to return to the horror genre himself, having gained some notoriety working with Wes Craven on Last House On The Left (1972), the director hit on another calendar inspired title to attract viewers, 'Friday the 13th'. So sure that the name alone would pull in the punters Cunningham took out advertisements in the trade press declaring 'Friday the 13th' to be the most terrifying movie ever made. However, all the director had was the name; there was no script, no cast, not even a central premise. Needing to deliver on his promise Cunningham turned to friend and scriptwriter Victor Miller.
A touch hackneyed by today’s standards thanks to the flood of imitators that followed Friday the 13th’s success, at the time the plot was a relatively fresh concept, at least for American moviegoers. Beginning with its first gratuitous film theft, a wholesale pilfering from Halloween (itself having nabbed the idea from Blood and Lace (1971), we’re taken back to Camp Crystal Lake circa 1958 to witness the murder of two young camp counsellors, caught in-flagrante in one of the camp-house lofts. Like the young, clown-masked Myers, the kills are conducted in the first person, the killer hidden from view. Flash forward to current day and Camp Crystal Lake, or Camp Blood as the locals refer to it, is being reopened by a group of eager young adults. But someone doesn’t want the Camp to reopen and will stop at nothing to ensure it remains closed forever.
Taking cues from giallo classic A Bay Of Blood / Twitch Of The Death Nerve (1971) Miller’s story had just the sort of cheap-to-make but impossible to resist plot Cunningham was looking for. But the success and influence of Friday the 13th went far beyond what the director original envisaged. Cunningham’s film took the torch paper Halloween had cut and put a match to it; the slasher movie had arrived.
The film’s core group became a blueprint for nearly all future slasher films; the handsome ‘jock’, the randy couple, the joker, the authority figure, and the sensible virginal girl bound for the final showdown. As the group dwindle in number teasing hints as to who the killer might be are littered about the camp; Steve Christy’s jeep identical to that of the killer, the creepy local Crazy Ralph, the intruding local policeman less than fond of the young interlopers from out of town. These red herrings become tantalising clues as the whodunit fun fills the gaps between the spectacularly shot death scenes. When it came to casting the film’s villain Cunningham cleverly placed an all-American family friendly face (veteran actress Betsy Palmer) in the killer’s fluffy pullover, wrong footing viewers when she arrives with a soothing voice and a comforting hug.
Further fun is had watching the remaining pieces of the slasher puzzle fall in to place, and what Carpenter started Cunningham finished. The final slasher tropes are added to the mix, visually appealing cast members running around in their underwear, enticing red herrings, and taboo busting death scenes. It might not be The Wicker Man but Cunningham ensured his movie never pretended to be something that its not; a fairground ghost-ride of a film was what he wanted to make and that’s exactly what he delivered, uncomplicated scares and tension that are all the more effective because of it.
In front of the camera the acting is of the ‘over’ variety, the actors involved delightfully selling every line for all their worth, ‘Hey wasn’t that the road up to Camp Crystal Lake back there’. Those who fall foul of the knife/axe/machete include a young Kevin Bacon following on from his debut in National Lampoons Animal House (1978), and Bing Crosby’s son Harry Crosby as the unlucky Bill. The soundtrack for the film is equally hammy. Harry Manfredini who scored the picture merely took the first syllables from the words ‘kill’ and ‘mum’ and fed them into an echo-plex machine. This created the oft-imitated echoing sound many people remember from the film. The fact that it was close in sound to the infamous soundtrack used in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is surely more than mere coincidence.
Along with the new slasher clichés the stars of Friday the 13th remain the excellent setting and the remarkable effects work. The man behind the latter was the incomparable Tom Savini. Director Cunningham was genuinely surprised by the versatility offered by the effects ace, ‘You have a hatchet in the face on page 38….do you want a fake face and a real hatchet, or a real face and a fake hatchet’. As Savini told the film crew ‘Anything is possible’ and with this film it certainly appeared to be the case. Witness the neck-spearing of Jack, an effect that had Savini underneath Bacon’s bed blowing sheep’s blood through a hole in the actor’s fake chest. It was stomach-churning stuff and the way in which Savini made the effects look so life like was applauded at the time; the effects remain realistically gritty compared to today’s penchant for shiny CGI. As a gory payoff to the slow building stalking scenes, it was the release that horror fans had been waiting on for years, Hollywood dangling the carrot of bodily carnage in front of viewers from Psycho all the way to Halloween. Friday the 13th finally gave American thriller fans their prize.
What makes these moments of splatter really impressive is the nerve-racking lead-in that Cunningham subjects us to. The director wrung every drop of suspense from the preceding minutes to each kill. The signposts utilised to signify another slaying become more obvious as the film progresses, even more so when viewing the film with the benefit of slasher film history hindsight. Being so acutely aware of these markers the killings are even more explosively frightening when they occur. Our senses are heightened the moment a character strays away from the group or when Manfredini’s score moves in to ‘ki-ki-ki-ma-ma-ma’ mode. Having been placed on murder-alert, we then have to endure what feels like a lifetime of edgy minutes before the machete is unleashed. Turning this notion on its head, the final infamous you-think-its-all-over scare rips through soothing music and a notable absence of any such fright signposts.
To shoot the film Cunningham chose the superb location of Blairstown and an actual boy-scout camp (following a financial contribution to the scout group) still operating as such today under the name Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco. The setting was perfect for delivering total isolation, something Miller was adamant that the film portrayed. He wanted the possibility of any adult intervention totally negated by the locale. Unlike many films of similar ilk that leave you wondering why no one intervened to put a stop to the violence, Friday The 13th raised no such queries. The setting also provided a beautiful backdrop and Cunningham took advantage of the surrounding scenery, including a number of contemplative shots of the lake and surrounding forest to lull the viewer into a false calm. For a movie made on such a small budget it looked like a film shot for significantly more.
Promotion for the film was bold, even overzealous, luring punters in with a trailer that promised thirteen terrifying deaths despite the fact only ten actually occur, a number of them off screen. Audiences didn’t mind though and as the film’s reputation grew so did the box office take, $59million off of a £550,000 budget. A sequel was discussed within days of Friday the 13th’s release and Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) landed in cinemas exactly one year later. Cunningham handed directorial duties over to one of his long time assistants, Steve Miner.
Whilst sequels to slasher movies tend to be poor relations to their originals, Part 2 remains one of the best slasher sequels from the golden era. Even though its first ten minutes were a repeat of part one’s finale and its final scene failed to wrap up the story (how did Ginny get away from Jason and what happened to Paul?), the rest of Part 2 furthered the Crystal Lake mythos, moved at a swift pace, included a good group of likeable characters, added a fantastic final girl to the genre in Amy Steel’s Ginny, and had another fine offering of scares and shocking death scenes. Questions did arise around Pamela Voorhees motivation in the original film if her son was alive after all, but his hermit like existence suggested he somehow managed to clamber out of Crystal Lake rather than drown.
Adrienne King’s Alice had to be written out as the returning heroine following incidents with a real life stalker, but Alice was at least given a good send-off courtesy of a bravura prologue scene. As for the other onscreen deaths, by the time Part 2 made it to the MPAA the censors had caught wind of the bubbling moral panic over slasher films and their violent content. Part 2’s death scenes were themselves hacked and sliced, resulting in a final cut that was oddly less graphic than its predecessor was. An uncut Part 2 remains the Holy Grail for slasher film fans.
The dip in sequel quality started once Friday the 13th Part III 3D arrived in 1982. More interested in taking advantage of its three-dimensional gimmick, the story was thin and the characters much less noteworthy. Heading the cast was Dana Kimmel, overacting her heart out in one of the series' most so-bad-its-good performances “No! You can’t be alive”. She was surrounded by characters who were either too under-developed or too annoying. Chief amongst the latter was Larry Zerner’s Shelley whose only contribution, besides delivering supposed comic relief, was to provide Jason with his trademark hockey mask.
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) had a more memorable cast of characters, including Corey Feldman as the movie-effects loving Tommy (in a nod to effect maestro Tom Savini), but had lost the slow-building scares that marked out the first two films. What it had instead was the best combination of traditional series elements, and it remains the most 'Friday the 13th' of the Friday the 13th films, awash with horny, hard drinking teens, screaming scantily clad women, a storm soaked camp house, and a hockey masked Jason delivering ferocious kills.
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985) tried to reboot the series with a copycat in the Jason mask, a concept no fan was buying. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) reunited Voorhees with his hockey mask, but repeated the Elm Street series mistake of swapping scares for weak comedy. Friday the 13th Part VII The New Blood (1988) shoehorned in a final girl with Carrie-esque powers, while Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989) promised mayhem in the Big Apple but completely short changed viewers but offering a mere ten minutes of Jason-in-New-York action. The nadir of the series, Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993), arrived four years later and was a mess of a movie, stealing its idea from The Hidden (1987) and failing miserably. To keep Jason in the public consciousness during the legal wrangling for the in-development-hell Freddy vs Jason, Jason X (2002) tried something novel by sending a frozen Jason to the future and outer space; the results were underwhelming.
The flood of classic horror remakes during the noughties finally caught up to Friday the 13th and in 2009 it got its own redo. Having already made a fairly good job of remaking The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 2003, Marcus Nispel was given directorial duties. Rather refreshingly, the Friday re-tread was a well-made and tense horror film. Though not received well by critics, some fans of Jason saw it as a return to form. The film cobbled together plot elements from the first four Friday films, whilst retaining the story of the original movie. In essence it become a new part 2, following on years later with Jason now living by his own in the woods around Crystal Lake. Predictably, a group of horny teens end up in Jason’s path, but its the way in which Nispel goes about these Friday the 13th traits that raises the quality of the film.
The teens were fleshed out well, so that when the heads start to fly we have some vested interest in who gets chopped and when. The central character Clay, searching for his missing sister, is played with a surprisingly warm touch by Jared Padalecki. We actually care whether he and his sister (Amanda Righetti) make it to the credits in one piece or not. Kicking off with a bold pre-credit sequence lasting half an hour in itself, it makes for a refreshing change as you try to work out if this is the entire film or just a tasty entrée. The final third has a slight air of inevitability but there is also a genuine feeling of not knowing who will live and who will die. The scares are solid, the kills graphic but not cheesy, and the atmosphere is pure misty Crystal Lake. Nispel did not try to reinvent the wheel but why would he bother when the wheel worked perfectly the first time around?
FilmsFilmsFilms examines the full Friday the 13th movie franchise here: