The following article contains spoilers for the 1980 horror classic ‘Friday the 13th’.
Friday the 13th: a date, yet also an omen that bad things are around the corner. The very mention sends shivers down superstitious spines. So iconic is the date that whenever producer-director Sean S. Cunningham decided to make a film centered around it, he took out the below advertisement in Variety before a script was even complete:
Eventually, Victor Miller completed the final script, which led to a film that bears little connection to the date itself. However, Friday the 13th became significant in its own right. This independent horror production, budgeted as a measly $550,000, ended up being a huge financial hit that spawned a franchise headlined by infamous hockey-masked killer Jason Voorhees. Despite Jason himself not being in the first film (with one big exception), it marked a crystallization of one of the most popular sub-genres of horror: the slasher.
Here’s the thing: Friday the 13th is not very good. Not in a traditional sense, anyway. The premise is a lousy knockoff of Halloween, but this time at a summer camp. That movie had the characters to get you invested in the plight of the teenagers. Meanwhile, this has only one character with a genuine motive and personality. To top that off, this character doesn’t even come into play until the third act.
Nevertheless, Friday the 13th becomes a compelling case study in a subgenre finding its footing. Many of the hallmarks of slasher movies start here. For one thing, we have a bunch of teenagers camp out in the woods of Camp Crystal Lake. Eventually, they find themselves stalked by a sadistic killer. There’s the bad that the subgenre would come to exploit: sex scenes that border on softcore pornography, dialogue that would be worrisome in even a first draft, and poor pacing. In spite of that, however, there are also elements that make it shine.
For one, the actual “kills” themselves are magnificent. Who can forget the ax to the face? The arrow through a pre-fame Kevin Bacon’s neck? You have to give it up to the man himself, horror makeup legend Tom Savini, for coming up with increasingly brutal ways to dispatch these hapless teenagers. The movie spends less and less time in between these kills, starting to form a unique atmosphere supplemented by Barry Abrams’s mostly POV-focused cinematography and a surreal Harry Manfredini score.
By the time our final girl Alice Hardy (Adrienne King) comes face-to-face with the killer, the film earns its wings. The killer is not a faceless, silent goon. Instead, it’s a mother, Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), getting revenge for the drowning death of her son Jason. If it weren’t for the camp counselors’ negligence (they were having sex), Jason would still be alive. Palmer is utterly off-her-rocker here, veering between malevolence and imitating her dead son. There’s a raw fury there that’s exhilarating and horrifying.
The introduction of Pamela Voorhees adds a sort of pathos that was not only missing from this film but the slasher sub-genre as a whole. It may be nasty and uncomfortable, but it’s undeniable that it conjures up emotion. By the time Alice decapitates Pamela, I felt strangely exhilarated at the unrelenting commitment to bringing this film’s atmosphere to its natural conclusion.
Yet the film had one more surprise left in store for me. At the conclusion of the film, as Alice is sitting by the lake pondering the experiences she’s endured, a zombified Jason Voorhees jumps out of the water and drags her down into the water! It’s frankly to this day a terrifying moment that appeals to the most primal of fears. I was grinning ear-to-ear at this perfectly executing horror moment. I needed more.
And more I got. The slasher subgenre has continued to grow and thrive throughout the years. While it is not great in a traditional sense, Friday the 13th laid the groundwork for the slasher genre as we know it. As such, it is worth checking out simply for that reason. –James Preston Poole
Alright, now that we’ve got Friday the 13th out of the way, I have a bit of a surprise ending to this review: Full Circle is far from done with slasher movies. In fact, we’re going to be doing an entire series on them for Halloween! That’s right, in the back half of October, critic extraordinaire Daniel Hrincr will be hosting a comprehensive series of articles with contributions by our entire critic’s team on Slasher Cinema. See you in October, it’s going to be killer…
Friday the 13th is now on home video and Digital HD.
For a review of the next film in the series, click here.