If Halloween pioneered the “teens-stalked-by maniac” slasher genre, Friday the 13th turned it into a dime-a-dozen bargain sale. In its wake there were multitudes of blood-soaked killing sprees at the theater, what Roger Ebert dismissively called “dead teenager movies.”
Now I think Ebert was a bit unfair when criticizing these films, though he wasn’t wrong, either. Slashers are not high art. They’re for turning your brain off, munching your popcorn, laughing at the bloody deaths, and maybe comforting your date in preparation for later comforting her in an intimate fashion.
On that note, I put in Friday the 13th expecting the usual ’80s low budget schlock. I remembered this franchise being less about sincere ambiance and more getting as many tits and murders past the MPAA as possible. Then again, it had been a while since. The collection is yet another item that’s gathered a fine layer of dust, a victim buried beneath the hoard pile.
Our story takes place at Camp Crystal Lake, a setting wrought with many unfortunate events. Following a boy’s drowning death, the murders of two compulsive young fornicators and a series of arson fires forced the camp to close down. Twenty years after the murders, the camp is an abandoned relic the locals call “Camp Blood.”
Of course the ominous nickname doesn’t stop Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer) and his hired band of slasher archetypes from reopening the camp. There’s Marcie (Jeannine Taylor), The Slut; Jack (Kevin Bacon), The Stud; Bill (Harry Crosby), The Unassuming Nice Guy; Ned (Mark Nelson), The Asshole; Brenda, The Sorta-Slut; and Alice (Adrienne King), The Virgin/Final Girl. There’s also Annie (Robbi Morgan) whom I’m having trouble categorizing. She’s supposed to be the camp’s cook but a POV stalker kills her before she ever arrives.
Annie’s murder establishes the notion that Something’s Not Right. This kicks off an otherwise long sequence of not much happening, and while that’s fine for building tension, these characters are rather boring to hang out with. Steve hits on Alice. Jack and Marcie get close and aroused. Ned acts like an assclown through stunts like shooting quiver bolts at his friends, among other examples of assclownery. There are a couple of offbeat occurrences, such as a snake in a cabin and a wandering town drunk named Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney) who may be Friday the 13th’s answer to Dr. Samuel Loomis. “You’re all doomed!” he warns every horny teen traveling in the wrong direction.
Then night falls, and the killings begin in earnest. The first one to die in these movies is a tossup between The Asshole and The Slut. The Slut is defined as the girl who at any point exposes her breasts and/or engages in actual sex. Her obligatory skinny dip is always her last. The Asshole is the prankster whom everyone is forced to tolerate, the one who does the fake jump scares and wears wacky costumes that match his bad haircut.
I’m not trying to slut shame here, nor am I condemning guys who turn to idiocy for attention. I’m pointing out the slasher genre’s established order of casualties. Friday the 13th, despite being an innovator in this field, doesn’t follow that sequence.
Alice isn’t the purest Final Girl either, as the other hard rule is that The Virgin should be the sole survivor. Over the course of the movie our heroine drinks a few beers, puffs a joint, and almost loses her shirt in a risqué game of Strip Monopoly. She may or may not have slept with her boss as well, though upon rewatch, the way he caresses her cheek could just be how you expressed affection in 1978.
Nevertheless, off-white as her dress might be, Alice doesn’t end up bare-breasted like Marcie or stripped down to her bra and panties like Brenda. Therefore when the killer shows up to claim the last victim, Alice is the only survivor amidst a macabre fun house of posed corpses. And…
…the killer is Mrs. Voorhees, mother of the drowned boy, Jason. She’s played by the invaluable Betsy Palmer, who contributes a performance more menacing than her son will in this movie’s ten followups. Er, nine if I’m thinking about Part V.
Mrs. Voorhees puts an everyday human face on the monster. She comes off to the unassuming victim as a sweet, sweater-wearing shoulder to cry on. How jarring, how disturbing, to have the maniacal killer swing a machete while looking like everyone’s favorite grandma. Palmer does a great job portraying a crazy lady driven mad with bloodlust. I love how she continues wearing her warm and friendly visage while stalking Alice.
Speaking of which, Adrienne King puts on a hell of a convincing performance as well. She should have won something for her legendary screams.
Friday the 13th evokes a genuine sense of creepiness. Sure it’s a Halloween ripoff, by the crew’s own admission, but they were going for real horror here. There are many tight frames and a lot of grueling, slow-paced suspense, especially during the final confrontation. The attempt at capturing horror contrasts with the more exploitative Friday the 13th installments. Part One is sort of like Nightmare on Elm Street before Freddy Kreuger became a wacky comedian.
Is Friday the 13th the best movie ever? Nah. The characters are on the dry side and the story is by-the-numbers, even for a pioneer in 1980. But I can’t fault the movie for accomplishing what it set out to do, to be a macabre horror show with not much ambition beyond scaring you.
More importantly, does it stay? Well, yeah. The disc is part of a collection. I can’t just pull it out and put it up for individual resale, right? Besides, we’re talking about my Friday the 13th box set. That’s not going anywhere.
FINAL GRADE: B-