Film Review: Friday the 13th (dir. by Sean S. Cunningham)

(Warning: Spoilers Below)

This month, the 13th is going to fall on a Friday so I figured what better time would there be to watch and review the Friday the 13th franchise?  Through April 13th, I’ll be reviewing each film in the franchise.  Some of these reviews will be positive and quite a few of them will not.  Let’s get things started with the one that started it all, the original 1980 Friday the 13th.

Is there anyone out there who does not know the plot of Friday the 13th?  For those who don’t, here’s a spoiler-filled refresher.  In the late 50s, at the rather crummy looking Camp Crystal Lake in New Jersey, two counselors sneak off from a sing-along so that they can do whatever it was that young people used to do in the 50s.  Suddenly, someone else walks into the room.  “Uhmm, we weren’t doing anything,” one of the counselor says right before a machete is plunged into his stomach.

Jump forward 25 years.  Annie (Robbi Morgan), a bubbly young woman who won’t stop talking about how much she loves children, hitchhikes into Crystal Lake.  She tells the townspeople that she’s looking for a ride to Camp Crystal Lake and everyone give her that “Oh no you didn’t” look.  Crazy old Ralph (played by Walt Gorney) tells her, “You’re doomed.”  Since this is a slasher film, Annie ignores him and ends up getting her throat slashed in the woods by an unseen assailant wearing black gloves.

Meanwhile, at Camp Crystal Lake, the somewhat jerky Steve Christy (played by an actor named Peter Brouwer who never gets enough credit for giving a good performance here) is working hard to get the long-since deserted camp up and ready for its grand reopening.  Helping him out are his fellow camp counselors — lovers of life and fun Marcie (Jeannine Taylor) and Jack (The Kevin Bacon, who is like such a total hottie in this film I don’t even know where to start), boring Bill (Harry Crosby), bossy meanie Brenda (Laurie Bartram), obnoxious practical joker Ned (Mark Nelson), and finally Steve’s girlfriend, Alice (Adrienne King).  Steve tells his counselors to get the camp ready and then heads off to pick up supplies in town.  (Or at least, that’s what Steve says he’s doing.  As far as I can tell, the only thing he does when he gets to town is head over to the local diner and start flirting with the 90 year-old waitress…)

With jerky old Steve gone for the day, the counselors decide to spend their time swimming (and, in Ned’s case, pretending to drown), having sex, smoking pot, and eventually getting killed one-by-one by an unseen murderer.  Eventually, once Alice is the only counselor left alive, she runs into a nice, older woman named Pamela Voorhees (played, with a lot of genuine menace, by Betsy Palmer).  When Alice explains that everyone’s dead, Pamela responds by mentioning that her own son — Jason — drowned at the camp 25 years ago because the counselors were too busy “making love.”  Pamela then tries to kill Alice and Alice ends up chopping Pamela’s head off and then floating out onto the lake in a canoe.  (Meanwhile, the camp is nowhere close to being ready for opening day.)

The next morning, Alice wakes up in the canoe and spots a bunch of police officers on the shore.  As she starts to call out to them, a deformed boy suddenly jumps out of the water and grabs her.  This, of course, is one of the most famous scenes in the history of horror and one that has been parodied and ripped off numerous times.  However, when I first saw Friday the 13th, that scene made me scream and, even today, I still find my heart racing  just a little bit faster whenever I know that it’s coming up.

The first time I ever saw the original Friday the 13th, I was either 8 or 9 and it was all incredibly daring because I was staying up way too late with my older sisters and watching a  cable station for grownups that I knew I wasn’t supposed to be watching.  We didn’t want to wake up mom or dad so we had the volume turned down as low as it would go and we whispered our comments of “Ewwww!” and “Agck!”  (Yes, even at the age of 8, I was already saying “agck.”)  Even though I couldn’t hear the film, I could see it and the end result was thatm when I did eventually go to sleep, I was awake after about an hour, screaming because I had a Friday-inspired nightmare.  I doubt that the movie would scare me as much today because today,I know who Tom Savini is and, if I need proof that Kevin Bacon was actually not killed by Mrs. Voorhees hiding underneath the bed, I can watch my DVD of Crazy,Stupid Love.  But when I was younger, Friday the 13th was the fuel of nightmares and, seeing as I’ve always had my little morbid streak, I think that’s why the franchise continues to interest me.

If there’s one thing that everyone seems to agree about when it comes to Friday the 13th, it’s that the true stars of the film were the disturbingly plausible gore effects designed Tom Savini.   Even when I rewatched the film before writing this review, I was surprised by not only just how bloody a movie Friday the 13th was but also at how realistic it all looked (especially when compared to the intentionally over-the-top gore effects that Savini provided for Dawn of the Dead).  There’s a surprising brutality to the film that reminds us that — unlike future installments in the franchise — the original Friday the 13th was not made for mainstream audiences but instead for the audiences who populated New York grindhouses and dark Southern drive-ins.  The special effect that every other reviewer always seems to point out is the scene where the arrow bursts through Kevin Bacon’s neck.  While that scene is indeed shocking (and sad too, because it’s Kevin Bacon dying), I’m always more disturbed by the scene that immediately follows, where Marcie gets hit in the face with the axe.  That’s the scene that showed up in my nightmare after I watched the film for the first time.

Director Sean Cunningham has said, in numerous interviews, that he was inspired to make Friday the 13th largely because of the box office success of Halloween and there are some pretty obvious similarities between the two films.  What is less often commented upon is just how much of the original Friday the 13th was inspired by the Italian giallo films of Mario Bava and Dario Argento.  Whether it’s the focus on the killer’s black gloves or the use of Harry Manfredini’s iconic theme to signal when something bad is about to happen, the giallo influence is pretty obvious.  Sean Cunningham was hardly an innovative director but when he stole, he stole from the best and the end result, crude as it may have sometimes been, was undeniably effective.

In Peter Bracke’s fascinating history of the franchise, Crystal Lake Memories, there’s an interesting quote from Jeannine Taylor, the actress who  played Marcie.  When discussing her reaction after first reading the script, Taylor says, “To me, this was a small independent film about some very carefree teenagers who are having a great time at summer camp where they happen to be working as counselors.  Then they just happen to get killed.”  Taylor’s comment gets at one reason why Friday the 13th — out of all the slasher films to come out after Halloween — continues to be watched by even people like me who weren’t even alive when it was first released.  Uniquely among the films in the franchise, Friday the 13th is a true ensemble film and, though the performances are somewhat uneven and the characters are pretty one-dimensional, the cast has an easy and likable chemistry.  Watching the film today, it’s a bit hard not to concentrate on the fact that you’re seeing Kevin Bacon in a low-budget slasher film but once you get over that, you realize that Bacon and the entire cast are totally believable as bunch of likable, carefree kids who end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.  A lot of critics have complained that the first half of the film drags as we just watch everyone goofing off around camp.  To me, those early scenes make the film because they get us to care about the characters just enough so that we don’t necessarily want to see them killed.

Another frequent critical complaint is that it’s difficult to have much sympathy for characters who consistently do stupid things that ultimately lead to them getting killed.  Viewers tend to shake their heads as they watch Ned go wandering into a deserted cabin or when Brenda just happens to wander out on the archery range.  Myself, I always tend to roll my eyes whenever the film reaches the point that Marcie decides to run out into the rainy night in just her panties and a shirt.  I always find myself going, “Yeah, like anyone’s really that stupid…”

Of course, even as I type this review, I’m thinking about how, a few nights ago, I thought I heard a catfight at 3 in the morning and my immediate response was to run outside and walk up and down in the alley, wearing only a t-shirt and a thong, calling my cat’s name.*  Even as I searched for our cat, I found myself muttering, “This is like a slasher movie waiting to happen.”  However, I still kept wandering around that alley in my half-naked state because, at the time, I was pretty confident that there weren’t any masked maniacs around.

That’s what people who criticize films like Friday the 13th for featuring stupid characters refuse to admit.  We all do more stupid things than we care to admit because we’re usually pretty confident that there won’t be any negative consequences to our stupidity.  We all know that there are evil psychopaths out there but we’re also confident that we won’t run into them.  The reason why the slasher genre has remained popular is because it forces us to confront our deepest fear, which is that we might not be as safe or have as much control over our fate as we tell ourselves.

Not surprisingly, Friday the 13th and its subsequent sequels has never been as popular with critics as they have with audiences.  In fact, critical reaction upon the initial release of Friday the 13th was so hostile that one critic even printed Betsy Palmer’s address and invited outraged filmgoers to write her letters of protest.  The standard critical complaint about Friday the 13th was that it presented death as a punishment for having sex and smoking weed and here I would say that the critics were mistaken.  While it is true that Jack and Marcie die after doing both of these things, I think there’s actually a far more relevent message to be found within the film.  Consider this: Ned dies after he spots someone in a deserted cabin and says, “Can I help you?”  Steve Christy is killed because he spots someone out in the rain and approaches them, saying, “What are you doing out in this mess?”  Brenda thinks that she hears a child crying for help outside of her cabin and foolishly goes walking around in the middle of hurricane in her nightgown, calling out, “Hello!?” until she’s killed off-screen.  What the critics, so caught up in their moral panic, failed to understand was that the message of Friday the 13th is not that people shouldn’t have sex.  The message is that people shouldn’t offer to help random strangers.

Despite the amount of critical scorn heaped upon it, Friday the 13th was a box-office success and the 18th highest grossing film of 1980.   At the time, for a low-budget, independent film, this was highly unusual.  Despite the fact that Friday the 13th ended with Mrs. Voorhees losing her head and Jason still in that lake, there would be a Friday the 13th Part 2.

We’ll deal with that tomorrow.  Until then, don’t help any random strangers…


*Doc, our cat, was fine, by the way.  It turned out, he was sitting in the kitchen the whole time I was outside desperately searching for him.

27 responses to “Film Review: Friday the 13th (dir. by Sean S. Cunningham)

  1. Who can argue with this? A true horror classic in every sense of the word. I look forward to the rest of your reviews!


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  20. Fun film. I would watch these young people hang out, even if they weren’t being killed. Perfectly captures the transition from 1979 to 1980.


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