Director/Producer: Sean S. Cunningham
By Roderick Heath
There’s a large dose of irony underlying the attention Friday the 13th and its endless sequels receive these days, not dissimilar to the sarcastic ebullience that greets my friends when they perform Vanilla Ice at karaoke. It’s so lame, it’s classic. Yet it demands attention as a foundation of ’80s film culture and the modern horror genre. Make no mistake — Friday the 13th is a weak film in many respects. Perfunctorily written, boringly directed, dimly plotted, and awkwardly acted, it’s hard to see what made it so damn special, which is, perhaps, the point. Friday the 13th has no ambitions to being special. Its aim is to be efficient. Friday represents the apotheosis of cinema as mass production. Taking elements provided by better films, Friday puts them together cheaply with infinite capacity for repetition.
The story is almost Euripidean in its simplicity and compression. A period prologue—a common feature of ’70s horror films, plus pinching the first-person camerawork of Halloween’s opening—introduces the rural Camp Crystal Lake, which, though the setting is kept obscure, is revealed by both the shooting locations and stray details as being in rural New Jersey. Two camp counselors sneak off for a bit of crumpet, and are promptly slaughtered by an intruder. The present-day bulk of the film takes place in a period of about 12 hours. Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), who seems to be a bit of a counterculture wash-up, is reopening the camp as a refuge for “inner city kids,” and has hired a crew of flaky break-year teens as counselors. One, Annie (Robbi Morgan), hired as a cook, has difficulty making it to the camp. Dropped off in the nearest town, she encounters a local drunk, Ralph (Walt Gorney, playing a part that ought to be Dwight Frye’s), who warns of the evil that haunts the camp, beginning with a boy who drowned in the ’50s and followed by the still-unsolved murders seen near the film’s opening. Then she gets a lift with a truck driver (Rex Everhart), who cagily repeats the warning and leaves her at a crossroads. She then gets a ride in a jeep, whose unseen driver slices her throat.
Meanwhile, the general idiocy of the counselors is revealed by their attempts to kill a snake in the room of Alice Hardy (Adrienne King), who, it’s hinted in the film’s barren dashes of character development, is an art student with some unexplained baggage preoccupying her who is romantically interesting to Steve. Jack Burrell (Kevin Bacon, defining the power mullet as we know it) and Marcie Cunningham (Jeannine Taylor) are the appointed pair of pretty lovers, Ned (Mark Nelson) is a manic nerd jealous of Jack, and Brenda (Laurie Bertram) and Bill (Harry Crosby) make up the numbers. Steve departs for the evening, night falls, and a buffeting rainstorm descends. The night is—well, Snoopy would know how to describe it.
Godard famously remarked that all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun; Friday adapted these slightly as a girl in underwear and a big knife. The anxieties that Friday exploits are so basic that the film nearly works as a pure Jungian experience: night, shadows, isolation, the vulnerability of being unclothed whether having sex or taking a shower. Films that can be easily identified as influencing Friday include Bava’s Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1964) and Ecologia del Delitto (1971), Argento’s L’Uccello dalle Piume di Cristallo (1970), Richard Fleischer’s See No Evil (1971), and Carpenter’s Halloween (1978). But the elegant games of cinematic space, construction, and identification that Bava, Argento, Fleischer, and Carpenter learnt from Hitchcock and employed are totally absent from this film’s mercenary, witless proficiency. From Carpenter especially, it steals mercilessly, hamfistedly reproducing his style down to the title; in this first episode, at least, it is supposed to be Friday the 13th, but I don’t think this ever came up again.
In quick succession, Ned, Jack, Marcie, Brenda, Steve, and Bill are either dispatched or disappear to turn up riddled with holes later. Tom Savini has long been rightfully acclaimed for his gore effects, and his work here is cunning, but not exactly chilling. Effects like the arrow that sprouts from Bacon’s neck and the axe that lodges in Taylor’s face are lividly entertaining, but never actually look like real violence happening to real people, and the weak editing doesn’t help. Back when I first saw these films, late night on TV, they’d been cut senseless, but I’m not really sure why, because the gore, whilst striking, never seems to invoke any reality of corporeal pain and suffering.
About half an hour from the end, Friday remembers to throw in a perpetrator and motivation — Pamela Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), who makes an unexpected visit, claiming to be a friend of Jack’s, but who soon starts rambling about her disfigured son Jason, the boy who drowned back when and whose birthday this is. To nobody’s surprise but Alice’s, she is pursuing a psychotic revenge for her son’s death that she blames on horny incompetent counselors and is given to taking on Jason’s voice (which pleads for her to “Kill, mommy!”). Her appearance was only a ruse to draw King out of her besieged readiness. This incredibly somnolent piece of oh-yeah plotting reminds us why screenwriter Victor Miller is still neglected by the Nobel committee. Rather than hide in the vast dark forest or take a boat out onto the lake—you know, places where you’d be hard to find and attack—Alice locks herself in a cupboard with a frying pan.
Director Cunningham had produced Craven’s seminal Last House on the Left (1972), and he brought with him from that film assistant producer Steve Miner. Friday shares with Last House on the Left a visual emphasis on the contrast between leafy, pacific surrounds and grim violence, plus a dash of barely coherent social-conservative critique. What it lacks that Last House on the Left has is a level of actual thought to what it’s portraying, as well as dramatic structure and depth. It could be argued that the intense moral and intellectual indolence of the series’ hapless teens leads them to become easy knife fodder, and so they’re a general condemnation of the audience that laps them up. But the idea of slasher-film-as-reactionary-statement has in being so oft-reiterated perhaps been over-emphasised. The sexual element of the slasher film feels less intellectual, in the sense of being about a moral caution, than the sheer visceral exploitation of young people’s sexual anxieties. The vulnerability of coitus is especially loaded for people under 20, who worry about being caught by their parents, spied on by friends, catching diseases, getting knocked up, etc. Ironically, the Friday series probably did more for the cause of back row nookie than any other films.
Technically, the film hangs together. It’s well-shot by Barry Abrams, and aided especially by Harry Manfredi’s score, with its pseudo-Psycho strings and those indelibly creepy sounds that accompany the stalking (ki-ki-ki ma-ma-ma, which is actually Palmer’s mantra of “kill, mommy!” edited and remixed, to suggest the underlying motivation). Cunningham builds a modicum of atmosphere as the camp is swallowed by the storm. But it would be Miner, a fairly talented director who made the series an iconic one, through Friday the 13th Part II (1981) and Friday the 13th Part III (1982), by introducing the lethal, supernaturally spurred Jason Voorhees, who, in his hockey mask, was an anonymous embodiment of thuggish violence, a genuine monster whose utter malevolence can only be temporarily contained.
But the plot of all the films is the same, and the tensions that made them mildly, repetitively entertaining in Miner’s more talented hands, are laboriously set up here. The swift, casual brutality of the murders committed on the unsuspecting and exposed, most of whom are too involved in their sex lives or lack of one to notice the danger, makes the final pursuit of the last survivor, always a girl, especially fraught. The mechanical stunt where Alice keeps knocking Pamela down and leaving her for dead, only to be attacked again, is repeated no less than four times. This contrast of the lack of killer instinct in ordinary people compared with the remorseless nature of the villains is, of course, vital to the genre, and also a great device for a lazy director. Alice finally gets bloodthirsty enough to cleave off Pamela’s head with a machete, in a palpable climax insufficient to make up for the lousiness of the preceding 90 minutes.
Cunningham here throws in another stunt that would become a tiresome hallmark—the exasperatingly fuzzy conclusion that leaves us wondering whether what we saw is a traumatic dream or real event. Specifically, King, who gets the idea to take a canoe out into the lake after killing Mrs. Voorhees, awakens in the morning when the local deputy arrives, but then seems to be attacked by the drowned, part-rotted remains of young Jason, only to awaken in hospital, raving about the boy in the lake. The very last shot is of Crystal Lake, its surface pocked by small ripples, and the audience sensing its placidity is charged with menace. Well, mild nausea, at any rate. By pure coincidence, when I watched this, it was followed on cable TV by House of Wax—the one with Vincent Price, not Paris Hilton—which, with its perfervid colours, energetic acting, strong script, classical references, and overall sense of gothic fun, was like stumbling into the daylight after slogging around in the dark.