So here we are at the beginning of one of the longest running and successful horror franchises. What is immediately apparent is that unlike its two big contemporaries, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th is not a great film. The other two were pushing boundaries in horror and were fantastically well made films in their own rights. Friday the 13th on the other hand, by the makers on admission, was created solely to cash in on Halloween‘s success and isn’t shot, edited or acted nearly as well.
However, it is unfair to watch the first Friday the 13th with the eye of someone who’s seen all the sequels, rip offs and films it has ripped off itself. Sometimes you have to watch a movie trying to imagine what it was like for the intended audience, in this case in the summer of 1980. I was but a wee whipper snapper back then and its “X” certificate would have stopped me from seeing it at all here in the UK. However if I was in America and if I could find a willing adult, I would have happily been traumatised by this spectacle. And that’s how you have to try and look at this: through the eyes of a young American movie goer, looking for a laugh and a fright at the pictures.
On the other hand the film opens with a complete rip off of the opening scene of Halloween, so the filmmakers don’t make it easy for themselves.
We begin in 1958 at Camp Crystal Lake where two camp leaders are getting it on. We watch them from the point of view of the killer who has followed them up to their secluded love spot and proceeds to kill them. Despite not being original at all, it is a statement of intent: there will be pretty young things getting it on, there will be blood and there will be a dirty great big Friday the 13th logo smashing through a pane of glass.
There is a likeable simplicity to the minimalist story which would have brilliantly connected with the audience of 1980. The critics may have hated it but Friday the 13th reflected the experience that a lot of young Americans had had: that of having spent the summer at camp, sitting around the night fire hearing stories about ghosts and madmen. This was always going to be a hit.
After the credits we zoom forward to modern times and meet hippy girl Annie, hitching her way to Camp Crystal to spend the summer making food for the kids. Of course the local town is packed with suspicious folk who say that it’s also known as Camp Blood and she’d be best off turning around and running for life. In particular there’s walking cliche Old Ralph who declares she is doomed as the camp has a “death curse”.
Annie, like any self respecting teenager, thinks the old folk are talking a load of old arse so heads off towards the camp anyway. Okay, I need to talk about Annie now and in doing so I need to reveal the killer, so if you really don’t know who the psycho is in Friday the 13th and don’t want to know then, well… hang on!! What the hell is the matter with you!?! So, Annie gets a lift from Jason’s mother, Pamela Voorhees, who, as we all know, hates and wants to kill anyone wanting to set up a summer camp here because some leaders 23 years ago let her son drown because they were too busy playing hide the sausage. That’s fair enough, who can blame her raging psychosis? However, sweet, lovely Annie, before realising she’s in a car with a nut job, explains to her that it is her very dream to look after children, she thinks they are wonderful. This is precisely the sincere and dedicated person who would NEVER let a simple kid with a droopy eye drown in a lake by himself. Annie is one of the nicest people ever committed to film and she’s has her throat slit like a pig in a slaughter house. Pamela Voorhees is massive cunt for killing her. I will never forgive her for doing this to poor little Annie. I hope someone cuts her head off with a massive machete.
Actually most of the teens in this first film are a likeable bunch and some of them even have a bit of character. One of them, Marcie, even has a tragic little arc. She’s with Kevin Bacon (that’s not the tragedy) and they have a sweet young-love thing going on. But then she tells him about this recurring dream she has, that it’s raining and the rain turns to blood. She is deeply disturbed by this dream. Later she is talking to herself in the mirror doing a Katharine Hepburn impersonation saying “I will always be ugly” at which point Voorhees shows up and proves that she will indeed always be ugly by ramming an axe into her face. It’s not much but it does have the air of a story about tragic, doomed youth, beauty destroyed by violence.
The very young Kevin Bacon doesn’t embarrass himself or anything but doesn’t leave that much of an impression other than when he is having an arrow rammed through his throat. The gory effects are something that could not be ignored back in 1980. People often talk about how Star Wars connected with the masses through its simple but spirited adventure story and interesting characters, but how I remember it was that people first went to see it for the spectacular effects. It’s the same with Friday the 13th. It was like a magic trick: how could Kevin Bacon still move his eyes and mouth even as he is being speared through the neck? Maybe the make up effects don’t look quite so convincing now but at the time this was revolutionary and revolting stuff, and audiences loved it. It’s such a shame that we are STILL being subjected to the censored versions. The gore is there but Tom Savini’s great work is trimmed down throughout the film, certainly on the copy I saw. It’s still a lot of fun though: watching that final beheading of Pamela Voorhees with her hands still groping up to where her noggin once was will always have a special place in my heart. Especially after what that old witch did to Annie.
This first film does set up one other incredibly irritating staple that it repeated throughout the series: that of the deeply unfunny prankster. This time it’s this dick who pretends to drown in Crystal Lake so he can get a kiss of life of a girl. God I hate practical jokers. He also fires an arrow right next to another girls head for a laugh. Nobody laughs. At least he dies, as all the pranksters that follow would do, and pretty early on so we don’t have to suffer his intolerable nonsense for very long. It’s a shame that he dies off screen though, I would have liked to see how funny he found having an arrow shoved into his eyeball. Who’s laughing now, fucker?
The final girl Alice (Adrienne King) is a bit of a wet blanket. I think they were trying to go for a Laurie Strode feel with her not being as cool, glamorous or promiscuous as the other girls (although she does indulge in a game of Strip Monopoly which sounds like the least sexy nudey-board game crossover ever) but King ain’t no Jamie Lee Curtis. I would have rather had some one else as the final girl, like tragic Marcie. Or Annie. Can you tell I’m really cut up about Annie’s death?
Also Alice is pretty stupid for a final girl. There reaches a point where everyone is missing, possibly dead and she is completely by herself at the camp. She has already found a bloody axe in a bed so something is definitely up. And what does she do? She makes herself a cup of tea. It’s a relief when Pamela turns up to explain the plot.
That’s another thing that you forget. The film would have been a who-done-it when it came out. Lots of the characters act guilty at various stages throughout the film. One guy is holding a machete just after Annie has her throat cut, there’s the dick firing arrows at people’s heads and the camp leader strokes Alice’s face in a creepy psychopath fashion. But of course if you were trying to work out who did it you were never going to get anywhere as Pamela Voorhees and her backstory don’t show up until the last twenty minutes. Still, when she does arrive, why does she explain what’s going on to Alice? Everyone else she just kills instantly without a word. Here she tells Alice the entire story and then instead of killing her she slaps her about for a bit.
It’s a shame they never brought back Mrs Voorhees. I know that her head leaves her body at the end of the film but really, when has something like that ever stopped anyone in a horror movie? Also, Betsy Palmer completely nails the part with that crazed look in her eye, clipped voice and disconcerting roll neck jumper. Apparently the actress’ fans (she was the most well known if the cast) resoundingly rejected her after her role in this macabre sideshow. She only took the role herself because she needed the money for a new car. Actually her head did make a return in the second film but with all those candles around it it ended up looking more like a bizarre birthday cake than a deranged killer’s parent.
It is actually really hard to see Friday the 13th within the context of when it was made. It is so basic you wonder what all the fuss was about. But within this simplicity there are moments of genuine fear. The girl lost in the forest as rain pours down and a voice cries out “help me! Help me!” The sudden, shocked look on Kevin Bacon face as he realises he is dying, covered in his own blood. And then there’s the brilliant, although nonsensical ending where Alice, having survived the bloody night of horror, is floating in a boat in the lake, when the deformed Jason leaps out of the water and tries to drag her under. Yeah, okay I see it now. Friday the 13th isn’t a classic like Halloween is but if you were young and wanted a fright at the cinema back in 1980, it was one hell of a ride.