Saturday, January 24, 2015

Friday the 13th (1980)

Directed by:
Sean S. Cunningham

I was just a babe when this hit theaters, so I didn't get to see it on the big screen and had to wait until the 90s to watch it on video. But boy did it ever make a lasting impression on me - especially that now-famous ending - which sent my 9 year old ass literally jumping back about five feet from my TV set in horror. It probably didn't help that I was sitting about a foot away from the TV with the sound cranked all the way up when *it* happened, but it was still one of the first movie shocks of my life. That's one of the great things about the horror genre, its ability to bring out strong emotions in viewers and make a lasting impression, perhaps especially in regards to those at a young and impressionable age. To many of us, Friday now stands as a bloody, violent and, strangely enough, pleasantly nostalgic film that takes us back to a time when things could be simple and that was OK and when we actually could still be scared. I - and I'm sure many others in my age range - personally credit this film, along with a few others (Psycho, Night of the Living Dead), as being the films that created an ever-lasting love for the genre that I still hold to this day. Is it a great film? Perhaps not. It's certainly flawed. However, it remains an entertaining film all these years later and its influence of the genre is not to be underestimated.

Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer) has recently purchased Camp Crystal Lake, a run-down summer retreat in the backwoods of New Jersey that's been closed down since a pair of unfortunate tragedies occurred there decades earlier. Included among those tragedies are the 1957 drowning of a young boy and the unsolved slayings of several teenage counselors a year later. Those two incidents have earned the grounds the charming nickname "Camp Blood" and have town weird-o Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney) running around telling everyone who will listen about the camp's supposed "death curse." Alice (Adrienne King), who seems to be on the romantic outs with the owner and is contemplating leaving, along with a new crop of counselors - Brenda (Laurie Bartram), Bill (Harry Crosby, the son of Bing), Marcie (Jeannine Taylor), Jack (Kevin Bacon) and prankster Ned (Mark Nelson) - all have just two weeks to whip the camp into shape before it's set to re-open. Poor Annie (Robbi Morgan), who's been hired on as a cook, doesn't even make it there after she picks the wrong jeep to hop into and ends up getting her neck slashed as a result. A similarly gruesome fate will also befall most of the rest of the budding counselors...

Pretty much everyone knows the story front and back by now, so there's really no reason to go into too much detail about it, nor is there any reason not to go ahead and reveal the identity of the film's mystery killer. The psycho slaughtering everyone is, of course, Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), a former cook at the same camp out to avenge the death of her beloved son Jason, who drowned in the lake there twenty or so years earlier. Those in charge of her boy were too busy making love while Jason was busy drowning, so now she hates camp counselors. All camp counselors. Despite the fact the Mrs. Voorhees character isn't even introduced until the last 20 minutes, the film is set up and filmed like a gory mystery complete with red herrings that have no bearing on the finale whatsoever. Interestingly, and quite unlike most of the subsequent films in the series, most of the murders occur off-screen. We do get to see a throat slashing, an arrow pushed up through a neck and a decapitation, but in every other death we only really get to see the bloody aftermath. Still, this was one of the key films that helped give Tom Savini his reputation as a master of gore effects. Harry Manfredini's iconic score - one he himself would copy into infinity - seals the deal.

While Halloween (1978) usually gets primary credit for creating and codifying the 80s slasher film, in many ways Friday is just as important to this style of film, if not even more important. Few of the later slashers would put as much emphasis on suspense as Carpenter's near-bloodless film. The majority, however, would follow Cunningham's template of hopping from one bloody murder to the next with lots of POV killer stalking shots followed by a murder and bloody payoff, repeated over and over again. To the original Friday's credit, it does actually attempt to build suspense in spots unlike many of the later films and it's nicely shot and rather atmospheric. Most critics of the day hated it with a passion, but that didn't matter to audiences, who turned the film into the surprise hit of its year. On a budget of just 550,000 thousand dollars, it made almost 40 million; making it far more profitable than Kubrick's The Shining, Carpenter's The Fog, De Palma's Dressed to Kill and Russell's Altered States; all films with much higher budgets. It even managed to easily outperform films with extremely strong critical support like Raging Bull and The Elephant Man.

Though the cast is comprised primarily of inexperienced actors (other than Palmer), most of the performances aren't too bad. Bacon, of course, was the only one to have much of a film career afterward. In real life, King was stalked by an obsessed fan and decided to bow out of show business for decades as a result. Bartram became a fundamentalist Christian and follower of Jerry Falwell and would later denounce the film. Palmer was also embarrassed by it for many years, but has since come around to embrace both the film and its fans. Many of the others dropped off the map for decades but have recently resurfaced in independent horror films. Finally, being a part of Friday the 13th wasn't such a bad thing! While the character development is next to nil, at least most of the people in this one seem like fairly nice, normal people you wouldn't mind being around, which is more than can be said for most of the sequels, rip-offs and remakes that would follow.

And if ever in doubt over this minor classic status this film has obtained over the years, one only has look as far as the dreadful 2009 "reboot." I can say without hesitation that its combination of moronic, obnoxious stoners, sluts and hicks with split second flashes in place of old school gore / prosthetic effects, have only managed to make the original look better than ever before. I guess that's one positive thing about remakes! Production manager Steve Miner would go on to make the first two sequels.

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